“People come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime; we never know which.”
It’s 8:00 AM on March 7th, and it’s 12 – freaking degrees! It’s been so cold for so long, we still have Christmas lights frozen to the front shrubs!
As I make my way up the steps at my favorite Saturday morning coffee hangout, my friend Markus greets me with, “Shouldn’t you be someplace tropical right about now?”
It doesn’t take much for me to go to my happy place. I can hardly believe it’s been three months since Leigh and I did our 19 – day long, warm-weather sojourn, visiting friends and family in California, Hawaii and Arizona. at the current temperature it seems as if it was a lifetime ago! It also seems like it was just yesterday.
A three-week long trip anywhere would qualify as a trip of a lifetime by almost any standard; in this case it would become, literally, a trip of my lifetime.
Our first stop was San Diego to visit Dad and his wife Jan Rich. Dad is a retired Navy Captain whose assignments included command of a nuclear powered submarine. Although the last time I visited San Diego was in 2007 after my mother died, there remains a distinct familiarity. We spent one day touring Point Loma lighthouse and what was once the Point Loma submarine base. While I get to visit with Dad 3-4 times per year, it is usually back east. As always, I’m struck by the sharpness of his memory and attention to detail with a wealth of historical knowledge. Like any son, I suspect, I wish there were things he’d forget!
We then head to Honolulu.
Although she will seemingly serve as a full time photographer on this trip, Leigh does know how to make the most of her free time. Particularly on the beach with Diamond Head in the background.
On the afternoon of the second day we headed to Pearl Harbor. I stood on the bridge of the USS Missouri (BB-63), the World War II Battleship moored in Pearl Harbor, gazing at the USS Arizona Memorial. As the two ships, positioned bow-to-bow, one floating, one sunk, represent the end and the beginning of World War II, the solemnity of the moment cannot be overstated. Like The Wall in D.C. and The Fields of Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor snaps open a direct channel between my eyes’ view and my soul’s core. I know I am in hallowed space.
Squinting away the tears that blur my vision, I’m struck by not only the richness of this place of U.S. history, but also that of my personal history on this island where I was born and lived most of youth. In this moment the flood of memories and emotion begins to flow. What I can’t see with my eyes is any real ship activity; but in my mind’s eye I flash back to 1972-73 era, standing on the pier, waiting for Dad’s boat (submarines are boats, not ships!) the USS Sargo (SSN – 583), to come in. We stand on the pier with the other families: sun shining, an easy breeze blowing, barely moving the flags. A Navy band plays. Everyone anxiously awaiting Sargo’s return after a six-month deployment. Into our vision appears the slowly approaching sub with a large flower lei placed on the conning tower. Dad coming home from sea still brings a smile and a tear.
What I can actually see is what is different from the Pearl Harbor of my youth, most notably the bridge to Ford Island. When I was in high school, I had a friend who lived in housing on Ford Island, and we needed to take a ferry to and from shore. Next to the bridge is the WWII submarine museum, the USS Bowfin. In 2003, Capt Will Rich, one of my fathers best friends and the deceased husband of Jan Rich, took us on a personalized tour of the floating museum he had a hand in making a reality.
As my vision clears I expand my view, taking in the white puffy clouds against the backdrop of the Koolau Mountain range. I see the familiar landmarks so ingrained in my brain: The homes rising along the ridges toward the sky in Aiea, Pearl City and Mililani; the signature pink buildings of Tripler Medical Center, and of course my sentimental favorite, Aloha Stadium. What I didn’t realize in that moment is how the inter-connectedness and expansiveness of a lifetime of relationships was about to unfold before me.
After leaving Pearl Harbor we head north on H-1 toward Ben and Laurie Aina’s home. Like the Ford Island Bridge, Kapolei is a community that didn’t even exist “back in the day”. Ben, or Beno (Bee-noh) and I first met in the summer of 1973 as incoming freshman at the then all-boy Damien Memorial High School. The mauve and gold school colors with the Latin motto, “Viriliter Age” (Act Manfully) still tug at my heart. We played football and were coached by his older brother, Wally. I was Quarterback and Ben played Center. In 1975, our junior season, we were on the team that won the first high school football game in the newly constructed Aloha Stadium. (28-15 victory over Iolani).
Ben is a retired fire fighter and naval reservist, a substitute school teacher, and a Minister who just returned from a mission trip to the Far East. We spent the evening reflecting, sometimes sheepishly, on our coming-of-age years in the 1970’s. We shared some surprising parallels, and both of us are very grateful our definition of ‘Viriliter Age” looks completely different today than it did back in the 70’s.
Although our glory days ended nearly 40 years ago, when we get to together, we can’t help but reminisce and assume the position a reunited quarterback and center know best. We recounted our ‘silent signal’, a double tap on Ben’s back side, that changed the play to a quarterback sneak on the first sound. We used it successfully quite often.
You can take the boys out of football but you can’t take the football out of boys. With all due respect to our lovely brides, it is safe to say that there is not a man whose ass I have thought of more than Beno’s over the past 40 years.
It doesn’t matter how old you get, there’s always something abut that first steady sweetheart that’s hard to forget. Moana Meyer was my 8th grade girlfriend at St. Anthony’s School in Kailua. She’s an artist, yoga instructor, entrepreneur and overall passionate life-liver (check her out at www.Smartita.com).
