by Liz Prato
Bombs exploded seven miles away. Seven miles looked like a lot less at night, when the only thing between me and the bombs was a dark ribbon of ocean. The flares were like giant Roman Candles streaking into the indigo sky. Sometimes the sonic booms rattled the windows on Maui, and once an unexploded bomb landed in the Maui mayor’s cow pasture. The dark ribbon of ocean protecting me from the assault was the ʻAlalākeiki Channel, the waterway separating the southwestern coast of Maui from the island of Kaho‘olawe.
I was lying on Wailea Beach with a Californian named Steve who was on Maui with his best friend’s family. My brother’s name was also Steve, and the way you can tell which one I’m referring to is by which one I was desperately trying to make out with. This Steve and I were smoking weed from a bong made from a Diet Dr. Pepper can, weed that I’d bought from the bartender at the InterContinental hotel.
In the 1980’s I spent a lot of time on Wailea Beach, which means I spent a lot of time watching bombs explode on Kaho‘olawe. I wouldn’t call it a pastime, exactly, but the nearest mall and movie theater and Burger King were a half-hour away, so if you were old enough to be out at night but not old enough to be in a bar, there’s a good chance you were sitting on the beach getting high. Watching the pyrotechnics of exploding bombs seemed almost natural. Maybe even romantic.
Kaho‘olawe is the smallest of the eight major Hawaiian islands, and the only one uninhabited. It is dusty and dry, in the rain shadow of Haleakalā, with no source of fresh water. Even before the bombing, it was hardly the verdant paradise characteristic of the emerald cliffs of Kaua‘i or the interior mountains of O‘ahu. Kaho‘olawe became an eyesore, an anomaly, an allegory, as if the “Aloha Spirit” purposefully skipped over the island and let it fall into a seventh-ring hellscape amid the galactic paradise.
I spent a lot of time on Wailea Beach in the 1980’s because my dad, a mainland developer, was building a housing subdivision in the town of Kihei, just north of Wailea. Wailea is a planned resort community: hotels and swanky condos, over-priced boutiques, restaurants and golf courses built in close enough proximity to each other so tourists won’t be tempted to leave. Kihei is where residents—kama‘āina—actually live. Kama‘āina translates to “child of the land,” because that was the way of Hawai‘i before white folks arrived: The land didn’t belong to people, but people belonged to the land.
Even though my dad and brother and I always stayed at the InterContinental Hotel in Wailea, we liked to think we were more than just tourists. We had friends who lived on island. We hung out in Kihei and wore Local Motion clothing and boogie-boarded at then-remote Makena Beach. When we had the munchies late at night, Steve and I drove to the Burger King in Kahului. Resort tourists didn’t do that. We were so dead-set against being tourists that we didn’t do a lot of “the things tourists do,” like see the sunrise from Haleakalā Crater, or drive the twisted road to Hana, or—god forbid—hike the jungle and mountain trails. The majority of our activities revolved around the InterContinental: volleyball on the manicured lawn, bodysurfing at the beach, and sunbathing by the Luau pool—where the bartender never served me booze, but did sell me weed that I’d smoke from a pop-can bong.
Steve was from Los Altos, funny and cute, blonde and blue-eyed, but not like a surfer or a model. Like a Northern Californian musician, and I had a thing for musicians. While playing volleyball on thick-blade grass that afternoon, I’d told Steve that if he could make four points in the last half of the match, I’d buy him dinner. He got the four points and I pretended to be bummed that I had to cough up dinner—as if I paid for anything. Every aspect of the trip was bankrolled by my dad—well, except for the weed. I paid for that with earnings from my hamburger-joint job back in Denver. Steve and I ate at the Lanai Terrance—which we just called “the coffee shop”—where he had a monte cristo sandwich and I had a shrimp Louis salad. Afterwards, we went to the beach to get stoned and watch the stars and the bombs.
“You know what, Steve?” I said into the dark.
“What?” His voice was all dreamy-high.
I said it in one long sentence without any pauses. “This probably isn’t a great time to bring this up but I’m really relaxed so I figure what the hell I really like you a lot and want to get together with you before you leave.”
He laughed a laugh I couldn’t discern back then, but now I totally get to mean: Where the hell did that come from? “Wow.”
“And if you have a brain, you’d already figured that out by now.”
We listened to the bombs. We watched the flares across the channel. High-powered gunfire sparked in the dark as the headlights of military vehicles climbed the island’s desolate terrain. The island was desolate because decades of bombing practice by the US military had devastated the already-struggling vegetation, the wildlife, the sacred temples and ancient Hawaiian artifacts. Yes, the United States—that’s who was bombing the life out of Kaho‘olawe seven miles away, as Steve and I sat in a silence that wasn’t awkward only because of the Maui Wowie and the bombs.
