I knew, as well as anyone else, that “aloha” meant both “hello” and “goodbye;” but for me, it only meant “farewell.”
Perhaps it was because I knew something of the darker history of Hawaii. I knew, for example, that Liliuokalani, the last queen, a virtual captive of the planter/missionary coup d’état that overthrew her rule, had sat in the second-floor bedroom of her pink palace overlooking the crashing waves of Waikiki, while she wrote the song that would become the unofficial national anthem of Hawaii, “Aloha Oe” (Love to You).
It also could have been only nostalgia, often spending my spare time in the shadow of the Aloha Tower, the steamship embarkation center for San Francisco during the 30s, 40s, and 50s; an art deco building; imagining the jostling crowds, the piles of luggage, and the hurried goodbyes – all somehow conflated with memories of my favorite movie, “One Way Passage” (1932), where William Powell, a convicted criminal in chains, boards a steamship at that very dock, bound for the States and his execution before meeting and falling in love onboard with Kay Francis, who was dying of consumption.
Or perhaps it was just dismay at the size of the ever-growing sovereignty movement in Hawaii – the increasing number of citizens who want to break away from the United States and form their own country. They feel, with some merit, that their island home has been stolen out from under them. If you don’t believe this is true, just check the land records and see who owns most of the land in Hawaii today, besides the federal government, which owns 39%. You will find the descendants of the planters and missionaries who overthrew the Hawaiian royalty in January 1893. The “joke” in Hawaii is that the native Hawaiians got religion and the missionaries got the land. Back in the 1980s, I remember watching a “March for Sovereignty” led through the streets of Honolulu by no less than the Reverend Jesse Jackson, another “drum major for justice” in the image of his mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But most of all, I remember leaving Pearl Harbor, at least a dozen times; headed to Vietnam, or to the Far East; steaming past Admiral’s Row, rounding Henderson Point, about where that Japanese miniature submarine sank on December 7, 1941; admiring the blooming bougainvillea, hibiscus, plumeria, and jasmine decorating the shore on the port side; before heading out into the blue Pacific; knowing it would be a long, long time before we returned. I always hated to leave Hawaii; it seems like we left a lot more than we returned which, I guess, is mathematically impossible as I would still be gone.
During the Vietnam era, a mile or so outside the old Pearl Harbor Naval Base was located the fleet famous “Monkey Bar and Grill” in Pearl City. I say “old” because it has now gone “purple” or “Joint” and integrated into one big military complex with the former Hickam Air Force Base. Going purple throughout the military was the big deal about the time I retired. There was even a serious proposal to have every branch of the service wear the same uniform, which would have resulted in everyone looking like a bunch of Greyhound bus drivers, no offense intended.
At the Monkey Bar, other than the food (their specialty was spam-fried rice), the main attraction was five or six live monkeys in a large glass cage extending behind the bar like one of those long glass mirrors in the old wild West saloons. I would sit there, eating my fried rice, watching the monkeys watching me, and be thinking heavy philosophical, even existential, thoughts – like “who is really in the cage; who is really free; me, or the monkeys? I’m on the way to Vietnam and who knows what? These guys are just sitting here, safe and sound, eating bananas, enjoying their monkey business. Who is really the dummy?” I could never figure it out.
Spam, an acronym for “Special Processed American Meat,” is a popular meat today among native Hawaiians. This dates to World War II days when it was affordable and readily available. First produced by Hormel in 1937, it was a staple of soldiers’ and poor peoples’ diets as it needed no refrigeration and could be served cold or cooked in any number of ways. Surprisingly, I don’t remember seeing it, as such, in the Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI) rations we ate in Vietnam. These came in individual canned wet rations, not like MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) which didn’t get to the troops until around 1981. A week’s worth of MCIs, still referred to as “C-rations, would weigh almost 25 pounds and was a bear to carry. Of course, you wore your “John Wayne,” or your P-38 can opener on a chain around your neck along with your dog tags.
C-rations arrived in a cardboard case with 12 boxed meals to each case. The largest can in each box contained the main menu item, with spaghetti and meat balls being the most popular. The worst, in the opinion of many, was the dreaded chopped ham and eggs, derisively referred to as the “Joker.” The ham and lima beans were also downright awful and usually left for the new guys. Other smaller cans contained supplementary foods such as cheese, crackers, peanut butter, peaches, pound cake, etc. Sometimes, to relieve the monotony, some of us would mix our entrees together into kind of a Vietnamese goulash. Often, it didn’t taste that bad, with the worst thing being the color. I don’t have much of a palate, anyway, as my idea of a fine meal before I went into the service was Vienna sausage and honey buns.
In the 1890s, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous “Frontier Thesis,” which basically said that once the westward-moving frontier had reached California and the sea, America was finally settled and could get down to work as a complete nation. More recently, some Hollywood film and cultural historians have opined that the frontier, at least the frontier hero figure, has doubled back toward the east in the guise of the private detective (Philip Marlow, Sam Spade, etc.). In any event, they were all off the mark as a good case could be made that both Alaska and Hawaii were our last frontiers.
