Y2K in Honolulu It wasn’t until Christmas that I first heard how New Year’s Eve is celebrated in Honolulu.

In honor of the holiday, I was enjoying a modest get-together with a few friends at the Outrigger Canoe Club. At some point, the conversation turned to New Year’s Eve plans. I volunteered that my usual dull habit was to go to bed at some reasonable hour and greet the new year when I awoke the next morning. This plan provoked knowing amusement from my dinner partners. That might be my habit, but there was no chance of that happening in Honolulu. They explained to me that Hawaiians hold New Year’s Eve in special reverence, which the population of Honolulu expresses by engaging in a citywide eruption of fireworks of monumental proportion, unrivaled anywhere else. In the midst of such a raucous celebration, going to sleep was simply not an option. In the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I heard this holiday forecast amplified and repeated by everyone I asked, as well as reported by the local media. On New Year’s Eve, Honolulu turns into a virtual war zone, a hideous cacophony of endless explosions and dark clouds of acrid smoke that drive the sensitive into hiding or respiratory distress. The strange part of these reports was that the celebration was universally portrayed as an obnoxious and dreaded event, not something to look forward to, not a voluntary, cooperative, anticipated community event, like St. Patrick’s Day in Boston or Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It sounded more like a Hell’s Angels rally invading the town with helpless local citizens hiding for cover, cowering and cringing until the marauding hordes passed on. New Year’s Eve finally arrived last night. Not just any New Year’s Eve, but Y2K New Year’s Eve, the night when the long-predicted millennium bug was supposed to wreak havoc on our computers, and any number of ancient prophesy of doom and apocalypse were suppose to rain down upon the planet. At 8:00 PM, my friend Christiane and I drove down the hill to our friend Steve’s mom’s house by the ocean to begin the evening celebration. Elsewhere, the new millennium had begun 16 hours earlier, starting at the International Dateline, 2000 miles to the west of us, and rushing at


the speed of dawn around the globe until it had come almost full circle to where we waited, the last major city, the last kid in line to greet the new year. By the time Christiane and I set out for the evening, we already knew that the dreaded millennium bug had been an innocuous dud. The year 2000 had registered without incident in computers in Australia and New Zealand, then in Japan and across Asia, sweeping harmlessly over Europe before landing painlessly on the shores of the New World. It had already spared the sprawling megalopolis along the Eastern Seaboard, passed lightly by Chicago, and was humming absent-mindedly toward Denver, like a retired school teacher touring the USA in an over-sized Winnebago. Even though the Y2K bug proved to buzz much louder than it bit, the drive to Steven’s mom’s house gave quick evidence that Honolulu New Year’s explosion was going to meet or exceed its hype. Although it was still 4 hours till midnight, the ride through the neighborhoods of Kamuki and Kahala was awash with the staccato report of fireworks as impatient revelers lurked in the post-dusk shadows, repeatedly applying match to infinite fuses with dark demonic delight. We visited with Steven, his wife Michele, and a few others at the house on the water for a couple of hours, chatting, snacking, toasting the new year, but mostly sitting on the dock, watching and listening to the spectacle that was gaining boisterous momentum as the clock moved slowly toward twelve. All along the coast, rockets whistled into the air then blossomed loudly into cascading flowers of falling fire. The neighbors on either side of us appeared to be locked into a pyrotechnic arms race, taking turns detonating some piece of their festive arsenal, then sitting back in smug satisfaction, waiting to see if the other could match or surpass their most recent effort. Steven, Michele, Christiane and I sat quietly taking in the commotion: four American Buddhists abiding, open and empty, while the crazy world around us arose, exploded then passed away like a hallucinogenic dream. Well, not exactly. At Steven’s request, I had purchased $30 worth of fireworks at a local shop and just before Christiane and I left, we spent a few minutes shooting our meager wad like a quartet of children playing with cap guns while the storm troops all around us fired their bazookas and scud missiles with a vengeance.


