A Snapshot of My Grandmother’s Life
Brownie’s on horseback. The ratta-tat-tat of a seaplane spooks her mare, causing them to charge into roadside kiawe. Brownie pulls back hard on the reins. She chose Bella over the jeep because riding makes her feel mighty. She’s a hair over five feet but up here on her thoroughbred she’s the queen. Today brings memories of Chipper’s cattle drives and summertime rides with her boy, Buddy. Chip called him keiki manuahi. Now Bud fights in the South Pacific. Brownie remembers a Zero low-flying taro patches and Chip pulling his .219. He fired at the Rising Sun.
She’s riding west to check the First Aid station at Puko’o. She feels bad it’s a shanty, with walls of termite-riddled lumber, bamboo flooring, and a single window facing the outhouse. Still, there’s a stack of emergency cots and a cabinet filled with bandages, rolls of gauze, sutures, aspirin, syringes, and vials of penicillin. The haole doctor from the Red Cross approved it, along with nine other stations Brownie helped build the month after Pearl Harbor. Rumors of paratroopers and an invasion by sea triggered a patriotic frenzy on Moloka’i, from joining the Armed Forces to volunteer nursing to building barbed wire blockades on beachfronts. She joined the USO and became District Manager for the Red Cross. She knows the appointment came only because she looks more haole than Hawaiian.
She stands offstage at Kaunakakai Community Center wearing rouge, pink lipstick, and a string of pearls. Brownie doubles as the USO’s event coordinator. She taps a victory roll in her Betty Grable hairdo watching girls kick in unison to Benny Goodman’s “In the Mood.” Soldiers hoot and holler as waiters hustle by balancing trays. When the song ends, the girls blow kisses to whistles and catcalls. They exit the stage to applause that rattles the floodlights.
Brownie joins her troupe backstage. These wahines are mostly piha kanaka maoli, but two have a smattering of French blood. Keiko, the girl from Okinawa, is the best hands down. Brownie tells them, if they keep practicing, they’ll give the Rockettes a run for their money. Puanani hugs her. She loves Puanani like a daughter, despite catching her sister in bed with Chip. Her girls slip into denim and tug on boots. She smells pikake perfume. Soon they’ll be prancing to “Home on the Range.”
She finds the table of mothers. “My Mona stay ready fo’ Hollywood,” brags Ruth Kamakeaina. “Rita goin’ Broadway straight off,” Marvely Naki says. Brownie knows the stage brings hope during this time of rationing, living off the aina, and waiting for news of husbands and sons fighting overseas. She wanted the girls to be at their best so their mothers would have tonight. She made them rehearse for months, teaching them the two-step, tap, and the Lindy Hop. She showed them how to link up and kick as a team. She studied fashion magazines sent by the USO and spent weeks with Ruth and Marvely sewing Rockette-style skirts. They even stitched sequins and feathers for the pillbox hats.
She spots a man in a khaki uniform seated at a table, his cap slanting at an angle off his temple down to an eye. He lifts his glass. He seems comfortable as a lone wolf. Their eyes meet. He lowers his gaze to light a cigarette. He wears a chain bracelet and has a ruddy complexion. He’s younger than her. Not much, but she can tell. The ends of his tie are tucked in the breast of his shirt. He looks up, blowing smoke through his nose. She looks away. She shifts her chair so Ruth blocks him. She listens to gossip until curiosity forces her to peer over Ruth’s pompadour. She watches him order another drink.
Brownie excuses herself. She hula-swings over to the bar, using that strut she perfected as a girl with Sue, her big sister. She’s glad the years of work kept her body hard and strong. She orders bourbon. She feels sexy in the red wiggle dress Sue sent last Christmas. The soldier extinguishes his cigarette. He gulps down his drink and gets up. His stride is confidant yet boyish. No wedding band. Broad shoulders. Thin waist. He sweeps off his cap, giving her a bow. “What’s your name, doll?” he asks. His jet-black hair shines like the oiled barrel of a rifle. “Julia,” she answers. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m Fletcher.” She’s glad he didn’t extend a hand—she doesn’t want him feeling her calluses from cutting and chopping. He has a good name. His lapels are pinned with captain bars. He sounds like the newsmen on the radio, the deep-voiced ones who keep her company whenever Chip takes off. She feels guilty for not using her nickname. But “Brownie” brings thoughts of swinging axes, driving cattle, and dressing like a kua’aina. “Julia” makes her feel young. Part of her wants to pretend she’s still free to love whomever she wants, even after her mother told her nothing good can come from it.
