Oahu, Hawaii Research Journey for AIR - December 5-12, 2018 - Episodes 21 - Final Episode 24

 

As my tour of Honolulu’s Chinatown continued, we came upon one of the original tattoo parlors that dotted the area back in the 40s. Sailor Jerry’s iconic creations can be seen in the bottom photo. 

Sailor Jerry, aka Norman Collins, was the first tattoo artist to invent a process for creating the color purple to the ire of rivals who followed in his wake. There would be many a U.S. sailor in December of ’41 who received such a tattoo — of his best girl, of a patriotic image, of a port visited or a rank achieved, or maybe the superstitious combo of a chicken and a pig on each foot to prevent that sailor from drowning. There is at least one factual account of a sailor drowning during the Pearl Harbor attack with that tattoo combo. War has no time for superstitions.

North Hotel Street original buildings and its many upstairs brothels — back then, dark, dank and rat infested — but I’m sure the sailors and the ladies of the night didn’t pay much attention to the decor in those three heady minutes of carnal delight at $3 a pop. 

We eventually make our way down to River Street and the canal that runs alongside it. During the ’40s heyday, this street housed many houses of ill repute. Today, not much has changed other than the brothels are long gone, replaced by small cafés and boutique stores catering to the tourist crowd, but nowhere in Chinatown can you escape the ghosts of the sailors haunting these streets. If you focus your mind and allow the past to seep in, boisterous laughter, shouts and the odd cat calls can still be heard. The sex trade hasn’t disappeared altogether though, for the closer you get to the evening, the odd street walker will pass you on the sidewalk, dolled up in some kind of skin tight mini dress with 5-inch heels and gaudy hair and make-up. The dark side of Chinatown still exists, and you don’t have to look very hard at all to find it.

At the end of River Street approaching the Honolulu port, there is a very old port building, the entire structure made from bricks of volcanic rock. There was no date on the structure but just by looking you knew it had seen sailing ships dock into port from the 19th century or earlier. My eyes locked on this building, knowing that it had witnessed all on this island, from the first spice traders to the smoke clouds of the Japanese attack, and I venture to say it will outlive us all in the centuries to come.

When I touched the bricks with their sharp sandpaper affect, they are impenetrable solid and as new looking as if they had been laid yesterday.

After gobbling down a kalua pulled pork sandwich — a popular local dish — the tour ended and I and my new friends went our separate ways. I headed back to Ewa beach to digest another full day of unfolding history. I’ve said it before but I mean it. There are ghosts everywhere on this island for me, and none of them are showing their 77 years. Late teens and 20-somethings with the odd officer mid thirty’s. If anyone is old here, it’s me, milling among them. 

Returning to Ewa, I feel renewed. My beach, my condo, they are restorative places where I can shed for a time the burden of seeing all too well into the past. 

 But as I walk the shore in the late afternoon sun... and from my chaise whisper a goodbye to the day, a sadness, for the loss of life that never is too far from the surface, grabs again at my chest, invades my soul, but I don’t fight it. I’m here. I chose to be here. And the days after Pearl Harbor, this island was drowning in sorrow. That’s what happened at the start of the war. And that’s what happens in all wars. 

Sipping the last of my wine, I take one final look over at Waikiki with its white ribbon of lights, the only signs of life in a coffin-black ocean on a tiny spit of land that holds little me. 

