On a recent trip to the Islands, I recalled my first trip to Honolulu in 1964-
“Aloha” is a powerful word in Honolulu. Say “Aloha”, and doors open. “Believe me, you not only can say ‘Aloha’ at all times of day and night, and for practically all purposes, but you find that you do say ‘Aloha’ at all times of day and night,” a resident of Honolulu told this visitor.
“Aloha”, I said, and a door opened.
I found myself walking into the lobby of an old-fashioned high ceilinged, white-pillared, Maugham-type hotel. “Aloha,” said a young woman wearing a dazzling red muumuu. A three-ring lei of pastel orchids was draped around her neck. She draped a similar lei around my neck. “I am to be your chaperone,” she said. “You are in beautiful Waikiki, a few miles from downtown Honolulu, on the beautiful island of Oahu, Honolulu County, U.S.A. All around you are glittering hotels, fine shops, and international restaurants, and makai-toward the sea-you can hear the soft sound of the turquoise combers breaking gently on beautiful Waikiki Beach. Behind us are the maunas-mountains-topped with swiftly moving gossamer rain clouds. Shiny white high-rise-buildings have become the trademark of our progress on this volcanic island that rises from the sea: the twenty-seven-story condominium apartment house, the Ilikai, which is the largest ever built of fee-simple land, and the Ala Moana Building, twenty-five stories high, with a revolving restaurant on the top, which adjoins the Ala Moana Shopping Center-fifty acres, ninety stores, two levels, a parking area for five thousand cars, and trash baskets that read ‘Mahalo,’ or ‘Thank you.”
She drew a deep breath. “Aloha,” she said.
“Aloha” I said.
Someone in the lobby was plucking a ukulele. The scent of suntan oil was overpowering. Swarms of men and women, many of them elderly and all of them wearing bright-colored sports costumes, flowed endlessly back and forth through the lobby, as though propelled by some strong tide. “Most of the people you see here are just happy visitors,” said the young woman. “You find yourself in the heart of one of the most famous hotel strips on the face of the earth. We may be in the small, choice Waikikian, with its authentic Polynesian architecture and its hyperbolic paraboloid lobby and its Tahitian Lanai, or at the Princess Kaiulani, or at the Halekulani, or at the Royal Hawaiian, or at the Surfrider, or at the Hawaiian Village, but we are at the Moana, one of the older hotels. And we are about to attend a Na Kapuna.”
“Aloha”, said I.
“Come with me,” said the woman, directing me makai-toward the sea-through the lobby and into an open courtyard dominated by a large banyan tree. The sound of the ukulele followed us, as did the scent of suntan oil. Several hundred persons, counterparts of those milling through the lobby, were seated at tables eating.
“First we will get our food,” said my guide, leading me to a long buffet table covered with what before 1959 could certainly been described as Stateside food: ham, corned beef, cold chicken, assorted cold cuts, potato salad, coleslaw, celery, olives, pickles, radishes, and so on. My guide and I filled our plates and took seats on one of the long tables, “Na Kapuna really means an Old-Timers’ Night, a night for the old folks, something out of the Gay Nineties, the days of the monarchy, shades of Kalakaua and Liliuokalani,” the guide continued.
“Aloha”, I said.
“Aloha,” she said. “Hear the surf,” she went on, holding aloft a drumstick. “Diamond Head twinkles beyond us, but we can’t see it from here. Above us is the clear Pacific sky. Our days are balmy and our nights tempered by the caresses of the trade winds. But we can get kona weather, too-two or three day of hot, damp winds from the Big Island, known as Hawaii, when people sulk and become short-tempered and depressed. But tonight we have the spirit of aloha. You can say ‘Aloha’ for hello or good-bye, or when inquiring to the health of your uncle or asking for the loan of a surfboard, or even a wake. It is OK to say ‘Aloha’ at a wake. The guests here tonight are, of course, haoles, or Caucasians, but Honolulu is made of up of Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Chinese, and Japanese as well. They are all said to live together in a spirit of great harmony, in a spirit of aloha, but the Japanese and the Chinese do not always get along, and many people do not seem to like the Portuguese. The stars are out. Aloha.”
“Aloha,” said I.
The entertainment was about to begin. On the small stage, several grass-skirted women performed the hula. Ukeleles tinkled. The haoles applauded wildly. Hawaii had been only a wish away, and the wish was being fulfilled. The guide whispered into my ear. “Now you will watch an authentic hula lesson,” she said. “This always brings down the house at a Na Kapuna.” An enormous elderly woman, who appeared to be a cross between Sophie Tucker and Bloody Mary, mounted the stage. She wore a grass skirt and was surrounded by a group of young men with ukuleles. A hush fell over the vast throng of haoles eating potato salad. The woman suddenly began to sing, fervently and throatily, in a voice that could easily have been heard over the maunas. Her grass skirt rustled slightly. The song had a seductive, hypnotic cadence. My guide felt compelled to translate for me. “She is singing of a love most precious,” she whispered. “She says, ‘It is like an appealing perfume in the heart; your eyes are flirtatious, and I feel that you are adequate to fulfill our joy.”
