"Hawaii Lesson Number One: We need to get all pork and ham products out of the car," I told my 11-year-old son, Michael, as we put the top down on the rental convertible and prepared to cross the mountains from the Honolulu airport to the windward side of Oahu. At 11:30 P.M. the sweetly fragrant Hawaiian air, still more than 80 degrees warm, settled around us like a cheerful memory. We were glad to get out of there and get on with our trip.
We had shared the van to the car-rental place with a group of tattooed, wild-haired teenagers who amiably cursed like sailors and announced that they were travel agents on their way to Waikiki Beach for a business summit. I was skeptical, inasmuch as most of the travel agents I know don't resemble hardened convicts on furlough from Sing Sing. That business must be tougher than ever, I thought, and I was glad that we were headed to the opposite side of the island.
"Oh, yeah, I remember this!" Mike nearly shouted, concerning the pork. "I did a report on it last year. If you have pork in the car while you drive over the mountains, your car will break down, and you have to be prepared to take off all your clothes and fling yourself to the ground."
I was impressed. He beat me to the punch line of my first two Hawaiian legends, the one about never carrying pork over the Pali lest you want to incite the wrath of a local spirit who will incapacitate your car; and the other about ancient, wandering Hawaiian warrior spirits called Night Marchers. If they came upon you in the dead of night, the only way you might possibly survive their fury was to prostrate yourself, naked, before them. We had heard these stories years ago from our Hawaiian neighbors and passed them along as ghost and monster stories to Mike as he grew up.
The air grew damper and cooler as we crossed over the tops of the mountains and descended into Kaneohe. A half-hour later, at midnight, fully clothed and intact, we were eating beef-stew-and-rice plate lunches at the Zippy's restaurant while local kids in "Hang Loose" T-shirts chatted each other up. Our return to Hawaii, some ten years in the making, had begun, and I had a lot to teach Mike in the four days we had been able to wrest from school and home.
Some background is in order here. My angelic son, Michael, who is so many things - sixth-grade student, Aikido master, piano player and choirboy, basketball teammate in fierce two-on-two matches with all comers, and, lately, a fine travel companion for me - was also a Hawaiian kid at one time. That is, he was conceived in the middle bedroom of a ramshackle beach house that my wife and I rented on Kaneohe Bay, on the rural, windward side of the island of Oahu, far away from the noise and bustle and crowds of Honolulu and Waikiki, and whose windows we kept open to the water in order to receive the salty breezes that blew in from the ocean and cooled his mother's belly as he formed. A good chunk of our family's oral history was written around the banana trees in the neighbor's yard, where swarms of mosquitoes lived and bit; the heliconia bushes near our door that miraculously grew half an inch the day after I trimmed them; the porch overlooking the bay where Mike experienced his first belly laugh while watching our golden retriever drag the neighbor's chihuahua around by the collar; and the tranquil waters of Kaneohe Bay, which ebbed and surged with the tides that marked Mike's first sentient days. As I toiled away writing articles in a small office in Chinatown, Michael spent most of his first year playing with his mother at Kailua Beach, his brown hair surprisingly blond from the sun in those baby pictures, his first steps leaving tiny outlines in those powdery white sands.
We left Hawaii for Seattle before he turned two - a bit of island fever coupled with a local economy that went south combined to drive us away - but not before the islands had imprinted themselves on Mike's psyche. He still loves to swim and has always been comfortable in any kind of water. He kicks his covers off at night, as he did as a baby in a too-warm room. And we never corrected him or tried very hard to explain ethnicity when, as a grade-school student he would announce to his classmates that he was really Hawaiian and prove it by pulling up his sleeve to reveal a forearm that had long since reverted to pale white in the Seattle climate but nevertheless looked tanned and Polynesian to him. Being born in Hawaii was a badge of pride for Mike. Now he was old enough to begin to fill in the spaces of his imaginary island with some real experience, and before the crust of teenage skepticism slipped over him, I wanted to show him some of my own special places on Oahu.
