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Friday, April 18, 2014

Inouye's Hawaii

Jaime R. Vergara

I only got to meet him once in ’98 while living in Hawaii. My brother got a letter earlier from his Senate office while stuck in Manila in the ’70s. He was waiting for his immigrant visa interview and the process was taking longer than planned. He had been a student in the U.S. and returned home as required by INS to change visa status. Senator Inouye’s letterhead might have expedited his consular processing a bit.

The eldest serving U.S. senator, Daniel Inouye succumbed to respiratory complications this week. At 88, he had another two years to his 9th term. He did manage to arrange for his successor, District 1 Rep. Coleen Hanabusa. With Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie at the state’s helm, the appointment is a done deal. Inouye gently whispered "Aloha" before he expired.

The gentleman from Hawaii whose manners and suasion were respected by both sides of the Senate aisle was not always so refined. He was a young man in Honolulu when he saw Zeros bomb Pearl Harbor. He knew he had to uphold the honor of his race since his parents raised him to be a citizen of a new home, so he immediately tried to enlist. The shape of his eyes and the color of his skin, however, listed him as a possible enemy.

Undeterred, he and other Japanese-Americans formed the elite combat battalion of the 4-4-2 whose exploits in Europe is legendary. The bemedaled second generation Nippongo is recorded to have unleashed the kamikaze spirit on German machine gun nests in Italy in WWII. Three of them, in one encounter, with the third shattering his right arm in a grenade explosion, the diminutive guy singlehandedly decimated a Wehrmacht platoon on the run. When stopped with a leg lead hit, he propped himself against a tree and unloaded his cartridges until the last gunnery was silenced.

At the hospital, after surgery and recovery, he had to rely on his buddies to tell him what he did. "Only a crazy guy would do that," he was said to have responded to his platoon mates. All told, he was. And then some!

Inouye joined the Democratic Party revolution that took Hawaii by a storm in ’54 before it joined the union as the 50th state in ’59. He became a congressional district representative and three years later, started a nine-term run in the U.S. Senate. We got lei’d on the hula shores the first time in ’65. Because of Inouye’s work with the Democratic workers against the Republican plantation owners, he was a revered saluyot Manong among the Ilocano farm hands, and that’s how he came into our Pinoy acquaintance.

My boy’s name is Daniel, though I would be lying if I claimed we named him after the senator. My son was, however, born in Washington D.C. in ’95 during Bill Clinton’s first watch, though that was way past Inouye’s keynote speech at the marred Chicago Democratic Convention in ’68 when this Manong, after the assassinations of MLK and RFK, took a break out of the street parliament. Nor was I within hollering distance in the beltway when Inouye held hearings on the Iran-Contra affair that tarnished the Reagan presidency. In 2000, Clinton belatedly decorated our war hero to the level accorded normal combat veterans of exceptional valor. Inouye batted for the Filipino vets who, to this day, were denied their due.

Of course, our title is not about Inouye as it is about the Hawaii his deft legislative acumen with fellow Sen. Daniel Akaka crafted while the two Daniels presided over the affairs of state often referred to as a quadrant of Washington, D.C.

We drive with a Hawaii license and have considered the islands our political and ethnic home. Akaka is of Hawaiian-Chinese descent but Inouye is pure Nippon of the kind who migrated out of the shogunate before the Meiji restoration in Japan. I once sat on a plane flight in ’80 with a Sao Paolo Portuguese speaking Japanese from NYC to Rio. He was a rabid Brazilian nationalist. He reminded me of the senator. The predominant Nippon presence in Hawaiian politics make the islands look more like a prefecture of Japan.

Former governor Ben Cayetano (the Pinoy latchkey kid) came out of retirement to run for the Honolulu mayor’s office this year, opposing a needed light rail transit aimed to decongest Oahu’s leeward side, but proving to be more costly than first projected. Cayetano lost the election to former city manager Kirk Caldwell.

Inouye was on Caldwell’s camp that supported the divisive rail project with possible federal funding. He regretted the nasty flavor of the abundant negative ads in the campaign and counseled for the "aloha" spirit on his party colleagues after the election.

Mazie Hirono, Cayetano’s lieutenant governor, the new senator-elect to replace Akaka, is all grace on heels. (I did munch a few hors d’oeuvre at a gathering in her residence once, but that will have to wait another telling.) With Coleen Hanabusa joining her, we now have two female senators from Hawaii. Both are practicing Zen Buddhists as well.

With the rough winds of the Sandy Hook incident already hitting the front office of the NRA, and the media revs up both sides of the gun control debate, the nation’s capital could use some determined but gentle hands to legislate us out of the rot of a gun culture gone awry that we are in. Methodist Inouye and UCC Akaka of "Onward Christian Soldiers" persuasion now give way to the fragrant lei and the gentle sways of the hula in Alohaland, with a touch of the chrysanthemum on the side.

Am wearing my "I  Hawaii" cap this month. Inouye lives.

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