I was lucky enough to spend most of my teenage years in Hawaii -- call it the luck of the draw, or more likely a brilliant move on the part of my folks. My dad was a career Air Force pilot, a gifted aviator and combat veteran who I'm sure could fly a Winnebago through a hurricane with a smile on his face. He chose a non-flying assignment in Hawaii instead of commanding a whole group of B-52s in upstate Michigan. I've been thanking him ever since.
Hawaii was an odd place -- a fragile piece of paradise where life was surprisingly normal, in its own way. It was just like the rest of the mainland, in most respects. There were traffic jams, crime, a drive-in theater (the Kamehameha I & II, now closed from what I hear -- damn shame) and malls. A little chunk of America in the middle of the Pacific.
And then it hits you: there are no natural resources to support that lifestyle. No timber, no oil, no factories, very little industry to speak of. The biggest factory I could remember was the Primo Beer brewery on the shores of Pearl Harbor. And like the Kam I & II, that's gone now, too. They moved the brewery to the mainland years ago. Odd to think that "Hawaiian" beer is made in Riverside or some such place, if it still exists as a brand at all...
It was an island, of course. Every scrap of that American lifestyle, from gas to toilet paper to the steaks at our favorite teppanyaki joint in Waikiki, came by boat or plane from somewhere else. Usually it came on a container ship operated by Matson Lines.
Those ships looked huge when I was sitting out in the surf at my favorite spot, a place called Point Panic -- a perfect wedge of coral that just happened to end abruptly, seemingly just yards from the take-off spot, in a huge pile of rocks that made up the artificial jetty.
Panic, indeed. Shallow water, sharp coral, rocks just spitting distance away, and locals who at their charitable best didn't like a blond, blue-eyed haole taking their waves. You learn to adjust, fast.
Back in the mid-80s, those container ships were the biggest things on the water. Since then, they have grown exponentially larger, floating cities with the wealth of nations piled in neat rows on top. They were the lifeblood of an entire island economy, and they still are. Gas cost more than $3 a gallon 20 years ago, and we all happy to pay.
There's a saying in Hawaii that still holds true -- even when times are tough, the rents are through the roof and there's a long line at your favorite shave ice stand: Lucky you live Hawaii. Don't bitch.
Think of the irony: Apart from tourism, Hawaii was known then for its cane sugar and pineapple. Even then those industries were dying, a relic of commercial imperialism. During the dry season, you could see the chaff from spent cane fields set alight in the distant fields. When we headed to the North Shore, mostly to watch the real surfers test themselves from the safety of the trembling beach, my surf buddies would pile out of my beater Toyota midway at the Dole museum to get free chunks of pineapple.
But the cans needed to pack and ship that pineapple came from somewhere far, far away. The fuel needed to run the harvesters and refine the sugar was offloaded from tankers sitting off Honolulu -- there was usually always one anchored there, full of precious petroleum in all its tasty flavors. It was a losing proposition from the start, but it added to the mystique of Hawaii. What was Hawaii, after all, without cane fields and pineapple?
Long story short: I still live on that island. It's called Los Angeles. I think about all the things needed to sustain a metro area with more than 10 million souls, and seemingly 20 million cars... Groceries. Gas to keep those cars going, fuel oil to keep the sprawling water treatment plant south of the airport running so we can all water our lawns. Los Angeles is a desert given artificial life because of stolen water from the north, plus an artificial port built at tremendous cost to lure the new generation of container ships into docking.
My grandmother was a third-generation Californian, a red-haired Irish lass born on a rancho in San Juan Capistrano. Deep roots. She loved her stories of driving hours through the groves of citrus trees -- every now and then, the trees would end and a town would appear in the clearing. It was an agricultural oasis. No more. The remaining citrus groves are now museums, just like the free Dole pineapple. If you can find any -- those groves were shaved off the earth decades ago to make way for the American Dream.
I still live on an island. With no natural resources of its own, we Angelenos all depend on an engine of commerce that runs on petroleum and dreams. We all try to ignore that thin thread that never seems to snap, a thread that keeps the lie of our lives dangling for yet another day.