Issue 10.1: February / March 2007

Captain Fantastic

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.

When the police broke up Rogers’ light-hearted fundraising skit, a little costume drama turned into real-life melodrama. With permission from the Hale‘iwa Theatre’s other owner, Rogers set out to do whatever he could to save the damaged building. And like a good, law-abiding superhero (and citizen), the first thing that the Captain did was go to court—in costume.

The Captain got the state courts to issue a cease and desist order to halt the demolition indefinitely. He also visited every state agency he thought could help, and for the next couple of months, walked the streets of Hale‘iwa, dressed in his magenta tights, purple cape, combat boots, goggles and Army surplus tank helmet. At first, the Captain would only elicit sideways glances and giggling from residents. But then the superhero caught the attention of Honolulu television news crews. Soon, crowds started to gather and, more important, longtime residents started to reminisce about the old theater. And they began to talk about rebuilding it.

However, public sentiment and even the law wasn’t enough. With the theater badly damaged and with no investors interested in spending the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to restore the beloved landmark, government officials looked the other way. On Nov. 10, 1983, demolition began again. But this time, Captain Hale‘iwa was waiting for them. High atop the building’s roof, armed with old motor oil and rotten Egg McMuffins, he demanded to see the permit authorizing the work and a court order rescinding his court order, which had halted the effort in the first place. Once again, the crew, this time accompanied by a fire department ladder truck and a police helicopter, didn’t have any documents.

Hours later, with rain starting to fall, police and a fire department crew forcibly removed Captain Hale‘iwa and took him to jail, where he was quickly released without charges. A little more than an hour later, he returned to Hale‘iwa, but he was too late. The theater was gone.

Rogers was bitterly disappointed, but his efforts did bear some fruit. He points out that it would be five years before developers built their McDonald’s restaurant. It took them that long to get the proper authorizations and permits. “I’d like to think that we made people aware that there is a process, one that everyone has to follow,” says Rogers. “Now you see all the new buildings in town with their historic facades, so people are following the guidelines.”

After the theater fell, Rogers, as always, moved on. But he didn’t move out of Hale‘iwa. He sold the surf shop to his partner, closed down his flight school and went to work as pilot, flying scenic tours around the island. Two years later, he joined Hawaiian Airlines, piloting the company’s propeller-driven Dash 7s. Over the course of his twenty-year career, he has flown many of the aircraft in the airline’s inventory. Since last May, he’s been piloting the Boeing 767-300 throughout the West Coast and South Pacific.

Rogers plans on retiring from Hawaiian in three years, when he turns sixty. (He and Blossom, who have been married for thirty-two years, have four children, all of whom have left the nest.) Then he’ll be able to devote more time to his other passion, finding and studying shipwrecks. In the past thirty years, aboard his forty-foot research boat Pilialoha, Rogers has identified more than 400 shipwrecks in Island waters. He’s worked with the Smithsonian Institution, the Mexican government, the University of Hawai‘i and the University of Oregon on excavation projects throughout the Pacific. And he hopes to locate Hawai‘i’s first Spanish treasure galleon wreck, which Rogers is sure lies at the bottom of Island waters somewhere.

But the swashbuckling Rogers shouldn’t get too comfortable with his life at sea. Though his costume currently hangs in Hale‘iwa’s North Shore Surf and Cultural Museum, North Shore development is again becoming a hot issue with the proposed expansion of the Turtle Bay Resort just up the coast. Recently, there have been sightings of one Captain Kahuku, who has pledged to protect his town from overdevelopment. Will Captain Hale‘iwa also return to save the day?

“That’s not my battle. I’ll let others fight that one,” says Rogers. “That costume is fine right where it is. Besides, there’s no way I can fit into it now.”

Stay tuned, folks. HH