The Way To Win

           Each of the three of us tossed in a handful of ohelo berries first; it was harder to part with the bottles. Owen had insisted that we each offer her favorite fruit as well as the gin. I could hear Rodney’s teeth chattering. We exhaled steam.

           Our ohelo berry hunt had made for a rather long drive up. Not only because we'd been gin fortifying ourselves starting down in Hilo, but every mile or so as we neared the top, Owen would shout out, "Pull over! I see some."
           Of course as we staggered our way to this and that plant with reddish berries, Owen would inevitably say, "No, sorry, false alarm. These aren't them."
           After the fifth or so stop, Rodney said, “We should’ve just bought the dang bottle of jam in Hilo.”
           Owen was aghast. “You can’t give her bottled berries. Not when you can find fresh. And it was jelly,” he added.
           Rodney looked over at Owen. “We’re giving her gin out of a bottle.”
           “And where would we find fresh gin up here? Just get back in the car and drive,” Owen ordered.
           Back in the car, the heater blasting, we'd rehydrate ourselves after our mini-treks with another slug or three from our personal bottles. Fortunately we’d planned ahead. Three backup bottles lay on the backseat floor at my feet. I foresaw that at this rate we’d definitely need them. I made sure, constantly, that my gin hadn’t gone flat.
           It wasn't until we lurched into some random side street near the 36th or 37th or 38th mile marker that we actually found the berries, but we did finally find them. And Owen could still recognize them.
           "Now we're ready," Owen announced. “Onward!”
           Amazingly, after what had seemed like forever, it was still pretty early, maybe 8:00, when we arrived. We were the only people there on a Sunday morning. The sun was up, but ominous black clouds blocked the warming rays. A fine chilling misty rain swirled around us. We forced down more gin to get our blood pumping.
           Somehow, we stood at the railing, staring into the caldera. Great plumes of sulfurous gas rose whisping from the distant floor. I've always loved that smell up there. This morning it smelled like imminent victory.
           No one said a word. Faced with this vast, silent spectacle, we were awed into silence. Or maybe Rodney and Owen were thinking words, thoughts — both being native Hawaiian — that I hadn't learned to think. All I knew was that I wanted to garner all the mana we could collect to win the Aloha Week Parade float competition the following Saturday.

           We were on the Big Island, supposedly, to collect uki grass. Owen had wanted the base color of our Aloha Week float to be brown, and he wanted it to be only the deep glossy chocolate brown that is the brown of uki grass. We three had flown in to Hilo Friday morning, fully expecting to spend three days harvesting and boxing the grass for the trip back to O`ahu. Our first stop after we arrived in Hilo was Uncle George Naope's house. He'd offered the volunteer services of his halau to help us pick the grass that grows wild all along the highway up to Volcano.
           Uncle George sat on a cooler in his driveway. "Owen Ho!" he shouted as we exited the rental car. "How about a beer?" He walked toward us with three open bottles.
           "If you insist, Uncle George," Owen laughed, hugging him. "I’m always confused by these time zone changes. It must be happy hour back in Honolulu."
           "Come come come," Uncle George beckoned, leading us to the door and inside. "How about something to eat?"
           Owen looked back at us. Rodney and I shook our heads "no." Rodney pointed to his watch. "Oh, thank you so much, Uncle George, but no thank you," Owen said. "I think we better finish this beer, go check in to the hotel, and then get started on the uki grass. Your boys can still help?"
           "Of course," Uncle George said, smiling a huge smile. "Come come come."
           He took us out the back door and pointed under the stairway that ran up to the second floor. Owen looked at him, then back at the thirty or so neatly stacked beer cases. "What's this?" he asked.
           Uncle George laughed, put down his beer, and untied one of the boxes. "Uncle George!" Owen exclaimed. "All this is uki grass?"
           "Of course," Uncle George chuckled. "I told my boys, 'If you think I going let Owen Ho and Rodney Kamalii, past Aloha Week King, pick uki grass all weekend, you got another think coming.' And they’re good boys. They picked all week. You think this is enough?"
           Owen embraced him. "You are my savior, Uncle George. I'd say we could maybe do two or three floats with what you have here."
           Owen turned to us. "Anybody hungry NOW?"
           "We knew YOU were hungry," Rodney kidded.
           Everybody laughed. Rodney looked much more relaxed all of a sudden. "Another beer?" Uncle George asked. We all replied enthusiastically in the affirmative.
           Thus began a weekend of much drinking and eating, including two luaus with all the foods you've ever heard they have at authentic luaus.

           Owen took one last long sip and tossed his bottle over the edge. Rodney and I did the same. Rodney was shaking from the cold.
           Still, no one said a word. We only kept staring silently into the vast caldera.
           Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small beat-up red car enter the parking lot. It had caught all of our attentions, and we watched it pull into the diagonal space next to our car. A figure stepped out, opened the back door, and pulled out some kind of box. What looked like a very small child exited the passenger side door.
           Together they walked hand in hand toward us. As they came nearer, I could see that the Japanese woman wore a bandanna on her head; her hair was all up in pink plastic curlers.
           Owen tapped me and Rodney on the shoulder and motioned for the three of us to move off to the side. The woman carried a grease-spotted pink pastry box. When she and the small boy reached the railing, she dropped his hand, flipped open the box, and pulled out a single butter roll. Without missing a beat, she threw the roll over the side, dropped the box in the trash can, did an about face, took up her son's hand, and proceeded to march back down the trail.
           The sun broke through the clouds and the great warmth hit us.
           We watched this entire scene unfold without saying anything. When her car turned onto the Crater Rim Road, we all finally looked at each other.
           Rodney was the first to speak. "Suckin chicken skin to the max," he said in a hoarse whisper.
           Owen said, "She definitely had something she needed help with, and she knew exactly where to go and what to do."
           I just kept nodding, dumbfounded.

           That little boy would be somewhere around 40 now, his mother maybe 70. If you look at photos of other floats in the Aloha Week Parade that year, you'll see that many had uki grass somewhere on them. We had so much extra that Owen gave boxes of it to anyone who asked. Duty Free Shoppers did, in fact, win both the Commercial Division and the Grand Sweepstakes float trophies that year, and for three more years in a row, until Owen stopped entering.

           Mahalo e Uncle George. Mahalo e Rodney Kamalii. Mahalo e Owen Ho. Mahalo e Madam Pele.

Mahalo for reading!

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