“Who would have imagined when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.”
Mishka to The Count
“One does not fulfill one’s potential…in a gilded hall…. One does it by setting forth into the vast unknown….”
The Count to Sophia
On Wednesday, November 30th, 1983, I found myself once again in a hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii, this time the Reef Towers, just off Waikiki Beach. I wasn’t there to live in the hotel but only to vacation for a week, alone. The entire trip was paid for by my boss as a “thank you” for my most successful year in real estate sales, up to that point. Grateful for this gift, I was ready to set forth again “into the vast unknown,” or at least a partially known unknown. How much had Hawaii changed in twenty-four years?
I once thought of myself as the luckiest boy in all of Hawaii. Because of the positive influences of mentors such as Charlie Higa, the artist and teacher I had met in my Napua Hotel days in 1959, and certainly because of a number of other influential teachers over the ensuing years, after my graduation from the University of Puget Sound in 1969, I became a public-school teacher.
For three years, I taught high school English and History classes. Then, in an echo of the influence Miss Tom had on me in 1959, I purposely moved “down” (I saw it as “up”) to become a 5th/6th grade teacher for seven years, the last two of which I spent as a teacher in a Gifted Child Program. Those ten years of public-school teaching were so rewarding, so enjoyable. And yet, at the end of the school year in 1979, I was only earning about $19,000 a year, not enough to live on or raise a family on.
Knowing that an economic day of reckoning was fast approaching, in the spring of 1979, while teaching what turned out to be my last class of gifted 5th/6th graders, I began studying Washington Real Estate Law, and in May I took the Washington Real Estate License test, which I passed. I tendered my resignation to the school district, and the day after I ended my teaching career, I entered my real estate career in June of 1979. It was an employment experiment that lasted for over thirty years.
The first few years turned out to be bleak times, financially, and I had to use every ounce of ingenuity I could muster to survive. But survive I did, and by 1983, I was earning double the salary I would have made as a public-school teacher. I reflected on all that personal history on board the Hawaiian Airlines jet whisking me over the Pacific, landing in Honolulu at 1:10 p.m. that November afternoon.
Within minutes of arriving at The Reef Hotel, I was unpacked, changed into beige Bermudas and a short-sleeved shirt, and with camera in hand, I was off taking pictures of Diamond Head, Waikiki Beach, downtown Honolulu, and surveying where I wanted to go out for meals on the days that followed.
Thursday morning, December 1st, I was up at dawn, walking Waikiki with my camera, before other vacationers were about. It was a magical morning, the damp-warm sand on my bare feet, waves unfurling in sibilant explosions on the beach, the soft, fragrant air smelling pink. I spent hours, wandering Waikiki and downtown Honolulu.
I returned to the hotel and put on my swimming suit and went down to the Reef’s pool to sun bathe and read. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” turned out to be an ironic choice for a Hawaiian vacation. Late in the afternoon, I returned to my room, showered, changed, and decided to treat myself to a Windjammer catamaran cruise at 6:00 p.m.
I was rewarded with golden ocean views and, looking shoreward, expansive views of Waikiki Beach, still heavily populated at sunset. After the two-hour cruise, I roamed the streets, finally settling in at a place called The Captain’s Bar where I had a few beers and listened to a talented local group playing popular covers until late in the evening.
When I lived in the Napua Hotel in 1959, the best place to meet new people was in the hotel lobby, where Charlie Higa painted in the corner near the sign-in desk almost every evening. Now, in 1983, the place to meet people wasn’t in a hotel lobby but at a place that served as a “lobby” for almost every downtown hotel, Waikiki Beach.
On Friday, December 2nd, like hundreds of other Waikiki tourists, I went to the “lobby.” With Diamond Head in the distance, before me lay oiled bodies of all shapes and sizes, colored from pale white to dark brown, almost all lying on a variegated pattern of beach towels, happily soaking up the Puckish sun’s rays on this near-winter day.
I staked out my own place to pitch my towel, sunbathe, and read more from Marquez’s book about solitude. After an hour or so, looking up, a red-headed woman near me inquired about my book. One question led to another, and soon I had moved my beach towel next to hers so that we could carry on a conversation in a normal tone of voice. The red head, maybe in her mid-40s, was with a petite brunette, maybe in her mid-30s.