The Hawaiian Islands were “discovered” in 1798 by the British explorer Captain James Cook after being first settled by Polynesians sometime between 124 and 1120 AD. Cook named the archipelago “Sandwich” in honor of his patron, John Montague, who held the title of “Earl of Sandwich” back in England. Incidentally, this was the son of an earlier Earl of Sandwich who is given credit for inventing the ubiquitous sandwich, a form of which you probably had for lunch. The story goes that around 1762 he was playing cards and, not wanting to stop to eat, he asked for a serving of roast beef to be placed between two pieces of bread so he could eat with his hands. Thus, the sandwich was born.
Once Europeans found the islands, it wasn’t long before the missionaries arrived (1829); sugar plantations were opened (1835); a constitution was signed that stripped the monarchy of its power (1887); the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown by the American planters and missionaries (1893); and Hawaii was annexed as a territory by the United States (1898). Native Hawaiians are a kind people, but they are very aware of their history; and once you get past the Chamber of Commerce brochures welcoming tourists and their money from the mainland, there’s a swirling undercurrent of resentment. In fact, the word, “haole,” generally means “foreigner” or “white person” in Hawaiian. On the other hand, it can also mean “pig.” Watch their face: if they are smiling when they say it, you are probably ok.
Unfortunately, when many think of Hawaii today what comes to mind is ships burning and sinking in Pearl Harbor, hula girls, surfing, sugar cane fields, pineapples, loud colored shirts on old fat guys, and steel guitar music. I guess it shows how shallow I am because these are the things that I miss the most about the place. Times have changed, however. The last sugar cane plantation closed in 2016; Dole closed its last pineapple plantation in 1992 and Del Monte followed in 2006. However, Dole still maintains a small plantation, primarily for tourists, outside of Honolulu. Both crops were victims of high labor and land costs and were moved to other parts of the globe. Most of the pineapples we eat today come from Costa Rica.
I miss the pineapples in Hawaii. They are a fun fruit – the only food that eats you back. Their juice can break down the molecules that make up your cells and bodies. The sour taste you sometimes experience is bromelain, an enzyme that digests protein. What you are feeling is the pineapple juice digesting the tender skin inside your mouth. They are an excellent source of vitamin C and were carried on sailing ships to prevent scurvy on long voyages. Only one pineapple is produced by a single plant in a single season. A pineapple can stay alive and continue giving fruits for 50 years: 50 years, 50 pineapples.
I also miss the music. I used to sit in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, on the beach at Waikiki, and listen to Mr. Hawaii, Don Ho, sing his signature song, “Tiny Bubbles” (“Tiny bubbles in the wine; tiny bubbles, make me feel fine.”). He is also dead and gone. What does remain, however, is the influence of Hawaiian music on American music. In 1916, for example, Hawaiian records outsold all other genres, and ukuleles, which originally came from Portugal, have been “de rigueur” in college dorms ever since. Hawaiian music experienced a rebirth in the 1930s, especially slack key guitar. Sometimes when you listen to records by Jimmy Rogers, the “Singing Brakeman” from Meridian, Mississippi, and the acknowledged “Father of Country Music,” you can hear the Hawaiian steel guitar accompanying him in the background. If you are interested in traditional Hawaiian music, including falsetto singing, you can find some on my website as well as on Honolulu radio station KIME on the internet.
Hawaiian or “Aloha” shirts have never gone away. While their exact provenance is sketchy - a Chinese merchant first sold them in downtown Honolulu in the 1920s; they were copies of the “barong tagalog,” the traditional dress shirt for men in the Philippines, etc. – most men seem to have one tucked away back in their closet whether they admit it or not. They first found popularity among tourists and then greater commercial success when they hit the mainland in the 1930s. Whether you consider them “kitsch” or not, they are a feature of today’s popular culture. Just look at some of the recent movies where they were worn by the protagonists: Elvis Presley in “Blue Hawaii;” Robert de Niro in “Cape Fear;” Al Pacino in “Scarface;” Frank Sinatra in “From Here to Eternity;” and John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.”
Obviously, I have ambivalent feelings about aloha and about Hawaii – I love to go there, and I hate to leave. It reminds me of the comedy and tragedy masks of theater which have been linked to the Greek god, Janus, who is known as the two-faced god of beginnings – happy on one side of his face and sad on the other. There’s no confusion on the part of Hawaiians, however. If you break the word, “aloha,” down into two parts, “alo” means “presence” or “share,” and the word, “ha,” means “breath or essence of life.” “Let’s share the essence of life,” which is a very positive idea. Traditionally, in terms of connotation, it also means hello, goodbye, welcome, and is used as an expression of love and affection.
That’s good enough for me. “Aloha,” she said – “until we meet again.”
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.