THE PAPAYA TREE
By Paul Espinoza
Edited by Dux Missler
It was the summer of 1969, the summer of Woodstock, a summer that will be remembered for the variety of historic events that took place. One of them being that NASA was in the process of putting a manned flight on the moon. It wasn't the first time that they'd done such a thing; but this time was different. On this flight a man would actually walk on the moon, the first known human steps on that arid surface! It was an incredible moment in the history of man; a moment that stretched the mind and the imagination. All over the world radio and television were covering the historic event. Tens of millions of eyes and ears were focused on the actions of the heroic astronauts aboard the Apollo 11. Millions of man-hours and billions of dollars had led, over the previous decades, to this momentous occasion. The advanced technology involved to accomplish such a feat was well beyond the grasp of most and imagined by only a few. This was one event that united not only a nation, but for a brief time, the entire world.
At that very moment, on a back road on the island of Maui, I was involved in what seemed to me as an equally astounding, if not internationally intriguing, feat. A 1950 Chevy, that three friends and myself had “borrowed” to circumference the island, was well stuck in the sand along a beautiful stretch of beach. Thinking that nothing could stop the forward momentum of four adventurous lads, we had directed the car into the sand, intent on reaching the bit of dirt road that we hoped was on the other side. Looking on the bright side, we had at least answered an age-old question ... yes, the road did end. Houston, we have a problem!
It actually came as quite a surprise to find our vehicle trapped by the fine sand, engulfing a good third of each tire, and threatening to swallow more if we couldn't free her. It was our task, now, pushing and shoving, to coax the beast back onto the paved road from which we had strayed. Complicating the affair was the fact that we did not dare turn off the engine, as this particular beauty had to be push-started. A reverse gear that worked would have been a handy addition to the transmission, but, then what could we expect from a $100 steal? The method we were engaged in consisted of pushing the car slightly forward then slightly backward, until a rocking motion was created and we were able to slip rocks and large rounded chunks of coral underneath the tires for traction. At the furthest point of the car's backward motion, we would give her a hefty shove, which would move the car an inch or two in the direction of the road. In this manner the car had to be completely turned around so that we could head back in the direction from which we had come.
This particular summer the four of us, along with a handful of high school friends, had come to Hawaii to work for the Maui Pineapple Company. Nine hours a day, six days a week, we stalked the unsuspecting pineapple, shoulder to shoulder eleven across. Down the rows of prickly plants we marched in search of the ripening fruit. Filling the truck to its ten-ton capacity, the truck would then carry the pineapple back to the cannery, where it would be squeezed for juice to ship stateside. More often than not, as the truck pulled out, there was another one waiting to take its place.
The Honolua Plantation, where we were employed, was about 10 miles from the old whaling port of Lahaina and only a short walk from our own beach, which we called, appropriately, Home Beach. Regular excursions were taken into Lahaina, usually via our thumbs. And on occasion we would be aroused from sleep on a Saturday morning by a voice at the dorm window, "Boys, go Lahaina... boys?... go Lahaina?... BOYS!... GO Lahaina!" And, off we would go in the back of a truck, for an adventurous morning in the old whaling port.
After 5 or 6 weeks of intense “pine-picking” on the plantation Matt, Dux, Pat and myself had decided to take a few days on our own and venture around the island, via the coast route. It just happened that Dick had recently purchased the Chevy, and the word passed down from Pat was that it was quite all right to “borrow” the car for our adventure. It felt great to be on our own, in our “borrowed” Chevy, driving into uncharted territory. Only later did we learn that Dick's explicit "No," had been ever so slightly altered to "it's okay to take the car" by the time Pat reported back to us. So, while Dick was busy in the fields one fine morning, we hopped into the Chevy and headed into the unknown.
Subsequently here we found ourselves, the sun traveling closer to the horizon, using up our precious hours of adventuring trying to unstick a car that shouldn't have left home in the first place. After a determined amount of grunting and groaning, broken only by an appropriate bit of cursing or uncontrolled laughter, did we finally have her back on the road, ready for further adventures.
