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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, January 23, 2005

Garden Island memoir touched with both humor and poignancy

By Wanda Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

"Kauai as it was in the 1940s and '50s" by Mike Ashman; University of Hawai'i Press, cloth $28, paperback $18

Just page through the chapter headings of this book and you get the picture: Mike Ashman is a guy who has a way with words and a great sense of fun. Short essays such as "How Much Do You Tip for a Nickel Bowl of Saimin?" and "What Do You Do After They Roll Up the Sidewalks?" document the former KTOH radio personality's days as a "Coast Haole bachelor" on the Garden Island in the years immediately before and after World War II.

Ashman, 85, turns out a cardboard box full of old photos, makes use of the Garden Island newspaper's files, and mines his prodigious memory (and the letters he wrote his family back then) as a sort of love offering to his grandchildren.

In so doing, he illustrates both legendary stories (how Kapa'a became Tahiti for the movie "Pagan Love Song") and the sort of small, everyday detail that tends to get lost (three-digit phone numbers, old-style nightclubs, the days when everyone had a colorful nickname).

The book is hilarious at times, as when Kaua'i's elite spend an entire day as extras in the filming of a cocktail party, unable to drink a drop or partake of the buffet spread as take after take is shot.

It's also poignant, as when a retired truck driver recalls the Portuguese camp of old: "In camp, it was one big family. We watch out for each other. Not like today. Everybody separate."

Ashman also tackles racial issues with admirable frankness and keen nuance, particularly in chapters on the acceptable dating pool for a haole man of the day (everybody kept steering him toward the three single haole women on the island) and a chapter called "When Haole Was Just Half a Word."

This is an easy and enjoyable read, but insightful and intelligent, too.

If you can't find the book in stores, you can order it from the Kaua'i Historical Society at www.kauaihistoricalsociety.org.