Even though he hasn’t lived on Kauai for more than 40 years, when Al Akagi sat down beside me on an airplane at Los Angeles International airport bound for Lihue, there was something about him that made me know he was originally from Kauai. It must have been his “Kauai calm” and the vibe of Kauai connections that he still has.
Within minutes, he was reminiscing fondly about growing up on Kauai.
“I grew up in Kaumakani sugar plantation camp. I attended Waimea High School,” Al told me and my partner, Lincoln.
Though much of Kaumakani Camp looks a little worse for the wear these days, Al says that it was very different when he was a boy.
“Used to be that Kaumakani Camp was like a poster development. All the houses were freshly painted, the lawns were all green and the hedges were all freshly manicured,” he said. “The roads were all blacktopped. In fact, it was a requirement that all the residents kept up the standards. They had pride in their homes.”
(The Robinson family, owners of Gay & Robinson, Inc. and operators of a Kauai sugar plantation for 120 years before its final harvest in 2009, and the now-defunct Olokele Sugar Company, continue to allow plantation retirees to remain in their Kaumakani Camp homes for rental prices dramatically lower than market value.)
Al’s grandparents originally came to Kauai from Japan for work in the sugar industry and returned shortly before World War II.
“Their son, my father, stayed on Kauai and worked as a surveyor for Olokele Sugar,” he said.
In the early years, all sugar plantation lunas (supervisors) were issued horses by the plantations.
“I remember my father riding his horse home for lunch, and riding around with all the children,” he said. “Later all the supervisors were given trucks.”
C. Brewer & Co., owner of Olokele Sugar before it was sold to Gay & Robinson in 1994, “sent my father to Iraq for six months because Iraqis were interested at one point in learning how to grow sugar cane,” Al recalled. “That’s an opportunity you wouldn’t know you could get on Kauai.”
Growing up here, Al always yearned for opportunities beyond Kauai’s shores. After enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1961 and serving with an all-Hawaii company, he remained on the Mainland, attending college in Chicago, living in Germany for awhile, Seattle and finally in Plymouth, Mich., where he settled. He has logged more than 1 million miles traveling throughout the U.S. and Canada for his career in computer technology.
Al returns to Kauai almost every year to visit his mother, Hisae Akagi, who is celebrating her 95th birthday this month, and his sisters, Joyce Nagata and Pam Watanabe. Although he is more accustomed to the faster Mainland pace, “I always feels relaxed coming back to Kauai,” he said.
On a trip home to Kauai about 25 years ago, Al was fishing near Salt Pond in Hanapepe when he saw a glider being towed by an airplane over the beach. After the glider landed, Al walked over to take a look.
“The pilot was leaning over the fence and asked, ‘Do you want a ride?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ He asked, ‘When?’ I said, ‘Now!’ I leaned my fishing pole against the fence and got aboard.”
As they glided over west Kauai, the pilot began telling him history about the areas below.
“I told him I grew up here and that as a child, we used to go through all those areas with the Boy Scouts. We flew an extra hour over Kauai on that flight,” he recalled with a broad smile.
After chatting awhile on our flight from Los Angeles to Kauai last week, I was curious what other Kauai connections Al still has. I asked him if he remembers Wilfred Ibara, who also grew up on Kauai and has always lived on the Westside. (Wilfred’s story was featured in this column two weeks ago.) Not only did he remember Wilfred, but Al was classmates with one of Wilfred’s brothers, saying there were enough Ibara siblings to be classmates with every Akagi sibling, something that Wilfred confirms. In fact, Al’s brother, Ted, and Wilfred, went into the U.S. Army together.
It was a pleasure talking story with Al and meeting his sister, Joyce, who picked him up from Lihue Airport.
Five days later, we experienced another “Al Akagi-Kauai connections” episode. A woman we often wave at when we see her and a handful of her friends aqua-cising in Morgan’s Pond at Lydgate Beach Park, walked up to us as we were showering off the salt water from our morning swim.
“I’m Pam Watanabe. You met my brother on the airplane,” she said to me and Lincoln. We all laughed about how we already “knew” each other but it was through her brother, who hasn’t lived on Kauai for decades, that we finally formally met.
Kauai connections like these may seem rare to folks who live on the Mainland, but to those of us who live here, it’s our normal life.
Mahalo, Al Akagi, for sharing your Kauai connections, and enjoy your time with your family on the Garden Island.
• Pamela Varma Brown is the publisher “Kauai Stories,” a collection of 50 humorous, touching and inspiring stories in the words of Kauai’s people, available on Amazon and locations islandwide.