Son of a Sailor by Bill Russell

Bill Russell recounts his memories of moving to Hawaii as a little boy in this extract.

Girdles Don't Work in Hawaii

Taking charge was never my way. Even now, just trying to arrange my memories seems monumental. There are so many to sift through, events like the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor at which my brother, Dave, and I had a front-row view until Mom stuffed us in a closet. There was that traumatic first day of school when I fell in love with a starched, golden-haired goddess who wouldn't even look at me. My thoughts take me to glorious hours spent mucking around in the dirt with the neighborhood kids only to be dragged home, complaining loudly, to do exactly the same thing in Mom's victory garden. Of course, as any kid knows, digging in a garden is work. Later, there was the gigantic policeman my mother ratted me out to and the catastrophe of my first encounter with a BLT. I remember the frenzy of my hormone driven teen years, the yacht Dave and I built and sailed to the bottom of Mission Bay and my cool plan to escape Mr. Scaley's remedial math class by joining the Marines. In Georgia I had a blind date with an overly ample Southern belle, and made my one and only attempt at chicken stealing. In Barstow, I recall a sergeant who had me dead-to-rights in a booze smuggling caper before he drank the evidence. With all these stories and more waiting to be told, the logical place to start is 1939 and my first glimmerings of a world beyond my nose...

My first real recollections are from when I was four. One of the more vivid was the image of looking up at a giant white wall with little round windows in it and a bunch of people standing on top looking down at me. There was a pungent odor I couldn't identify that seemed to be everywhere and burned my eyes. Many years later, I learned it was fuel oil.

I remember going through a door into the big, white wall and Mom told me and my brother it was a ship. That might have been exciting news, had I known what a ship was. All I knew was it was big, white and there were a lot of people standing around. It was like being lost in a forest of legs.

"Stay close, boys and for heaven's sake, Billy, stop picking at your seat. People are looking at you."

I remember only scant glimmerings of the voyage. My next recollection came when we stood in a warm breeze, at a rail looking down at a bunch of people with flowers around their neck milling about on a wooden platform. That must have been when we arrived in Hawaii. After that, my memory fades for a while. The next thing I remember is playing in a giant banyan tree growing in the middle of Lahala Lane where we lived in Honolulu. A hospital parking lot now covers the site. That was where I saw my first centipede, or maybe it was a millipede? I didn't count the number of legs and it didn't matter because I couldn't count past four anyway, but there were a lot of them. As I remember it was blue, yellow, fast, and according to one neighbor kid, could sting like heck. I made every effort after that to avoid any contact.

Pop was stationed on a submarine, and being on submarines his aversion to surprises was understandable. When you're a couple of hundred feet under the ocean in a steel tube, you like things to go smoothly and predictably so you can come up if you want to. He, as I said, was a little skittish about surprises and absolutely hysterical on the subject of safety. That goes a long way toward explaining his response to an incident that occurred one Sunday morning. He must have known about centipedes and thought that was what ran up his leg.

Dave, my sister Fran and I, along with Mom and three neighbor ladies, were watching as he attacked a cluster of banana palms in the back yard with an ax. He was thinning the patch and chopping away, telling stories and laughing when all of a sudden he let out a yell, began dancing wildly around the yard shedding his trousers amid a chorus of gasps from the spectators. Two of the women covered their faces with their hands while the third stood gawking in unabashed curiosity. Pop dashed for the house, tossing his trousers aside as gasps from the spectator's turned into nervous titters.

It was the talk of the neighborhood for weeks and became a kitchen table favorite at family get-togethers for years after. The poor critter that ran up the inside of his trouser leg was never seen and speculation was, it was just a lizard. Modesty aside, Pop was taking no chances with the family assets, regardless of what the critter was or how many females were in the audience.

The house we rented wasn't very big, and one day we came home to a living room full of flower leis. They were draped everywhere. It looked like an explosion in a lei factory.

"Frances, where did all these come from?" Mom asked my sister. She was our half-sister and about thirteen at the time. As any young boy knows, older sisters tend to be a road block on the highway of joy and Fran was no exception. I think just being a girl made it hard for her to understand little boys, and, I suspect, she didn't care, one way or the other.

"Betty Woo's brother took us out on a boat and we followed the Matsonia. Everyone was throwing these overboard so we picked them up."

"What are we supposed to do with them?"

"I thought we'd dry them out and save them."


"How about David and Billy's room."

I noticed she didn't volunteer her room. Mom saw the light of reason and in spite of Fran's tearful protestations, opted for the trash as a final resting place for the hoard. According to Mom's account, Fran sulked for the better part of fifteen minutes until her buddy, Betty Woo, came over and they skipped off to some new adventure.

Dave was born in Hawaii in 1934, when Pop was stationed there on the submarine S-44. Think about this, he came into the world on a beautiful Pacific island, amid lush palms, hibiscus blossoms, hula hula girls and flower-scented trade winds.

When people asked him, "Where were you born?" He got to tell them, "Hawaii."

When those same people asked me where I was born, I had to mumble, "Parkin."

Inevitably they asked, "Where's that?"

"I don't know, it's in Arkansas somewhere."

It was mortifying, a life-long burden I've had to carry. Couldn't Mom have gone to Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa or the French Riviera to have me? Nooo, she had to go to Arkansas. I never forgave her for that. I have nothing against Arkansas, it's a beautiful state but, it isn't what you'd call exotic or glamorous.

Mom and Pop left the islands in early 1935. He sailed to another duty station and she, along with Dave and Fran, traveled to Arkansas where she awaited my birth in December. In 1936, we joined Pop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where his submarine was assigned. Two years later, in 1938, we motored our way to San Diego to meet him. There we lived until 1939, when Pop's boat was transferred to Hawaii and we sailed to Honolulu to rejoin him.

By the middle of 1941, Dave and I hadn't the slightest idea what a coat or shoes were for. Being almost natives, we lived in shorts and once in a while, when Mom insisted, a shirt. The freedom of bare feet had its downside though. I stepped on a couple of nails sticking up in a board and got a rush trip to Queens Hospital. Pop was building lawn furniture from old packing crates he got somewhere and the cut-off end of one of the boards wound up attached to the bottom of my foot.

Not only was it my first introduction to excruciating pain but also my first excursion into the terror of a tetanus shot. I'd have been okay if they hadn't let me see the syringe. Suddenly, the nails didn't hurt all that bad and I was willing to leave them where they were just to forgo the needle. I reasoned, the nails were already in me, the needle hadn't gotten there yet. A lot of screaming and yelling later, the nails came out and the needle went in. I did get a lollypop to soothe my jangled nerves. It wasn't a fair trade but it was better than nothing.

A couple of months later, we moved into Navy housing, across the road from Hickam Field army air station and close to the submarine base at Pearl Harbor. The dirt, as I remember it, was red volcanic grit. To Dave and me it was just dirt, to be savored, rolled in, played with and enjoyed. Mom took a different view. She hated it. It got into everything, stained everything because of its high iron content, and wouldn't wash out. She complained far and wide but it didn't seem to do much good because after she finished griping the dirt was still there and Dave and I were just as filthy. I do recall the stuff led to an inordinate number of baths which took precious time away from play and resulted in a lot of kid-grumbling.

"Aw, Mom, do we have to take a bath now? We're playing."

"Billy, you're absolutely rusty."

"But, gosh, we'll only get rusty again."

Speaking of baths, Hawaii is very wet and humid. That's probably to be expected, surrounded by the whole Pacific Ocean. Toss in a lot of rain and the heat from a shower and you can create very, very moist skin. This fact played heavily one afternoon when Mom and Pop were due to attend a formal function at the Navy base and Mom had just taken a hot shower. She now had to get into a girdle. She was a slender woman and probably didn't need one but girdles were the thing then. There was an anti-wiggle fashion movement sweeping the country and to jiggle in one's clothing at that time was to commit some sort of social faux-pas.

The shower insured that her body was not going to slither into such a garment without a fight. My brother, sister, father and I gathered around, holding up the top while she tried to use gravity to wriggle into it. The air was white with talcum powder and blue with bawdy language. When she finally crammed herself into the elastic tube, there were the final adjustments, pulling here and tucking there, before she could bend over to put on her hose.

It couldn't have been a comfortable evening, however, no one could accuse her of not being fashionably attired and I doubt there was a single jiggle to be seen inside of her dress. We were in bed so we missed the unveiling later. I'm certain the process involved her hanging onto something solid while Pop struggled to peel the garment off. It must have been similar to skinning a squirrel. That incident also became a favorite family story, told over and over.

On many Saturday nights, the West Virginia Mountain Boys, a band from the battleship West Virginia, came to the house to party and play. All the neighbors dropped by as well as ship-mates, Mom baked biscuits and the beer flowed freely. I liked to sit in the dog house with Mona, our German shepherd, and stay out from underfoot. They had a good time in there, judging from the noise. I don't know what time the parties broke it up because Mona and I were usually asleep by nine.

A lot of those guys were lost on December seventh, when their crippled ship settled into the mud on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. One of the band members owned a portable recorder. We had little plastic records of their songs, made on board the ship. Engine noise, voices and laughter could be heard in the background. Later, back in the states, Mom took them to a studio and had them permanently, or so she thought, transferred to large records. Years later, I reached into a drawer to get them out. I wanted to listen again, but they crumbled in my hands. World War II plastic probably wasn't up to what it should have been. It was distressing that a little piece of history wound up as just a bunch of dust in the trash can out back. It was a sad loss.


  1. Excellent, excellent! I would like to read more. Well written and very engaging.

  2. "Join the Navy and see the world," the pundits and others have said for years, unless, as I say, you find a writer like Bill Russell who comes here with all the images caught up in his words so that you see the images clearly. He reminded me of a few words I said years ago when my brother came home from three years of WW II's Pacific madness and he stepped off the train at our little station. "I never really knew about him until I saw his sea bag on his shoulders decorated with his wife's hand-painted picture and the map and the names ... Saipan ... Iwo Jima ... Kwajalein ... the war."

    Tom Sheehan

  3. This made delightful reading, especially to those of us with little knowledge of exotic Hawaii. A fast-paced and totally absorbing account of boyhood memories. Your relaxed way of writing, with touches of humour, made this a pleasure to read and I was sorry when it ended. More, please.