Saturday, December 30, 2006

My Father Behind Me

I turned 72 yesterday, and today I've been thinking of my father, who died, at 76, in 1987. As the saying goes, I hardly knew him, though we worked on our farm together, in the barn or in the fields, nearly every day when I was growing up.

Almost the last time I spoke with my father, by phone, from our respective homes in British Columbia and Minnesota, he expressed disgruntlement at not being able to work anymore. He'd worked hard physically all his life, and now, like a betrayal, his body was failing him.

I'd been talking to my mother when I asked how Dad was. After a couple of years of ignoring chest pains and breathlessness, he'd finally gone to a doctor. That led to by-pass surgery and a few months’ respite. Now, he was suffering angina, having to pop nitro-glycerine pills, and finding his prescribed aerobic walks a daily torture. Just walking down the block in my parents’ suburban Minneapolis housing development exhausted him.

"He's on the other phone," my mother said. "Why don't you ask him yourself?"

"Hello, son," he spoke up now--from the bedroom, I guessed.

"How are you, Dad?"

"Aw, I'm not worth a shit anymore."

His voice was weak, gravelly.

"I'm looking forward to seeing you, Dad. I'll go out with you on your exercise walks. We'll be able to talk."

I was looking forward to some talks together, and maybe he was too—the kind of talks a father and son never seem to have while the son is growing up, talks my father could never have had with his father, an expatriate American and a CPR engineer, who was killed in a train wreck during a blizzard on the Saskatchewan prairie when my father was five. My father’s widowed mother, then, with his two brothers and a sister, had moved from Moose Jaw to Minneapolis to live with her aged father.

"I hope so," he said.

A month later--and two weeks before our scheduled flight to Minnesota for a two-week visit—he was dead.

What I remember now, what seems to typify him, was the rolled-up wool sock he'd stuff into his left shoe to replace the missing half of that foot, lost to the instep in a farm accident. There's a snapshot of my father on crutches, taken a month later, just home from the hospital, that notes the date: Sept. 8, 1943. He’d spent his 33rd birthday in the hospital, fighting gangrene (one of the new "miracle" drugs, penicillin, saved him). I was eight, and in the Catholic school in a nearby town that frightful day of his accident. I remember my regret at having missed it.

He might have bled to death that day, might have gone deeper into the knives of the machine that took corn stalks, chopped them into bits and blew them into the silo, if my uncle Gerry (he and my father were farming together) hadn't been there to think quickly and reverse the machine, then run to the house for my mother and my folks' car. My uncle had driven to the doctor, my mother rigid and silent in the front seat beside him, my father rocking and silent in back, white but conscious, gripping the towel wrapped around his mangled foot.

I remember his shoes, the left one turned up at the instep, which together with his slight limp always told of his accident. A year after he was dead and in his grave, I found a pair of his dress shoes (his church shoes) in the trunk of my mother's car, the one shoe turned up like his mark left in the world, and felt my throat tighten, felt his loss even more than I had at the sight of him laid out in his coffin. What moved me then, as I stared down at his body, were his hands, his gnarled, working man’s hands, crossed on his chest.

I think of him now when I'm working outside, working with my own hands. I feel his eyes on me as I strike a nail. I sense his presence as I wield an ax, use my chainsaw, split firewood that will keep my wife and me warm in the winter. All those years we worked together and I tried to keep up with him and seldom could. I still want his recognition. I still work for it.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Paradise Revisited

This very long piece, which began as a travel article for a Canadian newspaper and got away from me, is somewhat dated now. Call it a historical document.

During the five-and-a-half-hour jet flight from Vancouver (it took 13 hours from San Francisco, by prop-plane, my first time over), I waited for that magic moment I’d first experienced as a 20-year-old U.S. Navy sailor and now would know again after 43 years—the sight, after hours of flying over nothing but water, of that sudden, thrilling curve of lights in the nighttime void of the Pacific, the lights of Honolulu, isolated in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. It was, and was again, like reaching some far galaxy in the emptiness of space.

Beside me my wife, April, and my 12-year-old daughter, Alicia, shared my excitement, though they couldn’t know my innermost feelings. It was the night of May 18, 1998, and here I was, back where I’d been the night of May 13, 1955.

I was still a kid then, fresh off a Minnesota farm and stuffed from books and movies with the romance of the South Seas. Later, after 22 months of duty in Hawaii, the romance would be tempered a little by "island fever." That’s the claustrophobic condition, akin to "cabin fever," suffered by mainlanders who, after too long in the islands, begin to feel marooned. The so-called Paradise of the Pacific can become "The Rock" to the disenchanted.

Still, Hawaii had remained gorgeous in my memory, truly a dream of paradise; it was a place I’d been to when I was young and expected never to see again. Now, no longer young, I was here once more to see how Hawaii had changed in more than four decades and to see some of what I’d missed my first time around. The ghosts of those literary figures who’d preceded me, Herman Melville and Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London and Somerset Maugham, seemed to peer over my shoulder.

My first intimation of how things had changed in Hawaii, or anyway in Honolulu, came when, after disembarking at the airport and passing through customs and immigration, my family and I stepped outside into the balmy air to hail a cab. At once we were assaulted by the thundering, interchanging traffic on and around Lunalilo Freeway and impressed, while riding along Nimitz Highway toward downtown Honolulu, by the high, massed, concrete feel of a big city. Of course I hadn’t expected to find the low, mostly wooden, tin-roofed tropical town I remembered from a time when Hawaii was still a territory (it achieved statehood in 1959, two years after my transfer to the New Orleans Naval Station). I’d seen enough pictures of modern Honolulu with its high-rise hotels and business skyscrapers to know it resembled Miami now, but I was hardly prepared for the gross reality, to find the town so built-up and noisy, so completely urbanized, so utterly overdeveloped. And yet ... this was Hawaii after all, and I’d come back to it finally.

After checking into the budget-priced Polo Inn on Ala Moana Boulevard, where we’d reserved a double (it was close to one a.m. by now, Hawaii standard time, or four in the morning by our biological clocks, but we were too excited to sleep), we strolled up Ala Moana to Kalakaua Avenue, the main drag of Waikiki. I remembered it as a rather nice, even rather modest strip of classy bars and shops and restaurants; of four or five luxury hotels, including the venerable Moana and the Royal Hawaiian; of attractive and doubtless expensive bungalows lining the quiet, shaded side streets off Kalakaua that people might rent for the season after sailing over on the Lurline. What I saw now was virtually another place: towering piles of glass and steel that all but obliterated Hawaii’s famous landmark, the extinct volcano called Diamond Head.

