BY J. ARTHUR RATH – Cowboys didn’t have much to do nights in a little ranch shack on the slope of Mauna Loa far beyond the range of electrical lines way back in the Nineteen Forties. We amused ourselves in a common room lit by the fireplace’s fire, one kerosene lamp on the dining table, amid glows of hand-rolled cigarettes made from
Bull Durham tobacco in a bag. It was “BC”–Before Cancer (awareness of it, anyway).
I’m describing the conclusion of a championship match that had occupied our evenings for almost a week.
Fat Frank, a Hawaiian man in his forties, sat on one side of the eating table: I sat on the bench opposite him. A Mason Jar holding a branch of small red chili peppers (those deadly kind) was in front of us, saucers of Hawaiian rock sea salt and glasses filled with water were to our right. A water pitcher sat on the middle of the table.
The first of us to drink water would lose.
Spectators surrounded the table, Fat Frank started. He pulled a pepper from the branch, dipped it in salt, chewed it slowly, looked me in the eyes, swallowed, sneered, and said:
“Us goin’ see what you is, small boy. These kine peppers mo’ hot than Hell.”
Fat Frank, undoubtedly was surprised I was still alive after three nights of pepper contests that had advanced me to this,
“The Finals.” I was eleven years old and striving to assert my “manhood.”
I had in mind a quick comeback to his “Hotter than Hell” statement. But I held my words instead of smart-mouth retorting:
“You must know about that place.”
You didn’t fool with Fat Frank. He would’ve kicked me hard in a spot that would’ve made my prepubescent soprano voice permanent for the rest of my life.
Nonchalantly, I picked a pepper and popped it into my mouth. Covering my mouth with a hand, as though reflecting, I gulped the whole pepper but pretended I’d slowly chewed it.
I smiled innocently at Frank.
The scorekeeper called out: “Each got one.” I didn’t dip the pepper in salt, that would’ve made me thirsty.
By the time a cowboy called out, “Each got eight,” Fat Frank was sweating profusely. I continued to gulp peppers, and pretended to chew them.
Tears were running from Frank’s eyes. He made the terrible mistake of wiping his eyes with the fingers he used to pull papers from the branch. Ouch! That burned!
Fat Frank squinted as if in great pain. He grabbed the pitcher with two hands and gulped water from it.
Moses, a kindly dwarf who was our cook, put some bread next to me. I gobbled some, then rushed outside to throw up. Better that than experiencing a chili pepper after-burn, as Fat Frank surely would in the outhouse tomorrow.
Moses followed to see if I was okay.
I said: “Tomorrow if Fat Frank’s smokes a cigarette while in the outhouse, the place will explode.”
Moses acted as if that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
After contest night, for some reason, Fat Frank thought I was now his little buddy. He gave me his leather whip and taught me how to twirl and snap it so it made a sound like a pistol shot.
…This was part of my passage to manhood experienced on a little Hawaiian ranch on The Big Island. Here we amused ourselves in simple ways, shared camaraderie that can be succinctly phrased as: “We’re just local boys.”
J. Arthur Rath III is a Hawaii-based writer. Reach him at email@example.com