headshot_smallWhen we last spoke, in 2011, you attempted to pass yourself off as an unlikely Rock Novelist. How did you go about making the transition to unlikely Surf Novelist?

It all started with a place. La Libertad is a bizarre and fascinating beach town on El Salvador’s Pacific Coast. It’s home to a world-class point-break, as well as a serious crack cocaine epidemic. I spent a lot of time there in my early twenties—back when it was still below the surfing radar and I was a Peace Corps volunteer about 50 miles away. The beauty and the grit of La Lib, with its mix of surfers, fishermen, drug dealers, and addicts is something I always wanted to write about.

Note: All names have been changed.

Trainer Howard explains that never, under any circumstances, are we to hug an inmate. Shaking hands is also against the rules. He recommends bumping knuckles, and asks one of the trainees to stand up. They demonstrate fist-bumps several times, to be sure that we grasp the concept.

We’re to keep hand sanitizer in our cars and apply it before and after each class—to fight off hepatitis and other contagious diseases that abound in the facilities. We’re not to discuss sensitive issues with the inmates—like suicide or Hawaiian sovereignty. If we enter the prison with a cigarette or a dollar bill, we might face felony charges. We’re not to allow physical contact between inmates during class (apparently, sex acts in larger classes have been an issue). We’re to have no contact with friends or families of inmates. In the event of a riot or hostage situation, we’re to remain calm.

Sixty-five years ago today (9 August 1945) the bomb known as “Fat Man” fell away from the B-29 bomber “Bockscar,” and detonated about 1,500 feet over Nagasaki. Fat Man exploded with the force of about 21 kilotons of TNT, immediately killing somewhere between 40,000 and 75,000 Japanese, mostly civilians.

I was just over two years old, living in Hilo, Hawai’i, and have no memory of that event, nor do I remember the Hiroshima bomb three days earlier. And I don’t remember Japan’s surrender, which took place only a few days later. My partner Ruth – who is just three months older than I am, and was living in Chicago – also remembers nothing about those explosions.

I don’t have any memories that center on what we used to call “A-bombs” until I was nine or ten years old – this would have been 1952 or 53 – when at Riverside Elementary School, where we had already been taught to duck and cover in case of earthquakes, we were taught to use the same procedure in case of atomic attack. That there should be earthquakes on the island was predictable. They shook and rolled us regularly. As for atomic attacks – who knew what the Russians might do?

I remember riding with a friend, in a car driven by his father. We were playing in the back seat with wooden swords that I had made. Between Waimea and Honoka’a the father asked us, “Do you boys know what to do if there’s an atomic attack?” We said that we did. I remember this because even at that age I recognized the irony of playing at swordfighting while talking about atomic weaponry.

I certainly didn’t know the word irony, but I had some notion of the difference between atomic bombs and conventional ones. I was aware of how strange it was to be play-fighting with weapons no longer used in war, while declaring I knew how to deal with new weapons so fierce that a single one could destroy a city. And I believe that even then, I understood that no matter what our teachers told us, ducking and covering would not keep me safe if the Russians attacked us with atomic bombs.

I had by then read Hersey’s Hiroshima. I found it fascinating, I remember that, and I remember being saddened, and I remember struggling with the scale of the thing. Many more people than lived in our town had died instantly. It was incomprehensible and yet it had happened. So I knew that it should be comprehensible in some way. I just didn’t know what that way was. I can’t say I was obsessed by it. It was something I stored away in memory and sometimes it would bubble up and I would think about it again.

I remember the front page story in the Hilo Tribune-Herald, reporting that Stalin had died. This was March, 1953, and I remember asking my mother whether this meant the end of war, that there could now be no atomic war with Russia. I don’t remember my mother’s response, but I am sure she told me that the threat of atomic war hadn’t disappeared with Stalin.

In 7th grade I wanted to run for Student Council Vice-President. Election posters were allowed, and I remember laying out a large sheet of paper and, with crayons and watercolors, creating a mushroom cloud, all reds and yellows and browns, and lettering it “Vote Mitchell — The Atomic Candidate — for VEEP.” I didn’t win. I was only trying to attract attention. Certainly I didn’t lose the election because of it; I never thought that. But I also never stopped to wonder whether linking my candidacy to mass destruction and death was a good tactic. I only thought that a mushroom cloud would be eye-catching.

On Friday, August 1st, 1958, about midnight, a Redstone ballistic missile carried a W39 thermonuclear device to about 50 miles above Johnston Island, where it detonated. This was the first missile-launched nuclear shot. The W39’s yield was 3.8 megatons, or, putting it another way, it released about 1,800 times the destructive power that Fat Man had. We in the Hawaiian Islands, about 1,000 miles north-northeast of the shot, had not been warned.

