'My Own Private Paradise'

It is dawn and save for the sound of ocean waves washing beneath my window, my world is as silent as a shining star. Last evening it rained so that today the sky is as blue as a young girl's eyes. All would be well if only that infernal rooster outside my door would stop crowing at midnight.

The bird awakens me with a shrill crow that fizzles to a sputtering stop. It seems exhausted. I think it spent too much time in the henhouse. I fantasize that perhaps Ronald McDonald will nab it, but it would make a lousy Chicken McNugget.

Whatever, the bird is now part of my life. Much as I object to it, it won't go away. And neither, perhaps, will I leave this island that gives birth to rainbows.

Since October, you see, I have been leasing a condominium on Kauai to contemplate spending the rest of my life here. Falling in love with a destination, as many people do on vacation, isn't always the same as actually living there full time. When one leaves home, one leaves behind family and friends for an altogether different lifestyle. On the other hand, there's always the possibility of capturing that most elusive of prizes, contentment.

But I'm a poor gambler. Instead of selling my house back home in the San Fernando Valley, I decided to give Hawaii a six-month trial. My deadline is March 31.

So why Kauai? Simple, really. For 31 years I jetted to nearly every place on Earth: Europe, South America, Asia, the Middle East, the South Pacific, the Caribbean. I was tempted by Positano, a marvelous hideaway on Italy's Amalfi Coast that John Steinbeck was infatuated with. And there was Murren, an Alpine village in Switzerland that had also won my heart.

Hawaii is closer, and warmer, of course. And so in the end, I chose Kauai for its beauty and peace, its friendly people, its pure air and its simple lifestyle. On Kauai, chickens run free in sleepy villages, and girls and boys ride by on bicycles, balancing surfboards under their arms; locals smile and say "Aloha." And there's no lineup of wall-to-wall resorts or tall buildings, as is the case on some Hawaiian islands.

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As a lad I had dreamed of living on an island, having read of the adventures in Hawaii of Mark Twain, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived out his final days in Western Samoa. And there was the Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe.

But those are romantic images. When I arrived here last fall it hadn't occurred to me that I would become the chauffeur to a group of prison inmates, or learn to surf or become addicted to the melodies of a group called the Happy Hawaiians.

The first time I visited Kauai, in 1961, I was seduced by its charms. The love affair began the night I spent on a deserted beach along the Na Pali coast, on Kauai's rainy northern side. Next morning, I woke by the sea as dawn lighted the sky and a gull wheeled overhead. The beach was bathed by trade winds and sunlight filtered through the clouds. I knew at that very moment that this was to be my Bali Hai. It marked the beginning of my love affair with the loveliest island on Earth.

When I came here last fall I had intended to write a novel, a love story. But why stay indoors when I can spend the day on the beach? (My dermatologist back home may go ballistic when he reads this, but surely you must agree, Dr. Rivkin.)

So far I haven't written a single line, but I have a nice tan. I run two miles each morning and later, after showering and shaving, I take my breakfast tray onto the terrace, where I share my cereal with a couple of myna birds, Pete and Sally. They've gotten a trifle spoiled and occasionally can be nearly as annoying as that confounded rooster.

After breakfast I study the ocean and the surfers riding waves at Wailua Bay, which my condo overlooks. Before I know it, the lunch hour has arrived. After this I take a nap and later fill my soul once more with the scene beyond my window and, well, soon it's cocktail hour. And on occasion my friend Specs invites me to dinner.

Days get taken up fast when you're a beach bum.

The condominium where I live is a one-bedroom affair a few yards down the road from what used to be the Coco Palms Resort. Coco Palms ceased operation after Hurricane Iniki tore into it and has yet to reopen. The resort was the domain of the legendary Grace Guslander who made dreams come true in Hawaii for thousands of guests and is now my neighbor. Small though my condominium is, the view alone is worth the cramped quarters. A maintenance worker who stopped the other day to spray for bugs stood on the terrace and remarked: "Golly, that's a million-dollar view."

And it is.

Offshore, waves collide with a reef, sending spray heaving into the heavens. On this entire island there is only one major highway, so as I leave my driveway I can turn left or right. In either direction, I'll run out of road in about an hour.

Beneath my terrace ocean critters gather in tide pools and occasionally sea turtles surface. Because of El Nino it has been an unusually dry winter on Kauai (Mt. Waialeale, the wettest place on Earth, ordinarily is doused with 400 to 500 inches of rain a year).

This being the east side of the island, we don't get the sunsets that Poipu does, although clouds scattered on the horizon are often brushed pink by the sun's dying rays, and there are sunrises that simply stir the soul. Last night, I looked up at a Milky Way I'd nearly forgotten existed.

Even Kauai has its downside, though. Traffic is growing worse (though recalling the Hollywood Freeway drive I made for years, I feel blessed) and the food prices are shocking. I paid $5.31 for a quart of milk and a loaf of bread the other day at Safeway. Laperts asks $2.60 for a one-scoop ice cream cone. Wal-Mart has moved in, driving some mom-and-pop stores out of business.

And after living in a big city, with all its cultural attractions and cosmopolitan airs, with the exception of Oahu, the neighbor islands can soon feel like a very small town. What's more, I am far away from my two sons and grandchildren, and since I lost my wife, Jody, nearly three years ago I miss everyone even more.

At any rate, it's a lovely day. The trades are blowing, the sun is warm, and I think I'll go for a swim, and after this perhaps I'll mix a drink and watch ships passing on the horizon.

