Category Archives: Maku‘u Stories

Maku‘u Stories, Part 3: Uncle Sonny

My Uncle Sonny farmed at Maku‘u after some years in the Merchant Marines. His real name was Ulrich Kamahele (I have no idea where that name came from). He had a big personality.

One day, when I was walking with a couple of my buddies on Waianuenue Avenue near where Cronies is now, I heard someone call me. It was Uncle Sonny, and he was almost all the way up the block toward Kaikodo.

It’s hard to be rugged — even when you are in the 9th grade and smoking cigarettes — when your Uncle Sonny yells “Eh, Dicky Boy.”  I cringed and looked around to see if any girls had heard him. He must have been in his 30s then.

I caught up with him again after I graduated from the University of Hawai‘i and returned home to run Pop’s chicken farm. When we decided to start growing bananas, we got lots of our banana keiki from Uncle Sonny. The Paradise Park subdivision had been built and so one could drive all the way down to Maku‘u. So we saw him quite frequently.

Uncle Sonny did not have electricity, running water or a telephone, but he had a transistor radio and a 1-foot stack of U.S. News and World Reports. He always got the current copy from the Pahoa post office. Though he lived a very simple life, he’d traveled all over the world with the Merchant Marines and he knew a lot more than one would think. He could talk about a myriad of subjects. I found his stories fascinating.

I visited him often and learned a lot about farming from him. A visit to Maku‘u would take hours, with most of that time spent listening to Uncle Sonny. I learned to be a good listener. He always talked in a loud voice and he waved his arms a lot. My wife June and my sister Lei told me that they would stay arms’ length from Uncle Sonny, walking backwards or in a big circle around the yard. They were careful to stay out of range of his swinging arms, so they wouldn’t be all bruised at the end of the visit.

Everyone knew Uncle Sonny for growing the sweetest watermelons. People would come from miles around to get his watermelons. He did not have to go out to sell them; they would all sell by word-of-mouth.

We spent a lot of time talking about farming watermelons. He used a backpack poison pump. Once he showed me how he knew that the amount of sticker/spreader in the mixture was effective. Although the rate was supposed to be something like ½-teaspoon per gallon, he always double-checked the mixture by sticking a piece of California Grass into it. Due to the fine hair on the grass, water normally runs off California grass, taking the herbicide with it. If the water spread on the leaf instead of running off it, the mixture was right.

What I learned

The message I learned: Use the book for the first approximation, and then confirm things on the ground. The word “grounded” does come to mind.

He told me that melon flies, an enemy of watermelon, rest under a leaf at the height of the midday sun. That was why he planted a few corn plants on the outside border of his watermelon patch. Sure enough, they were there. He was in tune with the behavior of the fruit fly. He would pull out his can of Raid and give them a short burst.

The standard solution would have been to spray the whole field. Uncle Sonny’s way was much more effective and very much cheaper.

Here’s how Uncle Sonny knew his watermelons were ready: When they reached the size of golf balls, he put a wooden stake with the date on it. Then he harvested the melons after a certain number of days went by.

It was so simple and so effective. It’s what led us to place a different colored ribbon on every banana bunch we bagged in a particular week. We harvested the bananas based on elapsed time—pretty much like Uncle Sonny did.

I learned from Uncle Sonny to use the “book” for general instructions. But not to rely on it exclusively.

Uncle Sonny broke things down to their essential components. He made his life simple, and yet he was very effective. I admired him very much.

Next: 
Maku‘u Stories, Part 4: Tutu Meleana & The Puhi

See also:
Maku‘u Stories, Part 1: My Kamahele Family in Maku’u
Maku‘u Stories, Part 2: Cousin Frank Kamahele

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Maku‘u Stories, Part 2: Cousin Frank Kamahele

It was because he stayed at Maku‘u when he was a small kid that my Pop’s cousin Frank Kamahele became a jet pilot and also the manager of the Hilo and Kona airports.

About a mile down the coast from Tutu’s house in Maku‘u, toward Hawaiian Beaches, was an island called Moku ‘Opihi. During World War II, Hell Fire and other planes flew from Hilo and used that island for target practice.

The pilots knew there was a small kid at the house who jumped up and down waving at the planes. Some would fly low and turn sideways, then smile and wave at the small kid. Others would wiggle their wings and buzz the house.

The small kid knew that he would become a pilot one day. He did not know how; just that he would.

Later, when that kid Frank Kamahele was at Pahoa High School, a new teacher came from Texas and became the basketball coach. Frank loved basketball, and the new coach helped him to go to the University of Hawai‘i on a scholarship to play basketball. It so happened that the University of Hawai‘i had an Air Force ROTC program, which Frank joined.

Upon graduating, Frank applied to go to flight school. They told him to go home and wait for an opening, and one came a few months later. Next thing he knew, he was in Arizona at flight school.

‘Luckiest person in the world’

Frank told me recently that he feels like the luckiest person in the world. He came from a very poor family, and no one in the family had gone to college. If it hadn’t been for the planes flying overhead and a kind, dedicated teacher from Texas, he might have had a career as a “cut cane man.” He was pretty good at that and earned $200 a month for contract cane cutting. At that time, it was a lot of money.

