Patriarchs

Daniel Nussbaum is a frequent contributer to the So Socal section of the magazine

Minoru Yamada

Born in Japan, Minoru Yamada and his first wife raised three girls and one boy in Boyle Heights, City Terrace and for four years during World War II, behind the gates of the Manzanar relocation camp. Now six months short of 100, he has the peaceful bearing of an ancient one.

"In 63 years I've never heard my father raise his voice," son Henry notes. But he does laugh a lot--and enjoys playing Go at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. Yamada remarried at 82 after the death of his first wife and lives with Ume, his second wife, in City Terrace. His family includes 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

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My father borrowed $3,000 and leased some land in the San Fernando Valley. It took us a day and a half to get from Los Angeles to Sunland in our wagon, pulled by two mules. We were growing tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, carrots. Then the government started enforcing anti-Japanese laws. Our hands were tied. I told my father, "I don't like this discrimination, let's quit farming." I sent him back to Japan with $20,000 we had saved and I started working at the produce market at 7th and Central. A whole new life.

The Depression came and almost everyone was broke, including my bosses. My brothers and some other guys chipped in and bought the business. It was flourishing when the war started. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the FBI came and interviewed everyone from the produce market. They asked all kinds of questions, but they couldn't find anything wrong and sent us all home. Then the notice came that we had three days, that we were being sent to Manzanar. At least I had my family with me. After the war I studied and became an American citizen. I went back to the produce business and did well.

I have a goal--to live in three different centuries. I think I can make it! I've never been to a doctor in my life! I don't pay much attention to what other people say. I do anything I want, eat anything I want. I have nothing to complain about.

Bennett Berkhausen

The day that Bennett Berkhausen's parents learned about the sinking of the Titanic they must have held the 4-month-old baby especially close. Because he had been diagnosed with an infant hernia, a condition requiring urgent attention, the family had turned in their tickets on the doomed ship.

Dr. Berkhausen, 86, spent World War II near the front lines caring for soldiers, working under conditions that most of us will never know. After the war he began building a medical practice, with surgeons in then-rural Orange County scarce. Dr. Berkhausen lives with Diana, his wife of 54 years, in their antique-filled Laguna Hills apartment. Their two children and five grandchildren live nearby.

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We operated under tents. You'd walk in about a quarter to 7 and say, "What's the backlog in the preoperative area?" They'd say, "One hundred twenty." So you'd operate at 12 tables all night and walk out at 7 in the morning and say, "What's the backlog?" They'd say, "One hundred thirty." So you never really seemed to catch up. It was very discouraging.

We had to be on triage one night a week, which means you had to decide whether a man was too badly wounded to give further medical assistance, which was the most difficult thing. Because all during your medical career you'd been taught to try and save even those who had been badly wounded. On occasion we used to have to put them on the side of the tent and give them a big dose of morphine.

You're seeing death and dying. At first it's very nauseating, very devastating. You sometimes are at the lowest level of existence. All you want to do is eat, be warm and have a place to sleep. Fortunately, things have progressed very well since then.

We didn't know anybody when my wife and I first arrived in California. My father had suggested that we go to Santa Barbara, but although it was delightful, we found it was composed of nearly-deads or newlyweds, so we decided to go to Santa Ana.

At one time, I was team doctor for Anaheim High School. I took care of their athletic teams for 30 years. Every time a man went down, I ran out. I can assure you that to be in a stadium with 7,000 people watching you and you're kneeling over a 17-year-old who's unconscious and you're not exactly sure whether he's got a fractured skull or just fainted or has dehydration--it's a very difficult decision to make, and you always hope to do the right thing. It goes very quickly. You think your children are going to be 4 or 14 forever. They are not.

Pete Nouguier

It takes only a bit of imagination to see Pete Nouguier--age 90--diving through the air spearing line drives. An ex-shortstop for the Chicago Cubs minor league team on Catalina, he gave up pro ball to launch a career that took him from a Union Pacific machine shop to the front of a Burbank High School classroom to the streets of the San Fernando Valley, where he and his brother built homes during L.A.'s heady postwar boom.

Nouguier married Peggy, a girl who grew up in his San Gabriel neighborhood, 61 years ago, and now their family includes four children, 10 grandchildren and, later this summer, two great-grandchildren. Someday they may listen to their great-granddad recall a time when his French immigrant parents farmed 10 acres just across the tracks from the San Gabriel Mission.

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My mother had a beautiful horse, and about three times a week Dad and all of us would pick vegetables and load them on the spring wagon. She had a route in South Pasadena, one in Alhambra and one in Monterey Park. She'd just go down the street, and she'd ring the bell and the people would come out. I was a little tiny squirt at that time.

I went to UCLA for about a year and a half. I was making good grades, I was in athletics and all that, but I got kind of bored. I wanted to get out and start working.

I happened to have a friend of the family who worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. I went in there and I learned the machinist's trade, and I learned it good. I also went back to college.

I started teaching in Burbank High School. Machine shop. I taught 20 years. During the war, the principal came over to me and said, "How would you like to have a class of women and show them how to operate the machines?" These women were so eager to learn! At the end of six weeks the principal went to Lockheed and said, "We have 15 gals ready to become machine operators." Lockheed said, "Women cannot operate machines." So he went down the road to Manasco, and Manasco took them. In about a week, Manasco called: "Train some more women. We want them!"

During the time I was teaching I was also building houses. I saw the big influx of people coming from other states, especially after the war. As soon as I built a house, it was sold. At one time we were starting one every other day.

