April 27 – The Sea Remembers its Own

This post is about a journey that started over 80 years ago that ferried my father from a remote farm in North Dakota to the tropical paradise island of Oahu as a U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet Band Member, Musician 2nd class. Having been deprived of his connection throughout most of my childhood, I have been like a stubborn orphan seeking a familial connection denied me, and through his letters I have joined him on his journey through the tumult of World War II.  I never flinched at the intergenerational trauma because, as a cult survivor, I have developed an unusual taste for the uncomfortable. 

Covid had put a damper on our trip to Hawaii that had originally been planned for 2020, this change of plan allowed me more time to explore what has turned out to be a legacy that has found its final resting place at Pearl Harbor. 

I have spent years, off and on, pulling together his letters, pictures, ancient negatives and periphenalia.  I recently contacted members of the US Navy Pacific Fleet Band to find a suitable home for these precious artifacts that laid dormant in a closet after his death in 1996.  I had the pleasure of connecting with the vibrant and dynamic Lt. Luslaida Barbosa, the Navy Pacific Fleet Bandmaster: She has an impressive resume – she is not only one of the few female US Navy Bandmasters, she is also a woman of color (Puerto Rican) and the only one who moved up the ranks while raising children.  I’m honored to know her and make the aquaintance of such a trailblazer.  

She met us briefly at the Arizona Memorial Visitor Center, but as we were boarding the ferry to the memorial our conversation was cut short.  So I asked to meet up with her again the following week. She has also been assisting me with finding a home for my father’s trombone that he played during the war – it is now destined for the Naval School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia. 

She also advised me there was a memorial ceremony at the USS Utah site for a musician from the Enterprise – Lt. Barbosa thought it was related to us – it was simply a fantastical coincidence amongst so many it seems.  

The USS Arizona Memorial

On the ferry, I was accommpanied by boat-load of strangers who were oblivious to my father’s history, feeling a lack of intimacy that I had hoped for as we were shuffled around the memorial for the short time allowed.  The Arizona Memorial isn’t simply a place of rememberance, but an underwater cemetery of the most profound kind; you come here to pay your respects to all those who died a ghastly death as it was sunk with precision by the Japanese on December 7, 1941.  When I contemplate this gargantuan, rusting tomb emitting its black tears, I hope those surrounding me also consider all that happened that day and how a slight turn of events could have changed the course of history for the U.S.  When I look up, the Mighty Mo stands guard in the distance, a sentinel, proud, defiant – unchallenged.  She is all that remains of battleship row – her brethren either submerged or eventually scrapped.  The power of the symbology becomes apparent:  Testimonies to the beginning and the end of one of the most devastating wars in history. #neverforget #neversurrender 

The Mighty Mo

I left with my mental notes to contemplate the wreckage and what my father would have witnessed as the USS Enterprise steamed into the harbor the day after the attack; the sky black with smoke, the massive hulks of mangled ships, the bodies of the unrecovered, flames – layers of carnage that would be forever fused in his mind. If the Enterprise has been moored in the harbor on December 7th, I probably wouldn’t be alive – writing this blog. 

Ten days later, after a lovely respite on the North Shore, my husband and I returned to Honolulu and spent our final day back at Pearl Harbor; our first stop was the USS Missouri – the Mighty Mo.

The scale and power of this battleship gave me perspective on what my father would have experienced during his service on the USS W. Virginia.  The guns must have been as deafening as the emotional toll on its inhabitants.

I’m always in awe at how mankind can accomplish such feats of engineering.  

There is a dent on the side of the Mo where a Kamakaze (aka Divine Wind) clipped the ship with its wing – and miraculously a ship photographer captured the exact moment of the crash.  It was a failed attempt but a fitting scar; these pilots gave their lives by the thousands.  My father wrote of them attacking the USS West Virginia. They did massive damage to the pacific fleet and were a force to be reckoned with.  

