REMINISCENCES OF JEAN CHARLOT
MEETING OF THE JEAN CHARLOT FOUNDATION
NOVEMBER I4, 1982
When they asked me to speak before the group today, I was genuinely moved. I’m very pleased to do this. I’m going to get emotional here because I liked the guy. I really liked the guy a lot. He was a terrific fellow, and to have him as a father on top of that was something that is difficult to put into words. I go back a long ways with my father, but not as long as I’m alive. He conceived me when he was forty-eight years old, and I’m only thirty-six. So I’ve still got a ways to go before I reach that point, so to speak, when I can say, “All right, I’ve lived as long as my father did before he conceived me,” which is an important point. But it also makes a point. I was always concerned from the time I was very young about his health, about his coming death. His death was always very real with me because, being so young, he seemed like an ancient man all the time and I was amazed… [interrupted to speak louder].
But I’m going to start with some of his reminiscences because he told the best stories. The stories he told always had some kind of Sufi point to them. I could never quite grasp them, so I’ll let you determine what they mean to you. I don’t think many of you know he was court-martialed in World War I. He was a radio operator for a unit of cavalry––this was before he became an officer. It was his job to keep track of the events in the night as to what was going on. Well, during the night he was awakened by the radio, and it said, “Mayday, Mayday––crashing––the Germans are surrounding you. Evacuate! Evacuate!” So Papa carefully put the information down and went back to bed. So the next morning, when the Germans were indeed surrounding the camp—they narrowly escaped with their lives—it was brought out that indeed this piece of paper existed with the information on it eight hours before. So he remembers very well being brought before the court martial, and his explanation was that his orders were not to awaken his commander under any circumstances. In those days, I guess, that was a good argument, and he was not convicted. I don’t know where we’d be today if he had been. But he told many stories about World War I, because I guess when I was a child I wanted to know about him as a soldier.
He was also a boxer and at one time had the featherweight championship in the military of all of France. He did “savatte,” the kick-fighting. He told me his secret blow, which was when the guy raises his foot to kick you, you do a quick jab into his shin, and this, I suppose, got him through many a fight. He was still very nimble. I think everybody who knows him realizes how nimble and quick he was on his feet. I know my brother Martin snuck up to him on the road downtown one day and grabbed him, and my brother found himself on his back on the sidewalk because my father had done a full karate blow into his stomach. I don’t think you know the violent aspect of my father. I thought I’d tell you some secret stories.
One nice thing about growing up and staying in your community is that I know you all—most of you, many of you––from my childhood, and oh, the things I can tell about you! I know you all from your kneecaps up. You know it’s a very meaningful position.
I especially remember one of my favorite things was to go with Papa to the chancery. This is in the ‘50s, this is late ‘50s, I think, or early ‘50s, somewhere in there. Papa loved to visit Monsignor Dever for lunch, and we would go to the Greenery Restaurant. It was a horrible little place with teriyaki steak, and they used to have sandwiches, and I loved my teriyaki steak. I used to sit between them, kind of listening to whatever was going on. I have a very bad memory for those conversations, so you’re lucky. But it was a special event for me to tag along with my father.
There’s one thing I think he was––and I’ve tried to figure out––is what I liked about him, what we all liked about him so much. I mean, I like his artwork a lot, but it’s he I really liked inordinately, irrationally. I wonder if I’ll ever love anybody quite as much as I loved that man.
But he had an amazing sense of being a “buddy,” and whenever I was with him I had this feeling of cruising, which is the word that’s used now. You really felt you were “on the hunt” and roaming and “we’re going to discover something in the day”; something was going to happen to you in your life that day, and it was very exciting. The first times we did that, he used to take me on Sundays to Hawai`i Hall, which was where he first had his office. It was the days when the sugar cane went right up to the quadrangle at the university. The university was a magical place to grow up in, and I see Joel Trapido here, who knows that era well. Papa used to take me there, when the whole building was empty, and he used to say, “O.K., I’m going to work now. Have fun.” I used to run through that building, and it was my spaceship. The latrines were the area where I ran the spaceship by pushing all the urinals down, and I would generate enormous power. I remember Papa standing there wondering why all the toilets were going until I explained to him this is what ran my spaceship.
He had a capacity for conversation. I mean, I think verbally he was probably the most adept person I’ve ever met. He had an extraordinary ability to—when you’re talking to him—Monsignor Dever stole my metaphor—it was very much like visiting a natural wonder to be around him. I say that without reserve. It genuinely was like going to a scenic wonder spot where things were magical. A large oak is a good metaphor. Not that it was a place that was so distant from you that you didn’t feel intimate, safe, and warm. It was not a detached place. It was a very close place, a marvelous place to be around. And that continued.
I remember when I was in high school, he used to bunch my military ROTC shirt, making it just perfect behind me—you know, get the proper crease there—and tucking it in. There’s a military streak in my father that I don’t think many people realize, and I think it had to do with his discipline that he maintained throughout his whole life. And that discipline was extraordinary. He always was working. I think he was basically a workaholic in many ways.
But it was not just writing. He was constantly taking in information. Always––at the table, at the meal, wherever it was––he’d have a book open and he’d be reading it. He’d be examining the pictures. I remember looking over his shoulder innumerable times at those pictures that I have no feeling for whatsoever. But he did. He’s amazing.
