writer

AMERICAN MASTERS
Carole King

 

Delve into the hit singer-songwriter’s life and career from 1960s New York to the music mecca of 1970s LA to the present. King joins collaborators and family in new interviews, while rare home movies, performances and photos complete the tapestry. This year also marks the 45th anniversary of King’s landmark album Tapestry, which spawned the hits “It’s Too Late,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and “So Far Away.”

 

NA MELE
Peter Medeiros

NA MELE Peter Medeiros

 

Slack key artist Peter Medeiros, accompanied by guitarist Josh Silva and bass player Nate Stillman, presents a fun evening of traditional slack key. Joining the trio are the dancers of Pua Ali’i ‘Ilima, led by kumu hula Vicky and Jeff Kānekaiwilani Takamine. Songs performed include “Ulili E,” “He’eia,” “Ke Ala O Ka Rose” and “Kananaka.”

 

NA MELE
More! Ledward Kaapana and Family

 

Ledward Kaapana remembers his Uncle Fred Punahoa playing the song “Radio Hula” in Kalapana: “In the morning, like one, two o’clock in the morning. In Kalapana, it’s so quiet, so… you know, and it’s dark, and so, he used to just sit outside on the porch, and play his guitar. I don’t know if you ever experienced sleeping…and hear one guitar just playing sweet music that just wake you up and like, ‘Oh, so sweet,’” Kaapana remembers. “Radio Hula” is one of the songs that Ledward Kaapana, along with his sisters Lehua Nash, Rhoda Kekona, and Lei Aken play in his Kaneohe garage on a rainy evening. They also share an energetic slack key performance of “Kuu Ipo Onaona,” and Ledward honors the late Dennis Kamakahi with “Kokee.”

 

NA MELE
Ledward Kaapana and Family

 

On most Friday evenings, slack key artist Ledward Kaapana gets together with his neighbors to share potluck dishes, laughter and music. For Ledward, it’s a tradition that goes back to his younger days in Kalapana on the island of Hawaii. “When I was growing up, we used to have kani ka pila…everybody sit down and enjoy, listen to music,” Ledward remembers. This special Na Mele features Ledward and his sisters Lei Aken, Lehua Nash and Rhoda Kekona, playing their music in Ledward’s garage. Ledward’s falsetto voice leads off with “Nani,” and Lei, Lehua and Rhoda take vocal solos on “Kaneohe,” “Kalapana” and “Holei.”

 




LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Florence “Johnny” Frisbie: Islander at Heart

 

Florence “Johnny” Frisbie’s sense of curiosity and adventure took her far beyond her Pacific island home in Pukapuka, in the Cook Islands. She traveled to Hawai‘i, Japan and eventually New Zealand, where she raised her family. She eventually followed her desire to return home to Pukapuka, an island now gravely threatened by climate change and the rapid loss of its ancient culture and language.

 

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

 

Florence “Johnny” Frisbie: : Islander at Heart Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Did you often feel a tug, a struggle between your Polynesian side and your European Western side?

 

Even though my brain, my thinking brain has been developed to be able to absorb the European, the Western world, but I go by my heart. My heart speaks, yeah, not my brain. My heart tells me.

 

Johnny Frisbie has lived a storied life as a writer, television personality, and nurturer across cultures throughout the South Pacific, New Zealand, Hawai‘i, and Japan. She grew up in a tiny place called Pukapuka. Florence “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 was born to a native Pukapukan mother and an American father in Tahiti. Her family moved from island to island frequently in the South Pacific. As a teenager, Johnny wrote and published Miss Ulysses from Pukapuka, an autobiography of her journeys across the South Pacific. Pukapuka is an atoll in the Cook Islands. After the death of her father, Johnny, aged sixteen, and three siblings were orphaned, separated, and raised in different families in New Zealand and Hawai‘i. Johnny was taken in by the Engle family of Kailua, Windward Oahu, and enrolled in high school. She hadn’t had much formal education.

 

Your life took you to … you went to Roosevelt High School.

 

M-hm.

 

Where you did so well that you—

 

M-hm.

 

Did you get a scholarship to Punahou?

 

Yes, uh-huh. Yeah, I got a scholarship to Punahou. Yes; yeah.

 

Which is amazing to do so well academically.

 

I know; it surprised me. Yeah. But then, I was thinking about it. I was very, very serious about each subject, say biology, English. I was serious, I was keen, and after each class, I would go to the teacher to please explain what I didn’t understand. You know, because it’s transforming a thinking in Polynesian to English understanding of the subject.

 

And different tools, everything was different.

 

Yeah. So, I would always go, and the teachers were always so good, so good, and they would explain to me. And so, go home, and then I was able to do my homework.

