Skip to main content

Kahele, Robert (Part 3)

Waipi‘o: Māno Wai, An Oral History Collection by The University of Hawai‘i Ethnic Studies Program

Robert Kahele, Hawaiian, was born on May 1, 1917 in Honoka‘a. Since the family lived in Waimanu Valley, Robert and his mother went back to Waimanu shortly after his birth. He spent about four years in Waimanu before moving to Waipi‘o for one year. From Waipi‘o, the Kaheles moved to Kukuihaele. Robert grew up speaking Hawaiian and English. Robert finished the eighth grade at Kukuihaele School. His father died when he was about 12, so Robert became, “the man of the house,” responsible for harvesting taro and pounding poi for the family. After the eighth grade he took a job with the plantation for two years. At age 18 he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Waimea. After a year and a half there, he worked for a Pa‘auilo transportation company. Then he served four and a half years in the military on O‘ahu. Robert returned home to Kukuihaele in about 1946. He worked two years for the County, but because he sought freedom and independence, he started farming taro in Waipi‘o. About seven years ago (1970) Robert moved back into Waipi‘o Valley where he farms taro—right next to his hanai brother Joe Kala’s patches.

In 1978, Vivien Lee and Yukie Yoshinaga-Solmoiraghi from the University of Hawaiʻi’s Ethnic Studies program interviewed Waipiʻo residents for an oral history project called Waipiʻo: Māno Wai. Robert Kahele’s interview is included in Volume 1 of this published project.

VL: This is an interview with Robert Kahele. Today is June 4, 1978. We’re at his home in Waipi‘o Valley. We were talking about how school was. Can you describe how the teachers taught you? This would be at Waipi‘o or Kukuihaele.

RK: Kukuihaele, yeah. Well, the teachers in those days, were . . . . If I think back, making comparison with now days, I think they were really up to par. I mean, they really got into all the kids. They tried their best to teach the kids. Whereas now, it’s almost like teaching the mass, you know. But those days, they went more to the individual. Like kids. Those that were slow, they had time for the slower ones. And we really learned; they were pretty strict. But then again, I appreciate. Like, being strict made us learn something that . . . I don’t think I have any regrets having those teachers.

VL: In what way were they strict?

RK: Like in discipline. The kids were well disciplined, those days. And like, we were given homework. And then the teachers made sure that you came and when you came to school next day, you brought your homework along. They didn’t just say, you go ahead and make your homework and then just glance at it. Those days, they were really good. They check individual papers, homework papers. They didn’t just pass you by just because you were slow.

VL: If you were slow, would you stay after the class was pau to get individual attention?

RK: Yeah. Uh huh.

VL: Do you remember about how many people were in your class? How many kids?

RK: Yeah. I think there were about 40 in a class. But because of the kids being well disciplined, the teacher was able to take care of all 40 pupils.

VL: What if one of them didn’t do their homework or was being rowdy or something? What would the teacher do?

RK: Well, that would be a case where the teacher has to do something with that, you know. Probably get in contact with the parents. And in those days, the parents were more like, they would sort of wager to have the kids learning. So any time the teacher sends a note back to the parents, the parents and the teacher would get together. Not like this PTA thing, the whole parents, but individual parents being brought to the attention. Your parents kids, you know, the teachers bring that about.

VL: Did the teachers use rulers or sticks to hit you on the knuckles?

RK: Yeah. I mean, that was one method of . . . probably giving out discipline you know. That’s what I meant when I said could be strict, those days. They were stricter those days. Scolding maybe. But the whack with the yardstick or the pointer, no usually the boys had that. And so, I remember that it was one of the best ways, I think. I still think that the old saying, that if you want to spoil the kid, then you don’t have to use the method of discipline.

YY: Were there other factors, besides the discipline in school that shaped your character?

RK: Yeah, although I didn’t realize it then. But usually, there was this someone who has gone before us, who struggled all the way through school and made something of himself. That was projected to us; you know how kids before our time used to go to school. And that’s why we like to leave that example.

(Interview interrupted)

VL: Oh, so we were talking about they bring up examples for you to follow.

