Bobby and the Pua’a

Bobby Rodriguez was the singular type of man you meet in the outer islands of the Hawaiian chain. His last name gave a clue, pronounced Rod-Reeks in island style with a touch of the Hawaiian alphabet which has only thirteen letters and typically changes pronunciations in a serendipitous way. The terminal Z might indicate Spanish ancestry but in the islands it’s hard to say. The Big Island as it’s called is a polyglot of peoples come from the the four corners of the world. Up on the slopes of Mauna Kea, the old Parker Ranch is still peopled by descendants of the Californio Vaqueros brought from Alta California by King Kamehameha in the 1840’s to teach Local Boys house to manage his vast cattle herds. Within a generation the Californio’s were gone, either returned to the mainland or simply absorbed into the population as was to be common over the centuries. In their place were Hawaiian cowboys called paniolo, a local twist on the word español. The legendary cattle drives of the American West were still generations away, but here on the plains of Waimea and elsewhere in the islands, paniolos were working cattle—before there was ever such a thing as an American cowboy. Up in Kamuela Town the little Safeway store still had a hitch rail out front where patient cow ponies can be seen waiting patiently for their riders to return.

Bobby was all bones and sinew covered with a chocolate covered skin. Whip thin, he was almost never without a cigarette dangling from his lip. His face, cut with an ever present grin and slightly slanted eyes that hinted at Chinese or Japanese blood, maybe both. Actually he could have been made of almost any of the ethnic people who lived along the outer circle of the great Pacific.

I was a 26 year old Haole surfer from California living in Hilo. We knew each other because we worked for the same little meat packing company. Located on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea, the great volcano towering more than two and a half mile above sea level Hilo, the business was owned by a German couple supplying meat products to the entire island and state. Like many businesses its employees ran the gamut from people like me to the the Hawaiian butchers and Aunties who worked the package line, the Filipina housekeeper, the salesman who was Hapa, which means half and designates you of mixed blood and the owner who could have stepped right of Hamburg butcher shop. I had lived in the islands before but this was my first real introduction to Hawaiian society.

Mauna Kea from Hilo Town. Mike Shannon photo

Now you may have heard about the antagonism of locals towards strangers particularly Europeans which is a kind way to say Whites. They have plenty of reason to be wary, for Europeans have done their best to repress local customs and language over the past two centuries. More pronounced in Honolulu and Oahu, its not something that I experienced when living Hilo. There is a phrase that used to heard all the time, “Island Style,” and it described the custom of Aloha, which is “the presence of breath” or “the breath of life.”  It means to live in harmony. When you live the Spirit of Aloha, you create positive feelings and thoughts, which are never gone. People practice this whether from a conscious effort or simply because it is in the air around you. People are people no matter where their ancestors came from and you will be treated as you treat others.

So there I was working for a small company surrounded by a hodge podge of people who were to man or woman, as nice as could be. As the new guy I had every job that didn’t have a title. I fed the cattle, dug ditches, learned to run the hot dog machine, went on deliveries to the grocery stores and once I week took the flat bed up to Waimea Town and picked up a load of fresh beef at the J J Andrade slaughterhouse, hauled it back to Hilo, unloaded the beef halves, washed and cleaned the truck parked it and went home. Just your average 12 hour day.

Bobby was the townside delivery driver. He loaded up the van each morning and hit all the little grocery stores around the Hilo area. His job was to re-stock the meat counters, pick up out of date goods and check with the butchers. We delivered to all the little mom and pops too including the Hilo Noodle Factory which always struck me as a time bomb as every surface in the old building had a liberal coating of very fine rice flour. The included the spider webs too. We delivered to all the little plantation towns tucked deep in the cane fields along Hawaii’s east side. Some off the beaten track so far that the roads were still not paved. When he had large orders I would be sent with him to speed things up. I remember the first time. We rolled down the driveway, turned right on Kawailani Street and started for town. We didn’t go far though. Just down the street was Bobby’s house. It was in the old Hawaiian style, an Ohana house. In the islands Ohana means family and not just your immediate family but your in-laws, cousins of all kinds, neighbors and really, anyone who happens by. The house, built on a wooden post foundation with walls made of California redwood, single wall style as the old houses were, no need for paint or fancy decoration. Those little plantation house used to be everywhere in the islands. Simple utility houses for the workers. Not many homes need insulation in the islands hence the single thickness walls. The wind is from the windward in Hilo and there is hardly a day in the year when there isn’t a nice cooling breeze. Even in winter when it is pouring rain you can go about your business without an umbrella and never fear freezing to death.