The next morning, though, across from the public beach I remembered and where, way back when, I tried and failed at surfboarding, I found the pink little stucco building, now part of a larger edifice, that used to house Harry D’s, my favorite bar in Waikiki. I wrote a kind of tribute to it once, an apprentice (and mercifully unpublished) story called "The Night I Saw Jack London at Harry D’s." The place was something else now – what, I didn’t bother determining.
Other sights were familiar: native beach boys stood by to offer surfboard lessons and, perhaps as in the old days, their services as gigolos to wealthy female haoles. Figures, wobbling on surfboards or holding tight to the gunwales of outrigger canoes, rode the moderate waves into the beach. Swift catamarans still sailed like bright-winged birds offshore.

Later, on the beach at Ala Moana Park, among mostly locals, we basked (lathered in sun screen) in the tropical glare, in the caressing breeze, in intermittent rain so light there was no need to take shelter. The trade winds were brisk that day, blowing moisture over the clouded Koolau Range to this leeward shore of the island. Doves, the small spotted or necklace variety and tiny zebra doves, cooed among the shade trees off the hot sand. If there is a tropical island sound in my mind, other than the clatter of palm fronds and crashing surf, it’s the gentle cooing of doves.
Mynah birds too, bold and handsome, like a larger variety of starling (introduced, by design or accident, like much of Hawaii’s flora and fauna, from elsewhere – in this case, from India), called raucously from the trees or stalked the park’s Bermuda grass. I remembered them fondly from my last time here. Much had changed but enough, it seemed, had remained the same. To be here again! It was a pleasantly eery sensation, like stepping back into one’s past or, alternately, like waking from a Rip Van Winkle sleep to find the world both vastly different and yet still recognizable.

* * *

That afternoon we flew to Hilo, on the Big Island, for the bulk of our three-week stay in Hawaii – and where we found, as I’d hoped, essentially the Hawaii I remembered.

As a sailor I’d visited the island of Hawaii, the so-called Big Island, twice: once in 1956 off a submarine, which tied up in Hilo for a weekend to hold open house for civilians (as a Navy journalist attached to the headquarters of the Pacific Submarine Force, I rode the boats occasionally for the experience), and again about a year later when I flew to Hilo and was met by a fellow sailor who was marrying a local girl on the island. He drove me up to the plantation housing community of Olaa (gone now, like the island’s sugar industry, I would learn), on the cool slope of Kilauea, to stand as best man in his wedding. His girl was "Por’ Rican," the daughter of sugar plantation workers.

Now, as a tourist come back to Hawaii with my family, I’d chosen to mostly avoid crowded and overdeveloped Oahu, to skip favored but much-developed Maui, to pass on even lovely Kauai (another time, perhaps), and take us to the Big Island as the largest and most varied of the islands (93 miles long and 76 miles wide, or 4,034 square miles in area, more than all the other Hawaiian islands combined), as yet uncrowded (its population variously reported as from 121,000 to 135,500 residents, or some thirty people per square mile), and still mostly rural, still mostly undeveloped. By comparison, Oahu is only 44 miles long and 30 miles wide, or 594 square miles in size, with a population of 840,000 residents (most of whom live in Honolulu) and a daily average of 100,000 tourists.

Lifting above sunny Honolulu, we flew over the blue, white-flecked sea, over brown and green Molokai and Maui, and into the mass of gray clouds that marked the Big Island’s windward side. Rain began to splatter the plane windows as we descended, and we landed at Hilo’s General Lyman Field in a pounding, tropical downpour. It was shortly after five in the afternoon and almost as dark as night.

"Welcome to Hilo," the friendly woman on duty at the Dolphin Bay Hotel said as she handed us umbrellas. We might have just arrived in London, except for the humid warmth and tropical foliage. We would find that it rained here, between glorious intervals of sunshine, every day, and soon learned to carry umbrellas every time we ventured out.

Hilo, in fact (population 46,000), is the rainiest city in the United States, averaging 133 inches a year. It’s also the orchid-growing capital of the country and one of the most lushly tropical places in all Hawaii. I kept thinking of Somerset Maugham’s "Rain," his famous story of lust and hypocrisy in the South Seas. It’s set in wet Pago Pago, on the island of Upolu in Samoa, but Hilo might have served Maugham as well.

The Dolphin Bay, a small, pleasant, non-luxury hotel in a quiet area within walking distance of downtown Hilo (quiet except for the periodic roar of jet planes from the airport), became our base on the Big Island, and John Alexander, the hotel’s droll proprietor, our guide to the area. Our unit, like all in the hotel, included a kitchenette, which greatly reduced our eating out; as for breakfast, every morning there were sweetbreads and coffee in the hotel office, free, as well as mounds of fresh fruit for the taking – papayas, bananas, lychees – from John’s "jungle," out back of the hotel.

At a store nearby, I bought a pair of zoris or Japanese slippers, those flip-flop rubber sandals that used to be the most common island footwear (you see people wearing runners now), and we all got into shorts and light shirts. Then, armed with umbrellas, we set out to explore the town.

We visited the Mamo Street Markets, more simply called the Farmers’ Market (Wednesday and Saturday mornings), for vegetables, more tropical fruit, and fish (delicious ono or mahi mahi in $3 or $4 packages; almost everything else in bunches for "a dollah"); strolled Kamehameha Avenue along Hilo Bay, wide and curving, with waves splashing over the distant breakwater (before the jet age, ocean liners put into Hilo and the town must have bustled, periodically, with tourists; now it’s somewhat off the tourist track and more truly Hawaiian for that reason); and walked the quiet side streets past faded wooden buildings, old store fronts, tiny ethnic restaurants, most of them weathered and rundown, "quaint."

There’s high unemployment (and a drug problem) on Hawaii now with the recent collapse of the sugar industry, once the Big Island’s main business (vegetable farming, cattle raising, flower nurseries; fruit, coffee, and macadamia nut orchards remain important; tourism is being pushed), and you could see it in the several empty buildings downtown, in the uncomfortable presence of panhandlers, in the guardedly hostile eyes of some young locals.

I tried to imagine being young and local here, poor, and visited by comparatively rich tourists like ourselves. The faint undercurrent of resentment one detected sometimes beneath a surface politeness or genuine smiling friendliness, coupled with the existence of "pidgin," an Asian-Pacific dialect that, in effect, forms a private language between locals and is the equivalent, maybe, of urban Black English on the American mainland (a store clerk will speak in regular English to you, then shift happily into pidgin with a native customer; you might catch the drift, but it’s mostly unintelligible to visiting haoles), reminded me, just faintly, of being white in the American South in the early 1960s. The urge was to try to fit in as quickly as possible, to shed one’s pale haole look by acquiring a tan, and to dress native. But of course nobody’s fooled.

* * *

On our shoestring budget, we resisted renting a car at first and instead rented bicycles at a little shop in Hilo run by a transplanted Californian.

Enjoying the freedom of self-propelled wheels we rode east along the bay, past the boat harbor and the Suisan Fish Market (we would rise early one morning to watch the daily auction there when food store and restaurant buyers bid for fat, five-foot tuna, streamlined marlin, and pails of smaller fish), to the hugely tree-lined Banyan Drive and the Japanese-style Liliuokalani Gardens Park. (The beautiful Hawaiian language can be a tongue-twister; basically, you pronounce every letter.)

