An excerpt from the book “Home Country” by Ernie Pyle
“The Leper Colony”
Chapter 16 from Home Country by Ernie Pyle, first printed in 1947 by William Sloane Associates, Inc.
“You might not recognize the name of Kalaupapa, but you must have heard of Molokai – the dreaded leper colony, the martyring place of Father Damien who died a leper’s death. In Hawaii the colony is called only Kalaupapa (just pretend the “u” isn’t there, then go ahead and say it). It is a rare thing for a layman to get to Kalaupapa. Those who do are usually there only a few hours. But by an odd series of circumstances I was permitted to go there for as much time as I wished.
The leper colony has been dramatized and fictionalized until it is known over the world as a spot of veiled mystery, a cursed place where cursed men are banished to await death, a place where martyrs sacrifice their lives in a beautiful attenuation of human suffering. Many of the things that have been written about Kalaupapa are not true. There is drama there – intense, awful drama. But it is not quite the sinister place that fiction gives us. It is a human place. Once you are there, there is no mystery about it.
Molokai is the first island south of Oahu, about thirty-five minutes from Honolulu by plane. The leper colony occupies only ten square miles out of Molokai’s total area of two hundred and sixty. The island is long and narrow. Suppose you set a shoe box on the table; that would represent Molokai. And then put a tiddlywink up against the shoe box, along about the center. That would be Kalaupapa – both in relative size and in relative altitude below the rest of the island.
Kalaupapa is a triangular spit, like an arrowhead, about two miles across the base and a mile and a half from base to point. It is flattish and rocky, except for an old blown-out crater rising not very high in the center. The spit is surrounded on two sides by ocean, and on the third side rises an appallingly sheer rocky cliff, or pali, nearly two thousand feet high. It is one of the world’s finest natural barriers. It cannot be ascended in any form, shape, or fashion except by one narrow horse trail, over a switch back path ascending like needlework up the face of this frightening wall. Near the top of the trail is a high padlocked gate with barbed wire stretched around it. If you tried to climb around the outer edge of the gate and lost your grip, you would fall eight hundred feet before you hit the first rock. There is a cabin on top, just about the gate, and a watchman stays there all the time – ore to keep curiosity seekers out of the colony than to keep patients in.
Our plane’s course took us right down the center of Molokai. Symmetrical pineapple fields lay spread below us. To the right the land slanted downward to the sea, and we could see the rollers breaking on the beach. To the left it slanted upward into a long mountain ridge, and we could not see beyond. The pilot swung to the left. We climbed toward the ridge, skimming just over the trees. We topped the ridge. Ahead appeared the ocean – and nothing else. There wasn’t any other side to the ridge! It was as though the mountain range had been sliced vertically in two, and half of it thrown away. From the peak it was practically straight down to the water’s edge – two thousand feet. It was a sickening sensation.
And there far below, sticking out from the base of the cliff, lay the promontory, Kalaupapa. The airport runway at the far point, the lighthouse on a rise behind it, and underneath us, right on the shore and snug up at the base of the cliff, lay the unreachable, the untouchable leper colony.
The day was misty, and air currents banged us as we dropped over the cliff and roared down upon the earth. It was as though we were suddenly flying over the remote Tibetan monastery of Lost Horizon. We bounced on the rough runway. Only one person was in sight when we climbed out – a Hawaiian in overalls, who stood by the side of an old Ford a hundred yards away and looked at us. He was a leper – a word that is in disfavor at Kalaupapa. In the legal phraseology, he was a “patient”. He merely stood and watched.
In a few minutes a car came speeding over the dirt trail from the settlement. It was “Doc” Cooke, the settlement’s superintendent, come to take us in. He wasn’t a doctor; they just called him that. We rode in a new Chevrolet sedan, and talked about things in Honolulu. But my thoughts were not on Honolulu. I was peering ahead, filled with an eager but fearful anticipation.
The first thing I saw was symbolic. It was the rusted hulk of an old freighter lying in the surf just off the rocky shore. It had gone aground six years before, and now lay there close to the other rocky shore line. There was cemetery after cemetery. They adjoined, and they stretched on and on until they beat upon my consciousness like a funeral drum.
