Anyone who has ever taken little kids to Disneyland is bound to have been infected with one of the most contagious ear worms on the planet—It’s a Small, Small World. See there? I’ll bet your humming it in your head right this minute. But if you continue reading, you’ll understand why I had to pass that one along to you today.
Long time readers of my books, blogs, and newsletters have heard the story about my being denied admittance to the Creative Writing program at the University of Arizona. Believe me, I wasn’t the only “girl” from the Sixties who was steered away from her preferred course of study and dissuaded from following her hopes and dreams. But first a word about the dorm I lived in—Pima Hall. I may have mentioned that before as well, but that’s just the way I am.
Pima was a co-op dorm started during the Great Depression by a Dean of Girls named Evelyn Kirmse. She did so in an effort to keep girls with financial difficulties from dropping out of school, and at the time I attended the U of A, she was still teaching in the English Department.
The word co-op as it applies to Pima Hall meant that the residents did all their own cooking and cleaning. Two upperclassmen served as either House Manager or Food Manager. The house manager made the duty assignments and the food manager designed the menus and purchased the food. Each girl had one duty a day—cooking, cleaning, or serving. My favorite duties were either PP&V (cleaning Porch, Patio, and Vestibule) or being a 5:30. One 5:30 was assigned to each of the seven tables in the dining room. They brought food and beverages from the kitchen to their designated table and cleared it after the evening meal was served. It was while working as a 5:30 that I learned the magic of not stacking dirty dishes—that way they’re only dirty on one side. To this day my grandkids all know that at MY house there is NO STACKING when it comes time to clear the table.
Pima, with only thirty-three girls, was the smallest dorm on the University of Arizona campus. It also came with the lowest rent. As far as food was concerned, we each paid a dollar a day into the grocery budget. For that dollar, we received three meals a day six days a week and two on Sunday, with Sunday evening reserved for raiding the fridge. Talk about being cost effective!
Pima wasn’t officially an honors dorm, but it could just as well have been. You had to have a teacher’s recommendation or a referral from a previous Pima Hall Girl to even apply there. The vast majority of us came from small towns and families with limited financial resources—in other words, we were poor but smart, and we generally walked away with the university’s grade point average award every year. And that small community of close-knit girls gave us all a jumping off place from which to learn to navigate a campus with far more students than most of our home towns.
This past weekend, one of the girls, Virginia Reyes Kramer, who grew up in Superior, put together a Zoom Reunion. A dozen of us or so did a three-hour marathon, talking about old times and exchanging memories back and forth. We talked about the girls who were there and also the ones who were missing. In fact it was the recent death of one of our number, Marsha Malone Varney, that had put all of us back in touch and prompted the Zoom get together.
One of the ones who was absent as Dawn Masunaga Mitchell. We weren’t close at the time we were in school together. I knew only that she was of Japanese descent and that her family raised flowers at a farm on Baseline Road in Tempe. I resented the fact that although she was very short, she had reeled in a handsome boyfriend who was well over six feet tall. (Short girls packing off the tall guys was always an issue for me.) At the time I knew her, Dawn was Home Economics/ Nutrition major. Naturally, during her senior year, she became Pima Hall’s food manager. At some time during the course of that school year, when food costs were outstripping the grocery budget, Dawn stood up in a dorm meeting and urged us all to “fill up on bread.”
That quote stuck with me long after I left Pima Hall, and once I met Bill, I repeated the story to him on more than one occasion.
Growing up in Bisbee in the fifties and early sixties, we learned nothing about the Japanese War Relocation centers even though any number of them were based in Arizona. It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle in the early eighties that I began to learn more about them and also began to wonder if perhaps Dawn’s family might have been among those internees.
After Sins of the Fathers was published, one of my readers in the Bay Area wrote to tell me about his family’s experience at one of the Arizona camps, In the course of our correspondence, I told him about Dawn, and he was able to locate her family’s history—where they came from and where they ended up. Dawn was listed as one of three children and was actually born in one of the camps. Suddenly I realized that when she told us to “fill up on bread,” it was more than just a budgetary issue. Hers were the words born of harsh experience. Her family knew all too well what it meant to not have enough to eat.
So on Sunday at the reunion, when Dawn’s name was mentioned, I repeated that well remembered quote. Someone in the group who had known Dawn better than I back in the day told us that Dawn had always wanted to be an engineer, but her family had steered her in the direction of Home Economics and Nutrition instead. After leaving Pima, she married the tall guy and spent time with him in Mexico where he was investigating vampire bats. When they returned to the States, however, Dawn went back to school and became an engineer.
Sunday evening, as I was giving Bill a debriefing of the Zoomathon, I told him about Dawn’s having become an engineer. “What kind?” he wanted to know.
Since I now had Dawn’s contact information, I immediately fired off an email and asked that very question, and on Monday morning I received a reply. It turns out she had become a mechanical engineer and had patented a device, something called a patient lift, that allows caregivers to help bedridden patients get in and out of bed, on and off commodes, and in and out of vehicles. When I handed Bill my phone, so he could read what Dawn had written for himself, he almost burst into tears. “That’s the one,” he said. “That’s what we used.”
Bill’s first wife, Lynn, battled breast cancer for seven years and was bedridden for the better part of three of those years. “I couldn’t have gotten through that time without that lift,” he said. “I just couldn’t have done it.”
There were only thirty-three girls in Pima Hall at the time I was there, and it’s pretty amazing that two of us, both girls who were discouraged from following our chosen paths, could have had such a profound impact on the life of a guy who grew up in Chicago and never set foot on the University of Arizona campus until the late eighties.
So you see, Walt Disney was right after all.
It really is a small, small world.
Thank you, Dawn. You made a huge difference in our family.