A few moments in the house and Bobby hustled out the door, his wife Lucia waving from the porch, and in each hand a frosty bottle of beer. He hopped in the drivers seat and handed one to me and said, “Drink it up Braddah.” Now I don’t know where you come from but drinking and driving is frowned upon in my family. Neither is drinking on the job. My father who hated drinking would have been horrified. It didn’t seem to bother Bobby at all, so after a moment I figured, since I wasn’t driving, I’d better hide the evidence. So quick, one Olympia down the hatch. You could ask, being the islands and all, why not Primo the Hawaii brewed beer? No one drank it because it was considered rotgut by the locals I knew, they drank Oly’s and Coors if they could get it. Hawaii being a strong Union State didn’t import Coors. Coors being made by non-union workers in Colorado. Only way you could get it as to buy it from airline pilots who smuggled it in their personal luggage, and sold it for extra cash.

So me and Bobby went zooming around Hilo while he kept up a nonstop monologue about his family and friends and whatever thought came to him. I learned more about the little town and the people who lived there in three hours than I could have by reading ten books, or at least the Bobby R version. As we exited the van at the end of the day and walked to the employee lunchroom to change he asked me would I want to go on a pig hunt Saturday. Hunting pig was something I had never done so I said sure. Little did I know.

When I arrived at his house Saturday morning it was still dark. The little house was lit up though and in the kitchen Bobby’s wife was up and about organizing a few things to take with us. She had filled a cooler with sour candies, a great favorite amongst island folks, Teri-Ahi, which you would call fish jerky, only spicier, pickled Mango and “da bess Ahi Poke evah.” The other cooler? “Pack wit Oly’s.” So couple tings Brah, Pidgin is the unofficial languache of da islands and if you gonna stay, betta learn em’ some, yah?

In the kitchen Bobby introduced me to a couple guys who were going with us. Kane was a tall drink of water. He told me he fished out of Hilo harbor on a Sampan. He was dressed in a faded yellow tee shirt, old black shorts down over the knee and what looked like motorcycle boots, buckles and all. He wore a wispy mustache and though he was obviously Polynesian, he had a pair off startling bright blue eyes. His partner in crime went by the name Black. He was a local brother and big, very big in the way islanders can be. He was twice as wide as Bobby and dressed all in black. He wore faded black Ben Davis jeans and a black tee to match, or at least it used to be black before a thousand washings. It had a few holes for ventilation.

We loaded up the old pickup with the coolers, a tarp and a five gallon bucket with a couple rusty machetes and an old 22 single shot rifle while Bobby and Kane went behind the house to get the dogs from the kennel. I asked Black where the rifles were and he cocked his head to the side a little and said, “Don’t need ’em.” “Hmm,” I said to myself, seemed odd to me but these guys were the experts. I mean, what were they going to do, hack ’em to death?

The truck was an old postwar Ford about 20 years old and much older in the way cars and trucks are in Hawaii. You see, salt is always in the air, there is no escaping it and it causes cars to rust almost from the time they come off the boat. I’ve seen brand new vehicles on the car lot with touches of rust around the windows. It starts that fast. After a few years it eats through the paint, gets inside the doors and the frame and the body starts to fall apart. Bobby’s truck was missing a few parts, maybe they were considered non-essential, I don’t know, but it had no headlamps, a rear fender was gone and there were dents in the both fronts. You wouldn’t dare step on the running boards, especially Black who could have broken them off with just a touch of his foot. The truck bed was almost all gone, just the ribs were left and had been covered by two old pieces of plywood which had seen better days. It had, at some point in its life been green but was now the color of pond water that had been sitting too long. It was surely unlicensed, the lack of plates proved it.

Bobby must have seen the look on my face and he said, “runs good, jus’ need a quart of oil evah time I drive it.” He cackled at his own joke.

I thought to myself, I’ve seen ranch trucks in pretty bad shape but this one takes the cake. Bobby gave the throttle a couple pumps, put his toe on the kickstarter button and ground her over until she finally fired with a belch of flame from the carburetor. You didn’t have to raise the hood to see it because the metal was rotted away above it and the flames shot right up through the hole. She ran alright, though she wasn’t altogether sure how many cylinders to use. Sometimes it was six, others four or sometimes five.

