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Childhood Memories of the Hawaiian Spiny Lobster
Hula With My 'Ula
If it's true that you are what you eat, then at this very moment, I am fantasizing about being a lobster, and not that overgrown crayfish with the disproportionate claws over on the eastern seaboard. No, I'm thinking about that Pacific Ocean delicacy known as the Hawaiian Spiny Lobster.
The Hawaiian name for lobster is 'ula. I remember the name easily because it rhymes with hula , rolling off my tongue like an abbreviated version of a Frenchman's favorite utterance (ooh la la!). And though it's been ages since I last tasted that oh, so tender, sweet, and succulent white flesh, my diminishing sexagenarian memory banks are far from overdrawn with the wonderful reminiscences of this delightful Pacific crustacean.
Lobsters normally move around by crawling. The Hawaiian Spiny Lobster is a decapod, having five pairs of legs. They use four pairs for ambulating on the sandy sea bottom or among the reefs. The first pair of legs nearest their head are used for crushing and devouring their prey.
In times of danger, the lobster quickly propels itself backward by rapidly slapping its tail. This action is what I fondly refer to as the 'ula hula.
Lobster Net Fishing
As a child growing up on the island of Kaua'i, I remember that lobsters were plentiful. Our family of eight had lobsters at least twice a month. The added bonus was that we never had to pay for our high ticket dinner.
In those days. the standard method of catching lobsters was by setting nets. The knowledge of sewing lobster nets had been passed down to my father by his pure Hawaiian grandfather, or tutu , and thus, Dad had a collection of a dozen or so of his own nets.
I recall how he would frequent a certain Japanese-owned fishing supply shop in Kapa'a, the small town we lived in on the eastern side of the island. Dad would buy ample amounts of twine, rope, bamboo sewing needles, floaters, and lead.
As the family would gather after supper in our tiny living room, watching The Ed Sullivan Show, Combat, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, The Dick Van Dyke Show, or any other selection from a host of Kennedy-era classics, Dad would be sitting on the floor, the beginning of his net connected to the big toe of one foot while keeping the other end of the emerging net taut with his hands. Using either a pre-cut metal rectangle for a guide or a similar-sized bamboo piece whose edges he had sanded and smoothed, he would tie consecutive and connected squares, or the eyes of his net, tier by tier, until he'd fabricated his project.
Later, he would take two long pieces of rope and thread lead onto one length and wood floats onto the other. Each lead piece was set equidistantly from its neighbor. How? My father simply counted so many eyes--say, twelve--and secured a lead at that point while sewing the rope onto the net. The process was painstakingly repeated with the wood floats.
My father would sometimes save some money by making his own floats and lead pieces. Along the banks of the island rivers grew a tree that we called the hau tree (also known as sea hibiscus or beach hibiscus tree). As Tutu Eddie had taught Dad, the ancient Hawaiians had used this particularly low density wood to make spars for outrigger canoes, adze handles, floats for canoes, and, yes, floats for nets. My mind'sl photo album stores images of my father using a large cane knife to cut lengths of hau branches as well as to strip the skin off of them. He would then dry the poles out in the sun until the moisture had evaporated. He then would cut equal lengths out and drill holes into them to finish the processing of the floats.
For lead, Dad would go to the local dump site and scrounge around for discarded metal that might contain lead. I remember one time in 1959, shortly after Hurricane Nina had hit Kaua'i, that my father found a bunch of lead where a movie theater had been demolished by the strong winds. He brought the metal home, did his own makeshift smelting, and poured the molten lead into handheld molds. The results were as good as store-bought lead.
Setting the Lobster Nets
During the school year, Friday or Saturday afternoons were the optimal days and times for setting lobster nets because Dad could then count on my--and, later, my brothers'--help in picking up the nets the following morning. In the summer time, we could lay our nets on any day of the week.
Dad almost never gave me advance warning that he was going to set his nets. I'd find out after having a quick after-school snack. Changing into my T-shirt and shorts, grabbing a pair of Japanese cloth tabis that would secure my footing on the slippery rocks or protect me from the sharp coral, and finding my goggles, I'd help my father load up our old Studebaker and head on over to his chosen favorite lobster fishing grounds in either Kapa'a or, further to the north, Anahola.
I was 8 or 9 years old when I first started helping my father set lobster nets...old and big enough to keep from drowning but young enough to exasperate Dad with my lack of focus and anticipation. Still, I knew I was of some help to him, even if it was as little as feeding his fantasy that I was actually learning how to carry on the ancient island ways.
What I do recall was just how resourceful my father was. His ability to take whatever the environment gave him and utilize it for the moment turned out to be one of the greatest gifts of skill that he could ever give to me. In his mind, that concept may have just been another example of the common sense his oldest son lacked. In my way of thinking, common sense was not an innate concept but rather a lifetime-acquired skill. To this day, whenever I stumble upon a Eureka! moment, I want to call my father up right away and excitedly tell him about my fantastic resourcefulness. Invariably, I learn to find contentment in addressing that indelible part of Dad that lies deep within my soul, that part that causes me to tear up just writing these words.
