story by Rose Kahele
photo by Dana Edmunds
Fast as a speeding jetliner, more powerful than a court injunction and (almost) able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Captain Hale‘iwa!
Yes, Captain Hale‘iwa—strange visitor from another world who came to a sleepy North Shore town with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Captain Hale‘iwa—who altered the plans of mighty real estate developers, stopped heavy construction equipment in its tracks and who, disguised as Richard W. Rogers, mild-mannered pilot, fights the never-ending battle for truth, justice and the Island Way.
Captain Richard Rogers is an airline pilot, diver, maritime researcher and historian, as well as a writer and illustrator. The Vietnam veteran and former “full-time” beachcomber has also sailed with the Polynesian Voyaging Society as well as worked as an artist, farmer, fisherman, flight instructor and small business owner. However, his most colorful career was also his shortest one: For three short, exciting months, Rogers was Captain Hale‘iwa.
On an early Saturday morning in the fall of 1983, Rogers and many other Hale‘iwa residents awoke to the sounds of heavy machinery and the rhythmic pounding of a wrecking ball. Much to their surprise, the 900-seat Hale‘iwa Theatre was being demolished in defiance of newly enacted community guidelines, which were designed to protect and preserve the historic integrity of the beach community. After an hour or so, the work was stopped when the demolition crew couldn’t produce the proper permits authorizing their work. But they had been efficient: By 8 a.m. the theater’s entrance was destroyed and its western flank severely damaged.
“Captain Hale‘iwa started as a silly skit we put together to raise funds for the theater. It was nothing more than a Cub Scout-level skit,” says Rogers. “One of the theater owners had wanted to sell to McDonald’s. The restaurant wanted the land but not the theater, so the seller tried to quickly destroy it. We did a takeoff of a McDonald’s commercial in which Captain Hale‘iwa comes to save the day against the Hamburglar (the fast food chain’s prison-striped villain). It was never supposed to be anything but fun. Then it got rough when they sent a couple of cops and shut us down.”
Rogers, who had moved to Hale‘iwa a year earlier, was deeply immersed in community affairs. He owned two businesses—a surf/dive/ hardware/gun shop on the edge of town and a flight school at Dillingham Airfield, in nearby Mokule‘ia. In addition, he also ran the concession stand at the theater. Being a pillar of the community was an unlikely position for Rogers, who until two years earlier was more nomad than civic leader.
The son of an executive with the Boys Scouts of America, Rogers was born in Missouri, went to high school in South Carolina and spent time in Florida before joining the Army in 1968. He eventually became a diver in the Transportation Corps.
Rogers trained at Fort Eustis, outside of Newport News, Va., for a year. On weekends, to get away from the water, he joined a flying club on base and, once in the air, found a new passion and future profession. “It was the dead of winter and we were still diving. I began to think that maybe I didn’t make a very good career choice,” says Rogers. “But once I started flying, high above the world, I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do this. This is nice.’”
Rogers was deployed to Vietnam in 1970, working mostly along the country’s coasts, where he assisted in the recovery of sunken Army material. Bitten by the flying bug, he sent half of every paycheck home, so he could pay for flight school once he was discharged from the service. In 1972, he did just that, returning to Florida, where he got married, got a job and continued flying.
However, after working for several years as a laborer at a nearby chemical plant, Rogers aspired for a better life and a bigger world. He quit his job and with his wife Blossom and their infant daughter drove across the country to Seattle, where they sold their van and bought airline tickets.
“We were either going to Hawai‘i or Alaska. Wintertime was right around the corner, so we chose Hawai‘i,” he recalls.
The day after they arrived on O‘ahu, he went to work at Honolulu Harbor, where he unloaded cargo from container ships. Several months later, Rogers, who studied art for a couple of semesters at the University of South Florida, got a job in Waikiki, painting minute hula girls and Diamond Heads onto small shells.
But after a year of low pay, high rent and large crowds, the Rogers family moved again, this time packing up their 1964 Ford Country Squire and shipping off to the Big Island. There, the Rogers family would “live off the land” while Richard indulged in his childhood love of shipwrecks and maritime history. Their four-year stay on the Big Island eventually became the subject of Shipwrecks of Hawai‘i: A Maritime History of the Big Island, a self-published book written and illustrated by Rogers. Equal parts memoir and historical text, Shipwrecks, published in 1999, mixes early Hawaiian and maritime history with Rogers family adventures.
In 1982, after deciding it was “time to grow up and start flying again,” Rogers moved back to O‘ahu and eventually to Hale‘iwa. He wouldn’t move again. “It was easy to get into town, and it was easy to get away from town,” says Rogers of the North Shore beach town. “Hale‘iwa is a great surfing community with perfect weather and probably the best harbor around. As soon as I came here, I knew it was my kind of place.”
It was also a town worth fighting for.