(Photo: Portrait of Chester E. Mahelona by Jim Curtis, 1965)
The Artist I was born the son of an artist. Not just a talented guy. A real artist. The beatnik living in a San Francisco garage, subsisting by selling his mod paintings. The kind that could do it all – draw, paint, carve, sculpt, sing, play and write. The kind for whom women would remove their clothes so that he could render their bodies in charcoal. The kind who brought forth the images of gods and goddesses from stones and trees.
The smell of mineral spirits and oil paints infused my childhood world (that and the Johnson’s Baby Oil that Mom slathered liberally over her first-born), and in breathing the fumes I was doomed to follow in my father’s footsteps. I was awed as he showed me to see things in the world as the really were, rather than how they were portrayed in coloring books. Wow, the sun doesn’t always reside in the top left corner of the sky! Eyes and lips are shaped nothing like footballs! Flowers don’t all look like daisies! Dad demonstrated that art is more than mere portraiture. It is laughter, and anger, and sound effects, and motion, and discovery. Best of all, it is boundless. There are no rules.. Color the bunny army green. Color inside and outside and on top of the lines. Go up and down, sideways, diagonally. Then peel the crayon like a banana and see what army green tastes like. The world is yours to create in whatever fashion you visulaize, in life as it is in art.
Ka’ena Point I’ve stood on the stones of great heiau, shivered as wind tore through deep valleys, and been in the presence of our aumakua. But no place in Hawaii instills that chicken-skin old Hawaii night marcher kind of feeling in me like Ka’ena Point. It is haunting and dangerous and sacred. It was a place to be respected, as my Grandfather tried to point out to us once. Maybe it’s the deserted beaches and the pristine valleys. Or the primitives, like my Nanakuli cousins, who eyeball outsiders with a suspicious eye. Or perhaps it is the knowledge that from this point the souls of the departed (and the hulks of junk cars) leap from the jagged sea cliffs into the next world.
We spent the day exploring the Waianae coast in kayaks. From a seaward vantage point you can see deep into the valleys and appreciate the height of the mountains. I imagine the excitement and awe of those who first came to these islands. Looking down the coast we could see all the way to Barber’s Point. Halfway down the coast we picked out the small mount Maunalahilahi, a favored playground for my brothers and sisters in our teen years. Below us the incredibly blue water seemed to descend forever, while all around us na honu bobbed serenely at the surface. Our aim was to paddle up the coast, round Ka’ena Point and paddle the north shore. As we approached the point, the waves grew steadily higher, the current more unpredictable. We paddled along determinedly, the wind beginning to whip down upon us from around the point. This only increased our excitement. The romantic in me likes to believe that our aumakua decided he needed to intervene and provide us lolos with a blatant warning to turn back. Suddenly, we were faced with two oceans – the relatively calm blue one on which we floated, and another more fierce ocean sitting on top of the first. The second ocean was grey and swirling and windswept. It blew laterally out from behind the point and there was no approaching it. We marveled at the awesome sight before taking the hint and turning to rejoin na honu. Glancing back, there remained only our calm blue ocean.
Warriors vs. Tornado Season finale, and the players were spooked. We suburban boys had never faced an opponent like this. The Tornado were from The Grove. Ghetto. Mean. Dangerous. Intimidating. Black, decked out head-to-toe in black. Big and fast, with names like T-Bone and Pork Chop. Dread stalked the practice field. But our coaches, Coach Chestah among them, dredged up the Kamehameha mojo and worked us up into a Polynesian frenzy, believing we were the baddest football team around. And come game time, decked out head-to-toe in Mean Green, we were just that. On the first play from scrimmage, the entire defense roared off the line, blatantly offside, and hit those boys from the hood right in the mouth. They were not the monsters of our nightmares. They were boys like us, and when you planted your facemask in their chest, they went down hard. Between plays, we chanted, clapped, and beat on our pads. Our parents out-shouted theirs. Our coaches roared, their faces like fierce tiki. The Tornado lost their cool, and the game. For me, it was my best game of the season, with several big tackles behind the line of scrimmage. On the last play of the game, we stopped T-Bone inside the 10-yard line and preserved the victory. When I saw the ref hold the ball above his head, I turned and raced blindly toward the sideline, screaming and jumping, right into Dad‘s arms, who lifted me high into the air in celebration. That one moment in Dad’s arms is the greatest of all my pigskin memories.
