The following is a true ghost story I wrote for Sick Pilgrim, a blog on Patheos.com. Happy October!
Alone in our girls’ dorm rooms in the 1980s, high school summer band camp at Kamehameha was nothing like a slasher-teen movie. Lights went out at 10:30 pm and stayed out until 6 am reveille. Worn out, and with the axe of immediate expulsion looming over our heads, in our practical cotton t-shirts and jogging shorts, we were more interested in sleep than high jinx.
I know that slays a lot of male sleep-away camp fantasies, but it’s the truth.
When I woke, the first thing I noticed was the light.
The moon was full or nearly so; it flooded my second story window and dripped down the walls. No wonder I couldn’t sleep.
As the upperclassman on duty, I’d gone to bed with my door cracked just enough to hear if a girl on my floor needed help in the middle of the night. The second night of camp was always the worst. The excitement of being away has worn off, and the real work of marching and music’s begun. It’s the night freshmen start counting the days and wonder if they can make it through the week.
Drenched in moonlight, I lay there for a moment, breathing in jasmine and hibiscus from the hedge outside. Hot and humid as only Hawaii can get, I kicked off the bed sheet, wishing for my ceiling fan at home. A glance at my watch told me it was 1:23 am.
I’m never going back to sleep.
But then I heard the unmistakable sounds of a door opening and the slap, slap, slap of rubber slippahs flip-flopping down the hall.
Wonderful. Sunburn, heat stroke, or homesick? My money was on a dehydration headache. Tylenol and Gatorade to the rescue.
I grabbed my glasses, rolled out of bed, and pulled my door wide.
Through windows set above each dorm room door, moonlight fell like water, cascading through the inky darkness to puddle on polished cement like God’s own spotlight. From the far end of the hall to my right, someone approached.
Slap, slap, slap.
The door on my left swung open; a senior rubbed her eyes and scowled. “Somebody sick?”
I shrugged. “Headed this way. Not fast. Probably not a puker.”
We glanced toward the communal bathroom door across the hall from us.
Slap, slap, slap.
The steps grew heavier, closer, and we could see a dark shadow breaking the beams of light as it traveled down the hallway.
Slap, slap, slap.
“Stupid freshmen. They never drink enough.” She craned around me. “Hey,” she hiss-whispered. “Are you sick or do you just have to pee?”
Slap, slap, slap.
It was only one doorway, one beam of light away.
All of the hair, fine and downy-soft, rose along my arms. My scalp prickled.
“Eh, who’s there?” I called.
Slap, slap, slap.
Right in front of us.
But no one was there.
Unwavering, the footsteps passed, stomping down the stairs to the main floor. We heard the crash bar on the main door collapse, the door swish open, and felt the night rush in, running like fingertips through our hair, caressing our bare legs as the building breathed. We didn’t hear the footsteps continue down the sidewalk, just the sound of the heavy metal door resettling in its frame. Once again, the building held its breath.
In the stillness, the taste of fresh coconut burned in the back of my throat.
She and I exchanged just one look, then turned back into our rooms. This time I shut my door tight and said a little prayer for those who walk the night.
Later, I heard stories from boarders who called that dorm home all school year long. It’s the ghost of a pregnant student who hung herself; it’s an ‘aumakua of a girl from Hilo, from Lihue, from Kahului; it’s a prank; it’s a dream; it’s the haunting of an ancient kahu priest bound to stones stolen from his heiau altar—everyone knows unscrupulous foreigners reused finished stones after the Hawaiian gods fell.
None of those stories feels right.
I once dared to ask our kahu, the resident campus chaplain. He smiled and fiddled with his rosary as he told me that over the years, many people had seen unusual things in that dorm. When called, he’d come to them in the middle of the night with prayers and ti leaves, saltwater and aloha. He believed whatever walks these halls is harmless, and like all souls deserves our kindness. E ho‘okikaha me ka maluhia, he said. Let it wander in peace.
You’re wearing that? No. Go change. It’s too wrinkled. What do you mean there’s no iron? The rental has a coffee maker, a microwave, a washer and dryer, but no iron? Figure it out. You can’t go looking like that.
You, go shave again. Yes, I mean it. See all of this under your chin? That can’t be there. There’s a new razor and shaving cream in my bag in the bathroom. I don’t want to hear how you’re sunburned and itchy, just do it.
We need to buy a lei. No, I don’t want to go to Royal Lei Shoppe. She’ll think that’s too expensive. Safeway has leis. We’ll get one there. Something nice, but not too nice.Why? Because the best is too nice and that’s worse than not bringing anything at all.
