Monday, May 2, 2011

"Grounded by Humbleness": Okana Road, The Murder of Percy Kipapa & Mark Panek's _Big Happiness: The Life & Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior_

[The intersection of Hui Iwa with Kahekili Highway in Temple Valley, windward O`ahu]

Shortly after my husband, son and I moved from Hui Iwa Street (the makai side of Kahekili Highway) to Hui Kelu Street (on the mauka side) in early 2001, I bought a bicycle. When I ride to Kahekili Highway, which was named after the Maui chief who ruled O`ahu for nine years and killed its ali`i, I have very different choices to make. If I turn right, I head toward Valley of the Temples cemetery; beyond the cemetery, off Kahekili, are bedroom communities for people who work (mostly) in Honolulu. To the right is where my daughter's soccer team practices, her teammates' parents solidly middle class, standard-English speaking, at least in the semi-public world we operate in as we watch our daughters practice. Kahekili dead-ends at the Likelike highway, which goes through the mountain toward Town and provides easy access to H3, which also heads through the mountain, toward Pearl Harbor. If, on the other hand, I turn left at Kahekili, I ride quickly away from the suburbs and into Kahalu`u, rural O`ahu. I ride toward my son's baseball practice, where many parents speak strong pidgin; I overhear conversations about trying to kill the pigs that are eating your yard, about the miseries of the Castle High School baseball team. "They goin' chrow you nutting but curve balls," one coach tells my son, "aftah you hit one ball lidat." One day I talked to a prematurely wizened woman who told me she had wanted to adopt children, but her past, you know. Her cell phone rang, her reaction electric. Her son, just back to the USA from Afghanistan, safe.

When I first began riding my bike heading north (to the left), my goal was to reach Lulani Street, which goes quickly upward, arriving at astonishing views of Kualoa and Mokoli`i or Chinaman's Hat; on the other side of Lulani, I would turn left and return to Kahekili via Kamehameha Highway along the ocean, catching many of the same views from sea level.
At the intersection of Kam and Kahekili, I'd note a 7-Eleven to my right, the Hygienic Store across from me to the right, and directly across the highway a huge banyan tree sheltering a small group of people seated on folding chairs. I'd turn left, and return home on Kahekili's right shoulder, Ko`olau mountains to my right.

To get to Lulani, I rode on a section of Okana Road. Okana runs parallel to Kahekili Highway; from it you see highway traffic zipping past. But Okana Road is a different world from that of the highway that sits so close by. It's country. "Keep the Country Country" bumperstickers refer to roads like this one. The gulch between the roads is often muddy. Sometimes I see mostly teenage boys, but also parents and kids on motorcycles and four-wheel vehicles, riding as fast as they can in circles through the dirt and mud. A year ago one of them was killed when he drove into Kahekili Highway by the bus stop, on which someone still hangs flowers. His name was Kimo. Beside the road I often see abandoned cars, child seats, tires, all manner of trash left for someone else to pick up. My bike often scatters hens and their chicks; sometimes a rooster will crow loudly, then fly up into a nearby tree or run into the brush beside the road. There are a few small single-wall houses; in the carport of one I often see men sitting, drinking beer, talking story. They wave, I wave. There's always a lot of dirt on the paved road; it turns to mud in the not so occasional downpours, such as one I got caught in yesterday afternoon.

So, while Okana Road began for me as a route to another street, it quickly became a primary focus of my rides. I began to turn right at Ahuimanu and Okana Roads, rather than the usual left. (There's a map of the area here. No surprise that it comes off a realtor's site.) To the right there is less evidence of Kahekili Highway's proximity, though you can see the local sewer plant through the yards of houses to the right. (The smell moves toward Kahekili, where I catch it on the way home.) To the left are driveways, some of which disappear into the trees, others of which lead quickly to houses. Some of the driveways are gated (old gates, not fancy ones, like you find in Lanikai). Dogs bark, roosters crow (up the road a ways is a well-fenced house whose property is covered by dozens of rooster hutches; the decibel level is very high). Up a rise and down and then to the left the road goes, past houses, a lot full of containers, boats, industrial equipment and plants. It ends in a cul-de-sac where a group of nice houses sits, looking back down the road toward a mountain vista.