RK: Yeah. One teacher who really inspired me was John Thomas. In school and outside of the school, he used to inspire me about going to more higher education. In fact, he offered me help by financing my way to school. So, having people like that really inspires one too. But then, my parents were quite poor so we didn’t have the means of . . . I mean, if I was that good, I probably would have taken up the offer. And he starts telling me about his life too. Like, he only went to normal school. Or Lahainaluna High School. He came back teaching, and every summer he would be going, go back to school. Learn some more and come back school. Which made him like . . . because you want to follow in his footsteps, you know. A good example of how one acquires education.

VL: What kind of money would you have needed for ninth grade on?

RK: See, the thing was they wanted to send me to some school in Honolulu. Oh, probably like Kamehameha Schools. And I guess you needed money for clothing and board and so forth. I don’t know how but he was willing to offer me that kind of help. Just listening to him is really inspiring, like, I figured, he was Hawaiian and I’m Hawaiian. See, I really wanted to get somewheres like him. But then again, I figure like, this is his thing about kids not wanting to go to school. And at that age, I rather like, “I think I can go to work.” I making that decision because, well my parents left the decision up to me. My one thought was, if I could help my parents by going out to work at an early age. Those days, you didn’t have these child labor laws restricting you. As soon as I came out of the eighth grade, I start working for the plantation. Of course, our working hours were shorter than the grownups. But still, this was work that had to be done in order to support my family. But school was really, I mean, you don’t realize it until now. In your later years, you think, “Gee, I wish I continued going to school.” Because probably you could get somewhere. But then again, would I be happy doing something else besides what I wanted to do here? That’s one thing, probably I made the decision little bit too early, but it worked out alright for me. So that’s why I do a lot of this reading and all, to catch up with those days that I was working in the cane fields, you know.

VL: What kind of stuff do you read now?

RK: Oh, usually things like psychic, mostly . . . that’s something that, I mean, it’s like . . . probably I’m tampering too much with space and time. But I like because I’m interested in those things. Of course once in a while, I come to those historical books that has very little bearing on what my mind is set on. Like usually, if I’m put in a situation where I’m made to look like a fool. Let me explain what I mean by that. There was this one case, like in World War II, I was in Honolulu. I went to the Honolulu Art Gallery. And we were looking at the paintings inside there. And on one section of that gallery there was these abstract paintings, you know. And when we got there, me and my friend, he said, “Does this abstract painting make any sense to you?” I said, “No, they just like, you know, colors.” He said, “Oh, it makes sense. People paint those things because it makes sense to them. But if doesn’t make sense to you, you try do this. Bend over and look between your knees. Look at the picture from between your knees.” And with me, like being, what would be the best thing to use is “country Jack” I did just that. I was being little bit brash, or what. I started doing that. And all of a sudden, I felt a pat on my shoulder. He [art gallery guard] says, “You don’t appreciate this abstract paintings in here. How about a walk around the block.” That was the most embarrassing moment. And I figured my friend he would have kneeled over laughing. So I walk out to the car and I stood there for a while. I just went like, I don’t know what I’m going to do, you know. So embarrassing, I didn’t want to stay there. I wanted to get out of there. But quite a while after that, I made up my mind. I would, someday, learn to interpret this abstract. And by----if you want to learn these things, you have to go do something more deep. By learning something about handwriting, learning something about that person’s personality can be reflected in that painting. And once you go there, that painting is able to project within your mind is more on the psychic level. You are able to grasp on the projection. And you can make something out of this abstract. So when I came up from there, that’s when I get into this more. In other words, just trying to grasp the feeling of the one who painted this. After going through that, I’m not a critic, you know, on these abstract things. But at least so I can just sense the personality that painted that picture. The person who painted that picture, just what he’s going through, his emotions. That’s what I mean. When I’m up to something, I feel I’ve been blocked or something that comes out that really makes me, I’m going to, determined, you know. Or otherwise, I’ll just float with it. That’s why I took up psychic thing, like learning about these psychics. That’s why my mind got challenged, determined to find out what it is beyond, beyond the human vision.

YY: And can you relate this to living in Waipi‘o?