No, not that one. See the brown edges? It’s past its prime. None of these look good. We need a fresh lei. I know if we had gone to an actual flower shop like you suggested I’d have better options, but we don’t have time to go somewhere else. On time is late. No, that’s cheap orchids. It’s a tourist lei. The ginger is nice, but it won’t last. Pikake is good, but look, see how the ribbon is crushed? That one is Micronesia-style; she’s Hawaiian. Yes, that matters. Carnation? Are you kidding me? Here. This one: tuberose and ilima. It smells good—and it’s not too cheap, not too expensive.
Yes, I took the Safeway sticker off the box.
Remember, no slouching. Is that gum in your mouth? Get rid of it. Leave your hat in the car. No cell phones. Stay engaged, but do not interrupt. Children are meant to be seen and not heard. If we eat, your fork is on your left; your water glass is on your right. Napkins on your lap first thing. When we’re done, fold your napkin; don’t wad it up. Cloth napkins, honey. I know because it’s always cloth.
Smile. Remember, everything is fine, everybody is good. We’re all good. Yes, everybody. Do not mention You Know Who or You Know What.
Okay, let’s go. Why are you kids freaking out? She’s your great-grandmother. Just be yourself.
When I was five we lived in a house on the beach at Kihei Lagoon. I remember getting up as dawn was just a shell-pink hint in the sky and running barefoot down the grass and onto the cool damp sand. It was rare, very rare to walk along the water’s edge and find a miracle: a small glass ball that had broken free from a Japanese fisherman’s net to float through miles of open Pacific Ocean to land at my feet. I only found two—one faint green and the other amber, but I remember marveling at the slightly misshapen glass spheres melted and shaped from discarded liquor bottles. It was the kind of thing that would hold a mermaid’s wish or a message from a sea star, and I never forgot the sense of magic and wonder they brought.
It was the distance, I think. How could something travel so far?
Now as I wander along beaches it’s not quaint glass balls or even shells that I find. It’s plastic. Bent, broken, sun-bleached discards from Asia, America, Australia. Bits of bins, bags, and ephemeral stuff too travel-worn and trashed to identify properly. It’s everywhere with more coming ashore on each tide.
I admit I’m a casual recycler. I understand reduce, reuse, and recycle, and I do my part to live lightly on the earth as long as it’s simple, practical, and fairly painless. Compared to true eco-warriors I’m a poser.
But seeing the pervasive plastics in our oceans and along our beaches have made me more concerned than all the weeping Indians, earth-warming alarmists, and give a hoot owls combined. When I see the damage to our reefs from abandoned fishing nets that drag along fragile coral, when there are more white bags than white sand, and when the levels of toxicity in our fish make them unsafe to eat I have to ask how do we stop? We can’t strain the ocean and pull every bit of trash out—where would we even put it? This is not a California-Hong Kong-Sydney problem. It’s a world problem.
I have the glass balls to prove it.
Knowing when I was going to get mail used to be a simple thing. Never on Sundays. Around 11:20 am Monday through Friday and around noon on Saturday. There was no reason to keep checking the mailbox—one delivery a day brought all I was going to get until the next time the mailman made her rounds.
Yeah, our mailman was a lady, but we still called her the mailman. When I was little I thought the word was mail ma’am. I also thought the song Cherish You was all about cherry shoes, but that’s another blog post.
Growing up in Hawaii, I could predict when I might get a card or letter from my mainland family. Christmas and birthdays were a sure thing. Presidents’ Day, Groundhogs Day, Flag Day—not so much. I’d haunt the mailbox the week before an anticipated arrival but ignore it the rest of the time. A kid can only get so excited about Hawaiian Electric bills, Longs ads, and mail addressed to Resident.
But with email, you just never know. Any second somebody could be sending that all important message, the one you didn’t know you were waiting for until it arrived. I find myself reaching for my smartphone and checking my inbox way too often in meetings, watching tv, at kids’ soccer games—even church. I’m starting to feel like Linus with his blankie.
I’m not ADD. I can choose when I’m going to pay attention and can sustain that attention for a scarily long time when I’m engaged. My problem is low boredom threshold.
It’s easier to let people think I’m ADD.
Going to Hawaii is like stepping back to a simpler time.
Because vacationers dream of Hawaii as an idyllic backwater paradise, it knocks people’s socks off to learn that by the mid-1800s Hawaii had the highest literacy rate in the world, the first newspapers west of the Rockies, and that Iolani Palace, the home of Hawaii’s monarchs, had telephones and electricity before the White House in Washington, DC.