I had just turned 15, and was home asleep because my mother did not let me stay out that late. Some of my friends were out in Hilo, and when the sky lit up and something like a mushroom cloud formed, they were amazed and shocked. Was it a volcanic eruption? But no eruption flashed like that, or created a fireball.

Some of them went home, woke up their parents, and told them that World War III had started. There was no place to turn for information. The AM radio bands didn’t seem to be working. Television was never on at that time of night. By the next morning everyone knew it had been only a test.

In those days teenage boys did not talk readily about their fears. But it was clear to me that my friends had been badly frightened. And yet they were excited, too, as I was. What a thing to have seen! An H-bomb!

The military denied that the failure of medium-frequency and high-frequency communications over much of the Pacific, lasting even into the next day, was related to the test. They promised to warn us before the next shot, which would be sometime in August.

Many years later it would be revealed that testing for the effects of the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) was an important goal of that shot, which was code-named Teak. The Teak shot observers failed to gather the data they wanted, because Hans Bethe had miscalculated the likely energy of the EMP, and all the instruments, set to record low levels, were instantly driven into overload and delivered no useful information.

They would do better with the next shot, code-named Orange, scheduled for the night of August 12th, a Tuesday.

In Hawai’i you can be licensed to drive at 15, and I was. A group of us planned to drive to Ka Lae (South Point) about 80 miles from Hilo, to see the H-bomb. I was surprised my parents let me drive the family car there, but they did. Perhaps my mother, a high school teacher, thought it would be educational. I had my sister – a little older than I was – and, I’m almost certain, my girlfriend C. Of course we drove our cars in a convoy, we had beer and cigarettes and radios tuned to mainland stations and we were all excited.

We went to Ka Lae because Ka Lae is the southernmost land in Hawai’i, which meant that there was nothing but the Pacific Ocean between us and Johnston Island. We also went to Ka Lae because there was a tracking station there. I assumed that the tracking station had something to do with the Johnston Island tests, but none of us knew whose tracking station it was. In those days big dishes were rare. This one was surrounded by barbed wire. Its concrete pillar still stands and even now when I drive visitors to Ka Lae I wonder how many of the people who see it near the road know what it was.

We sat in the cars, and outside on blankets, and kept looking where the dish was pointing. And suddenly there it was, of course without warning. A flash, a burst of static on the car radios, and the fireball, rising. This image was made closer to Johnston Island – I haven’t found any images of Orange as seen from Hawai’i – but from Ka Lae it was spectacular. Awesome. The fireball expanded and there seemed to be a cloud, perhaps even a mushroom cloud, around and above it.


More than anything, I was intensely aware that I was seeing an H-bomb. In those first few seconds I had no other thought, and no feeling other than excitement. As a Hawai’i boy I knew the feeling of seeing for the first time things (television, for example) that I knew people on the Mainland were used to seeing. My first thought was: so this is what an H-bomb is. Everything I thought about it was subsumed by the rising, expanding fireball.

And then the excitement. We were all yelling at each other. Did you see that? Amazing! Rugged! We hugged each other and danced around, even though our radios played only static. We drank more of our beer. We waited – for what? I don’t know. We knew there wouldn’t be another, but we didn’t want to leave. Finally, early in the morning, we drove home. I told my parents it had been a sight worth seeing. I described it. I said nothing about what I’d felt.

Did I later stop to think about the enormous destructive power contained in that fireball I witnessed? Not that I remember. Did I relate it to Hiroshima or Nagasaki? No, I didn’t, for all that it was August. I knew I wasn’t likely to forget what I saw that night because it was so extraordinary, but teenage life went on.

A few weeks later I began my junior year at Hilo High. I was involved in amateur radio, the Civil Air Patrol, and the local Civil Defense, which as an organization was much more engaged in lava flows and tsunamis than in fallout shelters. Even so, Civil Defense was supposed to be concerned with atomic warfare, and so I learned about radiation and how to measure it.

In 1960 I was a freshman in college, and thought I wanted to be an electrical engineer. That didn’t last long, but before I discovered Anthropology I signed up for a 1-credit course called “Radiological Health,” which was actually a PE course. We learned how to operate Geiger and other radiation counters (I already knew about them, which made the course look like an easy A), we learned about rads and millirads and shielding and radiation contours.

On the evening of our final exam, the instructor laid out a dozen yellow Geiger counters and sheets of graph paper and said, “I’ve hidden a few dozen sources in the building. Go find them. Map the radiation levels.”

