This article was originally published in the December 1983 issue of Playboy magazine.
We were about 40 minutes out of San Francisco when the crew finally decided to take action on the problem in lavatory 1B. The door had been locked since take-off, and now the chief stewardess had summoned the copilot down from the flight deck. He appeared in the aisle right beside me, carrying a strange-looking black tool, like a flashlight with blades or some kind of electric chisel. He nodded calmly as he listened to the stewardess' urgent whispering. "I can talk to him," she said, pointing a long red fingernail at the OCCUPIED sign on the locked toilet door, "but I can't get him out."
The copilot nodded thoughtfully, keeping his back to the passengers while he made some adjustments on the commando tool he was holding. "Any I.D.?" he asked.
She glanced at a list on her clipboard. "Mr. Ackerman," she said. "Address: Box 99, Kailua-Kona." "The big island," he said.
She nodded, still consulting her clipboard. "Red Carpet Club member," she said. "Frequent traveler, no previous history ... boarded in San Francisco, one-way first class to Honolulu. A perfect gentleman. No connections booked." She continued, "No hotel reservations, no rental cars...." She shrugged. "Very polite, sober, relaxed...."
"Yeah," he said. "I know the type." He stared down at his tool for a moment, then raised his other hand and knocked sharply on the door. "Mr. Ackerman?" he called. "Can you hear me?"
There was no answer, but I was close enough to the door to hear sounds of movement inside: first the bang of a toilet seat dropping, then running water.
I didn't know Ackerman, but I remembered him coming aboard. He had the look of a man who had once been a tennis pro in Hong Kong, then gone on to bigger things. The gold Rolex, the white-linen bush jacket, the Thai bhat chain around his neck, the heavy leather briefcase with combination locks on every zipper....These were not the signs of a man who would lock himself in the bathroom immediately after take-off and stay inside for almost an hour.
Which is too long on any flight. That kind of behavior raises questions that eventually become hard to ignore—especially in the spacious first-class compartment of a 747 on a five-hour flight to Hawaii. People who pay that kind of money don't like the idea of having to stand in line to use the only available bathroom while something clearly wrong is going on in the other one.
I was one of those people. My social contract with United Airlines entitled me, I felt, to at least the use of a tin stand-up bathroom with a lock on the door. I had spent six hours hanging around the Red Carpet Room in the San Francisco airport arguing with ticket agents and drinking heavily and had finally secured a seat for myself and one for my girlfriend, Laila, on the last 747 flight of the day to Honolulu. Now I needed to get myself cleaned up.
My plan on that night was to look at all the research material I had on Hawaii. There were memos and pamphlets to read—even books. My task looked simple enough at the time: Some poor, misguided editor named Perry wanted to give me a month in Hawaii for Christmas, and all I had to do was cover the Honolulu Marathon for his magazine, a thing called Running. I didn't know then what queer and hopelessly confused reasons were, in fact, taking me to Hawaii. I never asked myself until much later what kind of awful power it was that caused me—after years of refusing all (and even the most lucrative) magazine assignments as cheap and unworthy—to suddenly agree to fly out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean to confront the half-wit spectacle of 8000 rich people torturing themselves for 26 miles through the streets of Honolulu, and calling it sport. There were many things to write, for many people—but I spurned them all until this strange call came.
And then I persuaded my friend Ralph Steadman—the British artist and my partner in more terrible misadventures than he cares to remember—not only to go with me but to take his whole family halfway around the world from London, for no good or practical reason, to spend what would turn out to be the weirdest month of our lives.
We are talking, here, about a thing with more power than I knew.
"These islands are full of mystery," Perry had told me. "Never mind Don Ho and all the tourist gibberish—there's a hell of a lot more there than most people understand."
Wonderful, I thought. Deal with the mystery. Do it now. Anything that can create itself by erupting out of the bowels of the Pacific Ocean is worth looking at. Now I needed a place to shave, brush my teeth and maybe just stand there and look at myself in the mirror and wonder, as always, who might be looking back.
I have never really believed that mirrors in airplane bathrooms are what they seem to be. There is no possible economic argument for a genuinely private place of any kind on a $10,000,000 flying machine. No. That makes no sense. The risk is too high. Too many people, like master sergeants forced into early retirement, have tried to set themselves on fire in those tin cubicles ... too many psychotics and half-mad dope addicts have locked themselves inside, then gobbled pills and tried to flush themselves down the long blue tube.
The copilot rapped on the door again with his knuckles. "Mr. Ackerman! Are you all right?"
He hesitated, then called again, much louder this time. "Mr. Ackerman! This is your captain speaking. Are you sick?"
"What?" said a voice from inside.
The stewardess leaned close to the door.
"This is a medical emergency, Mr. Ackerman—we can get you out of there in 30 seconds if we have to." She smiled triumphantly at Captain Goodwrench as the voice inside came alive again.
"I'm fine," it said. "I'll be out in a minute." The copilot stood back and watched the door. There were more sounds of movement inside—but nothing else except the sound of running water.
By this time, the entire first-class cabin was alerted to the crisis. "Get that freak out of there!" an old man shouted. "He might have a bomb!"
The copilot flinched, then turned to face the passengers. He pointed his tool at the old man, who was now becoming hysterical. "You!" he snapped. "Shut up! I'll handle this."
Suddenly, the door opened and Ackerman stepped out. He moved quickly into the aisle and smiled at the stewardess.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," he said. "It's all yours now." He was backing down the aisle, his bush jacket draped casually over his arm but not covering it.