It was good to be the King.
The city of Honolulu, which melts seamlessly into the tourist mecca of Waikiki, is the 10th largest city in the United States. On the isle of Oahu, Hawaii’s largest population center, islanders spend on average more than two hours a day in stop and go traffic, ranking Honolulu the third worse commute in North America, just behind Los Angeles and Vancouver.
You can imagine the shock this causes honeymooners from Nebraska who are expecting grass huts nestled near waterfalls.
The good news is if your perfect Hawaiian vacation depends on grass huts and waterfalls, we do have a few of those around. For around $130 tour buses will pick you up from your Waikiki hotel and take you to an authentic reenactment village. Just don’t expect the locals posing for your photos as you try your hand at pounding poi, weaving lauhala mats, or hula to actually live there. Most are islanders, not Hawaiians, and your once-in-a-lifetime Kodak moment is probably their second job after a two hour commute.
But they’ll try their darndest to make it special. We get the power of vacations, too.
Hurricanes, active volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and traffic jams aside, we still think we’re lucky we live Hawaii.
Because we are.
Once at a fancy restaurant I watched the wait staff run the entire time I was sipping my guava juice and nibbling French toast. The maître d’ was orchestrating it all with a glance, a raised eyebrow, a slight head tilt, and the staff was hopping! I was so impressed with the service I was checking out their shoes, wondering if they had special soles that gave them superhuman ability to carry a loaded tray, pour coffee, and take orders simultaneously. While this amazing ballet was going on, at the table next to me a foursome was enthusiastically waxing on about how laid-back everyone in Hawaii was, how easy it must be to live here, no pressure, people practically live at the beach.
Huh? Did they not recognize that everyone baking in the sun at Waikiki was from Minnesota? It takes serious snow to get that shade of pale.
Chances are if tourists are at the beach, the locals are busy at work. Those guys you see by the beach pavilion? Life guards, tour guides, surf instructors, grounds maintenance…
Hawaii has the highest cost of living of any state in the union, but wages average somewhere in the bottom third. Consequently people often work two or more jobs to make rent. Multi-generational households are common because the cost of a modest three bedroom “starter” home begins around $700,000—and that usually doesn’t include the land. Most homes are lease-hold, meaning someone else owns the land and you just rent the right to build and maintain a house on it at your expense for the next 30 years.
Believe me, islanders know all about working hard and saving for a rainy day.
But because things are so expensive and space is at a premium, people don’t tend to care much about stuff. In Hawaii the relentless pursuit of things—signs of ambition and progress in the west—is less important than building relationships with people. Spending time talking with family and friends, doing things as a community, not stressing over things that aren’t important in the long run—that’s what I think visitors are really seeing and why they confuse laid back with lazy—as another umbrella drink magically appears.
Next: #5 Going to Hawaii is like stepping back into a simpler time.
#3: You need a passport to visit Hawaii.
But only if you’re not a US citizen since Hawaii is the 50th State. That means it’s as much a part of the United States as Kansas, except it’s surrounded by ocean and separated from the American continent by a few thousand miles.
We speak English, use American money, have indoor plumbing, movie theaters, and yes, Costcos. You don’t need special vaccinations, water purification tablets, voltage adaptors, or snakebite anti-venom to visit. Pack lightly. If you do forget something and really need it, don’t worry; you can buy it here. Promise.
Next: #4: Laid-back means you’re lazy.
If you live in Hawaii, you’re Hawaiian.
Unlike New Yorker or Californian, Hawaiian refers to a Polynesian race. To be Hawaiian you have to have Hawaiian blood, meaning ancestors that were living in the islands prior to Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778. In Hawaii you’ll hear kama‘aina, meaning of the land, used to refer to Hawaii residents, but even this word isn’t quite right unless your family has deep roots here. Locals, islanders, or simply from Hawaii are all more accurate descriptions. Keep this in mind if you hear ex-pat islanders in Idaho call someone local. Hint: they aren’t saying he’s from Boise.
Oh, and Hawaii is the only state where everyone is a minority—no one race or nationality is anywhere close to 50% of the population. Most islanders are a mixture—having five or more nationalities isn’t uncommon.
Next: #3: You need a passport to visit.
