The Queen of Moloka’i

By Kirby Wright

Brownie (Julia Gilman) on Horseback" photo credit Kirby Wright

Brownie (Julia Gilman) on Horseback: photo credit, Kirby Wright

She’s heading 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 are emergency cots and a white cabinet filled with bandages, rolls of gauze, sutures, aspirin, syringes, and tiny bottles of penicillin.  The haole (white) doctor from the Red Cross approved its construction, along with nine other stations she helped build the month after Pearl Harbor was attacked.  Rumors of Japanese paratroopers and an invasion by sea inspired a wave of patriotic frenzy on Moloka’i—people began to join the Armed Forces, to volunteer as nurses, or help construct barbed wire blockades.  She joined the USO and was later appointed District Manager for the Red Cross.  She’s sure the appointment came because she looks haole.  Sometimes she thinks her slanted eyes will give her away.

Brownie stands offstage at the Community Center in Kaunakakai feeling silly wearing rouge, pink lipstick, and a string of pearls.  She’s Show Coordinator for the USO.  She pats a victory roll in her Betty Grable hairdo, and watches girls kick in unison to Benny Goodman’s “In the Mood.”  Soldiers at tables hoot and holler as waiters hustle by balancing cocktail trays.  The song ends, and the girls blow kisses to whistles and catcalls.  They leave the stage as applause rattles the spotlights.

She finds them backstage.  The girls are mostly piha kanaka maoli (full-blooded Hawai’ian), but two have a smattering of French blood and could pass for haole.  Keiko, the girl from Okinawa, is easily her best dancer.  Brownie tells them they’re as good as the Rockettes.  Puanani hugs her.  She loves Puanani like a daughter, despite catching her cousin Lani in bed with Chip.  She watches them slip into denim and tug their boots on.  She smells pikake (Arabian jasmine) perfume.  The next number will be cowgirls dancing to “Home on the Range.”

Brownie joins a table of mothers.  “Mona stay ready fo’ Hollywood,” brags Ruth Kamakeaina.

“Rita goin’ Broadway straight off,” Marvely Naki gloats.  She’s glad they’re excited.  She knows the stage brings hope during this time of rationing, living off the aina (land), and waiting for news from loved ones fighting overseas.  She wanted the girls to be at their best, so their mothers would have this night.  She made them rehearse for months, teaching them the two-step, tap dance, and the Lindy Hop.  She showed them how to link and kick as a team.  She studied fashion magazines sent by the USO, and spent weeks with Ruth and Marvely creating Rockette-style skirts.  They even stitched sequins and feathers on the pillbox hats.

She spots a man in a khaki uniform sitting alone at a table.  His cap slants from his temple down to an eye.  He lifts his glass.  He seems comfortable being by himself.  Their eyes meet.  He lowers his eyes and lights a cigarette.  He wears a chain bracelet and has a ruddy complexion.  He’s younger than her.  Not much, but she can tell.  The knot on his tie’s loose and the end of the tie is tucked into the breast of his shirt.  Funny.  He’s loose and tidy at the same time.  He looks up.  This time, 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 sees him order another drink.

Brownie excuses herself.  She hula-swings over to the bar, using the sexy 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 on the rocks.  She feels good in the red wiggle dress Sue sent last Christmas.  The soldier finishes his drink, and leaves the table.   His stride is confidant yet boyish.  No wedding band.  Thin with broad shoulders.

“What’s your name, doll?” he asks, taking off his cap.  His jet-black hair shines like the oiled barrel of Chip’s rifle.

“I’m Julia,” she tells him.

“Nice to meet you, Julia.  I’m Fletcher.”

She’s glad he didn’t hold out his hand.  She doesn’t want him feeling her calluses from cutting and chopping.  She likes his name.  She likes it so much she doesn’t dare ask for his last, because that could spoil it.  Those are captain bars on his lapel.  He sounds like the newsmen on the radio, the deep-voiced ones who keep her company when Chip’s gone.  She feels guilty for abandoning her nickname.  But “Brownie” reminds her of swinging axes, driving cattle, and dressing like a kua’aina (country bumpkin).  Saying “Julia” makes her feel young.  Part of her wants to pretend she’s still free to love whomever she wants, even after her mother and big brother Tommy tell her nothing good will come from it.

