ScoutingJanuary-February 2002

The Way It Was The Way It Was

A Pair of Boy Scouts

By Chris Matthews
Illustration by Joel Snyder

In the tense months following Pearl Harbor, a Wyoming Scout troop set out to visit another Scout troop—inside the walls of an internment camp for Japanese-Americans.

As a storytelling U.S. senator, Alan Simpson was famous for tales as tall as he stands himself: 6 foot 7.

But when I caught up with the 70-year-old in his native Cody, Wyo., last year, he was ready with a wild one every inch the truth. It was about a couple of Boy Scouts back in the time of World War II.

"One week, the Scoutmaster told us we were going out to a giant internment camp where 11,000 Japanese-Americans were being detained for the duration of World War II."

Simpson and his fellow Scouts were stunned by the idea. Why would anyone, much less a group of kids, dare enter this forbidding place surrounded by guard posts "with all the guns pointed inward"? The Scoutmaster stood his ground. "Because there are Boy Scouts in there."

"We're not going," the Scouts complained. "It's dangerous!"

They're Americans just like us!" the grown-up persisted, as if that was all that needed to be said in those angry, nervous months just after Pearl Harbor.

"He was a man ahead of his time," Simpson recalled from the vantage point of six decades later.

What young Alan and his pals discovered beyond those forbidding guardhouses was a group of kids just like themselves, even reading the same comic books and the same Scout handbook.

"There was one particularly spirited guy I just kind of linked up with," Simpson said. "He showed me around the tarpaper shack he and his family were living in. We tied knots, did other things together."

On a second visit, Simpson and this other 11-year-old joined forces to dig a drainage system that managed to send the rainwater rushing right into their own tent. Their later reunions would result in far more successful partnerships.

In 1971, Simpson read in the newspaper that a fellow with a strangely familiar name had just been elected mayor of San Jose, Calif. He wrote and asked if it was the kid he'd met in Wyoming during World War II. It was, the Honorable Norm Mineta wrote back.

By the end of the 70s, both men were serving in the U.S. Congress.

"We immediately looked each other up," Simpson remembers fondly. Although they came from different political parties, they became personal friends and, on at least one occasion, legislative allies. That was when the senator from Wyoming helped the California Democrat win passage of a bill compensating Japanese-Americans for what had been done to them during World War II.

Last January, Norm Mineta, Democrat, was nominated by President-elect George W. Bush to become a member of his cabinet, and no one was happier than his fellow Boy Scout who had tied knots with him 60 years ago.

Simpson says, "Some outfit wanted to do a movie about us. We said: 'Oh, get out of here! We didn't do this for the movies.'"

Chris Matthews is the host of "Hardball" on CNBC and the author of the syndicated newspaper column CHRIS MATTHEWS, from which the above is reprinted by permission of Newspaper Enterprise Association Inc.

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