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The Curse of Lono
  • October 09, 2011 : 20:10
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Finally, he seemed to be asleep. The dome was dark except for the small glow of table lights, and I settled back on the couch to ponder my research material.

The Christmas season in Hawaii is also the time of the annual Feast of Lono, the god of excess and abundance. The missionaries may have taught the natives to love Jesus, but deep in their pagan hearts, they don't really like him: Jesus is too stiff for these people. He has no sense of humor. The ranking gods and goddesses of the old Hawaiian culture are mainly distinguished by their power, not their purity, and they are honored for their vices as well as for their awesome array of virtues.

They are not intrinsically different from the people themselves—just bigger and bolder and better in every way.

The favorite, King Lono, ruler of all the islands in a time long before the

Hawaiians had a written language, was not made in the same mold as Jesus, though he seems to have had the same basically decent instincts. He was a wise ruler, and his reign is remembered in legend as a time of peace, happiness and great abundance in the kingdom—the good old days, as it were, before the white man came—which may have had something to do with his elevation to the status of a god in the wake of his disappearance.

Lono was also a chronic brawler with an ungovernable temper, a keen eye for the naked side of life and a taste for strong drink at all times. That side of his nature, though widely admired by his subjects, kept him in constant trouble at home. His wife, the lovely Queen Kaikilani Alii, had a nasty temper of her own, and the peace of the royal household was frequently shattered by monumental arguments.

It was during one of those spats that King Lono belted his queen across the hut so violently that he accidentally killed her. Kaikilani's death plunged King Lono into a fit of grief so profound that he abandoned his royal duties and took to wandering around the islands, staging a series of boxing and wrestling matches in which he took on all comers. But he soon tired of that and retired undefeated, they say, sometime around the end of the Eighth or Ninth Century. Still bored and distraught, he took off in a magic canoe for a tour of foreign lands—whence he would return he promised, as soon as the time was right.

The natives have been waiting for that moment ever since, handing his promise down from one generation to another, and faithfully celebrating the memory of their long-lost god/king at the end of each year with a two-week frenzy of wild parties and industrial-strength fireworks. The missionaries did everything in their power to wean the natives away from their faith in what amounted to a kind of long-over-due alter-Christ, and modern politicians have been trying for years to curtail or even ban the annual orgy of fireworks during the Christmas season; but so far, nothing has worked.

I was still reading when the stewardess appeared to announce that we would be landing in 30 minutes. "You'll have to take your regular seats down below,” she said, not looking at Ackerman, who still seemed asleep.

I began packing my gear. The sky outside the portholes was getting light. As I dragged my satchel down the aisle Ackerman woke up and lit a cigarette. "Tell ‘em I couldn't make it," he said. "I think I can handle the landing from up here.” He grinned and fastened a seat belt that poked out from the depths of the couch. “They won't miss me down there," he said.

"I'll see you in Kona," I said.

"That's good," he replied. "I have the feeling you're going to need all the help you can get over here."

We listened to the marathon on the radio and fled Honolulu after a week of steady rain, getting out just ahead of a storm that closed the airport and canceled the surfing tournaments on the north shore. But we were on our way to Kona now, and everyone assured us that it would be sun-soaked and placid. The houses were all set, and we'd soon be taking the sun and doing some diving out in front of the compound, where the sea was calm as a lake.

I was definitely ready for it—and even Ralph was excited. The wretched weather in Honolulu had broken his spirit, and when he'd waded out into the ocean one afternoon for some of the fine snorkeling we'd heard about, the surf had nearly broken his spine.

"You look sick," I said to him as he staggered into the airport with a huge IBM Selectric that he'd stolen from the hotel.

"I am sick," he shouted. "My whole body is rotting. Thank God we're going to Kona. I must rest. I must see the sun."

"Don't worry, Ralph," I said. "A friend of mine has taken care of everything."

Mr. Heem, the realtor, was waiting when we arrived at Kailua-Kona airport, a palmy little oasis on the edge of the sea, about ten miles out of town. The sun was getting low and there were puddles of water on the runway, but Heem assured us the weather was fine. "We'll sometimes get a little shower in the late afternoon," he said. "But I think you'll find it refreshing."