On the way we crossed a wide grassy space (empty except for a few trees and a statue of King Kamehameha I, the Hawaiian warrior king who conquered and united the islands at the end of the eighteenth century) where tsunamis (tidal waves) struck in 1946 and 1960 and repeatedly destroyed what was then the center of downtown. (I vaguely recalled the look of the place before the 1960 devastation.) Some 200 people were killed in the two waves. After the second, it was decided not to rebuild the area and so now it stands open, like a big vacant lot.

In the humid sunshine our second morning in Hilo, we peddled five miles out of town, on the road toward Kilauea, to the small Panaewa Rainforest Zoo, which featured tropical animals from Hawaii and other parts of the world (monkeys and a tapir from South America, for example, along with Asian peacocks that were allowed to stroll the premises; there were also representatives of the endangered Hawaiian hawk and Hawaii’s wild pigs). It had been a sweaty, uphill climb on our bikes to reach the place, but then we enjoyed a coasting, refreshing ride all the way back into Hilo.

Bus service on the Big Island (which we’d hope to use) is infrequent and inadequate, so our third day in Hilo we yielded to the inevitable: rented a car, and set out to explore the rest of the Hilo area and the rest of the island.

The two main tourist attractions out of Hilo are Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where you can see active volcanoes at work, visibly enlarging the island, and the top of Mauna Kea, up almost 14,000 feet, where the thin air is perhaps the clearest on the planet and at night the stars seem close enough to touch. We would visit both, but first there were more places to see in and just outside of town.

We searched out the Lyman Mission House and Museum near downtown (the elegant frame house, an early missionary’s home, dates from 1839), and got a mostly positive view of what others see as the culturally destructive and, ultimately, exploitative arrival of Christian missionaries in Hawaii. (The historical fact seems to be that by the time missionaries arrived, in 1820, the Hawaiians already had suffered depopulation and cultural ruin during the previous 42 years of foreign contact.) In the museum building adjoining the mission house were informative displays on the islands’ complex history and Hawaii’s many and of necessity cooperative ethnic groups, diverse populations of Asian and Oceanic peoples, Portugese and Puerto Ricans (most originated as imported plantation workers), as well as island-born or immigrant haoles, people of northern European stock. Reportedly, no single ethnic group dominates island politics.

My plant-loving wife took us to Nani Mau Gardens, twenty acres of tropical flowers and plants outside Hilo, and later to Big Island Tropical Gardens inside the city. We saw Rainbow Falls, within the city limits, and Akaka Falls up the Kamakua Coast.

Five miles along the bay, southeast along Kalaniana’ole Avenue to just short of where the pavement ends in a jeep track, you come on Richardson Ocean Park, which one guidebook calls the finest beach in the area. (We found a better one eventually, or anyway better for us amateur surfers, at Honoli’i Beach Park, just north of the city.)

At Richardson the black sand beach is lined with cocoanut palms and ironwood trees. There’s a protective lava outcrop. It looked like good surfing offshore, and you could snorkel in the quieter waters. We took our first real ocean dip here, introducing our daughter to Pacific waves, their lift and tug, the insistent push and pull of them as they draw back, build, then roll frothing onto the beach. A sign warned of riptides that could take you out to sea, with instructions as to what to do if caught in one: in brief, don’t panic. Don’t try to swim against it, but with it, parallel to shore, until it dissipates or you’re out of it. Across the bay the slope of Mauna Kea lifted to disappear in the low clouds that hang inland on windward Hawaii, more or less perpetually, at about the thousand-foot level.

We met a woman at Richardson, a transplanted Canadian originally from Ottawa, who seemed happy to learn we were Canadians ourselves. She’d been living on the Big Island for several years and had contracted the so-called island fever. She was ready to move, to "change islands," anyhow, adding, "I’ll probably go to Maui. There’re more jobs over there."

At the Farmers’ Market the next morning, we met another interesting, and interested, former mainlander, a woman originally, like me, from Minnesota. She and her mother were at a booth selling the cookbook she’d written and vegetables from her farm upslope in Mountain View. That was the town I remembered going to for groceries when I was staying with plantation workers at Olaa, more properly Ola’a, back in ‘56. I was told that Ola’a no longer exists as a settlement (there’s now an Ola’a Rain Forest, part of Volcanoes Park), and gathered that its people were scattered and its houses torn down sometime between the last sugar planting on the island in 1994 and the last harvest in 1996.

This woman was an environmentalist, active in the fight being waged by native Hawaiians and many expatriate mainlanders against overdevelopment and destruction of the islands’ fragile ecosystems. Related to the environmental movement here are the preservation and/or restoration of native language and culture, native agriculture and native crafts, and dedication to what Ka’u Landing, an independent monthly journal based on the Big Island (now defunct, replaced by the Hawaii Island Journal), called "community collaboration and a sustainable future for the islands of Hawai’i."

A sustainable future is a concern that strikes islanders in the face. An island is finite (like the planet itself, in fact, as we’ve come rather belatedly to realize), something stone age Polynesians understood very well. Though they could be as destructive of habitat as we are today (Easter Island, its forest reduced to desert grassland by the Polynesians before Europeans found it, is a case in point), in general they protected their islands, nurturing the limited resources and reacting to overpopulation by, initially and most adventurously, launching ocean voyages in search of new islands and, most harshly, by practicing infanticide and periodic warfare that included cannibalism.
Today, apart from humans themselves, two domestic animals turned feral are perhaps the hardest on the islands’ environment: pigs and goats. (Only two mammals, the hoary bat and the monk seal, are indigenous to Hawaii; the islands’ fauna was mostly birds and insects; as for its flora, even the cocoanut palm was introduced – by the Polynesians.) The pigs are ancestors of the big, tusked European animal turned loose on the islands by Europeans for hunting and the smaller native variety brought to Hawaii by the first Polynesian settlers. They roam wild on the forested slopes, rooting in the thin volcanic soil and damaging island habitat by destroying indigenous plants and spreading invasive ones. Consequently, they’re hunted year around, and "Kailua pig," along with poi and other native fare, is offered in restaurants.

Feral goats, descendants of animals let loose on the islands – notably by Cook and Vancouver in the eighteenth century to provide meat – destroy natural vegetation and cause erosion.
Then there’s the weasel-like Indian mongoose which, since its introduction in the 1880s to control rats in the cane fields, has devastated Hawaii’s unique, ground-nesting birds. Equally destructive of native birds are feral cats, descendants of domestic cats kept on board the old sailing ships to control rats.

Now there’s an even worse threat: the brown tree snake, a voracious predator that reached the southwestern Pacific island of Guam from northern Australia in the 1940s and has since eradicated its native bird population. There have been a half-dozen or so "documented" arrivals of the snake on Oahu—by air from Guam—Since 1981, and the state of Hawaii, which has no indigenous snakes except a harmless blind species found in caves, and whose bird population – including its few remaining native species – could go the way of Guam’s, is now dedicated to preventing a brown tree snake invasion. Officials use trained dogs to sniff out snake stowaways in cargo arriving from Guam.