We started out with food, as I often do, at a coffee shop at my old shopping center. I had him order the Loco Moco for breakfast - a hearty dish of rice, hamburger, and an egg, served in a bowl and brimming with brown gravy. By giggling his way through the order, Mike gave us away as mainland haoles. (Some say the local term for Caucasians translates as "without spirit," and was first used by native Hawaiians to refer to Captain Cook and his men, who, because of their white skin, were thought to be ghosts or spirits.) I tried to make up for it by ordering pancakes with Spam, another local favorite that was rivaled for sheer culinary dubiousness by the canned Vienna sausages and eggs that were also on the menu. He loved the Loco Moco; I barely made it through half of the Spam.
At the supermarket we picked up some island staples for our kitchen: cans of sweet guava juice, Portuguese pao doce (sweet bread studded with macadamia nuts), and a bag of pasty purple poi, a condensed version of the stuff they serve at luaus, which made Mike cringe and declare that he would never try it in a million, billion years. Oh yes he would, I thought in a Machiavellian, parental way; I'll find a way to make him eat it. I mostly went easy on him, though. I didn't buy any of the rubbery chunks of tako (octopus) or tuna poke (pronounced PO-kay and referring to raw fish, with wispy bits of green seaweed) that would have made him reel around the room making gagging noises. On our way out of town we stopped at a roadside stand for fresh, sweet pineapples and young coconuts filled with "milk."
I wanted to show Mike the North Shore - the surfers riding big waves; the shrimp farms in Kahuku; the Polynesian Cultural Center and Mormon Temple in Laie; and the laid-back, surf-dude culture of Haleiwa and Sunset Beach. The problem was that I was trying to cram three years' worth of casual Sunday drives into one busy morning. It was a hellish tour for an 11-year-old kid who wanted nothing more than to jump into the ocean and swim and play. It was awesome to watch surfers negotiate the pounding 20-foot waves at Sunset Beach, but the water was far too dangerous for us to swim. Then, as we pressed on to Haleiwa with the top of the convertible still down, it began to pour great, slashing buckets of rain.
Why drive an extra 40 minutes through the downpour? Just because I wanted to buy Mike what we've always touted as the best hamburger in Hawaii, the one that we always stop for when we go to the North Shore. The rain let up as we settled at a table at the Kua Aina Sandwich Shop with our burgers and fries.
"Wasn't that a great burger?" I asked afterward.
Mike shrugged, not wanting to be impolite. "It was fair," he said, "slightly better than McDonalds." And he was right; the burgers were only fair, but we had satisfied a family tradition by eating them and were thus able to get on with our day. By the time we got back to Kaneohe, the school day was ending, and kids in T-shirts and shorts and thong sandals were massing at the bus stops.
"How cool!" Mike exclaimed. "If we still lived here, I wouldn't have to wear shoes to school." We rented body boards and, nearly frantic to get into the water for the remaining hours of sunlight, began to play a game that I remembered from living in Hawaii and that I called "Beach, Beach, Which Beach?" The North Shore beaches had been too treacherous, the ones outside of Kaneohe too en-LANAI crusted with coral and stones, and Kailua Beach, our third stop and Mike's old stomping grounds (if babies can be said to stomp), was too placid for catching waves. "One more beach," I promised, and we drove ten minutes down the road to the town of Waimanalo and the beach at Bellows Air Force Base. It was a lovely swath of white sand lined with ironwood trees and fronting a perfect break where three- to five-foot waves curled gently, with hardly any undertow. We figured out how to catch and ride them, and when we left at dusk we were the only people in sight on nearly three miles of beach.
Happy and tired, on the way home we stopped at a trailer in Waimanalo to buy the doughnuts called malasadas and little mountains of shaved ice with three exotic syrups. Mike was thrilled by the sheer opulence of a real Hawaiian shaved ice. "You know," he said, "in Seattle you get a crummy little snow cone for five dollars on New Year's Eve."
The kid had a point.