We began to pass cottages along the beach. Then we met cars. I felt ashamed to look, yet could not help it. Some of the occupants seemed perfectly normal. But beside them sat others horrible to look upon.
We drove into the staff compound in the center of the settlement, and carried my bags into my room. Then we went for a first trip through the settlement, and visited one of the dormitory “homes”. As we stepped onto the porch I raised my arm to embellish something I was saying. One of the officials apparently thought I was going to touch a post, and he pushed my arm down. Later I learned that it was nothing to touch a post. The official’s action was merely a first lesson in extra precaution, and it sank in.
The patients had had their supper and were sitting around on their cots, smoking or talking. The whole dormitory seemed hushed. The patients looked at us, and we looked at them and passed on. But it seemed wrong to be there staring, and I was uncomfortable.
Outside again, just at twilight, we walked down a bower lane of arched flowers and vines. The director grabbed my arm and pulled me back. “Look,” he whispered, “isn’t that a picture?” Framed by a gap in the flowering foliage, a hundred feet or so away, was an old man. His wide black hat was on his head, his cane on his arm, his gray beard a contrast against his black clothing. He was standing there alone on the green grass of the lawn, absorbed, unaware of this world – an old priest, intently reading his breviary.
Darkness came on, and we returned to the staff house. The director went into my bathroom and took down a bottle of alcohol solution and said “After we’ve prowled around we always use some of this on our hands.” I did likewise.
I felt no fear. I was keenly conscious of the necessity for precaution, but it was not fear, though I did have a weird feeling of inability to become placed. So quick had been our transition from cosmopolitan Honolulu to the serene yet stern strangeness of this fabled spot that I could not adjust myself. It seemed to me there was contamination everywhere. In the air, in everything I touched, in mere sight and thought. Not uncleanness, not foulness, not even danger – but an invisible and innocent evil everywhere.
Bedtime came. The freshly laundered sheets smelled of disinfectant. I knew they had never been seen or touched by leprous patients, but the odor of precaution was there, remindful. I couldn’t sleep. The darkness was terribly still. The only sounds were the roar of the ocean on the rocks and the occasional crow of a patient’s rooster. The pali was darker than the night. There I lay in the center of a group of four hundred human beings cursed with a disease. What were they like? What were they thinking tonight, this very minute? I could not believe I was really there. My brain whirled, and all night I tossed and rolled, sleeping as little as I had slept in many years. And still I was not afraid.
After the first night I did not feel that way at all. I came to be easily at home in this community of people who, like most of us, took things as they came and were not extraordinarily unhappy, and who, like all of us, were going to die someday. True, everywhere I turned I saw suffering and disease in piteous and repulsive forms. I didn’t really get used to that – but I did come to accept it, and then I gradually came to see that the place was far more “natural” than I had ever dreamed
Kalaupapa was not regimented in appearance, like most institutions. You saw no rows of cottages all alike, and no great prison-like dormitories. Nothing was crowed together. There were gardens and shrubbery and space everywhere. About half the patients were housed in private cottages on good-sized plots of land. The others, those least able to take care of themselves, lived in the four “homes”. Kalaupapa was almost like any small town of five hundred people, except that there was not much of a business block. You wouldn’t even recognize as a hospital the one-story building with it’s tropical architecture.
The staff compound was simple an area with three private homes and one fairly large U-shaped building, enclosed by an unobtrusive picket fence. Great coconut trees towered over the whole compound, and the homes were almost hidden behind banana trees and banks of flowers. The superintendent and each of the two doctors had a home. The rest of the staff lived in the general building, which had private rooms and a small general dining room. The servants, who were Japanese, were quartered behind the staff homes.
The hardest thing for me to realize about Kalaupapa was that, within the confines of the settlement, the patients were free men and women. Nobody had to do anything. You could lie in bed all day if you wanted to.You could read all night. Even going to the hospital or receiving medical treatment was absolutely voluntary. You could lie in your cottage and die without anybody’s bothering you, if you wanted it that way.