This trip is like a precious gem. You’re so thankful you were given the chance to hold it. You know you’ll remember this experience until you die. But there’s a guttural urge to throw the gem as far as you can to let it drown deep in the sea, so you’ll never have to touch it again.

 ~~~

After absorbing all there was to see the previous day in Chinatown, my next plan was to head up the North Shore, tracking in reverse order the route the Japanese planes in the first attack wave took on that fateful Sunday, December 7th.

My first stop would have to be Barker’s Point, as that was the southern-most corner of Oahu the Zeros had to fly around to reach Ewa beach and then the left-hand turn into the Pearl Harbor channel. I did no research on Barker’s Point before I jumped into my rental car that morning, blithely assuming all would be well. As a Canadian, I often forget that Americans look at sites far differently. If there’s no obvious public interest/major profit to be had in protecting/preserving an area, that locale will be lost to the ages and often swallowed up by the dregs of society. The times I’ve got myself into “almost trouble” were the times I was trying to get photos of out of the way American places. You’d think by now, I’d know better. It’s obvious that on this day, I did not.

My first clue should have been that I had to drive and drive and drive through a grimy Industrial Park to even get to Barker’s Point. Nowhere was this early morning road trip pleasant to the eyes or nose. You were far away from the tourist havens of Oahu, let me tell you.

Upon reaching the Point, I immediately spied the lighthouse but knew right away I’d not be able to walk over to it. Yes, Barker’s Point is a public park but it’s been overtaken by drug dealers and drug addicts, the latter having constructed a make-shift shanty town around the public washrooms building.

There was no sign that said I could not park my vehicle and go for a walk on the beach other than my “spidey sense” screaming that my car would be looted and my life would be on the line if I so much as put the car in park and stopped the engine. All I had time to safely do was take a few distanced photos from the front windshield and get the hell out of Dodge, as it were, while the dangerous souls inhabiting this historic site looked at me as predators slobbering at the sight of prey. Yes, one older white chick in a car by herself. Sigh… another close call by B.J. photographing long-forgotten American wonders.

The Lighthouse was there on December 7th, 1941, but no warning came when the Japanese fighter planes flew right by. It was Sunday, after all, a leisurely day on the island, and despite enemy subs seen near Pearl by the USS Ward, no island-wide warnings were issued. For many days after the 7th, Barker’s Point was on high alert, with beach sentries and look-outs galore, soldiers often reporting having spied enemies planes off the coast where there were none, the paranoia that high that a Japanese land invasion was imminent.

Dangers or not, I was glad I had viewed the Point, just to get a feeling for how exposed the island really was on that southwestern rim. The winds blow constant, this way and that, for at the Point the island gets assaulted in all directions, and regardless of the 21st century drug-addled ruffians, the feeling of vulnerability as you looked out to sea was oh, so clear. 77 years ago, Barker’s Point air carried the enemy planes and the sea held enemy subs, and standing as I did for only a few minutes, the fear of exposure was real.

Maybe it’s Providence that the most vulnerable point in history remains the most vulnerable point today; the Japanese enemy long replaced by drugs and addiction.

Next, I headed onto the H1 and turned north onto highway 93, well out of harm’s ways and back on safe touring ground. Driving has its disadvantages, for it’s hard to drive and take photos. Along the way, I passed an expansive patchwork green of small mixed farms nestled below the Nanakuli mountain range, and on up to the Dole pineapple plantation, its headquarters/parking lots packed with tour buses. The Del Monte plantation is no more, a few years ago being bought out by Dole, but the hundred-year-old pineapple trees swayed slowly back and forth in the sunshine filled breeze.

Then came Wheeler Field and Schofield Barracks, two military installations that got hit hard by the Japanese prior to the Zeros and Kate fighter planes reaching Pearl. The soldiers at Schofield took to machine guns and broke into the arms stores and climbed up to the barrack rooftops, firing with rifles and hand guns, anything they could get their hands on, during the attack, the scene quite well replicated in the 1953 movie, From Here to Eternity, starring Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr and Frank Sinatra (Sinatra winning an Academy Award for his performance). The movie came from the well celebrated book written by an ex Schofield soldier turned author, James Jones.