Dad vs. da Bamboochabees The big fat black bumblebees made their home in the rusty pole of a clothesline, content as any nectar-guzzling insects could possibly be, living as they did in a world with an unending variety of flowers. The only drawback was that their clothesline happened to be located at 1631A Owawa Street, which swarmed with a danger all its own. Little punks armed with sticks and more adventure than sense descended upon the peaceful hive. The pole rang with the crash of wood against metal. The air vibrated with the indignant buzz of dozens of bumblebees. Kids ran every which way, screaming and laughing, dodging and flailing at pursuing bees. Again and again we tormented the bees until, inevitably, one kid got the shit stung out of him and went screaming and crying to Mom, who immediately and vociferously summoned Kalihi’s own superhero to evict the peace-loving bees.
His protective armor consisted of a motorcycle helmet with a NASA-type bubble face shield, leather motocross gloves, a jacket made either of gold terrycloth or an old bathroom rug, and a Hilton Hawaiian Village towel around his throat. All he lacked was the cape, which was currently being used as a tent by his kids.
We peeked out of our makeshift tent and watched as he cautiously approached the clothesline, armed with rags, matches and a dented gas can. Stuffing the rags into one end of the pole, he doused them with gasoline and set them ablaze. A black storm of angry bumblebees spewed out and assaulted everything in sight. But we were safe in our tent. Dad stood there undaunted in his protective armor, throwing more fuel on the raging fire, until eventually the bees flew off to find a more hospitable place to live.
On that day, I discovered the usefulness of fire, and would later employ it to rid the world of Nazis and all other flammable refuse.
Rams vs. Vikings Never knew a kid in Hawaii who actually played inside the house. For one thing, our mothers would have thrown us bodily from the house. Feet beating across the floorboards makes the needle on the record player jump, and you betta not scratch Mom’s Hawaiian records. That’s her housecleaning music.
There were way too many things to do outside anyway. Go beach. Climb trees. Spock cars. Ride bikes. Run from bumblebees. Ignite paper with a magnifying glass. Build tents. Play chasemastah. Watch the garbageman throw trashcans. But there was one great indoor activity for me: paper football.
It wasn’t enough to play the game across the kitchen table, like everybody else. No, we had a deluxe playing field laid out on the brown linoleum kitchen floor. Masking tape sidelines stretched ten feet, I bet, from end zone to end zone. One end zone was labeled ‘Rams,’ my favorite team at the time because they had the coolest helmets. The other end zone was ‘Vikings,’ the chief rival of the day. The richest kid on the island never had anything close to this. Dad and I lay on our bellies and played for hours, and managed never to put out anyone’s eye kicking extra points.
New York City Grey skies and the odor of creosote, decaying timber, and decomposing river life. Yet I felt so completely alive. We stepped from the teetering old pier into the outrigger, Dad, Kawika and I, Kalani and Maria. Our blades sliced into the oily water and we were off on our three-hour cruise around Manhattan. We’ve paddled oceans and lakes and pristine rivers. But the Hudson and East Rivers were a special treat. They are the most forbidding rivers and huli’ing was absolutely out of the question. The water was green-black-grey, speckled with all manner of floating debris, and I loved it.
The unobstructed views of Manhattan, Jersey, Liberty and Brooklyn were spectacular. The sounds of big city life wafted across the water, as did the scent of fragrant trees, a welcome if short-lived reprieve. The most moving sight was the one which wasn’t there to see anymore. Our vantage point from the river allowed us to look upon this great city without getting a crick in your neck or walking face-first into a pole (or a Jew or a Chinaman or any of the countless ethnics in this town).