In line with all this, it occurred to me that from the environmental point of view, the end of sugar’s dominance on the Big Island ("dropping world prices and rising costs" is the official explanation for the plantation closings – costs, I’m sure, that included island workers’ hard-won union wages when cheap labor is still available in such places as Taiwan and the Philippines) ultimately might be a good thing – for island ecology, for the eventual development of a more diverse economy – but meanwhile, what of the laid-off Hawaiian workers? Their plight and confusion, their resentment, must be similar, say, to that of B.C. loggers, who feel themselves caught in the middle of the crucial fight now over conservation versus exploitation of the province’s forests.

* * *

Armed with directions and a hand-drawn map from the woman we met in the market for exploring the Puna District south of Hilo (for my money, one of the most interesting areas on the island), the next day we headed up Highway 33 toward Volcanoes Park, then turned left on Route 130 and traveled downslope, past anthurium and orchid farms, to the village of Pahoa. Once the "marijuana capital" of the district, it’s still a haven for old and latter-day hippies. Weathered clapboard buildings line the main street, and there are funky little houses with pretty gardens along the dirt side streets.

Driving down a side street we passed a group of locals preparing what looked like a traditional luau, a native feast (it was the Memorial Day weekend), with tropical fruit laid out and a pig being wrapped in ti leaves for roasting in a fire pit. By way of contrast, the movie theater in Pahoa was presenting a tribute to the recently deceased Frank Sinatra by showing a series of his films.

In the center of town the unmistakable pungency of marijuana wafted from an old Volkswagen bus in which sat a couple of longhairs out of the 1960s. There were other cars parked along the street, but the dilapidated wooden buildings and the green lushness everywhere lent the feel of a nineteenth-century tropical backwater. A beautiful native girl, evidently having just finished a swim in a nearby stream, sat on a store veranda combing out her long, lustrous black hair. Gauguin might have painted her.

South of Pahoa you drive through forests of huge ohia trees to Lava Trees State Park. Here you’ll find weirdly shaped rock columns among the trees, volcanic "molds" of trees surrounded and burned out by a lava flow some 200 years ago. They’re the reverse of those hollowed spaces in the solidified volcanic ash at Pompeii in Italy that, filled with plaster, revealed the shapes of ancient Romans killed in the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Beyond this park, on Route 137, is the sea and Isaac Hale Beach Park where the waves sweep excitingly into a narrow inlet. Here there were wooden shanties and tents under the trees that formed a little community of squatters who lived, it appeared, more or less in the old way, by picking fruit off the trees and fishing in the ocean. A big friendly man, bronzed and bearded, who sat on the cement quay like the very model of an ancient Hawaiian chief, warned us of the riptides and told us where we might surf without danger. Yet another transplanted Californian spotted us as newcomers and came over with more warnings and to chat.

We found the ocean water both cool and abruptly warm in places, evidence of hot springs on the bottom. I paddled out on one of the used boogie boards we’d bought in Hilo to show April and Alicia how to body surf – to show off, in short. A boogie board is an abbreviated surfboard that facilitates body surfing; you spread the upper half of your body on its three-foot-or-so length and kick with your flippers as a wave approaches. I’d last body-surfed, minus a boogie, in 1970 off the Mexican west coast, so I was a little out of practice. But after three or four tries I caught a wave that swept me right up to the tangle of shore growth (no real beach here, so you have to turn back into the wave before being washed against the trees). I broke out of the wave and stood up in the shallows only to be thrown backward into the trees anyhow by the next wave. That was enough. A lot of years had passed since Mexico and my early Hawaiian days, and after some exhaustive paddling, against the waves and currents, back to the wharf, I was content to sit there and watch native boys gamboling like seals in the turbulent water.

The road past Isaac Hale continues along the coast to become a tunnel-like lane through a jungle of tropical vegetation, mangos, ironwood, hibiscus and bougainvillea. It’s called the "red road," supposedly because of the red soil, oxidized lava, along its route, but its name as well, since the road leads that way, could refer to the fiery flows from the Kilauea volcano, which has been erupting continuously since 1983, adding acres to this youngest island in the Hawaiian chain. In fact, the road ends after a dozen or so miles where the lava has buried it and where the town of Kalapana used to be. (It was destroyed in 1990.) Here you can park your car and walk up onto the lava fields, a rolling black desert of hardened magma that stretches away to the ocean. Far off you see the plumes of steam and smoke that signal where molten lava is pouring into the sea. We started to walk toward the smoke that evening, only to realize it would be a miles-long hike.
Some days later, equipped with food and water, flashlights (for the return trip in the dark), walking sticks and detailed and witty instructions from John at the Dolphin Bay, we took Route 130, rather than 137, which ends a couple of miles farther on into the lava fields. Then we walked, four miles in the late-afternoon heat, over the rubble of the bulldozed road that continues across the lava (it provides access, by 4x4, to a few houses left stranded on the devastated slopes and is interspersed, in exactly four places, with short sections of intact paved road) to within half a mile of the erupting flow. We reached the flow just at dusk – and just as planned. The smoke turned red in the growing darkness, and up on the slope a succession of lights appeared, as if there were cars or a town up there; in reality, they were vents in the lava tubes, breaks in the subsurface flows where the hot lava gushes and glows in the night.

We joined a small party of other spectators (they would give us a ride in their pickup truck afterwards, saving us the long walk back, in the dark, to our car) to stand on a cliff above glistening black sand and the crashing sea within a hundred yards of the hissing, spewing lava pouring red and yellow and black, like molten steel, into the waves. What a show! Small wonder that Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, was, and is still, worshiped by the natives, and that this smoking island (probably the first reached by Polynesian voyagers, evidently from the Marquesas, perhaps as early as 400 A.D.; voyagers from Tahiti arrived considerably later) is revered as the most sacred of the islands. As a native woman who was born and raised on Hawaii and had returned to the island after working for years on Oahu told me, "The Big Island, she the real Hawaii."

* * *

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, created by Congress in 1916, is centered at Kilauea Caldera, 28 miles from Hilo and 4,000 feet above sea level. It was jacket cool when we went up there, misty and rainy, with gusting winds in places. I had been there before, as a sailor, but had seen little else except the main crater.