The slow unveiling of my father’s history is like the maze of a great battleship, you can easily get lost in the corridors, trip, bang your head on the low ceilings, bump into the narrow passage ways.  You pass the fortified and impregnable bulk heads thinking there is no way out, then you stumble across the engine room, the crew quarters and the mess hall.  You contemplate the inception of massive turrets that hold the outer world at bay. Then you some how find your way out of the darkness into the museum level and the #neverforget history of the ship itself.

When you emerge, back on deck, you face the Arizona Memorial, the three immortal gun turrets saluting all those who perished and praising the grit of all those who survived.  

I’m now standing still in the spot where the Japanese surrendered on September 2nd, 1945 that ended the war.  I welled up a bit as my father was so close to being at that very spot:  It would have been his final performance for the Navy. He decided to return home instead; he had survived too many conflicts and whatever twists of fate, while so many of his comrades perished – the toll of war left him devoid of any further adventure. I wonder in hindsight if he wished he had been part of such a significant, historical event.  

After our mesmerizing tour of the Mighty Mo, we went to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to meet up with Lt. Barbosa at the Pacific Fleet Band base. It turned out Bob could not join me, as he did not have his passport and is a dual citizen.  It was such a disappointment but you don’t argue with the Navy. 

She took me through the building that had been housing the fleet bands since the 1940’s.  I imagined my father walked these halls at some point.  There are no longer bands assigned to ships so this is now the hub that holds all their offices, where they rehearse for events; I met so many of the young band members in their fatigues – their respectability was refreshing and their fascination with my father’s history utterly endearing. 

Lt. Barbosa kindly drove me back to the visitor center to meet back up with Bob. Bidding my farewell, I realized I had done the right thing to cement my father’s legacy for future generations. So many I talk to, do not know what to do with their old letters and artifacts from wars gone past:   All I did was contact and see who could help me – the result has been beyond what I could have ever anticipated.  

We visited the WW II Aviation Museum, rode in a simulator, observed the relics of planes and bullet holes, and wandered through the hangers made familiar by Hollywood movies – but what happened here was far from Hollywood.

The Pearl Harbor Memorial not-so-gently reminds us of what we must never forget.  People visit in droves and I hope they internalize the sacrifices and suffering that too many endured for our freedoms.  These are not trite words, the Greatest Generation was born of tragedy and resiliency.  It’s ok to exceed your comfort zone as they did.

I have felt both empowered and desolate – not like those who lost loved ones to the war – but to a memory I never had the chance to fully understand.  I understand better now.  Having had no scattering of ashes, I instead decided to have a burial at sea, submerging his memory into the harbor itself where his time capsule rests like a pearl, in peace amongst the ghosts of his comrades.  The glass of the capsule will remain but the cap will eventually rust – the sand will drift and the photo will deteriorate.  It may surface someday as beach glass – beach glass of a special kind that maybe will transfer its magic to an aspiring sailor or musician.  Or if it surfaces intact there is a message there for anyone who will listen.  

As the spirit world has suggested, perhaps it’s as much closure for him as it is for me.  

RIP W.A Bender – you have now come full circle; the glass did not shatter, like the delicate resiliency of a human life, but it will meet its fate, as all things do, as the seal turns to rust.  Ashes and dust have no place here and disappear with the wind, but the sea, in its mighty wisdom….will always remember its own. 

April 26 Birthday Hawaiian Style

Today is my birthday and we are heading back to Honolulu after ten fabulous days on the North Shore of Oahu.  I can’t think of a better way to spend it than here on this beautiful island with family. 

We had a “High Surf Advisory” Sunday and here that means one thing – surfing!  We headed out to a lovely lagoon next to Shark’s Cove located just up from the “Pipeline.” 

The tide was seriously surging and it turned out to be a beautiful day; the rain decided to hold off while we spent hours snorkeling, soaking up the vibes and watching the mesmerizing surf.

The fish action was great and they acted as if we didn’t exist – I was literally swimming through large pools of them.

To top off our stay, we dined at Haleiwa Joe’s overlooking the harbor; nothing beats an authentic Mai Tai, tropical breezes and good company. It seems that cocktail mixers like to be more creative though I prefer to stick with the standards indigenous to the Island’s to include Pina Colada’s and the infamous Volcano.  

