Tsunami 2010

By Don Mitchell


The great Chilean earthquake of 27 February triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific. I wrote about my experiences in the 1960 tsunami here on TNB, never imagining that I’d be writing a companion piece only a few months later. While working on my posting, it occurred to me that because many people have Google Earth on their computers, I should specify enough place and street names so that readers can get a look at where I’ve been today. Here’s how my tsunami day went.

6 AM. Sirens. I’m lying awake, ready to get up, drink some coffee, go downtown and run 10k along the bay front, where it’s flat.The sirens start, and my first thought is – tsunami! Then I wonder about it. Maybe somebody mis-programmed the monthly test? But no, they keep wailing. So I get up, and because I haven’t bothered dragging the old boom box down from the closet shelf, and there’s no regular radio in the house, I go to my computer.  Indeed, yes. Those are tsunami sirens, so I go in and wake Ruth. She wears earplugs. She’s startled.

6:15. I say, You make the coffee, and I’ll go fill up the Quest. I made a couple of runs to The Dump yesterday, and the fuel low light went on. I didn’t bother getting gas because I didn’t have my wallet.

6:20. Oh. I’m not the only one who needs gas. At the Union 76, the line stretches half a mile. Oh. I’ll wait it out.

6:25. On Hawai’i Public Radio, the Saturday morning host, who usually plays modern music, is doing the tsunami warning. In the background he’s playing John Adams’ “Shaker Loops.” Excellent choice – agitated and rousing, but not ominous.

6:30. Inching along. For the first time, I hear the Emergency Broadcast System alert squawks followed by an actual message. Not “This is a test . . . .”  Nope. A Hawai’i County Civil Defense person comes on with the detailed warning.

6:35. I’m in front of the Kaumana Fire House. I don’t want to stop in front of the engines, so I leave a gap. Oh! Somebody drives along and cuts in in front of me. This is Manhattan Bridge behavior. Somebody’s really worried. Never mind. If he doesn’t want to act in the Hawaiian way, I will. I don’t give him the stink eye.

7:00. Sirens again.

7:15. Switching between stations, I note that not every announcer knows what a “fathom” is. The official recommendation is that vessels go offshore to where the depth is “100 fathoms,” so some are saying “600 feet,” which is correct, and others “600 fathoms,” doing the X6 thing but forgetting to change the unit. Some feet and meter differences, too. One source says 7 feet expected, another says 4 meters. That’s a significant difference.

7:20. I fill up.

7:25. Back home. I gather up all the loose water bottles in the car. Might as well fill them, too. For sure, the power’s going out and I can’t remember whether the water flows when the power’s out.

7:30. A few email messages in from the Mainland. My sister reminds me not to be an idiot as I was in 1960. I respond that I’m 50 years older and most likely wiser.

7:59. I get out a general email reminding people who haven’t been at my house on Wailuku Drive in Pi’ihonua that it’s not near the shore. I put in a link to my TNB tsunami piece. I include Greg and Matt in the email: Matt because he’s lived in Hawai’i, and because I loved his Katrina piece, and Greg because I’ve been commiserating with him about the snow.

8:00. Sirens again.

8:20. Irving calls from the mainland. “Don’t go down to that bridge,” he says. We talk about snow.

8:40. I remember that my trailer can haul anything, not just waste. So I call my friend Alan at Alan’s Art and Antiques in case he needs help moving his stuff. Alan’s store is on the waterfront. He says No, I’m just taking a few things. And he reminds me that the 1957 Hilo Intermediate School yearbook that I haven’t picked up is at his house. So it’s safe, he says. I call Dragon Mama, Mrs. Suzuki, in case she needs help. She has a tatami, futon, and cloth place, also on the waterfront. A lot of our furniture came from her shop. She says No, we’re going to take a chance. She’s putting everything on the higher shelves and can tolerate a few feet of water in the store.

9:00. I call Carolyn. Does she know anybody who needs hauling help? It’s getting late, but I can hitch up quickly. No, she doesn’t. She lives up near the Volcano.

9:30. It’s a beautiful day. Sunny and cool. This is good, because if it gets bad down there, it’ll be easier for the workers.

9:35. I start thinking about where to go to watch. Charge the camera batteries. Charge the cell phones.

9:40. The tsunami ETA is 11:20. It’s nice when a pending disaster has a fairly precise schedule.

9:44. I start typing this. How did I forget about TNB? I need to mind my priorities. In a while I’ll drive down to town and see about a safe vantage point.

9:46. I hear that all water’s been shut off along coastal zones, so the tsunami can’t drive salt water and sewage into the system. I wonder if they did that in 1960?

