9 July 1998
by Jerry Thomas
"There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold ... ... ..." Robert Service's popular poem boomed out from the sound system at the Akebono Theater last Saturday evening, heard by an audience of about 160 Punatics. Due to my hearing impairment, however, I heard nothing -- nothing but a loud roar. There are strange things done in Puna, too. Take for example R. J. Hampton's big Fourth of July 1998 party.
This is a report on that event, but first, a word (a sentence? a paragraph? a chapter?) about "Punatics.." Unlike lunatics, politics, nervous tics, and wood ticks, Punatics are mainly and uniquely found in Puna.
The Big Island of Hawaii -- Hawaii County -- consists of a number of "Districts," (clockwise from lower left) Ka'u, South Kona, Kona, Kohala, Hamakua, Hilo, South Hilo, and Puna. These "unincorporated" districts contain unincorporated towns. Such as Pahoa, in Puna. Many of the people in Puna "fit the profile" of Punatics. Like helium-filled balloons, most of us have no visible means of support.
Many Punatics draw "crazy pay" from various welfare departments. My friend and computer guru, OhZone, used to draw about $450 a month due to his "depression disability." When crazy pay was reduced last year his depression grew more severe. So severe that he flew off to Chicago, where he risked losing his "certified Punatic" status by getting a job! Last month he returned to Puna, and he's been my house guest ever since.
Pahoa hosts the only "needle exchange" program on the Big Island, and some say that's the reason so many suspected dopers congregate in Puna. An observant visitor once described a (fictional) Pahoa street dance as "four junkies arm in arm trying to make it across the street."
To balance the ever-popular annual Ironman Triathlon athletic event in Kona, it has been suggested that participants in the proposed Pahoa Triathlon follow these simple rules: Instead of swimming 2-1/2 miles, bicycling 112 miles, and running 26 miles, as they do in Kona, the Pahoa version's participants would all meet at Kaimu, in Lower Puna, inhale three fat joints, drink a 12-pack of cheap beer, and see who can be the first to hitch a ride for the nine miles into Pahoa for more supplies. When this idea was discussed, several of my Punatic neighbors "went into training."
R. J. Hampton is a Punatic, and she's full of energy and artistic talent. True to Punatic form, R. J. doesn't have a steady job. Chosen by popular demand to be MC at the Pahoa Christmas Parade and many similar events, she does an outstanding job. R. J. lives just down the street from me. She is in her late 30s or early 40s, very slender and tall, toothless, and until a few months ago she kept her head shaved; now her hair is slowly growing out. Before coming to Puna, R. J. lived in San Francisco, where she assisted her father in producing, directing, and performing on Public Television and in Grand Openings for galleries. She sings, dances, and is a talented stand-up comedienne. Her father passed away about four years ago. R. J. told me the main reason she loves performing is "I'm doing it for my father!"
My own father used to enjoy reciting poetry. Among his favorites was "The Cremation of Sam McGee. " To follow his example, I memorized the poem and have been known to recite it for almost any audience I can capture. Sometimes I remind myself of the old professor in "Night of the Iguana," who frequently asked his companion - guardian, "Do they want a recitation, Dear?"
At my birthday party last month when I gave a Sam McGee recitation, R. J. Hampton became one of my most devoted fans. She invited me to participate in the variety show at her Fourth of July party. Her invitation thrilled me, filled me with delight -- and a small measure of stage fright. "But that Canadian poet's creation has nothing to do with American Independence Day," I protested. "Call it Co-Dependence Day," R. J. said. "I'm depending on you."
So on the Fourth of July at about six p.m., OhZone and I headed for Pahoa in my 1974 Datsun pickup. R. J. Hampton has been publicizing the fact that she had managed to reserve the Akebono Theater for a big FREE Fourth - of - July Party; posters say "Admission FREE to the first 10,000!"
The party, "Freedom '98," was to start in the Akebono Parking Lot at noon, with a blessing by Sparrow Hawk, country music by Ernie Cruz, pastor of the New Hope Church & Fellowship, other music by a band called "Volcano," and a variety show on the Akebono's stage from 7:30 to 9:30.
To match my red face, white beard, and blue eyes, I chose to wear a red t-shirt, long white pants, and my blue Chinese cap, complete with its red star.