“I’d say yes,” Steve said, as if I’d asked a straight-forward question, “But I don’t know if it’s because I’m fried and if I’ll feel differently in the morning. How do you think you’ll feel in the morning?”
“I’ll feel the same,” I said. “I’ve been wanting to do something about this for a while.”
A “while” was six days, which is when Steve and his friends first got on my radar. I’d been in Maui for almost three weeks. When you’re sixteen, almost-three weeks is a painfully long time to not be with friends. I hadn’t seen much of Bobby, our friend from Kihei. He sometimes worked his dad’s concession stand selling sunglasses and tanning lotion at the Luau pool, and a couple years earlier we all started hanging out—him, me, my brother, and then Bobby’s cousin, Donald. As an employee at the hotel, as a local, Bobby wasn’t supposed to swim in the pools or play volleyball on the lawn or hang out in the lobby, but he had become our perpetual guest. Everyone at the hotel knew Bobby was with us. But on this trip he and Donald has been subsumed by my brother, and I was left alone.
I was desperate for some connection. More than anything, I was desperate to like a guy who liked me back. I thought I’d solved that problem with Chris, this gorgeous guy from Dallas I’d met a week earlier. I first saw him while playing volleyball. That night we ran into each other at the Lanai Terrace, and he told me he hated eating alone. “Do you want company?” I’d asked. After dinner we went driving with some guys he’d met at the hotel. The night was warm and smelled like plumeria and orchids and I was in a car with this beautiful boy. I don’t know where or how our conversation took the turn, but it somehow arrived at him saying, “The locals here hate white people.”
At that exact moment, my brother was with Bobby and Donald. Locals. Brown skinned.
“Most of the white people treat them like trash,” I said, and by white people I meant tourists with money.
“Well, they are trash,” Chris said in his Dallas drawl.
Did he notice how I didn’t speak again? We weren’t high and there were no bombs or stars to focus on. Just me checking out, wanting to be anywhere but with this guy.
When we pulled into the hotel parking lot, my brother was getting out of our rental car. “He was probably just taking the gang home,” I said.
“I didn’t mean to cut down your friends,” Chris said. “I mean, they seem nice, but most of the locals are just scum.”
Chris asked me to hang out at the Central Pool with him, and he didn’t mean for a swim. He meant just him and me lying on longue chairs next to the clear blue water, underneath the tropical-sea stars, kissing.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to make it,” I said.
He looked surprised. He honestly didn’t see this moment coming? “Well, maybe I’ll see you before I leave tomorrow morning.”
“I probably won’t be awake,” I said, and went back to my room, despondent, wondering why this was the only guy I could attract, but the guys I really liked never worked out. I guess I could say I’m losing faith,” I wrote in my journal, “but that would be a lie, because I’ve already lost it.”
The story of Kaho‘olawe is the story of a family’s black sheep. It is the hard-living addict the family has tried to help time and time again, passed from relative to relative as each one grew depleted, sometimes helping, but often making things worse.
Twelve different people held leases to Kaho‘olawe between 1858 and 1909. They brought in sheep and goats that overgrazed the land, they tried to get rid of sheep and goats that overgrazed the land. They planted trees to stop the topsoil from blowing away. They brought over cows and more sheep and suffered through severe droughts. The Governor designated Kaho‘olawe a Forest Reserve, hoping to replenish the island, but that required killing the feral sheep and goat population—a mass-extermination that (once again) proved impossible. Forest Reserve status was revoked. A Wyoming cowboy was granted the lease. He wanted to raise cattle, but was legally required to eradicate the sheep and goats within one year. On December 7, 1941, martial law was declared in Hawai‘i and control of the island was taken away from the cowboy. It was supposed to be returned to him, to Hawai‘i, after WWII, but the US decided Kaho‘olawe was too perfect a place to simulate war. They loved that they could bombard the island with shore fire and ground fire and air fire at the same time. Perhaps this was doable on other Pacific islands, but Kaho‘olawe’s proximity to Pearl Harbor (a mere 100 miles) probably made it easier and cheaper to bomb the hell out of than some atoll in the middle of Micronesia (2,000+ miles). And we had to test bombs—to practice war—somewhere, right?
This is the story of Kaho‘olawe: drought, sheep, goats, and then war, which led to bombs. By the way: bombing the island turned out to be one of the more effective solutions for thinning the herds. Not that it was the primary goal. Just a fringe benefit.
Two days after ditching the racist guy from Dallas I met Steve, which led to us lying on the beach not talking about the fact that this island in front of us was being bombed. Even though we were from the mainland, somehow the violence seemed perfectly normal.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked him.
