Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘Hawaii’

X is for The Book Whose Title I Can’t Remember

When I was about ten, early 1958, my parents took us to New York City to see the United Nations. Living in Trenton, New Jersey, we were only a few hours’ drive from the Big Apple, but in reality we were a continent removed. Trenton, though it was the capitol of NJ, was small town compared to cosmopolitan NYC. After a tour of the building, (no meeting in session that day) we three kids each got to pick a souvenir from the gift shop. I chose a kid’s book of short stories, and it’s this book I want to honor as my choice for the letter X.

I can no longer recall the title or author, or even if it was written by one person or several. The stories were intended to relate the good work of UN programs and workers all over the world: the unnamed, unsung heroes who brought modernity to cultures lost in the inefficiency of past centuries, health to tribes hampered by eradicable illnesses and looked after by primitive medicine men, and a sense of the connections that the symbol of world unity promised everyone. I will never forget a few of the stories, especially the one I want to tell you about here.

Less than six months after the visit, my parents moved us to Hawaii where we lived for two years before returning to the mainland on my thirteenth birthday. This was our second inhabitance of O’ahu, the first being when I was nearing the age of four. My dad had graduated in 1952 from Thomas Jefferson University Medical College (now Sidney Kimmel Medical College) in Philadelphia, where I’d been born. He joined the army and did his first year of medical residency at Tripler Army Medical Center on the mountainous slopes of the Moanalua Ridge. We lived on base housing. It’s comical to call the units “housing.” In the very early 1900’s, they’d been the hospital wards at Fort Shafter, later converted to physician and officer housing when the iconic coral pink edifice was built around 1944. By the time we moved in, my mom was uncomfortably pregnant and unbearably lonely for her family, and the tiny row of converted quarters were nearly unlivable.

Tripler was and remains the largest Army medical facility in the region, serving Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and various other locations in the Pacific Rim and Asia. It’s important to understand that Hawaii was a Petri dish of cultures that converged and mingled from China, Japan, Philippines, and the US mainland, among others. Everyone brought their native diseases along with their luggage and aging grandparents. In addition, Hawaii is tropical, hot and wet, a fertile nursery for bugs, viruses, and germs, pervasive, exotic, and sometimes fatal. My parents made certain that the three of us were inoculated against smallpox, a genuine threat then, before we left Philadelphia. It kept me safe from smallpox.

They couldn’t vaccinate me against my idiotic four-year-old self.

The story I most remember from the UN book tells about an African village where the natives lived in grass huts and suffered from all kinds of illnesses, many borne by bugs. Malaria, widespread because of Anopheles mosquitoes prevalent in many parts of Africa, was of greatest concern, though I don’t know if the disease was mentioned in the story. It was and is a terrible disease, one that causes raging high fevers, vomiting, brutal headaches, long term physical debilitation, coma, even death, especially to young children.

The UN team entered one tiny hamlet and demanded, nicely of course, that every villager present himself to be doused with a miracle spray that would kill any bug making them ill. Everyone showed up and was sprayed with the wonder insecticide: dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – DDT, as you’ve probably guessed. Yep, the toxic pollutant that eventually wiped out or endangered many species, is absorbed into the soil, and may be responsible for carcinogenic illnesses in humans. Then the team went hut to hut and sprayed the interiors and all belongings of each. At one hut, a nervous woman tried to prevent the team from entering. When they did, they spotted a bundle of rags, unwrapped it, and discovered her newborn child. She didn’t want her baby sprayed. Smiling, they insisted, and pulled the infant from its swaddling, sprayed its entire body, and returned the baby to mother’s arms. At ten, I considered it a fabulous conclusion. Ignorant, uneducated mother’s baby was now safe from bad bugs. God knows, I hate bugs.

The first time we lived on O’ahu in the ramshackle base housing, (1952 – ‘53) my mom figured I was relatively safe and let me have the run of the area around the houses, as did all the other children. Imagine, two rows of cardboard-thin buildings facing each other across a swath of lush lawn, lantana, Poinciana, hibiscus, plumeria, coconut, and palm trees, and dozens of kids running all over. All the moms looked out for all the kids – sort of. No one really stood watch as it wasn’t necessary. We ran up and down the gardens all day, getting home before dark every evening. Nothing bad ever happened to any of us.