 

Your outdoor childhood, and all the curiosity and exploration, and resilience; how did that translate when you then started living more suburban lifestyle, you know, in more crowded places?

 

M-hm. Well, I don’t know that I have actually been in that kind of a lifestyle very much. But in order for me to survive and not totally give up who I am, my nature, you know, I found ways. I found ways to go maybe in a bush or to have plants that I can talk to or nurture, and never to be in concrete blocks like that. But I find it’s a survival instinct, and I’ve been very careful not to lose me, who I am.

 

Johnny Frisbie adapted quickly to life in Hawai‘i and the Western style of education. After graduating from Punahou School, Johnny set her sights on a career in nursing. However, an old family friend set her on a new journey.

 

I was accepted to Queen’s. I applied and I was going to start, and then James Michener, who was kinda looking after me at the time said, No, you’re going to go overseas, you need to expand your vision of the world. He said, You’re going to go either to the Far East, he said, or Europe. And he said, I’ll get you a job. So, immediately, I received a letter from the Army that I had a job in Tokyo. So, get ready, two weeks later, was off to Japan.

 

What did you do in Tokyo?

 

I worked for the Army, secretary to one of the … yeah. But … why did we go there?

 

Well, actually, I’m picturing you in Tokyo after a lifetime living on Pacific islands, and it doesn’t compute. Did you enjoy that?

 

Loved it. And there weren’t many Polynesians, and the Japanese were fascinated. You know, they just used to stare. You know, stare. And those who could speak to me said, Where you from? You know. And I would explain, but they didn’t know. You know, a lot of them didn’t know. Made lots of good friends. They’re wonderful people.

 

But only stayed two years?

 

Two years; yeah, m-hm. That was the contract; yeah.

 

And what was next?

 

Oh, and then, I came back to Hawaii, and my sister introduced me to Carl, who was in the Navy, was getting ready to go to Japan to film the club, the military nightclubs for his television program. And so, my sister said, Oh, my sister just come back from Japan, I’ll have you meet her and find out things. Well, there you go. So, that’s how it happened.

 

The man to whom Johnny Frisbie was introduced turned out to be Carl Hebenstreit, also known as Kini Popo, a popular Honolulu radio DJ, and the first on-air personality for KGMB-TV’s inaugural 1952 broadcast.

 

You married a man who was very well-known in Hawai‘i.

 

M-hm.

 

Kini Popo is what everyone called him. Carl Hebenstreit, a radio and TV personality.

 

M-hm.

 

And I think you mentioned that you could talk to him about writing the way you could your dad.

 

Oh, yes; absolutely. Yeah. I mean, he had an amazing command of the English language. And so, he was very helpful with my second book. M-hm, my second book, when I was still learning the English language, still reading and studying, you know, grammar and all that. But he also was a beautiful person.

 

And with him, you had four children.

 

Yes.

 

In New Zealand.

 

Uh-huh.

 

Yet another part of—

 

They grew up in New Zealand. Yeah; two were born here. Ropati and Carla were born here, and Haumea was born in the Cook Islands, and Stirling was born in New Zealand. Yes.

 

And then, you stayed for a bit.

 

I stayed on.

 

Years.

 

When Carl returned to Hawaii, I stayed on. Three years, I was there. When the last of my kids left, then I decided, Oh, well, time to move on.

 

And you were still close to him, even though you were no longer married.

 

Oh, we’re very close now. Yes, he and Haumea meet at least once a week, and I’m invited. If I’m not invited, I invite myself. No problem. And I love his wife, Christine. Yeah; beautiful, beautiful friend.

 

In 1948, Johnny Frisbie became the first Polynesian female published author with her autobiographical book, Miss Ulysses from Pukapuka. And while living in Hawai‘i during the 1950s, she was one of the first to turn heads and raise a few eyebrows with her choice of swimwear.

 

There was a time on Waikiki Beach when no one wore bikinis. And then, you came along. You’re credited with being the first.

 

Yeah. Yeah, there was a Tahitian girl, too, who wore the bikini, and gave me courage. Yeah, gave me courage. But the thing that I can claim fame for was that I wore a bathing suit when I was six months pregnant and onwards. Okay; that was in 1957, and it was unheard of. You know, it was unheard of. I was very proud of that.

 

And how did you come to be, I guess, one of the first two women to wear a bikini? How did that happen?

 

Well, I didn’t think it was an issue. You know, it was just natural. You know, we grew up half-naked and naked; you’d go swimming naked, the girls and the boys over there. The girls there, we quickly take off our dress. We didn’t have panties or bra. Take off and put it on the bush, and run down, you know, into lagoon. And I mean, it’s no big deal. So, I just grew up not thinking about shame or rules, or restrictions. To this day, I have to be very careful I don’t upset people because of my quickness to do what’s natural.

