From Barefoot Days, Electric Nights

‚Äč

GOING NATIVE

 

            I found I had landed in a place from a different time. True, the studio had a new-fangled telephone, a tubular bending Swedish thing that suggested a banana or a dildo; and, granted, one hour on the dock produced more bikinis than across a whole summer at the Minneapolis lakes, but Hawaii was blessedly lagging in a hundred ways. Phone numbers were five or six digits. There was no live network TV, the programs arriving by commercial jet from the Mainland to be aired a week later. There were no freeways and some drivers were still using arm signals like semaphores, left arm up, right turn; arm down, stop; and so on, all of the waving so infectious I still employed it by reflex for years after. There were no Midwestern alleys. Spindly car ports seemed to outnumber garages. In the paper and in everyday talk, you referred to directions by geographic locations not by compass points, so if I were heading home after work on Kapiolani Boulevard, I was going Waikiki and beyond that, Diamond Head. Driving mauka meant mountainward, makai seaward. I am puzzled today, even a little disappointed, when I hear a Honolulan refer to the “eastern” or “western” side of Oahu, when all I know are the old points. 
                Hawaii had no snakes or insects, at least in golden memory. A quick canvass of Honolulu friends proves me half right: no snakes. An internet hunt turns up numerous mosquito infestations—Panama frogs imported as a deterrent in 1932; tourists routed from a Kauai hotel, 1961; dengue fever outbreaks. For elucidation, I call the State Health Department. An entomologist, Jeomhee Hasty, speaking with a lovely zenlike brevity, tells me mosquitoes were already on the scene in the early 19thcentury, then she adds: 

           “And before, with Captain Cook.”
           “But how is it I don’t remember seeing a mosquito in four years?” 
           “Where did you live?”
           “Mostly between Waikiki and Kahala.”
           “Dry area,” she asserts.
            What about rats, I ask.  I tell her that the critters I saw and heard clattering up palms to eat the coconuts lacked the brazen, creepy character of New York rats.
            “Different kind. Ground rats there. Roof rats here.” 
             I forgot to ask her about mongooses. Those lanky furtive things, often seen fleeing across a country road 100 yards ahead of the TR3, figured in a parable-sounding tale we all heard: that they were imported from India to eradicate the rats but the plan failed because the former were daytime creatures, the latter nocturnal, so they seldom met up and both multiplied. 
           In late 1963 I wrote home that life was good on upper Kalakaua and that I was going native--native enough at times to wear a Samoan floral print lava-lava wrap around the apartment and to go barefoot almost everywhere, which would soon produce toughened “luau feet” like those of the performers who sprinted across hot coals at luaus. 

          One night I took a date to the Tahitian dance show at Queen’s Surf; as we walked back barefoot on the beach to my apartment, Lyn Knox, a Maui, Punahou and U of Oregon girl, kicked up sand to show me glowing specks of phosphorus. I worked on Lyn, off and on, to modest avail, and she later fell for one of my roommates, Jim Turner. I was in their wedding, in 1965, at a quiet, empty, beach-blessed corner of Maui called Kihei, which today is stacked with condos and tourist amusements. It was a day I will always remember for one startling detail: not that I officially lost a girlfriend, but on an afternoon when we were all baking on the beach at Kihei, a hiker unofficially fell to his death in a new snowfall miles above us on the extinct crater Haleakala—“unofficially” because I’ve never been able to hunt down the story.
            Some nights after work, I tagged along with a staff photographer who knew the circuit of Japanese bars on Kapiolani. I seem to remember that the diminutive, irrepressible Minoru (Pipi) Wakayama, whose English sometimes left me in arrears, specialized in sports coverage and was tight with some of the beefy coaches who came out each year to scout the Hula Bowl college all-stars. More to the point, he was tight with the kimono-clad hostesses in these dark little enclaves, and within minutes a round of Japanese beer and a saucer of thick slices of tuna sashimi would be placed before us. If Pipi winked or waved, the hostess would sidle up to offer us further favors, out of view. I don’t know if these joints were off limits or unknown to Police Chief Dan Liu’s active Vice Squad but I never saw a sign of the law within. Meanwhile I was growing dexterous with chopsticks, and those slabs of raw silky fish would become my favorite pupu.