Except that I started coughing. A lot. A deep persistent cough I couldn’t control no matter how often my parents yelled at me. I was a bad advertisement for a doctor. Finally, suspecting tuberculosis, dad and another physician sneaked me into Tripler’s laboratory at midnight, (completely illegal entry) drew my blood, and looked at it under a microscope. No tubercular bugs, thank God, so they went back to telling me to stop coughing. No one knew why I coughed so much, but I knew I couldn’t stop the tickle, the itch, the discomfort that caused me to choke until I coughed. The year after we left Hawaii, we moved to army housing in Enterprise, Alabama. I was five now and kindergarten delayed because I suffered from a strange illness that made me cough and feel exhausted all the time. I was an adult, married and living in California with two sons before my dad told me I’d had mononucleosis that year.

Decades later I came across the UN book and reread it in an afternoon, paying special attention to the story about the African woman and her baby who got sprayed with DDT. And I remembered something long forgotten till then.

In Hawaii in 1952 and ‘53, a small truck came around the base housing neighborhood once a week, driving up the adjacent street, and emitting a sweetish smelling spray from its backside. We kids were fascinated by that truck. We ran through its rear mist, sniffing the spray, lost in its peculiar thick fog, unable to see our own hands much less the other kids. If an adult had been watching, they might not have seen us either. Maybe as many as twenty-five times during that year, I chased the truck, laughing and breathing in DDT.

Rachel Carson, the brilliant, tenacious, observant naturalist, wrote of the dangers of DDT in Silent Spring, published in 1962. The same toxic chemical identified by Rachel Carson as so very dangerous to the environment, to animals, and to people that she advocated persuasively for it to be banned. We’d moved to Hawaii for the second time in 1959, (dad was no longer in the military, he just wanted to live in paradise,) then moved to California in 1961. Whatever damage was done to our young family in 1952 and ‘53, was not repeated during our second sojourn.

I’ve since suffered bronchitis innumerable times and serious bouts of pneumonia approximately ten or eleven times. I’ve had both pneumonia shots and still caught a nasty case of it a day after getting one of them.

Chemical pesticides are dangerous to earth and living things – we know this now. The few who knew early about the dangers of DDT were muffled or ignored. All those illnesses it tried to eradicate were/are also extremely dangerous. I’ve since lost the book, probably forever, but it is my choice for the letter X, representing the unknown factor.


NOTE: I read Silent Spring in the 1970’s. Since the book was published and DDT ultimately banned, malaria increased in enormous numbers around the globe but especially in third world countries where other medical help was not easily available. Millions of people suffered and died from malaria. It’s been disputed that DDT caused the numerous deaths from all kinds of cancers that Rachel Carson claimed, and the chemical has since been reinstated. I am neither scientist nor researcher. Readers should consult those who are expert in the field for accurate information. My purpose in writing this review of a non-book was to show my actual experience with DDT and to suggest a warning. Not everything is what appears on its surface, and most new solutions to any kind of problem also generate unexpected consequences. X does indeed represent the unknown factor.


I look forward to learning about your favorite X fiction books.

I offer no other books as contenders for X.


United Nations image courtesy: Google images and Wikimedia Commons; photo of Sharon Bonin, age 4, courtesy Bonin Family archives



O What a Life, Part V, Extraordinary Changes, C


My first grandson, two years old at the time, toddled at an indoor playground, climbing on giant cement lions and through red and blue walls pierced with cutouts meant to teach shapes. He loved every minute of play until he stood in front of a wavy mirror, one of those that you find at a funhouse. He looked at what he knew was supposed to be him. The twisted, misshapen little reflection that looked back made him shiver and turn away. Life is much the same. We don’t need funhouse mirrors to show us how much the rest of the world may see us as distorted. This is some of the story of the final two years I lived in Hawaii. From when I was 11 and in sixth grade until the end of seventh grade, Hawaii was my home.