10:00. Sirens again. It is a different sequence, I think. Longer. I head for town. Sailboats out beyond the breakwater. It’s a beautiful scene, like a regatta. But they’re fleeing to 100 fathom water. Most of the good vantage spots are taken. People have lawn chairs and even canopies in some of the best spots. I drive by the old Main Fire Station, where I went early in the morning in May 1960 to start trying to rescue people. Coming home, I drive past the old Hospital, which is now the County Annex. I feel it pulling me. From the road, I can see the old ambulance entrance. That’s where we took the dead bodies.

10:05. Ruth is on the phone talking to a friend in California. I feel a surge of irritation. A tsunami is coming! The ordinary world will be shaken. I immediately realize how ridiculous my feeling is. We’re in no danger at all.

10:10. A new ETA: 11:04. And no one will see it coming. On the Mainland, when there’s a winter storm or lake effect warning, I get the weather radar on my screen and see the trouble forming. See it moving. But this thing’s different. It’s out there, a wave front moving through deep water, not showing itself. For all that we’ve had hours of warning, when it does arrive, it’s going to leap up suddenly.

10:15. I stand on the porch, thinking. I go down to the van and open the hatch. Bungees and the tarp from my last dump run. I decide to leave them there. Somebody might need them. I walk into my shop and pick up my heavy ax. Should I put it in the van, just in case I have to do rescue work? I already have my biggest Gerber knife in my pocket, for the same reason. No, that’s silly. This isn’t 1960. Other people are ready to handle these things. And yet . . . I put the ax in the van. I keep my knife in my pocket. I feel simultaneously  well-prepared and silly.

10:30. Time to go. I tell Ruth she should wear sneakers, just in case we have to walk in wreckage. Is that going to happen? No. I put on my red Nike trail running shoes. Then I feel stupid, because I’m also wearing a red t-shirt. I hate thinking that anybody might think I chose my red shoes to go with my red shirt. I get in the car, Mister Red Man.

10:32. I run back inside to shut down all the computers. There could be a power surge, or the power could go out and the batteries run down before we get back.

10:35. Heading down the hill. I say to Ruth, If it happens, you’ll never forget what you’ll see. It’s a mighty force. I also use the word “inexorable,” which is a word I rarely use, but it’s the right word. The sea just keeps on coming at you. I want her to see it, so we can share it. She only knows about 1960 from my memories.

10:38. I’m thinking that Haili Street might be the best spot. The 1960 tsunami was also spawned in Chile, and it crashed into the Hamakua coast, out past Honoli’i, and then was reflected straight into Hilo Bay. Or at least that was the reconstruction – it was 1 AM that time, and so nobody actually saw it happen. Today, if this tsunami barrels at us out of the same direction, I’d like to see that reflection for myself. But from Haili St, we can’t see Honoli’i.

10:45. I drive down a little side street that parallels Haili, but I don’t grab a space for a while.  I find a parking place on Kapiolani. OK, it’s a good place, Honoli’i or no Honoli’i.

10:48. I tell Ruth, Let’s walk farther down towards the shore. We might be able to see out towards Honoli’i. We walk. The Water Department guys are driving around in their trucks. We get down where I hoped it might be good, but it’s not. Time to go back up the hill. I say, we might as well walk over to Waianuenue and go back up that way. We still have time. Ten minutes to go.

10:56. We’re walking back up Waianuenue, past my old elementary school. The sidewalks are crowded. More lawn chairs. I catch my toe on a sidewalk slab and stumble. A woman says, Don’t get hurt up here! I laugh. She asks, What’s it like down there? I say, Oh, it’s OK except the water’s boiling and it’s full of poisonous snakes. She laughs. Everybody laughs. I feel like a dork. I am a dork. This is surreal. Ruth and I are worried about getting back to Haili St in time for the show which, we know, starts at 11:04.

10:58. We get to the van. I whip a quick U-turn and get over to Haili St. There’s a place!

11:00. We walk up to where the view’s pretty good. Lots of people. There’s a guy wearing a “Harbor Security” patch. I wonder why he’s not down at the harbor, but I don’t say anything except that I’m a 1960 survivor. We talk about how teenagers believe they’re immortal.

11:02. Lots of sailing boats and some larger craft out past the breakwater. I’d be farther out, if I had a boat. I think I see a whale, but I’m not sure so I don’t say anything. But I start thinking about it. Will the whale be surprised? Then I think, No, probably there’s some acoustic energy preceding the wave. I don’t like thinking about a humpback being lifted over the breakwater and crashing into the shops along Kamehameha Avenue. But if it happens, I’ll get there with my camera somehow. It would be a great shot.

