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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Benny Rietveld

 

Benny Rietveld’s first experience playing music was at the age of six, in the piano department at Gem’s in Kapalama. “I liked the idea that you could press something, and it creates this…cool sound,” Rietveld remembers. He was mentored by band director Henry Miyamura at McKinley High School, and played in local jazz and rock bands before moving to San Francisco and touring with Sheila E. and Miles Davis. Today, Benny Rietveld plays bass for Carlos Santana, and still sits in with the Hawai‘i musicians he grew up with.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Oct. 18 at 4:00 pm.

 

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Do you think music is more than just fun?

 

Totally; yeah. Music is powerful, music is magic. It allows us to do so many things invisibly. You can put it in the background, you can have it in the foreground, you can stop, start. You know, it’s always there, and it helps you celebrate things, it helps you mourn. It drives people to battle, you get married and you can create babies with it. It transports you, it reminds you of things in your life, just hearing something. Like, oh, my god, you know.

 

M-hm.

 

It’s an incredibly powerful force, and it can actually change people’s lives, you know. And that’s why I think musicians have a really big responsibility to just keep on point, keep being mindful, keep getting better, showing up. Because it’s a really powerful thing.

 

Benny Rietveld, who still calls Hawai‘i home, is the bassist and music director for Santana, a band he first heard when he was a young boy growing up in Honolulu. He’s been recording and touring with Santana since the 1990s, and he’s also known locally as a member of Topaz, a jazz fusion band that he and his high school friends had in the 1970s. Benny Rietveld, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Benny Rietveld has recorded three albums with the iconic Latin rock band Santana, including Supernatural which became a worldwide sensation when it was released in 1999. Rietveld was born in Holland to parents of Dutch, French, and Indonesian ancestry. They moved their family to Hawai‘i when Benny was three. He grew up in Honolulu, where he started showing musical talent at a young age.

 

I took piano lessons when I was six.

 

Why did you take piano when you were six? Now, that’s early. How did that happen?

 

Remember Gem Store on—well, I don’t know …

 

Kapalama?

 

Yeah; in Kapalama. Yeah. Well, we used to live in Kalihi, and so we’d go through there, and it was always the piano section, and I was always plinking on the piano, you know. And my mom thought, Oh, he’s musical. You know how kids, you know, they hit a hammer, and it’s like, Oh, he’s gonna be a carpenter when he grows up.

 

But were you plunking better than most kids, do you think?

 

I don’t think so. I just liked it. I liked the idea that you could press something, and it creates this cool sound. I think. That’s how I remember it. And then, so we got like a little piano, upright piano, and she gave me lessons at Palama Settlement. And I think the first teacher was named Mrs. Leong. I think. But I didn’t really like ‘em. And I was like, Oh, really? You know, really like boring music, and River keep on rolling. You know. I just didn’t get it. And then, when was ten, we still had the piano in the, you know, attracting dust. And then, the song Hey Jude came out from the Beatles, and it had that cool piano intro. I was like, wow, that’s cool. I was like, wow. And then, oh, it’s sort of like that instrument that’s in our living room. So, I was like, huh. And it was really easy for me, and it was really fun. So, I thought, well, this is great, I’m gonna keep doing this. You know.

 

Then you learned other songs.

 

And then, I learned the entire Beatles catalog, practically.

 

By yourself, or with a teacher?

 

No, no; by myself. Yeah. You know, then I was hooked. And it was like, this is fun, I don’t want to do anything else. And I was just on my way. And then, I met my cousin, the guitar player in Topaz, or calabash cousin, actually, Fred Schreuders. And he was slightly older than me, but he was already playing music. He was, you know, playing guitar, and his dad also played music. So, I was like, wow, cool. And we met, and we jammed, you know, tried to play songs together.

 

You were on the piano?

 

Yeah; and then, I branched out to drums, and then a little bit of bass. And then we started, you know, playing. Hey, let’s do a band, you know. And so, yeah, we put together a band. So, when I was about twelve, I was playing in these dances at, you know, Star of the Sea.

 

And that was kind of the beginning of that. So, you know, I met the guitar player for Topaz way back then.

 

You were just picking it up as you went.

 

Yeah; yeah. ‘Cause it was easy.

 

And you were playing for high school dances at age twelve, or middle school dances?

 

Yes; yeah. My parents were really worried. ‘Cause there were some situations where sometimes we’d play a party, and and more like a high school kids’ party. And so, there may have been some illicit drugs.

 

And it was nighttime.