Fiddles strike up “Home on the Range.” The girls return in denim skirts, twirling lassos.  They two-step around wagon wheels, a sawhorse topped with a saddle, and wooden barrels.  A prairie schooner painted on butcher paper hangs in the background.  Keiko and Puanani ride in on hobbyhorses.  The soldiers give them a standing ovation.

Fletcher invites her outside and they take the stairs down to the courtyard.  The tradewinds rustle her skirt.  She notices his pencil moustache and straight-as-a-board posture.  He smells like the ocean.  She has not felt like this since her days chasing haoles in Waikiki with Sue, not since the Moana Hotel Ball when the English boy kissed her on the veranda under a ceiling of stars.

“Married?” Fletcher whispers.  She wants to say no, to deny Chip’s existence.  Why shouldn’t she lie about a man more interested in local wahines (girls or women)?

“Julia,” Fletcher continues.

She tells him about Chipper and living on the east end.  Fletcher’s married too.  Martha’s in Columbus waiting for his R & R, but he’s been called back to Schofield Barracks.  His steamer leaves the wharf at the crack of dawn.  Fletcher pulls her close and they kiss in a pool of light.

“Spend tonight with me,” croons 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 nothing more than a bungalow perched on a mud flat overlooking the wharf.  Will she do it to punish Chip?  She’s not sure.  She imagines cigarettes, small talk, and geckos climbing the walls.  His uniform hangs off the bedpost, the captain bars glowing in the light of a naked bulb.  She sees herself lying on a narrow mattress as his fingers unfasten her bra.  She believes tonight she’ll be a princess, a wahine naïve enough to believe in dreams.

Editor’s note: This is an oral history as told to Kirby Wright by his grandmother, Julia Gilman.

Brownie’s on horseback.  A plane’s mosquito-like hum causes her mare to veer into roadside kiawe(mesquite), so she pulls back on the reigns until the humming quits.  She chose Bella over the Willys Jeep because riding makes her feel tall.  She’s barely five feet, but up here she’s a queen.  Riding brings memories of driving cattle over crushed coral with Chipper, her husband, and spending summers with her boy, Buddy.  Chip called him keiki manuahi (bastard child).  Now Bud fights in the South Pacific.  Brownie remembers the morning a Zero flew low over the taro patches, making roosters crow and poi dogs howl.  Chip pulled his .219 and took pot shots at the plane.

She’s heading 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 are emergency cots and a white cabinet filled with bandages, rolls of gauze, sutures, aspirin, syringes, and tiny bottles of penicillin.  The haole (white) doctor from the Red Cross approved its construction, along with nine other stations she helped build the month after Pearl Harbor was attacked.  Rumors of Japanese paratroopers and an invasion by sea inspired a wave of patriotic frenzy on Moloka’i—people began to join the Armed Forces, to volunteer as nurses, or help construct barbed wire blockades.  She joined the USO and was later appointed District Manager for the Red Cross.  She’s sure the appointment came because she looks haole.  Sometimes she thinks her slanted eyes will give her away.

Brownie stands offstage at the Community Center in Kaunakakai feeling silly wearing rouge, pink lipstick, and a string of pearls.  She’s Show Coordinator for the USO.  She pats a victory roll in her Betty Grable hairdo, and watches girls kick in unison to Benny Goodman’s “In the Mood.”  Soldiers at tables hoot and holler as waiters hustle by balancing cocktail trays.  The song ends, and the girls blow kisses to whistles and catcalls.  They leave the stage as applause rattles the spotlights.

She finds them backstage.  The girls are mostly piha kanaka maoli (full-blooded Hawai’ian), but two have a smattering of French blood and could pass for haole.  Keiko, the girl from Okinawa, is easily her best dancer.  Brownie tells them they’re as good as the Rockettes.  Puanani hugs her.  She loves Puanani like a daughter, despite catching her cousin Lani in bed with Chip.  She watches them slip into denim and tug their boots on.  She smells pikake (Arabian jasmine) perfume.  The next number will be cowgirls dancing to “Home on the Range.”

Brownie joins a table of mothers.  “Mona stay ready fo’ Hollywood,” brags Ruth Kamakeaina.