I’ve attached Google photos here, past and present, of Wheeler and Schofield for your reference as I wasn’t allowed entry to either site. I tried. I drove in, I hit the guard shack, I pleaded my case and was told to drive back out... politely but firmly. I sensed their security paranoia, and after 9/11 and with all the recent home-grown military grounds attacks, I couldn’t blame them. I felt I didn’t dare take any curbside photos either. The guard said authors need a permit to tour, one that can take up to 3 months to receive IF you were granted permission at all.

It was a shame, as I so wanted to view the old Quads, the buildings and courtyards where Eternity was filmed AND where Operation MAGIC was headquartered in a basement complex inside Schofield, named Station HYPO, where the code breaking machine, Purple, was housed to decipher Japan’s JN-25 code. Successful decoding ultimately led to the Allies winning at the battle of Midway that swung the tide in the allied favor to ultimately win the war in the Pacific.

As for Wheeler, you can see along the highway what’s left of the original 1940s airstrip and hangers, all quite well preserved but still showing their age. The area is a time capsule, really. It wasn’t difficult at all to imagine the fighters over head and the burning planes down below, the smoke, the stench and the helter skelter in warfare.

After driving around the vast military complex with the original staff cottages still in view, the route on Kamehameha highway took me right to the extreme western shore and into the quaint fishing/yachting/tourist village Haleiwa.


It’s a bustling little hamlet of boutique shops, restaurant and surfing shacks catering to the tourist crowd.

Only on the North Shore is it perfectly logical to decorate a surfboard with a Christmas wreath as one would everywhere else a front door.

Once upon a time and for hundreds of years, Haleiwa was a fishing/farming hub for the North Shore, and during the war, the marina was home to more Navy frigates and recon ships than fishing trawlers or tourist yachts.

 

Today, the marina is back to its peacetime life, populated by various sizes of motorized catamarans and sailing ships, all bobbing up and down before me as I lunched on the lanai at Haleiwa Joe’s Seafood Grill. It was pure heaven to sit back, sip at a rum punch and breathe in the world around me. There are moments in life we all have that are treasured. This day and this vista was one for me.

My next stop was the famous Banzai Pipeline. December is competition month, as the waves are at their more violent, and I mean violent. My photos do not do them justice, for you’re talking 20 foot waves crashing in with such force the lifeguards shoo all tourists back from walking directly on the beach, for to be swept out into them could cost a layman his life. On this day, only one brave kanaka ventured forth, and it took all he had to fight the incoming waves to board out to make a single run, we onlookers gasping for breath as several times it looked like the Hawaiian surfer would be taken off his board and out to sea and to his death. The competition was ultimately shut down for the day, the sea being too stormy even for the diehards who had flown in from all over the world to compete. 

From dunes some 40 feet high, I took these photos. It was a warm, pleasant day on shore but “growling tigers” in the sea. When each wave landed, it sounded like two colliding freight trains. You were made deaf to all other sounds and your insides literally reverberated from the hits.

My final stop for the day would be Kahuku Point. It was the first spit of land the Japanese fighter planes spied on that early December morn. A constant northwesterly wind buffeted the coast. From about halfway up the North Shore to the Point, the winds never cease. It’s a completely different world, just as tropical but Mother Nature is far less forgiving.

I couldn’t get close to shoreline for a golf course stood in the way but even at a distance you could see how the incessant winds warped the trees.

The photograph taken behind the shore is Kahuku Point itself where the radar installation stood in December 1941 that signalled the warning of a mass of Japanese fighter planes heading for Oahu that no one up the chain of command took seriously. Oahu should have been an impenetrable island if only the Americans had respected their foe.

I stopped my tour at the Point. I had planned to drive right around the island that day but fearing I’d end up in H1 freeway traffic hell on the return, I chose instead to go back the way I came, to visit the eastern side of the island the next day. It was this northwestern tour that meant the most to me, regarding the book, for I clapped eyes on the route the Japanese fighters took, to view a paradise they were determined to destroy, not only physically but emotionally, and forever in many minds. Oahu is a dichotomy, of glorious beauty and excruciating sorrow. The mix is hard to take, but it’s always there in the back of your mind – the Beauty and the Beast of war.

