10 Amazing Island Stories
Next time you’re out in public, take a look around. The person next to you may have saved a life. Or won a million dollars. You wouldn’t know just by looking at them, you’d have to ask. So we did. Here are some Islanders who have experienced the unusual, done the extraordinary, from the sublime achievement of reclaiming a once nearly extinct language to the wacky experience of winning a musubi eating contest.
speaks Hawaiian fluently.
Spoken Hawaiian once verged on extinction. A new generation has brought it back.
I was part of the first class of the Punana Leo o Hilo Hawaiian immersion program, in 1985. Prior to that, I was raised speaking the language. My mother could speak Hawaiian, and so could my grandmother and her mother, Edith Kanakaole. And using the language as part of the ceremony and protocol of hula, I had an understanding of the metaphor and poetry of Hawaiian language even before I had the skill to converse.
Today, there are more than enough people around me to be able to speak Hawaiian on a daily basis. On average, I’ll speak Hawaiian for more than half of my day. I have an easier time expressing myself to my grandmother in Hawaiian than in English. My brothers can understand, but can’t speak as much. My cousins are all involved in Hawaiian language revitalization movements. And I have more and more friends who are products of the University of Hawaii system who have been speaking the language for a few years.
The UH language students are often limited in conversational Hawaiian language, even if they’re skilled in the technical aspects. There’s a natural rhythm and intonation to conversational Hawaiian that’s often missing. They’ll speak in a monotone, and you can see the process going in their heads as they’re speaking, putting words and phrases together.
I actually look forward to speaking with people whose language skills are not as good. It takes extra effort, but it’s really not frustrating. Any sort of Hawaiian language experience is better than none at all, and to be able to hear it on a daily basis, at whatever level, is refreshing.
You can often tell where a fluent Hawaiian speaker is from. Dialects vary from island to island, even between different ahupuaa, or districts. In the more southern Hawaiian islands of Maui and Hawaii Island, a lot of glottal stops are used and the language is a lot more guttural sounding, so it sounds like chanting. The northern islands use a lot more nasal techniques.
When you hear Hawaiian language unexpectedly, it strikes a chord. Whether you know the speaker or not, you turn around and you already have an ancestral familiarity. I feel as if I know them already, even though we’ve never met. The language has given us a deeply rooted, binding connection. It’s these moments in my day that truly validate what I do, as an educator or a musician or a hula practitioner or even just as a speaker of the language.
—As told to Michael Keany
responds to medical emergencies, including the occasional emergence.
In 2006, the EMS supervisor helped deliver a baby boy in a car at a Honolulu gas station.
We got a call for an “OB case.” That’s all they really tell us. You never know what you’re going to get until you get there. It was just me and two interns.
I guess the couple was on the freeway driving to the hospital. She told him they had to pull over. He took the airport exit and turned into a gas station.
When we pulled up, the dad was in the driver’s seat, she was in the front seat and their son, maybe 4 or 5 years old, was sitting in the back. I went to the passenger door. She had broken her water all over the seat. She looked at me and all she said was, “It’s coming.”
They were in an older car that had a bench seat in front. I felt so lucky. You never see that anymore. I got the dad out and laid her down on the bench. I could already see the top of the baby’s head. It was ready. I reassured her and told her I’d done this before. I helped her breathe, told her to push. Then she pushed again and the head popped out. I helped the shoulder down and boom, the baby came right out. It all happened in less than two minutes.
I’ve delivered 10 babies in my career and that was the only one I’ve delivered in a car. We see so much death and sickness and illness and trauma. It’s cool when we get to see something miraculous and beautiful.
—As Told to Sheila Sarhangi
has been there and done that.
This 102-year-old Lihue resident was named a “Living Treasure” by Kauai Museum and shows no signs of slowing down.
I swim laps every day at 4 p.m. in my swimming pool. I walk all around, all the time. I’m golfing in a charity tournament this month. I don’t know what my best score is. I don’t want to know. I don’t play that kind of game anymore. A group of us play mahjong and bridge every Tuesday and Wednesday at my house.
I just got my driver’s license renewed for two more years. I learned to drive in a Model T Ford in 1922. I was given my license by my uncle, who was the sheriff on Kauai, on my birthday. I don’t wear glasses when I drive, only when I read. My ophthalmologist has a poster of me in his office.
I wear a hearing aid. I rarely use a cane. I eat everything. I’m not particular about food or that sort of thing.
