My heroes were never the men you saw everyday on the television, batting some ball around, running for a goal, or wooing some beautiful starlet in some fantasy world. I know it is popular to say that now, but, when I was growing up, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was very common to hold on high a great athlete, a handsome movie star, or perhaps a world figure. Surely, I admired men such as Willie Mays, Paul Newman or even someone truly influential, such as Martin Luther King. But, there men were abstract entities; they lived in newsprint, and electrons and stories I heard from other people, no more real than the stories in movies. They did not live in my life, I didn’t touch them, relate to them, and they didn’t live my life. My heroes were men like my grandfather, my dad, my uncles, and the circle of men that surrounded the daily lives we lived on the nursery and in Richmond, California. We would tag along, as my dad went to market in San Francisco, or to other nurseries to ‘check on things’, even at church, these men seemed to be a breed apart. Tough, rugged, enduring, especially the old men, my grandfather’s generation, all immigrants, who left Japan, to some to a land where there was no Little Italy or German Town, just land and a dream. And they endured. And there is the sadness of today.
For in truth, they could not endure forever. One by one, time took the elders, then their successors and eventually my greatest heroes,first was my Uncle Heizo, who made sure I knew what ‘the good life’ was, and let me know that being an iconoclast was okay; then my Uncle Roy, who was always there, and who showed me what true humility was, as we never knew until after he died, that he had been a decorated Captain in the Army; then my first and best hero, my dad Saburo Fukushima, who I have yet to prove wrong about anything, who showed me that a man is greatest when he is most gentle; then my mother’s brother Henry Kawai, the youngest men of their generation; the last of them, Tom Oishi, my dad’s lifelong friend was buried last week. Tom was an amazing friend, and loyal to the core, an example that no matter what, you stand by your friends.
For me, what was always a great truth, that the heroes of my youth were living and breathing men, who called me Bobby, and saw me not as an old man, but, as a boy, who were always there to talk and support me, that truth is no more. With the last man down, the circle of real life heroes, men who grew a living from Richmond soil are merely memories, now to become legend, for me to touch back to. These were the men whose respect I most desired, to have my dad and uncle, to have the men they respected, accept me, which was what I worked for.
When I was a boy, the men who ran the community I grew up in, my world, were of my grandfathers, Sango Fukushima and Goro Kawai’s generation. These men built businesses, and along with those businesses, they build a community. Stores, churches, schools and in some cases, even the roads and towns; but, most importantly, they built a community of families that supported each other through many hard times. They built this community by pulling life from the earth. And their sons and daughters did the same. My dad’s generation built the foundation of a life, which allowed my generation to go to college, to get off the farm, to live the American Dream in all of its glory. There were many men who did this, and I got to know many of them, and I like to think I earned a little of that respect from them, that I so dearly wanted. However, nothing endures forever, our bodies are fragile, much like the plants we grew, like the roses and carnations, that so quickly fade, our bodies fail even as our influence in life grows. There are still a few of my father’s generation around, such as my great friend and benefactor Flora Ninomiya, perhaps the youngest of the Nisei rose growers, my mom's childhood friend and a fine nurseryperson, whose sad honor it has been to eulogize all of her colleagues.
But, of these men I idolized, in their khaki’s, weathered hands and faces, who smell vaguely of a sweet mix of sweat and flowers, I have only my memories and a few faded photographs. I search for a clever ending, some device of words, to close this little self-indulgent and misplaced essay, which I publish on a food blog, but, there is nothing more than to say, that the last of my heroes is gone today.