11:04. Show time! But there’s nothing. Helicopters – four of them, and now five, when they’re joined by a large Army chopper, down from the Pohakuloa Training Area. A Coast Guard C-130 rescue plane is circling, circling.

11:15. Nothing. There’s a bunch of teenagers sitting on a truck. I can’t resist, so I go over and tell them that when I was their age, I was down on the Wailuku bridge, and almost died. They’re impressed. What did you think? one asks. I’m going to fucking die! I say. They laugh. They’ll never fucking die.

11:20. Nothing, except I think one reef by the breakwater is exposed. I call to the kids, Look at the reef, it’s coming. I shape my voice to sound ominous. It doesn’t come. They are polite.

11:25. Nothing, except I realize that I’m leaning on a little pickup truck with an “Eddie Would Go” bumper sticker. This is very amusing, so I photograph Ruth and the Eddie Would Go sticker. Eddie Aikau was a famous big-wave surfer and lifeguard, who died in the Molokai Channel going for help when the double canoe Hokule’a overturned. I didn’t know Eddie but I did know somebody who sailed on Hokule’a.

11:40. Nothing. It’s hot. Maybe some other reefs are showing, maybe not. I can just barely see the tip of the breakwater, and it seems choppy there, as if something’s churning.

11:45. Nothing. I start talking to the woman whose house we’re in front of. Her family lost their fishing boat in 1960. We talk about 1960. She’s clearly pleased that nothing has happened. I’m not as pleased as she is. I admit this to myself. I want a 1960 replay except in daylight and with only a little destruction and nobody dead. I want to see it happening and not be terrified when I do.

11:55. Time to go. And yet . . . I can’t go home. So I head for Kaiwiki, where there’s a panoramic view of the bay. To get there, we drive across one of the Wailuku River bridges upstream from the bridge I was on. It’s packed with people. In 1960, people on this bridge saw me and my friends clinging to the bridge. They didn’t know who we were. In 2007 I ran into somebody in Buffalo whose father had been on that bridge, watching. He sent me an email: So you were one of those idiots.

12:10. Up to Kaiwiki. More spectators. Somebody in an old red Nissan Pathfinder has driven right out into the middle of an agricultural field. For a better view? It doesn’t seem better to me. We stay there a while. Nothing happening.

12:30. Down the hill. I’ll try Wainaku, near Alae Cemetery. Up Kulana Kea road with its No Trespassing signs, and a clump of orange cones that must have been strung out across the road this morning. Lots of cars. There are many giant raised-up pickups. I wish I had one to use today. Great view. I see serious churning in the bay, clearly a big outflow past the breakwater. And the waves against the breakwater seem more massive and synchronized than usual.

12:40. My son calls from the Adirondacks. Snow. Bad cell service. He didn’t know. He just saw my email on his iPhone. It’s all over, I tell him.

12:57. The whale breaches. So it was a whale. I keep my finger on the shutter and when it breaches again, I get it. Why don’t I have a huge telephoto? If I drop the whale image into my TNB piece, it’s going to be pixellated. People will laugh. The bay’s beautiful, but nothing’s happening.

1:00. Head home.

1:15. My stepson calls. What’s happening, I just saw it on the news. Well, it was nothing, and now it’s over.

1:20. Home. A bunch of emails, including one from Matt, who wishes the tsunami to pass like a flowing stream rather than a raging torrent. There’s one from Greg, who has snow and won’t have power until Tuesday. Those are worse circumstances than mine would have been, even if the tsunami had lived up to its billing.

1:30. How to make sense of the day? I can’t. It’s too complicated, emotionally. It’s wrong to feel disappointment because a natural disaster didn’t live up to expectations. It was so scheduled, and I admired that. The warning system, the computer models. The emergency preparations were precise and well-executed. Everything worked as it was supposed to. At Civil Defense they must be celebrating, and they should be. And yet I feel certain that among them, there are some who are disappointed that they will have very little post-tsunami work to do.

2:00. Well, for excitement I can thin my banana patch and take a load to the dump. I put the ax back in the shop. I get my machete and fell a couple of dozen bananas, and load the heavy green-black trunks, wetting myself with their juices. It’s the only water that’s hit me today. I hitch up the trailer and head down the hill for The Dump.

2:15. Oh, the Dump is closed today.

The Dump

By Don Mitchell


Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time at The County of Hawai’i South Hilo Solid Waste Disposal Site, which is usually just called The Dump. I’ve written about The Dump in I Don’t Brake for Mongoose and Badass Pink Chevy .


By Don Mitchell


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.