 

And it was nighttime.

 

Driving.

 

Yeah. So, my parents, you know, lost a lot of hair.

 

And you gave them reason to.

 

A little bit. But, you know, I wasn’t that wild.

 

And where were you on instruments? ‘Cause right now, you’re a confirmed bassist.

 

Yeah.

 

How did you pick the bass, or did the bass pick you?

 

Well, yeah. This is the joke. Usually, the bass picks you. It’s usually because you don’t know anyone else who plays the bass. So, you’re like, oh, you play the bass. So, what happened to me was, I was playing drums in this little dance band, and our bass player left. So, we didn’t know any other musicians, but we knew one drummer. So, it was like, well, what do we do? You know, so we’ll just get him, and you play bass. So, that’s how it happened. But I kept playing guitar with Joe the Fiddler, because, you know, it worked better for chords and stuff, and I kept up on piano playing. You know, I just like always was interested in all of that stuff. But you know, I started getting kinda good on the bass, which is easy to do.  Yeah; so that was that. It just happens like that, you know.

 

What schools did you go to?

 

I lived in town mostly, and I went to McKinley High School.

 

You had a band director who is legendary.

 

Yes, legendary; Henry Miyamura. He’s like one of the big musical mentors of my life, and of Noel’s life, and of Allen Won’s life, too, the other guys from Topaz. He was … amazing. He was like that Mr. Holland guy. I mean, just deeply, deeply committed to the real essence of music performance, which goes beyond, you know, the notes and stuff, but the actual conveyance of the emotion or of the story, or of the tragedy or comedy, or whatever. And to get a bunch of high school kids, half of them who weren’t really gonna go into music anyway, or most of them, and get them to sound as good as he got those bands to sound was really a remarkable feat.

 

How do you think he did it?

 

I think he really loved music, and he loved people. He knew how important it was, you know, even if we didn’t. You know, we were kids then. He knew.

 

While Benny Rietveld was busy playing music through high school, his parents were thinking about his future. They didn’t consider music to be a suitable career path. But Benny was already doing what he loved, and it wasn’t long before his talents took him from the local venues in Hawai‘i to a larger stage.

 

Did you decide consciously, I’m going to be a musician as a livelihood?

 

I don’t think so. The only time it was a conscious thought was like as, you know, graduation from high school was imminent. Then my parents were like, So, you know, what are you gonna do? You’re gonna go to trade school? You should go to trade school, because you know, you learn a trade and make a lot of money. I guess they didn’t see me as the scholarly type, which I wasn’t.  And I said, Oh, I’m just gonna play music. I just assumed I was.

 

Were you already getting paid to play?

 

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Just like, well, I don’t know. You know, I just thought I was gonna be a musician. And they went, What? No, you can’t. And they were very upset for a little while, only because, you know, they just saw their child being an intravenous drug user and being in the gutter, and you know, whatever. So yeah, I totally get why they freaked out. But then after a while, they thought, Well, he seems to be doing okay, and he’s playing, you know.

 

And you went to college right after that, here.

 

Not right after, but yeah, I did.

 

Oh; so you graduated from high school.

 

Graduated from high school. I was living on my own. I think for about a year, I was living on my own, then I got a scholarship for UH, through Mr. Miyamoto, who suggested I do that. So, he championed me as far as getting a scholarship.

 

And didn’t graduate.

 

No.

 

Because?

 

‘Cause I was also playing music, and then I got a road touring gig with The Crusaders. It was very short. But with all my other gigs in Hawai‘i, and then going off to the mainland for a little bit, just like I lost the whole momentum.

 

How did you make the transition from having lived almost all of your life in Hawai‘i, to the mainland, to the continent?

 

With scarves and heavy sweaters. Basically, that’s how I made the transition. I went to San Francisco first.

 

And that was, I’m going to go try my luck in the San Francisco Bay Area?

 

Well, because I had a friend there already. And he said, You gotta come here, there’s a lot of good music there. And there was, at the time. Lots of great musicians there.

 

You played with some biggies, fairly early on.

 

No. I mean, I don’t know. Pete Escovedo, you know, I learned a lot from him. Ray Obiedo, you know, he used to play with Herbie Hancock and really good songwriter. And a lot of really great local San Francisco Bay Area musicians.

 

When was the first time you played with someone that you went, Whoa, I’m with so-and-so, I’m intimidated?

 

Well, sort of like Sheila E, because her producer was Prince. So, he’d be around, and I’m like, Whoa, you know, ooh. You know. That was my sort of introduction to the high end pop world.