I graduated from Kauai High School in 1924 and then I went to college in California. I took a university course where we went to all of the countries in Europe. I got five credits for it.
I was a teacher for more than 30 years. I taught on Oahu, Maui and Kauai. I taught third grade mostly, but also taught sixth grade.
I had a big party for my 100th birthday; 500 people attended. I’ll have one when I’m 105, if God lets me live that long. You never know.
I have a canary named Elvis. I don’t have any grandchildren, but I have seven step-grandchildren. I’ve been married three times. I enjoy life, my family and my friends in particular.
In the old days, Kauai wasn’t as crowded as it is now. We rode horseback and did a lot of things that kids don’t do today. I think when I was a little girl we were lucky because we made our own fun. Maybe we didn’t have the advantages of today, but really, we had more advantages because we could enjoy natural things like picnics and the sort of thing that people don’t do much anymore.
The best moments of my life were having my babies. My girl is going to be 80 pretty soon, and my son is in his 70s. My son lives next door to me and I see him every day. My daughter lives on Hawaii.
Do I have any regrets? A few. but I won’t tell you what they are. Some things you have to keep to yourself, you know.
I think it’s important to keep busy. Don’t just sit around; be interested in the life around you. Wake up in the morning and look forward to each day. Have a sense of humor and enjoy your friends. Be kind to people and be interested in them. I try not to be critical of others, because we are all human.
—As told to sheila sarhangi
risked his life to save another.
In January, the off-duty Makaha lifeguard jumped into a dark cave and saved a 26-year-old man from drowning. He was given the Red Cross “In the Line of Duty Hero” award.
I was at Yokohama Bay after work, watching the sunset. It was getting dark and somebody called, “Help! Help!” This military guy was freaking out, yelling, “My buddy is in the water!” He didn’t know that I was an off-duty lifeguard. I told him, “Where is he?” He said, “He’s out there on the rocks with a flashlight!” I looked toward the area and I knew it was the Moi Hole. It’s a fishing spot; it’s a pretty big cave. The waves were pumping; they were like six feet. When they go into the cave, all the air gets pushed out like spit. I went over and saw the flashlight bobbing in the water. I ran to my car and got my fins and tube and called 9-1-1. Then I said a little prayer.
It was dark so I couldn’t see, but I jumped in. I swam into the cave with all this spray around me, yelling, “Hey! Hey!” at the top of my lungs. Then I heard a yell back. I got chicken skin and thought, “He’s alive!” I swam a little deeper and he popped up. He looked like a ghost; his eyeballs were huge. He was overwhelmed; he was all busted up. I strapped him to the tube so he could float. I dodged a couple of waves with him and just kicked like crazy. We swam out to sea about 20 to 50 yards. I was trying to calm him down.
I dragged him down the coast a couple of hundred yards to this cove. It was either we go in there or swim another 500 yards to the sand, which I didn’t want to do, because I fish in this area and I know it’s sharky and this guy’s bleeding and it’s dark.
I saw a wave come and wash right through the cove. I know the rocks over there. On the path to go in and out, you have to zigzag your way through. I told him, “Just for this next couple minutes you got to help me kick!” We charged it and thank God no sets came. We didn’t hit one rock and made it in. By that time, the helicopter had a spotlight on us. We went up to the beach and he stood up and walked out of there.
—As told to sheila sarhangi
holds the record for eating 12 corned-beef musubis in five minutes.
The L&L Hawaiian Barbecue contest was held in March at Kahala Mall with a prize of $1,000, two round-trip plane tickets to the West Coast and a year’s supply of Pepsi.
I was approached at Walmart by the people promoting it. I don’t really like corned-beef musubi. I’ve never been in an eating contest. I just thought it would be cool to win.
I live on a sailboat so I’m kind of all around. I had been over on Molokai and was completely broke. I remembered that the contest was the next day so I gathered up enough money to fly back to Honolulu. I had a couple of things to take care of, but the contest was the main reason I was there, so I was determined to win.
I showed up and looked around. I was against all these guys who were huge and I’m pretty small, so I had no hope of winning. I didn’t have a strategy. I had no idea what I was doing. I just dunked them in water to help swallow them quicker and after about four or so I was kind of gagging and about to throw up. I had a bunch of friends there and I could hear them screaming my name over the hundreds of people. So I looked up and I finished the whole tray real quick after that. When the buzzer went off I had eaten more than everyone else. I won and had enough money to fly back to my boat and continue on.
—As Told to Sheila Sarhangi
Sgt. David Yamamoto
saved a woman from suicide.