Fiddles strike up “Home on the Range.” The girls return in denim skirts twirling lassos. They square dance on a stage decorated with wagon wheels, sawhorses topped with a saddle, and pine barrels. In the background, a prairie schooner painted on butcher paper hangs off a big bamboo frame. Keiko and Puanani ride in on hobbyhorses and receive a standing ovation.
Fletcher leads the way down the stairs to the coconut tree courtyard. Brownie likes the pencil moustache and the perfect posture. He smells like gin. She has not felt like this since her days chasing haoles in Waikiki with Sue, not since the Moana Hotel Ball when the Englishman kissed her under the eyelash moon. “Married?” Fletcher asks. She wants to say no. Why shouldn’t she lie about a man who chases every skirt on the east end? She tells him about Chipper and scratching out lives on homestead land. Fletcher’s married too. Martha’s in Columbus waiting for his R & R, but he’s been ordered to report to Schofield Barracks. His steamer leaves the wharf at dawn. Fletcher pulls her close. They kiss. The coconut fronds rattle in the onshore breeze. “Spend tonight with me,” comes the radio voice, “at the Pau Hana Inn.” She doesn’t answer. But she knows by her silence that she will, even though the inn is little more than a bungalow perched on a mud flat overlooking the wharf. Will she do it to punish Chip? Brownie’s not sure. She imagines cigarettes, drinks, and geckos patrolling the walls. His uniform hangs off the bedpost, the captain bars glowing in the harsh light from a naked bulb. She sees herself lying on a narrow mattress as fingers test her bra. She believes tonight she’ll become a princess, a wahine naïve enough to believe in dreams.
keiki manuahi: bastard child
kua’aina: country bumpkin
palaka: checkered red and white
piha kanaka maoli: having 100% Hawaiian blood
pikake: Arabian jasmine
wahine: girl or woman
A Note from the author:
This creative nonfiction story is based on the World War II stories told to me by my paternal grandmother during my summer visits to her Moloka’i ranch. She wanted to write them down but had trouble composing sentences because of her third grade-only education. I promised Gramma I would write down her stories, while she was still living. I failed. I failed her, partly because the creative writing students at my college got bored and dismissive when I read anecdotes about an old woman living on a remote island. But the real reason I didn’t write her stories was because I gave in when my father when said writing was a frivolous waste of time. He stressed practicality, pointing out that only a handful of writers made a living at it. He convinced me writing was at best a hobby and that I should take a more practical path through life, such as going to law school or pursuing an MBA. Instead, I went into sales. I was good at sales but felt guilty abandoning the written word.
I know what Gramma said was true because she’d repeat stories verbatim, including scraps of dialogue and how she felt. She loved horses. Six mares roamed the once forest-dense pastures she helped clear with her husband Chipper. Her name was Julia Gilman. She was nicknamed “Brownie” by the locals after a boy saw her likeness to a cartoon character on his Brownie camera box. In 1942, the Red Cross appointed her District Manager from Kainalu River east to Puko’o Harbor. A year later, she became Show Coordinator for the USO in Kaunakakai. She wanted military men and women on R & R to forget about the war, if only for a night. As a girl she loved to dance and attended the various balls in all the big Waikiki Hotels, such as the Moana and the Pink Palace. She organized extravagant dance numbers for GIs, Marines, and sailors who’d taken steamers over to Moloka’i from Oahu. And, yes, Julia did fall for Fletcher, even though she was only with him that one night at the Pau Hana Inn. She carried those few bright hours she spent with him without shame or guilt, a summer night in 1943 as shiny as the chrome bars on a young captain’s lapel.
Kirby Michael Wright‘s new book is THE QUEEN OF MOLOKAI, which is a prequel to the story by the same name published by Two Cities Review. He won the 2018 Redwood Empire Mensa Award for Creative Nonfiction.