 

And you went on tour with Sheila E, didn’t you?

 

Yes, yes; for about two years.

 

How did you get along with Prince?

 

He was like kind of a mysterious background guy. So, he didn’t talk much to us, but he seemed okay, you know. But he kinda kept more to Sheila and, you know, just sort of like that.

 

Now, did that tour lead to anything?

 

Then I was playing around the Bay Area for a while, and then, I guess Miles Davis was looking for a bass player, and he kinda wanted that sort of Prince-influenced sound. Then we rehearsed, and I met Miles, and it was crazy. And I think I was too much in shock to be actually intimidated, tell you the truth. It was only until I think a year later, I was on the stage, and I was like, Holy crap, that’s Miles Davis. You know, and then I had that moment. But I think, you know, your body blesses you with the gift of shock, so you’re just, you know, immune.

 

And how was it? You know, you have to feel each other in music, you have to work together. How did that go?

 

It went fabulously. You know, he would, you know, give direction while we’re playing, and sometimes before the shows we’d talk about let’s do this part a little faster, or let’s do this kinda rhythm and, you know. And we would keep trying, and so really, back then it was like a laboratory, you know. Because we would do the same song, and it would just evolve. It was like a petri dish. I mean, the songs would evolve so that if you hear the same song two years apart, they’re almost radically different. You know, the tempo is like way slower or faster, and this part is really loud, you know. It was really, really interesting, and it just demanded that you focus a hundred percent on him and the music all the time. You know. That was the big deal.

 

You had to be really mindful.

 

Yeah; like mindful to an incredible degree, because if you weren’t, then then he’d know, you know, and then those eyes would, you know, turn. You know, zzzz, laser, laser. So yeah, you really had to have presence of mind.

 

So, you had a real sense of what he wanted, who he wanted—

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

–how he wanted.

 

Yeah, yeah. And yet, there was that … still, the challenge was to inject yourself in that, within that framework, you know.

 

And he expected you to.

 

Yeah; yeah, yeah, yeah. And so, that was really intimidating, ‘cause I felt like I wasn’t really mature enough as a musician to inject a lot of myself. I don’t know, maybe I did. I don’t know.  That was another coming of age thing, because I had to, I think, almost completely relearn music. You know, really music and bass playing, and the ethos of what it means to be a bass player and what it means to be a musician.

 

Why?

 

Well, because I hadn’t learned all these really basic fundamental things well enough, you know.

 

So, you were good enough to get in the band.

 

Yeah.

 

And once you were there, you had to up your game.

 

Yeah; yeah, yeah. It was like raw talent is one thing, but to really like hone it is another thing.

 

After two and a half years playing with Miles Davis, Benny Rietveld moved on. Two months later, he met Carlos Santana.

 

Coincidentally, I did a recording session with Carlos Santana.

 

You sound so casual when you say that.

 

Well, no. I mean, because it just happened, you know. It was somebody else’s session, and we met. And that was another intimidating moment, ‘cause it was Carlos Santana, and I grew up looking at that album cover, you know, and all that stuff, listening to all those albums over and over again. And he said, Yeah, you know, I might need another bass player, and you know. Luckily, we lived both in the Bay Area, so I called him and I said, Yeah, I would love to play. Are you kidding? You know. So that’s how that happened.

 

Aren’t you the musical director as well now?

 

Yes. I don’t know, I’m not really the musical director so much as like traffic cop. You know, ‘cause I consider Carlos actually is the musical director, ‘cause he’s very hands-on and he has an uncanny ability to know what he wants. It’s more about during the show itself, when he calls an audible, which he does every time, then I just help direct traffic. Okay, we’re going here now, instead of, you know, how we rehearsed it.

 

How much of the year do you go on tours?

 

With Santana, it’s roughly four to five months out of the year. But it’s broken up. You do get burnt out, you know, no matter what you do. And it’s always gotta be really, really high level, energy, fun. And the minute it’s a little bit below that, then we’re not doing it.

 

Do you ever get sick of being asked to play a song you love, but you’ve heard it and you’ve sung it … Black Magic Woman, so many times before?

 

No; love it. It’s great. I don’t care about all the other times I’ve played it. It’s like, oh, wow, this is the first time I’m playing it. You know. That’s special, and we have to convey that to people every time. That’s the hard part. That’s the higher level stuff. Not playing the music; the notes are like whatever, you know. That’s like hammering a nail; okay? But it’s how to get into that thing, and it sounds so, fluffy and goofy, you know. But that is, to me, the higher level of music.