The day my parents deceived me. I’d watched my dad dig out the driveway during a raging blizzard in New Jersey. Someone had called him to make a house call, and dedicated physician that he was, he would not say no. I stood at my window, crying as the snow and wind pummeled him. He couldn’t go to serve their needs until he could get the car out of the garage and down the driveway. My breath on the window, I pleaded for him to come inside where it was safe. He couldn’t hear me of course, and he would have ignored me if he had. Months later my parents announced we were going to move to Hawaii, to live there for only one year. Warm and tropical Hawaii was a melting pot where people of all races and religions lived in peace and harmony. My sister and brother were too young to understand the potential upheaval of their lives, but at 11, I had stakes in where I lived. Only a year? I could do that. A year was an adventure, and I told my friends and cousins we’d be back soon. I trusted my parents. I went without complaint.

But we didn’t go back to live. Ever. I only saw my friends and family a few times after that, each visit “home” awkward with newness and unsuited habits. I’d been deceived. We lived in Hawaii that second time for nearly two years, and when we returned to the mainland, it was to California, not New Jersey. No matter what is written or believed, you simply can never go back because what you left behind doesn’t exist anymore. The friendships melted like popsicles, the relationships with family thinned to gruel, and we, the transplanted members, were strangers all. I missed everything. I missed everything.

The first day of sixth grade in Honolulu. I’d left school in the middle of autumn so school was already in session in both states. There ends the similarity between those two schools. I started in a public school in the hills outside of Honolulu. We were renting a home in the heart of a tropical garden but my paradise ended at the school gates. The class was comprised entirely of Asian kids who sat in a divided room, girls on one side and boys on the other. Two sets of rows arranged the kids in partners of two, each desk butted up against the next. As in Trenton, I was one of the tiniest kids in this class but was still assigned the very back row next to a tall, big-boned girl. That was, I sat there for the first day. My second day of class, my desk had been pushed up against the teacher’s. It isolated me from the all the other kids. I wondered what deed had banned me to such far corner. Later I heard that the Chinese girl who’d been my one-day partner would not sit next to a Haole (white) girl, and her parents enforced the demand.

I dressed and looked different. I wore saddle shoes and bobby socks, crinolines under my skirts, and my blond curls obeyed no orders but their own. My fair skin burned quickly. My thick NJ accent made it difficult for the kids to determine meaning from what I said. The other girls wore slim, sleeveless shifts, their straight black hair sleekly tied in pony tails or held neatly by headbands. Nearly all the kids walked barefoot but that wasn’t even a discussion in my house. With no textbooks in the entire school, (there wasn’t at that time a single Hawaiian public high school accredited for college admission, making private schools mandatory for anyone hoping to attend college) the teacher taught by oral lecture, delivered in pidgin English. You’ve probably heard snippets of this dialect on TV shows. Da kine, lolo, and auwee are common and easy to translate. True pidgin is as hard to understand as Beowulf in its original dialect. Listening to an entire conversation confounded me as I tried to figure out what the teacher said on my first day in her class, the last day of that particular unit. They’d been studying Pennsylvanian coal mines in social studies, a subject I hadn’t studied in New Jersey. (Don’t ask me why a class of Chinese-Hawaiian kids were studying Pennsylvanian coal mines. It made no sense to me then or now.) I couldn’t understand anything she said and went home that night with nothing to study because there was no textbook, remember?

On my second day of school, the teacher passed out a 2-page test on Pennsylvanian coal mines. As I stared at dozens of questions on a topic about which I knew absolutely nothing, a pre-recorded voice came over the loud speaker, jabbering about bat-filled caves in New Mexico. Near panic about the test and now distracted by the noise over the PA system, I finally realized that if I could block out the New Mexico cave audio, I could concentrate on the test about which I knew nothing. What a great idea the Hawaiians had come up with! So I blocked the cave lecture, focused on coal mines, and turned in a test of wild guesses and made up responses. On my third day of school I sat at my desk, far enough that I would not contaminate the other kids (I guess) and watched in horror and shame as the teacher held up my coal mine test with the first “F” I’d ever received. Then she held up another “F” grade I’d earned – on the bat caves of New Mexico.