I thought nothing of it beyond admiring it as a clever exam. I made an excellent map – in three dimensions, thanks to having studied Mechanical Drawing at Hilo High – and got a good grade.

In 1964 I met Ruth, who took me home to meet her father Stan. She introduced him as her father, not as Stanley G. Thompson, the nuclear chemist he was, although I am sure that she mentioned it. Ruth is as modest as her father was, but it’s likely that she told me that he was a co-discoverer of three of the transuranic elements: Berkelium, Californium, and Mendelevium. Neither she nor I can remember.

If she did, it didn’t stick with me. I only met him the one time. I remembered what a good time we’d had fishing from his boat, in the Sacramento River delta, nothing more. Over the forty years I spent apart from Ruth – years during which the only chemistry I encountered had to do with archaeological dating – I remembered her father only as a man who knew Willard Libby, the developer of radiocarbon (C14) dating. I believed (wrongly, as I discovered) that they had been colleagues.

And every time I lectured to my classes about C14 I told them I had known someone who had known Libby, and I thought of Ruth and how foolish I had been to have allowed myself to drift away from her when I went East in 1964. And I thought that someday I might find her again, but during those forty years I never even looked.

And when, as always, I had to talk about other radioactive materials and half-lives, and would use plutonium as an example, I would tell my students about having witnessed an H-bomb explosion, although by then I was properly calling it a thermonuclear explosion. I meant to tell them about how casually nuclear explosions and nuclear materials were handled, even in my lifetime. I told them about the shoe-fitting fluoroscopes operated by the salesmen, devices through which I’d been shown my little toes wiggling inside shoes – yes, he has enough room – while the salesman, all unknowing, was receiving a blast of radiation in his crotch. I always told them my Radiological Health story and asked them how long they thought I’d keep my job, tenure or no tenure, if I hid radioactive materials in the Classroom Building at Buffalo State College and sent my students out to find them.

But every time I talked about my H-bomb I knew that part of me had never gone beyond the you can’t believe what I saw amazement of August, 1958. I never failed to talk about it in Part II, Isotopic Dating Methods, and I think my story had a good effect on the students, but I always knew it had a showing-off component I didn’t like admitting to myself. I told my nuke stories twice a semester, four times a year, for more than thirty years.

In 2004 I found Ruth again, 40 years after I’d lost her. As we were getting reacquainted, I asked about her father. She told me he had died of cancer at 64, and she had always thought it likely that the cancer was because of his work with radioactive materials. What they were doing was very exciting, and they had all been careless.

She matched my fluoroscope story with her cooling pond story, one that she had not told me in 1964, because at the time she thought nothing of it. In the mid-fifties the Thompson family was in Sweden, where Stan was at the Nobel Institute for a year. Sweden. Cold. So where were people around the Institute to swim? Where were pools of warm water to be found?

If you know what a cooling pond is you already know the answer. No, they didn’t swim in the actual pond where the spent reactor rods were cooling. But they swam in what must have been secondary or overflow ponds. Indeed it may well be that radiation levels in cooling pond overflows are not great. I don’t know, but as in the fluoroscope example, no one seemed concerned about it.

And then Ruth told me something about her father that I had not known. The Hiroshima bomb was a uranium bomb, but the first nuclear bomb (the “Gadget,” detonated at Alamogordo) was a plutonium bomb, as was the one dropped on Nagasaki sixty-five years ago today. And so was the W39 device that produced the fireball I saw in the Ka Lae sky.

Ruth’s father Stan was brought into the Manhattan Project to invent a process that could produce plutonium on a massive scale. No one had ever produced more than a few micrograms, but the bomb-makers needed kilograms of it. Glenn Seaborg thought that his high school buddy Stan Thompson could do it if anyone could, and he was right. All the plutonium in Gadget and Fat Boy was produced by the process Ruth’s father invented and oversaw.

Without his work, there would have been no plutonium-fueled bomb. He didn’t design the bomb. He didn’t assemble it. He didn’t open the bomb bay doors and he didn’t detonate it. Even so, the tens of thousands of people who died at Nagasaki in part died because of what Stan, the father of the woman I love, did.

When Ruth told me about her father, it excited me. I admit it. Sometimes I am ashamed of what I let it do to me if I’m not careful. Sometimes I have the urge to tell people who are getting to know Ruth – people like Zara and Simon, there in the restaurant at East Randolph – Do you know what Ruth’s father did? He discovered elements and he made the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb. Is that amazing, or what?

Is that trivializing his work – and him – or what? Of course it is.

