Teen Years in Hawaii

In this post I will revert to memoir mode and try to express what it was like to be a young being, alive in our strange universe, unaware, but with the newly developing sensitivity of early adolescence and the joy of growing out of the physical helplessness of childhood, coping, like any young animal with an environment, both strange and taken for granted.

The phrase, “sandy beach”, at the very least seems generic if not somewhat redundant. However, along an eastern part of Oahu, just past the blowhole, the phrase when capitalized, is the very specific name of the only stretch of sand between Hanauma Bay and Makapu`u. I first saw it in the late 1930’s on one of the many excursions we made in the family car, a 1936 Chevy. Past Hanauma Bay, there is a stretch of dark lava coast with cliffs and ledges facing Southeast. The ocean offshore is a deep tropical blue with whitecaps from the trade winds and foam near shore from the waves dancing in and rebounding against the cliffs. My dad would point out the low-lying coast of Molokai island on the horizon which one could see on most days. Occasionally, on a clear day, one could see Lanai and the higher parts of Molokai, and, very rarely the western mountain of Maui, 5,800 feet high and some 65 miles away. My parents mentioned that they’d heard that this coast was comparable in beauty to the Amalfi coast of Italy, a place mysterious to me at the time and even now when a quick trip Googleward would dispel my ignorance. Our trips to this area were mainly to see the blowhole, an opening above a passage through the lava, where mist, spray and even white water, would spout up, provided the waves were sufficiently large and coming from exactly the right direction. If one goes to Google Maps, one can find many striking photos of this Halona coastline, its blowhole, and Sandy Beach beyond. (I’d copy one of these here, but rather than violating a possible copyright, would suggest instead that you go to Google Maps and see a few for yourself. Or a Ctrl-Click on the following might work if the photo hasn’t been deleted by now: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Lanai+Lookout/@21.2764765,-157.6856114,3a,75y,90t/data=!3m8!1e2!3m6!1sAF1QipPKm56RK5FQpaEgG9oyt1FJUAh8WkoNfJtXhS-j!2e10!3e12!6shttps:%2F%2Flh5.googleusercontent.com%2Fp%2FAF1QipPKm56RK5FQpaEgG9oyt1FJUAh8WkoNfJtXhS-j%3Dw203-h152-k-no!7i2272!8i1704!4m5!3m4!1s0x7c001213ec213a81:0xfbb3aa8175e138e1!8m2!3d21.2764781!4d-157.6856089?hl=en).

In those childhood days with the blowhole as the main attraction, I’d probably noticed the striking, light ivory of Sandy Beach but ignored it except for registering its scenic beauty.

Later at about the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, my cousin Mickey had moved from Hilo on the Big Island to live with his mother in Honolulu. My brother George, Mickey and I took to doing things together and, at some point, when I was 14 or so, looking for new adventure, we went swimming at Sandy Beach. In those days the beach was pretty much deserted and we often had it to ourselves. We had learned the trick of getting out through shore break by diving under the waves at less formidable areas. At Sandy the waves run far up the steep beach and then rush back. One times a dive into the outgoing waters and the misnamed “undertow” current carries one out past the surf line. If one’s timing is wrong or an unusually large wave is coming in, one gets pounded into the sand, followed by a tumbled thrashing, rolling about in the sandy water. After emerging, one feels one’s hair full of sand the seams of one’s swim trunks, bulge from the sand which has mysteriously made its way in. Looking back today, I marvel that our mother allowed us to swim at Sandy. She was adamant in forbidding us from areas she considered dangerous. We could never swim at Waimea Bay, now a famous surfing spot on Oahu’s north shore, even though in Summer there are no waves there at all. Too many drownings had occurred during the Winter storm surf (Dickie Cross, for example), and perhaps she realized that Summer swimming would pall and we’d want to try the Winter surf. Neither could we ever hike along the Halona Coast on a series of ledges which provided a route. Too many Japanese fishermen had been swept to their deaths, as a memorial monument attested.