Being in the canoe with Dad and Kawika and experiencing Nani’s town (for it IS his town) in this way was something to treasure. And the following day presented more once-in-a-lifetime memories, as we stood in a doorway beneath the Manhattan Bridge, the rain running from the bridge to the pavement deafening us as it drenched us; taking third place in the Liberty Challenge, crossing the finish line to the cheers of my parents, brother and sisters; climbing aboard the subway with our paddles, shivering in wet jersey and trunks, big teeth-chattering smiles on our faces.
50th State Fair Before the Great State Fair of Texas, we knew the 50th State Fair. Before Big Tex boomed out a ‘Howdy Folks’ to us, we marveled at the for-real Missing Link encased in a block of ice. Before Fletcher’s Corny Dogs, we had the red-and-white-striped Malasada wagon. And before ascending into the heavens aboard The Texas Star, we screamed our heads off on the Mad Mouse (or the Runaway Rat, whichever was its true name).
I recall how the lights strobed and flashed past on the rides. The smells of all the ono things cooking. The sticky cotton candy fingers. That Missink Link again, I know he was real. But mostly I recall a prize I won throwing darts at red circles on a wall. My aim won me a cheap little knife in a sheath. This was back when Made in Japan was as junk as it got. The plastic was so cheap it was translucent. I never wore a belt, but after I won that knife I did. I hooked that sheath on my belt and kept it with me at all times. It came in handy when we played armyman or cowboys and Indians (whence I donned Mom’s yellow Playtex gloves, as they looked like Cavalry gloves to me), or even Hawaii Five-0 (where I always got to be McGarrett cuz my name was already Steve).
One evening Dad and I sat on the wall at Waikiki, watching the sunset and playing chicken with the waves crashing against the wall. I accidentally dropped my knife into the water and watched sadly as it floated out to sea. I kept the empty sheath on my belt for a long time afterward.
I imagine nowadays that my knife floated all the way across the Pacific and washed up on a Japanese beach, where a boy my age found it. He turned it over, saw ‘Made in Japan’ imprinted on it, and threw it back into the ocean.
What the hell is that?
Leaving on a Jet Plane We arrived at Love Field as the sun rose bright orange over Dallas, our new home. Excitedly we ran through the jetway to Dad. That was 14 years ago. Today Dad would be walking back up the jetway on his way back to Hawaii to prepare the way for Mom, Kawika and Kel.
Everyone was there to bid him Aloha. He and Mom had made a huge impact on Dallas, Texas, and all those whose lives they had touched were here. We made small talk and watched Sid Caesar deplane with his goofy grin. Finally, the call to board came and Dad made his rounds. When he finally came and squatted in front of me, I could not look into his eyes for fear of breaking down. Neither of us knew what to say, I guess, and Dad finally said simply, ‘Numbawunson,’ to which I replied, ‘I love you.” Then a hug.
It was the saddest day of my life. But for the three of us kids remaining in Texas, it was a turning point. Puhi , Ian and Kahiau arrived shortly thereafter, and Nani discovered who he was and what he was all about.
Hobie It’s a magical sound. A faint, gentle tinkling. It weaves its way through the mists, pleasantly working its way into my dreams. Suddenly I realize that it’s not a dream and my eyes fly open. The tinkling of line against mast means wind. I stumble out of the tent and race to the Hobie. The first one awake, the first on the water. The sun is barely peeking above the horizon and soon the rudders are humming and the hull is flying. I relish the tranquility, the solitude, the excitement, the freshness of the new day.
I turn for shore to pick up Dad and do some real hull flying. We scream across the lake on long, teetering flights. Dad takes us to the very edge . . . and beyond. In the next moment we are truly airborne. As the catamaran tips over, I launch myself into the main sail and – RIP – continue on through it into the green water beneath it.