The small man I met behind Berkeley in July 1964, the man who took me fishing, handed me beers, looked the other way when I kissed his daughter – this was a man who had done something of consequence, and I had not known it. And when I did learn it, I didn’t know what to do with it. As we say these days, I didn’t know how to process it. I still don’t.

At the Orange shot I was excited by an extraordinary event and for years did not go beyond that excitement. It wasn’t that I couldn’t. I simply felt no need to try. It was something I’d witnessed, and I’d witnessed it because people were casual about thermonuclear shots in those days. I had compartmentalized my experiences; my H-bomb was disconnected from what I knew – had known even before 1958 – about what happened when nuclear weapons were used in war. Neither Teak nor Orange was detonated in anger, and neither did any serious harm.


And yet . . . what was it, then? A simulacrum of the deadly strikes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Saying so is too facile. If I could return to Ka Lae and inject meaning into that boy’s simple perception of an awe-inspiring, exciting, yes beautiful fireball. . . what would that meaning be? Everything I can think of seems at once too simple to an old man, and too complicated for a boy.

And what of Ruth, and her father, and whatever of her father lies within her and is part of her song? She has written of him in his deafness, pressed up against speakers, listening to Beethoven. She tells of him sitting in his chair, thinking, doing the kind of chemistry-of-the-mind that preceded his making it manifest in the lab. For that, he needed no equipment. He only needed a place to sit, and time to think.

So I am wondering, today, August 9th, 2010, how often and in what ways he thought about the process he conceived, gestated, gave birth to, and then released to others, who made of it fiery destruction as never before seen in the world. It is impossible that he did not think of Nagasaki.

It is said that upon Gadget’s explosion Oppenheimer recited from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Ruth does not know where her father was on that day, except that he was not at Alamogordo, nor does she know where he was on August 9th, 1945.

He might have been in Chicago. He might have been at Hanford. He might have had his first daughter, now my life’s partner, in his arms. Perhaps he sang to her. Perhaps he wept. He never said.

I performed this piece at the TNB Literary Experience in December 2009. It’s available on YouTube at: Is There Really a Hawaiian Word for Christmas?

 

I told Kimberly my title would be “Deconstructing Mele Kalikimaka,” because I thought if I didn’t have an intellectual-sounding title nobody would pay any attention.

Kimberly said, “Don’t worry. They’ll all be drunk or stoned or busy hitting on each other, and won’t pay attention anyway.”

“I get it,” I said, “like when I was teaching night school.”

 

Barack Obama and I were born and raised in the same far-away exotic foreign land.

Kenya!

All right, Hawai’i.

Obama and I shared many Christmas traditions. For example, enduring endless repetitions of Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka.” On the radio! In the stores! White Christmas was bad enough, but that was a Mainland thing so that didn’t matter.

We never had white Christmases.

But we did have Hawaiian words, and we knew which were traditional words and which were transliterations, and a song built on a not really-Hawaiian phrase for Christmas, sung by a Mainland guy with full orchestra . . . and the Andrews Sisters . . . was an insult.

 

Transliteration. Deconstruction. Actually I’m going to do a contextualization, which is more accessible. I know agile minds out there are already all over Mele Kalikimaka’s historical specificity, hermaneutically of course, and while considering bilateral symmetry and propositional ramification they are hoping, indeed praying, that I won’t inappropriately conjugate anything or descend into misplaced concreteness – meaning that if I do a Bing Crosby imitation I’ll be in deep shit.

But I will recite the words.

Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say,
On a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day,
That’s the island greeting that we send to you
From the land where palm trees sway,
Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright,
The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night,
Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way
To say “Merry Christmas to you.”

Had enough?

 

So . . . is Mele Kalikimaka really the Hawaiian way to say Merry Christmas? That depends on what you mean by Hawaiian.

If “ancient Hawaiian,” no. They didn’t have Christmas. The first they heard about it was from the gangs of Pacific rogues who fell upon Hawai’i in the early nineteenth century – missionaries, who told them to worship Christ, and sea captains, whalers, and traders, who taught them what to do on Christmas.

It could have gone like this:

The missionary says, “Yes, on Christmas we celebrate the birth of our saviour Jesus Christ with prayers and a church service.”

“Uh-huh,” the Hawaiians say.

The whaler says, “What we do is cut down a big tree, bring it inside the house, put candles on it, say Merry Christmas, light them, get drunk, eat, keep drinking and eating and saying Merry Christmas until we pass out.”

