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The Curse of Lono
  • October 09, 2011 : 20:10
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Every successful charter-boat captain understands the difference between the fishing business and show business. Fishing is what happens out there on the deep-blue water, and the other is getting strangers to pay for it. So when you come swooping into Kailua Bay at sunset with a big fish to hang up on the scales, you want to do it with every ounce of style and slow-rumbling, boat-handling drama that you and your crew can muster. The Bringing In of the Fish is the only action in town at that hour of the day—or any other hour, for that matter—because big-time fishing is what the Kona Coast is all about (never mind those rumors about marijuana crops and bizarre real-estate scams).

Kicking ass in Kona means rumbling into the harbor and up to the scales at sunset with a big fish, not three or four small ones, and the crowd on the pier understands this. They will laugh out loud at anything that can be lifted out of a boat by anything less than a crane. There is definite blood lust in the air around the scales at sundown. By five, the crowd is drunk and ugly and the tension picks up as each new boat comes in. On a good day, they are yelling for 1000-pounders, and woe unto the charter captain who shows up with anything small.

But after two weeks on the Kona Coast, I'd had no occasion to show up at the Kailua pier at all. This filthy goddamn sea was still raging and pounding on the rocks in front of my porch. Somewhere to the west was a monster storm of some kind, with 40-knot winds and 35-foot seas. That is a typhoon, I think. We were paying $1000 a week to sit out here in the rain on the edge of this savage black rock and wait for the annual typhoon—like the fools they knew us to be.

Ralph snapped first, as always—and, as always, he blamed it on me. Which was true, in a way. It was my plan that had gone wrong, not Ralph's, and now his entire family was in the throes of a profound psychotic experience. Some people can handle ten days in the eye of a hurricane and some can't.

Ralph was becoming more and more concerned about that aspect of our situation as it daily became more desperate.

His primitive Welsh ancestry would allow him to cling almost indefinitely to his own sanity, he felt, but he was not confident about the ability of his wife or young daughter to survive a shock of this magnitude. "How many days of abject terror-can an eight-year-old girl endure?" he asked me one day as we shared a pint of hot gin in his kitchen. "I can already see the signs. She's withdrawing into herself, gnawing on balls of twine and talking to cockroaches at night."

"That's why we have insane asylums,” I said. "When your neighbors start talking about their children at Oxford or Cambridge, you can brag that you have a daughter in Bedlam."

He stiffened, then shook it off and laughed harshly. "That's right," he said.

"I can visit her on weekends, invite all my neighbors to attend her graduation.”

We were half-mad ourselves at this point. All of our desperate efforts to flee the big island had come to nought. We couldn't even get seats on a plane back to Honolulu, much less to anywhere else. And our Will to Flee was real. But the storm had knocked out our telephones and there was no hope of getting through to anybody more than a mile or two away. The only place we could be sure of reaching was the bar at the Kona Inn.

It is Monday on the Kona Coast, two days before Christmas, three o'clock in the morning. No more Monday-night football. The season is over. No more Howard Cosell and no more of that shit-eating lunatic with the rainbow-striped Afro wig. That freak should be put to sleep and never mind the reasons. We don’t need that kind of madness out here in Hawaii, not even on TV—and especially not now, with the surf so high and wild thugs in the streets and this weather so foul for so long that people are starting to act crazy. A lot more people than normal for this time of year are going to flip out if we don't see the sun by Christmas.

They call it Kona weather: gray skies and rough seas, hot rain in the morning and mean drunks at night, bad weather for coke fiends and boat people. A huge ugly cloud hangs over the island at all times, and this goddamn filthy sea pounds relentlessly on the rocks in front of my porch. The bastard never sleeps or even rests; it just keeps coming, rolling, booming, slamming down on the rocks with a force that shudders the house every two or three minutes.

I can feel the sea in my feet as I sit here and type, even in those moments of nervous quiet that usually mean a Big One is on its way, gathering strength out there in the darkness for another crazed charge on the land.

My shirt is damp with a mixture of sweat and salt spray. My cigarettes bend like rubber and the typing paper is so limp that we need waterproof pens to write on it—and now that evil white foam is coming up on my grass, just six feet away from the porch.

This whole lawn might be halfway to Fiji next week. Last winter's big storm took the furniture off every porch on this stretch of the coast and hurled boulders the size of TV sets into people's bedrooms. Half the lawn disappeared overnight and the pool filled up with rocks so big that they had to be lifted out with heavy machinery.

Our pool is a lot closer to the sea now. On the night we arrived, I was almost sucked into the surf by a wave that hit while I was standing on the diving board; and the next day, an even bigger one rolled over the pool and almost killed me.

We stayed away from the pool for a few days after that. It makes a man queasy to swim laps in a pool where the sea might come and get you at any moment, with no warning at all.

Ralph is hunkered down next door in a state of abject terror. The whole family is sleeping on the living-room floor. When I tried to get in and steal Ralph's TV for the late basketball game, I almost stepped on the child’s head as I came over the edge of that slimy wooden porch. All their baggage is packed and they're ready to flee for their lives on a moment's notice.

But the goddamn surf is still thundering up on the lawn at five in the morning. This dirty Hawaiian nightmare has been going on for 13 straight days, and there is still no way out.

