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Return To Hanapepe
A World War II GI Revisits Tropical Paradise on The Island of Kauai
by Charles Barnard

The main street of Hanapepe seemed about the same, I thought as I drove through, slowly, glancing left and right. Everything still had that dusty, sun-baked look I remembered, like the cowboy towns in Thirties movies.

I parked in front of an old gas station where the pumps had been ripped out; then I saw what had changed. The Aloha theatre was still there, but it was boarded shut. And the empty store that we had turned into a USO club had the same two big windows in front, but now the glass was painted white and a tricycle was overturned in the doorway. A hurricane had sliced across Kauai a few weeks before; tin roofs had been torn from many of the old buildings and from the small wooden church in the center of town. (That was where I had imagined having the wedding back in 1945.)

I left the car and walked. Hanapepe still seemed to have the right shape and form; time doesn't alter the lay of the land. The road into town still curved downhill the way it should and at the other end it made that sharp right turn over the old bridge. I could still feel the jeep skidding around that corner, its tires all loose in the dirt and us GIs laughing like crazy. We felt so good to know the war was over and we'd be going home soon. Back at Ft. Shafter, they'd told us how lucky we were to pull our last duty on Kauai. After some of the places we'd been, that was probably true. They said this was called the Garden Island. I'd never heard much about it before.

I hadn't come back just to reminisce; I wasn't trying to be nostalgic. World War II was really over, you didn't have to tell me that. I just happened to be on Kauai again, on my way from one Pacific place to another, needing a beach and some sun for a weekend. No harm looking around while I'm here, I thought; no harm remembering. I know other old soldiers who have done the same thing wherever they were: Normandy, Bataan, North Africa. How long had it been for me now? A lot of years! What—or who—could I expect to find on sleepy Kauai anyway? It was probably futile even to look . . . .

"Welcome to Waiohai, sir," the young bellman said as he lifted my bags. Then the usual question: "This your first visit to Kauai?" I said no, I'd been here before, but I didn't explain. Either I looked my age or I didn't; what the hell would this nice kid care about 1945 anyway?

I don't remember any hotels on Kauai in '45 except a couple of seaman's flophouses at Nawiliwili port. Proper tourists in Hawaii all stayed at Waikiki Beach on Oahu then, or at least they had before the war. The other islands were just beautiful places where cane and pineapples grew. The Army R&R guys kept telling us that Kauai was the most beautiful of them all, however.

Waiohai ushered me to a big, airy room with a balcony and a view of a pastel sunset behind palm trees. "Can we do anything else for you, sir?" the pretty young woman in a colorful muumuu asked after she finished her explanations of the minibar and the A/C. She was Guest Relations. I looked at her island features and long, beautiful hair and just for a blink of time, I thought she looked like Lani. Maybe not exactly, but Whoooeee! as we used to say, she sure could have been our Queen of the Island in '45.

'Anything else?' had been the question—stop daydreaming and answerit, you old coot! Yes, a car; I need a car, I said, waking. Not this evening, but tomorrow for sure. It was arranged. Next morning, I could see the misty hulk of Niihau on the horizon while I ate breakfast at the edge of Poipu Beach. I thought: this great blue ocean has looked and sounded and smelled exactly like this for the last few decades while I've been—where?

I took some fruit from the basket in my room as I left. No lunch today; there was a personal investigation to be made, certain places to see and things to find. Hanapepe and its Old West main street would be the first stop.

Kauai in '45 had been one of those odd arrangements that weren't unusual as the war came apart. Four of us who were signalmen were sent here and attached to a chemical warfare outfit. Nothing made sense, but it didn't matter. We expected to be discharged within a month and meantime there was nothing to do but explore Kauai—and fall in love with Lani. We all did.

We occupied small, 6-man barracks at a seedy camp somewhere on the edge of Hanapepe Valley, I remembered that much—also the big ammunition tunnels that were bored into the side of a red-earth canyon. If I could find those, I could locate everything else, but I didn't know where to begin. After I parked the car, I looked for someone to ask directions.

"Tunnels?" He was a Japanese-Hawaiian, a wiry little man about my age who was shoveling debris into the back of a pickup when I interrupted him. "How do you know about the tunnels?" "I was here," I said. He nodded then and told me: go over the bridge, turn right; there will be a cane field on the left and corn on the right. "After that, a dirt road goes off to the left . . . ."

The tunnels weren't there, at least I couldn't find them. I felt foolish. Why was I looking for an old abandoned army camp when I could be on the beach at the Waiohai? Or were tunnels really what I was looking for?