Okana Road fascinates: from its narrow asphalt you witness astonishing beauty. But lower your eyes and you might see a thin woman lean into a car briefly then dart away, or a low-riding Honda rice rocket sitting by the road with men sitting in it, waiting with their engine on. Across Kahekili, on Ahuimanu, just yesterday (Sunday), we saw a man and a woman facing off, a chain link fence between them. She screamed profanities at him; as we turned toward my son's baseball game, a police car turned toward the altercation. Like so much on this island, the beauty mixes with dissonance, the stark sense that something is amiss, though you cannot say quite what as you ride your bike, only stopping to take photographs or a quick drink of water, then continuing on. And, like so much on this island, the road has inspired a song, Natural Vibrations' Jawaiian "Okana Road," which celebrates fellowship, the growing of plants (the lyrics say taro, though one wonders), briefly mentions the ugly, intrusive Water Supply building at the corner ("Who the hell / Told you put that pump station in our yard") and then ends with the traditional (to Hawaiian mele) naming of places on O`ahu's east side.

For some reason (a recent adoption? soon-to-be trip away from home? not yet bike-riding on Okana Drive?) I do not remember the murder of Percy Kipapa in May, 2005 on Okana Road. He had just come from a stop at the 7-Eleven across from the Hygienic Store. Even more strangely, I don't remember the trial of his murderer a year later, a trial that was covered diligently by local media. So it was with a strange sense of a missing memory, one that ought to have firmly lodged there, that I read Mark Panek's new University of Hawai`i Press book, Big Happiness: The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior. I am grateful for this book for many reasons: it is at once a loving elegy to the author's friend, a history of Windward O`ahu since statehood (1959), an incisive piece of investigative journalism about land and water issues, development, and the crystal meth (ice) epidemic of the 1990s and 2000s. That epidemic struck all of Hawai`i--in fact, it struck many places like Hawai`i, where rural dreams run dry and the only way to make a living is to leave, join the military, hope to make it as an athlete--but it struck Kahalu`u particularly hard. It is also a book about Okana Road, about an area I know, however superficially, from the seat of my Specialized bike.

Panek's book is much more than a who-done-it, or even a why-was-it-done to this good man; Big Happiness (the title translates Kipapa's sumo name, Daiki) is forensic in its examination of root causes for the desperation that afflicts so many, its manifestation in the abuse of crystal methamphetamine. Percy Kipapa comes across as a man with a loving family--one that fought the loss of the family's land since the Mahele of the mid-19th century--who was recruited as a sumo wrestler due to his athleticism and his size (nearly 500 pounds). He lives in a community of windward O`ahu that fought hard to get back water that was being directed into development on the leeward side, once agriculture (sugar and pineapple especially) left the island. But he also lives in a community under constant threat from money and developers. The Japanese boom of the 1980s was particularly dangerous for what Panek calls its "addiction" to golf. Reaching back to a study commissioned just before statehood, Panek discovers that windward O`ahu was targeted for the same level of development that has occurred in Kapolei. According to Rev. Bob Nakata, a local minister (with whom I've waved election signs many times) and one of the real heroes of this book. It's worth quoting Nakata in full, because the scenario he describes would have altered the windward side completely, utterly: "They were going to dredge it all out . . . So this strip of low-lying land was going to be the wharfs and heavy industry. At the edge of the lagoon that was created for flood control there would be a twenty-acre sewage treatment plant. Hotel resort in this valley, hotel resort over the fishpond . . . He`eia Kea Boat Harbor was going to be four times bigger than that Ala Wai. Hawaiian Electric was going to put a power plant there, and oil barges I guess would have come into the boar harbor. The He`eia meadowlands were to be a golf course. The He`eia fishpond was to be a fancy marina. I think the point where He`eia State Park is, somebody wanted to put a fancy restaurant and I don't know what else is up there. There were going to create an artificial island in front of King School. Oh yeah, the piece that I'm forgetting : Temple Valley? That's where the oil refineries were going to be. It was wild!" (267)

Wild, indeed, but the land grabbing and planned developed had been a constant stress on Windward residents since at least the Mahele. Panek patiently follows the history of Kipapa's family, and its fight across generations to save their land in the Waikane valley. According to Place Names of Hawai`i, by the way, "kipapa" means "place prone (corpses slain in the victory of O`ahu forces over those from Hawai`i in the 14th century). Some fights were won by Nakata, the Kipapas, and others--fights over water, for example. Some fights were lost, like the one over the H3 highway that now traces its way along the edge of Ha`iku Valley and then goes through the Hirano tunnel and down Halawa Valley toward the stadium. The stadium is currently being refurbished, but much of the labor has been brought into the state from places like the South so as to avoid local unions. Just another symptom of the narrowness of Hawai`i's economy, and the very few opportunities there are for people here, especially if they don't have a college degree. Percy Kipapa may have spoken fluent Japanese, but he was one Castle grad. And he did not want to work for a Japanese company in Waikiki, showing tourists a good time.

