Fireworks and fresh fish: the Hawaiian recipe for prosperity and happiness.
by Miles Nolte
Just before the New Year in Hawaii, countless loins of raw tuna—bright crimson and shiny—are purchased from beds of ice behind glass cases. In Japanese culture, the color red represents luck and happiness. In the Asian-Polynesian-European tapestry of contemporary Hawaiian culture, eating raw tuna at New Year’s celebrations is mandatory.
Though I now reside thousands of miles northeast of the islands, I grew up in Hawaii, and try to go back for Christmas and New Year. For all that I love about Montanans, they don’t know how to change years with appropriate ceremony. Ceremonies stitch the abstraction of time to the experience of being human; they temporarily alleviate our unbearable lightness, anchoring us in our bodies, our spaces, and our communities.
In my 36th year, I travel back for the holidays, having missed the previous two. My beard is longer, my hair shorter and thinner, since I last stepped from the terminal into the rattling sigh of trade winds in coconut palms. Subtropical air settles in my chest: warm, wet, dense.
The house where I grew up feels familiar, but the details have shifted. My old bedroom is now a guest room. The bookshelves no longer house algebra textbooks, marbled composition notebooks, and copies of Howl and Dharma Bums. They’re now full of guidebooks to the island of Oahu and an array of photos tracing my arc from gangly sixth grader with a mullet haircut and a neon-green backpack to gangly adult unsurely cradling my newborn godson. All traces of my father have been cleansed from the house.
After settling in, I pick up the phone. My old friends have jobs and families and responsibilities. Time on the water requires advance planning. After days of discussion, we agree to go offshore on New Year’s Day. We want to hunt for mahi and marlin and, of course, tuna. We all want luck and prosperity, bloody flesh from still-twitching fish consumed with soy and wasabi.
The Chinese brought fireworks with them to Hawaii for spiritual protection. On New Year’s Eve I gather with a different group of friends and summon colorful arcs of flame to frighten away evil spirits for the next 12 months. Maybe that’s what went wrong the past couple of years: I changed calendars in Montana, where fireworks appear only on the Fourth of July and lack spiritual significance. The hours pass; I know I should go to bed, but I remain stalwart, unsteady from drink and nostalgia, leaning over stiff green fuses with a pink plastic lighter, until there are only two of us left, and all the gunpowder turns to smoke and blows out to sea.
Mikhail picks me up at dawn. I’ve barely closed my eyes, but strong coffee and the tang of local bananas bring me back. I eat the smaller, sweeter Chiquita cousins in my mother’s slumbering kitchen. I eat all of them, knowing damn well that I won’t take bananas on a boat. Today, I believe in superstition.
We drive ocean roads with the top down on Mikhail’s convertible. A few surfers greet the year in chest-high swells at Left Point, a reef break where I once encountered an endangered monk seal, huge and deceptive. It appeared so docile, warming itself on a sun-soaked sand spit, the spot where we normally launched our boards into the choppy water. But as we approached, it let out a guttural yawp, baring daggers, forcing us to jump from the reef, where I stepped in a hole studded with sea urchins. That evening, Dad sat with me on the back deck, holding a scalpel and tweezers with my foot in his lap. His hands were steady then, and even late in the day he could be counted on to be sober and clear.
Mikhail drives us to Dave’s house on the southeast tip of the island. Dave is a commercial pilot now, the perfect career for a self-assured teenager who used to drag race and play chicken in his parents’ Volvo. He owns a condo that sits on a lagoon connecting his backyard to the Pacific Ocean. A 27-foot fishing boat is moored less than 50 feet from his living room. Mikhail and I walk to the back of the condo and yell up at Dave’s window, waking him and his wife, Pam. Dave salutes us with a single digit.
In less than half an hour we’re idling out the channel. Dave is at the helm, bleary eyed but alert, his hair shaved into a short Mohawk. He cracks a beer and grins. The boy beams through shallow crow’s-feet around the man’s eyes.
The surf is relatively calm, but we’re headed toward the swells of the Molokai Channel. We pitch and rock in six-foot surf. It’s been a while since I’ve been on the open ocean. I work to find my sea legs and focus on the horizon, breathing deeply.
Halfway between Oahu and Molokai are The Penguin Banks, a subsurface volcanic range that provides excellent habitat for pelagic species. We search for the 40-fathom edge, choose our trolling lures by faith, and set them at sketchy distances in the prop wash. I adjust the drag and distance on the starboard line skeptically. I figure we’ll pull some lures until hunger pushes us back to the marina bar for burgers. Then the rubber band that I rigged on the short rod snaps and the tip bounces.
In Hawaiian, hana pa´a literally means “to fasten or secure,” but it also means “to hook up.” When someone sees the rubber band snap on a trolling line, he yells hana pa´a to alert the captain and everyone else on board. I hear the call, and I see the rod, but I’m stuck in the warped curvature of time. I haven’t heard anyone yell hana pa´a since I wore braces, since these men around me, nearly strangers now, were my closest friends. I am 35 years old, foggy from sleep deprivation and emotional excess; I am nine years old, trolling rough ocean with my father and his friend, unsteadily walking to a bucking rod, trying to contain the seasickness; I am 13 years old, hooking my first marlin, watching it arc, glittering, in midair.
I pull the rod and start cranking. The 10-pound mahi is outgunned by the tuna rod, and in a minute or two its iridescence flashes in the blue water. Our gaffing maneuver resembles a Little Leaguer at bat, Mikhail holding the leader and Dave swinging wildly, slicing seawater. Eventually, hook meets head, and Dave administers the last rites as the fish batters itself against the deck. We grin stupidly. Not smooth or pretty, but we have a fish on ice within 15 minutes of setting our lines.
All morning we catch mahi and kava-kava (false albacore), taking turns dragging in the relatively small fish on equipment built to tame billfish and tuna. We laugh at flailing gaff swings and hose blood out the scupper holes.
Heaving our way home in the early afternoon with coolers full of fish, we slow at a place called Spitting Caves, a 50-foot cliff that drops into deep water. A knot of teenagers gathers a few feet back from the edge, and one lone boy, tan and shirtless, peers over it. We used to go there, challenging each other and occasionally jumping. Looking at the boy, I remember the terror I felt at that edge, weighing the outcomes, the potential of misjudging my jump and crumpling against a rock, or melting into the shame of stepping back. Dave continues to idle the boat along the edge of Koko Head Crater until we come to China Walls, a popular surf and dive spot where boys jump off the rocks with their surfboards and girls sunbathe in bikinis barely large enough to be considered clothing.
Eventually, a different, stronger hunger pushes us back through the channel to Dave’s dock. We hose down the boat and the gear. Pam, a master at cutting fish, meets us with freshly sharpened knives.
My first significant meal of the year comes late that afternoon. While the grill heats, we gorge on mahi ceviche and kava-kava sashimi, the flesh as red as ahi, hopefully as lucky. The remaining fish is generously coated in rock salt and tossed on hot grates. We eat the sea until our bellies bulge, and then fall asleep on the couch, watching college football. It feels like a fortuitous beginning.
A week later, I step off a plane, wearing shorts in a snowstorm. There is no one waiting to meet me, but I can still smell the acrid smoke of fireworks, still feel the rocking of the sea beneath me, and still taste the oily salt of the fish.
Miles Nolte is a writer and teacher living in Montana.