“Sounds like a plan!” the Hawaiians say. “But saying that holiday’s name is rough . . . we don’t use C or R or S in our language. So . . . Merry, Mele, yes, that’s easy, but Ka-ri, Ka-li, uh . . . how about Kalikimaka?”

“Close enough,” the whaler says, “when you’re drunk it won’t matter.”

 

So . . . Mele Kalikimaka! Merry Christmas! Hawaiian* or not Hawaiian?

Let me go to my Pukui-Elbert Hawaiian-English dictionary.

Mele, here it is, meaning “song, or chant.” Umm.

Kalikimaka, yes, here it is, “Christmas.”

All right, it means “Christmas song or chant.”

 

“Christmas song or chant is Hawaii’s way

to say Merry Christmas to you.”

Hmmm. Nah.

 

Now in English we can unpack Christmas into “Christ” and “mass,” so let’s take Kalikimaka apart too.

kaliki, corset

maka, beloved one

 

Here we go:

Chant for a beloved corset is Hawaii’s way….”

I don’t think so.

 

Hawaiian Christmas, as we have learned, is green and bright. This is unlike, for example, Christmas in Biloxi, Mississippi, but let’s paddle on past that.

To properly celebrate Christmas you need a tree.

Eighteenth century Hawai’i, the most remote islands on earth, had no pines. But Norfolk Island, a British penal colony down towards Australia, did. The British brought them to Hawai’i, where they flourished – the pines, not the convicts.

Each year our family had to make a decision. Should we get a local Christmas tree, that would be a Penal tree, or should we get a Mainland tree, that would be a Douglas fir, but everybody called them Mainland Christmas trees. They were superior to Penal trees because, well, they were from the Mainland.

I went college on the Mainland. Freshman year, Introduction to Botany, the professor was showing slides of evergreens. He put up a Douglas fir.

“Who knows this one?”

“It’s a Mainland Christmas tree?”

 

Ah . . . the Mainland. That distant paradise across the Pacific, where everything was better.

They had TV, but we didn’t. They had FM radio, and we had AM. They had places for kids to get into trouble . . . but so did we.

Weekend nights at the shore were like anywhere – parked cars, kids smoking, drinking, making out, listening to the radio. But we’d be trying to pull in Mainland stations, twenty-five hundred, three thousand miles away. The farther, the better. KGO, San Francisco was good, KSL Salt Lake was better, and one night a kid with a hopped-up car radio started yelling that he had WLS Chicago. We got out of our cars and clustered around, listening.

Our little station played the same songs, but they sounded better coming from the Mainland. At Christmastime, a little static and some fade improved even Mele Kalikimaka.

I was making out with Leilani one night, with San Francisco pounding in.

“Get Salt Lake,” she said, “and I’ll take off my bra.”

 

But that was teen life. Small-kid time was harder. One Christmas we were decorating our Penal tree with the radio on and Bing was singing away. For the first time, I paid attention to the bit about the sun and stars. It was frightening. Where had I gone wrong? Was the Mainland a stranger place than I thought?

“Mom,” I said, “Mom! You know the song? Is here the only place where the sun shines by day and all the stars at night?”

 

One Christmas I asked the minister down at the First Foreign Church if Kalikimaka really meant Christmas.

He looked at me. “That’s the Hawaiian word for Christmas, son.”

I said, “But the Hawaiian word for Christ is Kristo, and since you told us we should put Christ back in Christmas, shouldn’t it be Kristomaka?”

He looked at me.

I said, “Because then Mele Kristomaka would mean Chant About Beloved Christ.”

He kept looking at me.

“Beloved Christ . . . right?” I said.

Finally he said, “Son, we’re Protestants. We don’t chant.”

 

 

*Hawaiian is a living language, and of course it has transliterations, and words with multiple meanings, as do all languages. I plead guilty to cherry-picking meanings. Please don’t mistake the little games I’m playing with Hawaiian words for legitimate linguistics work. Speakers of Hawaiian know that, for example, the word I’ve rendered as mele has several different pronunciations, and each has a different meaning. Because this is a humorous piece and meant to be spoken, I haven’t used proper orthography. My uncle, the late Donald Kilolani Mitchell of Kam Schools, would probably be annoyed, and the late Mary Kawena Pukui, whom I knew as a boy, would probably gently scold me. E kala mai ia’u!


Tsunami!

By Don Mitchell

Memoir

I wrote this some time ago and had no thought of posting it, but because the tsunami that hit the Samoas has been in the news and in my thoughts today, I offer this as a first-person tsunami account.

On Monday, May 23, 1960, in Hilo, Hawai’i, I was nearly killed through my own foolishness, and then, not an hour later, I began rescuing people who were already dead. I was 16.