 

Did working with Santana when you started require a different sensibility than working with Miles Davis? Did you have to shift in any way?

 

Only superficially, actually, with the style of music, the genre, you know. Because it’s more rock-oriented, Latin, which we hardly ever did in Miles’ thing. But in essence, it was actually very similar, because they both demanded passion and fire, and presence of mind, like all the time. And not being afraid, you know. I think that’s another thing. You cannot have any fear.

 

Is there a way to describe how they work musically, and how you work with them musically?

 

With both of those guys, it was about trying to … articulate the in-articulable.  That’s the weird part about music, is that like underneath the hood, underneath all the technique and theory, and all the numbers, which are all useful, underneath it all, I like to say the last thing that music is about is music. You know.  It’s really about feeling and life. And it sounds so, you know … fluffy. You know, like, Oh, it’s feelings. You know. But all the major guys hardly ever talk about nuts and bolts of music, you know. The jazz guys, a little bit more, because it’s more their realm, you know. But all those guys share the predilection for using aphorisms to describe music. It should sound like, you know, red wine streaming through. You know, something like that. And sometimes, it just sounds so bonkers, you know, to the uninitiated. But then, you realize it’s just a personal lexicon and a cosmology. And actually, now that I’ve known Carlos for a while, it makes complete sense, you know. Now when he says something, you know, like really poetic, I’m actually kinda knowing what it means in dry, boring music terms. Sometimes Miles would say—an actual musical thing would be like, Give that part a little lift. Instead of, you know, doong, doong, doong, doong; maybe like doong, ka-doong, ka-doong, ka-doong, doong, ka-doong. You know, all these little things between. I think everyone knows that deep down inside, it’s really silly to talk about music, because it’s the most abstract of all art forms, you know. But we try, anyway. We have to, sometimes. You know, we’re trying to convey what we want, you know.

 

Although Benny Rietveld lives in L.A. when he isn’t touring with Santana, he likes to come to the place he calls home: Hawai‘i. In 2014, he and some of his former bandmates from Topaz reunited for a show.

 

What brings you back to perform with your old high school buddies?

 

Love of music, and love of them. You know. We’ve kept in contact all this time.

 

And tell me what the names are. Who’s your gang?

 

The gang is Noel Okimoto on drums, Allen Won on the saxophones, Fred Schreuders on guitar, and Carl Wakeland on keyboards.

 

That’s a pretty amazing group from McKinley High School, isn’t it?

 

Yeah. Well, me and Allen, and Noel are from McKinley. Carl is from Mililani. Fred ended up graduating from Kaiser High School. We got kind of popular because we were this bunch of high school kids that could play this kind of difficult and technical music known at the time as fusion. And we loved jazz and all that. So, there weren’t many eighteen-year-olds playing that at the time in Hawai‘i. So you know, we got a kind of rep, and we were the little darlings there for a while, and we even played at La Mancha for two weeks. We disbanded ‘cause we all had stuff, and we were doing our lives. And Noel stayed here, so he’d play. And his late dad, unfortunately, George Okimoto, would go to his gigs all the time. And George actually managed us back then, because he was the manager of Easy Music Center, you know, by McCully. And so he was like, You know, you kids really got something. And he got us equipment to use, you know, cool new gear. So he was like our manager, and really championed us. Cut to couple of years ago. We’re at Gordon Biersch, I’m visiting, and I see Noel, and like you know, listening to him, Byron Yasui and all these great local guys. And there was Noel’s dad, George Okimoto, and he goes, Eh, hurry up, you know, get a reunion. And it was like, actually very bittersweet because he actually made a joke. He was like, Eh, hurry up, before I die.  And what I got from that was like, he wasn’t really joking around. He was like, you know, everyone is about to move on here, and you guys should do something, ‘cause it was really special. So, we did a show last year. It was really, really fun. So, this year again, earlier in the year, we recorded a CD. But you know, we all have these other crazy lives, and we’re not gonna like, Yeah, let’s have a band and tour together. That’s not gonna happen.

 

Did you ever conceive, did you ever think in your young life, that you would be in your fifties, and it’s a tour, it’s concerts and crowds, and music, and vans?

 

I had no idea. Who really knows what their thing is, you know.

 

And how long do you see that going on?

 

Playing music, being involved in music for me will go on until either I die, or I find suddenly that I don’t like it. You know. I don’t really see the latter happening.