I also was pleased to see that Hawaii looked much the same as we had left it. A Starbucks had moved into my old shopping center, and the par-3 golf course and driving range where I used to take Mike in his stroller had been transformed into a big, modern family golf center, but Kaneohe still had an amiable, small-town quality to it. There was plenty of aloha to go around, as evidenced by the listings in the phone book for Aloha Legal Service, Aloha Towing Service, and Liquid Aloha sportswear, among many others.
We stayed in a cottage on the bay, just a short walk from the house where we lived when Mike was born, with views of the Koolau Range and, from our small lanai, the marvelous islet called Chinaman's Hat. And when we said hello to the neighbor, he responded, "Eh, brah, howzit?" in pidgin.
I tried to answer in kind by saying, "Eh, brah, I cannot get my son try eat poi," which made me sound more like an idiot auditioning for a bit part on Baywatch Hawaii than a real kamaaina (Hawaiian native).
He smiled and said, "Too yucky? Try it with some sugar." Gazing at the mountains, as I did every chance I got, I remembered something that an acquaintance named Tony had said about them. Tony was an Italian who had settled and married in Hawaii. He had four kids, one of whom was only a few months older than Mike and who had routinely pounded him and thrown toys at him whenever we would visit. I never liked that kid.
Tony, an agnostic, had exclaimed, "Those mountains are my religion! I can worship them every single day." And I could, too, admiring the folds and creases where the howling winds and ocean spray had carved them for millennia, the light shifting constantly under moving clouds to highlight the deep rifts and jagged knife-edge peaks. I kept reminding Mike to look at the mountains and commit them to memory.
We stopped at the Pali lookout one day to admire the vista of the windward side and so that I could relate the story of how King Kamehameha had conquered the island of Oahu by driving rival warriors to the edge of the peak and giving them the choice of jumping or being speared. At the lookout a marvelous painting by local artist Herb Kane depicts the scene. My son, battle-hardened by TV and video games, grasped the situation quickly and applied annoying sixth-grade statistics to the tableau: "Okay, you can get speared and die or jump and have a 99.99999 ('Michael! Stop it') billion percent chance of dying, or a 0.0000001 percent ('MICHAEL!') chance of surviving the fall." Probability and odds are big favorites in the sixth grade in Seattle, but that's probably because they have to wear shoes to school.
We brushed up on more Hawaiian history with a visit to the ¿Iolani Palace downtown, where reverent elderly ladies walked us through a tour of the meager artifacts that survived the purging of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, after King David Kalakaua, the "Merrie Monarch," passed away and where his queen, Lili¿uokalani, was held under house arrest in one of the upstairs bedrooms, by the cabal of American businessmen who overthrew the monarchy. There is little left besides the beautiful koa-wood staircase and trim, portraits of the royals, and a few pieces of furniture. To fill in some of the blanks, we spent a morning at the Bishop Museum looking at the feathered ka¿ hili standards that once accompanied Hawaiian kings and queens at what must have been a magnificent royal court. At the start of a stage show there, a woman came out wearing a lovely muumuu (locals pronounce it "moo-oo-moo-oo," I reminded Mike) and carrying a ukulele. She was joined by a hula dancer who performed several numbers, including the enchanting and heartbreaking "Aloha Oe," which was written by Lili¿uokalani during her imprisonment and which wistfully repeats, "Until we meet again."
For a bit of personal history, we walked back to our old house and had a look at it from the vacant property next door. Our former yard was a riot of vegetation and coconut palm trees. It reminded me of the visits we'd receive every six months or so, when early on a Saturday morning, there would be a knock on the door, and a gnarled little Polynesian man would offer to climb our trees and knock the coconuts off for his own harvest. I showed Mike the window to what was his nursery, and we stood and looked at the part of the bay, backdropped by Chinaman's Hat and the mountains, where we had scattered the ashes of his grandfather before Mike was born. I could tell that Mike didn't have the same nostalgic attraction to the place that I had, but then, they were my memories that were being recounted, not his.