“Hi, I’m Ron,” I said.
The red head responded, “Hi, I’m Phyllis, and this is my sister, Betty!” For the next hour, we engaged in a three-way conversation, with Phyllis doing most of the conversing, me coming in a close second, and Betty coming in a distant third. There is that magical thing that happens sometimes on vacation time when strangers meet, find something in common, and then form an instant bond that doesn’t usually happen in real life. But it happened with the three of us.
Among the stories I shared with them was my catamaran adventure from the night before. We all agreed it would be fun to take a catamaran cruise together the next morning, Saturday, at 9:00 a.m. on the same Windjammer cruise line. And that’s how we departed in the afternoon sun.
Saturday morning, I ate breakfast at the Waikiki Broiler, sitting outdoors on lawn furniture under the protective shade of a huge banyan tree in the courtyard. $1.99 for two pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon. I read the Honolulu Advertiser and did the morning crossword puzzle.
On my way to meet Phyllis and Betty, walking along Waikiki Beach, I overheard two older couples talking to one another, and one of the women said to the others: “There are more cars in Tillamook County—(in an aside, ‘that’s where we’re from’)—than people. And that’s a fact!”
When I got to Windjammer Cruises, there was no sign of Phyllis and Betty. I waited until the 9:00 a.m. catamaran departed, and then I departed, a little crestfallen because I was sure they had second thoughts about me. I was positive I wouldn’t see them again.
Chastened, I returned to the Reef Towers, went to my room, picked out a new book, this one “In Praise of What Persists,” and descended to the hotel pool where I watched some people diving and swimming. I snapped a few pictures, then found a deck chair.
I read two essay-chapters, one by Tess Gallagher and the other by Raymond Carver. Both were captivating in their unique ways. I wondered whether the two of them were still living together in Port Angeles when both essays were written.
Late in the afternoon, I returned to the Waikiki “lobby,” spread out my beach towel, and promptly fell asleep on the sand. When I awakened, I saw Phyllis and Betty, not fifteen feet away from me. I blurted somewhat loudly, “Hello!” and, smiling, they both moved over to sit next to me.
The three of us discovered there was a misunderstanding about the morning catamaran ride. They thought the boat ride was at 10:00 a.m., not 9:00 a.m. They thought I had given up on them! Betty suddenly remembered that she had left something back at their hotel room and announced she’d be back soon. While she was away, Phyllis confided to me that their Hawaiian vacation together was a gift from her to Betty. “Betty is dying of cancer,” Phyllis confided to me. “Please don’t tell her I shared this with you. She doesn’t have long to live.” I vowed to Phyllis I wouldn’t breath a word of it.
When Betty returned, I was so profoundly saddened I found it difficult to concentrate. Somehow the conversation turned to Unity. I told them that I had been recently introduced to the concept of Unity and that I was curious about it. Both of them were Unity members in Texas, their home. Phyllis had done some research and discovered that there was a Unity church near Diamond Head with a 9:00 a.m. service. Phyllis had a rental car, and she invited me to join them for the Sunday service.
Phyllis also suggested that after church, the three of us might take a drive to the windward side of Oahu, do some sightseeing, and then return to Honolulu via The Pali, the famous mountain pass where Kamehameha had won the battle that unified the Hawaiian Islands under his rule in 1795.
That all sounded splendid to me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Betty’s prognosis, about how healthy she looked and seemed to be, about how cruel cancer is, about how lucky I was to even be in Hawaii again, about how lucky I was to have met, by chance, these two remarkable women who were sharing such a tender time in their lives with me. As we sat there, I had been taking random beach pictures with my ever-present camera, and without them knowing it, I took a picture of Betty.
So, we agreed that they would pick me up in front of my hotel the next morning at 8:30 and we would make a full day of it, together. No longer chastened, but humbled, I walked Phyllis and Betty back to their hotel as the sun began to set on Waikiki.
Sunday turned out to be a most memorable day. We attended the Unity church service at 9:00 and afterward each of us was given a shell lei to honor us as church visitors. Phyllis drove us through a residential community called Waialae (Why-a-lai) and then on to the Kahala Hilton. This spectacular hotel sits alone on the southeastern shore of Oahu. Unlike Waikiki, here there is privacy: lush plant life; a waterfall; dolphins swimming in a marine pool with turtles and multi-colored fish. An exquisite spot.