Frank was a cool-headed person. He told me about the worse thing that happened to him during his flying career. It happened at Honolulu International Airport once when he was taking off: when he was around 150 feet in the air, an engine fell off. He was piloting a KC135 refueling tanker –- a flying bomb the size of a Boeing 707.

He said the Control Tower called and asked: “Do you realize you lost engine number four?”

“Roger,” Frank replied.

“I repeat – do you realize that you lost engine number four?”

“Roger.” That was the extent of his conversation with the Tower. In the meantime, Frank shut off the engine, the fuel, etc. He did not want a fire to start.

It happened that he was on his routine annual check ride, so an Air Force inspector was along for the ride and sitting in the jump seat. Except for the engine falling off, everything was going well. The plane flew on three engines, no problem.

Back on the horse

Once they stabilized at altitude, Frank requested permission to land and get another plane to finish his mission. He knew things were going smoothly and that he needed to get his crew back up in the air again to keep up everyone’s confidence. When they landed uneventfully, he asked the flight inspector if he wanted to go back up with them.

The inspector told him: “I’m sure you all will do just fine.” He could not wait to get off that plane and on the ground.

After his career in the Air Force, Frank returned to the Big Island and flew a 6-passenger tourist tour plane. He told me he could not keep on doing that because it was too boring and uneventful.

So he went to O‘ahu to work at the airport as an administrator, and the Hilo/Kona airports manager job came up.  He flew back to Hilo and applied for the job, which he kept for 17 years.

This is an example of how you just never know what has an influence on a young kid and might change his or her entire life for the better. It convinces me that the $1 million annual TMT contribution toward the Big Island’s K-12 education will be so valuable to our children.

Next: 
Maku‘u Stories, Part 3: Uncle Sonny

See also:
Maku‘u Stories, Part 1: My Kamahele Family in Maku’u

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Part 1: My Kamahele Family in Maku‘u

Today I was thinking about my Kamahele family and especially my grandmother Leihulu’s brother, Ulrich Kamahele.

Everybody knew him as Uncle Sonny, as if there was only one “Uncle Sonny” in all of Hawai‘i. He was a larger-than-life character. In a crowd, he dominated by the sheer force of his personality. Since I have been thinking about him, I thought I would write a several-part story about Maku‘u.

My extended Kamahele family came from Maku‘u. When we were small kids, Pop took  us in his ‘51 Chevy to visit.

He turned left just past the heart of Pahoa town, where the barbershop is today. We drove down that road until he hit the railroad tracks, and then turned left on the old railroad grade back toward Hilo. A few miles down the railroad grading was the old Maku‘u station. It was an old wooden shack with bench seats, as I recall. That is where the train stopped in the old days. A road wound around the pahoehoe lava flow all the way down the beach to Maku‘u. That was before there were the Paradise Park or Hawaiian Beaches subdivisions.

We did not know there was a district called Maku‘u; we thought the family compound was named Maku‘u. Of the 20-acre property, maybe 10 acres consisted of a kipuka where the soil was ten feet deep. The 10 acres on the Hilo side were typical pahoehoe lava. The property had a long oceanfront with a coconut grove running the length of the oceanfront. It was maybe 30 trees deep and 50 feet tall.

The old-style, two-story house sat on the edge of a slope just behind the coconut grove. If I recall correctly, it had a red roof and green walls. Instead of concrete blocks as supports for the posts, they used big rocks from down the beach.

There was no telephone, no electricity and no running water. So when we arrived it was a special occasion. We kids never, ever got as welcome a reception as we got whenever we went to Maku‘u.

Tutu Lady

The person who was always happiest to see us small kids was tutu lady Meleana, my grandma Leihulu’s mom. She was a tiny, gentle woman, maybe 100 pounds, but very much the matriarch of the family. She spoke very little English but it was never an issue. We communicated just fine.

We could not wait to go down the beach. Once she took us kids to catch ‘ohua—baby manini. She used a net with coconut leaves as handles that she used to herd the fish into the net. I don’t recall how she dried it, but I remember how we used to stick our hands in a jar to eat one at a time. They were good.

She would get a few ‘opihi and a few haukeuke and we spent a lot of time poking around looking at this sea creature and that.

Between the ocean in the front and the taro patch, ulu trees, bananas and pig pen in the back, there was no problem about food. I know how Hawaiians could be self-sufficient because I saw it in action.

The house was full of rolls of stripped lauhala leaves. There were several lauhala trees and one was a variegated type. I don’t recall if they used it  for lauhala mats but it dominated the road to the house.

There were lauhala mats all over the place, four and five thick. There was a redwood water tank, and a Bull Durham bag hung on the kitchen water pipe as a filter.

Years later when I showed interest in playing slack key, I was given Tutu’s old Martin guitar.

She had played it so often that the bottom frets had indentations in it where her fingers went.

Next:
Maku’u Stories, Part 2: Cousin Frank Kamahele

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