(From November 2008)
If you want to make President-elect Barack Obama smile about something that has nothing to do with Tuesday’s election, ask him if he remembers the address of Lex Brodie’s flagship tire shop in Honolulu. He should immediately answer “701 Queen Street,” no matter how much other stuff has filled his mind since growing up in Hawaii in the 1970s. It was easier to avoid the sun on Oahu than Brodie’s low-budget commercials, which all ended with the proprietor staring stone-faced into the camera and intoning, “Thank you (pause) very much.” Maybe Barry Obama, who lived in the dense, charmless compound of high-rise apartments near the corner of Beretania and Punahou streets in downtown Honolulu, wasn’t much of a TV watcher.
We know the left-handed shooting guard is crazy about basketball, so you can be sure he can name at least three of the University of Hawaii’s “Fab Five,” who took the Hawaii Rainbows to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 1972, when Obama was 11. The all-African American starting lineup of Bob Nash, Jerome Freeman, Dwight Holiday, John Pennebacker and Al Davis were bigger stars in the Islands than Don Ho and Hilo Hattie.
I moved to Oahu with my military family in 1971, the same year Obama moved back to his birthplace after four years in Indonesia. I wonder if we were at the same Jackson 5 concert at the Honolulu International Center arena in September ’71.
Although the Aloha State has become so Mainlandized that one pundit in the ’90s called Oahu “Stockton with palm trees,” the transformation was just beginning when Obama returned to live with his maternal grandparents and attend the prestigious Punahou School. The scholastic/athletic powerhouse can boast an impressive alumni roster that includes AOL founder Steve Chase, surfing icon Gerry Lopez, professional golfer Michelle Wie and football notables Norm Chow, Mosi Tatupu and University of Texas defensive back coach Duane Akina. By most accounts, Obama was an unremarkable student.
Born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961, to a pair of University of Hawaii students – Barack Obama from Kenya and Kansas native Ann Dunham – Obama Jr. would seem to be the product of a bold and fearless union. But, racially, 1961 in the melting pot of Hawaii was not 1961 on the Mainland. In a culture where missionaries married native Hawaiians and “minorities” were the majority, the marriage of a “papolo” (black) to a “haole” (white) was not a big deal.
After divorcing Obama’s father, who left his young family to attend Harvard and then return to Kenya, Dunham married Indonesia native Lolo Soetero and moved with her son to Jakarta in 1967.
Obama moved back to Honolulu when the opportunity to attend Punahou, which has kindergarten through high school, presented itself.
His grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who would go on to become the first female vice president of the Bank of Hawaii, got Obama into Punahou on a partial scholarship. Dunham died Nov. 3 at the age of 86.
Since I’m five years older, one of seven kids, and attended public schools instead of the Pacific’s most elite private one, my experience on Oahu was no doubt different from Obama’s. But we had Ala Moana Center, then the country’s largest shopping mall, in common. That’s where you’d go to “spock da chicks” and eat at McDonald’s, which was brand-new to the Islands at the start of the ’70s.
And we also had TheBus. Nicknamed “the Fasimobile” or “Frank’s Limo” after Mayor Frank Fasi, TheBus made all of Oahu accessible to anyone with two quarters (which many kids carried in their ears). Before TheBus debuted in 1971, public transportation was a mess of private bus companies that weren’t invested in the public interest and so they aimed their rickety carriages on passenger-heavy downtown. The glistening fleet of city-owned buses changed everything.
Hawaii became part of the United States in 1959, but in the ’70s, it still felt like its own country. “Pakalolo” – marijuana – was king in the state whose biggest cash crop had nicknames like Maui Wowee and Puna Butter. The pungent odor of marijuana could be smelled everywhere: movie theaters, Waikiki sidewalks, the Kam Drive In swap meet. Obama’s admitted drug use is no surprise. Everybody in Hawaii was getting high in the ’70s.
But several militant native Hawaiian groups were also getting political. The struggle for independence from the United States – or at least some reparations – became a major issue around the time Obama was in his early teens. Perhaps most prominent was Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana formed in 1975 to protest the military using Kahoolawe, the smallest of the eight main Hawaiian Islands, for bombing practice. In a 1977 attempt to occupy uninhabited Kahoolawe by paddling his surfboard from Maui, Ohana leader (and wonderful falsetto singer) George Helm was lost at sea. But eventually, his group won, the bombing stopped, and the island and its waters today can be used only for native Hawaiian cultural and subsistence purposes.
With the native Hawaiian identity coming back to life in the 1970s, the soundtrack of this revival was headed by guitarist/singer Gabby Pahinui, who is to Hawaii what Bob Marley is to Jamaica. Suddenly, “homegrown” did not just refer to the hemp fields, but to the music scene, as the native “slack key” guitar sound was everywhere. The mellow pop sound of Island faves Cat Stevens and the Eagles, was given a local flavor by such incredibly popular groups as Country Comfort and Cecilio & Kapono, who each could sell out the 10,000-capacity Waikiki Shell three nights in a row.
The 1970s also saw a comedy boom in the Islands, with pidgin English-spoofing Booga Booga packing the Territorial Tavern nightly and even taking their act to the Mainland. In a bit the trio called “Hooray For Haolewood,” they talked about going to a swank West Coast party, but then complained there was “no mo’ macaroni salad!” True Islanders can’t be fully satiated by a meal unless they have mac salad, a staple of the plate lunch joints like Chunky’s Drive In in Obama’s old ‘hood.
I wonder if the world’s most powerful man in waiting ever said, “I like grind,” which is what locals say when they want to get something to eat.
The most famous and enduring comedy bit in Hawaii was by Booga Booga co-founder Rap Reiplinger. His “Room Service” routine, from the 1978 album “Poi Dog,” is the “Who’s on First?” of local humor, making catchphrases out of “Nuh-ting!” and “I’m gonna kerrang your allas.” The lead character is a clueless room service operator of “tita” (tough girl) descent who mangles an order of a cheeseburger, French fries and a chocolate shake.
The hilarious spoof of Hawaiian culture and language was on the radio constantly when Obama, who called himself B-Rock during those nascent years of hip hop culture, was a junior and senior in high school.
Ask Obama how the room service operator pronounced the name of Mr. Fogerty, and he’ll laugh and say “Mr. Frogtree.”
You can’t shake an upbringing in the state during the time it was also growing up. Even if you’re on your way to becoming the 44th president of the United States.