Once past the surf line at Sandy Beach, we faced the problem of getting back in to shore. Later, we learned the trick of catching a wave and flipping as it broke to land feet first in the shallow water below, thereby avoiding a broken neck, a not unheard-of occurrence at the beach. In our early days we would swim to the crest of a wave just before it broke, look over the precipice down to the sand, and backpedal to keep from being sucked over. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the two of us in back would try to give a shove to the one in front attempting to send him down through the air and falling water to a pounding. We quickly learned to evade these pushes. We would make it to shore by waiting for a lull between wave sets and ride the smaller waves to the beach. The waves at Sandy typically reared up to a seven- or eight-foot face and crashed straight down into two feet of water, breaking in a way local people referred to as “bone yard”. What many don’t realize about surf is that the height of a breaking wave is only one important aspect of its power. The other important property is the wave’s “thickness”. A thick wave breaks with more downward volume in its falling curtain, each cubic foot weighing 65 pounds, followed by a large volume of tumbling water. At Waikiki, even during the Summer storm surf, with tall waves coming from the great Southern Ocean south of Tahiti, one encounters waves with a breaking face of 10 to 12 feet, but these, higher thinner waves, are less powerful than the shorter waves at Makapu`u or Sandy. At those beaches the typical waves are strong and fun; larger than typical waves are rare but can be quite intimidating, even dangerous. One time when I was older, perhaps by then even on the swimming team at Punahou, I was at Makapu`u on a big day cooling in the water after George, Dad and I descended to the bay after a hot scramble atop the cliffs overlooking it. Without a thought I headed out diving under the waves, not realizing the wave sets this day were practically continuous, and as I approached the impact zone in about seven feet of water, I fruitlessly dug my fingers in the sand to slow being swept toward shore by the tumbling current as the waves crashed. This day I made no progress outward. I’d come up taking a breath and swim hard before diving under the next wave, ending up where I was before. After doing this with 8 or 10 waves, I was breathing hard and felt weak, so decided to go in and rest up. It turned out that going in was no better than going out, as there was a strong outward current inside of the impact zone. I was trapped and out of breath. I could easily have panicked, but realizing that would do no good, I totally relaxed, taking deep breaths between the pounding waves, fending off the bottom in a relaxed manner as I tumbled. Soon my wind recovered, I knew I was okay, and I could begin to consider what to do. Right at that point there came a rare slack period and I easily went in to shore. In shore the large-grained sand was deliciously warm and the powerful Hawaiian sun left salt on my skin. Later, after resting, I again tried to go out and with better timing and more intense swimming, made it past the break to clear water where I could have a joyful body surf sliding on the big wave faces before they broke and then riding through the impact zone to shore.

At the time I took no life lesson from this experience and others in the surf though these helped to give me considerable self-confidence and knowledge about any dangerously turbulent water. Perhaps, these contributed to my feelings later in life when encountering life threating situations, allowing me to put aside instinctive fears, and concentrate on doing what was necessary. Now I feel that what happened to me at Makapu`u carries a fruitful lesson for coping with any kind of seemingly impossible situation. Relax, breathe deep, pull back from fighting, let awareness creep in, and find some luck.

During the same time the three of us were learning about waves and surf, we were all growing up in the middle of war-time Hawaii. After my eighth-grade year, 1942-43, we regained our Punahou Campus for the ’43- ’44 school year. In both those school years I had been fortunate in having really good math teachers. In eighth grade, Miss Hall was legendary. She was one of those teachers with a fierce, no-nonsense, aspect, handing back homework papers to some saying, “hen tracks on the desert: do it over.” Somehow, everyone knew she really cared about our learning and she was enormously popular. Besides making the intrinsically boring eighth grade math seem at least somewhat interesting, she told us about the future mathematics we were to encounter: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and then calculus. It was the first time I had heard the word “calculus”, and that mysterious word aroused in me a feeling of anticipation though I hadn’t the slightest idea of what it could be about. In ninth grade algebra, my luck held, as our principal, Dr. Slade, decided to resume teaching for one year. Once I got over having the intimidating principal in front of the class, I became absorbed in the first math I’d encountered that was genuinely interesting and very well taught. My favorite kind of problem was when Dr. Slade would write 4 or 5 numbers in a sequence on the blackboard and challenge us to find a formula that would give those numbers and allow us to extend the series forward and backward. I learned the trick of taking first or second differences or just letting my intuition play, and so could solve most of these fun problems. Dr. Slade would also try to get across that with symbols we were moving to a higher level of abstraction. I totally failed to understand that idea although I could certainly handle the symbols and was actually unconsciously learning the idea of a “function” and “differences” that would be the subject of calculus later on.