I heard about a great earthquake in Chile on the way back from doing archaeology at a refuge cave in the Ka’u Desert. When I got to town I went to Civil Defense headquarters, where I was an amateur radio operator. There was nothing much between us and Chile, but we thought that the South Pacific would give us clues about what Chile might be sending our way, since the shock, spreading in a great arc, would pass through there first. We got crackling reassuring reports: Tahiti, nothing; Christmas Island (now Kiribati), six inches. We knew that if anything was coming, it would arrive around one in the morning.

A friend and I left the radios and went down to the shore to watch for the tsunami. Nobody told us not to. The first wave was small, nothing more than a rapid high tide, not even as frightening as a tidal bore. It wasn’t recognizable as a wave at all, but it triggered the automatic warning sirens, which began low moaning and then wailing. A few minutes later the second one arrived. It washed a foot or two higher.

By then it was after one AM, and when instead of moving water we realized we were looking at the deep lumpy black of the bay’s floor, we were transfixed. The ocean was being sucked out. We stood and watched. We scrambled a little higher on the embankment so we could see better out into the bay. We waited.

Even now I don’t know why we waited. Maybe we wanted to be cool and have something to brag about later, when we’d trade stories with the other kids about how close we’d come to the wave. All I remember from that time – it couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds – is the feeling that I had to stay there and see what was going to happen.

The next thing I saw was a wall of water that seemed to jump up from nowhere, coming at us. I knew that tsunami could do sixty miles per hour near shore, but I had never thought about what that meant, about how much time I’d have to react.

We started running up the embankment, heading inland. But I realized we’d be taken from the rear if we did, so I shouted “Bridge, bridge” and we turned and ran along the embankment and out over the Wailuku River, onto a metal landing-mat bridge that had replaced the concrete one destroyed in the 1946 tsunami. We ran towards the high ground on the other end of the bridge and we didn’t make it there. The wave hit when we were half way across, surging under and through the bridge, coming up around our knees. I grabbed the metal railing and screamed, because I believed I was about to die.

Our town was built in a crescent. Because we were at one of the tips, I could see the wave hump up and slam into downtown. The noise was tremendous. The power plant blew up and the lights went out.

The bridge bucked and heaved but it held. Even now I can hear the metal creaking and groaning, and I can feel salt water splashing my face. After maybe twenty seconds, the rushing sea dropped below the bridge deck, and we let go and ran to the other side. Some men who had been watching cursed us for crazy kids. “You real stupid, play with da wave like dat,” one yelled angrily, and the others hugged us, slapped us on the back, kept asking us if we were all right. An old Japanese man pointed his finger at us and then out towards the bay, and said, “Lucky you folks no die, you know? No can forget dis. Lucky you no die.”

We crossed another bridge upstream and went to our cars. I drove home and said to my parents, who were on the porch looking, wondering what had happened, “It’s bad, it’s bad. I think it’s all gone. I’m gonna try to rescue people.” I didn’t tell them about the bridge until much later.

I went into my father’s shop, got an axe and a crow bar, and drove back downtown where other kids had already gathered at Civil Defense. Somebody passed out red hard hats. We put them on, drove to where the worst destruction was, and began.

In the early-hours bravado we called ourselves the Rescue Squad. By dawn we knew there was no hope, there could be no one left for us to rescue. Everybody we found was dead. We kept at it for four days anyway, but never found anybody alive.

It’s only after earthquakes and building collapses that survivors last for days. A tsunami either mangles and crushes you in your house or pins you down just long enough to drown you. It’s in and out in a couple of minutes at most, but that’s enough time to kill you if you can’t get free. If you’re swept cleanly away, if you’re sucked back out to sea on flotsam or jetsam, you might survive to be found later, maybe clinging to a door, or hanging over a dresser drawer. The shock waves will have rushed on, the sea will have calmed itself, and you’re likely to be rescued from gentle swells.

We found our friend Ken Nakamoto’s mother in the first couple of hours, in a collapsed house. We wouldn’t have seen her at all except that her leg was sticking out from what had been her porch. When we heaved the porch up and got her out she was pale, even peaceful, in her nightgown. There was a little blood on her leg but she was otherwise unmarked. She had almost gotten out into the street, where maybe she could have caught something and survived.

Where’s Kenzo? we asked each other, even though we’d already poked under the house enough to be sure nobody else was there. We said this looking around as if any minute he’d come out from his room and help us with his mom. His room was smashed and his mother dead and we had her body, and we didn’t know where he was, but we started saying those things to each other anyway as if we had dropped by and were waiting for him to come home from school.