While the truck warmed up, They brought the dogs around, dropped the tailgate and they all hopped right in. Dogs are always ready for an adventure aren’t they? Off we went up the road, Bobby driving, Kane and Black in the front and me, the newcomer in the back with the dogs and all the junk . We went perhaps a mile or two before turning in to a ranch gate where we stopped. After a moment of waiting for someone in the cab to get out it occurred to me that opening the gate was my job. I did it. The road we turned into was just a two track across a pasture. The kind of road never graded and only occasional driven. It wound around and thought the masses of Strawberry Guava growing wild. The Guava tree isn’t really a tree. It’s a shrub and when left alone grows in dense thickets that are all but impenetrable. Strawberry Guava is a poster child for introducing non-native species into habitats where it can thrive at the expense of native species. It does have its benefits though, it’s good eating for man or beast. Pua’a loves it.

We pulled into a clearing about 30 yards across and the truck wheezed to a halt. Everybody piled out. We spent a few minutes trying to get the dogs together. They were anxious to get going and though they appeared to be just a collection of mutts, which they were of course, though I’m sure they din’t think of themselves that way, they had been carefully chosen for the job of work they were about to do. Only two appeared to have names. Phantom was a half size black Labrador, all muscle with maybe a touch of bull terrier and Lucy, a yellow dog with brown nose and caramel colored eyes. There were two other dogs both sketchily resembling Airdales, both must have been close to a hundred pounds too. They were just referred too as Buggah this or Buggah that. Big Buggah, Damn Buggah, like that. They immediately began gamboling around, almost overcome with excitement at the thought of this familiar adventure. In their great excitement they anointed all the tires more than once.

This part of the big island is known as the saddle. It is the passage between the enormous volcanos on either of its flanks. There is Mauna Kea on the right and Mauna Loa on the left. The upper saddle area is a massive lava field made up of the two most common types of Lava. A’a which is called clinker lava and piles up in fantastic jagged heaps and is sharp-edged and can cut like a knife and Pahoehoe which is ropy and smooth and in places has the appearance of a shiny, jet black mirrored surface.

Pahoehoe

A single road cuts through the lava fields and is commonly referred to as the Saddle Road. It’s the only route that goes directly from west to east through the center of the island. From Kona to Kohala on the west side and then to Hilo on the east, up and over she goes. It is a magnificent road to drive. The view is spectacular passing through the lava fields that stretch for miles with gigantic mountains to your right and left. The best feature though is that you’re are able to take your flatbed truck with it’s load of beef out of gear and coast for 22 miles without stopping which must be some kind of record for freewheeling. Don’t tell anyone I told you that though, it’s a secret. Probably frowned upon by local law enforcement.

We were just below the lava fields and parked next to a deep gully which ran diagonally down toward the fern forest. It was so choked with Guava that it would have been near impossible to pass through it.

Guava

There is a saying in Hawaii that you hear pretty often when things are going slowly. “Hawaiian Time,” which basically means the thing will get done whenever, “Wheneva'” is what they say, meaning soon, maybe later or sometimes tomorrow. After hurrying up to the fields, unloading the truck and corralling the dogs, instead of taking off on the hunt the boys got out the coolers and passed around the beer and pupu’s and began talk story.

Mr Pua’a himself was a native. His ancestors had come north from Polynesia eight hundred years ago with the first trans-oceanic voyagers in their double hulled canoes. His history in Hawaii is as long as Hawaii itself. Pua’a has prospered. His ancestors have fed Hawaiians for more than forty generations. With the coming of modern times pig hunting has become a sport and not a necessity. He has prospered, particularly on the vast acreage of uninhabited land of the Big Island. He lives in the thickets of Guava, lunching on its fruit, growing fat, rooting around and having a great old time. His only real enemy is us. As Bobby said, “Sweet Guava fed pork is da best.” He’s right too. Guava fruit is sweet and delicious and it taints the pork.

A Double Hulled Polynesian Voyaging Canoe. Herb Kawanui Kane painting.

I was curious about the lack of urgency and Kane said, “Pua’a gon’ be sleepin’ soon and that was da best time to chase ‘um out. Have to sen’ dogs down in there to git ‘um. Jus’ wait.” So we waited.

After about an hour the dead soldiers were tossed in the back of the truck and the boys got ready. All three grabbed machetes from the bucket. They passed an old file around and topped up the edges, sharpening the bits between the rusted edges. I figured they were to cut our way threw the brush but I was wrong about that.

