Book by former Gov. Cayetano recalls happy Hawaii childhood
By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Public Affairs Columnist
By Jerry Burris
By rights, Gov. Ben Cayetano had no reason to expect he would rise to hold the state's most powerful political office. From a hardscrabble childhood in Kalihi, Cayetano, who barely made it out of high school, bootstrapped himself through college and law school.
He then returned to the Islands, where he encountered social, institutional and he would argue racial barriers strong enough to deter the most determined optimist. But Cayetano prevailed, winning elections he was supposed to lose and building a reputation as a blunt-spoken maverick who somehow succeeded in a political culture that values cooperation and compromise over independence.
In his new biography "Ben," subtitled "A Memoir, From Street Kid to Governor," Cayetano tells that story in the uncompromising style that guided him throughout his political career. He talks about a childhood of deprivation and adventure in Kalihi, the pain and heartache he experienced with a loving but troubled family and how those childhood experiences guided his policy decisions as a lawmaker and governor; the scheming and drama that swirled just below the surface at the Legislature and in his political campaigns; and the triumph and soul-searing disappointment he experienced as Hawai'i's fifth governor.
EXCERPTS FROM CAYETANO'S MEMOIR
My father, Bonifacio Marcos Cayetano (everyone called him Ansing), raised my brother and me. Like us, our next-door neighbors, the Estiamba brothers, were raised by their dad, as were the Steinhoff boys who lived on the corner of Mokauea and Silva Streets a few houses away.
I was about 6 or 7 when my parents divorced. I don't remember anyone ever explaining to me why Mom was not living with us in fact, I don't remember how or when the word "divorce" crept into my childhood vocabulary. I learned quickly, however, how to take care of myself and make sure my brother, Kenneth, who is two years younger, brushed his teeth, took a bath, had breakfast and dinner, dressed and got ready for school. Ken learned fast and soon was often more conscientious than me, doing it all by himself.
Dad worked as a waiter for the Outrigger Canoe Club, a private social club whose membership was limited to haoles and affluent Hawaiians. He worked there six days a week. Monday was his day off. He would leave home at 7 a.m. to catch the Kalihi bus. After two bus transfers, he'd get to the Outrigger about 8:30 and work the breakfast shift. When we were very young, he would come home by bus between shifts to cook dinner for us.
One day I heard the bell ringing from the ice cream man's car (I think it was a Jeep with a built-in freezer on it) as it was coming up Silva Street. I began rummaging through my father's dresser looking for some loose change, and then I found his life insurance policy. I must have been only 10 or 11 at the time, but I knew what life insurance was for. Later, as I went through it, I noticed that there was only one name listed as a beneficiary: Ken's. Where is my name? Is it just a mistake? Why have I been left out? These kind of thoughts ran through my mind. I was fearful I had done something wrong, although I had no clue what it could be.
I recalled once my brother Ken and I got into an argument that ended with me punching him out. Reduced to tears, he shouted angrily at me in pidgin, "You not my bruddah!" At the time, Ken's words went right over my head. Brothers, after all, argue all the time and say all kinds of nasty things to each other. But the insurance policy made me wonder. Physically, Ken and I do not look like brothers. I resemble my mother. Ken is a dead ringer for Dad. I had often wondered why Ken and I looked so different. Now I wondered whether we were real brothers and whether Dad (Ansing) was my real father. I was afraid to bring it up with him or Mom how does a 10- or 11-year-old ask his parents about something like that? I was worried how they would answer, and yet at the same time I had no idea what they would say. I decided that at the right time, I would ask Auntie Violet, Mom's youngest sister.
One day, I finally worked up the nerve to ask Aunt Violet about my father.
"Auntie, is Ansing my real father?"
She hesitated for a moment and then confirmed what everyone else in my family but me seemed to know. Ansing was not my biological father, she said. He was my legal father-his name was on my birth certificate but my biological father was a guy named Jerry. Jerry left Mom while she was still pregnant with me.
"Boy, I think you are old enough to know. He comes here all the time for the cockfights," she replied, "Next time he comes, I'll show you who he is."
Months later, when I was staying over, she called me to her second-floor bedroom window. "Boy, there he is, that man is your real father," she said, pointing to a man among dozens of Filipino men who were milling around awaiting the cockfights. He was short, of medium build and fair skinned. I don't remember his facial features except that I sensed that he truly was my biological father.
From then on, every time I stayed over, whenever there was a cockfight, I looked for him among the crowd. I saw him a couple of times, but he did not notice me. Then one day, I felt someone tap my shoulder. It was him. He asked, "You know me?" I was stunned by the tone of his voice. He sounded like he was doing me a favor by just talking to me not a hint of warmth or friendliness, not even a smile. Who did he think he was? I glared at him and shot back sarcastically, "Yeah, I know you" then turned my back and walked away.