As New Year's Eve approached and the weather showed no signs of breaking, it was clear that we were going to have to do something desperate to get in the water. We had been trying to take Captain Steve's boat out for almost a week, but the sea was so rough that there was no point in even leaving the harbor. "We could probably get out," he said, "but we'd never get back in."

After a week of bad drinking and brooding, Captain Steve finally came up with a plan. If it was true that the weather had really turned around, then logic decreed that the normally savage waters on the other side of the island would now be as calm as a lake.

"No problem," he assured me. "It's south Point for us, big guy. Let's get the boat ready….”

Which we did. But the surf got worse and after five or six more days of grim waiting, my brain began to go soft. We drove to the tops of volcanoes; we drank heavily, set off many bombs…. More storms came, the bills mounted up, and the days dragged like dead animals.

The first person I saw when we walked into the Kona Inn on the 28th night of our doomed Hawaiian vacation was Ackerman. He was sitting at the Kona Inn bar with a sleazy-looking person in bell-bottom Levi's whom I recognized as a notorious dope lawyer from California, a man I had met at a party in Honolulu, where he was passing out his business cards to everybody within reach and saying, "Hang on to this—you'll need me sooner or later."

Jesus, I thought. These leeching bastards are everywhere. First they only smoked the stuff, then they started selling it, and now they're gnawing at the roots of the whole drug culture, like a gang of wild moles. They will be standing, like pillars of salt, at all our doorways when the great bell rings.

One reason I'd come to Hawaii was to get away from lawyers for a while, so I herded our party in the other direction and down to our table looking out on the sea wall. Ralph and the family were already there, and Ralph was raving drunk.

"We're off to South Point tomorrow," I said. I sat down at the table and lit a joint, which nobody seemed to notice. Ralph was staring at me with a look of shock and disgust on his face.

"I can’t believe it,” he muttered. "You're really going out on that silly boat."

I nodded. "That's right, Ralph. We finally figured it out—if this side of the island is rough, then the other side must be calm." Captain Steve smiled and shrugged his shoulders, as if the logic spoke for itself.

"And South Point," I continued, "is the closest place we can get to the other side— that's where the weather breaks."

"You should come with us, Ralph," said Captain Steve. "It'll be calm as a lake down there, and it's a real mysterious place."

"It's the Land of Po," I said. "A desolate, bottomless pit in the ocean, teeming with fish and within sight of the cliffs on shore." I nodded wisely.

"There are no fish," he muttered, "not even on the menu. All they have tonight is some kind of frozen mush from Taiwan."

"Don't worry, Ralph," I said. "We'll have all the fresh fish we can eat when I get back from South Point. Once we get around the corner down there to some calm waters, I will plunder this sea like no man has ever plundered it before."

Just then, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

"Hello, Doc," said a voice behind me.

"I've been wondering where you were."

I swung quickly around in my chair to see Ackerman smiling down at me. The arm he extended was still blue. I was glad to see him, and now that he'd shaken the dope lawyer, I stood up and took him aside. We walked out to the lawn and I handed him the joint.  "Hey,"  I  said. "How'd you like to make a run down to South Point tomorrow?"

"What?" he said. "South Point?"

"Yeah," I replied. "Just you and me and Steve. He says the weather should be OK once we get around the point."

He laughed. "That's insane," he said, "but what the hell; why not?"

"Good," I said, "let's do it. At least we'll get out on the water."

He chuckled. "Yeah. We will do that." He finished off the joint and flipped it into the sea. "I'll bring some chemicals," he said. "We may need them." "Chemicals?"

He nodded. "Yeah. I have some powerful organic mescaline. I'll bring it along."

"Right," I said. "That's a good idea-just in case we get tired."

He slapped me on the back as we walked inside to the table. "Welcome to the Kona Coast, Doc. You're about to get what you came for."

When I arrived at the Union Jack Liquor Store in the middle of downtown Kailua the next morning, Ackerman was waiting for me in a Datsun pickup full of grocery bags. "I got everything," he said. "You owe me $355."

"Good God," I muttered. Then we went into the Union Jack and loaded up my VISA card with four cases of Heineken, two quarts each of Chivas Regal and Wild Turkey, two bottles of gin and a gallon of orange juice, along with six bottles of their best wine and another six bottles of champagne for the cocktail party that night.

The plan was for Laila, Ralph and the family to meet us at South Point around sunset for an elegant evening meal on the fantail of the Haere Marue. It would take us six hours to get there at trolling speed, but it was only an hour by road—so they could spend the afternoon at the City of Refuge and still get to South Point before we did. Captain Steve had arranged our meeting point—a small beach in a cove at the southernmost tip of the island.

We left Honokohau not long after 10:30, and as we passed the main channel buoy, I looked back and saw the peaks of both Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea for the first time since I'd been there. The whole island is normally covered with a hamburger-shaped cloud for most of every day, but this morning of our departure for South Point was a rare exception.

I took it as a good omen, but I was wrong. By nightfall, we would find ourselves locked in a death battle with the elements, wallowing helplessly on the ridge in the worst surf I'd ever seen and half-crazy with fear and strong chemicals.

We had both The Wall Street Journal and Soldier of Fortune on the boat, but the run down to South Point was not calm enough for reading. We staggered around the boat like winos for most of the trip, keeping the boat headed due south against a crossing sea. The swell was coming strong out of the southwest. At one point, we stopped to pick up a rotted life preserver with the words SQUIRE/JAVA painted on the cork.

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