We ate lunch in the seaside lounge, open to the gentle breezes which cooled us from the 90+-degree heat. I asked our waitress if she would take a picture of us, which she did. Betty blinked; she and Phyllis were still wearing their shell leis from Unity.
The rest of the afternoon, Phyllis was our guide. I didn’t realize that she had formerly lived on Oahu. We drove through her old residential neighborhood and even stopped at an open house where we toured a home similar to the one she had once lived in. We visited a neighborhood nursery, still run by the same Japanese man from whom she had once purchased plants for her yard.
We drove around the easternmost point of Oahu, Makapuu (Ma-ka-pu-u). From there we could see Rabbit Island and Chinaman’s Hat, two prominent rock formations off the island’s coast. Further north, we stopped across from Waimanalo Community School to buy fresh bananas from a woman standing on the back of a flatbed truck parked under a banyan tree. I walked over to the school and photographed a colorful mural portraying early island life and a traditional wedding. Hawaiian primitive art is enchanting.
Toward 4:00 on this Sunday afternoon, the island’s leeward mountains began to take on the cloudy, damp-green, melancholy look of a western Washington Sunday afternoon, that time of day that E. B. White described when little boys say, “There’s nothing doing out there.” But there was one more thing worth doing, and it happened by chance.
On a lonely hillside road, we all saw a sign that said “Art Show” and we decided to visit what turned out to be Hawaii Loa College, a small liberal arts college. We drove up the winding road to what appeared to be the campus’s main building, parked and walked up the stairs to the entrance.
Inside, one couple was just leaving the art show, so we three were the only ones there now, nearing the exhibit’s closing time. As Phyllis and Betty wandered from painting to painting, display to display, I initiated a conversation with a young, attractive Asian woman whom I had overheard tell the couple before us that she was a high school art teacher at Moana Loa High School.
“Excuse me, but have you heard of Charlie Higa?” I asked.
“I have,” she replied. “Charlie’s an art teacher at McKinley High School.”
McKinley High School was directly across the street from the Napua Hotel when we lived there in 1959. I told the woman, briefly, the story of how I had met Charlie when I was eleven years old, living at the Napua.
“I’m pretty sure that hotel is no longer there. It’s been torn down,” she said. “You know, Charlie Higa is a very famous Hawaiian artist. He was even featured in “Look” magazine as the national teacher of the year.”
I said I didn’t know that. I said I was only going to be on Oahu for a couple of more days and it would be a thrill if I could see him. She replied that Charlie had his own gallery in The Ward Warehouse Shopping Center, near Ala Moana Shopping Center. She even looked up the gallery phone number and address for me in a phone book. She wrote it all down. Such a serendipity, I thought. I thanked her.
As we drove home across The Pali, heading into the late afternoon light on the leeward side of the island, I told Phyllis and Betty the story of the Napua Hotel and Charlie Higa and the serendipity I had just experienced at the art show.
“Are you going to look him up?” Phyllis asked.
“Yes,” I replied. I realized I would probably never get this opportunity again. How could I not?
On Monday I golfed at Hawaii Kai Golf Course. That evening, I took myself out for dinner at Trattoria, an Italian restaurant an easy walk from the Reef Towers. All day and evening I kept thinking about the possibility of actually meeting up with Charlie.
On Tuesday, I took a bus to Ala Moana shopping center and shopped for everyone I felt I needed to take a present to back home in Washington. I ate a plate lunch at a Japanese restaurant, strangely called “Jon’s.” With shopping bags in hand, I nervously walked to Ward Center in hopes of finding Charlie Higa.
I found his art shop. He wasn’t in. I was asked by an overly suspicious salesman why I wanted to see Charlie. “I knew him from his Napua Hotel days,” I said.
“Oh,” he curtly replied. “Well, he’ll be here after 5:00 today.”
I took the city bus back to the Reef Towers in the early afternoon. I wondered if I would return to Ward Center. I didn’t like the idea of traveling by bus during Honolulu’s rush hour traffic. I wondered whether Charlie would even remember me, even care if he saw me. I changed into my “lobby” clothes and walked down to Waikiki Beach. I saw Phyllis and Betty, sunbathing.