The trouble with our fireworks was that I had acquired them legally, which meant that they were limited to 12 feet of travel in any direction once launched. According to the local news, the State Police had confiscated 14 tons of illegal fireworks, but similar to war on drugs, that turned out to be the smallest fraction of what had successfully ended up in the eager hands of serious pyrotechnicians, like our neighbors, and countless others. Funny thing, all these illegal fireworks successfully eluding law officials and making it into the arsenals of countless Hawaiian homes. Because Hawaii is obsessively scrupulous in guarding its borders against unwelcome contraband from overseas. All incoming baggage and cargo is carefully inspected to prevent agricultural and environmental pests, parasites and predators from invading this fragile island paradise. It’s amazing to me that state inspectors have been successful for years in preventing the dreaded Brown Tree Snake from sneaking onto the islands from Guam, yet they proved helpless and ineffectual in preventing tons and tons of fireworks from getting through. Like corrupt third-world officials pretending to fight the war on drugs, I have to suspect that local authorities must have let down their guard just a little in this regard. Like, “You have anything illegal or hazardous in that crate, Sir?” “No, just 600 pounds of explosives, Officer.” “OK, as long as there’s no snakes or suspicious vegetables in there.” At 9:30 PM, Christiane and I left Steve and Michele and drove through the thickening din and growing blanket of gunpowder smog back up into the hills. We stopped for an hour at another small quiet party of sensitive Buddhists and marveled quietly at the battle being waged among less sanguine souls in the suburbs below. By the time we moved on and returned to Christiane’s house, it was 11:00 PM, and I was ready for bed. I was tired, I had heard enough noise and seen enough fiery display and breathed enough smoke for one millennium. I didn’t care if I was a party pooper, I didn’t care if it was too noisy to actually sleep. I was going to get in bed, put in earplugs, and at least relax and retreat, if not actually transcend the war and manage to sleep. That’s what I wanted to do, at least. That’s what I intended to do. But as I started getting ready for bed, I realized that something amazing was going on outside. Christiane’s house is located nearly at the top of Mauna Lani Heights, a steep volcanic ridge with sweeping, panoramic views of Honolulu spreading out below it. It has been a


frequent pleasure to sit on the porch and watch the silhouette of the city skyline fade to darkness as the sun sets gloriously into the ocean beyond it. Now, as I brushed my teeth, I could see the cityscape strobe-lit by a mosaic of multi-colored explosions, stretching in a violent matrix across the city and suburbs as far as my eye could see. Even an inveterate stick in the mud like me realized that there was something rare and amazing going on outside, something worth staying up a little longer to investigate. Thus, I rejoined Christiane and we packed a blanket and hiked further up the ridge in search of the optimal vantage point from which to observe the spectacle unfolding below us. We ended up behind the Mauna Lani Nursing Home, whose sloping lawn allowed us a nearly uninterrupted view of the city below. The view afforded us was sweeping and majestic under any circumstances. The looming high rises of downtown and hotel-row along Waikiki Beach slowly gave was to an endless sprawling grid of street-lit thoroughfares defining the suburbs, spilling outward until checked by the dark ocean at its ragged edge. And upon this urban/suburban landscape, the New Years fireworks raged. How it would have delighted Steven Spielberg: a special-effects extravaganza of immense proportion. Mile after mile of the city was lit and relit by relentless incendiary aerial displays. Like an enormous food fight in Dante’s hellish cafeteria, like a frat party of ten thousand horny gods of fire vainly vying for the attention of one all-alluring magic princess. The display kept building in density and intensity, beyond all imaging, not just my pale frail newcomers imagination, but Christiane’s too, even though she had lived in Honolulu most of her life and had experienced countless New Year’s Eve celebrations before. But those were just run of the century New Year’s Eve celebration. She had never been to an end of millennium version before. Just when it felt like the magnitude of commotion couldn’t get any larger, just when I was starting to wonder how long the celebration could continue at such a fevered pitch, the clock struck midnight and the real extravaganza began. Every thing that had exploded up till now, overwhelming as it seemed in its own right, was just the warm up act, waiting for the start of the new year. After all, everything so far was just a bunch of over-eager amateurs letting off steam. And smoke and fire and a whole lot of noise.


