I don’t know if our family is unusual for people on the West Coast, but by Christmas we will have been to Hawaii five times, to China once and to Japan two times, but none of us have ever been to Europe. I think it would be fair to say we are oriented toward the Pacific Rim. Those five trips to Hawaii each for at least two weeks have resulted in making many friends who are permanent residents of the Islands. One such couple had a teenage son who experienced something terrifying in a sugar cane field, and that story became the basis for the following short piece. Fortunately, for our friends’ son, his episode had a happier ending and he arrived home scratched, dirty, exhausted and merely traumatized.
His story is only one of several related to me by non-Hawaiian friends who are Kama`ainas, or long-time residents of the Islands. In recent decades the legendary “Aloha spirit” has been degraded by a basically non-educated rabble, who engage in a form of reverse-prejudice. The word “haole,” in Hawaiian, originally meaning merely “stranger” and referring to anyone not of native-Hawaiian ancestry, has been hi-jacked by those who no longer value the Aloha Spirit, to mean “white person.”
©2003 Vernon Miles Kerr
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The boy sat listening to the rustle of the cane as it was fanned and riffled by a soft tradewind flowing through his little clearing in the cane field. His new Hawaiian friends had led him there from the beach. What happened to them? They said they would be back in a few minutes. Up above, a full moon was alternately hiding behind, and then peeking through, silver powder-puff clouds as they strolled by in endless procession, across the sugar-sprinkled black velvet firmament that overarched the cane field.
God, it was so perfect. The moon was so round and bright, the clouds so compact and symmetrical, the moist, warm air so mollifying, so soothing. Much better than he had ever imagined. So perfect. His heart felt compelled to assure his reason that he wasn’t just back home in Burbank on the larger soundstage, under a gigantic cyclorama with all this beauty thrown overhead from an LCD projector. Larry would have mixed-in the rustle of the cane leaves and the far-away barking-dog sounds and the even-farther-away faint and intermittent thuds of big breakers hitting the lava rock on the beach. No, this was real. He settled into the discarded car seat that was the sole piece of furniture in the little hideaway and let his thoughts be blown back and forth by the gentle breezes.
To be here; now; finally! It was unbelievable. Damn! He chided himself for the lump in his throat and the little bit of teariness that enhanced the sparkle from the diamonds arrayed above the cane. I’m a friggin’ wuss! I’m a grown man now, a guy with a job. No longer the fat little quarter-Indian bookworm freak who jumped BMX bikes on the Rancheria. No longer the zitty twenty-some-year-old-surfer-nerd back in Huntington Beach who hung around with the other losers surfing off the Edison plant at the end of Newland. I’m a grown man now, a guy with a job, a guy with the money to come to Hawai‘i. He whispered it aloud making sure that the glottal stop between the two i’s was correctly executed. HuuhWAI‘ee. Just like Joe Marshall and Dennis Kamakahi said it on the pirated concert tape he had worn out at home—with the W sounding halfway between a W and a V, the real Hawaiian way.
So, he swallowed the lump and kicked at the compacted Maui red dirt that formed the floor of the little clearing, absent-mindedly pushing his Vans away then back again making that dirt-scrapey sound his BMX tires made when he laid a good “Brodie” back in Taft, back where this journey really started.
Damn! He really was a punk—probably only seven or eight, when this Hawaii stuff started. It was that old movie at the Maricopa Drive-In Theater, down the hill from the tarpaper shacks on their end of the Rancheria. That night, his grandma and grandpa had taken him to the re-opened weed-garden of a drive-in theater. Grandpa had parked his rust-bucket Ford pickup backwards and the three of them set up lawn chairs in the bed and broke open the bags of goodies that Grandma had brought. And they had sat under summer stars, not as impressive as these stars by any means, and munched and watched The Bird of Paradise in Technicolor and were transfixed by the colors and sounds of a world they never knew existed.
Maybe it was the year-round pastel boredom of the desert, the sun bleached pale beige sand, gray-blue green tumbleweeds and the shimmering, milky heat-haze of Taft that caused those Hawaiian colors to have such an impact. But being in the industry nowadays he knew, at least in part, why that movie had been so powerful for him. It was in Technicolor and the print, though it must have been years-and-years old, was still vibrant—somehow the dyes hadn’t faded. Maybe the print had been left in the projection hut, instead of being returned to the distributor, when the old drive-in had gone belly-up, and the dry desert climate along with the year-round coolness of the adobe hut had helped to preserve it. He could imagine the dusty, spider-web-enfolded, old 35-millimeter cans being found by the tribal committee when they went to clean up and reopen the old place. Who knows?