OhZone and I admired the scenery along the Red Road while we drove the three miles from Kehena to Kaimu --- Ohi'a trees loaded with red lehua blossoms, the vast blue ocean decorated with whitecaps in the moderate breeze --- and the towering steam-cloud landmark a few miles to the south west, marking the place where Kilauea's lava continues to pour into the ocean. Passing through Kaimu junction and starting up the six-mile-long hill on the highway to Pahoa I yelled at OhZone, "Clear for takeoff?" and OhZone answered, "Clear!" I accelerated, eager to see what R. J. had wrought.
I was feeling "cocky" about my 24-year-old Datsun. Just last week I had, alone and unassisted, fixed it. The alternator was not charging the battery, so I diagnosed its problem as a loose fan belt, which I had tightened -- simple for an experienced mechanic, but complicated enough to give me a feeling of personal pride for having accomplished it. All I had to do was loosen the nut holding the alternator in place, move the alternator, and tighten the nut. I had made that fan belt good and tight. My cockiness was tempered by a bit of mature wisdom brought on by my increasing age: Whenever I get TOO proud of myself, disaster strikes.
Reaching cruising speed, exceeding the 55-mph speed limit on Highway 130, we moved rapidly toward the 1,100-foot summit. And continuing my little "airplane pilot" game, I scanned my instruments. All normal. All, that is, except the temperature gauge, which was definitely NOT normal; its needle was moving rapidly toward an indication of HOT. "I smell something hot," OhZone yelled, and I slowed just enough to make a tire-squealing U turn.
We coasted back down to the Hawaii County roadside water spigot near Kaimu junction. We filled the empty radiator and a spare water jug , and headed up the hill. Just this side of the summit it heated up again, but we went on over the top --- it's all downhill from there to Pahoa's 500-foot level.
Coasting into Pahoa, I wondered where I was going to park, assuming that the Akebono Parking Lot would be overflowing (Punatics are known to turn out in great numbers for anything that's FREE), but we found the lot surprisingly near empty. Not quite as empty as my hot radiator, however. I parked and OhZone raised the hood, releasing a cloud of steam large enough to compete with Kilauea's steamy landmark.
Hot radiator water gushed from a hole in the lower radiator hose -- a hole worn by the alternator's pulley. While OhZone stood beside the pickup I went around to solicit some duct tape from whatever Punatics might have some. None did. I returned to the pickup just in time to see my neighbor, a professional auto mechanic, approaching. Surely he would help me solve my problem. He said something that to my deaf ears sounded like, "Mumble mumble mumble." I looked at him and yelled, "What?" He increased the volume of his mumble to ask what I had for sale. Everyone knows that if you park in the Akebono Parking Lot with your hood raised, it's a signal that you have some kind of dope for sale. By this time, the mechanic had peered into my engine compartment and was standing there wisely nodding his head.
"What would you do if you had my problem?" I asked. His wise giggle-inspiring answer: "GET A HEARING AID!" With that, he strolled away toward the porch of the Akebono where a young woman was busily painting clown faces on people. Then Gil Costa da Sa approached me, smiling. Gil is a recent arrival from Brazil. Years ago he was an exchange student and his English is perfect. As is his Spanish, and, of course, his Portuguese. Permiteme resolver tu problema," he said. Astonished, I replied, "No sabia que eras mecanico." He grinned and said, "I'm a Punatic."
Gil thrust his clean hands into the greasy bowels of my engine and said, "There's a big hole in this hose." Then he said, "I'll get you a new hose." Not meaning to dampen his enthusiasm, just being realistic, I wailed, "You can't! Everything's closed. It's the Fourth of July!"
Being anxious about my forthcoming stage performance, I told Gil I'd be right back and I went into the Akebono Theater. It's said to be Hawaii's oldest theater; like me, it reeks and creaks with old age. (On December 7, 1998, the Akebono Theater will be 81 years old). In the men's room, I got the grease off my hands. Pat Rocco, who has a long-term lease on the Akebono Theater, filled my spare water jug for me, and I delivered it back to the ailing pickup. No one was there, so I closed the hood.
Then I found R. J. Hampton, near the Akebono's back door, surrounded by a plethora of Punatics. As I tried to get her attention I felt that I was behind the scenes at a circus. Off to one side a juggler was rehearsing his act, juggling three or four two-foot-long scimitars; the face painting artist was now doing a clown face on the bald pate of a bearded old man who sat patiently erect while a queue of her potential clown-face clients stood waiting their turn; if an elephant had walked by or if a caged lion had roared I would have taken it for granted. Everyone was there except The Fat Lady, and although most Punatics are extremely slender, I saw a couple of possible candidates for that position.
