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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Volcanic Ash
When the sun comes out in Hilo

By David Shapiro

An e-mail from my friend Lew got me thinking about my first Christmas in Hawai'i and an unexpected turn of fate.

"Man, I recall one bright Hawaiian Christmas day not long after we both had arrived in Hilo," Lew wrote. "We were sitting in some dive along Kilauea Avenue, near Ponahawai and Mamo, and grinding burgers. I don't think either of us had embraced sushi or saimin yet."

The bigger problem was that we had not embraced Hilo.

We would have scoffed then at the idea that we both had formed powerful attachments that would forever draw us back to the Big Island no matter where our lives led.

It was 1964. Parental job opportunities had uprooted Lew and me from comfortable big-city lives — his in New York, mine in Los Angeles — and plopped us down in this peculiar place of endless rain and seemingly impenetrable customs.

You know it's culture shock when you can't even count on your four-letter words to get you by. The obscenities scribbled on the bathroom walls at Hilo High were spelled with "o" where the "u" should go and "e" where the "i" was supposed to be.

Lew's stepfather had taken a position with the macadamia nut farm in Kea'au.

My father and I had left my mother, sisters and brother behind in Los Angeles until Dad got his insurance business running.

Lew was more mellow and better able to go with the flow. I was always in trouble with teachers I found too rigid and fellow students who didn't care for my big mouth and California ways.

That Christmas was rock bottom. I had taken up smoking to protest my circumstances, and the school counselor told my dad. I awaited his discipline and instead got a surprise on Christmas morning, when Dad gifted me with a carton of Marlboros and a Zippo lighter.

He meant it as a sign of acceptance that I was growing up. I was looking for acknowledgement of my misery.

So I sat there with Lew chain-smoking my Marlboros in a diner that was open only because its usual clientele was either too drunk or too busily engaged in criminal activities to notice that it was Christmas.

My mind was fixed on finding a way off of that island. I had heard from a friend in Los Angeles that he had run away from home and was living on a sand dune along the Pacific Coast Highway. It sounded good to me.

Lew, always the optimist, was sure things would get better and talked me down.

And he was right. By the end of the school year, we both had made a bunch of the best friends we would ever have. Neither of us fled to the Mainland after graduation, as we once had vowed. While our work and studies eventually took us away, we still return to Hilo as often as we can.

What Lew remembers about that Christmas is that it was "one of those remarkable sunny days in Hilo that I'm looking forward to experiencing again."

That's the thing about Hilo that sucks you in. You get used to the rain — at times it can even be a comfort. But when the sun finally comes out, it's a soaring high you can never get enough of.

In the end, it wasn't my gloomy lunch that stuck with me most. It was our motorbike trip afterward to Honoli'i, where Lew and I stood on the pali and watched folks ride their Christmas surfboards in that dazzling sunshine.

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net