Moloka'i Nui Ahina
Chipper Daniels was my hapa haole grandmother's first try at
marriage. She'd already had two sons out of wedlock and the first
son was my father. Chipper came in the Indian Summer of her romantic
life, not long after she'd had an affair with Alan Ladd in Honolulu.
My big brother Ben and I called Chipper "uncle" because he wasn't
our real grandfather. But even today, whenever I imagine a
grandfather, he always comes to mind. My memory of him is a mosaic
of fragments, pieces gathered like ocean-smoothed glass along the
beaches of east end Moloka'i. Their marriage ended somewhat
amicably, with Gramma giving Chipper a life estate on an acre
between the dump and the mangrove swamp. The swamp marked the
eastern edge of her property, the border where Kainalu Stream pooled
to feed the greedy roots of the mangrove. In the early days on
Moloka'i, the days before garbage was hauled out to the public road
for collection, landowners reserved less desirable acres for things
they lacked the heart or the ability to destroy. If something once
held value in Gramma's world, it usually found a final resting place
on the banks of Kainalu Stream.
At first, the ranch belonged to Chipper. His parents had given it to
him when he returned a hero from The Great War. He called it Hale
Kia, Hawaiian for "Home of the Deer." He named it that to honor the
herds of Axis deer roaming the high country. Hale Kia began at the
beach. Then it reached over the flatlands through the pastures and
extended up to the skyline. The property recognized the same
boundaries King Kamehameha had devised when determining districts
for his chiefs. Moloka'i was divided into ahupua'as, parcels of land
that began at the shore and ended at the skyline. The sacred
elements of water, earth and sky defined where one ahupua'a ended
and the next began.
Chipper wanted to share Hale Kia with Gramma. But the more she
learned to love the land, the more their relationship suffered.
Chipper's heroics in the war helped him accept the fact he was
living off a trust; he didn't need to work because there was enough
money for food and booze. He threw luaus and seduced local girls
foolish enough to attend. Chipper's depression started when the
Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, not because of the loss of American
lives, but because here was a war with bigger stakes. And, because
every new war demands new heroes, Chipper's heroism in the first war
faded from his mind and the minds of the people on Moloka'i. He was
a has been. That's when his love for Gramma deteriorated into
something brutal and damaging.
Gramma ignored Chipper's drinking and infidelities. She acquired
skills essential to survival on the east end, things like riding
horses, rounding up cattle and mending fences. Gramma used her
skills to secure a job as a fence rider at Pu'u O Hoku Ranch. Men on
the west end of Moloka'i, fascinated by stories of the beautiful
woman who worked as a paniola, traveled thirty miles on horseback
just to catch a glimpse of the wahine who could rope and ride.
My grandmother was in her early thirties when Chipper began throwing
week-long parties at Hale Kia, gatherings that attracted mostly
Hawaiian and hapa haole men. Gramma was not only a woman among men,
she was also the only hapa haole woman east of Kaunakakai. The men
showed up at Hale Kia dressed like they were going to
Church—button-down shirts, slacks, and shiny cowboys boots. My
grandmother was a goddess to them, a thin brunette in a green
kimono, her hair up like a geisha. Her face was painted—mascara,
rouge, pink lipstick dragged over her thin lips. She wanted to show
Chipper she could be beautiful and act submissive. "All dolled up,"
she thought as she dragged a white wicker chair over the lawn and
sat while the men stood around her drinking red eye out of pickle
jars. They stood like fence posts, posts that leaned more and more
into one another the drunker they got. Chipper handed her a jar and
she started drinking. She pretended to be watching the ocean between
two men while her mind filled with thoughts of her lovers. The lows
and highs flashed like images on a newsreel, from the blond
Englishman she'd met as a sixteen-year-old to the rugged Portuguese
longshoreman and, finally, to Chipper. She had chosen to be on
Moloka'i with Chipper and that was that. She raised the pickle jar
and drank. The red eye burned her heart. She knew what she was
doing, and part of her wanted to smash the jar against the brick
retaining wall on the side of the house. But she kept drinking. She
saw her two sons living with her piha kanaka maoli mother in a
run-down rental on Oahu. She loved them but Chipper didn't want them
around. She couldn't leave Chipper because she couldn't return to
Oahu, the island where two men had left her. Pakalaki memories.