There used to be “Lepers Keep Out” signs all over the place. There wasn’t a one in the settlement when I was there. The patients knew where they mustn’t go; why flaunt it at them? The whole attitude was one of kindness and gentleness. The superintendent and the doctors and nurses all impressed me with their compassion and understanding.
Of course, the patients had to obey the territorial laws. Firearms were forbidden. There was a jail, and now and then somebody was in it. The usual offenses were fights, profanity on the streets, and petty thieving from one another. In the whole year preceding my visit there had been only four court cases, all minor. The settlement had a sheriff and five policemen who were patients or ex-patients. A community of five hundred pretty peaceful people didn’t need six officers, of course, but it gave them something to do.
In 1936 a Filipino girl shot and killed her sweetie, another Filipino patient. They had quarreled, and it seems he was going to stab her, so she plugged him. They didn’t know how she got the gun. The case was taken to Honolulu and they finally decided, “Oh, well, insufficient evidence.” The girl was still at Kalaupapa. Once a Filipino stabbed his wife and then stabbed himself to death. The wife recovered. Suicides were few and far between. Right not there was only one fellow in jail, and he hadn’t done anything wrong. He was crazy, and too violent for the mental ward.
A large proportion of the patients worked. They didn’t have to, but they liked to be busy and to get the extra money. Six were cowboys, tending the settlement’s tree hundred cattle (the meat went only to the patients). Some of them grouped together and fished, and sold their catch to the settlement. Some did carpentry work. Some acted as nurses’ assistants. Four or five ran little stores of their own. Any patient could set up in business if he wanted to; in fact, it was encouraged. One ran a garage. One sold radios and had a repair shop. In the last year more than fifty thousand dollars had been paid out in wages to patients for work done.
Each patient got twenty dollars a year from the government, in quarterly installments. This was just jingling money, to make them feel they were not completely indigent. Those in the “homes” were housed, clothed, and fed. Those in private cottages got ration allowances. If you think leprous patients aren’t human, just listen to this partial list of the electrical appliances bought for their homes by patients in a single year: ninety radios; fifty-eight washing machines; twenty two vacuum cleaners; twenty-two toasters; forty-two refrigerators; eighteen waffle irons; and, bless their hearts, four electric cocktail shakers! Beer and wine were sold at the settlement store. Patients could get hard liquor over the superintendent’s signature. He said the requests probably hadn’t come to a gallon in three months. But liquor was smuggled in to some of the patients.
There were about a hundred autos among the patients, ranging from old Ford trucks to brand-new Plymouth convertibles. It startled you to see a car go by, glistening with newness, and at the wheel a maimed and bandaged driver. Patients didn’t have to buy license plates. You saw tags of several years back – whatever had been on a secondhand car when they bought it and had it sent over. And Kalaupapa was the only place under the United States flag, I was told, where people could buy gasoline without a tax.
And to top it all off, some of the patients who got money from their families outside had beach cottages a mile or two away from the village. They spent weekends in them.
The leper population of the settlement was four hundred and fourteen when I was there. In addition there were ninety-one well persons – officials, nurses and gardeners, and electricians, carpenters, and so on who lived in special construction barracks and did not come in contact with the patients. There was also a group in between – kokuas and parolers. A kokua (helper) is the husband or wife of a patient, who has elected to go along in voluntary exile to Kalaupapa. It was the custom for a long time to permit this, but in more recent years the practice had been done away with except in the rare cases where the kokua had nursing ability or could perform some useful task in the settlement. There were now fourteen kokuas. As long as tests showed them nonleprous, they could leave any time they wished.
A paroler is a person whose leprosy has been arrested to the point where it is safe for him to go out into the world again. That does not necessarily mean he is cured. Many of them relapse. But for the time being he is not considered hazardous to other people. There were about a hundred forty parolers in Hawaii in 1937. They had to report every so often for inspection. Nineteen of the parolers lived on at Kalaupapa – people who were free to go any time but preferred to stay there.