At any rate it was mostly the colors that had done it: the intense tropical greenness against the deep darkness of the jungle, the rich red of the hibiscus in the girl’s shining coal-black hair, her hazel eyes, the Kahuna’s silver hair shining in moonlight like tonight, as he crept through the sleeping village to steal a hair from the sailor’s head. At the end of the picture the thunderous red, orange and yellow lava had been so vibrant he had imagined he could feel the heat, as the girl jumped feet-first into the volcano, her hair streaming grotesquely upward, as her tiny form plunged and plunged, to her death.
But along with the feast for the eyes, that night at the drive-in, was a feast for the ears–another feast, almost as riveting for him as those colors. It was both mellifluous and sonorous. It was the beauty of the Hawaiian language that joined with the rainbow of colors to permeate and penetrate right down to his soul, to seal his memory, to seal his fate and to become so much a part of his future.
The next day he had spent the whole morning wearing nothing but his skivvies and one of Grandma’s old J.J.Newbery & Company floral-print, ugly towels wrapped around his waist and tucked in, in the manner that the warriors had worn their kapa cloth in the movie. Everyone in the shacks, young and old alike, both Indians and sorta-Indians like him, had gotten a wave of the hand and a friendly “Aloha!” just like the men in the movie greeted each other.
He remembered how the committee had shown the same movie for several days afterward and how, every evening, for that short time, at precisely 8:30 p.m., he would tear-ass down the dirt lane between the two rows of shacks on his BMX and pull off a really cool side-ways slide on the bluff overlooking the drive-in.
8:30 was the perfect time. He didn’t have to watch the corny ad slides and “previews” they showed right at sundown. At 8:30 the colors came back. So what, if the screen was postage-stamp size? So what, if from his vantage point on the bluff, he couldn’t hear the Hawaiian being spoken? All the scenes were there. The colors were there, and he could re-live the awe that he had felt, sitting in the lawn chair in the bed of Grandpa’s pickup.
So, that was the start of it. Life went on and somehow things Hawaiian were attracted to him, ZAP, like when you did that thing where you ran an Ace comb through your hair real fast then held it over little scraps of paper.
His first job out of Taft High was with a crumby little finance company, collecting money from his own people who got behind on their loans. The company had offices in Hawaii and when everyone else was out to lunch he would get out the company roster and read off the names of the branch offices over and over: Ewa, Haleiwa, Hawaii-Kai, Hilo, Kahului, Kailua-Kona, Kalapana, Kamuela, Kaneohe, Lahaina, Maalaea, Makaha, Poipu, Ulupalakua, Wailuku, Waimanalo, Waipahu. He could still rattle them off.
Back then, he had no idea where any of these places were but he was very sure they were as beautiful as their names. He didn’t really know how to pronounce them correctly then, either, but they always felt good coming out and they sounded beautiful anyway and they brought back the images of the old movie he had seen a decade before.
Dad had died in Viet Nam and Mom spent all her time at the “office” as Grandma called the Kit-Kat-Klub in Ford City. Anytime anything important came up that needed Mom’s attention he would have to pedal the old BMX all the way down there and get her signature or whatever. She didn’t work there, she just spent all her time there–at least when between jobs–on her favorite barstool next to the jukebox. And she was between jobs a lot. He hated it when she was visibly drunk, hanging on the white guys who were her cronies. He didn’t mind it too much when she was half-sober because there was a stateliness to her, with her tall, graceful stature, straight, black, waist-length hair, slender Levis and her silver and turquoise belt. When she was reasonably sober, she really held court there by the jukebox and the oilfield-roughnecks, who were the regulars, noticeably paid her due deference and respect. She was a quarter Lakota and a quarter Scandinavian from Grandpa’s South Dakota grandfather. There were many tall ancestors in both of those races, along with the rest of the fairly short people who were the rule of thumb in their particular band of Mission Indians. In addition to her beauty, Mom also had that stereotypical Indian stoic dignity, even when she was a little tipsy. When the other drunks could get her to smile it was like the sun coming out behind a rainstorm
Even then, he was old enough to know she was a drunk. She was a hell of a nice person, but she was a drunk. It wasn’t the alcoholism that bothered him though: it was his knowing what she could have been–with her looks and intelligence and kindness–that cut him all the way to his heart. When he was sufficiently weary of it he told Grandma and Grandpa he was going to Huntington Beach with Larry, a buddy from Taft High. His friend had gone to grade school in Orange County and had promised to teach him to surf and said they could get a job at Knott’s or Disneyland just for the fun of it, maybe take a few courses at Golden West College.