I remember, for example, how one day, we discovered that we didn't have enough metal hooks (devices that looked like light and skinny anchors that could be wedged into the holes in rocks or coral to secure our nets). Without anchoring, the current could easily cause the nets to be lost or greatly damaged. Dad quickly improvised and had me help him find five to ten pound rocks with holes in them that he could tie the rope ends to. The additional plus factor was that we could easily discard and return the rocks to the sea bottom upon retrieving the nets.
Dad taught me that the appropriate and respectful protocol of setting nets was to honor the boundaries of other fishermen. If someone else had set his nets in a given area, it would be in poor taste to set your nets in the general proximity. So if Kapa'a Flats--a relatively shallow reef area roughly ten acres in area--was already taken on any given day, we'd move on to Anahola or, if necessary, further north to Moloa'a.
My father also had a gut instinct for tide and meteorological conditions. He knew not to lay his nets on full moon nights because lobsters are reluctant to engage in any movement during times when they are exposed to predators.
Most of the time, I ended up tiptoeing by the end of our net laying session because the tide would be rising. But I persevered. I didn't dare drown. Dad would've been furious!
The next morning, we'd pick up the nets. This was great fun! Of the dozens of times my father set his nets, there was never an occasion when he drew a blank. As mentioned earlier, lobsters were abundant in those days, and we'd draw in nets full of Hawaiian Spiny Lobsters. We also caught a few Japanese Slipper Lobsters and a variety of crabs.
Before leaving the beach, my father--not a religious, church going man by any means but certainly very spiritual--taught me to thank God for His abundant provision. If I remember nothing else from this experience, I will forever cherish my father's example as being one of the better sermons I have ever witnessed.
Back home, we carefully removed the lobsters from the nets. This took a bit of patience. My father taught me to remove them by drawing the eyes of the net towards the lobster's front--in other words, backing the lobster out of the net. This way, there'd be less chance of the net being caught up in the spiny carapace, or outer shell, of the crustacean.
After the haul was removed, we pulled out any seaweed and bits of rock and coral that were still stuck to the net. We then soaked the nets in fresh water. Not doing this would have resulted in the salt's erosion of the twine and rope fibers.
Dad would then have me help him lay the nets out on the lawn so the sun could dry them. A few hours later, he would gather his nets up and store them in a large bag in the garage.
That was the process we followed each and every time.
The best part of it all was still ahead.
Enter my mother...
She placed a huge pot, two thirds filled with water, on the electric stove. She turned the heat to high . While the water was still at room temperature, she carefully, one by one, placed the lobsters--still alive and writhing hours after they'd been caught--into the pot.
My little boy curiosity always took over at this time. I would pot-watch for a few minutes, imagining that I could hear those poor lobsters screaming. I never heard any sounds, but I could see their antennae and legs moving around briskly. Slowly, their color changed from a peacock blue and green to an orange-red.
Gathered around the table or sprawled out in the living room, our family impatiently waited for Mom to separate the tails from each lobster. While this part of the lobster had the most meat, we certainly didn't waste the opportunity to crack open the big legs and pull the flesh out from the tubular structures. The main shell also contained delicious morsels of meat, and you could soon hear the sucking sounds of mouths discovering the savory lobster flesh.
We actually didn't use a hot butter and garlic sauce. Instead, Mom made an island style concoction, a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar. Mmm, now that was a delight!
To supplement the family income, I helped my parents sell the excess lobsters to friends and acquaintances in the neighborhood. I didn't know it then, but the experience would prove invaluable to me decades later in my online entrepreneurial endeavors.
Lobster Net Fishing May Be a Thing of the Past...But I Can Still Write About It!
Unfortunately, due to the dramatically waning population of the Hawaiian Spiny Lobster, setting lobster nets is now a prohibited activity, one that carries a hefty fine and maybe even jail time.
Honestly, as I look back, I didn't have a passion for the Hawaiian culture. What I loved was reading--both books and comic books. I also had a bent for collecting things (seashells, stamps, dead bugs, dried leaves, Superman DC and Marvel comics, rocks, and other passing fads). After school, I enjoyed playing a game of marbles with my classmates, going to Cub Scout meetings, or reporting to Little League baseball practice.
Today, I greatly regret not having observed more closely, asked more questions, and given more of my little boy's time and interest to my father. What I am thankful for is that I learned just enough to one day write about the wealth of knowledge my father possessed. I have a brother, ten years younger, who on his own determined in his young adult years to learn all that he could from the Hawaiian elders, and it is his earnestly acquired and generously shared wisdom about the ancient ways that triggers my recall and provides me with the necessary imagery to write about it all.
In a very special place in my heart, there's an unlocked house that bears a simple sign on the front door--
E komo mai, Dad. Nou ka hale.
The words are simple. They say: Come on in, Dad. The house is yours.
And in this house, the television set is tuned to the CBS Sunday evening production of The Ed Sullivan Show. George Carlin has just started his hippy dippy weatherman report, great for eliciting several hearty laughs from Dad.
And the net...the unfinished lobster net...is there for him to stick his big toe through as he reaches for his tools of the trade and, not missing a beat, carries on where he left off.
And the one and only difference is that I will be on the floor with him, my own genesis of a lobster net tethered to my own big toe, shadowing him, mirroring his every movement, intently acquiring and preserving into genealogical memory, the ways of the Ancients.