We bid farewell to my brother and sister-in-law, the local turtles who kept us thoroughly entertained, and headed back to Honolulu by way of Kaneohe.

My father had been stationed at the Kaneohe Air Base after the bombing of Pearl Harbor for a short while before he was redeployed to the mainland. The scenery was astounding – lush with valleys of jungles and skyrocketing escarpments that screamed tropical exotic. It’s no wonder so many movies are filmed here. I can imagine that during my father’s day it must have been utterly unspoiled.

We decided to drop into Kualoa Ranch where they filmed Jurassic Park. We skipped the tour but enjoyed the kitsch all the same.

Note the sunglasses

As it was my birthday we needed to top off the day with an authentic Pina Colada and we really scored at the “Lava Tube” in Honolulu where they serve them in pineapples!

My Pina Colada fix!

What a great a way to top of a memorable birthday with some Hawaiian flare!

April 22 North Shore Vibe

Every morning the alarm goes off which is actually a cacophony of birds, set to a backdrop of a swaying surf that complements your morning coffee.  No need to keep track of time here. 

Our humble cottage is tucked onto a public beach virtually devoid of human activity. This place is a bit of a dead-end as further up the road is the wildlife sanctuary and there are no resorts along this drive; there are private residences only, some that need updating and others that have been lavished on by their owners, but no McMansions – mostly plantation style abodes.  The indigenous inhabitants are the lovely Green Sea Turtles who come to forage the kelp near the shore; you easily become ensconced by the feeding habits of turtles as they float effortlessly with the tides. Sometimes they travel alone, but mostly they come in a group of three or four accompanied by the vast schools of colorful fish swimming along the coral reefs.  Occasional crabs sidewind out of your way.  

It’s truly a fusion of sea, sand and zen.  

The weather has been good but we are occasionally driven in by the wind and rain but if that is to be our greatest challenge here, and should I complain then I have grown as soft as a tropical breeze.

The North Shore itself throws a bohemian vibe along with an ocean of surfers coming to challenge some of the greatest wave action in the world.  It’s off season but they don’t care – the swells are large enough to entertain this ambitious crowd.

Cars are jammed into every available space along the highway as you approach the beach of the renowned Bonsai Pipeline, and even those who just wish to swim worm their way into spots that defy physics. 

Nearby Haleiwa is the small-town surfer hub and is also a fun tourist destination – there is enough island kitsch, with an undertow of surfer dude culture, to keep the curious shopper entertained.  Some of the stores, it appears, did not survive the pandemic and have shuttered, but with the tourist crowd virtually bursting at the seams again you can only hope there will be a revival.  

Further east is the lovely Waimea Valley where you find some fantastic botanic specimens that, upon further inspection, prove to be real. Exotic flowers are an essential ingredient to the elixir of paradise and these luscious babies make you want to stop and linger with a Mai Tai in hand to enhance the experience.  But at the gardens you can only observe and settle for a respite of coconut ice cream.

Waimea Falls

The valley itself is a stronghold of ancient Hawaiian heritage and like the Arizona Memorial, one comes here to pay their respects, strolling through the winding paths of massive, twisting, ficus trees that guard the ancient burial sites.  

Most tourists come to swim at the waterfall, missing the side paths that take you into the jungle, where the flora and quietude gives pause to the outside world.  The music here is delivered by exotic birds that refuse to reveal themselves even though you try and talk them down from their perch.  

Despite the crowds, these shores remain static as if to push those that it can’t accommodate back to Waikiki. If not for the private residences, this area would have been overrun by resorts and who knows what the fate of the turtle might have been. 

Afternoon tea in paradise

It’s like a dirty little secret since it’s public the beach isn’t easily accessible, so the turtles remain virtually undisturbed except for the occasional, curious snorkeler that they pay little heed to; drifting free, the envy of those who can only leave footprints that are soon wiped away but the evening tide.

