I went for a walk in Waikiki last evening. As I stood at an intersection, awaiting a green light to cross the road, I picked up a scent. At first, I didn’t pay any attention to it. Then, I chuckled and turned in search of its source.
“I thought I smelled a cigar,” I said to the man standing about 20 feet away. What hair remained on his head was white, matching his mustache. If I believed in such things, I’d take this man for a reincarnation of that bastard Mark Twain. Even though he had reddish-brown hair when in Hawai‘i, Twain’s more known for his shocking white mane and wiggly-white caterpillar across his upper lip. And he smoked cigars throughout his life at a rate that rivaled the vog put out by Pele over at Kīlauea on Big Island.
“I like to say it’s my only vice,” the man said. “Other than lying about my vices.”
I smiled and walked on. Then, stopped to make a note of his very Twainian comment.
So, it’s here. The day has arrived. March 18, 2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Mark Twain’s arrival in Hawai‘i. I’m probably the only person in the world marking the occasion. Except for the handful of people I’ve told over the past few days, I don’t think anyone else even knows. There is no parade through Waikiki, closing down Kalakaua Avenue, the main drag. Not like yesterday for St. Patrick’s Day. There is no mayoral proclamation of March 18 as, “Mark Twain Day”
And that’s fine with me. I like keeping the secret as I walk Waikiki Beach.
We all know that 150 years could not have passed without change. So, yes, the place looks a little different. A lot different. But believe it or not, some things still remain.
There’s Diamond Head. Earlier this week, I sat in its shadow and talked about its magnificence with journalist and author Denby Fawcett, whose most recent book recounts the history of Hawai‘i’s famed landmark.
There’s Nu`uanu Pali, site of a famous battle and the loss of a great many warriors’ lives. Believe it or not, talk of a tunnel through the mountain started as far back as 1852, some fourteen years before Twain’s arrival. But it would take more than 100 years before an actual tunnel would connect Honolulu with Kailua and Kaneohe on the Windward side of O‘ahu. I met with author Van James at the ruins of a nearby palace built in 1847 as a summer home for King Kamehameha III. Based on this note in one of Twain’s extant notebooks, he may have walked the grounds: “Rode out this morning to palace of late King Kam IV, in Nuuana [sic] Valley—very fine grounds.”
There’s the Royal Mausoleum at Mauna `Ala. During the time of Twain’s visit, he witnessed the extended outpouring of grief from the Hawaiian community after the death of Princess Kamamalu, and he followed her elaborate funeral procession to her final resting place. I’ll visit Mauna `Ala today.
Of course, the people Twain met while he was here are long dead. But there are still some descendants around. I met one. His great, great, great aunt sat on Twain’s lap as a child. Twain tugged her ears and made her recite nursery rhymes. And when Twain got to telling his own stories, they were so laced with profanity that the little girl’s parents stuffed her ears with cotton.
Twain’s closest friend from Hawai‘i may have been a missionary man, strange at that may sound. At the time, Twain was a bachelor. In San Francisco, he led a bit of a raucous life. But in Honolulu, he befriended a chaplain. They got along so well that when Twain published a collection of essays a year later, he sent “Father Damon” a copy. A decade later, when another book of essays was published, Twain sent Father Damon a copy of that one, too. One of which, as of 1947, was still among the library left by the tolerant missionary.
I’m trying to find that book. Plus, I’m going to make a visit to Father Damon’s grave today, and maybe he’ll tell me everything I don’t know about why I feel the need to Track Twain around Hawaii. What I do know is that 150 years ago today, Mark Twain’s life changed forevermore.
We all have days like that. We all have vices, too.