In war-time Hawaii there was little rationing. We were almost completely dependent for food and other supplies on shipments from the mainland. These would come to the islands in large convoys only every three months or so. After a convoy came in, there was a time of plenty which would then diminish to whatever had a decent shelf life besides what we could grow locally. During these slack food times there was always plenty of Spam, the canned meat product. Fried Spam was common in our household and in Hawaii generally. I thought Spam was not bad, but never developed a genuine liking for it. Many islanders did, however, and even in the present-day, Hawaii is the largest state consumer of Spam in the country. On a recent visit to the islands, my cousin Billy and his wife served us spam sushi, a big favorite. During the war, my dad developed a relationship with a butcher in a meat shop, doubtless encouraged by generous tips, and after a convoy came in, we had fabulous steaks for a time. My dad and his best friend, Ralph Johnson, who also worked in the accounting department at Castle and Cooke, acquired an old iron, enamel covered, flat sink which they made into a grill by drilling holes in its bottom. There was no lack of excellent charcoal made from local Kiawe trees. We would marinate the steaks in mixture of soy, brown sugar, and chopped ginger root which grew in our yard and then grill them outside on the old sink. Ralph and his future wife, Leila Cannon, would join us for these memorable meals. Often the party would include visiting service men who happened to be in port. My Mom had an endless supply of Aunts, Uncles and their progeny living in Kansas and Eastern Colorado. Such folk ended up in the Navy and would come see us when possible. There were drinks besides the steaks and Leila who had been to Julliard school of music, would play all the popular music of the day on our piano, as everyone would gather in the living room and party.

Although there were occasional good times, the war was never far away. We listened to the news every day on the radio and read the Star Bulletin newspaper. Although accounts on the radio and in the newspaper attempted to put the best “face” on what was happening, it was clear that during 1942 and 1943, that although the war had turned around, it was not easy going. There was our invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and Morocco in Africa, but the German general Rommel ran wild in Africa and there were setbacks in the Solomon’s. Our local young men of Japanese ancestry were able to enlist in the 442 regimental combat team (see Wikipedia) and ended up in Italy where they suffered heavy losses and became the most decorated American unit of their size in US military history. Many of their officers were haoles from the Islands. One of these was Ralph Johnson’s brother and I remember a subdued meal with Ralph and Leila after they learned of his brother’s death in Italy via a German machine pistol. As the war dragged on into 1944, we heard some firsthand accounts of what was going on in places like Tarawa and Iwo Jima. In those bloody invasions our people learned that they were likely to be blown up by a hand grenade if they tried to help a wounded Japanese soldier. One of our relatives had joined the Navy so he would have his “bed with him”, but ended up assigned as a Corpsman to the Marines, who were doing the dirty work during the invasions. On Iwo Jima he was walking down a road with four or five buddies in the torn-up landscape when a Jeep driving by offered a ride, but could take only one or two. He was one picked up, but only forty or fifty yards down the road they saw a mortar shell land on the group they had left, blowing them all to pieces.

As I learned later, by 1944 we had through the desperate measures of “total war” turned the entire country into a huge manufacturer of war weapons, supplying not only our own military, but those of England and Russia as well. In Hawaii we could see the various new kinds of airplanes flying around and the sidewalks on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki were full of white uniformed Navy Sailors. We never saw many soldiers, but heard there were 2 million or so stationed at Schofield Barracks in a mid-island area. In 1945, the war in Europe ended in April, but the Pacific war continued with its huge naval battles effectively destroying the Japanese Navy, and the horrendous invasion of Okinawa supplying airfields for enormous air raids by B-29’s in preparation for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Then suddenly, in August, it was over. A frightening new bomb had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought the war to an end.

In the nearly seventy-five years since the war ended there have been many troubling situations in the world and in our country as we have tried to react, but to my mind none of these has come close to the level of crisis and threat that WWII posed to us and our allies. With the Covid-19 pandemic, however, as it involves the entire world, has been incredibly disruptive, and appears to be a threat that will likely drag on for a much longer time than we are expecting or are prepared to endure, I have revisited some of the feelings long remembered from those days in Hawaii during the first half of the 1940’s. Since in our current situation we are not even at “the end of the beginning”, as Churchill put it in late 1942, I will speculate no further, but will hope for the best as our future unfolds.

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