 ~~~

My Hawaii research trip was fast coming to a close. This was my second to last day on this beautiful isle.

By now, I felt at home. I had mastered the harried H1 freeway with its 10 lanes, and locals allowed to drive on the shoulder lanes at rush hour, making it a 12 lane nightmare (from here on out, I would never again bemoan Calgary freeways). Between my nose for direction and Google maps I drove with confidence and felt fairly relaxed. I was at home with my WWII ghosts as I and they toured about.

In AIR, there is a scene at Halona Cove, the tiny beach hideaway situated on the south-eastern shore of Oahu. It’s known for its great blow-hole and nestled beach, a tiny spit of sand and surf only dare devils or history searchers venture to reach.

As I sped along the H1 and then onto Kalaniana’ole Highway to reach the other side of Diamond Head, I passed lovely coastal suburbs like Kaimuki and Waialae and Koko Head, bedroom communities rather removed from Honolulu’s hustle-bustle. In my week-long travels, it was when I was away from the tourist zones that I felt most at home, and got the best sense of what it would have been like living on this isle as a sailor in the 1040’s — a hybrid of visitor and lengthy dweller — a unique existence.

On my way, I passed under Koko Head Crater. The majesty of this island never fails to amaze. You always knew you were standing on what was a very violent volcanic range, giant eruptions of gelled lava bursting through the middle of the Pacific Blue, and vistas like this brought that reality rushing home. Everything on Oahu seemed bigger — in life and in death — the violent end of one thing making way for a burst of life in another.

The Halona Blow Hole was a sight to see. You heard the blow hole before you ever saw it. That millennia of pounding waves had carved out of the cement-hard volcanic rock a deep channel that culminated in the watery blowback buffeting untold gallons of water into an aerosolized mist. Your ears pounded with the rhythmic thunder. The air was warm and laden with moisture. It was as if you were standing in God’s sauna.

A few brave souls ventured out onto the craggy ledges to fish, as the monstrous waves crashed in. The freight train like deafening sound as the water broke, the sheer force of nature, had your innards vibrate as you stood staring at these diehards in disbelief. The mid Pacific is a moody girl in December with her blustery winds and choppy white-crested waves. Sun tanning on the calmer beaches of Oahu had you forget for a time the ocean’s might. The eastern shore soon reminded you. 

The Pacific’s blue hue is eye-popping when viewed from Hawaii. I don’t know if it’s because you’re away from North American air pollution or hundreds of miles away from any other landmass but the sea here is alive with colour, more so than I ever witnessed in all my times visiting California’s coast.

Looking further up island along the north-eastern shore, I viewed Sandy Beach, the first decent stretch of sand amid the volcanic outcroppings. The eastern side of Oahu is like the island’s North Shore, a wild and woolly state that holds an untouched beauty all its own. A visitor breathes better along these far-flung shores free of tourist trade and development. Rough. Ready. Real. I felt a close kinship to locales where the wind and waves are feral, so it was no surprise to me that one of AIR’s pinnacle scenes would occur here.

American Author and WWII army vet, James Jones, set a scene here, too, in his iconic novel, From Here to Eternity. There was no way I could write AIR and not pay homage to the man, his celebrated novel and this fierce land that art and history have called home.

I purposely left visiting Halona Cove until my last full day on Oahu, mostly because I knew the emotion in me would run high viewing this spot. I wanted these overwrought feelings to last, to be one of the final experiences I packed into my mind’s suitcase.

As I parked my car alongside the highway, I inhaled deeply as I slowly made my way to the spot that would become the heart of my novel, the place and its moment in my tale that I would hold so dearly until the day I died. Some life encounters are that monumental. You know it even before you live it, and when you’re right in the mix, you appreciate its significance all the more. It’s a heady human experience. Time speeds up and slows to a trickle. You fight to record in your mind’s eye every single second, every single sensory affect — the sight, the sound, the scent, the touch. I knew I was about to walk in the footsteps of others, 77 years hence, as I had been doing everywhere I went since I landed. Each step became more phenomenal than the last, each carrying more emotional weight. 

The tourists surrounding me, I saw they weren’t as phased. Many wouldn’t be aware of the significance of this spot, yet a few were. I could tell the difference in them. Those who knew behaved differently.

I finally reached the guard rail and looked over. This is my first sight of Halona Cove from its southern side, the side opposite the well-trodden trail that heads down to the tiny spit of land directly below the highway.

This is the view the Hollywood cameras shot when actors, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, meandered down the path in the movie version of Jones’s book. The book came out in 1951, the movie in 1953, some 67 years before I trod the exact same path.

My mind asked so many questions: Why am I here? Why does it take close to 70 years before my soul meets this moment? Why does it matter? Does it matter? Do the dead know I’m here?

The only disembodied response that my mind heard as a whisper: It matters. You stop asking questions. You can tell God or Fate or the dead won’t let you in on any more tidbits of wisdom.