Story by Kathy Collins
Listen to this column read aloud in pidgin:
Ho boy, dis cane burnin’ contra-versy get me all mix up. My head an’ my heart stay leanin’ opposite ways. My head know dat smokin’ is bad fo’ yo’ health. Ev’rybody know dat, even da guys who smoke. An’ even if cane smoke not da same as cigarette smoke, I t’ink any kine smoke not good. Dass jus’ common sense. An’ yet, in all da time I wen’ grow up ovah here, I no remembah evah getting sick from da cane fire smoke. All my fam’ly an’ friends too, same t’ing. Even my grandfaddah, who used to clean da humongous smokestacks at da sugar mill, he nevah did get da kine lung problems in his whole life. An’ he wen’ live till ninety. So even if I know in my head dat da cane fire smoke is bad, my heart no believe.
Growin’ up on Maui, cane burnin’ was jus’ one noddah part a life, like mango season, or wintah surf, or da Civil Dafense warning sirens dat go off on da firs’ workin’ day of da month. Nobody talk about changin’ ‘em. Dass jus’ how was.
Once in a while, my faddah would grumble about da cane fires, but wasn’t da smoke dat wen’ boddah him, was da Maui snow. When da wind blow one certain way, da black ash would come float inside da garage, an’ den my faddah had to hose off da garage floor, ‘cause da ash too light fo’ sweep. Sometimes my maddah, too, would grumble when da HC&S guy come around, door to door, wit’ da pepa dat tell us goin’ get cane fire da next day. No can wash clothes on burn days, unless you like black streaks all ovah yo’ stuffs. Me, I was happy, ‘cause hangin’ up da laundry was my job.
Da bes’ was da nighttime burns. From our house, if we could see da orange glow from one cane fire Upcountry or Kihei side, my faddah would start up da car, an’ we all pile inside fo’ go look. Dat was befo’ cable TV; in fack, only had t’ree stations, an’ da cane fire was way mo’ int’resting dan what they was showin’.
If we lucky, da fire stay right next to da road, an’ by da time we get close, get small kine traffic jam. Slow by slow, single file, da cars go pass, wit’ da police tellin’ ev’rybody fo’ move along, no stop. I tell you what, you evah get dat close to one fire dat big, you no can fo’get da feelin’. Da heat so strong, and da noise so loud, and yet you hardly notice, ‘cause you no can take yo’ eyes off da giant flames. Da whole world is crispy, crackly, orange an’ black. I used to t’ink, dis how Pele mus’ feel, when she stirrin’ up her fires inside Kilauea cratah.
Aftah, if we still lucky, my faddah drive to Dairy Queen an’ we all eat hot fudge sundaes. We still can smell da smoke on top our clothes an’ our skin — liddo bit sweet, liddo bit burnt. Like when yo’ marshmallow fall off da stick an’ melt on top da campfire.
I know da cane burnin’ goin’ stop soonah or laytah. Mos’ likely laytah, but prob’ly goin’ be in my lifetime. An’ when dat happen, when da las’ cane fire come down to ashes, my heart goin’ be liddo bit sad. I hope my head still yet sharp by then, so dat all my fond mem’ries of Maui snow an’ nighttime fires no go up in smoke.
Kathy Collins (a.k.a. Tita) is an actress, storyteller, and cofounder of Mana‘o Radio, Like Tita, Ms. Collins grew up on Maui.