Once when I was nine years old, swimming in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel (where once a week, I, with twenty-five other boys and girls, attended a class in cotillion in a thatched long house in the garden), I was lifted by a little wave and could no longer touch the bottom. I was, for a moment, drowning. As promised, my life passed before my eyes. But the surge of high water gently withdrew, and I was earthbound once again. At lunch, I made the adults laugh, which embarrassed me, when I admitted in disappointment that the events of my life had flitted past very quickly — I had not lived long enough to render the experience of drowning very interesting.
Until I was ten years old, we lived in the mountains in Tantalus, a fragrant rain forest high above Honolulu, in a large nineteenth- century shingled house.
Later, we lived in a neighborhood half an hour from downtown Honolulu, on the ocean side of Kahala Avenue, near Pueo Street. Kahala was, and still is, a fashionable and expensive place. With fitting irony, one of the most prestigious stretches of land in the Islands possesses the most unpleasant beach. The water has a flat, opaque surface, grey in color, with little movement, stretching placidly to a low reef a half mile from shore, indicated by a thin line of white where the sea breaks over the lustreless coral. Chunks of loose coral and rocks, broken glass and tin cans litter the bottom. There is a sulfurous stench at low tide, occasioned by the desiccation of the endless organisms that thrive in the mud. The beach, draped with rotting seaweed, is not really good for anything but walking. A mile from our house, Henry J. Kaiser had employed dredges to dig a swimming hole in front of his own house, and sometimes we walked to Hunakai, as it was called, to swim in the little hole cut from the shelf of coral and clay.
Honolulu was a ravishing little world then (the population was about one hundred thousand people); an isolated place, redolent with romance. Before the development of jet-travel in the late Fifties, it had been difficult to reach the Islands — five days by ship from San Francisco (Los Angeles did not exist for us; it was thought to be a little vulgar). Honolulu was a snobbish, hierarchical and quietly racist society. The charming, even enchanting life of a mainly haole elite was to change, of course, but it lasted for a very long time. As children, we were unaware of the racism, and that it had long been institutionalized, but our parents and teachers knew, and sanctioned the restrictions and bylaws that kept most non-whites not only from private clubs, but from certain neighborhoods. These restrictions are ended now (sometimes by court decision), but in 1958 they were unquestioned by either side. I was astonished when I learned that only haoles were allowed to live in the most desirable neighborhoods — Diamond Head and Kahala, for example — especially as there were three generations of Hawaiians, named the Worthingtons, with quite a number of children and dogs, and an irritable but dignified matriarch in black holoku, ʻilima lei and trim Kona hat, who lived in a large compound on the beach at the bottom of our garden in Kahala. To visit the Worthingtons, which I did every day, I had to bend low and squeeze through a hole in a thick hedge, which only increased the strange and intense delight I felt on leaving my constrained and somewhat fraught haole world to enter a different kingdom. I spent most of my time with this mysterious and jolly family, as did my younger brother, M. Years later, I tried to find the Worthingtons, but they had disappeared.
Just this week, while doing research for my book, I came upon a privately published genealogy by a woman named Helen Y. Lind. Like many of my own generation, she had taken an interest in her antecedents too late, and many of the informants who might have guided her were dead. Helen Y. Lind, who was an instructor at the University of Hawaiʻi, died seven years ago, when she was ninety-eight years old. She wrote that while trying to sort out her tangled genealogy, she spoke to a man named George Clement K. Kopa, who lived for many years in the Fifties “at the makai (ocean) side of Kahala Avenue near the corner of Pueo…[with his wife] Mrs. Worthington,” and a number of Worthington step-children. I realized with a shock of joy that Iʻd found them. Mr. Kopa was from Hana, Maui, the descendant of a warrior named Kahoʻoilimoku, who with his four brothers had been in the service of a high chief of Kaʻu. In the late eighteenth century, when the chief was killed in battle, the brothers escaped with his body in a canoe (both prisoners and the dead were used as sacrifices by the victors), only to be blown off-course by a storm. They came ashore near Kaupo on Maui, where they were revived by four young women, who, true to the nature of benevolent maidens, married the handsome strangers. The name Kahoʻoilimoku commemorates the menʻs flight and shipwreck.
To think that I might have listened to Mr. Kopa talk about these things as I played in his dusty courtyard!