“Na na lea lea,” sang the woman.
“She is coming to the end of her song,” whispered the guide. “She is saying, “This is the end of my story,” and she is talking of aloha (who would have guessed?), or love. When the woman had finished singing, the haoles were silent for a moment, and then burst into applause. The wish had been fulfilled; they had heard a song of love under the stars on the island of their dreams.
The old woman had not even begun to fight. “Now we will have the hula lesson,” she said, in English, and called upon half a dozen male members of the audience. Some coaxing was required, but not much, and an assorted group of middle-aged men, with an assortment of middle-aged paunches, mounted the stage.
“I can see why your Na Kapuna evenings are so popular,” said I. “But I must say ‘Aloha’. I returned to my hotel room, overlooking the turquoise combers breaking gently on Waikiki Beach. On the bed, I found a tiny pink orchid. “Aloha”, I said to myself as I drifted into slumber.
The hula is almost as powerful as the “Aloha.” As I drove through the dense traffic of Honolulu I was constantly surprised to see hands fluttering from windows of cars in front and alongside of me. At Sea Life Park, just beyond Diamond Head, the dolphins had been taught to perform the hula. It was one of the least of their attainments. Sea Life dolphins were trilingual-they responded to commands in English, Hawaiian, and Japanese. They did the hula in a small lagoon called Whaler’s Cove-near a replica of the New England whaling ship Essex-accompanied by a native woman called Puanani.
Every day, hundreds of people boarded small sightseeing boats in Kewalo Basin, near central Honolulu, and headed for Pearl Harbor. I boarded one of the boats, which sailed past the breakwater and headed into the open sea. From the deck, you could enjoy a broad panorama of the leeward side of Oahu-Diamond Head far behind, the beach at Waikiki, the high-rise buildings, the volcanic mountains, the tall Aloha Tower guarding the harbor, the pineapple-shaped tower of the Dole Company, and the International Airport. During the first part of the boat ride, Oahu seemed an unreal island in an unreal sea, but then, as the boat approached Pearl Harbor, it suddenly became a pinpoint target-a tiny volcanic mass of brown, green, and yellow earth. The boat passed Bishops Point, to starboard, and Iroquois Point, to port, and stopped at Drydock No. 4. Naval Police came aboard, briefly. It was a perfunctory boarding-part of the haunting past and the instinctive precaution. The passengers wore puzzled looks. Cameras were gathered up. Ahead lay giant cranes and huge drydocks, submarines and destroyers, parade grounds and the neatly tended lawns of barracks. A giant troopship swung by, heading out to sea. In the distance were fields of sugarcane, and the ever-present clouds of rain hung over the mountains. The announcer was a controlled man. It was not in him lightly to hurt the sensibilities of anyone aboard, Caucasian or Oriental. At one moment, he spoke softly of a Japanese decision not to bomb a hospital ship lying in Pearl Harbor, but then he lowered his voice slightly, and took on a metallic tone, as he mentioned the harbor entrance, guarded by nets, through which Japanese submarines made their way in December 1941. The boat chucked slowly past Ford Island, in the middle of Pearl Harbor. The announcer’s voice became chillier, more impersonal. History, he seemed to be saying, is history, and history is worth remembering. “Streaking in over Oahu from the west at 7:40 A.M., Japanese planes struck at Schofield Barracks…
The tiny vessel swung into Battleship Row and came alongside the Utah, crippled in the water. Perhaps a fifth of the Utah’s decks were still visible, the water washing up and down and across their rusted surfaces. The little boat rounded the northern tip of Ford Island, turned east, and turned south, gliding almost noiselessly now past hunks and chunks and pieces of other submerged vessels-bits of bulkhead, bits of deck, scraps of superstructures lying quietly in the water. There was rust and sea and memory in this strange graveyard, where the grotesque shapes of silent ships lay on their sides. The boat paused briefly alongside the Arizona, here fore and aft still showing, her midships covered with a memorial concrete canopy. There was nothing for anybody to say, and nobody said anything. We slid past the remains of the West Virginia, the Tennessee, and the Oklahoma, and headed back into the open sea, turning in the direction of Waikiki and the gleaming high-rise buildings.
Everyone sat quietly along the upper deck, enjoying the Pacific breezes, and nobody said, “Aloha."