We were charged $10 at the gate for a car sticker, good for seven days. As it turned out, we spent only the one day in that high, scorched, steaming world. Others, we were told, vulcanologists, fascinated tourists, roam the park for days or weeks.
At the Volcano House Hotel, across the road from the visitor center, you can look out over the huge maw of Kilauea Caldera. (A caldera is a volcano’s collapsed summit, within which there may be smaller craters.) Standing above that desolate landscape is to have an inkling, despite the mist and venting steam indicating an atmosphere, of what it’s like on the moon.
Driving the 11-mile loop of Crater Rim Drive, we stopped at the Halemaumau Crater, which last erupted in 1982. This is where Pele is said to live, and where you’ll find little arrangements of fruit and flowers and maybe a bottle of Gordon’s gin along the rim of the crater. They’re like placements on graves but in fact are offerings to Madame Pele. The crater’s sides are yellow with sulphur, and steam and gas lift into the wind, carrying sulphur’s hellfire smell to Christian nostrils but which to pagan islanders, I imagine, was only Pele’s breath.
Another sight along Crater Rim Drive is the short Devastation Trail, where a 1959 eruption buried a forest of ohia trees. Now it’s a landscape of grown-back forest interspersed with desolate openings strewn with volcanic waste, disintegrating fallen timber and cinder cones, low mounds like scale-model volcanic peaks. You’re advised to stay on the trail here, to protect native growth and because it’s dangerous. I learned of the danger when I stepped into the woods to relieve myself and nearly fell into a fissure, a volcanic crack in the terrain like a glacial crevasse, almost hidden in the vegetation.

Our final stop along Crater Rim Drive was to see the Thurston Lava Tube, a walk-through tunnel in the dim bottom of an overgrown pit that I recognized as the "fern jungle" I’d visited in 1956. A tube is formed when the outer layers of a lava flow cool while the inner flow drains out. There are lava tubes and caves all over the Big Island, in some of which have been found evidence of early human habitation and bones of Hawaii’s extinct flightless birds. Without predators during their long, isolated development, these Dodo-like creatures must have been easy pickings for the first Polynesian settlers.

* * *

It was time to see the other side of the island. We wanted relief from the daily (and nightly) rain on the windward side and some desert heat and sun. So, exactly a week after our arrival in Hilo, we drove north of the city, past vegetation-choked gulches, verdant cliffs, and grassy abandoned sugar cane fields along the Hamakua Coast, to the old plantation town of Honoka’a. Then up through misty forests and grasslands to Waimea, on the Parker Ranch, and finally down to the leeward Kohala Coast, north of Kona.

It was a 90-mile trip, giving one a sense both of the island’s large size and its utter diminishment by the huge, encircling ocean. On the slopes as you pass from the windward to the leeward sides, from wet to dry, the division is sharply drawn, a definite vertical line, like the horizontal snow line on mountain slopes in Canada. The rolling, open pastures on the 250,000-acre Parker Ranch (said to be the largest privately owned ranch in the United States) could have been Canadian, except for the low clouds. At Waimea’s 2,600-foot altitude they hang very close to the ground – as clouds tend to do in the highlands of tropical islands.

Introduced cattle gone wild once inhabited these misty uplands (they were released on the islands by Captain Vancouver in the 1790s) until John Parker, a sailor who had jumped ship on the island in 1809, started rounding them up, about 1830, with the help of Mexican or Spanish cowboys, called paniolos (derived from Espanols) by the Hawaiians. The vaqueros taught some of the natives how to ride and use the lasso, how to drive cattle, and these Hawaiian cowboys in turn are called paniolos. (There has been a strong Mexican influence on Hawaiian music. The guitar was introduced to the islands by the Mexicans, and Hawaiian falsetto singing is a native version of Mexican singing. Another musical instrument linked with Hawaii, the ukulele, came with the Portugese.)

We camped at Spencer Beach Park, at the bottom of the road down from Waimea. It’s next to the Pu’ukohola Heiau, the massive remains of a temple built by King Kamehameha in 1791 and a national historic site. An heiau is basically a lava stone platform. They’re found throughout Polynesia.

Spencer had been recommended by John at the Dolphin Bay as his favorite campsite on this side of the island. It was clean, lovely, and cheap (a county, as opposed to a state, campground with the fee set at $1 per adult per night; children under eighteen free), on a beautiful bay with a white sand beach (a quarter-mile walk along the wooded shore takes you to a more secluded beach where nude bathing is allowed) and an impressive stone pavilion built as a WPA project in the 1930s. Stray cats were everywhere, inspiring my daughter to feed them, as well as slinky mongooses. The snorkeling was excellent, particularly in the early morning calm when you might, as April and Alicia did, swim with green sea turtles that come inshore at that time.
At night we were lulled to sleep by the gentle wash of the sea and the insect-like chirping of geckos, those tiny lizards you see skittering up walls in the tropics and subtropics. We stayed three nights at Spencer (and met a young woman there from back home, Nelson, B.C.!), and returned for another two days just before flying back to Honolulu.

South of Spencer on Route 19, on the way to Kailua-Kona, the deep-sea fishing capital of the islands and where there’s a small and rather attractive tourist enclave (it reminded me of the Waikiki I knew in the 1950s), you drive along Hawaii’s Gold Coast, so called because of the luxury resorts that have been built on the lava there. It’s a region that appears to be nothing but lava wasteland, but developers continue to pulverize the cindery terrain, haul in topsoil, and plant tropical vegetation along the white sand shores to make desert oases.

This is where millionaires and movie stars hide out in private retreats too expensive for us ordinary folks. Public access, nevertheless, must be allowed to the beaches, and so you can walk in and around the lavish hotels as if you owned the joints. On the extensive grounds of the Mauna Lani Hotel, we saw a prehistorically inhabited cave and aboriginal petroglyphs, rock carvings, as well as ancient fishponds that are still in use. The old Hawaiians created these ponds to provide a ready food source.

South of Kailua is Kealakekua Bay, famous as the place where Captain Cook landed after discovering the Hawaiian Islands (he called them the Sandwich Islands, after one of his patrons) in 1778, and where he succeeded in angering the Hawaiians and was killed by them in 1779. The Cook Monument, near the place where the explorer was clubbed to death and, out of the Hawaiians’ fear and respect, ritually eaten, is at the entrance to the bay, which is inaccessible except by water or a strenuous hike. There are expensive boat tours out to the Monument from Kailua, but we opted for two kayaks ($75 for the day), rented from yet another young mainland expatriate who runs his little business in the bay by word-of-mouth.

The water in Kealakekua Bay is a deep, pure peacock blue, like water in the Gulf Stream off Florida. Spinner dolphins congregate here, and we saw several of them close up, leaping out of the water around us as we paddled across the mile-wide bay to the Cook Monument.

The Monument itself is a simple white concrete obelisk, constructed, as I recall, in the mid-nineteenth century. Snorkeling off the rocky shore here is probably the finest on the island. We’d brought our gear, and pushed off into the transparent water, above the colored reef and myriads of colored fish. Climbing out, though, was tricky, with the swells threatening to slam you against the spiny urchins in every crevice in the rocks.

At least as exciting to me as the splendid snorkeling were the old constructions of lava rock in the woods along the shore. Everywhere were remnants of rock platforms or fallen walls. Some were temple sites, perhaps, others partitioned-off areas for houses or gardens. The ruins were unmistakable evidence of the ancient and once-populous settlement on this bay.