The Fullers, of the paint and brush company, were our other neighbors in Kahala (they were unaware of the Worthington compound, and might have minded had they known of it). It was at lunch with the Fuller children that I first saw that curious thing, an artichoke; the Fullers had lately moved to Honolulu from San Francisco. There was a serious but kind mother, and a boyishly handsome blond father, perhaps thirty-five years old, of high spirits in a country-club kind of way —- daiquiris, golf and a charming (even I could feel it at ten years old) manner with the ladies. I am quite sure now — and I was quite sure then — that adults were having a very good time. There was lots of drinking; and certainly infidelity, although the latter was unseen by most children (I am ashamed to admit that the one girl in our class at Punahou whose mother had been divorced was tormented unmercifully by us and soon turned to horses rather than schoolmates for companionship).
Christmas in the tropics was not celebrated with any less fervor than in more appropriate climates graced with snow and cold weather. Santa Claus dutifully appeared, although there were few chimneys, sweating profusely under his false beard and heavy clothing, and we did not mention the acrid odor of perspiration acquired over the years by his rented costume. Like other places, we had wreaths of holly, and mistletoe, lighted crèches, roast turkey and eggnog, and extravagant tableaux of lights in the front yards of the less expensive (and more Catholic) neighborhoods.
One Christmas Day, Mrs. Fuller, my father and three children —- my brother, Rick, my younger sister and myself —- fell in quickly with Mr. Fuller’s giddy idea to put the outrigger canoe on his lawn into the water. There were only five seats in the traditional canoe, and my sister, who was eight, would have to sit at the bottom of the canoe, between the legs of a paddler. I had not been aware of Mr. Fuller’s skill as a steersman, no easy thing with a big canoe, the work being done by a subtle but strong inflection of a paddle held in the water close to the side of the canoe, but he was convincing in his Santa Claus hat with a white pompom. We pulled the canoe across the lawn to the water and jumped inside, taking up the long-handled wooden paddles that all but the two younger children would use. Within minutes, given the high spirits of the three adults, we were approaching the gap in the reef that led to the open sea. Although I, too, was over-excited, I sensed, despite my unworldliness, a gaiety that neared hysteria, which I now understand was stimulated by alcohol. It seemed to me then that we were joyous to excess, and I liked it. The weather may have contributed to the exuberance, and the holiday, of course, and the seemingly endless expanse of ocean that rose before us as we glided effortlessly through the reef.
Oil on canvas by Arman Manookian, 1928, private collection
The water was suddenly very different. I was delighted by the sudden change of color from grey to deep blue, and the shallow troughs of water into which we were rhythmically dropped only to be lifted by the next swell. The adults, too, seemed changed by what they saw —- less noisy, less easy. I was sitting in front of Mr. Fuller, in the seat (really a polished plank) called Number Four by racers, and I could hear his breathing change as he labored to keep the canoe from swinging parallel to the waves. I saw my father look back at him once over his shoulder in what seemed to be quizzical concern as the canoe swung to the left, exposing the outrigger to an oncoming swell. A wave, larger than the others, blocked the horizon. We were tilted high for one dizzying moment, before the canoe was overturned and we were thrown into the sea.
I was trapped beneath the canoe for a few seconds before swimming free. We were not wearing life jackets. The other children were quickly pulled through the water to the long floating arm of the outrigger. Mr. Fuller’s red hat floated for a few minutes, then disappeared. Mrs. Fuller, never very talkative, was silent, watching the children, one hand on the outrigger.
The two men would have to lean their weight on the side of the overturned canoe opposite to the outrigger in the hope of flipping it over — not an easy task for two men with a large canoe. It also meant that the children would be deprived of the safety of the outrigger as it was lifted into the air. I swam to collect the paddles that had floated away, only to be summoned back by my father’s shout. It was the anger in his voice that at last made me acknowledge that there was cause for fear.
I know from my own later excess that their drunkenness must have dissipated the moment we were in the water. The men went to work, jumping in unison to throw their weight against one rounded side of the upturned hull. It is not easy to jump in water, as everyone knows. The two children were adrift now. My sister reached out to encircle my neck with her arms. Mrs. Fuller held on to my brother, or was it he who held her afloat? I soon grew tired with the weight of my sister. I was afraid that I would vomit, and the idea of it seemed odd; rather like crying underwater, a feat, which I had mastered.
My father counted to three and, with a great burst of strength, the men once more threw their weight onto the canoe in time with a rising swell. It took four tries, but the outrigger was at last raised, wavering tremulously as it hesitated then fell gracefully into the sea, righting the canoe. The men pulled themselves over the side. The muscles in my father’s arms quivered with strain. I slid the paddles into the canoe. We were hauled over the side, and quickly found our way to our places in the few fraught moments before the canoe was brought under control. We bailed with cupped hands, as Mr. Fuller shakily turned the canoe toward land. With one final push from the sea, we sped back through the reef and into the familiar calm, grey water. Nothing was said, not even to those waiting unconcernedly on the beach for us. It did not serve to make me wary of the sea, as it might have done, but wary of adults.