From where I was sitting, I could see that the arm he was trying to hide from the stewardess was bright blue all the way up to the shoulder. The sight of it made me coil nervously into my seat. I had liked Ackerman at first. He'd had the look of a man who might share my own tastes—but now he was looking like trouble, and I was ready to kick him in the balls, like a mule, for any reason at all. My original impression of the man had gone all to pieces by that time. This geek who had locked himself in the bathroom for so long that one of his arms had turned blue was not the same gracious, linen-draped Pacific yachtsman who'd boarded the plane in San Francisco.
Most of the other passengers seemed happy enough just to see the problem come out of the bathroom peacefully: no sign of a weapon, no dynamite taped to his chest, no screaming of incomprehensible terrorist slogans or threats to slit people’s throats. The copilot, however, was staring at Ackerman with an expression of pure horror on his face. He had seen the blue arm—and so had the stewardess, who was saying nothing at all. None of the other passengers had noticed it—or, if they had, they didn't know what it meant.
But I did, and so did the bug-eyed stewardess. The copilot gave Ackerman one last withering glance, then shuddered with obvious disgust as he closed up his commando tool and moved away. On his way to the spiral staircase that led back upstairs to the flight deck, he paused beside me in the aisle and whispered to Ackerman, "You filthy bastard, don't ever let me catch you on one of my flights again."
I saw Ackerman nod politely, then slide into his seat just across the aisle from me. I quickly stood up and moved toward the bathroom with my shaving kit in my hand—and when I'd locked myself safely inside, I carefully closed the toilet seat before I did anything else.
There is only one way to get your am dyed blue on a 747 flying at 38,000 feet over the Pacific. But the truth is so rare and unlikely that not even the most frequent air travelers have ever had to confront it—and it's not a thing that the few who understand usually want to discuss.
The powerful disinfectant that most airlines use in their toilet-flushing facilities is a chemical compound known as Dejerm, which is colored a very vivid blue. The only other time I ever saw a man come out of an airplane bathroom with a blue arm was on a flight from London to Zaire, en route to the Ali-Foreman fight. A British news correspondent from Reuters had gone into the bathroom and had somehow managed to drop his only key to the Reuters telex machine in Kinshasa down the aluminum bowl. He emerged about 30 minutes later, and he had a row to himself the rest of the way to Zaire.
It was almost midnight when I emerged from lavatory 1B and went back to my seat to gather up my books and papers. The overhead lights were out and the other passengers were sleeping. It was time to go upstairs to the dome lounge and get some work done.
When I got to the top of the spiral staircase, I saw my fellow traveler Mr. Ackerman sleeping peacefully on one of the couches near the bar. He woke up as I passed by on my way to a table in the rear, and I thought I saw a flicker of recognition in the weary smile on his face.
I nodded casually. "I hope you found it," I said.
He looked up at me. "Yeah," he said. "Of course."
Whatever it was, I didn't want to know about it. He had his problems and I had mine.
I walked up to the bar and got some ice for my drink. On the way back to my table, I asked him, "How's your arm?"
"Blue," he replied. "And it itches." He sat up and lit a cigarette. "So what brings you to Hawaii?" he said.
"Business," I said. "I'm covering the Honolulu Marathon for a magazine."
He nodded thoughtfully and put his feet up on the table in front of him, then turned to smile at me. "You staying long in the islands?"
"Not in Honolulu," I said. "Just until Saturday, then we're going over to a place called Kona."
"Yeah," I said, leaning back and opening one of my books.
"Why Kona?" he asked. "You want to catch fish?"
I shrugged. "I want to get out on the water, do some diving."
He nodded again, staring down at the long fingers of his freshly blued hand.
"The big island is different from the others," he said. "Especially that mess in Honolulu. It's like going back in time. It's probably the only place in the islands where the people have any sense of the old Hawaiian culture." He smiled thoughtfully and handed me his card, which said he was in the business of INVESTMENTS.
"Call me when you get settled in," he said. "I can take you around to some of the places where the old magic still lives."
I put down my book and we talked for a while about the island lore—the old wars, the missionaries and some of the native legends. One of the things he mentioned with particular relish was a place on Kona that he called the City of Refuge. It was a sacred enclosure, a sort of ancient safe house that provided inviolable sanctuary—and not just to imperiled women and children but to thieves and murderers and all manner of fugitives on the run. It was the first time anybody had told me anything interesting about Hawaii.
"This City of Refuge is intriguing," I said. "You don't find many cultures with a sense of sanctuary that powerful."
"Yeah," he said, "but you had to get there first, and you had to be faster than whoever was chasing you." He chuckled.
"It was a sporting proposition, for sure."
"But once you got there," I said, "you were absolutely protected—right?"
"Absolutely," he said. "Not even the gods could touch you once you got through the gate."
"I might need a place like that," I said.
"Yeah," he said. "Me, too. That's why I live where I do."
He smiled and eased back in his seat again. "On a clear day, I can look down the mountain and see the City of Refuge from my front porch. It gives me a great sense of comfort."
I had a feeling that he was telling the truth. Whatever kind of life Ackerman lived seemed to require a built-in fall-back position. You don't find many investment counselors, from Hawaii or anywhere else, who can drop anything so important down the tube in a 747 bathroom that they will get their arms dyed bright blue to retrieve it.
We were alone in the dome with at least another two hours to go. We would be in Honolulu sometime around sunrise. Over the top of my book, I could see him, half-asleep now but constantly scratching his arm. His eyes were closed, but the fingers of his clean hand were wide-awake and his spastic movements were beginning to get on my nerves.