Ron & Niagara in Hawaii (1984)
Sunrises are often spectacular on the north shore of Oahu. This dawn was exceptional ...The pale seashell pink glow, with bright crimson borders, was almost painfully beautiful. There were splashes of mauve, deepest gentian, and even subtle shadings of celadon green against a gentle milky background.
The only difference was that today the sun was shining on a different background - not sea and sky - but skin. It was the skin of Niagara; skin normally so pale and translucent that the faint criss-crossings of underlying veins often gave it a disturbing blue tint. Today, as the sun rose over Kaneohe, its golden rays highlighted yet another overlay of bruises and welts, the traces of activities left by the night before...
At the Officers Club things were starting to heat up. It was a Friday night squadron party, and the theme was “Sixties”. The F-4 Phantom pilots and RIO’s of VMFA 212 were drinking. They’d be letting their hair down if they had any, and no one ever accused Marines, much less Marine aviators, of being less than totally gung ho at these sort of gatherings. These guys flew hard, fought hard, and played hard. I was their flight surgeon, and flew with them in the back seat. In my cut-off denim jacket with Radio Birdman logo emblazoned, spinning 45’s, playing DJ and feeling very happy. I had an endless supply of local Primo beer and Jack Daniels coming my way, as long as the hits kept spinning on the turntable. Namu, Bone, “Evil” Frog, and some of the other squadron “class clowns” had shown up in long hair wigs with mock drug paraphernalia. Even “Pack”, the cigar chomping, hard as nails skipper, was relaxing ... just a bit.
Lt.Col J.J. “Pack” Barta had a right to be a tough customer. He had spent a fair amount of the late sixties in the jungle living on bugs, dodging AK-47 rounds and avoiding booby traps as a recon Marine. He had a little different perspective on that decade than us younger dudes. Ron Asheton, who was visiting me and my wife of three years, Angie, in the Islands, had yet another perspective on the sixties based on several operational tours of duty with the Stooges. Niagara had flown out with Ron for the holiday. They had gotten over jet lag and climate shift, and the carefree couple were beginning to enjoy a taste of squadron life.
The drinks flowed freely, the conversation got louder, the music and dancing grew wilder as the Marines and their Michigan guests partied on into the night. Niagara was constantly surrounded by Marines bringing drinks, like courtly slaves at the beck and call of a princess in ancient Egypt. She was completely in her element, as self-assured, and in control as a 6000 hour veteran Navy or Marine jet fighter jock making a carrier landing in daylight and good weather. The young pilots had never seen anything remotely like her. Usually fearless, often loud, they were now not only polite, but a little bit ... shy! They didn’t know what to do when she spoke to them in “that” voice. They were even less certain of the outcome when confronted by a pale white breast spilled momentarily from the low cut dress. This was at home, mind you, not the Phillipines! There were wives around, and there was no emergency procedure checklist for that!!
Ron had acquired the honorary call sign, “Sixpack”. He knew his military history, and he loved airplanes. Ron’s father had been a Marine aviator in the Pacific in World War 2. Ron rode to work with me, and had been spending plenty of time hanging around the squadron. Once Ron was in the ready room, and had taken over the base radio. He was actually communicating with Phantom crews out on a mission, when The Skipper walked in, shook his head in disbelief. Without removing the cigar from his mouth, he yelled “ASHETON! IN MY OFFICE NOW!!” Both Ron and the duty officer, who had taken a break leaving Ron in charge, took a verbal beating. Ron prided himself on this later. Being disciplined by the Skipper made him feel like he was really part of the team! Tonight he was drinking hard, enjoying conversation with the squadron guys but always had one concerned eye on Niagara and was feeling a little bit of anxiety over some of the indiscretions of the evening, and where it all might lead.
Finally things wound down and Marines with three sheets to the wind drifted out into the balmy tropical night. On the way out of the club, the laws of gravity overcame high heels and equilibrium. To the horror and fascination of onlookers, Niagara murmured “Ohhhh, Ronnie!” and then plunged head first down a long flight of stairs. She swapped ends two or three times, long legs and thin arms violently slamming corners, rails and steps all the way down. She landed in a piteous heap at the bottom of the landing, knickers exposed, moaning. The crash was spectacular, but Ron had seen this scenario many times before and knew what had to be done. After a quiet “God DAMN it” from between clenched teeth, he looked around at the shocked audience, lit a cigarette, and smiled. He said, “Hey, its OK, she’ll be all right, could you guys just help me get her in the car?”.
We did just that and drove the 10 miles northwest up the King Kamehameha Highway to our townhouse on Hui Kelu Street in Temple Valley. Everyone went straight to bed ... because in an unbelievable lapse of planning wisdom, I had organized fishing for the next day. It would require an early start.
Three hours later Niagara, Ron, 7 months pregnant Angie and I had climbed into the green ’72 Olds Cutlass-S and were heading for the pier. We were all tired and (except Angie, who wasn’t drinking) hung over, that was a given. Ron, beyond tired and hung over, was barely able to speak. Niagara was even worse, and seemed very close to needing to be placed on life support. Niagara’s external injuries were bad enough, but there was also inner damage to that slender wraithlike 50 kilogram body. The mix of fermentation by-products and toxins from the alcohol were taking an even greater toll from the inside. The weary pair only wanted to be unconscious, better yet fully anesthetized, but being the good sports that they are, tried very hard to stay present and awake. It didn’t work out that way.