 

Benny Rietveld has not stopped having fun playing music since figuring out how to play Hey Jude on the piano at age ten. Along with his raw talent, his dedication to his craft, his ability to work with people, his fearlessness and his determination took him to a world stage. Mahalo to Benny Rietveld, a proud graduate of McKinley High School in Honolulu, and longtime bassist for Santana. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawai‘i.org.

 

[END]

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Florence “Johnny” Frisbie: Life Lessons from Pukapuka Atoll

 

Florence “Johnny” Frisbie was only 15 years old when she published her first autobiography in 1948. Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka is an account of her life on the little-known Pacific island of Pukapuka, part of the Cook Islands. The adventurous daughter of an American writer father and native Pukapukan mother, Johnny discusses the beauty and hardship of her remote island upbringing.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, May 24, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, May 28, at 4:00 pm.

 

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Most of the time, it was a kind of challenge that was exciting. It was. I think it’s because, you know, we live on small islands, and we go out on the reef, and the big waves wash suddenly, and we’re down and struggling to get up again. And it was perhaps that background and upbringing that we had this great sense of excitement, you know. And yet, it’s partly survival.

 

Florence “Johnny” Frisbie grew up living far away from the comforts of a traditional population center, surviving on whatever food a small coral atoll and the ocean might provide. The odyssey of Johnny Frisbie, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Florence “Johnny” Frisbie of Honolulu has spent her entire life on an odyssey. Born in Tahiti, Johnny traveled the South Pacific, spending her childhood on small remote Cook Islands like Pukapuka, and the virtually uninhabited Suwarrow. At age twelve, she started documenting her adventures. At fifteen, she was a published author, the first Pacific Island woman to accomplish that. Her autobiography was Miss Ulysses of Pukapuka. Johnny was born to a native Pukapukan mother and an American father, Robert Dean Frisbie, who was a writer and South Seas trader.

 

I understand your dad was from Ohio.

 

Yeah.

 

And your mom was from Pukapuka.

 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

How did that happen?

 

Well, he left San Francisco and ended up in Tahiti. Yes, yes, yes. And so, he arrived in Tahiti and met James Hall, and they became very close friends. But then, he lived there for many years, many many years, and also could see where Tahiti is becoming a place where a lot of ships and sailors, and wanderers, explorers are ending up in big parties and drinking, and all that. And he was disillusioned, and wanted something even simpler and quieter, and a culture that suits him with you know, his dream. And he ended up on Pukapuka.

 

Can you tell us about Pukapuka? When we talk about Pacific Island neighbors, Pukapuka is far, far from Hawaii. Can you tell us about it, and your life there?

 

Pukapuka is a small atoll, north of all the Cook Islands. It’s the most northern island of the fifteen islands. My mother comes from Pukapuka, and her mother before her, before her.

 

She was much younger than he?

 

Yes, yes; she was sixteen. Yeah.

 

And how was that? So, there was an age difference, a cultural difference. How did that work out?

 

That really is not important, you know, the age. Women don’t sit around thinking about their age and worrying about growing old. That’s not in the picture, you know. It’s whether it works; something works. And my father being a White man, you know, Oh, hey, this is very nice, you know, and he wants our daughter. This is the family and the tribe talking about, you know, What are we gonna do, you know. We don’t know him. You know, they didn’t know anything about the White man, as they called him. And so, it was so foreign to them.

 

How many White men or White people—

 

Only one. Yeah.

 

On the island?

 

Only him. Yes.

 

I see.

 

Yeah. And they’d come and go. They’d come on a boat, and leave the next day. But he stayed. And so, they wonder, What do we do? You know, he wants to marry our daughter, and the sixteen age didn’t come into the conversation whatsoever. So, they all assessed his ability to fish, you know, and ability to paddle, and ability to husk coconut, and the way that he speaks softly. But they kinda wondered about him, because he didn’t go to church. He wouldn’t go to church, and they thought that might be a problem. But no, you know, the fact that he could do all these other things Pukapukan men do, is sufficient to give our daughter to him. That’s how it happened.

 

All right; so he passed the test.

 

And the marriage was a success?

 

Yes; very much so.

 

How many children followed?

 

Five; five. The eldest is Charles, and he was taken away from my mother when my father was away, when she gave birth to him.

 

Um, you want to hear that story?

 

Yes; I don’t know that story.

 

Oh, oh. Oh—

 

Charles was taken away from your mother?

