As the ship approached Maui, I was happy to finally make it to Hawai’i. I’d always wanted to go, but I honestly had the same superficial idea of what the islands were like as anyone else who’d never been, that is to say, I didn’t know much. We anchored out in the Au’au Channel off Lahaina, and I was on the first wave of liberty boats to the beach. Whenever we made port in a new place, I’d always spend the first day exploring by myself. So I spent the afternoon wandering around Lahaina.
After a few hours of walking around, I found myself back at the old Banyan tree. I was getting hungry and wanted to find a place to eat with a view of the water. A few blocks north, I found the Lahaina Pizza Co., a rustic, open air place that smelled like pizza and, when they weren’t cooking, the ocean. It had tables against the beach front wall and a bar. The place was empty except for a couple of guys sitting at the bar. One was a Caucasian gentleman with a deep tan wearing board shorts and a tank top. The other, a Hawaiian, as far as I could tell, in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and flip flops. In his lap was a ukulele he played intermittently while they faced each other, talking.
I sat a few stools down with a slice, observing the pair. I’m instinctively curious whenever there’s an instrument in the room. The guy in the tank top noticed me paying attention whenever the silver haired Hawaiian would play something on his uke, and greeted me with an “Aloha“. I returned the aloha greeting and, turning to face me, the Hawaiian said, “come hang”, waving me over. I took up residence on an adjacent stool, and the haole said “I’m Ken”. The Hawaiian said “Rudy” extending his hand. “Alton” I said, grasping the uke player’s hand, and then Ken’s. “You want a beer?” Ken asked. I usually only drink on occasion, but not wanting to be impolite, I joined Ken and Rudy for a beer.
I wouldn’t realize it till later, but this was a special occasion, and one beer turned into 3, then into 5, then into an interesting first night out in Hawai’i. The three of us sat at the bar of the pizza place talking about life, music, the ocean, everything. There was a brief, organic pause in the conversation as we watched the sun disappear below the horizon out in the Pacific. Ken, the first to break the silence, said “it’s just about time for dinner, I know a good place down the street”, looking at me and Rudy “who’s in?” Rudy had to go to work, so me and Ken continued the evening at a place back down Front Street, across from the Banyan tree.
On the second floor of The Wharf building, the Cool Cat Cafe is another open air joint, this one specializing in burgers. As Ken and I sat at the bar, without a word, two beers materialized in front of us. When the conversation came back around to me, and Ken was reminded that I was in Maui with that big Navy ship anchored out in the harbor, he proceeded to let the staff and patrons know, one by one, that I was a sailor from the ship.
Ken had already bought all the rounds for me and Rudy back at the pizza place, but now, in the eyes of seemingly everyone in the place, my money was no longer accepted at the Cool Cat. Everyone was coming up, wanting to buy us drinks, pay for dinner and hang out and talk with Ken and I. We got on like long lost friends. Agreeing we should hang out more since I’d be on the island for a week, we exchanged numbers and said we’d hang again tomorrow.
The next day we ended up at Ken’s house, further down Front Street just across from the beach. Ken says “you surf”? I said I did not. “Wanna learn?” I said I did. So he hooked me up with a longboard and some board shorts, and we sauntered across the street for my first surfing lesson. Ken referred to himself as a “Waterman”, the first of many times I’d hear that term from him and the myriad other surfers I now know on the islands.
After a day of getting clobbered by my board, we walked the 50 yards back to Ken’s place. He had an afternoon work meeting and he invited me to tag along. The work meeting, as it happened, was with Rudy. It turned out Ken’s a luthier that builds ukuleles and guitars, some of the finest in the islands. He’s built instruments for many famous Hawaiian musicians. So Ken starts rattling off names, “do you know” Iz Kamakawiwo’ole? Rudy Aquino from Don Ho’s Ali’i? Willie “K” Kahaiali’i? Dennis Pavao? I hadn’t heard of any of these artists, except Don Ho. I learned from Ken and Rudy that they all are important to the culture of the islands, and some are even considered National treasures to the Hawaiians.
So the three of us sat in Ken’s workshop, and, over a few beers, I got a crash course in Hawaiian music. I’ll never forget the smell of Ken’s workshop, it was the perfect blend of fresh cut Koa wood and the sea breeze off the Pacific Ocean, with instruments in various stages of completion hanging from the walls and laying on the benches. As a musician, I couldn’t have designed a better introduction to the music of the islands. As it does on days like these in the islands, time got away from us again and, just like the day before, Rudy had to go to work. “What do you do anyway?” I asked. “Me and my band put on the luau down at Ka’anapali Beach Hotel, wanna come down as my guest tonight? Bring some friends.”
A few hours later, me, Ken and a few of my buddies from work were sitting at one of the fanciest hotels on Maui, honored guests at the luau everyone that comes to Maui wants to attend. It wasn’t until we started toward the beachfront area where they hold the traditional Hawai’ian celebration that I saw the sign: “Hawaiian Luau featuring the legendary Rudy Aquino of Don Ho’s Ali’ion the Sunset Stage, with a big picture of Rudy. Ali’i, by the way, is Hawaiian for “royalty”.
As it turned out, our Rudy is the Rudy Aquino that I learned about in Ken’s workshop. Everything was now falling into place in my head. No matter where we went, everyone knew Rudy and Ken. The free food and beers at Cool Cats. The Rudy Aquino that Ken referred to as a national treasure back at his workshop was sitting right next to me as he said it. My “uncle” (uncle/auntie is used as a measure of respect towards elders in the islands) Rudy, was a Hawaiian national treasure. Pretty cool.
Rudy’s luau was awesome, awash with all kinds of amazing Hawaiian food, great stories from Rudy, and of course, the music was second to none. At one point, Rudy had Ken and I stand up and introduced us as his nā hoaaloha pili (close friends) and let everyone know I was in the Navy, which earned us applause and gratitude. Later, the hula dancers, per Rudy’s orders, “shanghaied” me and my buddies into performing with them, grass skirts and all. It was a great night, and a life changing week. I’ll never forget it. It was the week I became ‘Ohana (family).
If my experiences that first time on Maui with Ken and uncle Rudy were an isolated incident, you would not be reading about it right now. But they weren’t. The more time I spend on the islands the more my ‘Ohana grows. To know that when I hear expressions like “The Spirit of Hawai’i”, or “The Aloha Spirit”, that these are not just vacant, overused marketing buzzwords used to sell vacation packages means everything. To the people of Hawai’i, among its various and equally accurate meanings, it’s how one interfaces with the natural world. It’s Ke’ aloha ‘uhane.