Molokai Now and Then
Former Coast Guard officer returns to Molokai after 40 years.
By Léo Azambuja
Visitors staying on the West End probably ponder what those white structures in the distance near Ilio Point are. Most Molokai locals know they are the ruins of an old Coast Guard Station. But very few have experienced the ghost station as much as one man who left Molokai over 40 years ago.
John Thomson was only 20-years-old when he arrived on Molokai in late 1964. He was serving the Coast Guard, stationed in Sand Island, Oahu, and was the next on the list to board a ship. Meanwhile, one of the Coast Guard officers on Molokai got into a car accident, and had to take a medical leave.
“You’re going to Molokai,” Thomson’s superiors told him. “I didn’t even know what Molokai was,” he said.
The handsome and young city boy was not a happy camper at that time. “I said no, I’m going on the ship.” To his dismay, he didn’t have a choice. However, upon arriving on Molokai he quickly changed his mind. “Once I was here I was glad, I’d rather be here than anywhere else.”
Thomson’s stay on Molokai marked his life in a way he would never imagine. “It made my youth,” said the retired policeman, who visited Molokai last October for the first time since he left, in early 1966. It has been a long time, Thomson looks different now, sporting a completely bald head and an inconspicuous post-retirement belly. But his deep affection for the island is still the same.
Thomson served in the Coast Guard on Molokai for about a year and a half, along with about a dozen other officers. They all lived at Ilio Point, in the structures that are now in ruin. “It was like our own paradise up there,” he said.
“We used to go camping between the Sheraton and Ilio point for three or four days,” Thomson said. The boys rode their motor-scooters everywhere. They had a dog that they would take to the beach with them and body surf with. The dog disappeared for a while, and when it came back it had a puppy with it.
There were about 2,500 residents on Molokai at that time. Was it ever boring for a 20-year-old city boy living on Molokai then? “There was never a dull moment.” Thomson said the Coast Guard boys made more than friends; “the people pretty much adopted us here.”
Although Molokai is still considered the last Hawaiian island, partly because there are over 60 percent of Hawaiians living here, back in those days there was an even higher percentage of Hawaiians on the island. Thomson tried to count how many haoles lived on Molokai at that time and could not remember enough of them to fill two hands.
“People were so nice to us,” Thomson said. “We could do no wrong, we were like spoiled children.”
The Coast Guard used to have a small crew stationed in Kalaupapa, where Thomson and his buddies would go down sometimes and have a luau.
Some of his friends would go goat hunting with the locals in Kalaupapa. Every once in a while, they would kill a goat and hang it on a tree to fetch it later, only to come back and find no goat. It was the work of the menehune, the locals would tell the city boys.
Once the locals took Thomson along on a boar hunt. He said they offered him a knife to stab a boar, which he quickly refused. “You think I’m going to stab a wild boar, you’re crazy,” he was thinking to himself. “I might be from the city but I know what a vicious animal looks like when I see one.”
The boys would come down almost everyday to Kaunakakai. Sometimes they would spend the whole weekend in town. “We’d come to town Friday mornings and wouldn’t go back till Monday,” Thomson remembered without holding back a good laugh. “We would all be speaking pidgin English till Wednesday.” Kaunakakai was such a laid-back town that the city boys would sleep in the post office.
Sometimes when they came in the middle of the week they would hang out in a hotel tavern that no longer exists. The owner, Mr. Pali, would close down the tavern during the week, and the boys would go in, play cards and serve themselves. They would later write down how much they owned and give it to Mr. Pali. Every once in a while a police officer would pass by and waive to them.
It’s hard to imagine Molokai slower than today. But it was. “Forty years is a long time to remember, but I still remember,” Thomson said.
The Wharf was a lot smaller. “Now there are fishing boats and everything else,” Thomson said. The jail had iron bars, but the building was made out of wood, which still pulls a good laugh out of Thomson. Most of the arrests were for occasional fights or marijuana growing. The highway ended just past Kaunakakai.
“Television here was a week behind,” Thomson said. Sunday football games were shown the following Sunday.
There was an open-air movie theater, complete with wooden bleachers. “I saw ‘The Great Train Chase’ from Charles Chaplin.” Thomson said the silent picture was one of the funniest movies he had ever seen.
The traffic and the amount of housing was a lot smaller than before. “It had to happen,” Thomson said, shrugging his shoulders.
“I’ve watched the entire mainland explode,” Thomson said. The coast of Lake Michigan “looks like all one city now, for 300 miles.” The summer homes there raised the property value for the local people. “When they (part-time residents) are paying outrageous prices for their houses, it has to raise the prices for your house,” he said.
“In the end money wins out,” Thomson said.
After over 40 years, and a lifetime ago, Thomson still has the fondest memories of Molokai.
The locals took him on a horseback ride, the first of his life, for his 21st birthday. Thomson was amazed with the views from the top of the mountains. “It was something most of the city kids never see,” he said.
There was a bar downtown that had music on the weekends, an alleyway and a small neighborhood bar that belonged to the folkloric late August Rawlins.
“August adopted us,” Thomson said. He remembers when Rawlins caught a 400 pound turtle. “The restaurant next door was serving turtle for a week after that.”
Thomson loved some of the food, but he just could not get a taste for other Hawaiian cuisine. “I only ate raw fish a couple times but couldn’t get into it,” he said. Laughing to himself, he remembered Mr. Pali sitting at his own bar and eating fish heads. “The eyes were a delicacy.”
Mr. Pali’s hotel is gone. Rawlins’ bar is gone, replaced by Mango Mart. The pineapple fields are gone, mostly replaced by GMO corn fields.
If there was one thing he could say to all of the Molokai community, Thomson would just say “thank you.” On his last day here in early 1966, almost the entire island population showed up to bid farewell to him and his fellow Coast Guard officers, according to him.
It has been over forty years since he left Molokai, but he says he dreams of returning all the time.