Lani was beautiful; what else could a 20-year-old soldier think at the end of a war? She was Miss Stereotype Pacific, the girl in all the stories: a red hibiscus blossom over one ear, hands that swooped like birds when she danced in our USO shows, a gleaming smile in a dusky face and a barefoot walk that was sexier than any produced in high heels. Of course, I wasn't the only GI who noticed these things—but I happened to be the one whose assigned duty it was to drive Lani home after work every night. Needless to say, I took this responsibility very seriously.

I came back to the main street and to the present. Even if I couldn't find the tunnels, I was still looking for directions to yesterday. I sat down on a bench in front of a garage. A sign said, "No drinking booze allowed, thanks."

A bright pink Volkswagen burst through town; it had no muffler, no bumpers and no springs. A boy was driving; a girl was with him. They were laughing as they skidded around the corner and over the bridge.

Signs that announced "Today" and "Coming" were still in place in front of the moviehouse, but the spaces under them were empty, riddled like a dartboard from years of tacking up posters. I remembered seeing "Weekend at the Waldorf" in that theatre. Van Johnson and . . .who? June Alison? I walked on. It was near noon now, the sun was straight up and there was hardly anyone in sight. When I came to what had been the USO, I found a man who looked old enough to remember things. "Yeah," he said, toothlessly, "I guess I been here about as long as anybody."

Did he know he was living in our old USO club? "I used to sit right behind that big front window and read magazines," I said. "We used to have movies and stage shows here. A girl named Lani used to dance . . ." We also had a record player, I remembered. An old song drifted back into memory: "I'll Be Seeing You In All The Old Familiar Places . . . ."

"That was all over when I got here," the man said, rubbing his hand over a two-day beard. "I only been in Hanapepe for 35 years. You can ask me 'bout almost anything, but not s'far back as World War II." I thanked him and moved on, feeling much older.

Lani was about 19, I think. She was one of our civilian telephone operators at the message center. She lived in Kekaha, a small town a few miles away. I had to endure a lot of barracks humor about being the one who drove her home.

At first, Lani was everybody's girl, that's the way she was, friendly, carefree, happy. Sometimes a whole bunch of us would take a picnic to Barking Sands beach on a Sunday. Lani's big brother would come along and show us how to bore a hole in a ripe coconut, mix rum with the milk and then bury it in the hot sand until evening.

After a few weeks, Lani and I just started having our own dates, without the others. We found all of Kauai's caves and coves together; we went to the movies at the Aloha; she tried to teach me to surf. One Sunday we even went to church with her family. I was in paradise; I was in love. I had found out what they meant by the Garden Isle. It meant Garden of Eden to me.

I peeled one of the hotel's oranges, wishing it would be a warm, rum-soaked coconut instead. I realized I'd already spent a half of a sunny day on this incoherent quest. I went back to the car and drove out of Hanapepe—but not towards the Waiohai.

The road to Kekaha is all new now; I didn't recognize anything. As I drove, I let myself reenact the night I made my big move and asked Lani to marry me: Kauai had turned this young soldier into a helpless romantic. It was as if I had written my own movie script, complete with theme song: "I'll Be Seeing You . . ." I even knew where the ceremony should take place—yes, in the white church on the main street in Hanapepe. It was all too perfect; it was going to be the last big act of my war. Had I not grown into a man overseas? Now I was going to bring home a man's prize from the Pacific!

I found the house right where it had been those years ago, still at the end of a red-dirt road, a small green bungalow with a rusty corrugated roof and a TV antenna tilting above a heavy growth of banana palms. It looked smaller than in '45 and not at all the same. There was no mailbox, no name, no one in sight. No little brother rushed out to give me a ripe papaya. A swing set was in the back yard; also an old jeep, overgrown with jungle, its windshield folded down, its tires flat. The fading US Army markings were almost gone.

No, it wasn't my jeep—and, no, we hadn't married. Lani was wiser than the returning warrior. She turned me down, gently and lovingly, as she undoubtedly had turned others down. In a few weeks, I got over the defeat, counted up enough points for my discharge and came home—to all the other, yet-to-be-experienced movie scenarios of my life.

I backed the car out of the narrow red-dirt road without attracting the attention of whoever might be living at the house now. In a few minutes I was on the highway. The distance from 1945 to the present telescoped swiftly; there was still enough sun-time left for an hour on the beach.

Whatever I had been looking for, I thought, I certainly hadn't found it. That was okay. Now I knew I wouldn't have to look for that particular piece of my life again.

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