North of our Spencer camp, on Route 270, we rounded the point of North Kohala, passing from gray leeward to green windward landscape in an instant, and reached the former plantation town of Hawi (pronounced Havi). Just past the town is the birthplace of King Kamehameha. It’s lush and lovely here, though reportedly very windy at times. For that matter, it was windy at our camp on occasion; we came back to find our tent blown down one day.

Some six miles past Hawi is the end of the road. There’s a lookout here, over the uninhabited Pololu Valley and the wild Kohala coast. This is anybody’s dream of a South Seas paradise. Abrupt green cliffs line the shore. The sea breaks against the island in a white line. The valley below is like a door into paradise, opening out from the surrounding green slopes to a black sand beach and waves of white surf.

We donned our hiking boots and climbed the steep trail down into the valley in twenty minutes. There was a party of four or five young people on the beach; otherwise we had it to ourselves. We’d left our swimming suits in the car, but my daughter, not to be denied, ran into the surf with her clothes on.

Wonderful seclusion. The sand like black powder. A sluggish stream cut through the valley, its floor a flat expanse of grassy vegetation like in an alpine meadow. Back in the ironwood forest, a faint path led toward the far ridge and the next valley.

Pololu is one of seven valleys along this shore, all uninhabited (wild horses claim some of them) except for the largest and southernmost, Waipio, beyond which the highway around the island resumes. We drove up from Hilo, later in our stay, to see Waipio, but declined the more strenuous hike down into it. Parties of campers in 4x4s were heading into or climbing out of the valley as we stood marveling at its beauty from the Lookout.

Waipio is paradise on a larger scale than Pololu with a mile-long black sand beach, fields of taro, scattered native houses, and surrounding thousand-foot cliffs laced with waterfalls. Only about fifty people live in the valley now – the tsunamis of 1946 and 1960 virtually emptied the place – but it once supported about 4,000 Hawaiians and is steeped in native mythology. Here, it’s thought, is where caskets containing the remains of ancient Hawaiian chiefs, "stolen" in 1994 from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, have been returned to their ancestral home and secretly reburied.

Of course, while based in Hilo, we drove to near the top of Mauna Kea, up 9,300 feet to the Onizuka Visitors Center. At that altitude, above the clouds, we shivered in the forty-degree Fahrenheit temperature after sunset but enjoyed the video show and displays inside the heated building and, guided by the astronomer on duty, stargazed outside through a powerful telescope. With a 4x4, you can drive to the 13,796-foot summit of Mauna Kea, where the observatories are, ten of them including the Keck, the world’s largest telescope (there will be thirteen observatories on the summit, we learned, by the turn of the 21st century), but where the lack of oxygen can cause altitude sickness. At that height one’s vital organs are affected, and children under sixteen, who could suffer permanent damage, are advised not to visit the summit. From December to April there’s snow on the top of Mauna Kea, and good tropical-latitude skiing on the mountain’s bare slopes. Hedonists, who reportedly make the downhill runs in bathing suits, presumably can suffer both frostbite and sunburn in one fell swoop.

* * *

We flew back two days early to Honolulu. I had a couple of sentimental excursions to make before our flight home to Canada.

Flashing my Navy discharge card, I booked us for the night of June 6 into the noisy but convenient Airport Holiday Inn at the "service rate," a flat $99. We would take off for Vancouver just past midnight, June 8.

From the hotel, it was a short bus ride along Nimitz Highway to Pearl Harbor. Alicia, with little interest in my military past, chose to stay in our hotel room while I took April out to the base. I showed my service card at the gate and we were waved through by the young sailor on duty. It was early afternoon, a Saturday. There was a Navy frigate nearby that we might have toured, but down the road I could see the 120-foot Escape Training Tank that pinpointed the submarine base. "That’s where we’re going," I told my wife.

We passed a recreation center and Navy housing units; a playground, populated by Navy or Marine Corps "dependents" – wives and children; several young men and women, undoubtedly service personnel, although nobody was in uniform. This was different from my day when, unless you were going on liberty, you wore your uniform on base.

We reached the subase, my old duty station. The gatehouse was still there but unmanned. We walked right in. I was disoriented at first, then recognized the old exchange building (the "ship’s service"), and the back of my old barracks. Just past the gate was a monument to the U.S. Navy’s "silent service" during the Second World War, the detached conning tower from one of the fleet type submarines that sank enemy shipping in the Western Pacific, the kind of diesel and electric-powered boats still in use during my tour of duty here.

Amazingly, once past the new high-rise apartments for enlisted personnel and into the core of the subase, I found essentially the place I remembered. There was the three-story, three-sided barracks I knew, like a squared cement horseshoe defining one side of the inner court of the base. There was the pool where I used to swim almost every day after work, and there was the three-story ComSubPac building, Pacific Submarine Force headquarters, where I once worked in the public information office. Everything had been repainted, refurbished, and the headquarters building enlarged to take up most of the old parking lot where I kept the Model A jalopy I’d owned forty years ago, but it was all still here, though slightly changed and somewhat smaller than I remembered, as if I’d come back to a place where I was a child.

April had to smile at my excitement as I pointed to the "second deck" of the barracks, where I used to bunk; to the third deck of "the building," where I worked; to the raised entrance of the building, the "quarterdeck," where I stood watches.

The original wharf or "sail" had been chopped off and there were no submarines docked there now. Instead, over toward Ford Island and the Arizona Monument, there were a couple of modern atomic submarines tied up, dark, streamlined hulks like mechanical sea monsters. The biggest change, it seemed, was the landmark Escape Training Tank itself, which since 1932 had trained submariners in escape procedures and which, in my day, had been a showplace for civilians touring the base. (Navy divers used to demonstrate their prowess for visitors by going to the bottom of the clear, 100-foot column of water while holding their breath for three minutes; once an excitable guest, unconsciously not breathing along with the divers, fainted.) A plaque informed us the tank had been drained in 1983 and the top chamber converted into a "crow’s nest" conference room.

We visited the base chapel where, as a good Catholic boy, I’d attended mass every Sunday. Standing across the street in front of the base theater, I drew the attention of the man at the ticket counter. He stepped out and asked, "Can I help you?"

"No," I said. "I used to be stationed here, and I’m just looking at the place where I could see a movie every night for a dime."

"Well," he said, "it’ll cost you three dollars now."

