— Submitted by UH alumnus John Shockley (UH Mānoa, BA, 1969)
Within the first hundred days following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, every adult was marshaled into service to bury the dead, salvage the destroyed ships, or build defensive fortifications. Civilian government was no longer in effect—Hawai’i was under martial law. My father who never did any under-water welding was working in the feverish effort to clear sunken ships from the water at Pearl Harbor.
Before the war, my father was a structural steel worker—a rigger. Riggers joined I-beams together to form frames for building skyscrapers to bridges. My father learned the trade during the Great Depression. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, the people on the island felt their world was turned upside down. It was no different for my father. He lost his job as a rigger on the Haiku wires and cable car that went up the vertical walls of the Ko‘olau Mountains in Nu‘uanu Valley. He serviced the Navy’s trans-pacific radio station that connected Hawai‘i with the mainland United States as well as the rest of the Pacific Rim countries. The reason given:
“Undesirable Alien”… his Navy quartermaster boss teased my father. “You’re married to a Japanese lady and can’t work on the cables any more.”
What irony! Once the bombing at Pearl Harbor stopped, everybody was put to work…it didn’t matter if you were married to a Japanese or even if you were Japanese yourself.
By the 1950s, Hawai‘i’s economy was in transition from years of military dominance to a peacetime resurgence of civilian business. My father took advantage of the opportunities for him and his business associates—they were known as the “Junk Men.” He bought and sold military surplus as well as ran a rag-tag trucking outfit. When the trucking business picked up anyone my father knew was “tagged” for work—contract ended? Back to “rags.” His friends were nicknamed “Snyder-da-Butch,” who bought equipment and butchered it for parts and scrap metal. “Orange,” a red-headed war veteran with a round face was the best diesel mechanic on O‘ahu. My dad was nicknamed Sluggah. And then, there was “Blue.”
Blue was a big Hawaiian man. A guy you don’t want to mess with. The kind that, if he gave you “da stink eye,” your deepest soul would tell you “RUN!” That was if you didn’t know him. Alvin Kalaluhi was a quiet man—hard to know. I was a young boy about 12 years old in 1959, when I first met Blue. Blue probably knew me when I was in diapers. He was my father’s most trusted friend.
They called him “Blue” for many reasons. He was dark, he was intense, and when he lived in a converted sea container below our Quonset house in the Halawa Valley—he was blue. His wife left him and he was down on his luck financially. Blue was my father’s watchman, driver, helper, and above all, his friend.
My father was called “Sluggah” during WWII for two reasons: first, he was known to slug through any job relentlessly until it was finished; the local men were amazed that a Haole (Caucasian) man could work this intensely. Then, there was the time a yard-hand decided to play a practical joke by letting a truck brake slip which almost ran over another worker. They say Sluggah grabbed a pipe-wrench and went after the yard-hand. But Blue held Sluggah back…Blue was the man that nearly got run over.
Blue needed a job after the war. Sluggah needed the additional help. The “Junk Man” business was doing well. Army surplus houses were bought for pennies on the dollar and moved to low income neighborhoods to set up for civilian living. Army tanks were stripped for their tracks and diesel engines. Jeeps were auctioned in lots of hundred at ten to twenty dollars a unit.
One man bought as many jeeps as he could find, painted them pink, and started a tourist rent-a-car business. There was money to be made in the Territory of Hawai‘i. And there were quite a few entrepreneurs with wild ideas willing to take chances to make a buck. “We Haul Anything, Anytime, Anywhere” was Sluggah’s trucking company slogan. The trucking company colors were olive green and black. Why? Those were the military colors sold at auctions…for pennies per bucket.
Blue and Sluggah were known in town as men who took care of business. Blue and Sluggah were in Kalihi one day…near the O‘ahu Prison, when Blue shouted to Sluggah, “Eh Sluggah! Try stop da truck.” There was a big grizzly-like man sitting next to two other rough characters in front of the green and white grocery store drinking beer.
“Try wait in da truck, OK?” Blue hopped out. Sluggah thought Blue knew those guys. Before he knew it, a fight was spilling onto the street. The two tough guys tried to hold Blue but he shook them off and picked up the biggest man and threw him against the wall. The store front window shattered. Blue pounded the brute’s head on the ground, got up quickly to face the other two guys who were backing up. They started to run as a crowd gathered.
Blue got back in the truck slowly and smiled. He didn’t say a word.
Sluggah asked, “The big guy owed you money?”
“Na-a-a-h, Da guy stay call ‘Da Bull of Kalihi’…but no moah now time. He go try tell me fo’ no see one wahine (girl) I like…said he would beef me if I evah did.” Blue smiled as they drove the over-loaded rig down King Street.
The wahine was Alice. Blue and Alice were married and were happy for a while.