Still off balance with vertigo, Niagara was gently helped aboard the fishing boat. The boat owner was an enlisted Navy guy that I knew, a salty 3rd class petty officer from the base. The sailor seemed like a shady character, but had offered to take me fishing anytime, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to show friends from the mainland some of the local lifestyle and get some mahi mahi for the grill. We might even hook into some yellowfin tuna, or maybe even a marlin, you never knew! It looked like it would be a great day, with clear blue skies, trade winds out of the northeast, and moderate seas. Hoping for pelagic fish, we cast off lines and headed for the channel between Oahu and Molokai.
As soon as we reached open water, the boat began to roll in the swells. The engine exhaust fumes, freshening wind, and merciless sun all combined to drive Ron and Niagara under cover. After heaving a load of green vomit over the side, and washing out their mouths with a couple of cans of Budweiser, the pair made their way forward to the very nose of the boat, where they lay down and passed out cold on a pile of life vests. Although Angie, due to her pregnancy, had not been drinking at the party she began to feel seasick and tried to keep a focus on the horizon. I grabbed a sandwich out of the cooler, poured a cup of thermos coffee, and started fishing.
There were no fish that day, except for one mahi mahi, landed early in the day. Niagara, momentarily rising into consciousness, pressed her hands against her ears, to try to block out the sickening noise of the 20 pound fish flapping against the sides of the cooler. Then the hours passed with no fish. But they pushed on. Angie got sicker as the seas picked up, became pale, and sat with her head down. The skipper looked for aku birds, which would signify schools of smaller fish that larger predators might be stalking. There were no aku birds on the bare horizon, now ominously a darkening grey.
I went up front to look in on Niagara and Ron from time to time. They had not stirred. Checking that they were breathing, and finding that they were, I went back to fishing.
The boat began to wallow in ever-larger swells, and the skipper decided to head for shore. Only by now, shore was not in sight. Only grey mountains of water under lowering grey skies in every direction. These were the days before GPS, and the boats compass was spinning and unreadable. Looking over the side, the sea was black, down into the 600 fathom abyss where no light returns. Angie began to puke. She was wet and miserable, wondering why ... why for Heavens sake!! ... why were they even out there doing this?
Over the next hour, sheets of rain began to lash the little boat, and visibility fell to a hundred meters. The swells became huge, 20 or 30 feet. The boat would track up the side of a wave, crest it, and then the bow would hit hard and nose under as it came down the other side. Water was coming in, and although it sloshed around them, Ron and Niagara still didn’t wake.
Out of the grey came a giant freak wave, much bigger than the rest. It loomed in slow motion from the starboard side, and the skipper slammed the wheel towards it. The wave was huge and breaking, the white cascade roaring towards them. At the last moment, the boat got turned into the wave, climbed up the face, and just made it over the top. There was a terrifying cracking sound as the hull smashed down, and they wondered if they would sink. No one remembered the life jackets that were still in a pile underneath Ron and Niagara. Now they were wide awake but momentarily had no idea where they were, what was happening or how they had got there. All Angie and I could think about was their unborn child, and how crazy it had been to risk everything. Niagara opened one eye, took one look at the ocean and immediately put her head back down, shocked beyond speech.
The little boat held together, and soon the Koo’lau Mountains were in sight. They had their bearings. They were headed home, despite the weather. Just when everything seemed like it would be all right after all, massive dark shapes rose out of the water, which poured off their glistening obsidian black sides like rivers over a dam. Amazed, I called out to the others to see the pod of whales, which had appeared dangerously breaching within spitting distance of the boat. Spraying geysers of white water, they submerged and were gone.
Back at the dock, they tied up just as the rain stopped. The skipper gassed up, and told me “that’ll be $200”. (Two hundred! We hadn’t a clue it would cost that much to run a boat all day. ) The mahi mahi was quiet in the cooler. The little boat had almost capsized, its hapless crew and passengers almost drowned by monster waves and behemoths of the deep. Angie still felt awful, and was worried to death about the baby. Bone tired, energy level on zero, I pulled out the last of my cash as the others made their way to the car.
Heading home in the Oldsmobile, Niagara came back to life. Now, after all, she felt fine and was ready to play. The sun was going down, you see.
There had been, and would be, many other visits with these dear friends of ours, in other places and times. There would be Australia, San Diego, Norfolk Virginia, and all those times in Ann Arbor. Niagara and Angie would shadow Marilyn Monroe’s footsteps at the old Hotel Del Coronado, where they filmed Some Like It Hot, enjoying cocktails as the sunsets painted the Pacific in indescribable hues. But no visit would be more memorable than the Hawaii trip.
There is a fridge in the VMFA-212 squadron lounge. The tradition was that memorable photos would be on that fridge door. To qualify, a photo would generally have to be one of the Marines doing something exceptional ... either heroic, outlandish, or just plain crazy.
Long after the mahi mahi was grilled and eaten, the countless drinks consumed, the visit ended ... long after the pair had flown back to the snows of Ann Arbor ... in the VMFA-212 squadron lounge, there remained a photo of Niagara displayed in the central position of honor on that squadron fridge door.