I hung out in Eugene, Ore., last week where it rains every day so the air is fresh and clean. Old people my age don’t care for rain so Eugene is not a retirement mecca — more of a youth mecca, a real Alt sort of town for hikers and bikers and vegans and people with multicolored hair. A lifestyle town, with not so many suit-and-tie guys like me. That’s fine. My former father-in-law was named Eugene and so the town feels friendly to me. And the university is there, so there’s plenty of ambition in the air.
Sat in a bar Friday night with Meiko, Christopher and Keely, talking about barred owls, aging, Ireland, limericks, everything other than what’s been in the news lately, and I asked Meiko about her Japanese ancestry, and out came a wonderful story.
Her father Haruo Aoki, as a teenager, was drafted into the Imperial Navy but the war ended before he was called to service. He went to college in Hiroshima, came to America on a Fulbright to study English, and in 1958 headed to University of California, Berkeley to get his Ph.D in linguistics. His adviser said, “How’d you like to go to Idaho and study the Nez Perce?” Haruo said, “Where’s Idaho?” This patient saintly man wound up working for the next 20 years to write out a grammar and a dictionary for the Nez Perce, who had never had a written language. He listened to the elders talk and transcribed their words into phonetic symbols and organized them, with definitions, into a practical tool to usher the language into the future. He himself could speak Nez Perce, but with a Japanese accent, which he did not want the Nez Perce to pick up, so he mainly sat still and took notes.
This struck me as the noblest project I’d heard about in ages. I was stunned with admiration. A man of two languages sets out to become an authority on a third, which has no connection to either of the first two, for no reason other than the challenge of scholarship. As the Nez Perce young are bombarded by radio, TV, movies, pop music, the internet, this silent man, a complete stranger, preserved their ancestral tongue for succeeding generations should they wish to know it.
A scholarly man from Japan
Devised the linguistic plan
For the Nez Perce,
Chapter and verse,
If they wish to speak, so they can.
This conversation was interrupted by an old man who overheard the reference to Hiroshima and was curious what was said. He had a strong accent. I asked if he was German. He was. His name was Peter, he was 92, and he had grown up in Berlin during World War II, the son of a Jewish father and a Lutheran mother, and saw up close the destruction of the city under Allied bombing, the arrival of the Russian cavalry. He’d been in forced labor but not at a death camp. When he told us how he felt when his mother sewed the gold star on his coat identifying him as a Jew, his voice halted, he trembled, on the verge of tears.
We three all said, “You’ve got to write this down.” He said, “I’ve told my children and my grandchildren. That’s enough. The past is the past. Enough books about the Holocaust already.”
So there we were, an ornithologist, a mathematician, a priest, a writer of limericks, and a survivor of the Holocaust, all cast together in a bar. Peter was the one with the big message. “It’s all in your mind,” he said. “Old age. The past is the past. You think young, you stay young.”
The boy who survived holocaust,
Battered, tormented and tossed,
Stands in our midst
A bold optimist:
“Lighten up, all is not lost.”
I said that I love Berlin and wish I knew more German. “Entschuldigen sie mir bitte,” I said. He waved it away. “They speak English,” he said.
Nothing was said this whole time about the Hollywood producer or the New York real-estate tycoon who’ve been in the news lately. They are irrelevant. Hugely. The patience of the Japanese linguist making a dictionary for strangers, the joyful spirit of the Holocaust survivor who had witnessed more human suffering than everybody in Eugene combined: those are the stories that matter. The old man gave me a high five. “Go for 92,” he said. “Life is good.” So I shall. The gentle people shall prevail. Count on it.
Garrison Keillor writes for The Washington Post.