 

After the birth of her second child, Johnny Frisbie planted roots in New Zealand. She says there were a number of Pukapukans living there, and she wanted her children to experience their cultural heritage. In 1976, Johnny made her debut as a television personality and had a chance to share her perspectives on life with New Zealand viewers.

 

Television began in the city where we lived, Dunedin, which is south, on the south island of New Zealand. An Australian producer was there, and he’d come from Australia, and he had worked on a program called Beauty and the Beast in Australia. And he wanted to start one for New Zealand viewers. And so, he asked me; he wanted someone other than all European. There were four panelists. So, he asked me if I would, and I said, yes, sure. You know. So, the program was about a male presenter and two women on the side. And he would a letter from viewers from all over, from solo mothers, grandmothers, you know, teenagers needing answer, needing help. And so, he would read the letter, and would turn and say, Johnny, what do you think of that? You know, we were not to give our advice, to give advice, but to give our opinion. But my viewpoint was very different to the other three, so it always very different to every letter. There was never one that just.

 

For example; can you give an example?

 

A solo mother who is alone with her baby, and wanted to know what to do with the baby. She can’t cope, they had very little money, and the father is just ignoring her. What do you do? And so, my reply was, Do you have family? You know, can you go to your mother or father, or auntie, or distant relative? You know, this is kind of the village clan type reply. I said, you know, have courage; even though they might not be happy with you for having this baby without the father, you know, just seek their help, find out, you know, and make amends. Yeah.

 

What did the others say?

 

They said, Oh, well, you did what you did, you’re paying for it. Kind of that kind of thing.

 

Thanks for the advice or the opinion. That went on for quite—you did that …

 

Ten years; ten years.

 

Ten years.

 

Five days a week. Yeah.

 

And did you have fans writing you about how they really liked your advice?

 

Yeah; the Polynesian Pacific island community were very, very grateful. They were very proud of the fact that they had someone on television, you know, and speaking on all our behalf. Yeah.

 

Were you controversial, too?

 

A little bit, yeah.

 

And you don’t mind. Not at all, right?

 

Well, it’s the truth as I understand it. And also fairness, you know. You know, I mean, we all think differently. You know, different cultures, the thoughts and feelings are all different. And I’m not about to cow down to what is supposed to be the correct way to think and feel, and all that, you know

 

And then, there was Pacifica. What’s that?

 

Pacifica is an organization that uh, Patty Walker, a very dear friend, and four other women and I started. Patty and I were on the New Zealand Maori and South Pacific Arts Council, and while at one of the meetings, we thought, Why don’t we create a Pacific Island women’s organization to help the women who are lost, and those who would like to be a nurse but don’t know where to go and how to get it moving, and get Pacific Island children, kids, students who are doing well at school to further their education, get a scholarship for them, or guide them. But, yeah, it helped. It was such a successful program for Pacific Island, especially the women, you know, stand tall, you know, have confidence, you know, go back to school. You know, I mean, they come from the small islands, eighth grade, and then that’s it. And so many of them enter college now, and it’s moved on. Professors and doctors, nurses. Yeah.
In 2015, Johnny Frisbie returned to her home atoll of Pukapuka in the Cook Islands after being away for over fifty years. She was reunited with her eldest brother, Charley Frisbie, given away at birth to his grandaunt, and he’d become the oldest living Pukapukan.

 

After many, many years away, you went back to Pukapuka to see your brother.

 

M-hm. Yeah; and to film a documentary called Homecoming. And we flew from Honolulu. The producer director of the film, Gemma, we flew to New Zealand, and then to Rarotonga, and we waited there for a boat to sail to Pukapuka. And it doesn’t happen often. And we were lucky, because during that month of July, the Cook Islands was celebrating its fiftieth internal self-government from New Zealand. So, they are no longer a protectorate of New Zealand. So, all the island people from the different islands congregated on Rarotonga to celebrate this great event. Lots of beautiful music, drumming, singing, dancing; the whole thing was just mindboggling. And so, we asked to board the boat that was to take the Pukapukans back to Pukapuka. And they said, Yeah, come onboard. So, we did. Five days sailing, and every night, every day, there’s music and drumming. The Pukapukans would just, you know, stay up all night waiting to get home, playing the ‘ukulele on both sides of the deck, you know, singing. It was beautiful.

 

Five days of that?

 

Yes; five days, five days of that.

 

That is a very difficult atoll to get to.

 

Yeah, it is; yeah.

 

No regularly scheduled boat or air …

 

No, no.

 

We had to charter a plane, eight-seater. We had to, or we would be stuck there for goodness knows how long. That way, we were assured of getting back to Rarotonga.

 

What was it like after that great sailing prelude? What was it like going back?