“Did you find Charlie?” Phyllis enthusiastically asked as I approached.
I told them the story about Charlie not being there, him not expected back until after 5:00, and about the curt salesman who seemed to be almost jealous that I wanted to see Charlie.
“You have to go back,” Phyllis said. “We’ll take you.” And that was that.
After our last afternoon on the beach together, we returned to our rooms, changed, and they again picked me up in front of my hotel. We drove to Ward Center at 5:00. I went to Charlie’s studio. They went shopping. We agree where to meet afterward.
When I walked into Charlie’s studio, the edgy salesman was standing next to Charlie. I recognized Charlie. The salesman nodded at me and said, “He’s the guy who was looking for you.”
I walked over and introduced myself again to Charlie Higa. “I’m Ron Powers.” We shook hands. He looked at me, quizzically. I told him my story, our story, from our Napua Hotel days. He didn’t remember me.
I told him not to worry, that it didn’t matter, that I couldn’t expect him to remember a young boy from so many years ago, with the thousands of people who had come and gone during his working years at the Napua Hotel.
I told him how I had come to find him again, through meeting the Asian art teacher from Moana High School on Sunday, her giving me his studio’s address and phone number. I told him about how I remembered him painting in the Napua Hotel’s lobby, both of us listening to classical records and Broadway musicals together, about how patient he was with me in teaching me about so many things, the samurai movies, the Japanese and Cantonese dinners, more. I told him how much I appreciated the positive, gentle influence he had on my life, even how I had gone into public school teaching for ten years because I wanted to be like him and other teachers who had influenced me.
Standing there talking, holding my camera, I asked if I could take a picture of him.
I took several pictures of him outside his studio. I even got him to smile in one.
In this studio filled with his own paintings and sculptures, I asked if he had a special place where he kept his paintings from his Napua Hotel days. He said “Yes,” and took me to a large stack of watercolor paintings in a studio corner. We went through the paintings, one at a time. He began to talk with me, sounding more comfortable, more like the Charlie I remembered.
As we were going through the paintings, I paused at one he had done of the windward side of the island, an impressionistic landscape with deep purples, soft blues, grays, warm browns. I told him I remembered him painting that one in particular.
It was a large stack. He was very patient pulling out each painting until we had completed the stack, looking at them all.
I said I had to go. I thanked him again. I gave him my business card. He asked me to wait, and he walked back to the stack of watercolors we had just looked through. He took out the painting of the windward side of the island that I had most remembered and gave it to his assistant, the curt one, and asked him to roll it up and wrap it carefully.
“I want to give this to you,” he said.
“Oh Charlie, you don’t need to do that,” I said. “Let me at least pay you for it.”
He wouldn’t let me. He said, “You know, when things like this happen, it makes me feel that my life has been worthwhile, that it has mattered…” and his voice trailed off. My eyes watered. I couldn’t talk. Holding the rolled-up painting in one hand, I raised my other hand in appreciation and left, never to see him again. I rode home in silence with Phyllis and Betty. Seeing me with the rolled-up painting, somehow, they knew.
To this day, when I look at this painting of the windward side of Oahu hanging in our home, it is never lost on me that its existence is a result of a concatenation of events that happened to me, not because of me: my mother’s second marriage to an enlisted navy man who just happened to be assigned duty on a ship stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; an extended hotel stay, planned sight unseen, for a Honolulu hotel built in 1898; a young art teacher, hired by his sister, to work at that same hotel; a Hawaiian vacation trip, given as a gift; a chance meeting of two sisters on a Hawaiian beach, one dying, one trying to help her; a chance conversation about Unity church; a spontaneous trip to the windward side of Oahu; a chance encounter at an art show. My part in all this? Asking a question: Have you heard of Charlie Higa?
When Phyllis and Betty dropped me off at my hotel, I thought I would see them again before I flew home the next day, December 7th. My plane didn’t depart until 3:15 p.m. When I awakened that Wednesday morning, I took one more long walk with my camera up and down Waikiki. I wanted to squeeze as many last memories as I could into the morning hours and into my camera. I looked for Phyllis and Betty on the beach, but for once they weren’t there.
