Sunday, July 3, 2011

Doc Shimo & Other Ghosts of Kaslo

About a month ago, I blogged about receiving a mysterious phone call from a woman who used to know my great grandfather, the late Dr. Kozo Shimotakahara, the dashing older man furthest left in this photo.  (If you'd like, you can here that blog entry here).  Well, over the past month, I have been communicating with this woman quite a bit (for purposes of protecting her privacy - she's an elderly lady who probably values her privacy - I'll call her "Norah").  Emailing back and forth and chatting on the phone with Norah has been very exciting because I'm currently working on a historical novel based on my great grandfather's life during the Second World War, when he was a doctor at the above internment camp in Kaslo, BC.  Getting to know Norah and hearing about her memories of my great grandfather - "the great Doc Shimo," as she calls him - has been a fascinating experience.

First of all, I had no idea that he was so adored by the Kaslo locals, or that he was seen as such an eccentric, trailblazing man.  According to Norah, a teenager at the time of the war, her experience getting to know Doc Shimo utterly dispelled the government propaganda disseminated about Japanese-Canadians.  At first, most people in the community weren't pleased by the prospect of having their little mountain town inundated by 3000 evacuees, who had been labelled as "the enemy," and they were even less thrilled that the internment camp was to be built in deserted buildings right within the town.  Kaslo, being a ghost town, had no shortage of deserted hotels and derelict buildings - relics of the gold rush days.  These buildings were retrofitted into tenement houses, where dozens of Japanese-Canadian families were crowded in.  Not your ideal living conditions.  But once Doc Shimo set up shop as the camp's physician, the locals quickly realized that they could benefit from having a doctor of his sophistication and skill set a stone's throw away.  Norah told me that when her brother contracted a severe case of bronchitis from working at the local mine, Doc Shimo treated him by giving him one of the earliest shots of penicillin.  When the boy asked, "How much?"  Doc Shimo said, "Give me your wallet!"  Peeling out $3, he said, "This'll have to do."

Norah's father, an artist, who had been deaf since childhood, befriended Doc Shimo.  It seems that the two men bonded because Norah's father had also felt discriminated against by certain locals, on account of his disability.  Thus Doc Shimo often drove out to Norah's home by the beach (as the camp doctor, he was allowed special privileges; his car was never confiscated, unlike the cars of other internees).  He sat to have his portrait painted.  Apparently, he told funny stories about his days working as a waiter in Chicago to put himself through med school.  According to Norah, he was a very charming man who could be a bit of a ham.  Upon glimpsing the boats lining the shore, Doc Shimo begged to be allowed to take one out.  Hitching up his pants and climbing into a small life boat, he had a strange way of rowing.  Rather than facing backwards, Doc Shimo faced forward rowing fisherman style (probably a habit acquired from his teenage summers working as a fisherman's apprentice).

Later, when Norah wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life ("there were no school guidance counsellors, back in those days," she informed me), Doc Shimo encouraged her to consider UBC's nursing program.  A few years later, she had the pleasure, as a newly minted RN, of assisting with the birth of a baby, working alongside "my idol ... the good Doctor Shimotakahara."

At the end of our conversation, Norah put me in touch with her friend, a local historian, who kindly provided me with the photograph above.  It's a beautiful, evocative photo....  Who know what my imagination will make of all these memories, but I couldn't resist sharing them right now.

Photo from Langham Cultural Society


Naomi said...

Your great-grandfather sounds like an interesting, charismatic person. Will he be a key character in your next novel? Good luck in talking further with "Norah"!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

The more I get to know him by talking to other people the more he intrigues me. Yes, he will definitely be a key character.

erika bird said...

I'm sure you've met Aya. If not, you should. She would have known your grandfather as well as any other Japanese teenager, and her memory is just fine.
Erika (Kaslo)

Anonymous said...

Hello Lesle,
I am an daughter of an internee and my mother spoke that your grandfather was their doctor as well and I believe he delivered five of us. I have seven siblings. My uncle and aunt are going to visit Kaslo for the first time next month . They are from Ontario. I do not remember details to tell you but his name was spoken in our house for me to remember it. Good luck in your research and for sure Aya is the one to speak with. She is the most beautiful lady.


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.