I went down from our Quonset house with our dog, Boy-Boy, a German Shepard and Collie mix, to watch Blue hit the heavy bag he had set up under a Ke’awe (Hawaiian Mesquite) tree in the corner of the truck yard. He amazed me. When he hit the bag, it would fly backwards and upwards and would shake the thick tree branch and rattle the heavy chain as the bag recoiled. You could see the spot where Blue kept his eye as he punched the bag; the bag was bowed with packing bleeding through the punch-worn parts of it.
“How you do dat?” I asked.
“Easy…jus’ look straight wheah you like hit and punch ‘em trou’ like no stay deah, eh?”
I tried it many times. The bag barely moved even with my strongest hit from my stringy arms.
“Gotta sta’ wit ‘em, eh?” Blue tried to teach me how to throw a clean punch. Once, he had me hold the bag while showing me how to throw a left hook.
“You stay OK?” He picked me up off the ground like a straw. “Next time, gotta tuck yoah head right next to da bag so da buggah no snap at you when I punch ‘em, eh?”
We tried it again. At least I didn’t land on the ground. I think he held back his swing.
Blue made the best sandwich in the world. I was at his make-shift kitchen one day. “Like eat?” I didn’t say anything but he knew…
“Siddown, eh? I show you one brok-da-mout’ kine samwich.”
He placed three slices of Love’s bread on the table. Mustard on one slice, mayonnaise on another, pickled relish, cooked Spam, Velveeta Cheese slice, dill pickle slices, and from the small icebox, he brought out deviled egg salad from a bowl. He went back to get Manoa lettuce and some tuna salad he had in another bowl. When that sandwich was stacked up he cut it and took a paper towel to wrap it so it wouldn’t fall apart.
“Like soda?” He took out a bottle of Coke for me along with a beer for himself. I hummed as I ate, it was the best lunch I ever had and not a word was spoken while we ate. All Blue had to do was smile a little and I was happy.
Work had slowed down at the trucking yard. When it did, the crew disappeared and it was just Blue, Davy-Boy Kekahuna, and the truck mechanic, Orange, in the truck yard. When there was contract work to do, the crew swelled to twenty guys.
It was midnight when the trucking company was moving houses to Damon Track from the Army surplus yard at Sand Island. The houses were bought for a song and sold for not much more. They were delivered, posted on concrete blocks with used 4x6 timber, and plumbed into a septic system.
“Get up kids!” My mother had made sandwiches and coffee for the crew. The houses could be moved only at night with special city permits because they blocked the entire road. There were four children, all young—she couldn’t leave us at home alone.
I saw the most amazing thing that night. Davy-Boy driving the truck with the house swaying slowly down the street. Sluggah rode the gable of the roof holding a piece of 2x4 to guide the power lines that crossed the road so the house could pass under. The wires were arcing like fireworks as the house slid by. Just another night “when times were good.”
At the Navy Depot, Sluggah and Blue were there to pick up a load of balsa wood life-rafts—they were one dollar apiece—twenty were being loaded. Blue’s eyes lit up when he saw a 500 pound ingot of lead with a steel “pick up” handle above it.
While they were loading the rafts on the semi, Blue walked over to the ingot and was ready to lift it.
“Hey, what are you doing over there?” The Navy quarter-master asked.
“Oh nottin.’ I stay just tryin’ fo’ lift dis weight fo exasize…you mind?”
“No, I don’t mind but I bet you can’t even budge that lead let alone lift it up.”
“So…if I can lif’ ‘em up and put ‘em in da trailah…s’mine’s one?”
“Yeah boy…it’s all your’n!”
Sluggah’s eyes lit up!
“I got 50 dollars says Blue can do it.”
“Save your money sucker. That handle was made for forktrucks to move the ingots. Even if he budges it, he can’t raise it high enough to place on your trailer without breaking his back.”
“I still got 50 dollars…” That was a week’s pay for construction labor in Hawai‘i in the Fifties.
“You’re on! Show the money.”
They both placed the cash under a rock on the semi-trailer bed.
Lead was selling at scrap for eighteen cents a pound. Blue took a big breath, exhaled and raised the ingot to his waist and slowly marched it twenty yards to the men at the trailer. Then, with one mighty thrust he raised it up onto the trailer bed. He looked over his shoulder at the astounded quarter-master.
“Tanks eh?” Ninety dollars made for a wild weekend party in those days.
“Nice doing business with you!” Sluggah snapped up the cash under the stone. Not a bad profit for a $20 load.
“Eh Sluggah!...come out Pupukea side pick up yo’ truck. Wen’ huli (flipped) an da damn ting stay on fiah!” It was Kekahuna on the phone at 10 p.m. He had borrowed a truck to do a side job. Junk Men did favors in those days. Junk Men took gambles with money, machines, and friends. Sluggah and Blue went out with the big green and black tow-truck to bring the rig back to the yard in the early hours of the morning to see how big the loss was.