One morning we drove to Waikiki Beach for a look but turned right around when we saw the crowds on the streets and on the beaches (including, I'm sure, those teenage travel agents). At my favorite sandwich shop in Chinatown, I tricked Mike into eating a papaya tapioca pudding and then a gray-purple sweet rice pudding with black-eyed peas, both of which he liked; I was working up to the poi. We stopped to look inside a crack-seed shop that had rows of glass jars containing things like slimy sour cherries, dried cuttlefish, crunchy peas with shrimp flavoring, and dried lime balls rolled in a powder that tasted horribly of garlic and monosodium glutamate. Had we stayed in Hawaii, Mike would surely have been an expert on crack seed, but the stuff was all incomprehensible to us. He bought a bag of fortune cookies and a candy called Haw Flakes. ("What is it?" we asked the Chinese shopkeeper. "It's 99 cents," she replied. "No, but what are Haw Flakes?" we repeated. "They're 99 cents," she repeated. We still don't know what they are.)
The poi had been sitting in our refrigerator since the first day, looking purple and lumpy and surly in its twist-tied plastic bag. I wasn't too thrilled with the prospect of sampling it, either, but I had to make Mike try it. When he begged me to go with him to the swimming pool one morning, I saw my opening. What choice did I have? I said I'd do it if he ate poi. He tried to apply sixth-grade math to the situation by saying, "Okay, I'll eat a quarter of a quarter of a quarter of a teaspoon."
No way, I said, you have to do it the Hawaiian way, with two fingers poked into the poi and licked off entirely.
"It's paste," he whined.
So are mashed potatoes, I said. He gingerly tried one fingerful and then (to my satisfaction) screamed before downing an entire tumbler of water.
"I hope you know that you've scarred me emotionally and physically for life," he moaned on the way to the pool. Ah, what are parents for?
We spent most of our time making new Hawaiian memories to share. In order to beat the f locks of tourists who arrive by the busload, we went early to Hanauma Bay, which is still the best snorkeling spot I've ever seen. The Hawaiians have finally gotten smart and banned the feeding of fish there and are trying to educate people about not standing on or touching the coral. I was amazed by how graceful and comfortable Mike was with his snorkel and fins around foot-long parrotfish, little flurries of yellow butterflyfish and striped triggerfish, and even a small spotted eel that showed its teeth menacingly. "That's the third time I've ever snorkeled and the first time I ever saw anything," he announced. Bellows Beach, where we'd body-boarded, became our own secret find, and we returned there every afternoon with our boards and took turns riding the waves or getting smashed and rolled by them. After one particularly bruising episode of crashing around in the waves, Mike said the sweetest thing to me: "Dad, I'm so chafed that I'll never have children." It was a real father-and-son moment.
On our last day we took a boat trip with Capt. Faith Mareck (potter, minister, tour boat operator) to the sandbar that lies in the middle of Kaneohe Bay, where we snorkeled and paddled kayaks.
The Koolau formed a long line that loomed over the island, and we could see our old house on the shore. There were so many things left to teach Mike: tales of Menehunes, the mysterious leprechauns of Hawaiian legend; the taste of haupia (coconut pudding) and the feel of riptides; ancestral chants and slack-key guitar music; weekend visits to Maui or Kauai, and what it smells like when the ripe mangoes start to fall from the trees. We'd have to make so many trips back to teach him everything about his birthplace, and even then we'd barely scratch the surface of what it is to know Hawaii.
I did have one last lesson to impart. I had Captain Faith confirm the fact that at certain times of the year, Kaneohe Bay is a breeding ground for hammerhead sharks and that the young are left to fend for themselves very near the sandbar where we had just played. At that point Mike put on all the mock outrage he could muster.
"You mean to tell me," he screeched, "that you stuffed me with poi, threw me into the cold water of the pool, and forced me to swim in shark-infested waters? That's child abuse!"
No, it's just how we do it in Hawaii, kid. I can't wait to take you back for another family history lesson.