Ah, Hawaii. Everybody surfs. Beautiful girls in grass skirts smile as you pass by. Coconuts fall off trees and tumble into coolers where they sprout little paper umbrellas…
Paradise? You bet. There’s a reason locals say lucky you live Hawaii. However, most people experience Hawaii on vacation. Even a trip to Costco is exciting if you’re on vacation. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be discussing my favorite myth-understandings about Hawaii.
#1: If you put pineapple on it, it’s Hawaiian.
Nope. Pineapples originated in Brazil, not Polynesia. Pineapple on pizza? California, just like coconut bras, tiki bars, tiki torches, and fire-knife dancing. Grass skirts? Micronesia. Those super-fast hip shaking dance moves you see at hula shows? Tahiti. Ukuleles? Portugal. Flower leis? Technically from Spanish cowboys who took the original Hawaiian idea of green leaf garlands one step further and created showy love-tokens for their sweethearts and horses.
Sadly, much of what reminds people of Hawaii was invented by Hollywood and Trader Vic’s.
Hawaiian civic groups are understandably tired of I got lei’d in Hawaii shot glasses, tiki god ashtrays, and plastic placemats with nonsensical Your Hawaiian Name Here! translations. (One of my favorites: Katherine = Kakalina, which really means gasoline. Most don’t even make that much sense.) Fortunately, big grassroots campaigns are gaining momentum to set the record straight. Many hotels now have mandatory Hawaiian culture classes for their employees and hold free workshops for tourists—all in an effort to bring the real Hawaii back to the vacation experience.
Up next: #2 If you live in Hawaii, you’re Hawaiian.
My cousins, sister, and I were supposed to be doing the dishes, so of course we were fighting.
“Bruce! Don’t dump silverware in the rubbish can!” I shrieked.
“What? What did I do?” Eyes wide and fake innocent.
“You threw away the fork when you scraped the plate,” my sister Heidi said. “I saw.”
“Not!” Bruce snapped.
“Yes!” Heidi said, tipping the rubbish can forward. “You can just see the edge of it right there!”
“Where?” Bruce said.
“Right there! Under the napkin!” Heidi said.
“Busted!” Carly chortled, putting leftovers in the fridge.
“Get it out,” I said.
“No way,” Bruce whined; “It’s ugi! I’m not putting my hand in there!”
I turned from the sink where I was washing the chopping knife. “Do it!”
“Make me,” he said.
I waved the knife at him. “Eyes or alas, your choice!”
“You gonna get it now, Bruce,” Taylor said, dumping a stack of plates on the counter.
“Better choose alas, Bruce,” said Glen with a sly eye. “It’s not like you going need them.”
“Ooooooooh!” everybody inhaled.
“Good one, Glen!” said Taylor the troublemaker.
“I mean it, Bruce!” I snarled and waved the knife some more.
“That’s not how you hold a knife, Lehua.” Uncle Dave stood in the doorway, amused.
We all jumped back. Although if we were going to get caught fighting, we’d rather it was by Uncle Dave than anyone else. Anyone else usually involved more chores and sometimes lickings. With Uncle Dave the odds were better he’d just say knock it off. On a really good day, he’d just laugh and take us to the beach to cool off.
“What?” I asked, soap suds dripping off my wrist and running down my elbow.
“Nobody’s going to be afraid if you wave a knife like that at them.” We all looked at the knife in my hand, nonplussed. “Give it,” he said. “When you’re in a knife fight, you gotta hold the blade like this.” He whipped it around, sharp edge up. “Stand like this. Put your weight like this. See?”
It didn’t matter that Uncle Dave was almost as wide as he was tall. We watched him weave the knife through the air, shifting and swaying like a palm tree in the breeze. I kept thinking about West Side Story. I didn’t think the Jetts knew what Uncle Dave knew.
“That’s how you hold a knife,” he said and handed it back.
“Thanks, Uncle,” I said. “Now everybody back to work!” Being bossy comes naturally when you’re the oldest cousin and expected to keep everyone else in line. “Bruce, get the fork out of the rubbish can.”
“No,” he pouted.
I waved the knife at him the way Uncle Dave taught me. “Do it!”
“Okay, okay,” Bruce grumbled, “no need get huffy about it.”
“Not bad, Lehua,” Uncle Dave laughed, “not bad.”
More than 30 years later when I was writing the first draft of One Shark, No Swim it suddenly occurred to me that Zader was fascinated with knives—that’s one of the reasons he carves. When I wrote that lua training scene it was really Uncle Dave I saw in my mind dancing and fighting off imaginary dragons with a kitchen knife. A hui hou, Uncle Dave. Rest in peace.