I’m not sure I understand exactly what that thing that attracted us to “go steady” and slow-dance continuously for the entire Side 2 of “The Best of Bread” album, but whatever it was, it’s still there. We laughed and joked and cried with that middle-school enthusiasm like it was 1972 all over again.
Sharon and Betsy.
No trip to Hawaii is complete without a visit with the girls next door. Sharon and Betsy Esser grew up across Aiokoa Street from our family. We first met in 1971, (Sharon and I were in seventh grade) when we moved back to the Islands. As Sharon wrote in a 50th birthday note tome, “We’ve gone from playing ‘Kick the Can’ and card games to double-dating and high school dances”.
Sharon and I pick up on easy conversations as if we were high school seniors all over again. I can’t even begin to count the number of times Sharon came to my rescue in one form or another, from “emergency extractions from the other side of the island”, to talking me off the emotional ledge of a broken heart as I repeatedly pounded the tether-ball on the pole at the end of our driveway. Sharon is as good and trusted a friend as I have ever had.
Just as smart but with more sass, Betsy, two years our junior, was never far from the fray. I’ve probably dropped Betsy’s name a thousand times over the past few years as her middle-school romance with Barrack “Barry” Obama (her Punahou classmate; also, Obama’s grandfather worked for Sharon & Betsy’s dad). I don’t know if they slow danced to side two of the Best of Bread or not, but, as I like to retell the story, the future President of the United States got sick on Betsy after a quickly-downed purple Shave-Ice was followed immediately by a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl at the Punahou carnival. I’m getting as much mileage out of the story as I can. Betsy’s husband Danny, who we’ve come to know over the years, is as phenomenal a grill master as he is as an obnoxious LA Laker fan.
We also had the opportunity to grab dinner with some of my Naval Academy ’81 classmates. Our Class Corresponding Secretary Steve Colon coordinated a dinner with classmates Russ and Alma (Lau) Grocki. Steve runs a very successful real estate development company in the islands, and lives within a stones throw of my 9th grade girlfriend, Capt Will and Jan Rich’s eldest daughter, Anne. (Classmate Note: If you get a chance to visit Steve and Carrie – make sure he takes you to his home!)
Alma was the first woman from Hawaii to be appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy; she is also the first woman from Hawaii to be selected and promoted to Admiral and currently serves as the Fleet Maintenance Officer for the U. S. Navy Pacific Fleet. She was also the nuclear ship superintendent for the decommissioning of USS Sargo (SSN – 583), the submarine my father commanded in the early 70’s. As I suspect Alma will acknowledge, her family tree has grown profoundly from the humble roots of her grandparents arranged-marriage in a fishing village on the Island of Kauai. Really cool stuff.
Alma’s husband Russ is a retired nuclear submarine commander whose father was also a submarine officer. The Grocki’s lived across the street from our family in 1965-66 in Nautilus Park Navy Housing, Groton CT. Now retired from the Navy, Russ spends some of his time as a high school golf coach. The golf league coordinator is Wally Aina, my former football coach and brother of Ben. I’ve known Russ since the 2nd grade.
You just can’t make this stuff up.
On our last night in Waikiki, we caught up with another Naval Academy classmate, Ralph Hasegawa for sushi and talking story. Ralph’s parents, Frank, who grew up on the island of Molokai fishing with nets, and is a 1958 Naval Academy graduate, and Bobbie, have always been gracious and generous hosts when we, or our kids, visit the islands. One of Ralph’s hobbies is refereeing high school football; he is always quick to tell me about when there is a QB playing that reminds him of me at Aloha Stadium in the 70’s. He’s very kind, gentle man and knows exactly what I like to hear.
After the exhausting and exhilarating week on Oahu, we flew to Kauai where we caught up with my eighth grade classmate and Aikahi Park neighbor Kurt Leong. What I remember of Kurt was he was a ‘surfer dude’ with ‘rice bowl’ style haircut. Kurt shamelessly and famously dated the daughter of the Commanding General of Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station. This provided Kurt and his surf buddies unrestricted access to the base with some of the finest surfing spots on the island. (Bear in mind, this was in the ‘70’s!) . Kurt moved to Kauai and now serves as station chief for a fire company. After retiring from the airlines, he decided he needed find a way to “give back”. So he grabbed some surfing buddies and some old surfboards and founded the Kauai Outdoor Recreation Experience, Or KORE, a non-profit organization dedicated taking people with disabilities surfing. Check out the website and the expressions on the faces on these people! How cool is this?
Click this: http://korekauai.com/
On our way back east we stopped in Scottsdale, AZ to visit with Navy classmate and Plebe Summer roommate Guy Williams and his wife Susan. Guy and I met on July 6, 1977, the first day of Plebe Summer. I’m not sure there were two Plebes ever assigned together that were more scared of what each day would bring them. Guy and his wife Susan are enjoying retirement by travelling and splitting time between Arizona and Colorado. When in Scottsdale, Guy spends most of his time as a Hospice volunteer for veterans of the military service.
There are no words to describe how blessed I feel to have the friendships and memories of so many people over so many years. To learn how their lives have crossed paths as they have is mind-boggling. It doesn’t matter how cold the outside temperature is, or how long until the CHristmas lights thaw out, the warmth in my heart that comes from people of my life is unending. Whether its been for a reason, a season or a lifetime, knowing each of you is blessing beyond description. This truly was a trip of my lifetime.