Russ Ringsak

Back from Paradise

February 1, 2002

Every truck driver in Hawaii sleeps at home every night; well, that's presumptive, but he could if he felt like it. And that's probably not necessarily true either, knowing a few truck drivers. Let's just say that at the end of a work day, whatever other problems a Hawaiian truck driver may have, distance isn't one of them. What this means is the traffic in Honolulu is free of the presence of huge interstate trucks (like ours, for instance). Even the biggest of theirs don't have sleeper cabs.
It's also free of the presence of large billboards and buildings topped with high neon. Your first impression of the place is that it's like southern California, but somehow different, and then you realize that the intensity and energy you feel in the typical mainland American city comes largely from unlimited advertising and big trucks. With neither, Honolulu has an easy feel to it.

You can get Spam in the restaurants there, and they must surely have the highest per-capita rate of karoake bars of any city in the nation. Hard to make a connection between those two, but maybe it has something to do with the military. And maybe not.

If you turn on the TV on Sunday morning you can watch pro football, which leaves the rest of the day for yard work or whatever SHE wants to do, which is a good system. Sundays through the whole football season, all guilt free. Monday Night Football, over at 7:00. What a great setup.

We did two shows on Saturday, one at 1:00 in the afternoon for live broadcast back here and the second at 7:30, and the local musicians knocked our socks off in both of them. Never been there before, and now looking forward to next time; want to go see the live volcano on the Big Island.

And speaking of tropical disasters, it was exactly 8 years ago that a friend called early in the morning to tell me to turn on the TV, that L.A. had suffered an earthquake. It showed the Santa Monica Freeway sitting right down on Ventura Boulevard. They said the freeway is "One of the busiest highways in the world." Water was spouting 60 feet in the air from the pumphouse of a dam, and smoke was drifting across the city from dozens of fires caused by ruptured gas lines. A mobile home park was on fire, 15 units burning, and an apartment house had collapsed, the upper two floors completely crushing the lower. Water was flooding some streets, and a big gas fire was burning in the middle of the stream; an odd sight.

Houses slid off the crests of hills over the Pacific Coast Highway, right down onto the highway. A train derailed and 10 cars of sulfuric acid were strewn all over the tracks in Northridge, about which the Southern Pacific said not to worry. A lot of buildings in that area were lying with exterior walls fallen into the parking lots. It struck two hours before rush hour, 4:30 in the morning. They said it wasn't the Big One. It's 6.6 on the Richter scale, which of course is the only scale there is. The ten dead so far, they said, were four heart attacks, five in the apartment, and a motorcycle policeman who drove off the edge of a collapsed overpass. An announcer on a Los Angeles TV station said, "The damage is very scattered; you can drive for blocks and everything is normal, and then you'll see a building right flat on the ground; and by the way, it's 75 degrees here right now. It's paradise." He shrugged.

Here in Minnesota it was 33 below that night, with high winds; 80-below wind chill, on the Fahrenheit scale. It was hardly noticed nationally, but there were towns here getting 48 below temperatures. Our northern disasters are slow, certain, and everybody gets the misery; down there the calamities strike suddenly and utterly destroy a relative few, but it generally happens in good weather. One makes their choices.

Now, just back from Hawaii, one wondered if this was a return to reality or the opposite. But it wasn't all that cold; we've been easing through another mild winter and complaints are mostly from folks who feel they aren't getting their minimum weekly requirement of ice and snow. That would not be this correspondent.

Took a drive out through farming country. You don't usually think of it as the first step in the food industry; you don't think of it as food at all. It's just graceful inedible fields edged with dark banks of trees under an endlessly changing sky, or in the winter, an endlessly unchanging sky. The farmers deal not with food but with ice and mud and dust and chaff and manure; heat and dry hay, and diesel fuel and hydraulic oil. They don't see the milk and they don't see the flour.

They connect their cows to pneumatic lines that pump the milk to a stainless steel tank where it waits to be pumped into a larger stainless steel tank on a truck to haul it off to pump into yet a larger tank. They plant the seed in the dark soil and they see plants grow green and turn gold, and they cut the stalks and shake the kernels off into bins and then into truck boxes. The farmer spends harvest time in a cloud of chaff and dust, following the line of the last round, around and around in long overlapping rectangular loops, until they find the center and the field is bare.

And the farmer, or his wife, might then go into town and get groceries, maybe coming home with a small blue-and-gold cardboard box with hard dried macaroni and powdered cheese, to which they add milk from another cardboard box and heat into macaroni and cheese. It could be some of their own milk or wheat in the box. It would have made a long trip and gone through a lot of crushing, grinding, pumping, heating, sorting, processing, packaging, loading and unloading. It would have swirled unseen through a lot of noisy machinery. It may also have gone through six different brokers and owners, and yet this is all a very efficient process. It seems ridiculously complex, but it has evolved like any other evolution, one simple step after another, until it is intricate and swift.

But driving through the gracefully rolling fields in the winter, with a little snow drifting along the surface, it doesn't seem like the first step in a giant industry. It seems like it's just there for the poetry and the rhythm. It's just there because it looks good. Even if it is cold out there.

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