Story by Liza Simon
Kaua‘i’s Kilauea Lighthouse celebrates its hundredth anniversary this May, and the festivities will undoubtedly include tales from the days when the lighthouse was a beacon for lost wayfarers. Less dramatic but decidedly more homegrown are the stories of two men who worked at the lighthouse, in jobs they call “the very best anyone could ever hope for.”
Patrick Ching, the younger of the two, has arranged for me to meet Norman Peleholani, the elder, whom he introduces as “true royalty”— to the people of Kaua‘i, at least. Norman is quick to counter modestly that he was just an engineer for the US Coast Guard when in 1961 he was tapped for the plum assignment of lighthouse keeper, “because I came from a Big Island town that was just like Kilauea, where a sugar mill was still the primary source of employment.” Norman ingratiated himself to neighbors in Kilauea in many ways, like making sure an antenna was erected to bring in the first television signal from Honolulu. Even if it generated screens of snow, “It was still something to look at,” chuckles Norman.
Mostly though, Norman dutifully concerned himself with sending out the lighthouse signal, which meant caring for the lighthouse’s bivalve lens that floated on a huge tub of mercury. “Once every couple years we’d drain the mercury out and run it through cheesecloth to clean it,” he says. Back then the only health warning the mercury came with was this: “We knew that we weren’t supposed to wear jewelry when we handled it.”
The fishing at Kilauea was “so plentiful,” raves Norman, and Patrick seconds the enthusiasm. Norman would invite guests to fish with him at Moku ‘Ae‘ae islet off Kilauea’s coast. “We would set our fishing poles and amuse ourselves watching frigate birds. Those birds are thieves. They make other birds regurgitate whatever they have in their craw,” says Norman.
Patrick, a noted wildlife painter, has painted frigates spreading their seven-foot wingspans just above the ocean’s surface. His love of wildlife was partly inspired by Norman’s youngest son, Mark, whom Patrick befriended at an O‘ahu middle school shortly after the Peleholanis left Kilauea. Mark impressed Patrick with his stories, like descriptions of catching hundreds of frogs in Kilauea’s irrigation ditches. What boy wouldn’t be enthralled?
By the time both graduated high school, the Kilauea lighthouse had been decommissioned and transformed into a wildlife refuge. When the offer of a job as a ranger in Kilauea came, Patrick jumped at it. On his first day, he was directed to band Laysan albatrosses for study. “When I caught two in my arms, they went wild pecking me,” he says, adding that he loved it. Since it had become a major visitor attraction, the refuge was also now full of humans to contend with. One day Patrick was sent to the beach to tell a bevy of female nudists to cover up. “There I come along in my Smokey the Bear uniform telling them that they can’t do the most natural thing. It was the worst day in my life!” laughs Patrick.
His old friend Mark even came back to visit. The fish were biting and the living was easy, but “one day, Mark cast his line off a hundred-foot cliff. The line barely reached the water. I was thinking, ‘The worst thing is if he gets a bite’ when I hear him say, ‘I got something.’ Mark is fighting the fish with no extra line, so I grab his shorts and grab a rock and weight us down. I thought, ‘If Mark is going over, I’m going with him.’”
In the stories the two men share, nothing bad ever seems to happen at Kilauea. Norman says people give him a funny look when he tells them that he and his wife let their five children run free on an unfenced craggy promontory 150 feet above the crashing surf. It was peaceful, he says. Beautiful, adds Patrick. Even if at night the shearwaters would fill the air with their mournful cries, no one ever thought to say the place was haunted. At the lighthouse, you always felt protected.
We received word as we were going to press that Norman Peleholani had just passed away. All of us at Hana Hou! extend our deepest sympathy to his family.