 

Well, there’s a custom on Pukapuka. The first and second children of the couple is the father’s share. And then, he gives them away as a gift to his parents or grandparents, or a brother who, you know, can’t have children, his wife cannot have children. And then, the third and fourth children are the mother’s share, and naturally, this is a gift, the ultimate gift, to to her mother, to her parents, and sister or brother. And so, when my mother and father moved to Rarotonga, my father had a job offered on another island, copra making, making copra out of coconut, the coconut meat. So, my mother, she was then seventeen, eighteen years old, was left on Rarotonga in the care of a grandaunt who did not have any children. So when my mother gave birth, Pikipiki took the baby and said, This is our share; I’ll take this baby. And my mother coming from that culture, and my father not being there said, Yeah, okay; yeah, you take. And so, she took the baby, Charles, and disappeared into the valley. When my father came back, found he had no firstborn, he was devastated. So, he asked two policemen on the island to please go fetch this woman, and bring back his son. And those men, knowing the culture, understanding fully what this natural process was, just kinda walked in the valley, looked around, came back and said, Oh, can’t find her.

 

So, he never saw his son?

 

No.

 

Until how long—

 

Not until he was thirteen; he was thirteen.

 

Oh …

 

He came back thirteen years later.

 

Well, you’re number two. Were you given away?

 

No; because my father made sure that he was there.

 

No more culture like that; right? So, all the other children …

 

Yes.

 

Two, three, four stayed.

 

M-hm; yeah.

 

What was everyday life like when you and your dad, and our mom and siblings were there? What did you do during the day? What was family life like?

 

We were very busy kids. You know, the kids were busy. We played a lot; climbed trees, and hide-and-seek, and swim in the lagoon, swim out to the corals way out. But we had duties, too. You know, we had to help the women in the taro patch. Yeah.

 

Oh, that’s hard work.

 

Yeah, well, we played most of the time.

 

In 1937, Johnny Frisbie’s mother gave birth to her fifth child. Two weeks later, she fell ill, and her condition worsened. She passed away the following year.

 

Your mother was so young when she passed away of tuberculosis; twenty-six.

 

M-hm, m-hm.

 

What happened in your family at that time? What were some of the effects?

 

Well, my father took total control of the family. You know, he became the mother, father, because my mother had asked him before she died not to separate us. ‘Cause that is commonly what happens with families, and her parents were very eager to take two of us as their share. And my father said, No, no, you know, these are my children too, you know, and I don’t belong in that. And that was the reason why my father decided that we leave Pukapuka.

 

What was the thing you missed most about your mother after she was gone?

 

When I think about her, what I remember of her, I just … remember her looking at me, you know, just like looking at me. You know.

 

Like she loved you.

 

Yeah. And so, I’m happy when she looks up at me like that, and all this love and a faint smile. Oh; I take a breath, and I run away, then disappear for hours and play with my friends, you know. And then, I’ll think about it, and I’ll come back and just stand in front of her to get this …

 

M-hm.

 

I missed that.

 

Johnny Frisbie’s father moved the family around the South Pacific to places like Fiji, and even settled on Suwarrow Atoll in the Northern Cook Islands. They lived on tiny Anchorage Island, which had a landmass of less than one-tenth of a square mile. It was there, that the motherless family faced a terrible storm.

 

This was Suwarrow, uninhabited island.

 

And were you the only residents?

 

There were four others. And they were sent there by the New Zealand government to keep an eye on the war activities. You know, Japanese, maybe submarine, whatever it is.

 

I see.

 

And so, they were on that island, and on other islands as well. Yeah.

 

Your father ended up lashing you to trees.

 

Yeah, yeah.

 

All the kids; right?

 

Yeah, yeah. M-hm.

 

Tying you up there.

 

Well, before that, before preparing for the hurricane, he tied ropes around our waist, and there was plenty left here to put around the coconut tree. Okay; and then, when the seas rise, it takes us up, and when it comes down, brings us down. That was the plan. But before nighttime, before dark, the wind was just wild. He noticed that the coconut trees were being uprooted or broken in half. And so, he said, Ooh, that’s not gonna work.

 

You can laugh now.

 

So, that plan was thrown out. When a big wave hit the house, the thatched roof house we were in, it was nighttime, but it was light because of the lightning; it was just constant, so there was light. We left the house and crawled. You couldn’t stand up; you crawl and just cling to the gravel and the sand, whatever you can, towards the three trees that were still standing.

 

What kind of trees?

