[Note: This story is not a criticism of Buddhism. It is a story of neighborly love.]
He was the least likely of neighbors to do this thing, a Buddhist turned Roman Catholic, patriarch of a California wine-growing clan.
I was a Southern Baptist youth, only recently learned how to shave, and served in the new "Korean War" as a sailor.
You know the rashness of youth. I wondered aloud, "How is it that you, a Japanese Buddhist, came to be sending your son to Mary Knoll Seminary to become a Catholic priest?"
The lesson he taught me about the important business of being a good neighbor has not been lost for more than fifty years. Here's his story in his own words.
The Patriarch's Story
At the beginning of World War II, I was struggling whether to enlist in military service. My struggle was not because I was Nisei. It was because I had a wife. I had three small children. How might I best serve my country, care for my young family, and manage my new vineyards? Even at home, I was struggling to maintain them. What would happen if I left to join the service?
I might well not have worried.
At 10:00 a.m. one morning three Military Police arrived at my home in a covered truck. They pounded on my door. They entered my house without permission.
"Pack one overnight bag for your family," the leader told me. "Be quick about it!"
By 10:15 a.m. my family and I were in the back of the truck. We were on our way to what was called a "relocation center." It was far from my own neighborhood. I never had time to call a neighbor, Nor was I allowed to contact anyone to tell them what was happening.
By evening we were in a fenced enclosure. It was to be our home until the end of the war.
He sipped his wine. I was a teetotaler, but because I was a guest in his house, and didn't want to make a fuss, I had accepted a glass. I tentatively sipped a swallow and set the glass down.
"The wine is not good?" he had asked.
"Too good," I had answered. "If I get started, I might not be able to stop."
He smiled and nodded knowingly. He continued his story.
When we returned after the war?all Nisei returned to the area?we found our homes gone. Our businesses gone. Sold for taxes to our neighbors. The first year we were gone.
I couldn't believe it. All the vines I had labored so arduously to plant, to nurture. All the contracts I had so carefully negotiated with the distillery. The home my wife and I had so lovingly remodeled. Evenings when it was too dark to work the vineyards. Gone!
We could lay claim to no part of our former possessions?property, furniture, jewelry. Nothing.
I walked the city streets in disbelief. I wondered how I could ever start over again. We were still despised as "Japs." By both the local population and former neighbors. Finding even the most menial work was unlikely,
I was in tears. What would I tell my wife?
But she knew. Surely she already knew. Something of this magnitude could not be hidden.
Perhaps in another part of the country I could get a job as a gardener.
"You know, lots of rich folks love to have a Japanese gardener," he said bitterly.
I looked around. Invaluable appointments. Lovely brocaded furniture. Priceless wall hangings. Luxurious carpets. What did he mean by "rich folks."
He sighed at the memory of his misery. He took another sip of wine. He continued.
As I stood there, tears in my eyes, someone called my name. I turned to face the voice. It was my old neighbor. He was a vineyard owner on the land next to mine?next to the land that used to be mine.
I had helped him irrigate his vines by hand one year when the drought threatened our crops. He had helped me choose the best stock to plant when I had first started. I thought we had been good neighbors.
When I returned to the area, I found that it was he who had bought my property. For taxes. My own neighbor! I tried to hide my bitterness.
"I didn't know you were back," my former neighbor told me. "Where's your family?"
I told him. I explained there had been an addition since I left. He grinned and led me to his sedan.
"Hop in," he said.
I couldn't believe that this backstabbing neighbor could have the gall to act so friendly. I don't know why, but I climbed in. He babbled happily, as if to a long-lost friend, as he drove to where my family was.
"Go get 'em. Get 'em all. I want to see the young'ns. And I have something I want to show you."
We picked up my family and left. I recognized the route.
Two of my boys were in the front seat with me. The oldest, the seminarian from Mary Knoll, suddenly cried out.
"Father! This is the road to our house!"
I thought the grin on my old neighbor's face was especially wicked. Why are you doing this? I wondered. Why are you torturing us this way?
We drove up to our old home. It looked well kept. Even lovingly cared for. Who lives here now? I wondered.
He jumped out and opened the car doors. He led us into the house and into this room where we are now sitting.
Everything was as we had left it. My wife lovingly ran her hand over the back of that teakwood table. The dust of years had not settled in. The carpets had been faithfully vacuumed. The windows regularly washed. The furniture carefully polished. Whoever lived here now must love the house as much as we did.
Seeing how carefully everything had been maintained, I couldn't be too angry with my neighbor. After all, purchase of my property had been a business deal for him. I'm sure it wasn't anything personal.
The old man took another sip of wine. He pointed at an elaborately carved, small desk with a drop down front that stood against a wall. He went on with his story.
My neighbor took me to that desk and opened a drawer. He took out a handful of papers and handed them to me. They were the deeds and ownership documents for my house and business.
I glanced at them, wondering how any one human being could be so heartless as to gloat before a family that had fallen to the depths I had reached.
"Look at them, read them," he said when he noticed I simply stood there, stupidly holding them in my hand.
When I did, my heart stopped. My name was on the first paper I looked at. With trembling hand I looked at another. My name. And another. And another. On every document. My name. Just my name. Not his, not even as co-owner.
He unlocked the drop down front and opened a drawer inside. He took out a bankbook and handed it to me. I scanned it. I could not believe my eyes. The balance had increased significantly each year while I was gone.
"Business was good during the war," he told me. "My only problem was finding labor to do the work. But I managed."
"But- - -but these are your profits," I told him. I shoved the bank book toward him. "Here. Take it. It's your money."
He laughed. "Naw. Your farm helped me. When we added our properties together, I got more ration coupons for gas. Negotiated better contracts with the distillery. Generally did better business. You won't believe this. When I broke down the tax bill, even that was less. Naw. I got my pay. This is all yours."
I couldn't believe my ears. I wept openly. My wife and I hugged each other and cried. Finally, I looked at my old friend.
The old patriarch looked at me and said, "You want to know why I'm sending my son to seminary to become a Christian priest? Well, here's why. I asked my neighbor, 'Why did you do all this for me? After all, we were only neighbors'.
That's where you're wrong," he told me. "You see, in my faith we are all God's children. We are brothers, you and me.
Dr. Larry Winebrenner is a well-known, well-received public speaker. He has extensive background in business practices seminars, genealogical research, producing training materials, marketing consulting, nutrition studies, and religious studies.
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