One of the other fights was lost nearly before it was adequately engaged, namely the fight against crystal methamphetamine. When I see people under the famous banyan tree next to the Hygienics Store, I suspect they are ice users. When I see the woman reach into the car and dart away, or the guys loitering, their engines on, on Okana Road, I think of ice. But now I will think of Percy Kipapa, who got caught up in the drug before anyone knew how dangerous it is, stayed off it while enduring horrible conditions as a sumo fighter in Japan, and who returned home to so few opportunities, began using again, and was murdered by a "friend" with whom he'd done the drug for at least a year and a half. Panek details the struggle by advocates of drug treatment to get money; he also shows how resistant the then governor, Linda Lingle (R) was to providing it. She who said bluntly, "treatment doesn't work," despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

I don't want to say too much about the book, which you should read. But I do want to say something about Mark Panek, who got his Ph.D. from my department several years ago, and is now an associate professor of English at UH-Hilo on the Big Island. Mark never took a course from me--he was into fiction, biography--but we talked quite a bit about baseball. At playoff time, he would wear a full body Yankees uniform, and strut about the halls (Yankees fans do not know how to walk like normal mortals). He was a warm and open person, despite his baseball flaw. As he recounts his friendship with the local sumotori, and his cold calls on local friends of Kipapa's, calls that inevitably ended up in long conversations, I can see that his manner--friendly, humble, sincere--so unlike that of a Yankees' fan, really, stood him in good stead locally. While he is a character in his own story, friend to the victim and his family, past and present biographer to sumatori (his book on Chad Rowan/Akebono was published by UH Press in 2006), he never intrudes. A good deal of the book is in Pidgin (or HCE), as Panek has transcribed his interviews faithfully with Pidgin speakers. My favorite linguistic moment in the book comes at Percy Kipapa's funeral, where Akebono sits in the front row. "I turned to see Chad sitting in the front row, that troubled look not having left his face." What does Panek say? "'You get one for Hawaiian?' I asked Bumbo."

I love that moment because that's when Panek shows himself to be a Pidgin speaker, too. Raised on Long Island, a graduate of Colby College in Maine, Panek has managed to create a career for himself out of a love for Hawai`i and Japan, Hawaiian and sumo culture, and a familiarity with culture here that most academics (especially those from elsewhere) never come close to possessing. His book is a valuable contribution not just to the history of Hawai`i, but also to explorations of masculinity, like Chris McKinney's The Tattoo, which is also situated in part in Kahalu`u, and is mentioned several times in Panek's book, or like (the more hopeful) Ty Tengan's Native Men Remade: Gender and Nation in Contemporary Hawai`i. But it could not have been written so faithfully without several decades of local literature, steeped in Pidgin, or research by Hawaiians, local Asians, and white academics alike, research that often approaches or becomes advocacy for a Hawai`i left more to its own determination than that of developers, the military, or the drug dealers.

Panek knows from the beginning that he is, as Bob Nakata tells him, "writing the history of the community," that he bears a responsibility as a writer. Charles Kekahu tells him, "So you gotta word 'um to the point where everything's still beautiful, it's just . . . that we missed it somehow." He adds, in a passage Panek must have taken to heart, "this story has a meaning and it has a purpose, and it was real life." This is a necessary book. We can thank Mark Panek and UH Press, and beyond them Percy Kipapa's family and community members quoted extensively in the book. Panek wrote it, but the community offered it to us through him. It's an alliance worth celebrating.

[from the far end of Okana Road--to the right from the Ahuimanu Road intersection]

You can see a set of my recent photos of Okana Road via facebook's public link, here.
A good interview with Mark Panek on this book can be found here.

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