So ends a great, though brief, day of sailing.
Took My Chevy to the Levee With a flick of Dad’s wrist the Blazer left the freeway, sailed high above the levee like Rat Patrol and crash-landed in the Trinity River bottoms. Topless, we raced along the edge of Dallas’ great brown river. We dove into great puddles of mud and vaulted over heaps of garbage. We mowed down 10-foot-tall sunflowers and small trees. Brains rattling, we five kids stood high above it all, hanging on to the roll bar for dear life. Howling with delight, chanting “Faster Dad!” we ducked and dodged giant golden locusts whipping past our heads. We craned our necks and leaned far out of the Blazer to see the great herons wading the river and the turtles baking in the sun. We thrilled to the feeling of zero gravity as our feet left the floor with every bump and jolt, our only connection to this world our white-knuckled death grip on the roll bar. Whee! We’re flying!
Sunset, time to go home. Covered with mud, dust, dents, dings, leaves, branches and insect guts, the Blazer struggled out of the river bottoms, over the levee and back onto Loop 12, as pooped as the five grimy, exhausted kids now sprawled like the dead in the back seat.
Mountain Creek Lake It is the Gateway to Grand Prairie, Texas, All-America City. It’s not even deep enough to deserve to be called a lake. I’m pretty sure I could have walked all the way across it without getting my armpits wet. But no need. That’s what they built the toll bridge for.
There are no beaches and the shores are stinky mud and dead fish. At one end stand a power plant and an abandoned naval air station. At the other end is wilderness, a nature sanctuary. The surrounding landscape features some lonely mesquite trees and trash barrels, and the Mexicans set the grass on fire every Fourth of July. And yet this forlorn place was full of adventure for Hawaiians who weren’t put off by first impressions. For us, it was a new frontier.
In the mid-seventies, the lake was my daily playground. In the summertime, at the crack of dawn best friend Randy would fire up his XR75 and I’d straddle my YZ80 and we’d be gone all day long, tearing up the trails and flying over the hills at Mountain Creek. When we got hungry and thirsty, or needed gas, we’d search the shoreline and through the underbrush for empty Coke bottles, and redeem them for nickels and dimes.
The roar of fighter jets used to be part of everyday life in Grand Prairie, and Dad and I spent many hours watching from the shore as Marines in their F4 Phantoms practiced their touch-and-go’s at Hensley Field. But Hensley became a victim of military RIF, and afterward I missed the roar of the Phantoms.
On the rare occasion when winter would bring measurable snowfall, we took full advantage of it. All we needed was a truck, a nylon rope and a boogie board, and some wide-open snow-covered space. We bounced over frozen, rutted paths and crashed through flimsy ice into muddy, stinky puddles. We lost our balance and our grip and went flying and spinning wildly across the frozen Mountain Creek landscape, until no one could feel nose, ears, fingers or toes anymore.
In the late seventies, we took to sailing the Hobie Cat across the lake. There was no boat traffic and we had it all to ourselves. Locals must have thought they were dreaming, seeing a catamaran with a brightly-colored sail, balancing on one hull as it glided across the lake. The construction of the afore-mentioned toll bridge dissecting the lake put an end to our Mountain Creek sailing.
So we returned in kayaks, and began exploring the wilds at the south end of the lake. As you approach the nature reserve, you pass the remains of an F4 which crashed during the Hensley days. At this end, you enter a new world, lush and full of life. Pelicans roam the shore; egrets and herons pose in the shallows; ibises wait in the treetops; and hawks and buzzards soar overhead. But most amazing of all, beavers are busy constructing dam and lodge back there. In Grand Prairie, Texas? Who knew? Only those ignorant enough not to know to keep out of Mountain Creek Lake.
One thought on “Days with Dad”
This is awesome reading…like popping bon-bons in my mouth, each one a different flavor, yielding a different memory to savor…