Some of the Most Valuable Life Lessons Were Learned in the Pineapple Fields of Wahiawä
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“You have to learn the value of a dollar,” Dad would tell me. Other kids in Wahiawä and the surrounding area likely heard a similar “lecture.”
It was the mid-’60s. I was 15 years old and summer vacation was fast approaching. That meant getting my first job for which I would get a real paycheck. It was my turn to take part in Wahiawä’s time-honored tradition of picking pineapple in the fields of Central O‘ahu.
Dad really didn’t have to convince me, but his advice was well taken, anyway. Like most Wahiawä kids, I knew before I turned 15 (age 16 for girls) that I was destined to spend my summers in the fields. The older kids before us had worked the fields, so it was as natural as pineapples ripening that I would, too.
My friends and I planned ahead and applied for jobs together, asking that we be assigned to the same “gang.” For Dole Food Company and the California Packing Corporation (aka Del Monte), having friends work together in a gang as summer hires was a great incentive and it worked out brilliantly.
I think most of the local kids from Leilehua High School worked the fields when they came of age — from cheerleaders to football players and shy kids to class clowns. Kids of all ethnicities. It didn’t matter where your family ranked on the socioeconomic ladder. Even some military kids from Schofield Barracks or Wheeler Air Force Base worked the fields.
My dad made his career working for Dole and it’s where I spent three summers working day and night shifts. In those three summers, I encountered a myriad of new experiences — experiences that became a formative part of my life’s story. Allow me to share a few of them with you.
$1.25 an Hour
My mom told us that the purpose of our summer job was to pay for our back-to-school clothes in September. On paydays, my check would go straight to her. That $1.25 an hour I made that first summer was enough to purchase my back-to-school clothes and give me a weekly allowance, with the remainder going into my savings account. Life was good for this 15-year-old who had never earned a paycheck before in his life. That alone was life-changing — to hold that first paycheck in my hands and really know what it took to earn it. From then on, it was what was expected of me.
“Picking pine” not only kept us off the streets and out of trouble. It brought us closer together as friends. It took teamwork, with everyone doing their job, to meet the harvest quotas that the company had set for us. The quotas could range from 15- to 20-plus truckloads a shift, depending on our assigned field.
Every gang had a luna (foreman) whose job it was to make sure that we hit our quotas. Exceeding it would earn us a bonus. It wasn’t so much the bonus that we were after, but rather the satisfaction of meeting our quota as a gang. Moreover, we didn’t want to disappoint our luna.
High school football coaches understood the team-building benefits of working the fields. A few coaches would have their teams spend their summers on Läna‘i, picking pine. It kept their players in good physical condition and they would bond as a team through hard work. It was perfect training for the upcoming football season.
My friend, Sharon Peterson Cheape of Petersons’ Upland Farm in Wahiawä, once told me, “I wish there were a mandatory Pineapple Picking 101 so today’s kids can learn what hard work is like.”
Anyone who worked the fields will tell you straight out that it is hard work. Rain or shine, day or night, you pushed yourself through an eight-hour shift.
Everyone dreaded working the “virgin” fields — the fields with the “first-year crops,” as they had never been harvested. The spiny leaves of the plant would intertwine with the woven mesh and we had to “bust line,” or break through it with our legs. Our thighs would be on fire, and by the end of our eight-hour shift, our legs were like rubber. Pineapple from first-year crops tended to be big and heavy. While you were busting line, you were bending over, snapping these monsters off of the plant and lifting them up to the boom. A twist of our wrist would remove the crown and the pine would go up the conveyer belt to the truck. When we hit a pile of ripe pine, we were doing this with both hands.
“Mongoose” was the nickname of a notorious Japanese field foreman. His job was to make sure we picked all the ripe pine in our line. On night shifts, the beam of a searching flashlight would suddenly appear out of nowhere from behind us, striking fear in us. A warning whisper would spread quickly. “Eh, Mongoose, Mongoose!” We would turn around to see if he was walking our line. If he was and he was carrying ripe pineapples, we knew we were about to catch hell. It wasn’t so much the scolding that ensued, but more the shame of being singled out for not doing our job. It’s something we never wanted to happen, not to us or to anyone else.
Luckily, I was spared Mongoose’s wrath, in part because I did my best to pick my line clean, as did my friends. But, if you were lazy and did a lousy job, you deserved to get busted by Mongoose, who was just doing his job.
An Obake Story
“You were just seeing things.” “You have a wild imagination.” “You gotta to be kidding.” Those were some of the comments heard when trying to convince someone that you had seen an obake, a ghost. On every island, people swear that they’ve seen the “night marchers.” In Wahiawä, the obake was called the “Green Lady,” and she haunted the gulch in the middle of the town.
One night, we were working an area high above Hale‘iwa on the Ko‘olau Range. To get there, we had travel the infamous “Burma Road,” which went down a long, steep road on one side of a gulch and up the other. In an open-air truck, we sat in rows on wooden planks across the bed of the truck. That was spooky enough.
The fields were made up of “blocks.” We would pick the pine on one side and then turn and pick the other side of the block. Once we finished a block, we would move on to another block. There were times when we had to walk quite a distance to the next block. The luna would count those longer walks as our 15-minute break, of which we had two per shift.