Bobby handed me the old 22 and said, “Hold this,” reached in his front pocket and pulled out half a dozen long rifle cartridges. One dropped to the grass. “Don’t worry about that,” he said, “This be plenty.”

The old rifle had seen far better days. The blueing on the barrel was long gone replaced by blotches of rust. There was no varnish left on the stock and the barrel had a suspicious slight turn to the right. I pulled back the bolt and inserted a cartridge but I figured the gun might be best used as a club instead.

They turned the dogs loose and they immediately bolted for the Guava in the gully, going downhill and out of sight in a rush, Lucy leading the way with her nose to the ground. We jogged along the edge as they ran down towards far end. They weren’t barkers, they were too intent on their business to waste any energy making a racket. Good hunting dogs are generally quiet and these guys were no exception. We could track their progress to the lower end by the cracking and snapping of the brush. Maybe ten minutes passed when we heard a loud squeal and a big boar exploded up out of the side of the gully. One of the smaller dogs, Phantom had a death grip on his flank and as soon as he hit the open ground he began to spin in a attempt to throw the dog off. That gave the others a chance to catch up. Bobby, Kane and Black moved in with their old machetes. They all started to spin, the dogs and the men following the Pua’a around and around like a pack of whirling dervishes the boar shaking his head as he spun, trying to sink his tushes into his tormentors. Phantom hung on and the Airedales continued to dart in and out trying for his hamstrings. The yellow dog, Lucy circled warily outside the circle like she was looking for an opening to get in. She got lower and lower to the ground, absolutely intent on the pig. The Pua’a squealed and grunted and the dogs growled nonstop all of them moving at once in what was a death dance. Suddenly the pig raised his head exposing his throat and Lucy dove in under his tushes and clamped down on his throat. Her weight pulled his head down and he slowed momentarily.

The boys started shouting, “Bobby, Bobby get in thea, wack ‘um, wack ‘um, geev ‘um Brah.”

Bobby did just that too. He jumped into the slowing circle and raised his rusty old machete high and in one blow hit the Pua’a just behind the head and cut his spine in two. The old boar made one last upward thrust and his tushes slashed Bobby’s left forearm almost to the bone.

Kane pushed me forward saying,”Shoot ‘im, shoot ’em Bruddah.” I did. The old 22 still worked and I shot him in the forehead. Not Bobby course, the Pua’a.

The Pua’a was down, Bobby was down and their was blood everywhere. I took my Tee shirt off and wrapped Bobby’s forearm tight to stop the bleeding. Kane and Black worked at corralling the dogs. They apparently thought it was now their job to eat the pig. Kicks and curses finally drove them off. The dead pig was thrown in the back of the pick-up along with the bleeding Bobby. The dogs were left to find their own way home, they would simply follow the truck down the road. Kane turned the truck around and we went barreling down the road to the house. Kane pulled the truck into the yard and we all hopped down and dragged the pig out, loaded Bobby into my old broken down ’59 VW bug and I drove him down to the hospital in Hilo. Lucia stood on the front porch with her arms folded and shot darts at her husband as we left.

At the little hospital the nurse took him in to clean him up which proved to be a major job. He complained from start to finish. Doctor Lau came in and took a look at the arm and said, “Looks like you might live you damned fool,” and darned if all three of them didn’t laugh like crazy.

The Doc said, “Bobby, you work in a meat packing plant, you could just buy the stupid pork.” Not the same,” Bobby said, “Factory pork no good, no flava, Doc.”

After about an hour they had him all cleaned up, sutured and then stuffed him with antibiotics, gave him some pain meds and Dr. Lau said, “Get him outta here, the fool is wasting my valuable time. I got a card game to get back to” They all laughed again.

I took him outside and got him in the car, closed the passenger door and walked around to the drivers side and fired up the little blue beast and we began the trip back to his house. When we pulled up to the house everybody came down off the porch and helped him out. Lucia, Bobby’s wife was going nonstop, giving him what my mother would have said was “A good talking to.” She gave him a kick in the fanny too.

Black and Kane were laughing at the whole scene. Black said, “She gonna geev ‘im what foah too.” They laughed again and Kane said, “Bruddah, that buggah Bobby ain’t gon die lookin’ up at some light bulb, he’s crazy” Then he said, “Come by tomorrow, we eat Huli Huli pork.”

I did and we did.

*Note: The etching of Pua’a that opens this story is by James Koga. He is the director of the fine arts studio program at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Mr. Koga is considered to be one of the great masters of Intaglio Printing working today and I’m proud to call him my friend.

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