RK: Yeah, Uh huh. See, if there’s a reason for taking up those things like that, it’s because I found it here. It’s quiet, it doesn’t distract your mind, and you really can get into it. And when you do your reading, it’s almost like you catching up with the education that you lacked when you were young. It gives up more knowledge, more insight, more everything, as far as school went. I didn’t have those things in school. I wouldn’t have understood probably even the high school level. I wouldn’t have asked them about psychic learning. But, see, that’s the only thing I found in Waipi‘o. Even I didn’t go that much schooling, but by reading, I sort of became, like self taught. I would have taken up like, probably English or something like that. Facing the people that I meet, mostly, well, they can let pidgins out too, just as good as me. So why go for eagles when you can talk pidgin. So abandon English.

VL: Did you ever think of not living in Waipi‘o? Did you ever think of moving away permanently?

RK: No. I maybe moving from one part of the valley to the other. But it has to be Waip‘o. That’s the way. I like Waipi‘o that much.

YY: You said that you found it here. Can you expand on what that means?

RK: Yeah. I mean, the whole thing about me, building me. About learning. I sort of get it all here, in my later years.

YY: I mean, how does this space, this valley, with these walls, affect you?

RK: First of all, my wanting to stay down here is peace and quiet. Nothing too advance, as far as business goes, or whatever. I’m not trying to make some sort of a, get into some kind of business, or what. I just want peace and quiet. And because I found peace and quiet here, it sort of changed my life. I began to realize people are not different from me, although they have their own set ways, because probably parental guidance or cultural upbringing or whatever background. In a state of mind, like you’d be you want peace and quiet. You could almost like sense, you just listen. You don’t have to talk, you just listen to that person talk. And then you really know his speed. You know what I mean, the speed is like what that person thinks and what he wants he wants to get done or whatever. I like the peace and quiet because it makes me feel like I am that person too, not all by myself. I am that person. This has a lot to do with more on the, probably on the spiritual side. That’s why I like Waipi‘o. I can get into the spiritual, the psychic, or whatever you want to call it.

VL: When you were in Honolulu, during your time in the Army, with bright lights and everything . . .

RK: No, I didn’t have this thing about . . . was me, me alone those days. And what I did was like if I could burn the candle at both ends, I would.

VL: So why did you come back?

RK: I don’t know. After the Army, I still had to come back and try to still help my family out. Well, now, it’s not that much family around. I’m just one, Joe [Kala—Robert’s cousin and hanai brother] is one, so we just working our way. I guess that’s when we could find peace. Just by yourself.

VL: Was this just in recent years that you felt this way?

RK: Yeah. Very recent, yeah.

VL: So prior to that, did you ever have the urge to leave Waipi‘o?

RK: Oh yeah. Lot of times. I didn’t think Waipi‘o had anything to offer. Like, I was more like wanting to see places and any kind, but you could call it I’m probably more settled now. Moving around doesn’t mean that I have to get out of the valley. I probably move the other side and still be in Waipi‘o. That’s how much I like Waipi‘o.

VL: But you always did stay, even though you wanted to go sometimes?

RK: Yeah. Uh huh.

VL: Why was that?

RK: I don’t know. It’s because probably I found things here that was easy with me. Like where else would you be finding, like in big city, everything has to be bought. Most of your needs has to be with money. Down here, probably part of what you need is already here. All you have to do probably dig down in that soil and you get what you need. But Waipi‘o has a lot to give. And I wouldn’t know how to live outside of Waipi‘o. You have to be like somebody up in the middle bracket to be living in town. Whereas down here, you don’t need to be that. You don’t need to have that much.

VL: So is it that living was pretty easy down here and that’s what kept you here those years that you may have wanted to travel or leave?

RK: Not only that easy life. Like I said, there was peace down here. That was my one thing too, peace. We have nobody here, somebody bumping off other people. That’s the kind of peace I want. Because, to me, every life is worthwhile, regardless of what that person does. If it wasn’t worth a plugged nickel, he wouldn’t be living. But because he was worth something, so he lived. And who am I to take his life? But then, if you’re a really disturbed person, mentally disturbed, spiritually disturbed, you probably could do those things. You know, take people’s lives without feelings. Or, probably just to make a fast buck. I mean, living off the peoples’ blood is almost like a crime itself. Even though you are not involved in it, but the money that you get from it. So you can’t find peace in a place like that. People living off other people’s blood and sweat.