Moloka'i was her island now and she would make the best of it. She
watched Chipper gulp from his pickle jar. He was ten years older but
it seemed more like twenty. She was glad the men lived far away on
other ranches so they could not hear the screams in the days and
nights between parties. Chipper was not dressed like the other men.
He wore a pair of rolled-up Levis, and his bare chest was red from
the sun. He wore no shoes, and he crouched on the centipede grass
next to the wicker chair like an old lion prepared to relinquish his
mate and his territory. She'd caught him with a girl in the
ironwoods. "I own this god damn ranch," he'd said, "I can do any god
damn thing I want." "Kua'aina!" she'd said and busted the bottom off
an Old Granddad bottle and chased him through the forest with the
When Chipper's was unable to pay his property taxes, he signed over
Hale Kia to Gramma in exchange for a life estate across from the
dump. This exchange took place the same month the divorce papers
came in from Honolulu. So, within a year, Chipper lost his wife, his
land and whatever pride he had left. Even the local girls grew tired
of his violent binges and stopped driving out to the dump.
But Chipper still had the bottle.
* * *
Ben and I scoured Hale Kia's shore for weeks finding fuel for our
first bonfire. Ben had our mother's blonde hair, green eyes, and
refined features. I had the dark complexion and rugged features of
our hapa haole father. We found kiawe branches, shingles, old
coconuts, planks full of rusty nails, lumber with Japanese symbols
and hau logs. I even gathered up string and rope. We kept our
stockpile on the shore in front of Gramma's house. Our parents were
across the channel on Maui and my father said he wanted to see Hale
Kia from his hotel room. The previous summer, he hadn't seen a
single light on Moloka'i; my Irish mother said Moloka'i hardly
looked like "The Friendly Isle" as advertised by The Hawaii Visitors
Bureau. She'd suggested they change the name to "The God Forsaken
Isle." I shared Ben's determination that they'd see us this time.
Gramma was less than thrilled about our bonfire, especially after
she caught me playing with matches. She walked down to the beach and
circled our mound of wood. She was a tiny woman who spoke a type of
creole common on Moloka'i. She was wearing her usual ranch attire—
cowboy boots, jeans, palaka shirt, and a lauhala hat with a wide
brim. She looked haole but her eyes slanted.
"Ya kids are too young fo' fires," she said.
"Daddy said we could," Ben said.
"Don't burn it near me."
"What's the big deal?" I asked.
Gramma crossed her arms and gave me the evil eye. "If one spark
hits, ya'll burn me down."
"Nothing'll happen," I said.
"Yeah," Ben said, "and Daddy wants it."
"Ya damn firebugs," Gramma said, "drag it down by Chippa's."
We dragged our stockpile east and piled it on the shore down from
Uncle Chipper's house. I wasn't worried about Chipper because I'd
never seen him on the beach. His pale skin was a testament to the
fact he stayed indoors. His house was set back behind a forest of
ironwoods. There was a boat turned upside down next to his garage,
and I took that as a sign he'd given up on the ocean the way he'd
given up on Gramma all those years ago. I always thought of Kainalu
Stream as Chipper's waterway, but Gramma'd said Chipper would drop
wire traps in the deep water past the reef. That place scared me
because the water was ink blue and you couldn't see bottom. "He
brought up horrible things in those traps," Gramma'd said.
Ben and I found a stretch of dry sand above the high tide mark. We
stood the biggest logs and leaned them against one another. Soon we
had the skeleton for our bonfire. We placed lumber, shingles and
branches against the logs. When we'd finished, there was a hill of
wood. Ben tossed in coconuts and I threw in string and rope. That's
when Uncle Chipper came out of the ironwood forest. He was a tall
man made taller by the fact he was rail thin. He wore a green cap,
an undershirt, shorts, and sandals. He picked his way along a sand
path because toes were missing on each foot. He smelled like sour
wine. I felt bad seeing him on two feet and had the urge to run to
his porch and bring him a chair.
"What's the ruckus?" he asked.
"This is our bonfire," Ben said.
"What in the Hell fo'?"
"So our parents can see us."
"They're on Maui," I explained.
Chipper looked out across Pailolo Channel. His creole wasn't as
pronounced as Gramma's, and he seemed to avoid Hawaiian words. He
hobbled over and picked up a shingle. "Some of this's good."