In September, the police officer grabbed a 47-year-old woman as she leapt off a Waikiki parking structure.
The call came in—a female who wanted to jump off a roof. When I arrived, there were already three officers talking with her on the fourth floor of a five-story parking structure. She was standing on the outer side of the railing, hanging on and leaning back, saying all kinds of things. She wasn’t with reality.
I started to talk to her, about my son, anything I could think of. I just wanted her to look at me and stop looking around. She was saying that people were following her and were hiding behind cars.
On the street, the paramedics and fire department were blocking traffic.
I had to slowly get closer and closer. I told her I couldn’t hear very well. I was able to get within maybe five feet of her and talk story. I showed her a picture of my son and my family.
After 45 minutes it became freaky. She said, “I’m going to sleep now forever.” She was calling for her sister and she was saying, “God, please forgive me of all my sins.” All of these last rites kinds of things give you the clue that she’s going to do something.
She started counting to three and stopped at two-and-a-half. Then she closed her eyes and let go with her right arm. I closed the gap and that’s when she released her left arm. It took me a second to get to her. I almost missed her because she was already falling. I was able to just grab her by the shirt.
Now I’m on the good side of the railing and she’s on the bad side of the railing, dangling and swinging and the only thing holding her is me. I’m about 150 pounds and five feet, five inches. She was much taller than me and close to 200 pounds.
I know that at least one of my officers grabbed me and was holding on to my vest and belt. I am pretty sure he sat down and was using his body weight to hold me down.
I don’t know how to explain what happened next. I’ve been in the Army Reserves for over 24 years and we do obstacle training and leadership training. I felt the force of her weight and swung her into the third floor of the parking structure and let go.
I looked down and I see her climbing up over the railing to jump again. Now I’m kind of mad. It’s like, “Wait a minute here; we did this once already.”
I jumped over the fourth floor railing and held onto it with my hands. She was on the inside of the railing on the third floor trying to get out. The only thing I had was my feet because I was hanging, so I forcefully pushed her backwards with my feet. She fell back, and I jumped down to the third floor and here she comes to try again. I tackled her and pinned her down. I yelled, “I got her!” and within seconds my officers ran down the stairs from the fourth floor to the third floor.
We tended to her medical needs and she was taken to Queen’s to see a psychiatrist. Hopefully, she’s all right. It just wasn’t her time to die.
—As told to sheila sarhangi
wipes out at Jaws.
On New Year’s Day 2000, the tow-in pioneer gets buried alive not just once, but three times.
I was with Mark Angulo. He was towing me into the third wave of the day. It had a 35-foot face and I was setting up for a nice tube. Just when the wave was about to throw over me, I hit a bump, got knocked off my board and started sliding down the face of the wave on my back. I kept thinking, “This can’t be happening.”
After a second or two I stopped sliding and penetrated the surface. Then I realized I was about to get sucked over the falls and land back down with the lip.
I knew I had to get a breath of air. I took about three kicks and strokes as fast as I could. I saw the surface of the water an inch from my lips. And right then, the lights go out and it’s as if I’m a rag doll in a pit bull’s mouth. I’m getting torn apart. I curl up into a ball so that my arms and legs won’t get separated from me. From the pressure on my ears I could tell I was pretty deep, 25, maybe 30 feet. The wave eventually stopped. When I broke the surface I was looking right down the barrel of the next wave.
In between the wave and me is Mark on the jet ski. I jumped on the rescue sled and, within a second, we get steamrolled by 25-foot white water. We are totally engulfed and we’re bouncing around. I’m holding on with a death grip. I’m starting to get my hopes up that we might pull this off. Right then, I fall into a big cavern, a giant turbine of air and water that sucks you under. I’m even deeper than I was on the first wave. It finally releases me and I start swimming.
About two or three strokes in, my body goes into these huge convulsions. I can’t figure out what’s happening. I literally lost control of my body. (Later I found out that it was because of the lack of oxygen.) After three of them, they stop. I’m still deep underwater. It’s been about 10 to 15 seconds. It’s pitch black. I get this burst of strength and start swimming. When I break the surface, it’s the exact carbon copy of the situation that just happened.
My friend Brett Lickle is on the second jet ski and there’s another white water bearing down on him. He’s going to get hit no matter what. This time I know that if I lose my grip on the rescue sled I’ll probably die. We get slammed and start tumbling and rolling. After 8 to 10 seconds underwater with the jet ski we pop to the surface. We look at each other and I just say, “Thank you. I love you. You just saved my life.” The next thing I said: “Get me on another wave.” I knew that if I didn’t get back on a wave in the next minute I might not ever surf again.