Blue and Davy-Boy would sit under the Kea we tree and drink sometimes. When that happened I knew to stay away. Sometimes I’d hear them talking… about Alice. It was fuzzy to a young kid, but I heard them talking about all the trouble Blue had gotten into because of drinking. How Alice left him when he hit her…how she said she never wanted to see him again.
Davy-Boy and Alice were cousins. There under the Ke’awe tree, the staggered blather continued: “I TOL’ HER I STAY SORRY!” and “Wat she like I do now?”
I used to walk Boy-Boy down to the Halawa stream back then. We would wait for 3:45 p.m. That was when the dynamite would go off at the hillside near the rock quarry across the water. The earth would shake, then…BOOM! The blue rocks would slide down the hill. I thought it was much easier to listen to the dynamite than hear Blue booming back at the truck yard.
I returned up the dirt road from the stream. Now Sluggah joined Davy-Boy and Blue under the Ke’awe tree. More dynamite was set and I listened for the blast.“I ain’t gonna help you unless you start helping yourself, Blue! You gotta cut the goddam drinking out ‘fore it kills you, ya hear me?”
Blue rose and stared darkly at Sluggah. Kekahuna stepped back. Sluggah grabbed the beer bottle out of Blue’s hand and threw it at the tree. After the glass shards stopped raining, there was dead silence.
“C’mon Blue…you know I’m right.” Quiet. Then, Sluggah placed his hand on Blue’s massive shoulder. “C’mon…”
Blue softened and sat down. Davy-Boy was relieved and reached for another beer. Blue’s temper flared as he grabbed the case and threw it high into the air. Glass and foam exploded on the pavement.
“Hey Davy-Boy…let’s go. We got work…” Blue stood there alone while the two walked away.
I didn’t go down to Blue’s shack for the next few weeks. I watched from the hill above with Boy-Boy while Blue pounded hard on the heavy bag, day after day.
A few months later, my father and I as well as Boy-Boy were in our car. We were going to Blue and Alice’s small apartment in Kalihi. Alice had crocheted an intricate doily for my mother and wanted to give it to her as a surprise from my father.
“Eh Sluggah! How-zit?” Blue was smiling as he opened the door. Alice looked happy again.
The smell of death was all over Pearl Harbor in the days following the attack by the Japanese. Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Haoles (Caucasians), Portuguese, Hawaiians, and even Hawai‘i’s Japanese worked to clear both the land and the water so military operations could restart. They worked around the clock in shifts with no days off. The sharks swept through the oily water looking for remains of corpses. My father’s job was to cut into the hulks of sunken ships with blow torches so heavy cranes could raise the pieces of wreckage to shore.
This was before Jacques Cousteau invented the aqua-lung. Welders lit their acetylene torches and dived off the docks with nothing more than goggles and an oxygen line hooked up so they could take a breath while under water. Confusion and noise were everywhere in the harbor. Oxygen line tenders watched the currents to keep the hoses from tangling while the cutters torched through the twisted metal buried two fathoms below the oily surface.
“OK! Raise ‘er up!” My father broke the surface with his torch flame burning skyward. The heavy hooks from the crane rigging clamped tight and the steel cable sung taunt as another broken section of a warship boiled to the surface. Everyone was numb to the work but nobody could ignore it when a dead sailor’s body came up with the wreckage.
The sun was high in the sky when my father and another young welder, Melvin Fee, went down again on another countless dive. Two bright lights lit halos in the water along side the steady stream of bubbles coming from the oxygen lines. Fee was an excellent welder who taught my father how to cut the thick bulkhead steel quickly and correctly. Fee’s oxygen bubbles broke the surface. He finished hooking up his side of the newly cut scrap. My father was still in the water as Fee looked for the orderlies who would soon bring the divers their lunch.
“WATCH OUT!” A crane swung a loose cable hook close to the dock. CRASH! CLANG-CLANG-CLANG! Empty oxygen tanks went down like bowling pins and rolled off the dock. My father had just finished his cuts to the underwater wreckage and was coming to the surface.
“Whoa! Diver HIT!” “DIVER HIT!” One of the canisters hit my father’s head. The water turned red and a blue shark turned toward the smell. A crowd gathered on the dock and began yelling. Nobody could hear anything. The air horns blared out the emergency and the sirens began to wail.
“I tink da buggah went make’!”(died) voices shouted. “Whoa…DA MANO (shark)!” The crowd hushed. Fee broke through the crowd on the dock but was shoved aside by a young Hawaiian who dived into the water. The splash stunned the shark that circled for the kill. It was deadly still for a few moments. The water broke open with two heads bobbing in the oily drink.
“Throw ‘em a line, you dumb mullets!” Fee roared out. The two men rose to the dock. Blood poured from my father’s head as the ambulance pulled up. My father suffered a fractured skull which later prevented him from being drafted in the Army for the Pacific Campaign. Mel Fee became one of the Junk Men after the war. The young Hawaiian who jumped in the water to save my father was Blue.