"Help yourself," Ben said.
"Gotta 'nough junk."
"Gramma said burn it here," I said.
Chipper dropped the shingle. "Oh, she did, did she?"
"Yeah," Ben said.
"When you're ready," he said, "get me." He hobbled back on the path
into the ironwoods. He didn't seem like a bad man, but, according to
Gramma, he'd placed a litter of kittens in a burlap bag with a large
rock and boated them out into the harbor.
"Did you see his feet?" I whispered.
"Yeah," Ben said.
"How'd he lose his toes?"
"Mowing his lawn without shoes."
"Why'd he do that?"
"He was drunk on red eye."
That night, Ben and I waited on the lanai for the phone to ring
three times. That would be the signal from Maui to start the fire.
We were to call after the bonfire was lit. The moon was full and the
ocean was a silver meadow. I could see the lights from Kaanapali,
Maui's answer to Waikiki. My mother loved it there because of its
hotels, restaurants and piano bars. It was hard to believe my father
couldn't see lights on our island. The phone rang three times.
"Shoot yo' pickles!" Gramma said through the screen door.
Ben and I ran down the beach. It was windy. Ben had newspaper and a
box of matches. When we reached the wood he shoved in a wad of paper
and struck a match. The paper wouldn't light. I could see the spark
against the box and the flaming match on the paper, but the wind was
too strong. Ben burned his fingers on the fourth match. "We need
help," he said and ran into the forest.
I looked across the channel and prayed my father hadn't given up.
The wind howled and the clouds covered the moon. "Hurry," I said. I
heard branches breaking and saw shadows in the forest. Ben had
brought Uncle Chipper. Chipper still had on his cap. He held a can
and spilled gas over the wood. "Stand back," he said. He lit a
match, cupped it and carried a blue flame to the mound. The logs
ignited with a rush. Every piece we'd gathered, even the wet wood,
flared to life. My coils of string and rope burned in the guts of
the bonfire. The wind fanned the fire and soon the flames were
jumping a hundred feet into the sky. The three of us stood there
watching sparks leap for the stars.
"They'll see you tonight," Chipper said.
"Mahalo, Uncle Chipper," Ben said.
He nodded and walked off with his can. I watched his thin shadow
move through the ironwoods. This was the same forest he'd used to
hide things from Gramma and now he was hiding himself.
I danced in the orange sand. "We did it!"
"Call Maui," Ben said.
"You're not coming?"
"I promised Uncle Chipper I'd stay with the fire."
I ran along the shore. The beach was wet from the rising tide. My
Keds sunk deep in the sand. I reached the incline to Gramma's house
and climbed over the frame of an open storm window. Gramma was
waiting for me on the lanai.
"It's lit!" I said.
"Damn firebug," she replied.
I followed her into the kitchen, where she phoned my father and
handed me the receiver.
"Can you see us?" I asked him.
He laughed. "Looks like Moloka'i's on fire!"
That made me feel great. I looked through the screen door and saw
the lights on Kaanapali. One of those was his. It struck me that my
father was a good man. For the first time in a long time I felt
close to him. Ben and I had finally done something right. My mother
got on the phone and told me she had already sung Kui Lee's "I'll
Remember You" at the Hyatt piano bar. There was nothing in her voice
that said she missed us, and she seemed more like a distant aunt
than a mother.
"Are you having fun?" I asked her.
"I'm getting a good rest," she said and handed the phone back to my
"Keep an eye on that bonfire," he said.
"I will." I gave Gramma the receiver and charged out of the house.
As I ran back along the beach, I could see sparks flying over the
forest. Coconuts started exploding. The night had a rich, exotic
smell. As I approached, I could see Ben's silhouette against the
flames. He was dragging palm fronds across the sand. He tossed the
fronds in. "Wha'd Daddy say?" he asked.
"Moloka'i's on fire."
Ben nodded and held out his hands to the flames. "Bitchin'."
I thought about how Uncle Chipper had helped us and then disappeared
in the ironwood forest. He had helped our father see us across seven
miles of ocean. The fire was our flag on this dark coast and it felt
as if the island belonged to Ben and me. We were victorious. But
Chipper had not shared in our victory. He'd decided years ago to
ignore my father because he refused to raise another man's son.
I watched the flames destroy everything we'd gathered.