There was not enough room in his car for all our luggage, so I rode into town with a local fisherman called Captain Steve, who befriended us at the airport and subsequently became our main man on the island. Captain Steve had a fully rigged fishing boat and was determined to take us out to catch a marlin—a gesture of hospitality that promised to make our stay in Kona even richer and more exciting than we'd known it was going to be all along.

The highway from the airport into town was one of the ugliest stretches of road I'd ever seen. The whole landscape was a desert of hostile black rocks, mile after mile of raw moonscape and ominous, low-lying clouds. Captain Steve said we were crossing an old lava flow, one of the last eruptions from the 14,000-foot hump of Mauna Kea to our left, somewhere up in the fog. Far down to the right, a thin line of coconut palms marked the new western edge of America, a lonely-looking wall of jagged black lava cliffs looking out on the white-capped Pacific. We were 2500 miles west of the Seal Rock Inn, halfway to China, and the first thing I saw on the outskirts was a Texaco station, then a McDonald's hamburger stand.

Captain Steve seemed uneasy with my description of the estate he was taking me to. When I described the brace of elegant, Japanese-style beach houses looking out on a black-marble pool and a thick, green lawn rolling down to a placid bay, he shook his head sadly and changed the subject. "We'll go out on my boat for some serious marlin fishing," he said.

"I've never caught a fish in my life," I said. "My temperament is wrong for it."

"You'll catch fish in Kona," he assured me as we rounded a corner into downtown Kailua, a crowded commercial district on the rim of the bay, with half-naked people running back and forth through traffic, like sand crabs.

We slowed to a crawl, trying to avoid pedestrians, but when we stopped at a red light, I noticed what appeared to be a cluster of garish-looking prostitutes standing in the shadows of a banyan tree on the sidewalk. Suddenly, there was a woman leaning in my window, yelling gibberish at Captain Steve. She was trying to get hold of him, but I couldn't roll up the window. When she reached across me again, I grabbed her hand and jammed my lit cigarette into her palm. The light changed and Captain Steve sped away, leaving the whore screeching on her knees in the middle of the intersection. "Good work," he said to me. "That guy used to work for me. He was a first-class mechanic."

"What?" I said. "That whore?"

"That was no whore," he said. "That was Hilo Bob, a shameless transvestite. He hangs out on that corner every night with all those other freaks. They're all transvestites."

I wondered if Heem had brought Ralph and his family along this same scenic route. I had a vision of him struggling desperately with a gang of transvestites in the middle of a traffic jam, not knowing what it meant. Wild whores with crude, painted faces, bellowing in deep voices and shaking bags of dope in his face, demanding American money.

We were stuck in this place for at least a month, and the rent was $1000 a week—half in advance, which we'd already paid Heem.

"It's a bad situation," Captain Steve was saying as we picked up speed on the way out of town. "Those freaks have taken over a main intersection, and the cops can't do anything about it." He swerved suddenly to avoid a pear-shaped jogger on the shoulder of the highway. "Hilo Bob goes crazy every time he sees my car," he said. "I fired him when he wanted to have a sex-change operation, so he got a lawyer and sued me for mental anguish. He wants a half-million dollars."

"Jesus," I said. "A gang of vicious bull fruits harassing the traffic on Main Street. No one warned me about this."

What kind of place had we come to? I wondered. And what would happen if we wanted to go fishing? Captain Steve seemed OK, but the stories he told were eerie. They ran counter to most notions of modern-day sportfishing. Many clients ate only cocaine for lunch, he said; others went crazy on beer and wanted to fight on days when the fish weren't biting. No strikes before noon put bad pressure on the captain. For $500 a day, the clients wanted big fish, and a day with no strikes at all could flare up in mutiny on the long ride back to the harbor at sunset. "You never know," he said. "I've had people try to put a gaffing hook into me with no warning at all. That's why I carry the .45. There's no point calling the cops when you're 20 miles out to sea. They can't help you out there." He glanced in the direction of the surf booming up on the rocks about 100 yards to our right. The ocean was out there, I knew, but the sun had gone down and all I could see was blackness. The nearest landfall in that direction was Tahiti, 2600 miles south.