R. J. and I went inside and tested my voice on the microphone. The house lights were up, and I could see that about one tenth of the theater seats were occupied by other potential performers. "That's good," I thought, remembering that the best prospects for a salesman are other salesmen. Unaccustomed as I am to ... ... using a microphone, I protested, only to learn that the microphone was necessary because the whole show would be recorded. "Just take it off its stand," R. J. said, "and make love to that microphone!" For a rare moment I was speechless, pondering that advice.
Outside the Akebono's back door the fireworks had begun. I saw people silhouetted against the midsummer sunset's afterglow, children swirling lighted sparklers, thick clouds of smoke; I heard the rat-a-tat-tat of exploding packages of firecrackers. It looked, smelled, and sounded like a war zone. What appeared to be a medic administering to a wound victim was really a Punatic masseur manipulating the muscles of a very relaxed client. Dr. "High-Strung" Hyson, the neurobiologist who talks to dolphins, walked by wearing a striped, star-spangled shirt, carrying his 7-foot-long didgeridoo as if it were a weapon. I looked forward to hearing him play it again.
When the variety show began I found an unoccupied seat in the second row. On the stage, R. J. went through a comic routine that left the audience well warmed up to welcome Christian Cullen, who had promised (threatened?) to create more than a hundred balloon animals in an hour. His assistant, Beth, started handing him one balloon at a time from the huge heap of unblown balloons on the table at stage right. As he finished each "animal" in a flash, he hurled it over the footlights to group of waiting Punatic waifs. Meanwhile, R. J. did an intricate dance with a small paper American flag as a prop. Julia, aka/Butterfly Girl, the face-painting artist, by this time had set up her studio at stage left. At the climax of R. J.'s dance she lay on her back on Julia's bench, the little flagpole in her mouth, waving Old Glory from side to side with her tongue.
Next came David Sauer, the smiling juggler, who progressed from juggling tennis balls to Indian clubs to scimitars, ending with great balls of FIRE. Cindy, Chico's lovely (and stone-deaf) wife, performed beautifully, singing with a keyboard accompaniment, then with ukulele. And then?
And then R. J. was beckoning to ME!!! The time had come. My turn. I bounded up the steps at center stage, took the microphone that R. J. handed me, and faced my audience. A Black Hole! Because of the Akebono's excellent lighting system I could see nothing. Darkness there, and nothing more. "Turn on some lights!!" I screamed. "I have to see my audience!!" The full auditorium came into view. As I started "making love" to the microphone, telling it about my success in fulfilling my promise to Sam McGee, I was able to discern a few interested faces. Although I was hearing nothing but that loud roar from the resonating sound system, I pretended I was being heard and put all I had into it. When I had succeeded in warming up Sam McGee, R. J. gave me a hug and a kiss and I descended from the stage and zoomed up the aisle and into the lobby. There I was met by a glowing man who said Robert Service is his favorite poet. He shook my hand enthusiastically and I was glad to have reached at least one listener.
Out in the parking lot, Gil had removed the damaged radiator hose and had installed a brand new one. I started the engine, and the alternator's pulley immediately chewed a hole in it. Gil suggested I move the alternator a little, and while he did surgery on the hose and reattached it, I found a happy medium location for the alternator so that all systems worked in harmony.
I was delighted to have my pickup back in running condition. "It looked so hopeless," I said to Chico, who smiled and reminded me, "To a true Punatic nothing is hopeless."
Eight additional acts followed my own, including Smiley with her guitar singing two original songs, white-bearded John singing Nature Boy and Summertime, both a capella, Zipphra reciting an original poem on Love, Joy and Kunti with a belly-dancing demonstration, Pana playing the umbera, an instrument from Africa, and so on.
Dr. High-Strung told me he enjoyed -- once again -- hearing about Sam McGee. He was still carrying his didgeridoo and I asked why he had not performed. "Nobody invited me," he said, looking sad but hopeful.
R. J. joined us the next morning for coffee on my lanai. I told her I still had some doubts as to how well my recitation was received. "Didn't you hear the thunder of applause?" she asked.
"No," I said. "I'm deaf."
A few days later Dr. Hyson was here for the morning coffee session. I heard him say, "I have a rubbish service, too." I knew he was into all kinds of enterprises, but that one surprised me. I did a reality check, asking him, "Did you say you have a rubbish service?"
"NO," he said, "I said I love Robert Service, too!"