 

Tamanu trees. So, he just tied us to the branches. Yeah, to the branches.

 

How many kids did he tie?

 

Four.

 

And then tied himself?

 

No; no. He just hung on. Yeah; he just hung onto a branch when the wind was powerful.

 

But wasn’t the sea level up over the sand? I mean, basically, the island got covered, didn’t it?

 

We went way up. Yeah; we climbed up to the top. Yeah, the top where the branches snake off like this. And he had his hut right on top of those branches. But yeah, it worked.

 

And I know in your book you say that three-quarters of the landmass of the atoll was washed away.

 

Yeah; it was cut. Here’s the island here, and ended up with two channels. The island was just … split, you know, by the sea.

 

What happened to the other observers who were on the island?

 

Well, my father said they could, of course, come up to his house, to his hut up at the top, and it would save them too. Two of them were Europeans, New Zealanders, and this was kind of very different for them. Very, very different. And they just shook the whole time. It was cold, they were frightened, they were totally helpless. But the two boys from Manihiki were okay. You know, they were from another atoll which is called Manihiki.

 

How were you doing? You were a little kid.

 

Yeah. We were fine.

 

How crazy was it? You were being buffeted by winds, the water level was coming up.

 

Well, like I say, there was some excitement to it. Ooh, ooh, ooh; ooh, I hope it doesn’t reach us. You know, and hang on and pray. ‘Cause my grandmother always says, Always pray, always pray. You know, so pray. I don’t remember being totally overpowered by fear; I don’t remember. It was exciting, and it was a matter of survival. You know, thinking about, looking and, okay, this happens here, that branch, there’s another branch there. I do that to this day. When I drive to Punaluu, I’m looking at all the trees in case of tidal wave, you know. And with my grandchildren, I said, No, that’s not good, because they can’t climb up that one. You know, it’s gotta be where there are branches so we can get up. So, I do the same thing.

 

Plan B; right?

 

Yeah. And so, there, you have to keep an eye on what next. You know, what next. Yeah.

 

And at some point, the water subsided, the winds stopped.

 

Yeah.

 

And, what?

 

Yeah.

 

You’re on a decimated island.

 

Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, there was plenty of fish and turtles, and sharks in the middle of the island where the waves came from the ocean, from the lagoon. Meet in the middle, they bring all these beautiful fish, this lovely stuff. And we were able to live on that for two days only, and then they began to decompose. Yeah; and then the flies; millions of flies eating all these dead fish. Yeah.

 

What’d you do after that?

 

We ate birds. Yeah. The birds returned after the hurricane. The birds had disappeared somewhere else, and after the hurricane, you could hear them at night. We heard them one night all making their noise as they were coming back to Suwarrow. So, we ate lots of birds. And we made spears out of wood. Made spears, and we’d go on the reef and spear grouper, other fishes.

 

Amidst many personal hardships, Johnny Frisbie’s father, Robert Dean Frisbie, continued to write travel stories, news articles, and six published books about island life in Polynesia.

 

His first book was called The Book of Puka-Puka, and it’s a classic. And then, there’s Amaru. It’s the first novel, that’s the first novel he wrote. And I typed it; that’s how I learned to type. He gave it to me. He wrote at night, write by hand in the light of a lantern, and then he would give me the script in the morning. And I’d type it on his little Remington like this.

 

So, not surprising, you would turn out to be a writer.

 

Because you’d been doing diaries.

 

I know. Yeah. And then, his last book, Dawn Sails North, he did the same thing. We were on Rarotonga then. So, he decided, enough of this, so he sent for an instruction book on how to type with all the fingers. So, I taught myself how to do that, and typed Dawn Sails North. That was his last book. It was published after his death. Yeah.

 

Johnny Frisbie, encouraged by her father’s love of storytelling and literature, wrote Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka. Audiences in the Western world started to read about her South Sea adventures in 1948.

 

You wrote this book between the ages of twelve and fourteen.

 

I started a diary at twelve. Yeah. No, I finished the book at fifteen. Yeah; it came out when I was sixteen, just before my father died.

 

So, it was a diary.

 

Yes.

 

In which language did you keep your diary?

 

Oh, I kept it in Pukapukan mainly, and then English. As I went along, I write in Pukapukan, and I would ask my father what that word is in English. And he would explain it to me, and then I would use the word. By the time I was fourteen, I was able to write in English. Might be not the best, you know, but I was able to use adjectives because my father said, You can’t just write like that, you have to put a colorful word there to make the next word happy.

