Before opening the door to the galley above the Senate floor, the page gave us all the hairy eyeball. We were a bunch of teenagers from Hawaii in Washington D.C. and it was her job to make sure we didn’t make a sound. She couldn’t have cared less that we were a few days into our three-week tour performing in six states and in places as diverse as Lincoln Center, Rockefeller Center, and Disneyland. She didn’t know anything about us except that we were teens on a school trip and that made us notorious enough in any page’s eye.
In reality we were all majorly jet lagged and just hoped our instruments had made it to Georgetown in one piece. It wouldn’t be until the next day that we would receive a special invitation to play at the White House and major news programs would begin following us across the country, but like I said, this was just a couple of days into our tour, before anyone in Washington D.C. knew anything about us.
Anyone but Senator Daniel Inouye, that is.
We shuffled in, all 200 of us, and stood reverently watching a heated debate below. Suddenly, a familiar figure stood up. He raised his left arm; his right arm had been shot off during a WWII battle. We’d heard how he’d reached down, taking the grenade out of his right hand as it lay in the dirt at his feet and threw it at the Germans who mistakenly thought they’d killed him. It wouldn’t be the last time people underestimated the democratic senator from Hawai‘i.
It was the early 1980s, and Senator Inouye had 20 years behind and another 30 years ahead of him in the Senate. He didn’t hesitate. “Excuse me,” he said, “but my kids are here.” He gestured to us standing above the Senate floor. The entire Senate stopped.
“Aloha, gang,” he said. “Welcome to your Senate.”
For a good twenty minutes while the rest of the Senate sat amused, nonplussed, wandered off to get coffee, or slipped out to broker deals in the lobby, Senator Inouye spoke with us, sharing some of the hidden secrets of the Senate, like how if you lifted the tops of the desks you can see the signatures, the oldest hand-carved with a pen knife, of all the law makers who’d sat at that desk. Just like elementary, he teased, everybody fights for specific desks and can’t wait to make their mark. He held up what looked like a parmesan cheese shaker from a pizza parlor and said it was full of fine sand to sprinkle on documents so they wouldn’t smear and that this little pot was for ink, pretty silly since no one used quills anymore. He introduced us to people, told us how the senate worked, and encouraged us to ask questions.
We were young and naive enough that none of this fazed us; of course Uncle Dan would talk with us; we came all this way. It wasn’t until we left the balcony and were headed back to the elevators that I noticed the pages were hushed and staring at us like we were from Mars.
“I’ve never seen that happen,” one muttered to me. “Never. He interrupted the entire proceeding to talk with you guys. I can’t believe it. Why did he do that?”
A thousand thoughts flickered through my brain. I didn’t know where to begin. “Because we are his kids,” I said.
We were headed out the doors when another breathless page chased us down to inform our tour guide that Senator Inouye had arranged lunch for us in a ballroom. Under gilded ceilings and frescoes we ate chili and perfectly sticky white rice, a welcome taste of home. We had been in the presence of power, but all we felt was aloha.
Rest in peace, Senator Daniel Inouye. Aloha no.