“Rita goin’ Broadway straight off,” Marvely Naki gloats.  She’s glad they’re excited.  She knows the stage brings hope during this time of rationing, living off the aina (land), and waiting for news from loved ones fighting overseas.  She wanted the girls to be at their best, so their mothers would have this night.  She made them rehearse for months, teaching them the two-step, tap dance, and the Lindy Hop.  She showed them how to link and kick as a team.  She studied fashion magazines sent by the USO, and spent weeks with Ruth and Marvely creating Rockette-style skirts.  They even stitched sequins and feathers on the pillbox hats.

She spots a man in a khaki uniform sitting alone at a table.  His cap slants from his temple down to an eye.  He lifts his glass.  He seems comfortable being by himself.  Their eyes meet.  He lowers his eyes and lights a cigarette.  He wears a chain bracelet and has a ruddy complexion.  He’s younger than her.  Not much, but she can tell.  The knot on his tie’s loose and the end of the tie is tucked into the breast of his shirt.  Funny.  He’s loose and tidy at the same time.  He looks up.  This time, 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 sees him order another drink.

Brownie excuses herself.  She hula-swings over to the bar, using the sexy 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 on the rocks.  She feels good in the red wiggle dress Sue sent last Christmas.  The soldier finishes his drink, and leaves the table.   His stride is confidant yet boyish.  No wedding band.  Thin with broad shoulders.

“What’s your name, doll?” he asks, taking off his cap.  His jet-black hair shines like the oiled barrel of Chip’s rifle.

“I’m Julia,” she tells him.

“Nice to meet you, Julia.  I’m Fletcher.”

She’s glad he didn’t hold out his hand.  She doesn’t want him feeling her calluses from cutting and chopping.  She likes his name.  She likes it so much she doesn’t dare ask for his last, because that could spoil it.  Those are captain bars on his lapel.  He sounds like the newsmen on the radio, the deep-voiced ones who keep her company when Chip’s gone.  She feels guilty for abandoning her nickname.  But “Brownie” reminds her of swinging axes, driving cattle, and dressing like a kua’aina (country bumpkin).  Saying “Julia” makes her feel young.  Part of her wants to pretend she’s still free to love whomever she wants, even after her mother and big brother Tommy tell her nothing good will come from it.

Fiddles strike up “Home on the Range.” The girls return in denim skirts, twirling lassos.  They two-step around wagon wheels, a sawhorse topped with a saddle, and wooden barrels.  A prairie schooner painted on butcher paper hangs in the background.  Keiko and Puanani ride in on hobbyhorses.  The soldiers give them a standing ovation.

Fletcher invites her outside and they take the stairs down to the courtyard.  The tradewinds rustle her skirt.  She notices his pencil moustache and straight-as-a-board posture.  He smells like the ocean.  She has not felt like this since her days chasing haoles in Waikiki with Sue, not since the Moana Hotel Ball when the English boy kissed her on the veranda under a ceiling of stars.

“Married?” Fletcher whispers.  She wants to say no, to deny Chip’s existence.  Why shouldn’t she lie about a man more interested in local wahines (girls or women)?

“Julia,” Fletcher continues.

She tells him about Chipper and living on the east end.  Fletcher’s married too.  Martha’s in Columbus waiting for his R & R, but he’s been called back to Schofield Barracks.  His steamer leaves the wharf at the crack of dawn.  Fletcher pulls her close and they kiss in a pool of light.

“Spend tonight with me,” croons 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 nothing more than a bungalow perched on a mud flat overlooking the wharf.  Will she do it to punish Chip?  She’s not sure.  She imagines cigarettes, small talk, and geckos climbing the walls.  His uniform hangs off the bedpost, the captain bars glowing in the light of a naked bulb.  She sees herself lying on a narrow mattress as his fingers unfasten her bra.  She believes tonight she’ll be a princess, a wahine naïve enough to believe in dreams.

Editor’s note: This is an oral history as told to Kirby Wright by his grandmother, Julia Gilman.

2 thoughts on “The Queen of Moloka’i

  1. My memoir is forthcoming in 2015, and it takes a look at Brownie’s relationships with her ex Chipper as well as her grandsons.

    Chapters have been published in respected literary magazines and university reviews worldwide, including Chaminade Literary Review, The Fourth River, Grain Magazine, Harpur Palate, Hawai’i Review, The Montreal Review, Owen Wister Review, Prism International, Southword Journal, Southern Indiana Review and Switchback.

    If interested in reviewing an advance proof, please contact my publisher at lemonsharkpress@yahoo.com

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