She had been drowned, not crushed; so strange to realize it: drowned, but here, inland. The sea was back where it belonged, two hundred yards away. Mrs. Nakamoto’s was the first newly-dead body I’d ever seen. It was the first one I’d ever touched, and she was cold the way everybody said bodies were, and she was smooth, too. The cool smoothness of her arms and legs has stayed with me. The sudden movement of her foot in my grasp as her body sagged when we lifted her has never left me, nor has the feeling of fear that it would slip from my hand and I would drop her, and she would be hurt.

Somebody, the police or maybe Civil Defense, had organized the little open-air buses and their drivers, pressing them into service as ambulances and hearses. The buses were called sampans and even then I caught the irony. Sampan was the name for fishing boats that left the Wailoa River every night, motored past the end of the breakwater, where the tiger sharks were, and on to open sea. Sampans stayed out all night, returning at dawn with their catch.

We lifted Mrs. Nakamoto’s body into a sampan. We laid her out on the floor on her back, because it seemed wrong to put her in face-down. But that meant we had to look at her. The driver, an old Filipino man, headed for the morgue at the hospital. All of us had been born at that hospital, which was a couple of miles out of town. I can’t remember who started it, but suddenly we were making fun of the driver, who was shaking with fear of Mrs. Nakamoto’s dead body. He didn’t deserve this from us, but we didn’t deserve to be sitting on leatherette bus seats around the body of our friend’s mother in her nightgown. We were in an open bus before dawn with a dead body we’d found, and we didn’t know how to behave.

We looked at each other, grinned, and teased him. “Shake-shake,” we called to him, “Hey, Shake-shake, baim’bai we go back downtown for get moah dead folks.” He laughed a high-pitched old man Filipino laugh, and kept on driving, shaking. I was trembling myself; we all were. We agreed it was from the cold.

When we were about halfway to the hospital, we fell silent. I felt around under the seat and found a rolled-up mat, and tried to cover Mrs. Nakamoto with it. Opened the long way it wouldn’t sit properly on her, so I turned it and covered her chest and face with it. I think we all felt better after that.

At the morgue one of the orderlies looked at us, shook his head, and said, “You folks only kids. No good you do dis.” That gave us some strength, and with it pride, which is probably what he meant it to do. We were a Rescue Squad, and had to get back to it. We’d taken our catch up the hill, and unloaded it. Experienced, blooded, we got in Shake-Shake’s sampan and went out for more.

Our high school graduation had to be postponed because there were students who were dead, there were students whose parents were dead, and the Hilo Civic Auditorium where the graduation was to be had been seriously damaged, though not destroyed. We had our graduation two weeks late in the high school gym. I sat on the gym floor in my crepe gown and tasseled hat and my fragrant maile lei. Some of the other Rescue Squad kids were there, and Kenzo was too. We avoided him when school resumed, and he avoided us too. We understood that this was the best thing.

The Guidance Counselor wrote a letter to the paper praising us, and criticizing Civil Defense for having made boys do the work of men. But we had no complaint. We wanted to sit together at graduation, but it had to be alphabetic. I felt a sense of completion afterwards, a feeling that today I’d call closure, but I didn’t know the word then. It was important to have that graduation. I think the town saw it as a sign of recovery, of hope, maybe even an affirmation: our seniors graduate no matter what.

In Hilo there’s an official tsunami memorial, but the unofficial one means more to me. It’s the town’s pedestal clock, green metal pillar and a big white face, which was ripped from its base and washed half a mile up the Wailoa River. It stopped at 1:03, hands almost together, and it’s been left that way, cracked glass and all. They put it back on its stand, near the sampan landing, about half a mile from where we found Mrs. Nakamoto.

Every time I go home I drive down to that clock, and I stay with it for a few minutes. I know the passers-by think I’m just another Mainland tourist, because that’s what I look like now. They see a middle aged bald white guy looking at their clock – just standing, looking, not saying anything, not even taking a picture. It doesn’t bother me that they can’t know what I’m thinking about, that they can’t know what I’m remembering.

I never walk out on the bridge where I screamed and was nearly swept away.



I’m writing this in rural western New York, where out my workroom window I’ve seen deer, woodchucks, hawks and, once, a weasel. Last week a fox I hadn’t seen before came to check things out. I let these animals alone though I admit to throwing sticks at the woodchucks, who eat my phlox, and I warned my chicken-raising neighbor about the weasel. The plants and animals I look at seem to belong here, but most of them, even the birds at my feeder, have their origins somewhere else. I don’t think of them as invasive, but they are.