It was raining now, and he turned on the windshield wipers. We were cruising slowly along in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The highway was lined on both sides with what appeared to be unfinished apartment buildings, new condominiums and raw construction sites littered with bulldozers and cranes. The roadside was crowded with long-haired thugs carrying surf- boards, paying no attention to traffic. Captain Steve was getting edgy, but he said we were almost there.

"It's one of these hidden driveways," he muttered, slowing down to examine the numbers on a row of tin mailboxes.

"Impossible," I said. "They told me it was out at the end of a narrow country road.”

He laughed, then suddenly hit the brakes and swung right through a narrow slit in the shrubbery beside the road.

"This is it," he said, jamming the brakes again to keep from running up on the back of Heem's car. It was parked, with all the doors open, in a cluster of cheap wooden shacks about 15 feet off the highway.

There was nobody in sight and the rain was getting dense. We quickly loaded the baggage out of the El Camino and into the nearest shack, a barren little box with only two cots and a Salvation Army couch for furniture. The sliding glass doors locked out on the sea, like they said, but we were afraid to open them, for fear of the booming surf. Huge waves crashed down on the black rocks in front of the porch. White foam lashed the glass and water ran into the living room, where the walls were alive with cockroaches.

The storms continued all week: murky sun in the morning, rain in the afternoon and terrible surf all night. We couldn't even swim in the pool, much less do any diving. Captain Steve was becoming more and more frantic about our inability to get in the water or even go near it. We conferred each day on the phone, checking the weather reports and hoping for a break.

The problem, he explained, was an offshore storm somewhere out in the Pacific—maybe a hurricane on Guam or something worse down south, around Tahiti. In any case, something we couldn't control or even locate was sending big rollers across the ocean from some faraway place. Hawaii is so far out in the middle of nothing that a mild squall in the Strait of Malacca, 7000 miles away, can turn a six-inch ripple into a 16-foot wave by the time it hits Kona. There is no other place in the world that so consistently bears the brunt of other people's weather.

Waves like that are rare on the Kona Coast, though, where the waters are usually more placid than anywhere else in the islands—except when the weather "turns around," as they say, and the winds blow in from the west.

The Kona Coast in December is as close to hell on earth as a half-bright mammal can get—and this is the leeward side of the big island; this is the calm side. God only knows what happens over there on the windward side, around Hilo. And even real-estate agents will warn you against going over there for any reason at all. But they will not warn you about Kona—so that will have to be my job for as long as the grass is green and the rivers flow to the sea. The Kona Coast of Hawaii may be a nice place to visit for a few hours on the hottest day in July—but not even fish will come near this place in the winter; if the surf doesn't kill you, the surge will, and anybody who tries to tell you anything different should have his teeth gouged out with a chisel.

Ordinarily, the Kona Coast is the fishing capital of Hawaii, Kailua Bay is the social and commercial axis of the Kona Coast, and the huge, gallowslike rig of fish-weight scales on the pier in front of the King Kamehameha Hotel is where the fishing pros of Kona live or die every afternoon of the week—in full view of the public, such as it is. Sportfishing is big business in Kona, and four o'clock at the end of the city pier is show time for the local charter captains. That is where they bring their fish to be weighed and to have their pictures taken if they're bringing in anything big. The scales are where the victors show their stuff, and the vanquished don't even show up. The boats with no blood on their decks take the short way home—to the Honokohau harbor, eight miles north. As each boatload of failures ties up there at sundown, the harbor curs rush to the edge of the black lava cliff that looks down on the dock and start barking. They want the leftover lunch meat, not fish, and it is an ugly scene to confront at the end of a long, futile day at sea.

On any given day, most boats go back to Honokohau, but a few return to the pier, where the crowd begins gathering around three. Jimmy Sloan, the commercial photographer who has the pier concession, will be there with his camera to make the moment live in history on 8x10 glossies at ten dollars each. And there will also be the man from Grey's taxidermy, just in case you want your trophy mounted.

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