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Kirby Wright

 

The British War Medal

 

My big brother Ben and I visited our hapa haole grandmother every summer on Moloka’i. Her ranch began at the ocean and extended up to the skyline – it recognized the same boundaries of earth, water, and sky that King Kamehameha used when dividing up the island for his chiefs. Ben and I were on the beach taking pot shots at crabs with his BB rifle when Gramma stuck her head out of one of the open storm windows on her lanai.

"Boys," Gramma called, "come inside!"

Ben lowered his gun. "What for?"

"Yoah Uncle Chippah’s on television!"

Ben and I raced to the living room, where we watched black-and-white footage of soldiers charging off a boat into the surf. They carried long rifles with fixed bayonets and there was no sound except the voice of the narrator.

"Is that Waikiki?" Ben asked.

"Waikiki, my foot," Gramma said, "that’s Gallipoli."

"Where’s Uncle Chipper?" I asked as the last man entered the water.

"Christ, Peanut," Gramma said, "Chippah was the third fullah off. Didn’t yah see him?"

I looked over at Ben for help. I could tell he’d missed him too. I was expecting an old man in the ranks of the young.

I have always felt bad for not recognizing him in that clip. It was Gramma’s chance to make her husband Chipper a hero in our eyes. We called him "uncle" because he wasn’t our real grandfather. After he’d divorced Gramma, she’d given him a life estate on an acre between her dump and the mangrove swamp.

Gramma said Uncle Chipper didn’t have to fight. He wasn’t drafted. The great Duke Kahanamoku didn’t fight and nobody in the islands held that against him. Chipper volunteered for The Great War because he thought the Allies could use his help. The English were so impressed with his bravery that they awarded him their British War Medal.

"Did Uncle Chipper fight with Daddy?" I asked Gramma.

"That was a different war."

"But who killed the most men?"

"Chippah."

I remember the British War Medal. It was round and silver and dangled from a ribbon on Chipper’s living room wall. The light from his bay window ignited the silver. The side facing out showed Saint George riding a prancing stallion and one of the stallion’s hooves was crushing a German shield. For me, the medal was proof that Chipper was a hero. I imagined the English commander saluting my uncle and then pinning the award on his uniform.

A month after I saw the medal, Chipper’s house burned to the ground. He escaped through a back door and crouched in Kainalu Stream, the cinders raining on his shoulders and head. Only the coconut trees surrounding the house and a rectangle of ash remained. The British War Medal melted into a silver tear that dripped through the ashes.

"Damn fool smokin’ in bed," Gramma mumbled as we stood in what had once been his living room.

I knelt and dug through the ashes. My wrists and forearms turned gray as I scooped the ashes away like sand.

"Whachah lookin’ foah, Peanut?" Gramma asked.

"Uncle Chipper’s medal."

"Christ," she replied, "it’s long gone."

I stood up and kicked the charred remains of a table. The ash heaps seemed a sad grave for so much courage. I felt as though the part of the war that had meaning for Moloka’i died in the flames.

It didn’t take Chipper long to build a one-room shack over the ashes. His friend Moki was a carpenter and he helped Chipper build the shack over the cement foundation. I supervised their progress while fishing the swamp. I watched Moki carry a scorched water heater over his head and toss it in the swamp. Instead of sinking, the heater floated over to the mangrove and got lodged in the roots. During construction, Chipper refused Gramma’s offer to let him sleep on her lanai. He camped in his Impala and celebrated the end of every day with a bottle of red eye. Moki drank with him. The walls of the shack were a hodgepodge of irregular lumber, plywood, particleboard, and driftwood Chipper kept stockpiled next to the dump.

"Wish I had some ah that lumbah from yoah bonfire," Chipper told me.

"I can find more," I said.

"Damn tide’s no good," he replied.

The currents that carried the usual gifts of glass balls, floats, and wood couldn’t breach the exposed reef at low tide. Almost everything, including trash like Clorox bottles and light bulbs, bypassed our coast. Only Portuguese man-of-wars were getting in.

The roof on Chipper’s shack was made of overlapping sheets of corrugated iron. He told me iron was better than wood anyway because falling coconuts would bounce off and roll instead of causing damage. The coconut trees around the shack seemed veterans of some undeclared war – a phalanx of charcoal trunks crowned with blackened palms.

After construction, I’d fish in the swamp behind the shack and duck under a clothesline strung between two papaya trees. Chipper’s underwear waved like white flags in the trade wind. The same laundry stayed up for weeks. He rarely came out. It was as if he was surrendering something vital inside and all he could do was maintain a ghostlike existence behind the patchwork walls of his shack. While Chipper’s first house had been bright yellow and challenged the dreary landscape, the shack blended in. The yellow house had been full of windows. The shack had pale green walls with a single window facing west. Sometimes after fishing I’d see Chipper sitting at that window smoking a cigarette, staring west toward Gramma’s house.

While I was walking the banks of the swamp, Chipper came over and dropped a silver coin in my hand. "It’s not much," he admitted.

The coin was heavy and shiny. I remembered the British War Medal hanging on the wall. Something mysterious bonded to that silver dollar and I knew when it moved from his hand into mine that I’d never cash it in. All the power from his courage in the war passed into that coin, from the British War Medal to the shimmering dollar, silver to silver. Strange how the date on the dollar was 1918. That was the year the war ended, the year my father was born. All the feelings I had looking up at the British War Medal in his first house returned.

* * *

I see the dirt road that cuts through the kiawe trees along the coast. The islands of Lanai and Maui float like whales on the horizon. The Impala moves west to Kaunakakai and Uncle Chipper drives with his windows rolled up so the wind won’t blow off his cap. He must have been the slowest driver on Moloka’i. Gramma would always honk and we’d wave as we passed, but Chipper didn’t wave back. He never did. It was as if he was concentrating on something more important in the immediate future, as though he’d already beaten us to town and was reaching across the bar for his first drink at the Midnite Inn.

Sometimes we’d find the Impala in the yard with the engine running and the transmission still in DRIVE, with the front bumper pressed against the trunk of an ironwood tree. Chipper would be either slumped over the steering wheel or stretched out over the front seat. One time Ben found him with his feet sticking out of an open window.

"What should we do?" Ben asked Gramma.

"Not a damn thing," she replied.

"I think he’s dead," I said.

"Dead, my foot. The old fool’s sleepin’ it off."

"But Gramma," Ben pleaded, "shouldn’t we at least turn off the engine?"

"Yah leave well enough alone, Mistah Ben," Gramma said. "Be good foah yoah Uncle Chippah tah walk home foah a change."

Whenever Chipper drank too much, he depended on the ironwood forest to keep him from heading out into the channel between Moloka’i and Maui. I was glad Chipper hadn’t traded his big American car in for a compact. With a smaller car, he might have been able to squeeze through the forest and end up at the bottom of Pailolo Channel.

After the Impala idled for what seemed like hours, Gramma got Chipper to pull his feet back inside. Then she reached in, turned off the engine, and opened the door. Chipper had taken off his pants because he’d had an accident. The car door seemed to be opening too wide, straining at its hinges, revealing the long pale legs of my uncle. Before, nothing seemed tragic. But something about Gramma holding Uncle Chipper under the ironwoods touched me. I never thought a grown-up could be that helpless, that vulnerable. And for the first time I realized adults could back themselves into corners so remote that even love, or its memory, could no longer reach them.

 

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