* * *

Our last day in Hawaii we declined a costly tour and took the regular, Circle Island bus ($1 each adult; 50 cents for children) around to windward Oahu and back. The trip didn’t actually circle the island but took us, in about two hours, up its center, past Schofield Barracks (of From Here to Eternity – book and movie – fame), the Dole Center and pineapple fields in Oahu’s red volcanic soil; then along the windward coast and back over the Pali to Honolulu. After the Big Island, Oahu struck us as small and overpopulated, but the windward side is still "country" and lushly beautiful. Confined to the bus route, we missed seeing Bellows, now a park, once an air field and later a military rest camp, where my buddies and I used to surf and where I spent a week’s leave in 1956. Kaneohe and the whole East Shore was still a vision of the South Seas, and going over the Pali was lovely, too, though it’s a brief trip and less spectacular than I remembered, since a tunnel cuts through the mountain now, below the original, high and windy road, where I believe there’s still a lookout. You still see ribbon-like, paradisiacal waterfalls among the fluted slopes.

We toured downtown Honolulu our last afternoon, including Hotel Street in Chinatown, my old sailor haunt. The clip joints I knew are gone, and it’s no longer crowded with servicemen; instead there were derelict citizens on the almost deserted street that Sunday and some rough-looking bars. The place looked more like skid row than any sailor’s Mecca.

That evening we ate Thai food in the huge Ala Moana Shopping Center, then strolled down to the Hilton Hawaiian Village (it was being built, as I recall, by Henry Kaiser in 1957, my last year in Hawaii) for a drink and some typical island entertainment. Our daughter was served a fancy fruit cocktail. My wife and I had – what else! – mai tais as we listened to a couple of Hawaiian singers in the languidness of the open-air lounge.

* * *

Then we were flying home. Taking off after midnight, almost the time of our arrival three short weeks before, we missed a last daytime look at Diamond Head and leeward Oahu through the plane windows and only saw the lights of night-time Honolulu once more, now receding into the darkness of the vast Pacific.

We’d seen a lot and missed a lot on this trip to one of the most beautiful, most unique, and most threatened places in the world; nostalgically, I’d seen most of the things I remembered from all those years ago when I was a young Navy sailor, and much I hadn’t seen before. Much, I was pleased to find, had remained intact.

Thinking back now to my two stays there, separated by almost half a century and involving very different circumstances and lengths of time, I have an abiding sense of Hawaii’s dreamlike strangeness, its farawayness, which only contributes to its appeal and goes much deeper than the fact of its being the most isolated archipelago in the world. When I was there in the military, Hawaii was "overseas," an exotic duty station. Now as America’s fiftieth state, with all that nation’s amenities, it’s still exotic, a place that even mainland Americans go to as to another country.

We slept during the night-long flight to the coast. From Vancouver, after clearing Customs, it was only an hour’s flight to Castlegar, where we’d left our car. Then driving along the Kootenay River to Nelson and on, up the West Arm of Kootenay Lake, to our house on a slope near Balfour, we were treated to a mountain landscape that, after weeks of rain in our absence and now under a warm sun, was as green and lush in its temperate way as the Eden-like tropical islands we had just left.

We had gone, it seemed, from paradise to paradise.

June-August 1998

Friday, December 15, 2006

Light in Darkness

Here we are, early in the 21st century and on the brink, some say, of a new dark age. Global warming, depleting resources, the American Empire under the Bush Administration doing its best—and worst—to make the world safe for corporate business. The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. The disintegration of family and community. Religious and/or political fanaticism fostering hate and murder. And Yeats’s words still resonating after sixty some years: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

And yet, we push on. Life remains good. Or, as D. H. Lawrence put it so beautifully when he was dying of tuberculosis: "For man, the vast marvel is to be alive. For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Mexico Bound

Early in January my wife, April, and I will leave for an extended stay in Yelapa, Mexico, once a "primitive," now a rapidly developing, coastal village just south of Puerto Vallarta. When we first encountered this idyllic place, during a one-day visit in March 2002 (our perk for suffering through a time-share sales pitch somewhere north of Vallarta), Yelapa was just getting electrical power. An indication of this was the new refrigerator, lashed across the bow of the open boat that was taking us there, being transported to a young gringo couple's palapa in the village. (Yelapa can only be reached by boat, unless you have a 4x4 vehicle and care to drive over a narrow, bulldozed road through the jungle to where it ends on a ridge above town.) The overall sense of the place, once our boat had put us ashore and we'd walked its cobbled streets, was that this was it. This was where we would stay the next time we went to Mexico.

In 2005 we spent a month in Yelapa; in 2006, two and a half months; and this winter we'll spend a full three months in this "paradise," as one year-round resident, a retired lawyer-turned- mystery novelist, has called it. After all, the sad feeling among its longtime North American residents is that Yelapa will be a "little Puerto Vallarta" in about five years, so we'd better enjoy it before that happens.

It's a village of some 1,000 inhabitants, of which maybe 100 are non-native, people mostly from the States and Canada, many of whom spend half the year in Yelapa and a few, like the novelist just mentioned, all year, enjoying both of its tropical seasons, dry and rainy, the one sunny and warm, the other cloudy, hot and humid, when all the little beasties come out of their holes and crawl through the streets and into the houses. Some of Yelapa's expats have lived there for 30 years or more. Needless to say, the old hands speak fluent Spanish, though it is possible, we've been told, to get by in Yelapa without knowing the language. Still, you're more accepted if you have at least a working knowledge of Spanish, and anyway, you feel better about being in their country. Of course the longer you stay there, the more you learn. And you honor the people, I think, when you can speak their language.

The town's gringo colony gives Yelapa the kind of mixed racial and cultural atmosphere that I suppose you can find in other expatriate strongholds in Mexico, San Miguel de Allende, say, or Chapala (neither of which I've visited). Some might wish for a place more purely Mexican, as the village of Animas Trujano, outside Oaxaca, was for us more than 30 years ago. We loved it there then, but we were awfully isolated, and our isolation took its toll. My wife and I broke up during that stay, ending our stay, and though we eventually got back together, it took a troubled year or so before we'd reconciled.

We both like the mix of gringo and Mexican in Yelapa, the mixed couples, the sight of kids of both races playing in the streets together, rattling off to each other in Spanish. The feel of Yelapa is both exotic and homey. We like that. We feel at home there.

Anyway, we'll soon be there again. Meanwhile, the pictures show what we're leaving and where we're going.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Old, First-Book Author

I am in the happy process of becoming a first-book author -- an author, finally, at age 71 (I'll be 72 when the book comes out) after some 50 years as a mostly failed writer. The book is a memoir, called Leaving the Farm, and will be published by Oolichan Books, a small Canadian house, in March 2007.

I was a junior in a Minnesota high school when, after reading a biography of Jack London, I decided that being a writer must be the most exciting, most satisfying thing a guy could do in this world. Never mind that London, once the most popular and highest-paid writer in America, died, diseased and disappointed, at 40 -- probably by his own hand. His tragic end hardly registered with me when I was 17. What did was London's determination and discipline, his ultimate success as a writer.

I started writing seriously (that is, submitting to magazines) after joining the Navy at age 20 and gave myself the four years of my enlistment to achieve at least a little of London's success. During those years, in my off-duty hours as a Navy journalist, I wrote some 50 stories and actually published seven of them -- admittedly in obscure magazines, although one "sold," for $35, to Adam, an early Playboy imitator, and another, published in a small literary quarterly, later won a $300 award for fiction from the still-extant, I think, Longview Foundation.