VL: What do you mean, “living off other people’s blood and sweat?”

RK: Like all this syndicate and all these things happening now. I don’t know whether it’s good money or what. Well, I see that as blood money. Somebody sweated for that money. And probably somebody had to bleed for that money. And I can’t see living in a place like that.

VL: Do you mean to say that Waipi‘o has never had any kind of conflict between people in the valley?

RK: No. After I been down here, finding myself down here, I haven’t come across things like crime being committed down here. And that’s all I know about this place.

VL: How about the past, when you came back after the Army?

RK: Even then, I didn’t hear about crime going on down here. Maybe our people down here were peaceful.

VL: About how old were you when your mother’s parents died?

RK: I was about four, I think. Between four and five, or something like that. That was my grandmother that died, about 101. I was about four or five.

VL: In general, do you remember what happened with older people that couldn’t do things for themselves anymore?

RK: My grandmother, up to the time of her death, she was doing things by herself. Like my grandfather, when he passed away, he passed away about 98. Well, I didn’t have any idea whether he was sick or what because I wasn’t with him most of the time. I spent most of my time in Kukuihaele, see. So I didn’t see when my grandfather passed away. I didn’t know whether he was sick or what. Like my grandmother, yeah, I seen. Like she was still walking around.

VL: When you lived in Kukuihaele [approx.1921–1934], did your family all eat dinner together at one time?

RK: Yeah. Like . . . oh yeah, that’s one thing, when everything was set on the table and you were called to come to dinner, if you weren’t there because you were on, probably, some errand like that, there was always a portion of the dinner reserved for you. But if you go out, like just run away, go have fun like that, you come back you cook your own because nobody’s going to save food for you. But if you on an errand and they know how important the errand is, they keep a portion of your dinner for you when you come back. So next time, when dinner time, you make sure you be around because otherwise nobody going to keep dinner for you.

VL: When it was dinner time, would you folks talk?

RK: Oh yeah. Dinner would mean like, oh, would bring out the day’s events . . . What happened during the day. That sort of made the food go down much easier, you know, talk story.

VL: How about poi? Was that a . . .

RK: Staple. Very much a part of the Hawaiian staple.

VL: How was it served? Did you have your own bowl?

RK: Oh no. We had family bowl, community bowl like. And gradually, yeah, you went to people’s houses, those that had like glass bowls. And they have this dipper where you put your own poi inside your own bowl. That was quite far removed from the way the old Hawaiians used to eat.

VL: When did that start changing?

RK: Gosh, I don’t know. Maybe some of Hawaiians go down to the big town, and come back see how many dishes on the table when they eating nine-course dinner. Probably that’s what gave them the ides that I think one community bowl but everybody has to dig the poi in their own small bowl. So probably they got the idea from town, going in the big city and looking around and see. But actually, in the country, that was the last place to change their way of eating.

VL: When did it change?

RK: I don’t really know?

VL: Did your family ever change over too?

RK: No, not while we were living, no. But when I went Honolulu [during World War II], that’s when I saw. Because I didn’t know poi had to be scooped up. I don’t know what the hell is the difference between . . . that’s just like chopsticks. You get a pile of cucumber there. You take with chopsticks, dip it and then, this is the same thing.

VL: If someone had a cold or something, if they were sick, would they still eat out of the community poi bowl?

RK: No. When you feel sick, you stay in the sick bed. You being fed by some of your family members. You don’t come to the table. That doesn’t mean the community bowl, the guy is sick, go in join inside there too. No, you stay in the sick bed and you’d be served food in bed.

YY: What did the community poi bowl mean to you?