It was during a break one night that six of us were lagging far behind in the dark, away from the lights of the truck and the harvester. We were taking our time and talking story along the edge of Opae‘ula Gulch. Suddenly, to the right of us at the edge of the gulch, less than 20 yards away, a white glow rose from the ground and undulated as it got brighter and taller. It was next to a Silver Oak tree, so we instinctively turned to our left to see if lights from a truck were causing that illusion.
There was no truck in sight. We all fell dead silent. Suddenly, one us started to run. A second later, all of us picked up our feet and joined him, running full-throttle toward the lights of the harvester. It was a long run and we were out of breath by the time we reached the rest of our gang. The luna asked us what had happened and we described what we saw. No one questioned us, for they had seen the look on our faces and heard it in our voices. One of my friends had dropped his gloves; fortunately for him, the luna had an extra pair and said he didn’t have to go back and find his gloves.
That night, we picked pine in silence for the rest of our shift, keeping a wary eye out for the obake lurking at the edge of the gulch.
That wasn’t the only obake story that workers would hear. It was part of the intrigue of working the night shift. There was always a chance that you would have an encounter with the spirit world.
The Haba Haba Gang
These guys were like the speed demons of the fields. You knew they were in the next block over, gaining on you and passing you on the fly. They were known as the Haba Haba Gang. These older, unassuming Filipino men were relatively small in stature, but they were like giant field workers, eating up quotas like pieces of cake. And, they did it day after day, because earning bonuses was important to their livelihoods.
One night, they were shorthanded, so my luna had me fill in with them for the night. A chill ran down my spine, but after getting over the initial shock, I told myself that I was young and could handle it.
They were fast, so I pushed myself to keep up with them. One of the rules in the field is that when you finish a block, everyone shifts one line to the right. The line closest to the road will have the ripest pine. Eventually, it was my turn. It didn’t take long for me to start falling behind. The man next to me in the second line reached over and helped me pick my line so that I could keep up. I pushed hard and with the man’s help, I made it to dinner break.
I went to sit by myself to have my dinner when the man who had helped me called out, “Eh, young boy, come sit with us.” Somewhat hesitantly, I got up and joined their circle. Everyone had two-layer kaukau tins. The top layer held your okazu (side dishes) and the deeper bottom layer was filled with white rice. The men all placed their top layer in the middle of the circle on pieces of newspaper that had been spread out on the ground. I did the same, not wanting to offend anyone. I vividly recall that my mom had made fried chicken and kinpira gobo (braised carrot and burdock root) — my favorites. The men all started to dig into each other’s food, including mine. Not wanting to offend them, I did the same. There was bitter melon, Kalamungay (a leaf and seed pod also known as moringa) seasoned with Patis (fish sauce) and Bagoong (fermented fish) — all foods that I had heard about and feared. Their flavors were all new to me. They were strong and salty, which only made me want to eat more rice.
The famous French gastronome, Anthelme Brillat Sararin (1755-1826), said, “Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.”
Admittedly, I was sheltered in terms of food, but I felt liberated by that experience with simple home-cooked Filipino food. From then on, I wanted to explore cultures through food beyond what is found at potlucks.
I was exhausted that night, but I made it through the shift. The stamina of those men had pushed me beyond anything I had ever experienced. I was humbled that night and my respect for those men grew tenfold.
The next night, the Haba Haba Gang was again short one man. My luna approached me, saying the men had asked for me. Not fully recovered from the night before, I asked him to please find someone else. He agreed and I was spared. In a way, I felt honored that they had asked for me, thinking I had worked hard and did my best to keep up with them. Then again, maybe they just wanted to eat my mom’s delicious okazu.
Mom’s Love in a Kaukau Tin
With her young teenaged son working an eight-hour shift under the blazing sun or on a cold, rainy night, my mom put a lot of love and effort into making sure I had good okazu for my lunch or dinner — and she did it five days a week for the entire summer. She made foods that I liked, things like minute steak, fried pork chop, fried chicken or something as simple as shoyu hot dogs along with a vegetable dish. But it was that little gesture, the big red ume (pickled plum) in the middle of my rice every day, that showed me how much she cared. I would always look to see if it were there when I removed the top layer of my kaukau tin and, without fail, it was always there.
One day, a Caucasian boy, probably from a military family, came to work with us. Somehow, he did not get the job orientation and came to work without water or lunch. The luna provided him with water and, at lunchtime, he went off by himself and picked a pineapple. Our luna loaned him a knife and he started eating the warm pineapple. We felt bad for him. With the help of our luna, we contributed food from our lunches and gave it to him. He accepted it without hesitation. After all, he was hungry, just like all of us.
He didn’t show up for work the next day. It may have been too much of a culture shock, and who could blame him. After all, he was not surrounded by friends like we were.
As Dad had hoped, I did learn the value of a dollar. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, I learned many more profound lessons: that I could handle hard work in tough conditions and do my part for the greater whole. I had been thrown into the intimidating Haba Haba Gang and pushed myself so as not to weigh down those men. I had stepped out of my comfort zone out of respect and had “broken bread,” plantation-style, with another culture and generation. And, my friends and I had shared our food with a stranger who had none. For this teenager, those were valuable building blocks for my life ahead.
Even today, I reflect on how lucky I was to have grown up in a small town like Wahiawä at a time when a community’s traditions really mattered.
Dan Nakasone is a Sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional and served as a producer/researcher for PBS’ award-winning food and culture series, “Family Ingredients,” which is based in Hawai‘i and hosted by Chef Ed Kenney.