—As told to sheila sarhangi
lifts 15,000-pound loads in a big yellow construction crane.
After two decades as a carpenter, Chinen switched unions and became a crane operator. Her first job was The Watermark condominium, and she’s currently working on a new judiciary building in Kapolei.
Cranes look really big and strong—and they are. But they’re not rigid. You pick up a 15,000-pound load, and your whole cab pitches forward as the crane bends. It takes getting used to. It can get really hairy, too, when you’re operating in 30 mph winds. The whole crane rocks back and forth; your load whips around in the wind.
People think that when you get up there that it’s quiet, it’s secluded. Not even close. The crane makes noise, the motors make noise. I hear all the noise from the construction site, equipment backup alarms, forklifts, grinders, chippers, everything.
The only thing I can’t hear is people talking. All I know is what they tell me on the radio. It was very difficult on me at first, because I had been so much a part of everything when I was a carpenter, talking with the electricians, the plumbers, the iron workers. I was always in constant contact with people; I knew what was going on. Once I got up in the crane, nothing. I see people talking on the deck, and I just want to know what they’re saying. It took a while to get over that and be OK in my new role.
I don’t come down for lunch. Lunch is 30 minutes. It takes me about five minutes to get down, 10 minutes to climb back up. Might as well just stay up.
Sometimes the work is non-stop. Trucks need to be unloaded, move this here, go there. Other jobs, there’s a lot of time between picks, and so I’m just sitting up there. Some operators read books or newspapers. I have my camera, my binoculars. I knit. Right now I’m making a dress for my granddaughter. None of it interferes with my work, of course. Call me on the radio and I’m ready and on the controls.
Because you can’t lose focus. It’s a stressful job in that respect. This is a huge machine, and these are huge loads—one mistake, one miscommunication, and someone can get knocked against a wall. It’s always on my mind.
—As told to Michael Keany
hit it big in Vegas and stayed the same.
In August, this 26-year-old Waipahu mail carrier won more than $1.8 million on a Wheel of Fortune slot machine at the California Hotel and Casino.
A light started flashing and the machine started making a loud noise. I looked up and it read $1.8 million. My mom said, “What happened?” I couldn’t get anything else out of my mouth except for, “Oh, my God!”
The first person I called was my Grandma. She said, “Do you know how much taxes are going to take?” I was like, “That’s not the point!”
We didn’t do any celebrating that night. I was so tired. The next day I was a little nervous because my mom made me take her shopping. She wanted to go to all of the fancy places. We didn’t end up buying anything. We actually ate at a vintage-looking McDonald’s. I had wanted to go there the day before. Winning didn’t change that.
Nothing much has changed. I haven’t bought anything yet. A lot of people are telling me what I should do with the money. I’m looking more into paying off my mortgage. We’re going to fix my Grandma’s house.
I’ve never been big on buying things just to buy them. Everyone keeps giving me crap about it because I have this 12-year-old car that I love. I just say, ‘What’s wrong with my car? It works great and the insurance is cheap.’”
—As told to sheila sarhangi
John “Jack” Lockwood
flew over a Mauna Loa eruption in 1975 and his plane started to melt.
The volcanologist has studied volcanoes for more than 30 years in every continent except Antartica.
I’m a pilot and I owned a lightweight fabric-covered aircraft. I was flying about 3,000 feet above an active lava flow on Mauna Loa that was cascading down the north flank.
I had just flown through the clouds and I noticed that something smelled hot. I looked out and I could see water dripping off my wings. I thought, “Well, that’s crazy. I guess that’s from the clouds.” Still, it smelled warm, and I looked at the outside temperature gauge and it read at below freezing. I looked out again and I saw that it wasn’t water; it was paint melting off.
The only light that I had was the glow of the lava flow. Then dawn came and I saw holes in my wings. I didn’t panic, but I knew I had to get the heck out of there. But my passenger realized there was also a possibility the plane’s tires could have also been burned.
I wasn’t really afraid. I’ve been in situations where I thought, “Damn, maybe I’m gonna die.” But dying has never been absolutely the only option I had. You do something else and hope it works out. It turns out the tires didn’t fry and we made a gentle landing.
The situation was a mystery to me, but it’s all physics—radiated heat energy. The dark parts of the plane had absorbed more heat than the light parts. We were cooking.
—As told to sheila sarhangi