Arriving at the HB Pier, the first thing he noticed across the highway was a bronze statue of a guy with a surfboard. The legend on the statue’s base said “In Memory of Duke Kahanamoku” and went on to tell how this Hawaiian surfing hero and Olympic athlete had been the start of all surfing in California. He wondered if “Duke” was a nickname or was he a member of Hawaiian Royalty, the brother of the Queen or something. After that, sometimes he would stroll the two blocks from their rat-hole studio, down to the pier and sit there and look at the Duke’s monument and remember those images from The Bird of Paradise.
Other times, salty, itchy and thirsty from a day in the water at Newland, they would stop off by the pier and get an Orange Julius and they would notice someone had draped flower leis on the monument. The bearded guy who owned the surf shop next to the statue, said there were a bunch of expatriate Hawaiians in OC who occasionally paid homage to the Duke in this way. One time, he himself had strung together a bunch of pink hibiscus, from the huge old bushes in the park on Main Street, and had hung them on the monument. The act gave him a chill. It was the first real connection he had ever had to Hawai‘i. He wished he could meet some of the people who brought the leis.
When he had climbed the pedestal and gingerly arranged the too-quickly wilted flowers he thought, this is for the beauty of your homeland, and for sharing the joy of something sacred to yourself with strangers you had never met; because, he had learned at the library that surfing was Kapu, tabu, to everyone but the Ali’i, sacred to the royalty. It was blasphemy and a capital offense for a common person to surf, or even be at the beach.
But an old National Geographic he located from the 1930s had an article by a white guy who had grown up in Hawai‘i. The man had reminisced that none of the kids, neither Kanakas, Native Hawaiians, nor Haoles, non-Hawaiians, could any more easily remember when they had learned to swim than when they had learned to walk; but there was just an unspoken assumption that only Kanakas possessed the mana, spiritual power, that would enable one to surf. The author and his other Haole friends had tried it a few times, simply fell off then gave up on the idea, happy to be able to just watch the Hawaiians. “They were wonderful,” he said.
So, by the 30s, the unspoken assumption of Kanaka surfing exclusivity was quaint enough to be mentioned by the author. It must have been the Duke, and maybe others like him that had “opened up the gates of the temple for the gentiles to come in”, as his pious Grandma would have probably put it. And, like anyone who goes against the establishment for the sake of love, he figured that the Duke probably suffered some disdain and maybe ostracism. So, for that, the Duke was very worthy of the leis. And he had honored the Duke’s memory with leis a few more times before he and Larry had moved on to Burbank.
There, in the “Media District” as the light post signs proudly proclaimed, he was exposed to a whole new aspect of Hawaiiana—the music. Ironically, his guide to this important new revelation was a couple of Filipino neighbors. They were brothers, who had lived in Honolulu for their high school years before moving along to L.A.
They were older guys and had sort of voluntarily assumed the role of uncles to Larry and himself, even to the point of continually breaking their chops about the disarray and filthiness in their bachelor pad. Well, they should talk, you practically couldn’t get to the bathroom for all of their vinyl LPs leaning against and growing out from every open area of wall space.
Sometime in the warm evenings they would endure their “uncles’ ” ramblings about high school days, talking pidgin, and their Hawaiian LPs thinking about the uncles’ seemingly endless supply of Primo Beer in a ridiculous old pink Crosley refrigerator out on their patio, or as they insisted “the lanai.” Come to think of it, where did they get that never-ending supply of Hawaiian beer? Primo wasn’t sold in L.A, at least he had never seen it anywhere. He could imagine them having one of those big old Matson cargo containers hidden somewhere among the mountains of containers down at the port in San Pedro where the two worked. He chuckled at the thought of Gregory, the fat one, whenever the old Crosley was getting empty, sneaking in there to score a couple of cases of Primo in the dark of night.
The boy’s musing was interrupted by the faint sound of voices, maybe shouting, barely audible over the sound of the wind through the cane. Good, he thought. Here they come, finally. There was supposed to be some sort of jam session out here. He came to the islands guitar-less, since he didn’t want to risk checking his $3,000-Gibson on the plane. So his new friends said they would bring an extra one for him. He was starting to feel the butterflies of stage fright for the first time that evening. It was one thing playing in front of his uncles, who were not really Hawaiians, and what was going to happen tonight.
