San Diego Jody Gravett's American experience poses some pointed questions about national identity, about responsibility, about what a country does or does not owe the men who risk their lives in its service. But for the moment, Gravett isn't interested in the larger issues, the broader implications of his particular case. He's reconsidering the specifics, certain details, certain memories.
Like the time he came home from his first tour of duty in Vietnam and discovered that his adoptive father had nearly cleaned out his savings account.
"I remember walking into the bank all excited and shit. I thought I'd saved up all this money. Didn't spend a dime while I was in Vietnam. I wanted to come home to something. Now, they'd told me before I left that I had to set up my savings account with a family member, or friend -- someone I trusted -- and have them deposit my paychecks for me. So I set that up with my dad. And I was over there, fightin' and shit. Gettin' shot at, killing. I was getting combat pay, hazardous-duty pay. And every month I kept sendin' the checks home. I thought I had something to look forward to.
"I walked in the bank, filled out a withdrawal slip. I thought I had more than $3000. And the teller says to me, 'Sir, you have $330 in your account.' Well, I guess I caused quite a scene there at the bank. When they finally got me calmed down, they explained it all to me. I went over to my dad's house, asked him what had happened. He just mumbled something about 'expenses.' He wouldn't tell me. I pretty much tore up all the windows in the house. I turned around and walked out. I never spoke another word to him. I turned around and walked out and went back to Vietnam.
"Sometimes I sure wonder why he adopted me. If he adopted me only for what he could get out of me. I think the reason he took all the money was because he thought I was gonna die over there in Vietnam. He thought I wasn't comin' back. But I came back.
"I never spoke to my dad again. But I guess I forgave him. I wish like hell the son of a bitch was still alive so I could tell him that."
Gravett is in a reflective mood. While he sits in Santa Ana Jail, he has a lot of time to think about his past, to try to make sense of all the missteps, rejections, and betrayals that have marked his life.
"Shit happens," he says.
In Gravett's case, a lot of shit happens.
Fifty-one years ago, he was born of an American soldier father and a Japanese mother who left him, literally, on the doorstep of a Catholic orphanage in Yokohama, Japan, when he was three days old. Gravett and the other "half-breed war babies" were segregated from the purebred Japanese orphans. "But I never noticed any discrimination against us. People looked at me and could tell I was different, but I spoke Japanese. I wasn't treated any different. I didn't know anything about prejudice until I came to America. America has some of the most prejudiced people on earth."
When Gravett was 11 or so, an American Navy MP and his wife showed up at the orphanage. Their goal was to establish the first rodeo in Japan. The orphanage had a lot of land. The MP and his wife set up their barn, their stable, their rodeo ground.
"It was incredible," Gravett remembers. "It was just like the movies. Cowboys and Indians! You can imagine what that must have been like for a Japanese kid. It was America! So I started hanging out, working in the barn, cleaning out the stables. I've always been a real hard worker. My dad -- the man who became my father -- noticed my interest. Taught me how to ride. When I was 12 or 13, he and his wife decided to adopt me.
"Well, it was a little more complicated than that. I guess he wanted to adopt me. She picked up and left on Thanksgiving Day. I'll never forget it. I guess they weren't gettin' along real well. I was living with them. And on Thanksgiving Day I'm sittin' in the living room, watching television, and I guess they got into an argument, and he just picked up a chair and threw it at her. I'm sittin' there and the next thing I know is that chairs come sailin' across the room, and my mom is packin' her things and is out the door and I'm thinkin', 'My God, what kind of family is this that wants to adopt me?'
"My dad wouldn't give her the divorce unless she signed my adoption papers. That was the deal they worked out. She wanted the divorce. She signed the papers. The way I see it is that she didn't even really want me."
A few years later, Gravett and his dad moved back to the States. His dad had "itchy feet." They moved first to his dad's native Iowa, which Gravett loved -- "The people there treated me real nice. The year I was there I became a championship wrestler. When I was in Japan I'd picked up some judo and stuff. I knew some moves. They loved me." Then to the Bay Area. Then to El Cajon, not far from where his adoptive mother lived.
The adjustment, however, wasn't easy. "They treated me like shit at El Capitan High School. They had a bunch of prejudiced rednecks there. That's where I learned about prejudice. My dad started keepin' me home from school to help him with his horses, help take care of them. I wanted to go to school, to learn. So I moved in with my mom, started going to Granite Hills High School. It was a lot better there. They weren't prejudiced. I got along real well there. But then my mom and dad started fightin' over me. My dad wanted me back to help him. They fought a lot. And I had these two friends who were gonna join the Army. I was 19 when I was in 11th grade. I'd been held back a year. And these two friends were goin' to Vietnam, and my mom and dad were fightin', and I said to myself, 'Fuck all this bullshit, I'm goin' to Vietnam!'"