“Well, what about Evan?” Evan was his best friend’s older brother—and by older, I mean eighteen. “I think he likes you.”
I’d on-and-off wondered the same thing, every day going back and forth between “I think he likes me” to “He just likes me as a friend.” The word like had so many nuances at that age.
Steve and I turned on our sides, not seeing the flares or the stars anymore, just each other. “He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to make the first move,” he said.
Evan was nice enough, I guess, and not bad looking, but I just didn’t feel that way about him. “Do you like me?” I asked Steve.
“As more than a friend?”
“I think so.” He emphasized so, not think, which mattered to my stony brain. Of course, teenage stony brains are reliably unreliable.
I moved my hand to his head and played with his wavy blonde hair, bleached out by the salt water and chlorine and tropical sun. I kissed his forehead, then his cheek, then next to—but not on—his lips, giving him plenty of time to pull away if he wanted. It didn’t occur to me that maybe there was something wrong with having to work this hard to get him to kiss me. Or maybe there wasn’t. Even now, over thirty years later, I don’t understand the motivations of teenage boys. We’re told it’s sex, then more sex, and then even more sex, but I also know they can care about people and doing the right thing. Not all of them get together with a girl just because she’s present and willing.
I kissed Steve’s chapped lips, and he kissed back. I had no awareness of the booms or flares or bright lights across the channel, of the Navy literally bombing the life out of this island that was settled by Polynesians in 400 AD, that was ruled by violent chiefs, that became a colony criminals were sent into exile, that was overrun by feral animals, that was stolen from the Hawaiian people. In 1981—two years before I was making out with Steve—Kaho‘olawe was added to the Register of National Historic Places in hopes of saving whatever remained of the sacred religious sites and ancient artifacts and petroglyphs carved into lava rock. But the destruction continued. The island was a metaphor for a metaphor for the real deal.
I asked Steve how he’s feeling now.
“Better,” he said. “Not so stoned.”
“Are you still unsure about this?” I asked.
“No, I’m sure,” he said and we kissed again. I wondered how he’d feel in the morning.
In the mid-seventies, Kaho‘olawe became ground zero for the Hawaiian Renaissance, a movement to restore Native culture. An activist group called “Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana” (sometimes shortened to PKO, sounding too much like a terrorist group for me) staged a series of illegal landings on the island. During their first “access,” as they called it, ‘Ohana members discovered the remnants of ancient fishing villages and religious temples. They also saw an island that was dying—just like the Hawaiian culture.
The ‘Ohana group grew and strengthened under the guiding principle of aloha ‘āina: love for the land and a responsibility to protect it. They lobbied the state legislature and flew to Washington D.C. to request federal support. They filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense, demanding the bombing cease and the island be retuned to Hawai‘i. None of that did a bit of good, so they decided to go the route of civil disobedience.
In January 1977, several ‘Ohana members covertly landed on Kaho‘olawe. Soon after, most of them returned to Honolulu to announce that two men, Richard Sawyer and Walter Ritte, had remained on the island. Sawyer and Ritte brought enough food and water to survive for two weeks. Three weeks later, one hundred Marines and a fleet of helicopters were dispatched to track them down. Sawyer and Ritte managed to evade the military, and their occupation stretched out to a month. At that point, they decided to give themselves up. The problem was, the military had lost interest. They even resumed bombing and, amid the chaos, Ritte and Sawyer couldn’t get their attention. They lit bonfires and flashed mirrors to send signals but, as I can attest from my adolescent perch on the coast of Maui, that wouldn’t stand out.
It was up to the ‘Ohana to rescue their own. George Helm, Kimo Mitchell, and Billy Mitchell (no relation) made landing on Kaho‘olawe on March 5th to search for their friends. The powerboat driver who ferried them over was supposed to retrieve them the next day, but didn’t show up, due to weirdly unspecified “boat problems.” The three men spent two days trying to find Sawyer and Ritte, but to no avail. With limited supplies and the ongoing bombing, they decided it best to hightail it over to Maui via the two surfboards they’d brought. About halfway across the rough ʻAlalākeiki Channel, Billy Mitchell lost site of George and Kimo. The winds and currents were so powerful that it made more sense for him to return to Kaho‘olawe—where he ran the risk of being blown up or arrested—than to continue towards Maui. Upon landing, Billy immediately located the Marines and told them of his missing friends. The otherwise-at-odds ‘Ohana and US military joined forces to search for them, but George Helm and Kimo Mitchell were never found. Officially lost at sea.