 

Well, it was so amazing. I fell into it as if I’d never left. Just totally, totally into it. You know, and just walking on the reef, just on the beach collecting shells, and talking. You know, the language came back very quickly. And grating coconut, peeling taro, and scaling fish, and gutting fish. You know, just cooking it the way we used to in the old days. And it was just unbelievable. I just fell into it, and it made me wonder, gosh, have I been longing, homesick all these years, and I just kind of buried it somewhere? You know.

 

Did you want to stay?

 

No, I didn’t because I wanted to be with my family, with my kids, my grandchildren. In that sense, yeah, that’s utmost to me.

 

But you could go home again.

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

It was all the good that you remember.

 

Oh, yes. And church, you know, attending the church service with that beautiful singing. It’s like chanting, you know.

 

Oh, the harmony. I sat on the benches in the village where my mother comes from. I sat almost where she used to sit.

 

Wow.

 

Yeah; makes you wonder why I ever left.

 

After living in New Zealand for thirty years, Johnny Frisbie returned to Hawai‘i to live with her daughter, Haumea Ho, widow of the late Hawai‘i entertainment icon, Don Ho.

 

Seems like you’ve lived a larger-than-life life. Because I mean, for example, your daughter is Haumea, she was married to Don Ho.

 

That’s right. Yeah.

 

I mean, that’s a different kind of culture. You know, the show business culture.

 

Yeah, yes, yes. Yeah; that’s why I came to Hawai‘i. She asked me to come and be with her when Don passed away. And it was very wonderful; wonderful, wonderful to be with her. And also, my sister was married to Adam West, Batman.

 

Batman.

 

Mm; yes.

 

You were a performer. I mean, you danced, you sang.

 

Mm. Yeah.

 

So, that was just part of life.

 

Yeah; m-hm, m-hm. Yeah. It wasn’t a career.

 

You continue to write. And I think when you write, you know, it makes you think maybe better. I mean, just because you’re involved in the exercise of putting things down that have to be true and authentic.

 

M-hm.

 

What insights have you come to over your life as you look back?

 

I’ve been very lucky. Delved a lot in philosophy, and so, I want to make things honest, and develop that aspect of my soul, my nature. And I’m very, very much into writing about my philosophy about anything and everything that comes to mind. And I’m discovering that I haven’t really committed fully to what the majority of people think about some things, and how they do it.

 

When people remember you in years to come, how do you want them to remember you; as nurturer?

 

Well, that’s just me. I mean, I have no profession. I think what they see, what they’ve gotten out from me, if any, that’s probably, and I have no label to say, you know. It’s what they got from me, good or bad. I don’t know. Yeah; hopefully, some good things. Yeah.

 

You mentioned your birthdate, and it means that as we speak now in 2017, you’re approaching eighty-five?

 

M-hm.

 

I don’t know what eighty-five looks like anymore, because a people are so healthy longer. But you don’t seem like you’re anywhere near eighty-five. I’m sure you’ve been told that before.

 

I’ll tell you a story. About a week and a half ago, I flew to California to see a friend. And his daughter, I’ve never met before, came to the airport to meet me. And I was waiting, and she was looking around for me, looking around for me. And finally, she called me and she said, Johnny, you know, where are you? I said, I’m here. And she said, Okay, I’m gonna put my hand up, when you see me, you know, come forward. And so, I did. And she came over to me and she said, I expected a gray-haired woman, lots of wrinkles! And she was yelling. You don’t have any wrinkles!

 

How old do you feel?

 

I feel young. You know, I’m exhilarated by things, excited about things. And I feel love, I feel love all the time. But physically, as of last year when I was gardening at my son’s place in Punalu‘u, I felt the physical change, you know. I’m crouching and weeding, and I can’t quickly stand up, you know. I had to kinda—ooh, you know. You know, help myself stand up like that, and I thought, mm, now this is not good. But you know, accept it.

 

And that was only last year.

 

Yeah, yeah. Yeah; last year.

 

You know, people at age thirty are saying, My knee, it’s killing me.

 

At the time of this conversation in March of 2017, Florence “Johnny” Frisbie was about to embark on yet another journey; a multi-week trip across the Pacific. Even in her mid-80s, it seems the odyssey of Miss Ulysses from Pukapuka is not over yet. Mahalo to author Florence “Johnny” Frisbie of Honolulu for sharing your story with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i 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.

 

Have you ever regretted saying too much?

 

Saying too much; no. No.

 

Have you ever regretted saying too little?

 

Mmm, no. No.

 

Do you not have many regrets?

 

That would be, I mean, that would be the best place to be in life, no regrets.

 

Yeah, there’s a couple of things, but not much, no.

 

[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.

 

Florence Johnny Frisbie Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

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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