RK: To me, it meant the big bowl where everybody dig in. Yeah, the family members. That’s what’s the community bowl is to me. Like if you went to parties like that, would be like, you couldn’t have the bowl here and then you’d be sitting at one end of the table. So they had these different containers set at the different part of the table. And those days, you had some sort of a bowl, calabash bowl or coconut, whatever. You have to put your own poi inside there, see. But at home, no, we just have about five or six members just go inside that bowl. Even if you had to climb over me and get that poi, you just reach over.

VL: And did you use spoons?

RK: Yeah, we had spoons, those days. So we looked sort of dignified with it. And, well, the spoon made quite a lot of impressions. Afterwards I just look at it, people who eat with their fingers, like they ought to be eating from their own bowl, you know.

VL: After you came back from Honolulu, after you were finished with the Army, 1945, where did you live?

RK: I stayed up in Kukuihaele for a while anyway. Then I came back down here.

VL: And you live with your uncle Solomon [Kala—Joe Kala’s father]?

RK: No. Oh, you mean coming back down here? Yeah. I stayed down the beach with my uncle.

VL: Who else lived in the house with you?

RK: Just my uncle and my nephew Kenny Eskaran. And once in a while, Kenny’s parents might come down and stay down the valley. Actually, they were staying up in Kapulena, working for the plantation.

VL: Now, also when you were growing up, and in this case, with Eskaran how did you feel to have your cousin Joe [Kala] come live with you and your brother John go live with your uncle?

RK: To me, I didn’t make much difference to me because . . . it probably made a difference to my uncle, my other relatives. But to me, it didn’t make much difference. If Joe wanted to come stay with us, he could. ’Cause after all, he was like hanai, eh, to my mother. And my older brother, if he like stay with my uncle, he would stay with his favorite uncle, like the one that used to sort of took care of him too. You know, you always had that favorite uncle, favorite aunt or something. Well, he usually stays with him. But I have no qualms about where they go and who they stay with. Unless they stay with outsiders, no relation to us. Then I would say why, I start asking myself, “Why?”

YY: But otherwise, all your relatives were just considered family?

RK: Family. Yeah. The thing is, like the Kalas and the Kaheles, we had this inter-marriage. Like two sisters from this Hahele would marry the two brothers from the Kala. And the two sisters from the Kala would marry the two brothers from the Kahele. That’s how the marriage went. So whatever way you looked, you just saw solid Kala the solid Kahele. That’s how.

VL: When you were living with your uncle Solomon, did you folks grow taro?

RK: Yeah, we had taro.

VL: For home use?

RK: For home use and whatever over, we could sell ’em. But I was working for old man Araki, then. He had his farm down the beach, and he had this farm down the beach, he also had that taro land. So, I was working with him.

VL: So where was you own taro, then?

RK: I didn’t have. I didn’t have any taro patches that time.

VL: I mean for your home use?

RK: Oh, was up in Kukuihaele. But down here, no. The one we use down here for home use, that’s my uncle’s taro field. Yeah, my uncle used to have a patch where if we needed poi, he had available taro all the time. But when I was working with Araki, I used to come in the morning and eat breakfast with Araki. Lunch there and dinner there. So I had three meals a day, plus my labor pay, about dollar and a half a day. It wasn’t bad I mean.

VL: And the kind of taro that your uncle grew, what variety was it?

RK: ‘Āpi‘i. He had two kinds, white ‘āpi‘i and the uaua. While I was working with Araki, mostly my regular staple would be rice and salmon and poi. And poi sort of made me, I mean, when you working, poi sort of made me lazy. And then afterward I had rice, was good. Like light food would make me heavy.

VL: When you were living down here with your uncle [after World War II], did you ever participate in community celebrations like July fourth?

RK: Yeah. We had several of these celebrations, when the school was still open. July fourth, Christmas and New Years, and 11 June [Kamehameha Day] would be some of the best holidays. Like everybody came out in their finest get-up. Like neckties with short pants.

VL: I guess this was when you were living up Kukuihaele then?

RK: No, down here. I used to stay down here with my aunt, once in a while. Like stay up in Kukuihaele and come down stay with my aunt. And we had almost like free movement among my relatives.

VL: So when you were down here with your uncle, who would you hang around with?

RK: Mostly with my cousins. Other than that, maybe my school mates come down and I play with them.