Mr. Giro Nakagawa, 1921-2015

News comes to me of the passing of a longtime friend, Mr. Giro Nakagawa. I met his second son, Byron, in college; we hung out together, ran around in the woods at Fort Lewis together, gamed together, and drank together.

Mr. Nakagawa was born in the Seattle area, and grew up during the Depression. His parents had immigrated from Japan, which made them Issei (first generation) in Nikkei (Japanese American) parlance. That made him Nisei, or second generation, born an American citizen. His children would be Sansei (third generation). He graduated from high school in 1938 and eventually found his way to the Willapa Bay area, where he worked dredging oysters.

World War II came, and as a country we handled it exactly as American custom and tradition demand: by wadding up the Constitution and becoming crazy-ass paranoid. In this case, that meant that young Giro, like his entire family, would be sent to an ‘internment’ camp. He spent part of the war years farming beets in Idaho for a sugar company, then was drafted to help defend the country of his birth that had treated him in such a way. Fortunately, he did not see combat. When Mr. and Mrs. Nakagawa described the war years, they referred to it as being ‘in camp.’ When he came back, he met with prejudice in the Seattle area, and went back to oystering at Nemah, a tiny town on Willapa Bay.

Mr. Nakagawa married Miyoko in 1957. They had three children: Michael, Byron, and Noreen. I met the rest of the family in 1981 as a college freshman, when Byron invited me to spend Thanksgiving with his family. And therein arises a tale.

Mr. Nakagawa was not a large man, but he had a powerful command presence. I learned this on the Saturday morning after the holiday. On Friday, you see, Byron took me out to party with his friends, and we stayed out pretty late. Until about 3 AM, as I recall, and we came home completely plastered. The Nakagawas had two living room couches, and we each were sleeping on one in a sleeping bag.

Since sleep compresses our perception of time, it felt as if I’d just collapsed in a beery haze when a command voice pierced my repose. “UP!” Still drunk, I stirred a bit, peered over at By on the other couch. He was in about the same state.

“UP!” came the former sergeant’s voice. I looked up to see Mr. Nakagawa in the living room wearing his red hunter hat. “I just shot an elk down in a valley. If you can stay out and carouse all night, you can also get up and work.”

Man, we didn’t have to be told a third time. By and I exchanged glances and got the hell out of those sleeping bags, right away. We staggered into yesterday’s clothes and followed Mr. Nakagawa out to his pickup. He drove us out onto a remote logging road where a couple of his friends (a term that probably includes everyone in Pacific County, because he was revered and cherished there) were rigging a pulley to a small tree.

Mr. Nakagawa led us down into a replanted Weyerhauser forest, with saplings about twelve feet high on average, probably lodgepole or ponderosa pine. The other men began to rig one end of a rope through the pulley and to Mr. Nakagawa’s trailer hitch, and we took the other end with us. When we reached the elk, maybe eighty yards down the slope, I saw that they had already gutted it. It was a medium-sized bull, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want to annoy during rutting season. He tied the rope to the elk’s snout, and as I recall, sent Byron slightly up the slope to help reduce entanglements. Then Mr. Nakagawa and I took our positions alongside the enormous carcass. It was a drizzly November morning in southwestern Washington, I was still quite inebriated, and we were laughing.

Our job was to stay with the elk as the truck dragged it uphill, helping avoid it getting hung up on anything Byron had been unable to clear from the path. Mr. Nakagawa bellowed up the hill to get things moving, and the elk began to slide uphill. We scrambled after it, trying to avoid getting caught between elk and obstacle while helping elk get past obstacles. Now and then, one of us would lose his footing and come up laughing. Four hours of sleep, tipsy, soaked, and I was having fun. At one point, when I fell on my ass, our eyes met and we laughed from the belly. That remains my enduring image of Mr. Nakagawa, a hearty laugh across a dead bull elk’s remains as they slid up the wet, grassy, pine-needly hillside, with us scrambling to keep up.

I later reflected that this was very characteristic of his way in life. He didn’t mind what his children did, so long as it didn’t get in the way of them pitching in. And if you were with his children, you were like one of them, subject to all the same privileges and expectations–and welcomed to all the fun.

By and I remained in loose touch; he stuck around in Nemah to help his parents as they got on in years. Mr. Nakagawa survived a serious health scare some fifteen years back, an aneurism if memory serves. In 1998 I got married, and though I hadn’t seen him in over a decade, I sent the family an invitation. Byron drove about six hours to attend, and his parents sent a very generous wedding gift. Strangely, I misplaced the check, and recently found it while unpacking. Very unlike me to misplace money. All I could think of was that I was sorry for having messed up their checking account; I hate it when I send people checks and they don’t cash them. When I went to spend the wedding night in a hotel with Deb, we left the apartment in the hands of my bros John and George, my old workplace crony and friend Chuck, Byron, and our late-teenage niece Kristen (who had been a bridesmaid). It tells you a lot about my friends that Kristen wanted to stay there, rather than at the house where the other women were camping out. She was the safest person in the Tri-Cities that night, surrounded by some of the very best men I know.

I will miss him, but it was an honor to know him. Deb’s and my hearts are with Mrs. Nakagawa, Mike, Byron, Noreen, and the whole community.


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