The fires in Maui have been horrifying. I fear that the final death toll will be more than a thousand people. My heart goes out to everyone who has suffered from loss.
I have a dim memory of Maui from early childhood. Sometimes, when I was a toddler, my parents arranged a car trip across the island. I don’t know how. We were living on Oahu, not Maui. Was there a ferry? Was the car a loaner? Anyway, my whole memory was of miles of cultivated fields. It looked too corporate.
I typically have phenomenally clear memories of my time in Hawaii, but that day is just a blur. I have to blame the fields. Nothing to see for a toddler.
I was brought to Oahu when I was about four months old and we left when I was three and a half. One vivid memory: Just after my first Christmas that year. I was six months old, and we were in a Honolulu park. My mother was holding me while my father, who was headed to Korea, took pictures of us. My father kept saying, “Say goodbye to Daddy.” I ignored him because a beautiful red bird landed on a branch near us and started singing.
Anyway, how could I have said goodbye? I didn’t even know what “goodbye” meant!
My father went to Korea that afternoon, and I was stuck living with my mother in our house in Schofield Barracks. Schofield Barracks is a U.S. army base almost exactly in the middle of Oahu.
Let’s fast forward past the ensuing child abuse.
I knew what language was by my first birthday, but I couldn’t speak because of a severe head trauma. I won’t go into that. I had a great time around my second birthday as other children in the neighborhood took care of me. Then it was time for them to go to school. I had no idea what school was until —poof—they were gone. So, I decided to leave the house and head out looking for wherever they went. I knew I’d know when I found it because all the kids would be there.
I spiraled around the house in ever widening circles searching. Neighboring housewives reported my mother to the military police for neglect. There was an inquiry, but when the military police showed up, my mother told them it was none of their business so they should “get lost.” And they did!
Anyway, after two weeks of searching, I broke out of the officers’ quarters and found myself at one end of a marching field. A man there bent over to face me and said, “O wai ke kipu o oe?” (“Who are you?”) Or something to that effect. Then he said, “Whose offspring are you?”
Naturally, I followed him. He made his way across the field. He joined another man. This second man spoke in a manner very similarly to the first man. They were both so friendly I forgot about finding the kids. I’d found who I really wanted to find.
They were civilian maintenance workers. They watered lawns and trimmed bushes. I learned their schedules and followed them to their daily jobs. I was a pest. But in two months, I learned Hawaiian from them. They taught me to read a clock well enough I could be there for their 11 o’clock lunch. They called me Alaka’i (“Captain”) because I acted like their supervisor. Well, I did know their schedules.
Eventually I learned they were twins from Niihau, an island reserved for Hawaiian natives to maintain their culture. They were 18 years old when I met them. Lono, the first brother I met, had studied English. Lani, the second brother I met, hated English and only wanted to speak Hawaiian and sing Hawaiian chants. He did for nearly every single hour that they worked. I started learning the songs and later estimated that I knew more than 20 of them.
They also taught me Hawaiian stories, including stories about Maui, the god. The story that stuck with me was about his death. He died trying to kill Death in her sleep. She woke up.
Oh. About the red bird in the park. I described it to Lani and Lono, and they knew it was an i’iwi. I shared my reaction to seeing it, and they told me that it was surely an aumakua, a great ancestor. I still accept that assessment.
Read more of the Aug. 23-29, 2023 issue.