Alan Suemori
Vol. 15, No. 18, Sept. 23, 1994

In Masashi Otsuka’s dream, he is 14 years old again, rocketing across the uplands of Moloka‘i, his ears filled with the pounding of his heart and the gallop of his favorite horse.

“I was in my prime at age 14,” says the 70-year-old Moloka‘i native. “I would chase a steer going down a hill, rope it, tie it to my saddle horn and let it drag me down the bluff. I had more guts than brains.”

Otsuka works as he talks, braiding the rawhide of a worn saddle he is mending for a friend. His hands work quickly, pulling and tugging at different straps while he searches for the right tension. “When I was a boy, you were lost if you didn’t have a horse,” he adds. “Today, if you are 14, all you think about are wahines (women). All I thought about was being a cowboy.”

Otsuka lifts the heavy saddle as if it were a sleeping child and carries it into his workshop to apply the finishing touches. Gnarled and creased from use and tanned deep brown by the sun, it is an elegant reminder of the stylish Mexican vaquero (cowboys) who were imported to Hawai‘i in the 1830s to teach Hawaiian cowboys the nuances of riding the range.

“Everything I do is a challenge because I didn’t go to school,” says Otsuka. “I played hooky all my life, so I figure if I watch and learn, maybe I can put myself in a bracket with the smart guys.”

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