A number of times Hawaiians had tried to palm themselves off as lepers in order to live in Kalaupapa and be with their friends. The Hawaiians do not have the feeling of disgrace about leprosy that most people have. They will keep a leper in the family without any apparent fear or concern, just because they don’t want to be parted.
The average life of a patient after arriving at the settlement was eight years. Most of those who came to Kalaupapa had already had leprosy for many years. Some died right away. On the other hand, there were patients – three of them, I believe – who had been there more than fifty years. There is no consistency about leprosy.
The truth is that few of Kalaupapa’s patients die of leprosy. Some other disease jumps in – tuberculosis, pneumonia, syphilis – and since they are already weakened by leprosy, it carries them off. Dr. G.B. Tuttle, the head physician, said about ninety-eight out of a hundred die of something else.
Statistics on Kalaupapa vary from year to year of course, but the yearly average had been running like this: sixty deaths, fifty admissions, fifteen to twenty-five paroled. So you see the population was slightly decreasing. It was now only about one-third of what it had been in 1890, the peak year.
About half the patients were pure Hawaiian, though pure Hawaiians accounted for only one-twentieth of the population of Hawaii. Part-Hawaiians formed another fourth of the settlement population. Hawaiians seem especially susceptible to leprosy. The remaining fourth at Kalaupapa were Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, and so on. There were six white patients, five men and a woman. The woman was Spanish-Portuguese. One of the men was an old German sea captain. Only one of the six whites was born on the United States mainland. He was a soldier. The whites took it much harder than the Hawaiians, it was said.
There was almost no attempting to escape. The patients either wanted to stay because they liked it or else knew it was best and were resigned. There had been only two escape attempts in the past decade. One Hawaiian boy, a fine swimmer but demented, started to swim to Honolulu, forty miles away. Hours later the waves washed his body back onto the rocks of Kalaupapa. Another one went up over the pali, but he was back the next day. Many of the patients were feeble-minded. Leprosy does not necessarily attack the brain, but it seems that a good percentage of leprous cases are mentally below par when they arrive.
I was shocked at one thing: leprous patients – even those scourged to the very doors of death – were permitted to reproduce themselves. The officials could do nothing. It was the law. Patients married, and remarried, and didn’t marry at all – and babies kept on coming. True, indications are that children do not inherit leprosy – that they are born non-leprous. Yet some 7.6 per cent do develop leprosy later, and an overwhelming proportion of them are born feeble-minded. What is the use? What is the gain? There can be no parental affection, for the babies are taken away at the very moment of birth, and the parents usually never see them again. And even though they may avoid leprosy, the children are doomed to either imbecility or unnatural loneliness. They are taken to the Kapiolani Home in Honolulu and kept there as wards of the territory. Those who do come out fairly natural are placed out in families.
All the world fears a leper. Nearly all the world believes that those who work in a leper settlement are doomed sooner or later to contract the dread disease. That is nonsense. Leprosy is less infectious than tuberculosis. Score of well people had worked at Kalaupapa in it’s seventy years of existence, as nurses, executives, and emissaries of the church. And out of those scores only four contracted the disease. Father Damien, who died in 1889, was the first. Brother Van Lyl was the second. He died in 1925. The third was a doctor who had served there for many years. He left the settlement in 1925 and set up in private practice on leeward Molokai. After a short time he left – disappeared from Hawaii, in fact. It was believed that he had discovered he had the disease. They did not know whether he was still alive or not. Father Peter, who was still there, was the fourth, and he had apparently been cured.
Brother Dutton, one of the most beloved of the many who had served the settlement, worked and lived among the lepers for forty-four years and never go leprosy. Some of the nuns had been there even longer. Superintendent Cooke had been there twelve years, and Dr. Tuttle ten years, and they were not afraid of leprosy. Perhaps “afraid” isn’t the right term. They were afraid of it to the extent that they took precautions – which some of the four victims had not done. They knew that if they were careful the chance of getting leprosy were infinitesimal.
It has been written that houses are always burned at Kalaupapa after a patient’s death. Preposterous. It has been written that a doctor always kicks open a door, so as not to touch it with his hands. That is not true. In the first place, you can’t kick open a door that has been latched. In the second place, it would not be smart psychology for the patients.