All through the school we could hear the screams of children being beaten by their teachers. Corporal punishment was permitted throughout the Hawaiian public school system, and this school exercised its rights regularly. Our teacher threatened often but I never witnessed her beating a kid. My little brother, only 6, was so terrified (his teacher did beat kids in his class, though never him) that he developed a stutter and no one could understand him. His smile disappeared behind a face pale with nerves.

Recess time required that you play. Simply wandering on the playground by yourself was not permitted, and refusal to join a game promised a kid a reason for a beating. Every recess proved a nightmare for me. No one would let me play in the games so I walked at the perimeter of activities, hoping that it looked to the supervisors as if I was engaged in playing on a team. It required careful placement of feet so I appeared to play without incursion onto the play courts where I was not welcome.

My life at Punahou School. Punahou means “new spring,” as in a surfacing of underground water, and the famous Hawaiian school is named for a beautiful natural spring in the center of the campus. My dad arranged through a colleague to have me tested for admission to Punahou in the middle of the year, something that almost never happened. But I got accepted and got out of the public school where I was hated to become a student at Punahou, a school founded in the 1800’s by Christian ministers. (We moved houses at about the same time, and my little brother also got transferred to another school where he eventually calmed and dropped his stutter as he learned to smile again.) Would love to say that they loved me at Punahou but they didn’t. I was the odd girl still, and I admit that I didn’t know how to make friends. Still, the choirmaster loved me. Well, he loved me the first day I attended his class.

He walked around the pews, listening to about 60 little voices, seeking two that could sing, a boy and a girl. I’d studied music in NJ, piano and singing, including a few summers with an instructor who taught us, a bunch of very young kids, not only how to sing in multi-part harmony, but to sing opera. We didn’t know we were too young to learn opera; hell, we didn’t even know we were singing opera. We just followed his directions and sang a bunch of songs in languages other than English. That young, my voice was pretty and dependable and very soprano. So when the Punahou choirmaster heard me sing, he thought he’d hit the musical jackpot. I was child who’d had training and could carry a tune. He selected me and one lucky little boy to sing the solo for the upcoming musical performance in front of the entire school. He sent me home with orders to practice.

Thing is, I am Jewish and the song was a Christian hymn about loving Jesus with all my soul. No way could I practice that song in my home. I was too terrified to even tell my mom what I’d been chosen to sing. So I did practice. I did everything my NJ opera teacher had taught us. I opened my mouth and shaped each sound, lifted from my diaphragm, controlled my breathing, pronounced each and every syllable succinctly, rounded the vowels, and projected to the back of the auditorium. Punahou’s auditorium was huge, with an enormous downstairs area crammed with wooden seats and a spacious balcony. I practiced soundlessly, lest my Jewish mother hear me singing about Jesus and send me straight to hell with a few of her famous punches and enough Yiddish curses to make Oahu blush.

On the day of the performance, I stood in the front of the entire choir next to the lucky little boy who had also been selected. We faced a packed auditorium and though I knew from theater and ballet recitals not to look directly at the audience but at an imaginary spot on the far wall, I still saw about a million pair of eyes staring at me. Me, the new little kid whom no one liked.

The choirmaster stood in the orchestra pit and lifted his arms to direct us. I did fine with the ensemble pieces – every individual voice got lost in the jumble of many kids singing. But when it came time for me and unlucky little boy to sing our solos – well, I did as I had practiced. I opened my mouth and lifted my voice from my diaphragm; I rounded the vowels and articulated the consonants. And I sang silently. Not one sound emitted from my throat. Couldn’t do it. Didn’t know how. Choirmaster’s eyes opened so wide I worried that they’d fall from his sockets. He gestured with windmill spins, opened his own mouth in a gape and pulled his shoulders high enough to touch his ears. The veins in his neck pulsed and his skin sunburned in front of me. I did the best I could, but a Jewish kid cannot sing to Jesus, and so my voice simply did not function.

Choirmaster never called on me again to sing though he demanded to know why I hadn’t performed. I stared at him, my voice struck dumb. It was not like me to ever refuse to obey a teacher but there was nothing I could explain.

The next day the Punahou kids finally welcomed me to their school. They planted a cockroach the size of a dinner plate inside my homeroom desk. Did I tell you how terrified I’ve always been of bugs?

