During the waning days of my military service I was stationed in Honolulu as our nation was celebrating it's bi-centennial, July 4th, 1976. There were celebrations and fireworks galore on every part of the island of Oahu as far as the eye could see. Beginning just before sundown the tranquil evening sky was studded with an array of flash, report and color enough to satisfy the most patriotic spectators. Little expense was spared in the display of national pride and celebration of our nation's 200th birthday.
Earlier in the day I saw the televised pageantry played out in New York harbor with the tall ships plying the waterways and the day long display of pyrotechnics of red, white and blue. It was a day-long event to be recorded and remembered as a historic and 'once in a lifetime' occurrence.
From my vantage point at Beretania St and Punahou there was little pedestrian traffic. Most of the celebrants were either assembled near Waikiki or along Ala Moana basin. This day had it's share of fireworks but fell short of the spectacular sound and fury of the Chinese New Year a few months earlier.
Early July in Honolulu is much the same as mid January in Honolulu. The weather seldom varies from a high of 85 to a low in the mid 60s. One hardly needs clothing.
Having served two and a half tours in Vietnam a few years prior to this date I was not one for crowds, explosions or confined areas. I had observed the spectacle of the municipal displays from my lanai as the evening waned and was now on my way out for a bite to eat.
My apartment was in the Banyan Tree Plaza, twenty four floors above the city streets and overlooking the expanse of the Central Union Church to the east. The church's broad lawn was as large as a football field and as lush as any city park. It was also bordered by a stand of old, well established oaks on two sides.
It was there, in that church's lawn that I met a most remarkable young man that late afternoon.
While walking past the Central Union Church's vast lawn I encountered a handful of young people from Punahou High School who had a few firecrackers and a box of sparklers.
I was the only adult nearby who had a lighter so they kept coming up to me to light their fireworks. Before long they ran out of firecrackers and only had sparklers.
As you know sparklers are pretty boring. I suggested they throw the sparklers, just before they died out, in a high arc but away from the majestic old trees so as not to set them afire. They agreed to my precaution. They were bored with just standing and waiting for the sparklers to burn down. I suggested they 'write' their names in the air with the sparklers. I noticed this one young lad who was using mostly vowels spelling his name. Given we were in Honolulu it wasn't so unusual that names were mostly vowels. Yet, I asked the lad what his name was as I couldn't discern the spelling.
I swear to the FSM that he said 'Barack Obama'. An unusual name, but again, I was thinking it was something of a Hawaiian nature but did not recognize it being such.
The one thing about that lad that I took note of was that while he was joking with his friends he'd say something in jest, a pun mostly. But when he did make a joke he wouldn't be the first to laugh. He'd hesitate a bit to see if anyone else was laughing, and if so, he'd join in with the merriment. If they didn't catch the joke and didn't laugh he'd pass it off and go on with some other banter without missing a beat. I've never seen another person do that. I've never witnessed another person make a joke and wait to see if anyone caught on to the gag before joining in the laughter. That is what impressed me about him at that time and to this very day.
His classmates at Punahou also commented on his uniqueness
"He just seemed really laid back in school," says Furushima, 45. "He became political sometime afterward, because I did not see any hint of that in high school. ... Except for one thing."
She recalls a poem he once wrote that showed there was more to her classmate than just basketball and books.
"It was something about an old man on an old forgotten road," Furushima says. "It was something to the effect of 'In my honor he pulled out old forgotten dignity and walked straight in a crooked world.'
"Kids in high school don't normally write poetry like that."
His maturity for someone their age also was notable.
"Barry was into things that other kids our age weren't into," says Ando, 46, recalling a time in middle school when they went to a record store just to browse.
"He went through the entire jazz section while we were there. ... That affects me to this day -- he's the one who introduced me to jazz."
He had that effect on a lot of people, many of whom describe him as the guy everybody liked and who got along with everyone else.
"In retrospect, everybody enjoyed having him as a classmate," said Mitchell Kam, another member of the Punahou Class of 1979.
Barack Obama is a respectful person and almost considerate to a fault, if you can call it that. He's not one to intentionally embarrass anyone or to make them feel ill at ease. That 14 year old taught me more about personal conduct and respect for others than anyone I've ever encountered. That brief encounter showed me the compassion he held for his friends and, yes, even me, a thirty-something veteran with a lighter.
Thirty six years ago I respected that young man for that trait and I respect him even more today.
With all the vile accusations that have been thrown at him and his family he has retained the high ground and not stooped to disparage anyone. He's shown nothing but respect for his fellow man regardless of their political or ideological stance. That's a very difficult thing to do. How many of us could still show honor and respect to our enemies?
His mom would be very proud of the man he grew up to be.
God bless him.