We were headed for the Haiku Chapel, on the opposite side of the island from the plantation and we were taking the long way around. We had made friends with some Christian brothers and had been invited to visit them there. There seemed to be something very natural about going to visit them, even though we were not all that involved religiously. The island seemed to bring out brotherliness in all of us and it extended to the new friends that we were making.
Stopping regularly, as we drove along the coast, to run into the warm water, we basked in the sun and felt the freedom of the islands. Eating mango and papaya and washing it down with the local beer, Primo, really made us feel as if we were in paradise. Most of the drive involved us discussing every philosophical idea we could imagine.
We had a unique style of riding in the car. While one of us drove, the other three sat on the doors, holding to the top of the car. At one point we came to an extremely steep incline. We were about three fourths of the way up the incline, when the engine just couldn't give us any more power. The only choice was to coast backwards, down the hill and try once again to conquer the small mountain. As we coasted backwards the car gained speed, until the three of us sitting on the doors shouted for the driver to slow down. The driver applied the brakes and the car began to shimmy and squeal. Then it went into a swerve and was virtually out of control. With a flurry of dust the car skidded to a halt just inches from a sharp drop. The door on which I was sitting swung open over what must have been a few hundred-foot drop, and there I sat laughing hysterically.
Later that same day, we were driving through the town of Hana, when we came to stop alongside a churchyard. The transmission of the car had a peculiar quirk to it and every so often we had to monkey around under the hood before we could get it into the proper gear. This was one of those occasions. While Matt hopped out and stuck his head under the hood, Pat and I decided it would be nice to retrieve a few of the papaya dangling from a tree in the churchyard. Figuring we had about a minute before Matt had the car in gear, I calculated that we could get the papaya and be back in the car when she was ready to roll.
The papaya tree was near a 3-foot stone wall that circled the churchyard. I could see that with a short leap from the wall, I could land myself close to the top of the tree, toss a few of the golden fruit to Pat, jump down and be back in the car in plenty of time. With a running start, I sprang to the wall and from there I flew easily to the top of the papaya tree. The weight of my body against the tree was more than I had calculated and the momentum from my jump kept the two of us, the tree and myself moving in the direction away from the wall.
A sort of dull cracking, accompanied by the whooshing of air, was followed by a loud thud as I hit the ground, the papaya tree under me and fruit spread all about the churchyard. My only thought was to get out of there as quickly as possible, before I got into any more trouble. I knew I must have broken some law; trespassing, vandalism, who knew what and I was sure that my action would not go unpunished. Perhaps I would even be thrown off the island!
In an instant I was on my feet, over the wall and back into the car. "Let's go!" I shouted and away we sped.
"What happened?" asked Matt, equally as bewildered by my apparent fright as I was by my misfortune.
"You should have seen him. He flew into the papaya tree and it broke right under him and he went flying to the ground!" Pat was doubled over with laughter as he related what he thought was a hilarious experience. I couldn't have agreed less. Dux put his hand to his chin with only a noncommittal "Hmmm."
We drove on for a bit, headed toward the jungle. It was fairly quiet in the car, except for Pat's outbursts of laughter.
I broke the silence, "I think we have to go back and tell somebody what happened."
"No way!" Pat jumped in, "Just leave it."
"I think I agree with Paul," said Matt "We can't just leave it."
"What do you mean we?" continued Pat, "You didn't do it!"
"We're all together," said Dux.
My closeness to Matt and Dux increased about a hundred fold. I had been taught that if you committed a transgression, no matter how small, you had to pay for it. I knew that I was in for some punishment, but I couldn't imagine what it would be. That scared me the most. I was a foreigner here, a mainlander. Mainlanders were not all that well liked and we had struggled to gain the acceptance of the locals ever since we first got to the island.
