I went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery across the street from the White House to a learn a little bit more about art. My girlfriend and I have started a little side business buying and re-selling art, antiques, home decor and furniture and I thought some additional education would serve our wallets well.
I did not expect to be hit by an emotional curve ball.
"The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese Internment Camps, 1942-1946" grabbed my attention. (The exhibit ends on Jan. 30 and you should make plans to attend immediately.) I saw all kinds of things -- ornate wood carvings, knives, alters, statues, paintings, model ships, weaved baskets, and a baseball jersey made from a mattress cover that was used by a pitcher in an internment camp league.
A drawing on a piece of notebook-sized paper stopped me in my tracks: I saw a man falling to the ground with bullet wounds as he tried to reach through a barbed wire fence to rescue a stray dog. The man, I read in the accompanying text, was deaf. He did not hear the American military police office ordering him to put his arms back inside the fence.
I stood there, speechless, staring at the drawing for about 10 minutes. I forced myself on to the rest of the exhibit but I kept going back to that drawing. I wrote a note in the guest book expressing my appreciation for the chance to learn about a part of American history I knew very little about.
I didn't realize how many internment camps my government built, how many innocent people it imprisoned in a knee-jerk reaction to Japanese aggression during World War II, how long it kept people in those camps and how horribly we treated them while they were there. I could almost feel the deaf man's blood oozing around my tennis shoes.
The impact that exhibit made remains with me. I suspect it will be etched permanently on my conscience -- as clearly visible as the lines in the Depression glass I bought recently for my business enterprise.
I hadn't really taken the time to research the glass but the trip to the Renwick put me in the studying mood. I learned a little more about what the term meant ... that companies during the Depression distributed pieces of glass to entice consumers to buy their products. Buy a box of oatmeal and you might get a very beautiful cereal bowl. Go to a movie, get a candy dish. A number of companies made the glass in various patterns and all kinds of colors. It didn't take long for me to identify ours thanks to the Internet. We own, at least for now, the "pineapple and floral" pattern, also known as "Number 618", made by the Indiana Glass Company from 1932-1937.
I only knew from books and stories told to me by my grandparents what the Depression was like. I can not imagine how hard it was to survive that era. I sorted through the glass, holding each piece gingerly as I examined it. I made note of the number of each piece in the two boxes and dutifully recorded them on my inventory list. I counted a total of 60-plus pieces -- plates, relish platters, cups and saucers, candy dishes and more. The total estimated retail value for my $6 auction steal came out to close to $400. I decided we should keep a few pieces for ourselves.
By that point, I didn't care as much about the money as I did the tactile education on American history. I wondered about the people who made the glass and the people who obtained it. I wondered what it would look like if I could go back in time to a dinner with that family. What were they like? How were they surviving? How did they manage to put food in those dishes? Did my own grandparents eat off glass just like that?
Maybe tonight I should grab a pineapple and floral glass and offer a toast to everyone who endured the Depression and to all the Japanese Americans who as the name of their internment camp infers "bore the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience."