Talk Story: Duke Wellington

Kauai’s paniolo poet from Essex, England, David “Duke” Wellington, has seen the island go through many changes since his arrival in the 1950s. The 85-year-old Eleele resident was a youth when his family fled Europe to escape World War II’s Nazi invasion. He explored the Americas and Hawaii and fought on the front lines of the Korean War, twice.

Ultimately, Wellington was drawn to Kauai where he became harvesting superintendent of a sugar plantation and then a successful cattle rancher. In 2004, he published an illustrated book of poetry, “He Mau Mo‘olelo Na Kekahi Paniolo Pelekane: Tales by An English Paniolo.” Now he shares stories of the island he once knew with anyone who will listen, especially his eight grandchildren.

Tell us about your early years in Europe during World War II and how you came to America.

I was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. My father was born in India and was in World War II in the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards. When they went on a patrol, the Germans ran a couple of tanks up there and killed practically the whole squad and all the horses. My dad lay upon the field for 24 hours, and his wounds got gangrene.

So he was invalided out of the army in 1917. … He went to Canada because he had an older sister who immigrated there. Then he went to Africa, shot game and sent it back to his widowed mother in England. She gave it away promptly, as soon as she got all these heads.

Then he was in South America, Colombia, running a banana plantation. He went on home leave and met my mother in Canterbury. She came to Colombia and they married the minute she got off the boat. … After only 10 months, she couldn’t speak Spanish, and there were few Europeans there. She took the boat back to England, and my sister was born. They went to Canada, where I was born four years later in Toronto, Ontario. Hitler had started to prance around, and my mother wanted to go back to her mother, who was widowed in England. So we moved back, and Grandma dropped dead about 10 months later. We were there just in time for World War II.

I went to a private school, Brentwood School, founded in 1557. After World War II, my father’s brother immigrated to America with his wife, and they decided to send me to America for a year. I was a skinny underfed boy with real strict rationing — one egg a month and four ounces of meat a week. I came to America in 1949, in Marin County where you cross the Golden Gate Bridge.

What happened next and what led you to join the Army after your father’s experience?

When I moved to Mill Valley, my uncle, who was an alcoholic, had done very well in the shorts’ business in San Francisco. … Sometimes he’d drink too much, and one day he got really nasty. I just got up and walked off. … That day I was standing watching the football team practice at the junior college, and this kid who had been quarterback in high school was there. He put the ball down, and in my saddle shoes I kicked a field goal, which I had done many times. But my uncle would never sign the paper to let me play the sport. Just then the coach walked out and put the ball on the 50-yard mark. I kicked a field goal in my street clothes, it hit the crossbar, went up in the air and back into the field. He said to the equipment manager to get this guy a uniform and a locker. … I was really happy. When I got home my uncle started, and that’s when it came to a head. I wasn’t going back.

That night I hitchhiked to a friend’s house in the middle of the night. The next morning he said another classmate of ours was going to South America. So he took me to the Norwegian merchant passenger ship out of Bergen, Norway. … I called my cousin and said, “I’m going to run away to South America. Tomorrow, check the shipping news that comes into San Francisco paper every day. When you see the ship has sailed San Pedro, go to the house and tell them where I am.” I went all the way around South America, and I had a lot of adventures.

When I got back to San Pedro, the federal agent said I hadn’t registered for the draft. (President) Truman had passed the law because of the Korea War that when you reached 18 you had to register for the draft. Even though I was an alien, I was still subject to U.S. laws. … I waited and the guy wouldn’t let me off. The next day he said, you catch this bus and tell them to let you off at the immigration building.

I thought they were going to deport me, but the guy couldn’t have been nicer. He said, “When you’re on a green card you’re supposed to let us know.” I’d register to enlist for 24 months; “then how can they say you’re a draft dodger?” That seemed like a good idea, so I caught the bus to San Fran. … I called Mill Valley, and everything was forgiven. I went back to Fort Ord, California, to do basic training. They took 1,750 guys and put them on the boat for departure to Oahu’s Schofield Barracks.

From there I went to Korea and then to Hokkaido, Japan. I must have had PTSD, because I volunteered to go back to Korea again after I had been in Japan with all those pretty girls and Nippon beer. I stayed about three months then volunteered back to Heartbreak Ridge.

From there we were sent back to Koje-do, which was a prisoner of war island off the coast of Korea. When we transferred back to San Fran, went to some building, raised our hands and became citizens.

How did you end up starting a life in Kauai?

When I was in Honolulu, this little girl at a party asked if I knew Eddie Chang, and we had roomed together. I didn’t take her out right after that. I met two guys from Kauai whose father used to be the port captain. They were taking jobs at Macy’s, the biggest department store at that time in Honolulu on Fourth Street. They were hiring Christmas help, and old Duker got in linens. There was a Japanese lady there who noticed me hanging around the beach. She asked if I went to college and said she was going to talk to her boss.

But a guy who lived in our dorm kept calling saying he could get us on a big sailing ship to the South Pacific. I catch a plane, land with $20 in my pocket and he wasn’t there. He was on the Big Island working at Kahua Ranch.

So I got a job working at the Pan American Airlines’ front counter. Low and behold, who comes tripping in with her little stewardess uniform, the girl I met at that party. We got married in 1958. Then this guy worked for Gaspar and wanted to open an ag-chemical department on Kauai. They hired me, and we moved back. I ended up manager of the branch by selling ag chemicals to plantations.

Tell us about your Rocking W Ranch.

There’s 800 usable acres for pasture spread over a 1,200 acre area. It starts at Knudsen Gap and goes down Tree Tunnel Road almost to the tennis courts. The ridge on top, Haupu Ridge, is our boundary that goes all the way through the ranch.

How did you originally acquire the land?

It had been in sugar and worked as harvesting superintendent at that plantation. When the sugar market disappeared, the big landowners were given a number of years to get their land back into agriculture or they would be taxed at what the assessor said was “highest and best use.” The state makes little money on pasture, but if it were a hotel, taxes would be sky high. So they were desperate; all big landowners wanted to get their land back into agriculture. It was better than paying the taxes.

To qualify for the rehabilitative RITA Grant, it had to be land that was formerly used for sugar and you hired people that had been employed in sugar.

I signed up for the program, and we got a $250,000 grant to go into the dairy replacement business. … But the bottom fell out of the dairy market, because civilization closed in on the dairies and people complained they didn’t like the smell. So the dairy stopped. … We had to make a decision. Are we gonna say thank you for the loan and goodbye, or are we gonna try and switch to the beef business, which is what we did. We bought cows for as cheap as we could. We just kept buying until we got up to 200. We got by, we survived.

What was your most memorable experience working on the ranch?

We got different leases from the Knudsen family, and some of it was trust land and some was already in the hands of the heirs. At that point, our fence stopped at the first bend in the road. Beyond that there was no fence. They put gates between the big cane blocks. Nobody can drive through 10 feet of cane. … While the plantation was in a state of flux, dirt bike guys came in and had tracks all over the place.

When we put our gates in, they left the gate open. One morning, cops called, and there was a hundred cows in the road on that straightaway in the Tree Tunnel. We called the cows, and they came right back inside. The cop controlled traffic and cows for us at the same time. He didn’t write me up or anything, and I bought him Sunday brunch at the hotel.

What happened next with your Rocking W Ranch?

We did that until my son, Stewart, got involved. He’s got all the buffalo in Hanalei. He diversified and is really into horses. It was just too much for me. I told my son and my grandson to take over the ranch. Every time I went down there the horse had grown another foot. Fortunately, one of the guys that work for me built a little mounting stand. I’d just lead my horse over there, and she would stand at the right spot for me to climb up. I had a hip replacement a couple years back, and after that it was just all downhill.

What are some of the changes you’ve seen on Kauai in the last 60 years?

Population. I remember the first time I came here with my father-in-law. We just got married and lived on Oahu before I took the Gaspar job, and he picked me up. Between Lihue Airport and the house in Kekaha, we passed only two cars on the road at that time.

Now as much as it would break my heart, I don’t blame my eight grandchildren for not coming home. How can they buy a house? How can they do anything? It’s just not the Kauai it was. With sugar dying, that released a lot of land where they can develop. This is the home of the rich and the land of the brave. In retrospect, I think of opportunities I had to invest and do the same thing.

Land is going to be too expensive to ranch. Maybe you could make a living if you’re a good farmer, if the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. You could make good money on 10 acres if you’re willing. But for cattle, you need land, and people complain about this and that.

I worked for the plantation for awhile, as harvesting superintendent. I had better get out there with my little wind gauge before I put the match.

One time, a hotel down there had an outside banquet set. McBride put the match, and it rained black ash. The wind was in their direction, on all those tablecloths. We tried everything, I remember serving juice and stuff and letting some visitors light the fire trying to “soft soap” them.

What do you miss about the Kauai you first came to know?

There was a period in my life before I got my own place when I was working for Gaspar. … Every Sunday morning I sat on my mule and would go up to camp. At night I’d walk up the ridge and down the valley. The pigs would sleep on that pali, but at night they’d cross the ridge and go into the guavas. I’d get up there by mule, fix my fire, then walk up the ridge and just wait. Sure enough you’d hear them coming quite a lot of times. Poof! I’d bring the pig down, hang it up and gut it.

Tell us about your written stories, including your poetry and other writings.

I like poetry believe it or not; it was one of my favorite subjects in boarding school. In my poetry book, most of it is true. I’d write about something that happened in every one of them. There’s a poem about a guy who was a policeman for Robinson Plantation and poems for each of my eight grandkids. Then I wrote about when I first came, an incident when we were leaving to go to Korea.

I was on the deck looking down at people throwing leis while the band was playing. I was eye-to-eye with this wahine and thought she was waving to me. I’d never seen her before, but she said, “I love you.” Like a turkey I pointed at myself, and she said no and pointed up at the guy above. So I wrote a poem about that. … I guess I’m a storyteller.

I’ve had several people tell me, you ought to write a book. So I decided to write a book about me, if I don’t croak before I finish. Right now I just call it “My Story,” that’s going to be the title.

What’s your greatest accomplishment on Kauai?

I’m most proud of my grandkids; they’re all smarter than their grandfather. My grandchildren keep my afloat, and my wife keeps me in line. That’s about it.

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