The Longview Foundation's letter and check reached me the month after my release from the Navy, and when I'd cashed their check and it didn't bounce, I thought I was finally on the verge of becoming a writer. Naive is hardly the word for it.

That was in January 1959. I was already in college -- the University of Minnesota, majoring in journalism on the G.I. Bill -- and immediately after graduation, in 1961, I went to work as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Then full-time employment, courtship and marriage, homesteading here in B.C., childrearing -- all intruded, overwhelmed, as the years went by and I began to think of myself as a failed writer. Of course, I lacked the discipline, the absolute dedication, the unwavering belief in oneself, and, yes, the selfish drive, in the face of life's temptations, its appeals, its obligations, to sit before a typewriter (eventually a computer) every day, without fail (except Sunday, perhaps, to pay attention to one's wife and family), if only to stare at the empty page, the empty screen, for a couple of hours. At times I tried getting up at five every morning, to write for two hours before work; tried writing at night after supper. But I didn't stick to either regimen. Too many diversions, too many chores -- too many excuses. And yet I dreamed, at first, of eventually freeing myself from the frustrating nine-to-five treadmill through my writing. I got over that after I married and realized I would have to buckle down now and make a living for myself and my family.

Still, I never stopped writing -- never stopped trying. I'd dropped out as a working journalist after only three years, but I kept my hand in as an occasional freelance. I wrote some pieces for the Chicago-based Bowlers Journal, my employer for a year after leaving the Tribune, and later, in Canada, became a regular, freelance book reviewer for the Calgary Herald, as well as a movie reviewer for the online Nelson Observer. But I published no fiction after moving to Canada until 1997, when Event, a literary quarterly out of Vancouver, accepted a story set in Mexico called "Gringos," and even paid me for it, a nice $350. I've published no fiction since, though I'm still writing it.

Since my retirement in 1998 from Selkirk C0llege -- I worked in student services on the Nelson campus; before that I was the assistant registrar of Notre Dame University of Nelson for the last five years of its existence -- I've been able to write full time (mornings only, you understand; there continues to be both inside and outside chores to attend to: my wife and I garden, and in the fall we must gather firewood to keep us warm in the winter). But there were other times, in my younger years, when I was between jobs and enjoyed intervals as a full-time writer.

In 1963-64 I spent six months in Europe, mostly in London, a wonderfully romantic time for me during which I wrote very little but courted the girl (yes, girl: she was 17 at the time) I'd met on the ship going over and who became my wife a year later; we two were introduced to Marxist politics that winter in London, became "fellow travelers," and we've been Left-leaning ever since, easy enough to do in these ultra-conservative times.

Then, while living in Detroit, after working as a high school janitor and later as a mail carrier, and following a brief return to journalism (a four-month stint as a copy editor for the Detroit Free Press that ended when I was fired for being too slow at poring over reporters' often slapdash stories and writing snappy headlines for them; it was like correcting student papers for eight hours every night, not my "cup of tea," as the managing editor told me; I was immensely relieved to be let go), I was allowed to stay home and write that winter of 1967-68 while my wife supported us by working at Sears. I turned to the commercial market, namely the raunchy men's magazines, and found I could write publishable stories for them -- found I could write about what I knew, farm boys and girls, so long as I stuck in a couple of graphic sex scenes. I soon tired of that genre, however, despite that an agency specializing in commercial fiction invited me to join its stable.

Then my wife and I moved to my native Minnesota, where I worked for the next two years on my family's golf course (built by my father on what remained of our family farm). It was a seasonal job -- I was laid off from November to March -- so I had my winters to write. After our second season on the course, the winter of 1969-70, my wife and I went to Mexico -- spent four months as the only gringos in a village outside the city of Oaxaca, where I wrote every day, imagining myself a latter-day D. H. Lawrence and my wife a latter-day Frieda in that exotic setting. Produced a couple of unpublished stories and an unfinished novel.

After that we moved to Canada, where eventually I had my 15 minutes of fame when I won first prize in the personal essay division of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's annual literary competition for 1990 for a piece called "Leaving the Farm," now the first chapter of my book-length memoir. (I got the call to say I'd won in my division from Robert Weaver on Christmas Eve that year.) The prize included $3,000 and a professional reading of the essay over national CBC radio early in 1991, and as I say made me something of a celebrity for a while. It led to a Canada Council grant that enabled me to take a nine-month leave of absence from my job at Selkirk College to do research and begin expanding my original essay into a book. It also led to teaching writing, part time, at the Kootenay School of the Arts in Nelson, which, like copy editing for a daily newspaper, turned out to be not my cup of tea, either. I felt like such a phony as a writing teacher, standing before all those wannabes who thought I might have something to tell them, when all I could say was, "Read. Read and write. Write and read." Sure, I could show them a few tricks, a few shortcuts. But I'm a self-taught writer, after all, with no gift for teaching others. All I could impart to my students was that they, too, might teach themselves.

Meanwhile, I'd made little progress on my book. Instead I kept going over and over what I'd written during my leave of absence, striving for some shape, some focus, not sure what to put in, what to cut. That's the difficulty when writing any kind of book, I suppose, and particularly when writing a memoir, where you have a lifetime of material and must somehow extract a portion of it, give it theme and structure, know what you can, must, leave out.

It wasn't until after my retirement that I managed to finish a first draft; then a second and a third; then a fourth and a fifth (Oolichan accepted my 13th draft, following which I wrote a 14th). Once I had a "finished" draft, I began to send out queries with an outline and samples of the writing, followed by, on request, the complete manuscript. I was lucky. Not counting Douglas & McIntyre, who after asking to see it turned down my very rough, unfinished first draft, my book was rejected by only four other publishers, over an eight-year period during which I kept revising, before Oolichan accepted it (I've heard of writers whose first book was rejected 15 or 20 times before finding a home) -- accepted it after I'd begun to despair of ever publishing the damn thing unless I did it myself.

That I haven't had to resort to self-publishing seems like a miracle to me. In fact, during all these years I've more or less "played" at writing, "pretending" to be a writer in order to keep at it -- and so to have a book accepted after all these years, about to be published, is nothing less than an impossible dream come true.

Now, maybe because of my age, I seem to be accepting my good fortune almost matter of factly, as only my due, in fact. I never really doubted myself, or my modest talent, through all my years of rejection, and never quite gave up on the idea that I'd eventually succeed as a writer if only I kept trying. (The critics might question my success, once my book is out; as for ultimately making a living as a writer, it's far too late for that, just as it's far too late to quit.)

Anyway, I've written a book in my old age, a book started in my middle age, and, my God, it's going to be published! I may never write another book, let alone publish it, in what's left of my life; but I'll have this one to pass on to my survivors.