I don’t find their deaths the most surprising part of the story. Maybe that’s what comes of being born in 1967, with the background of race riots and the Vietnam War entering your cellular memory. What surprises me most is that, of all the accounts I read, none revealed the fate of the men Helm and Mitchell went to rescue. It wasn’t until I unearthed an Appeal of the Ninth Circuit Court reviewing Ritte and Sawyers’ arrest and six-month imprisonment that I discovered the military had located and removed them from Kaho‘olawe on March 5th—the very day their ill-fated friends arrived to save them.
It was late morning at the same beach where Steve and I made out the night before. He was out snorkeling with his best friend. It was cloudy, and not the way it often is in the Islands—fluffy clouds moving from mountain to shore and shore to mountain, maybe releasing a quick shower—but was a portent of real rain. The kind that keeps tourists indoors, confused, unsure about how to pass their time. Across the choppy channel Kaho‘olawe was dormant. No flares or booms, just convalescence.
Steve emerged from the water. I don’t know if I asked how the snorkeling was, but I assume it must have been shitty. Cloudy like the skies. Steve and I sat on the sand, our long gaze towards Kaho‘olawe. Without the dark and without the weed, I wasn’t as bold, so it took me a while to screw up the courage to say, “I’ve just got to ask . . . now that it’s morning, how do you feel?”
“No differently,” he said.
The day went on as usual— swimming, lunch, volleyball, dinner with my dad and brother, then, that night, getting stoned on the beach again with Steve.
“Did you like last night?” he asked me. God, the amount of reassurance we needed at that age.
“Yeah,” I said. “Did you?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said.
I asked him if he thought I was easy because I’d been so forward, and he said no. But five minutes later, he asked, “Do you try to get together with every blond musician you meet?”
I thought about it for a long time, some might suggest too long, but since we were high the passage of time wasn’t relevant. I tried to recall the number of blond musicians I’d met in my vast dating life of about a year and a half. I couldn’t think of anyone other than Steve. “No,” I said. “He’d have to be unique.”
My guess is that by “unique” I meant he’d have to be cute and funny, as well as a blond musician—although I’m not even sure why that, “blond musician,” had become a metric. Maybe there was something about the Police and David Bowie and Nick Rhodes populating MTV in 1983 that put an extra premium on blonds. Maybe it’s why I’d kissed brown eyed, black-haired Bobby the summer before, but never again. Maybe that’s why he didn’t hang out with me anymore.
“Okay then,” Steve said. “I don’t think you’re easy.”
To be clear—because it might be important to you or maybe just to me—all we did was make out. There was no excessive rubbing or caressing, no undressing, no climaxing. Just kissing. Connection.
That summer I spent three and a half weeks on Maui, and the most important relationship I thought I could have was to a boy. Not to the ‘āina, or the host culture I so frivolously consumed. I’ve since learned to connect to both earthly and heavenly elements in infinite ways—land, sky, water, bodies, my own heart. But at that age, connection required male affection as the conduit—to my own body, my own heart, even to the land I sat on and saw being destroyed before my eyes.
The bombing of Kaho‘olawe continued until 1990, and then it took another four years until control of the island was returned to Hawai‘i. It would be nice to think Kaho‘olawe was some sort of anomaly, a cautionary tale from which a valuable lesson is learned and heeded, but 20% of the state’s land is still controlled by the military. That’s over one hundred installations on 236,000 acres, from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on West Kaua‘i, to the Big Island’s Pohakuloa Training Area, to the granddaddy of them all: Pearl Harbor. Between direct Department of Defense expenditures and the spending of military families, it’s estimated that the military presence contributes over $14.7 billion a year to Hawai‘i’s economy, making it second only to tourism in its economic impact. And, like tourism, while the military has helped the islands flourish financially, it has also devastated its culture.
I have no idea what became of the subdivision my dad was building in Kihei. When I cleaned out my dad’s house after he and Steve died, at ages 83 and 45, I found no record of the project ever existing. No contracts or blueprints, no documentation of a partnership formed or dissolved. Proof of my family’s connection to the ‘āina had disappeared, like ephemera streaking across the night sky.
Scores of unexploded ordnance still litter Kaho‘olawe, some buried out of sight, some protruding up in the air. Volunteers work cautiously and tirelessly to clean up and restore the island. When I recently returned to Maui for the first time in twenty-three years, my plane flew by Kaho‘olawe. I was alone, my husband back home, my dad and my brother ashes in urns. Kaho‘olawe was no longer pock-marked and brown. Greenery laid in a smooth blanket over the land. My breath caught, and I released it slowly, whispering, “My god.” The island looked healthy, but I knew that which is destroyed cannot be brought back. What is gone will always be gone.