I grew up in Hilo, a town on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and I go back there every year, to live for a while in the house I grew up in. In Hilo you can’t help being aware of the tension between invasive and endemic species, and I don’t mean as metaphor for tourists and locals. Ordinary folk talk about it and some of them take action. Most don’t. Some don’t see a problem. Some argue that in Hawai’i everything is invasive, because the islands aren’t very old, and each group of immigrants, starting with the Hawaiians, has brought in plants and animals and turned them loose. In this view you end up trying to decide how long a species has to be resident before it should be let alone, or even protected. And that’s not easy. As you can imagine, the issue carries a giant freighter-load of political-economic-philosophical-religious-scientific baggage, and if you think that I’m going to unpack that mess in my first TNB piece, you’re wrong. I like vexing questions, but there’s a limit.

As a boy, I spent a lot of happy time at the town dump. My mom would drive my gang down there to play, which meant shooting mongoose with .22 rifles, or, in my case, a little single-shot .410 shotgun. Shooting mongoose! WTF? Hang on. You have to understand that mongoose (like deer – same word, singular or plural) are officially vermin in Hawai’i, so snuffing them is encouraged.

Give me a chance here. If you’re remembering how the term vermin was used not long ago in the American West, you’re already pissed. You’re remembering when Western ranchers set out sodium fluoroacetate, also known as 1080, to carpet-bomb endemic predators like coyotes, puma, and wolves. They claimed their livestock (which we’d surely tag with the invasive label if they weren’t domesticated and edible) needed protection from vermin, and so they poisoned, shot, and trapped as they pleased. Shooting wolves from aircraft is bad enough, but the toll from wholesale poisoning in the West was orders of magnitude greater. 1080 doesn’t discriminate, so there was a lot of collateral damage.

Don’t be pissed at me. The Hawai’i mongoose-as-vermin thing is different.

Maybe you’re thinking yeah, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, mongoose hero, saves the white family, all that Kipling crap. But I’m not talking about endemic Indian mongoose. I’m talking about the seventy-two mongoose that idiot fat-cat sugar planters brought to Hawai’i in 1883, from India by way of Jamaica, to get rid of the rats who ate the cane. Fewer rats, higher profits. Simple.

The Jamaican sugar planter morons had had their mongoose for about ten years, but didn’t seem to have noticed anything about their habits, or else the Hawaiian sugar planter idiots didn’t ask. Nobody knew, or nobody revealed, that mongoose are diurnal (active in the daytime, in case you don’t know that term) whereas rats are nocturnal. So they don’t meet up except by accident.

When they do meet up the mongoose does its duty and kills the rat and eats it, but they don’t meet up very often unless both forget and start being crepuscular, having not tracked gathering or diminishing light carefully enough. (Crepuscular describes animals active during low light levels, typically dawn or dusk but also during solar eclipses or heavy ash falls from a volcano or burning sugar cane fields.) So if the mongoose gets up early, and the rat’s been out late partying, it’s bad for the rat but it’s all good for the sugar planters, or at least it would have been had it happened very often. But it didn’t. And now that the sugar industry’s gone it’s not good for anybody except the mongoose.

What the sugar planters unleashed on Hawai’i were dusty-colored short-legged long-tailed bird killing machines. Whatever native species the rats hadn’t taken out (the big bad-ass Norway rats arrived on sailing ships with the Europeans; the Polynesian rat hadn’t been much of a problem) the mongoose set to work finishing off. When it became clear there was no upside to mongoose, they were classified as vermin and kids with guns and traps were encouraged to kill them.

Adults who wanted to help used different methods. When I’m driving on back roads I have to be mindful of who I’ve got in the car with me. I was taught to step on the gas when a mongoose starts across the road, the better to run over it and kill it. But if I have mainland visitors with me, I don’t – at least not until I’ve explained. It doesn’t always work because some of them seem to have had the Kipling Mongoose Myth burned into their brains. That mongoose could save us from Nag and Nagaina, the deadly cobras!

But there are no snakes in Hawai’i, except for the ones that modern-day morons have smuggled in, or careless cargo packers haven’t noticed. Like the Brown Tree Snake, out of Melanesia by way of Guam, where it pretty much finished off all the bird species there. What’s left of the Hawaiian endemic fauna, and there’s not much, is going to be taken out by the Brown Tree Snake, if it ever gets a foothold, speaking metaphorically of course.

So wait! Maybe the mongoose isn’t so bad, and I should let up on the accelerator or even brake for them. Nope. Not gonna do it. The Brown Tree Snake is nocturnal.