After arriving on Kauai, I went for a ride with Jack Harter who operates a helicopter sightseeing service on Kauai. We flew over Waialeale, and Waikoko Crater, where Harter dropped the chopper into the volcano. Waterfalls spilled furiously and an updraft lifted the helicopter like a leaf. We flew over the world's largest high-altitude swamp, the Alakai and beyond to Waimea Canyon.

On this entire island there is only one major highway, so as I leave my driveway I have two choices: I can turn left or right. In either direction, I'll run out of road in about an hour.

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On Fridays, I often drive out to Hanalei and Haena on the north shore, which is where Hollywood filmed "South Pacific." I swim at Lumahai Beach where Mitzi Gaynor "washed that man right out of my hair." En route, the road skirts villages grown over with taro, and others where cattle graze, and there are rice paddies that mirror wet, green mountains, all of it perfumed by trade winds that scatter the fragrance of plumeria blossoms.

After swimming at Lumahai, I stop at Wainiha General Store, near Road's End at Haena, to visit with Mike Green, a friend who is a former real estate broker from Washington, D.C. Mike also fell victim to Kauai's charms. Three years ago, he moved here after having visited all but one of the 50 states and dozens of foreign countries. Like me, he settled on Kauai. Studying the scene beyond the store, he remarks: "I've never seen anything more beautiful anywhere in the world." And although he misses certain cultural attractions, he wouldn't go home again even if someone gave him the Smithsonian and threw in the White House to boot.

Friday nights in Hanalei is when the Happy Hawaiians play at Tahiti Nui, which has been my pub for years whenever I visited Kauai. A friend of mine, Haole Pete Fielder, who plays the ukulele with the eight-man group, is an expatriate from Los Angeles who had the good sense to move here 20 years ago. The former occupations of the other band members, ages 65 and up, range from heavy equipment operator to electrician to tour operator to real estate salesman.

At Tahiti Nui ceiling fans spin and grass mats cover the walls, which are decorated with carved masks and spears that Auntie Louise Marston lugged from Tahiti when she came to Kauai 36 years ago. Some still insist she is the character James Michener called Bloody Mary, a big, handsome woman with a heart filled with aloha spirit.

Like Quinn's old bar in Tahiti (which some fool razed for an office building), Tahiti Nui is a gathering place for a motley crew of locals who arrive barefoot (no dress code for this joint) along with tourists from the mainland who get caught up in the joyful virus spread by Auntie Louise.

Haole Pete, who put together the musical group, created a drink he calls Haole Pete's Polynesian Paradise Paralyzer, which consists of pineapple juice, crushed ice, fresh lime, club soda and Meyer's Rum, which he serves at "Paralyzer Parties" whenever he isn't recovering from a session at Tahiti Nui. The Happy Hawaiians get paid $175 for their Friday night gig while running up a bar tab that figures out to about $250. This puts the boys $75 in the hole, but who cares, they're having fun, aren't they?

Once, when the rain hammered down on the roof and blew through the door and windows and I was stranded by the storm, Auntie Louise spread pillows on the floor, and I slept in the bar. The building is 127 years old and smells of all the rum that's been poured by bartender Wally Koga, who grew up in Hanalei when it was still a one-horse town with an unpaved road.

I took leave of Tahiti Nui at midnight the other evening and while walking out the door, Haole Pete shouted, "Hey, Haole, where ya goin'?"

I told him I was going home.

Pete took swill of his Paralyzer, shook his head and called after me, "Coward!"

I smiled, he smiled, and I strolled out into a night that was pure picture postcard Hawaii: trade winds blowing, a huge moon.

Thank you, Lord.

*

I had to be up early the next day to pick up the inmates from the prison in Kapaa to deliver them in my rental car to Lihue, Kauai's capital, where they are painting the interior of the Immaculate Conception Church. The prison faces Kuhio Highway, the island's main road, and if ever a judge sentences me to the slammer, I hope it is this one. The low-rise lockup faces the Pacific Ocean across the street, and spindly coconut palms offer shade to the prisoners.

Chauffeuring the five inmates is a voluntary task wished upon me by the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Church, Father Paul McLeod, and Catholic Charities' Hilda Cannon. I pick up "The Boys," as I call them, at 8 a.m., drop them at the church, and deliver them back to the jail by 5:30 p.m., chowtime. Since I drive a compact car, it's a trifle snug, with room for only one of the fellows up front, and four in the back seat. This means one of them must sit on another's lap, an unpopular arrangement.

Studying their faces in the rearview mirror, I get the impression none of them spent much time in Sunday school. But over the past three months I've grown fond of them. One, a chap named Pono, is doing time for fighting. "I'm a street fighter. You know, rocks, bottles, whatever's handy," Pono explained. But I suspect he's lost a bout or two since his front teeth are missing.

Another is known as "The Dictionary," a title bestowed upon him by his colleagues because of his impressive vocabulary that he picked up while studying at Folsom Prison before graduating to Kauai.

The Boys call me Jerry. I call them Sir.

I took on this job after meeting Padre Paul at a friend's home. He begged me, even after I said I wasn't Catholic, to accept the chauffeuring job. The upshot of my accepting is that now on Sundays I attend his church to hear his sermons, which are little gems interrupted on occasion by the crowing of roosters in the churchyard.

Well, March 31 is fast approaching. Decision time. Soon my six-month lease will be up. I must figure out whether to return to the urban ills of Los Angeles, with its smog, drive-by shootings and nightmarish traffic, or remain on an island blessed with rainbows and refreshing breezes--a place where the rooster crows at midnight.

Hulse retired in 1991 after 39 years with The Times.

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