That was it. He knew who I was and saw me often, but he never acknowledged me, not even a smile or hello. I was unimportant in his life. I don't recall feeling hurt, but any inner feelings I might have had for him would remain submerged forever. We never spoke to each other again.
Sometimes I wonder whether things would have been different if he had shown some warmth, expressed some genuine interest in me.
Love for another, a psychologist friend once told me, grows largely from personal interaction rather than blood ties. When I first met Jerry my reaction was one of curiosity, not filial emotion. Ansing Dad was, after all, the only father I knew. He treated me as if I was his natural son. He was the only father I grew to love. My brief encounter with Jerry only strengthened my feelings for Dad. The life insurance thing hurt, but I accepted it. Maybe one day he'll add my name, I thought. Besides, I was the big brother. I could handle myself. Ken was younger; he was smaller, timid and quiet. He would need help if Dad died.
Looking back, that's how I rationalized it. I wasn't Dad's real son but he treated me as if I was. Even to this day, whenever I hear people say "blood is thicker than water," I am amused. It's more folklore than reality.
Once, four of us rode our bikes all the way from Kalihi to go spearfishing at the beach off Kahala. We packed our Hawaiian sling spearguns, a floater, net and lunch. Bicycling the 10 miles from Kalihi to Kahala was duck soup for us. We were young and fit. We parked our bikes at one of the public rights-of-way and began spear fishing along the reef, parallel to the shoreline. We were in the water a couple of hundred yards from the right-of-way when we heard someone shouting at us, "Hey, you kids get out of here!" A big, barrel-chested haole man was standing at the water's edge, yelling at us at the top of his voice. He was definitely annoyed by our presence in front of what I assumed was his home.
We were about 50 yards from shore, so we moved back farther, into deeper water, hoping to placate him. But he continued to yell. Red-faced, arms waving, he shouted, "I said get out of here, goddammit!"
One of my friends said, "Benny, we better go, the haole man is really mad."
"Why?" I asked. "He doesn't own the ocean!"
"No, let's go, the man is really mad," my friend repeated.
"Goddammit! I said get out of here!" the man shouted again.
By then we were angry ourselves and a safe distance away from the haole man. I looked back at him and shouted, "Ah, f... you!"
"Yeah, up yours!" someone else yelled, giving him the finger, as we all swam back to the right-of-way. We weren't in the water long enough to spear anything.
We had nothing to show for our long bike ride.
Before leaving, we decided to eat lunch there. The four of us sat with our backs against the chain-link fence, eating our rice balls, Spam and Vienna sausage. The fence separated public from private property. As we ate, each of us did an impersonation of the angry haole man, each performance eliciting hilarious and loud laughter.
After about 15 minutes, we saw a policeman park his car and begin walking toward us.
"Hey, you kids have to leave, you're making too much noise," the cop ordered.
"Oh, sorry about the noise, we'll keep our voices down," I said.
"No, you guys have to leave now," the cop said, this time almost apologetically.
"Why? This is not private property," one of my friends said.
"Because the lady," the cop said, motioning to the fence, "wants you kids to leave, that's why."
"Can we finish our lunch?" I asked.
"Come on, don't give me a hard time, go now," he said in a way that left me feeling he had done this before.
Standing about five feet from the other side of the fence with her arms crossed was an elderly, white-haired haole woman. She did not say a word, but her stern look, her pursed lips, said everything she wanted to say. As I was packing up to leave, I kept looking back at her. I wasn't angry I was perplexed. This had never happened to me before. First, the big haole man, now this distinguished-looking white-haired lady I wondered, What did we do to make them so angry? Do they hate us, or what?
It was a different Hawai'i then. Later, as an adult, I would learn more about Hawai'i's history and how a small group of haoles an oligarchy ran Hawai'i like a South American banana republic. As a kid, the only haole I knew personally was Uncle Jack. I guess he was different because he came from a poorer background than I did. Other than him, I just assumed whenever I saw a haole not in a military uniform that he was the boss. If I saw a haole working at a service station, a bakery, a hotel or any business, I assumed, subconsciously at least, that the guy was in charge.
Years later, I shared the story of being chased out of the water with former Chief Justice William Richardson. He chuckled and told me how as a kid he had had to stand at the water's edge at Waikiki to watch people dancing in the hotels. Back then the hotel management treated the beach as if it was the hotel's private property. In 1973, as chief justice of the Hawai'i Supreme Court, he ended this practice by ruling in County of Hawaii v. Sotomura that the State owned the beaches all the way up to the vegetation mark, which effectively abolished all private beaches in Hawai'i.
Reach Jerry Burris at firstname.lastname@example.org.