Friday, June 3, 2016

Hilo Days: A Sweet Conflagration

Very few kids get to experience a terrifying event such as setting a sugar cane field on fire ... accidentally. I got to experience that and it's been etched indelibly in my mind since that day. No wonder I'm such a mess in my old age.

From my former website, Hilo Days, here's the story:

The Sugar Cane Field

There was a cane field behind our house that served as our own personal "jungle adventure." We used to burrow our way through the tall sugar cane, blazing trails to hidden cane field "forts" that could only be found with a set of secret directions. Actually, I don't know why we thought they were secret—the forts were only a few feet away from the lawn, and anyone passing by could see us if they peered carefully into the plants.

We'd make a small clearing, and put up handkerchief flags to mark our territory. We'd pretend that evil knights on horseback were on the prowl, and when we discovered a gang of them invading territory, we'd spring out to confront them, and begin jousting, using the dried cane tassel stalks as lances.

They were just perfect for the job—stiff enough to stand up to some roughhousing, but brittle enough so they'd shatter when they were plunged into your enemy's body as you rode pell-mell toward each other on your armored horses.

Cane fields are hazardous. Not only are there tons of wildlife in there (spiders, centipedes and rats), the plants themselves were booby-traps just waiting to inflict small, jagged, shallow leaf cuts with their serrated edges, and with the insidious tiny cane hairs that imbed themselves into the skin if you merely brushed up against the stalks.

Most of the time, the cane field just sat there, getting taller and taller. Then, every two years, things got a little more exciting with the biennial cane harvests. One day, you'd come home from school to find the cane field burned, trampled, cut, flattened. There'd be men with big machetes, bulldozers with claws, and heavy yellow trucks all over the place, cutting and knocking down the harvest, our cane forts along with it.

Every now and then you'd see the remnants of a long-forgotten handkerchief flag poking up from the piles of cut cane. There'd be that cloying sweet smell in the air as the sugar juice leaked from the broken stalks and mixed with the soil. The odor is unforgettable.

And the critters! Spiders, cockroaches, centipedes, rats, and even a mongoose or two came out of the cane field onto our lawns to seek haven from man and machinery. The neighborhood dogs went wild playing around with the creepy, squirmy critters.

That was the time when the cane flumes made their appearance. Oh, they were there all along, but the growing cane hid them from view for nearly two years.

We'd play with the flumes, sending paper boats hurtling down the rapid water that roared by. We had heard stories of other children who got their thrills by jumping into the flumes and riding several hundred feet before escaping.

The neighborhood kids and I never did try it, especially after a story appeared in the newspaper about a boy who was killed at the Wailuku mill. He had been riding the flumes with friends, and had been swept into the sugar mill where he apparently was ground to bits in the machinery. I could just picture his friends and the guilt they'd carry for the rest of their lives.

For the longest time, I looked for traces of red whenever I used sugar. Silly, of course, but hearing Dad talk about the incident (the boy was Dad's patient) made quite an impression on me. I never even thought of riding a flume after that.

You know, I burned the cane field down once by mistake.  According to the Tribune-Herald, about four acres went up in flames. It happened because ... well, I forget the exact reason why, but I was upset with Mom because she wouldn't let me do something, or had scolded me, or something like that.

At any rate, I decided the hell with it all, I was going to clean out some of the tall grass that was growing between our house and the Kutsunai's, and the cane field. I had forgotten that I had sprinkled some poison chemicals there earlier.  Now, this chemical that we used looked something like rock salt. You sprinkled it on the ground, and the weeds just died and dried. Touch a match to the weeds and they went up in a sparkling flame that had a life of its own.

So anyway, there were the tall, dry weeds, just begging to be cremated. So I cremated them. Did the strip next to the Kutsunai's house. No problem, so why not try the strip next to the cane field. Big problem. Bi-i-i-ig problem!

The fire jumped into the cane field before my very eyes. As soon as I got over the shock, I raced to the house, hooked up the garden hose, turned on the water full-blast, and rushed to douse the spreading flames.

Picture this: A panicky kid holding a hose with the water shooting out the business end, arcing high into the air, and landing about 10 feet short of the fire. Talk about a picture of futility, this was it. Somebody should have taken a photo; it would have won an award.

Mom had seen what was going on from the kitchen and called the fire department. She came stomping out of the house, pointed her finger at me, then to the house, and ordered me to go inside. I began bawling and ran into the house, whimpering "I didn't mean it, I didn't mean it!"

With clanging bells and wailing sirens, two fire trucks arrived (almost instantaneously, it seemed). One situated itself on the street and hooked up to the fire hydrant on Waianuenue Avenue (helluva long hook-up).

The other rolled right up onto our back lawn, cutting deep tire ruts into the grass, ruts that remained as scars for years, as a grim reminder of my dark deed. It sure made mowing the lawn a lot harder in the ensuing years.

Firemen jumped off the trucks, some dragging firehoses into the burning cane field, others with water tanks on their back. I came outside to watch; it was so fascinating. Why, it would have been awfully exciting had I not remembered that I was the one who caused all this commotion.

The next day, a small story appeared in the paper, something about a four-acre piece of cane field that caught fire. Nothing about the boy who started the conflagration. Once again, Dad's position saved me embarrassment. Of course, Dad had to pick up the losses suffered by the owner of the cane field. Actually, the owner made some good money for the first time in years, since he was insured, and Dad's contribution helped insure a profit.

Dad took me to meet the owner so I could apologize to him. Nice Japanese man. When we got to his house, he and his friends were all sitting around, red-faced, with bottles of beer in their hands, and plenty of pupus on the table.

The entire conversation was pretty innocuous and went something like this: 
  • Owner: "Eh, join us, Doc, get plenty pupus!"
  • Dad: "Thanks, but I just brought my son to apologize."
  • Me: "I'm sorry."
  • Owner: "No worry, no worry."
  • Dad: "Gotta go."
  • Owner: "Okay, thanks, Doc."
  • Me: "Bye."

Stimulating conversation, no? Dad and I were uncomfortable as hell, but the owner was feeling no pain. After all, Dad said, they were celebrating their first profit in years (left unsaid: "Thanks to my stupidity").

Yep, me and that cane field, we go 'way back.

It's no longer there, of course. The land was converted to pasture land when I was in high school, and the only excitement was when a cow escaped and went careening down Ekaha Street as we watched from the safety of our porches. Eventually, the pasture was transformed into residential lots, and families moved in, and kids romped where firemen once extinguished an unplanned, but exciting cane field fire.

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