My boy was going to Pierce College and they had indoctrinated him in all these Russian approaches. He came home one night and said, "It isn't right that we have money. We have to divide it up with the rest of the people." Boy, we had a heck of a time. I stayed up with him from 9 o'clock to 2 o'clock in the morning, trying to tell him that what we earn is ours. He really got the message. He was telling me last week, "Dad, I made quite a bit of money on the stock market." He's pretty sharp.

Lowell Steward

When Lowell Steward returned to L.A. after nine months of shooting at Nazi planes, he found out what mattered--and what didn't. It didn't matter that he was one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a highly trained pilot, intelligent, patriotic, hard-working, brave. The color of his skin mattered. He couldn't find work that wasn't demeaning; he couldn't live where he wanted.

Steward already knew about racism. In high school, he was pushed into shop classes; in college, he was a basketball star who was once barred from a national tournament. At 79, he is still raging--albeit quietly--as he recalls a harsh city that boosters never talked about. A great-grandfather of two, a grandfather of seven and father of three, he lives with Helen Jane, his wife of 55 years, in a new home close to the ocean in Oxnard.

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They gathered up the cream of the crop. We had doctors, lawyers, ministers in training to fly. I was over in Europe 15 months with the 332nd. The first six months was over in Naples. Never did see any enemy. Then the black press was saying, "Why are our boys not in the fighting?" So they transferred us to 15th Air Force. They escorted the bombers on the long-range bombing missions. I liked to do acrobatics and shoot my guns. I was the baddest dude in the sky. You had to be cocky or you wouldn't have been able to do it.

I thought things would be different. But when we got home, it wasn't any different. The National Guard was flying planes off of Long Beach Municipal Airport. They were training pilots for the airlines. The guy at the desk said, "We don't have no niggers flying at this base. You can't fly here." I went back to being a redcap at the Union Station. It was kind of embarrassing for me to be a college graduate and a captain in the Army and here I am being a redcap.

I wanted to buy a house in Cheviot Hills. I'd saved enough money for a down payment, had all the qualifications, but the white real estate board would not permit it. That's when I said, "I'll just become a broker and find my own house." I spent the next 25 years moving black families into white neighborhoods.

When I grew up I found out from my father that my grandfather had killed a white man. The white man wanted him to get off the sidewalk when he came by. They fought and he killed him. That's what I would have done. I carried a chip on my shoulder for years. And then I discovered my grandfather on the other side was Irish, and he raised five beautiful daughters with a black mother. Now I think that it doesn't pay to hate anybody.

My son married a Czechoslovakian girl and he has a daughter who just married. I have a white grandson-in-law. When we have a family gathering, we have it integrated. I can no longer hate white people. All in the family. That's the rude awakening.

Bob Johnston

Bob Johnston jokes that his 42-year career as a geologist began during his grade school years in Tujunga as he walked barefoot to school, stubbing his toes on rocks every day. Born in Echo Park in 1913, he earned two degrees from UCLA, married the girl who pulled off his headband in the fourth grade, and raised a family that includes three children, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Bob was determined to be a good father and grandfather--and he is, says Ellen, his wife of 62 years. They live in a retirement community in Laguna Hills, where he keeps up with geology journals and relishes regular visits with the family.

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We moved to Tujunga in 1919 when my mother was offered a teaching job. I used to take my bicycle up into the Big Tujunga Canyon. I've always been interested in the rocks that you would see up there--the pattern and the color fascinated me. My father was a visionary, always involved in some big project, but except for one instance, I don't remember that he ever made any money. It was really too bad, but there was practically no feeling of warmth on either side. Before I went to high school, I worked in the apricots out in the western side of the San Fernando Valley, staying by myself in a cabin. It was all trees. I don't remember any town, or anything being near. My mother was concerned that I might follow in my dad's footsteps, and she wanted me to find out about working.

I wanted to be as close to our kids as possible. My unconscious motivation was to be darn sure that I wasn't like my father. In our family, if somebody hurt, we all tried to help. There's that warm feeling there, rather than the distracted and unrelated feeling that I had with my dad.

John Montelongo

John Montelongo, a great-grandfather at 68, has centered his life around three passions: art, teaching and family. Dubbed the "Jaime Escalante of art" at Mountain View High School in El Monte, he accepted retirement after 35 fruitful years in the classroom only because he finally would have time to paint.

Montelongo, who grew up in East L.A. and Boyle Heights, helped raise four children in an art- and music-filled home in Montebello where he still lives with his wife, Norma--the girl who dazzled him at a Christmas party when she was a freshman and he was a senior at Roosevelt High School. They have six grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

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My father had only a sixth-grade education. "When you graduate from high school," he said, "the superintendent of the flour mill says you can have a job there." I said, "No. I want to go to L.A. City College." He said, "You're going to read all those books and it's going to confuse you."

I was drafted during the Korean War, and 3 1/2 years gives you a lot of time to reevaluate what you want to do. Here's a kid from East Los Angeles, barely made it through high school, struggled through L.A. City College. If I graduated from UCLA, that would really be something. They turned me down once, the second time they accepted me. But it was going to be rough. I had the GI Bill, but it wasn't that much. I had two kids already.

I really didn't have time to be a father. My wife filled me in, although Eric did something I'll always remember. I took home a project and I worked on the kitchen table. I was so tired I just left everything. As soon as the sun came up, Eric got up--he was just starting to walk--climbed up on a chair, saw the water, saw the brushes, and he redid my work. It was due. It was the final project. My wife got in front of us: "He's only a baby!" When I told the professor he said, "I haven't heard that one before!"

Eric became an architect. He became very good with drawing, painting and rendering. And there are three teachers in the family. I never found it a struggle to teach. I just loved it from Day One, but I really didn't encourage them. I didn't want them to come back years later saying, "Why did you talk me into this?"

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