A driver was coming to pick me up at my hotel around noon. When I finally returned to my room, I didn’t have much time left, so I called them at their hotel. I spoke with both of them, giving my thanks, telling them how much they had both meant to me on this trip, hoping that our paths would cross again. Somehow, in the haste of our good byes, we forgot to exchange phone numbers or addresses.
I never saw Phyllis or Betty again, except in the three pictures I’ve shared here.
The flight home departed on time. I kept a journal during my entire Hawaiian stay, and I finished writing in it, according to the spiral blue notebook I’m now looking at and have been referring to throughout the writing of this essay, about one-half hour before we touched down. One of the last sentences I wrote in it was this: “I sense a change in my immediate future.”
Just before Christmas, 1983, I received a letter at my real estate office in a legal-sized envelope from a C. Higa, postmarked December 9, 1983. I looked at the envelope anxiously and carefully opened it. Here, in its entirety, is that letter:
“Dear Ron 12/8/83
I remember! Ohhh—if you were only here! I guess it was your eyes and full cheeks—they’re still the same! I felt terrible for not being able to remember you when you were here—it pondered on my mind and I continually asked myself how could I have forgotten this young man whom I made such an impression upon in my Na Pua Hotel days? Perhaps it was this young man who so suddenly appeared out of my past with such vivid memories and excitement in finding me, my surprise at what was being said and what was taking place, my embarrassment for not being able to remember anything and the static going on in the shop that prevented my aging mind to recapture the past which played an important part of your life. But in the quiet and lonely apartment, alone and unhampered from the traffic of events that plague me daily, I remember a beautiful young man, well-mannered, intelligent and quite alert at what was going on around him. I also remember how well-behaved he and his sisters were which was the main reason I befriended them, for not many children that came to stay at Napua Hotel displayed such unusual exemplary behavior. I also recalled how attractive your mother was and admired her for having reared such beautiful children! I do not remember taking you to the samurai movies, but give me time; the years have taken a toll on my memory. In your last good bye and thanks, my past recalled vaguely your eyes…I drew them once and it was just a matter of time from then on my recollection of you began. Forgive me for not responding so quickly, but it hurt me deeply that I could not, for the love of God, respond to your enthusiasm and excitement in finding me.
Let me go on to say that it touched me very deeply in all what you said; I was dumb-founded, elated, honored and also embarrassed—a curious mixture of emotions and feelings went through me during your brief visit. I only hope at this writing that your return visit to those years that you treasured for so long was not a disappointment. Had I not been so preoccupied in trying to recall the past, we could have spent a few hours together, or had not your trip been so short, spend some time together visiting your days of your youth in the islands. At this writing, I have not yet seen my sisters to mention this extraordinary visit of a former Na Pua Hotel guest, but I’m sure they will be enthralled over your remembrance and regards for them.
Take care of yourself and thank you for bestowing one of the greatest honors that I have ever received in my life—
Aloha, Charlie Higa”
The door was closed. I was alone. I sat at my desk in unexpected awe, gratified that Charlie had made the connections. He remembered me. He knew who I was. That made my compliments to him more complete, more significant. He deserved that.
Charlie Higa was born on February 1, 1933, which means that when I met him at the Napua Hotel in February of 1959 he had just turned twenty-six years old. When we met again at his studio in Honolulu, he was fifty-years-old.
After reading “A Gentleman In Moscow,” when I began thinking about how that novel inspired me to reconsider my time at the Napua Hotel and my relationship with Charlie, I decided to search the internet to look for him. I found these pictures. The first is from a McKinley High School year book, taken shortly after I met Charlie. The second one was taken a few years after our meeting at his studio. The third was taken just before his death.
Charlie Higa passed away on July 8, 2012, in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was seventy-nine years old. His obituary says, “He was a noted and accomplished water color and ceramic artist with exhibitions in Hawaii, several mainland locations, Berlin, Germany, Victoria, Canada, and Naha, Okinawa.”
The obituary goes on to say, “Mr. Higa believed that environment and people inspired his art…He tried to capture the spirit of the East and the structure of West in his work…His guidance, humor, and wisdom will be missed.”
He is missed.