I’d witnessed and suffered the shame of prejudice and humiliation of being different in the tropical islands that my parents insisted were a melting pot of races, cultures, and faiths, with Hawaiians joyously celebrating differences and commonalities. Hula and luau and stories of Madame Pele bound us in the myths that draw tourists to the islands in droves of happiness-seekers. I still have never returned though one day I would love to travel there and see it without the strange colors of my childhood to make it seem ugly. May God and all the gods bless the islands and people of Hawaii.



Image courtesy, public domain

O What a Life, Part III Extraordinary Changes, A

The moment our father’s sperm pierces our mother’s egg and forms a zygote, we’re in for the lifetime of changes that will make us who we are. There is nothing so certain, transformative, or unpredictable as change. We might cast spells to resist it or attempt to chant it into essence more quickly, but we can almost never foretell the future until we reflect on the outcome many years later. Until we think about what might have happened had the change not taken place. History books swell with facts and theories about the big events that shaped the centuries and defined world cultures. The deaths of great men and women whose names and deeds everyone knows; the establishment of international organizations to promote peace; wars and revolutions that destroy generations of children for the future of others; the passing of federal acts, laws, and amendments to balance national justice; the pacts that create new nations out of old colonies – each of us knows these stories in personal ways. We know where we stood when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and our dreams exploded into space; when Hurricane Andrew landed in New Orleans and drowned so many innocents; when terrorists flew stolen planes into the Twin Towers and flouted American principles of freedom; and when a small town in Japan called Fukushima suffered a tsunami and threatened the safety of the world with leaking radiation.

Following are the intimate moments that took my breath away, that made me fall on my knees and forced my fist to my mouth, stifling huzzahs or shrieks. These are the extraordinary changes that marked and shaped my life. (more…)

O What a Life, Part II, Extraordinary Places

Today’s post is the second in a series about the kinds of Life Experiences that enrich our lives. This one recalls Extraordinary Places. If you’d like to read the first post, Extraordinary Events, please see the publication for June 23, 2014. Extraordinary Changes will follow soon.

Shari’s Life Experiences – selected choices from a full closet: Extraordinary Places

The edge of the Grand Canyon which opened up before me, an mile-wide, golden-red cleft in the earth at the edge of a plateau. At the precipice you could see across to the North Rim, and forever along the silver strand of the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. Massive sculptures crafted of granite and limestone rose from the valley floor. Our sons were 6 and 10 and as rambunctious as the canyon’s squirrels. The sun breathed viciously hot, but you could peer to the heart of the Earth.

Standing above the original Queens Bath in Kalapana, Hawaii. I was only 4 but mesmerized by its beauty, a drop of liquid emerald in the ferny rain forest. We’d toured Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii for a week or so, and I was one of only a very few children who got to hike with the adults. The pool was later destroyed by volcano, so memory is all that exists for anyone. This was the first time I lived in Hawaii, on Oahu for about a year while my dad interned at Tripler Army Hospital. My brother was born on Oahu. (more…)

The Revolution of Dreams

This is a tribute to Nelson Mandela, but you must bear with me to get to the tribute.

We moved to Oahu, Hawaii in late 1959. It was the second time my family had lived there, the first being the year when I turned four and my dad served in the US Army as a physician, doing his internship at Tripler Army Hospital after earning his medical degree. Our second venture, my parents had promised two things: that Hawaii was a melting pot of races and beliefs, and that we would only stay one year. An adventure from which we’d return to our lives in New Jersey and resume our East Coast friendships and pursuits. (Didn’t work out that way, but that’s another story.)

Now 11, I had a tough time on this island paradise. I wore bobby socks and saddle shoes, crinolines under my flared skirts, and spoke with a pronounced New Joisey accent. The local kids wore shifts (a sleeveless straight dress more like a slip than what I considered a dress,) went barefoot, and spoke Pidgin English. I’d studied classical ballet, opera, theatre, piano, French, and had read almost all the children’s classics. The Hawaiian kids went surfing, danced hula, played ukulele, strung leis, and knew all the ancient Hawaiian legends about the volcano goddess, Madame Pele, and the menehune, secretive elves who lived in the thousands of caves on the islands. Many of the island kids traced their lineage to Hawaiian royalty or to ancestors in Asia. I traced mine to Polish and Russian Jews who escaped Europe just in time. (For Jews who escaped Europe, it was always just in time.)