His thoughts went back to Burbank and how he started this musical phase of his life. Gregory and Peter called them over to have a beer one night and Gregory tossed a couple of brightly colored cards across the table at him. “We were going to an Association Luau next weekend and now we both have to work Saturday night.” The boy wanted to know what the Association was. “Displaced Kama‘ainas” Gregory explained meaning the Hawaii old-timers who were stuck on the Mainland, working in L.A., The Association got together two times a year for a big Luau. He went on to explain that it was more like a trade show than your typical luau, there were so many Kama‘ainas in Southern California. Larry wasn’t that interested but he had nothing better to do so he agreed to accompany him that evening. Of course the boy himself was intrigued. These were obviously the people who had been honoring the Duke with the leis—or maybe some of them were.
The night of the Association Luau was one of those balmy springtime evenings that the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce brags about. The temperature and humidity felt a lot like tonight, he recalled. The Association had taken over the whole Starlight Bowl complex in the hills overlooking Burbank. When they arrived, the scene was pandemonium, although a kind of charming pandemonium. Yet, he wondered if they had made a mistake and had wasted a Saturday night.
People were everywhere: on the stage, in the seats, up on the grassy banks. Kids were running around making god-awful racket. There were even some dogs, and everyone, dogs included, was attired in one way or another with brightly printed “aloha” wear. He was beginning to feel a bit out of place with him and Larry in their Levis and tee shirts, when a giant brown man walked up and flashed them a smile that seemed so wide and so white–being framed by such a rich brown face.
“Aloha, braddahs,” he began “you two make sure you put the stubs from these tickets in the big okole up by the stage,” he said as he pointed to a large kettle with a slot in its top. “You might win some tapes or CDs tonight.” Great, he thought, we’ve got an apartment completely stuffed full of Hawaiian music next door. It’s like we really need some tapes or CDs. He thanked the man. “Tonight you’re in Hawaii,” the man said “so you say ‘mahalo.’” The boy repeated the word. “Not bad for a first try, ‘Mahalo’ is thank you, ‘mahalo nui loa’ is thank you very much,” he added, that smile undiminished. The man went on to explain where and how the food would be served. He especially emphasized how they should try the long-rice and the poi if they wanted to experience the true Island meal.
On the stage there was a lot of confusion. Audio patches and other cables were being whipped around. Amp heads and speaker boxes were being stacked up in a very haphazard fashion. Someone was practically blowing out a set of speakers with a terrible screeching feedback. Both he and Larry were laughing. If they had set up a soundstage shoot like that, they would have been tossed out on their butts within a few minutes of arriving on set. Pretty soon however things started to take shape up there. Everyone apparently had a pretty good idea how the final product should look, they just had no organized system to get there. The first sound checks sounded pretty good, actually. He and Larry gave each other an “I’ll be damned.” look, still laughing…
Back on his car seat, his reverie was interrupted by more sounds of shouting, this time a lot closer. “All right,” he said aloud, “now we’ll have some music.” The shouting resolved into something more like chanting and he could hear the rhythmic shuffling of feet on the hard red dirt road leading into the field. The chanting sounded like “ Have a happy day,” repeated over and over. Soon the source of the chanting was visible on the road, not far from the clearing. It was a column of a dozen or so young, apparently Polynesian men carrying objects that didn’t look like musical instruments. The chanting continued unabated, “Kill a Haole Day, Kill a Haole Day, Kill a Haole Day…”
The vanguard of the column burst into the clearing. The boy sprung off the car seat to face the advancing wave of men. One of his “musician” friends was at the very front carrying a tire iron. Without greeting or conversation, the man swung the tire iron and made solid contact with side of the boy’s head. The boy saw a flash of white and then blackness. He awoke a moment later finding himself at a full run, speeding through the cane with the shouting men crashing through behind him. “You frigging Haoles come to Hawaii, wind up owning everything, fencing us off…” His head was pounding in concert with his racing heart, he could feel the tickle of blood flowing from the wound and down his neck. The road had narrowed to a footpath and the cane leaves were whipping his face and body as he raced onward through the darkness. The blood flow was not diminishing. The further he got from his pursuers the more he wanted to rest, but he dare not. He was having a hard time keeping up the pace even though he could still hear the chanting in the distance. Suddenly his right foot came down on an unseen hunk of lava rock, turning his ankle and sending him sprawling. He tried to get up but his muscles had lost strength, even with the adrenaline pumped up by the approaching chants. A stream of blood now flowed forward, across his hand and onto the ground in front of him. It looked like the threads of flowing lava during a volcanic eruption. His vision was blurring, even the approaching shouts were sounding muffled. He knew that he was dying. The threads of lava grew from red to bright orange. He now saw clearly the edge of the volcano and the girl as she stepped off the edge and began to plummet. With his last breath on earth he shouted “Mother, no!” and collapsed into the red soil of Hawai`i.