April 15 E Ala E – A Hawaiian Rebirth

After making it back home to Portland, Oregon we had to hit the deck running as we needed to pack up the house for our eventual move to France and…we were leaving for Hawaii to join family in Oahu on the 14th; this trip had been cancelled two years prior due to Covid, and since then I had spent time scanning my father’s WWII letters from his service in the Pacific.  This will turn out to be a seminal experience as we will be meeting with the Pacific Fleet Band Master as part of our tour of the Arizona Memorial.  My father served as a Musician 2nd Class (eventually 1st Class) in the Navy aboard the Enterprise and W. Virginia and his letters ranging from Pearl Harbor to the surrender at Tokyo Bay captured a rare glimpse into the life of a musician during the war.  

When we arrived back in Portland it of course decided to snow!  The movers were coming the next day and we prayed the weather would clear, not just with the packing and moving, but making it to the airport for our flight. 

I’ve had far worse stressors in my life, but still, it was a lot and we both started to blow out some brain cells with all the details.  

Thankfully, we made it to the plane without incident, worn and a bit shattered from the last few days, convinced we forgot to bring necessary items only to find them shoved here and there in our luggage.  

Upon arrival I took a deep breath instead of a sigh of relief; I wanted to inhale the islands themselves.  We were greeted by the trade winds scented with plumeria as we explored the legendary Royal Hawaiian Resort, then we soaked our feet in the tropical blue surf of Waikiki Beach. Much has changed since my father sunbathed in front of this princess-pink landmark; it sits there defiant amongst the modern high rises – its place in history never to be questioned. And shopping mall laden Honolulu is no longer the quaint meandering village it was back in the 1940’s as described in his letters – more to come on this later after we meet with the US Navy Pacific Fleet Bandmaster on the 20th at Pearl Harbor; this subject deserves a special place in my blog.  

We dined at the Mai Tai Bar and I had the Vic’s 44 cocktail – a throwback to the Trader Vic’s Tiki Lounge that was founded back before the war.  I still have my father’s certificate.  Trader Vic’s is now all over the world except here in Honolulu which really escapes me as to why that is. The “International Market” is mostly box stores with a few galleries thrown in.

Give me some authentic Hawaiian crafts please!!!

After passing out from a long day we woke up at 4:00 a.m. —— just couldn’t get back to sleep. 

We decided to attend the Hiuwai Morning Ritual on the Royal Hawaiian Beachfront that started at 5:45 a.m. 

We were met by Kehaulani Kam, the Director of Cultural Services for the Marriott team in Hawaii, who introduced us to a traditional Hawaiian sunrise ritual that involved chants and baptizing ourselves in the ocean.  We weren’t prepared to swim but I decided to chuck formalities and go in mostly clothed.  This ritual involves the concept of rebirthing through the healing waters of Waikiki – which means “spouting fresh waters.”  The waters from the interior meld with the ocean creating an alchemy worshipped by the Hawaiians.  

What a great way to start our adventure as we are essentially going through a rebirth on this new chapter in our lives.  

Bob and I came out soaked and refreshed by the experience, glad to have immersed ourselves in this lovely tradition.  Kehaulani had explained the importance of their ancestors and carrying on these traditions – to never allow their heritage to disappear.  I let her know about my father’s legacy including the vintage photographs of Waikiki and sunbathing in front of the Royal Hawaiian and she was excited to know more. 

W.A Bender in front of the Royal Hawaiian – 1940
Waikiki Beach before and after – from in front of the Royal Hawaiian

As it turns out, I made this unexpected connection during this rebirthing ritual, resulting in my father’s legacy being introduced as part of the Royal Hawaiian historical collection that is destined for the display case in the lower lobby of the hotel!!!!!  

She was so excited to see what I had and to read his letters from his time in the Navy.  This is an ongoing development that I will continue to blog about – and I can’t wrap my head around the significance of what has emerged since our arrival. 

Despite the swarm of people and the overwhelming commercialism surrounding the resorts, when my feet touch these sands, I feel that I am cocooned in a special place and time – even though I share it, I cannot adequately interpret what the spirits are playing at.  I am grateful that I have been swept onto these shores, to convey this oceanic history and solidify my father’s legacy, that like this hotel, has withstood the test of time. 

E Ala E in Hawaiian means “Awaken