"I just keep thinking about the old guy who picked us up when we were hitchhiking back from Lahaina. Remember how he said that in older times if someone needed a house built, they would all get together and build it in a day. And if they wanted fruit, they would go out into the jungle and pick all that they needed? But they never harmed the trees! He said that the Haoles came over from the mainland and instead of just picking the fruit, they would tear down the trees and that it's ruining the jungle!"
By this time I was feeling pretty upset, "I feel like one of those crummy Haoles now."
Everyone was quiet, digging into there own conscience and dredging up arguments for or against going back. I was feeling pretty low, as I didn't want any trouble from the locals and I certainly didn't want to get involved with the police. Then there was the deeper feeling that I had committed a sort of rape against this island that I had come to love so dearly. I didn't want to be `another crummy Haole' from the mainland. None of us did. We felt a keen respect and admiration for the islands and the Hawaiian way of life and we wanted to show that we respected that. We had, in fact, gained a good deal of respect from the locals around the plantation, since we were working and not just hanging around the island. Now I felt that I had all but spat upon that acceptance of us. There was really only one thing to do.
"Turn around, Matt," I said. "We're going back."
"No way!" shouted Pat. "You could go to jail or something."
"It's still the right thing to do," said Matt.
"I agree," said Dux.
"You guys are crazy!" said Pat, "Think about it. You tore down that papaya tree!"
"Look I feel rotten about it, but it doesn't matter. I've got to go back. That's all."
Matt turned the car around and headed back towards Hana. I was feeling a funny mixture of guilt, fear and pride. I was, on my own, owning up to something that I had done that I felt was wrong. It was a most unusual feeling.
"We'll never make it to the chapel by dark if we go back," mumbled Pat.
"I wouldn't want to go to the chapel if I didn't do this," I said.
"It'll be alright," said Dux, a knowing smile on his face.
After a short ride we reached the churchyard. I got out of the car and walked over to where an old Japanese woman was raking up the remains of the papaya tree. I supposed she was the caretaker. She was quietly moving about the bits of branches, fruit and leaves. I swallowed and approached her.
"I..um..I..uh," I looked down at the ground, trying with all my might to wring water out of my nervous hands.
I tried again, "I..well I..uh," I couldn't say it. I didn't want to admit that I had been the one who had torn down the tree. I couldn't face it.
The old woman just stood looking at me, not grinning, not frowning, nothing. She just stood there and stared. I wished she would say something. I wished she would get angry and scold me at least. But she stood, expressionless, looking at me and waiting.
"I was the one. I broke down the papaya tree!" I blurted it out as fast as I could so that I wouldn't hesitate or stop or try not to say it. I looked about at the fruit, which lay all around me and waited for the scolding that was sure to come.
The old woman looked at me, looked at the papaya fruit, looked at the broken tree at her feet and looked back at me.
“Tree old. Trunk rotten anyway. No good." She didn't smile, she didn't frown, she just stood holding onto her rake and looking me in the eye.
"Get box," she said as she pointed to a cardboard box in the corner of the yard. "Take papaya and enjoy it. You good boy. You can have."
She pointed at me with a slightly bent finger as a smile opened up on her face, lighting it with the glow of forgiveness. I mumbled my thanks in disbelief and darted for the box. I picked up the ten or twelve pieces of fruit that lay about the yard and put them in the box. I moved the broken tree to the side of the yard, where the Japanese gardener pointed. With a smile still on her face, she turned from me and went back to her work.
I stood there, watching her and feeling the richness of the moment. I felt extremely light and glowing. A weight had been lifted and I was a friend of the island again. I hoisted the treasure of golden fruit on my shoulder and headed back for the car.
"What happened?" I was anxiously asked when I returned.
I had the biggest grin on my face as I held out one of the papaya and said, "She gave me the fruit."
Every face in the car was covered with a smile from ear to ear as we drove into the jungle night. The ocean breeze blew in through the open windows. The scent of the papaya was sweet in the air and I felt a strange belonging and closeness to the island that I have never forgotten.
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