Now the preliminaries were over and time for the professional fireworks display to commence. In reality, we didn’t actually hear any clock strike midnight. How could we with all the deafening detonations surrounding us? Nonetheless, someone was keeping an eye on the time because exactly at midnight simultaneous large-scale fireworks displays erupted across the city. All those horny little fire gods were suddenly drowned out by the appearance of the big guys, the mighty Gods of War, rising up from the tops of the skyscrapers, towering into the sky as if to rip the constellations from their celestial tethers. It was as if the long-dormant volcanoes of Oahu had suddenly all erupted at once. Streams of multi-tentacled lights hurled against the night. Thundering explosions making the ground beneath us shake. It suddenly struck me that for thousands of years God had appeared to native Hawaiians as ferocious volcanic displays of fire and noise. Now the craters of Diamond Head and Punchbowl lay cold and still, but the children of Hawai’i honored their memory by blowing up everything they had. The professional display lasted maybe 15 minutes, but it felt endless. It was just so overwhelming. From where we were, we could see two epicenters, one atop the hotels at Waikiki and another on a skyscraper downtown. There was a third at the very edge of our view somewhere near Pearl Harbor, but that was a bit too far away to see clearly. The two nearby sites engaged in a long argumentative dialogue like two ill-tempered giants fighting for our attention. One tower would launch a giant dandelion of golden flames and before it had fully faded, the other would hurl a vermilion planetoid crashing against the dome of the sky. They argued back and forth like this while we looked on mutely like small children witnessing their parents breaking up. Finally, there was a silence that lasted too long until it suddenly dawned on us that it was over. Except it wasn’t over, not by a long shot. Now that the pros had shot their highimpact wad, it was time for the amateurs in the suburbs to get the last word in. Turns out they had been holding out on us during the long display leading up to midnight. They had ceded the center of attention to the regular army, but now that the big shots down town were exhausted, the little guys replied with a vengeance. They were little, but there


were an awful, awful lot of them, and when the big Gods of War ran out of ammo, the little guys came pouring out of their foxholes and ran the big guys out of town. Man, it was something beyond describing. The State of Hawai’i has a population of 1.1 million, of which 800,000 live in Honolulu. From where we were sitting, Christiane and I had a view of almost half of the whole city. That means there were something like 400,000 Honolulans arrayed below us, and apparently the majority of them had invested their lifesavings on this one end of millennium fireworks extravaganza. Even though the shows downtown were amazing in height, the following display was beyond imaging in width. The whole city for miles in all directions was awash in wave after wave of fiery, multicolored explosion. It just came and came and came, until the city was eclipsed in a dense blanket of smoke, which only made the endless explosions more eerie and sweeping like the way evening clouds bring out the best in a sunset. This orgy of incineration never came to a distinct end, but eventually it started to lag and wane and Christiane and I finally unglued ourselves from our spot and plowed our way home through the dense all-encompassing thicket of smoke. It was like walking out of the movie theater after an epic picture; the movie wasn’t quite over yet, but we knew how it was going to end, no point staying on to watch all the credits roll. It felt like we had been at ground zero of the end of daylong world millennium celebration. As if the events that swept the globe all day were just a long burning fuse coming ever closer until it detonated here in Honolulu. Being forced by geography to go last, Honolulu compensated by going best. This morning, I went online and checked the newspapers worldwide. Nowhere else was there report of any display beginning to rival what we had witnessed. I even checked the South China Morning Post to see if the Chinese in Hong Kong had managed to match the zeal of their Asian brethren in Honolulu. Not a chance, it was just new millennium celebration as usual there, like it was everywhere else. Ho hum. So now it’s day one of the year 2000 and I’m left wondering why Honolulu was unique worldwide in it’s enthusiasm in greeting the new millennium. Best I can tell is it comes from Hawaii’s unusual synergistic synthesis of Chinese, Polynesian and US influences.


The Chinese invented gunpowder, after all, way back when, but they didn’t bother to use it for warfare, they immediately invented fireworks and have been partying down in a loud way ever since. Honolulu has the largest Chinese population of any US city by far, and all those tons of explosives today still come to Honolulu from China, not from Pedro’s South of the Border in South Carolina, where we used to get them as kids. The Chinese pyrotechnic enthusiasm combines nicely with native worship of Pele the Hawaiian volcano god. What better way to honor Pele than through the sincerest flattery of imitation? If it were up to me, I’d have launched the midnight blasts from atop Diamond Head and Punchbowl, but that won’t happen because the tourist pay the bills, so I guess the show has to be held at their doorstep not Pele’s. On top of Polynesian volcano envy and Chinese big bang theory, Hawaii is a US state, proud and true. Thus, the celebration was pushed way over the top by good old Yankee spirit that more is better and most is best. All it took then was a good excuse to erupt. Something like the end of the millennium and the nagging threat of Y2K technical meltdown and possibly the second coming and the looming apocalypse. Might as well go out with a bang as a whimper. That’s all it took, and BANG the island went off like a Roman Candle. A Roman/Polynesian/Chinese candle, actually. I’m glad I was here to see it.


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