 

And Miss Ulysses; where did Miss Ulysses come from?

 

Well, because there were no children’s books in that part of the world growing up, my father at nighttime, rather than read, and there’s no children’s stories, he would tell us the story of Ulysses in the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer. Every night, we would go through the whole series of adventures, Ulysses. And that was all I knew, you know. And so, when the book was finished, then my father said, Well, we gotta find a name for this book. Hm, hm; we thought about it, thought about it for days, and days. And then, I said, Oh, how about Miss Ulysses? Because I’m Ulysses, aren’t I, Papa? You know.

 

You identified with Ulysses. And it was an adventuring kind of life. I mean, you were facing the elements.

 

Yeah, that’s right. And we traveled a lot. You know, we did.

 

Johnny Frisbie’s father, Robert Dean Frisbie, contracted the same illness that took his wife. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1943. Despite his declining health, he continued to travel the South Pacific and write. In 1948, Robert Dean Frisbie died at age fifty-two, orphaning Johnny and her siblings.

 

Did your dad pass away in …

 

We were on Rarotonga.

 

Rarotonga.

 

The big island of Rarotonga; m-hm. And he’s buried there. M-hm.

 

And you became an orphan.

 

Yes; m-hm. Yes; the three of us. He had sent my two brothers to New Zealand just before he passed away.

 

Someone who’s lost their parents as a child would have devastating feelings of loss. But it sounds like …

 

Yes, with my father, because I relied so much on him for an extension of my Polynesian Pukapukans. You know, it was just natural, ‘cause he understood my Polynesian-ness, you know, and my eagerness to be like him. You know. And he understood that, and I missed that, I didn’t know where to turn.

 

And then, who decided what would happen to the children?

 

I did; yeah. Peter and Barbara Engle from Lanikai had read my father’s books. And so, they sailed on a yacht, The Loafer, through some of the Pacific island to find him, because they were told that he was in that part of the world. So, when they finally got to Tahiti, they looked up James Michener, who informed them that my father was on living on Rarotonga. So, they sailed to Rarotonga, and we met. And by that time, my father had an idea, he had an inkling he wasn’t going to live long, so he asked the Engles if they would take me with them and make sure that I get an education. Okay; and they promised. So, when he passed away, Barbara Engle wrote to me to say they were in New Zealand, as soon as they arrived in Hawaii, they will send for me. And that happened in April 1950. April 23, 1950, I landed at the old airport in Honolulu. Lived with them, and immediately, I started looking for families for my two sisters. The Engles happened to be very, very good friends with the Dawsons of Kailua, and they had three sons, and I used to play with them all the time. And I thought, Oh, uh-huh, no sister, hm, okay. So, I approached Sumai and Lee Dawson and asked if they would like a sister for their sons. And they said, Yes, absolutely. Boop, about six months later, my younger sister was here. And while I was at camp as a counselor at Kokokahi Camp a year later, the Fenders, Ma and Pa Fender, who managed the camp where the YWCA is now, that was Kokokahi Camp, that was in ’51, and we got to know each other. And I thought, Oh, okay, they’re very nice people. And so, I asked if they would take my sister Elaine. And they said, Yes, absolutely.

 

Just amazing.

 

And never having met them, but knowing you. So, you functioned as the oldest child.

 

Yeah, yeah.

 

Your brother had been given away.

 

Oh, yeah; m-hm, yeah. So, they arrived, and we lived happily ever after. And they were so nice, because every weekend, we would be together.

 

Johnny Frisbie and her two sisters were reunited on Oahu in 1952. The Frisbie daughters spent the remainder of their teenage years in Hawaii raised separately in different families. Much like her adventurous father, Johnny did not stay planted in Hawaii for very long, and after graduating from Punahou School in Honolulu, the travels of Miss Ulysses began again. At the time of our conversation in early 2017, she was nearly eighty-five years old, and getting ready for more Pacific travels. Mahalo to Florence “Johnny” Frisbie of Honolulu, who as a teen was credited as the first published female author from Polynesia, for sharing your story with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Your first name is actually Florence.

 

Mm.

 

But everyone knows you as Johnny.

 

M-hm.

 

How did that happen?

 

It happened in Tahiti, and my mother was in labor. And my father and all his friends, Andy Thompson, James, all his friends, sailor friends were drinking Johnny Walker whiskey. One of the friends said, Girl or boy, it’s gonna be Johnny. You know.

 

[END]

 



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This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, May 31, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, June 4, at 4:00 pm.

 

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