There was nothing wrong with the island kids. I just didn’t fit. I was outcast immediately at Punahou, the elite private school where Barack Obama was later educated. More than the personal torment from the island kids, who told me I would always be a mainlander in their eyes, and who put a fist sized cockroach in my desk as a way of welcoming me to school, was the torment I witnessed them inflicting on each other. Shifting social status was the norm, causing an uncomfortable ranking system. I was always at the bottom. Perhaps it increased my sensitivity to the plight of others.

You need to know that the center of Oahu is occupied by American troops. Everyone who lives in Hawaii is familiar with the military bases in the mountains. Ships of all kinds berth at the docks, and military transports fly in and out of the airbases on a regular schedule. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps are all prominent. Young soldiers (I’ll call them all soldiers though I recognize that they each have specific identification depending on their military commitment) from their ranks often going into Honolulu on liberty to experience the bars and probably the brothels. Even at 11, I understood that my freedom and security were reinforced and guaranteed by the presence of these courageous troops who were only about ten years older than I and far from home.

Getting to and from school each day required I take two or three city bus rides that meandered through the suburbs. I sometimes walked the second transfer rather than wait for the bus, an easy task in the languid Hawaiian climate. One day as I walked, I noted two young Army soldiers about 15 steps ahead of me. They were dressed in uniforms sharply pressed and perfectly fitted, their caps at a jaunty angle on their short hair. They walked in long strides staying on the sidewalk, and if they spoke, I couldn’t hear them. Respectful and dignified. Did I mention that they were Black Americans? (Wasn’t the words we used then. I would probably have called them Negro and meant it with complete esteem.)

The bus I would have taken lumbered by, a steel cab of seats, wheels, and lights. Out of the open windows leaned its passengers, those who would have been my fellow travelers. They were the typical motley group of Hawaiian islanders in the late 50’s – mixed Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Haole (white,) Portuguese, the melting pot my parents had promised. It seemed the entire busload of occupants thrust their heads and arms through the windows, gesturing as if shooing foraging dogs. They screamed, “Go home, you niggahs, go home.”

Intaking daggers with my breath, I stopped walking for a few moments. The young soldiers did not. They didn’t respond in any way, at least not outwardly. The Pacific Command is headquartered in Honolulu. The safety of the passengers, of our country, was insured by the vast presence of military on the island, from where troops were trained and later deployed to fight in Japan and Korea, later in Vietnam, Iraq, other parts of the Middle East. That day the soldiers walked. Next month they might have been given orders to any dangerous hotspot in the world, and only God knows if they would have returned safely. The busload of passengers had reduced them to a nasty slur, discounting their sacrifice. In their prejudiced minds all they saw was the color of their skin and not the valor of their occupation, the dignity of their being.

It was probably a decade before I heard the name Nelson Mandela and knew who he was. It was a decade in which my sense of tolerance for those who are different from me grew with my frustration at the bigotry of so many. Mandela despised the moral turpitude that allowed the white population to discredit black people. He worked to right those social and political wrongs. Before I left Hawaii on my thirteenth birthday, he was already imprisoned for his actions against the government of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela spent his life working to build bridges between people of different colors, encouraging them to see that we are all connected by our humanity. He was not always gentle, he was not always soft spoken. He never gave up. He demanded opportunity for everyone; he demanded a voice for each person. He did not want to erase the color of one’s skin but praise the beauty of all people. He was anti-apartheid in a country ruled by the fist and power of a minority who saw him and his brethren as inferior and threatening and who controlled the native population by refusing to provide equal education to the children or options for advancement for the adults.

You scared me sometimes, Nelson Mandela. You woke me up to the injustices in South Africa. You won my admiration by the persistence of your devotion to universal rights. You showed us how a nation can be transformed. You inspired me. We will miss you but your legacy remains. The world is a better place for you having been in it, and I have no doubt that you are welcomed to whatever place of divine grace comes next.