Throughout his life, I can remember being in some strange places—Iowa, in the middle of a farmland, in a farmhouse––and weeping one evening because I’d noticed a new wrinkle on his face. This was (again this concern about his death) repeated throughout my childhood to the point that I wept and had real feeling––I think more than most children do––because of this age gap.
Throughout those years, you people came to the house and visited, and he carried on a relationship with this community which I find extraordinary in many senses, because now I’m a part of the community, I realize how difficult the community is and how difficult it is to be a member of a community. To allow himself a place where he could move that community, to inspire that community—that is, a real community, a real place here where we’re survivors, we’re amazing Honolulu people. He gave a challenge to the community that I think may have had more weight in it than we can really tell right now, because there were many movements towards more expansionism, towards more tourism, towards more commercialism. I think by his particular position in the community he affected and influenced people to use more care, to have more class about the kinds of works that are done here. I think he influenced all the people in the community who love and know the value and power of art in the political sense, not just in the sense of entertainment. And through that process that I’ve been a part of, growing up within it, I came to feel that I wanted to stay here. So in that sense, my father was also the source of my vocation. I think many children leave town.
I feel that his influence on me has yet to be analyzed, but I know I’ve developed a few things he has. One is his bad eyes. I find myself wearing visors when I begin to read at night. Remember how he used to close up in sunglasses? I’m starting to do all those behaviors, and I think I must have developed his bad eyes. But Patricia Young’s husband will save me, I know.
As he approached his older years, and I was a little older myself, we developed a new relationship. As with all of us, we change relationships with our parents as we get older, move in different directions. I’d like to speak to that because as he approached his death, and as he met his death, it was a—it turned out that those fears I had about his death were unfounded. And to me, that was the greatest gift he could have given me––because the terror, the desperation I had through my whole life––when it actually came to the event, it turned out to be an inspirational moment.
I first became aware that he was becoming aware of his death when I was sitting at the black table in our dining room. He still was walking freely at that time, but I heard a sound, a shuffling behind me, a “SHOO-TOONK, SHOO-TOONK.” I turned around, and Papa, all seventy-eight, seventy-nine years old of him, was coming up behind me, holding his hands like claws above his head. “Papa, what are you doing?” For those who can’t see, he was walking behind me with this ghastly face on, just this tortured face. “Papa, what are you doing?” “I’m practicing haunting you.”
OK, that’s my dad. What a guy, yeah!
Another incident happened. Martin was taking some photographs of him—Martin’s my brother––and interviewing him while he lay in his bed. Martin said, “Make yourself comfortable,” and Papa immediately slapped his jaw and took a dead look, like this....
So these were signals because he didn’t like it. I’m not saying that it was inspirational, that he was willing and happy to face his death. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like it one bit. There was a very robust man there who wanted to live ten, twenty more years. But he faced the steady decline, the pain, the wheelchair, with passion, with hatred, with anxiety, with torture within the family but also with a sense of including us. He included us all the way through it. He never put us aside.
I remember the last time he went to the hospital. I went to pick him up in the wheelchair. He was sitting there, and I put him in the wheelchair, and it was for me a moment to express to him my affection and my love and to come to some kind of feeling between us, and I told him, I think for one of the first times, that I loved him. And he looked at me and said, “Well, I never doubted it”—so I wheeled him away.
And the day of his death, I was privileged to be with him in the last hours alone out on the porch. I wheeled him out there, and his words to me––by that time, his eyes had folded in on themselves and he was a sick man––and he said to me, “Please don’t let me fall asleep.” I said, “Fine,” and he sat next to me and we sat there and I’ll never forget––it was a beautiful sunny day and the evening––just as we’d sat so many times on the porch with him reading. And he said, “I want to go to the table now,” so I wheeled him to that same black table, and as we sat there he said, “I want a pencil and paper.” Now he couldn’t speak by that time, and so in that sense of real pride, I could see it in him, this was a real––he was very happy to be able to do this in the sense that he still had control and power. He wrote S C H I C K dash I N J E, “schickinje,” “schickinje,” and I was going, “You want a shave, Papa? What is it you want me to give you, to shave you?” And from that proud moment, he just went “ARMMMMMMM” [with facial expression]. He was so annoyed! He had a wonderful ability to—he was a real actor and also had gone on stage—but he just went, “Aw, no!” So he died an hour later, and the next day, in looking at this paper and remembering this paper, I realized that what it said was “Stick the injection,” which was that he was asking for a shot. Up to that point he had avoided that, so it of course meant that he was in enormous pain and he was trying to keep the control over his life.
But we were so high. I can’t tell you. I’m sure all of us must have experienced this, but during his death and after his death, it was just like a floating feeling. I felt like a CIA agent, taking care of him. I had this real sense of “I would do battle with anybody who would harm the man.” And now I worry about him just as much. I still weep over him. I have dreams of being in his grave and crawling up like this and pushing myself up and him pulling me down. I mean, we still carry on a relationship, and what’s magical about it is that in a sense he has never died––as I think we all know, we never do.
I appreciate so much the opportunity to speak with you. Thank you so much.