The people who work at Kalaupapa touch leprous things daily. How would they nurse the patients without touching them? All the clerks in the main office are patients. All day long Superintendent Cooke handled papers that had been in the hand of patients; all these papers were fumigated, of course, before leaving the settlement. All mail goes through eighteen hours of fumigation. And nothing that has been in patients’ hands, except mail, ever leaves the settlement.
Employes are not timid about touching, but they are alert about sterilizing. Superintendent Cooke carried a bottle of antiseptic solution on the floor of his car. When he got back into the car after a leprous E-mail, he would reach down and pour the stuff onto his hands before touching the steering wheel. At home in his bathroom there was a large jar of antiseptic solution. It had a rubber bulb and glass spout, and he pumped some onto his hands every evening and washed in it. Every day he took a shower as soon as he got home. His clothes were cleaned with a fumigating solution. The great danger lay among those who became so accustomed to being there that they thought, “Oh, nothing will happen,” and became careless about contact and lax in sterilizing.
The medical tests of new leper suspects are usually made by taking a little strip off the ball of the forefinger. It is often hard to find the leprous germ, even when it’s there. Dr. Tuttle said the one sure way to tell was by making a test from just inside the nose.
Chaulmoogra oil – which for a time in the twenties was believed to be the long-sought cure for leprosy – had since been proved ineffectual. They still gave it if a patient requested it, but, like giving a sugar pill to a dope fiend, it was for the psychological effect. The oil is injected with a hypodermic needle, and sometimes swallowed in capsules.
The patients themselves were self-disciplined about protecting well people. They would never think of offering to shake hands with you, or of leaning on a gate that well people used, or of going into the staff compound.
Children used to be permitted at the settlement, but they hadn’t been for several years. One day Superintendent Cooke’s baby girl go outside the compound and was crawling around under the feet of a horse. A number of patients saw the peril the baby was in. The natural impulse, of course, was to run up and snatch her away, but they knew they must not touch her – must not rescue her from one danger and subject her to another. They were panicky; they ran frantically in all directions around the settlement, yelling for some well person to come and get her. Superintendent Cooke said the horse was so old and docile it wouldn’t have stepped on her anyhow, but the patients didn’t know that. He was deeply touched by the incident.
The settlement was rife with dogs and cats, which helped keep the rats down. (I didn’t see any rats, but I did see a mongoose run across the trail outside of town.) Many of the patients had horses. The first thing you thought was: would the animals catch leprosy? The answer was no. There was no known case of an animal catching leprosy from a patient.
It has been written that visitors to the settlement are put through an examination before they enter. Well, they aren’t. And it has been written that their clothes are burned when they leave. If that was true, I’d have had to go out wrapped in a banana leaf.
As a matter of fact, with the necessity for constant precaution drilled into your mind until it becomes second nature, your’e probably safer at Kalaupapa than you are out in the world licking stamps, handling money, buying vegetables.
One of the most universally believed myths about Kalaupapa is that those who serve there are inspired martyrs who have doomed themselves to a lifetime of exile. Actually a person with a martyr complex would be worse than useless there. Except for those assigned to the settlement by the Catholic Church, every person who works for the colony does so simply because it gives him a job. Employes can quit any time they want to. The key people on the staff – superintendent, doctors, head nurse, and so on – get one week off the settlement every three months. And once a year,in addition, they have three weeks’ vacation.
Another myth is that there is an atmosphere of despair and impending doom in the settlement. It struck me, as a matter of fact, as a rather happy community. Not exactly hilarious, but there was gaiety. The patients had their clubs,they played games, they had dances, they went to the movies three times a week, they even had cocktail parties.
I would be misleading you if I gave the impression that all the people who worked at the settlement liked it, and that they were not depressed by the place and the contact with the patients. The turnover of nurses was rapid. A new nurse came the day before I arrived. She was there only two nights, and never slept a wink. It was not so much revulsion as pity for the patients that drove her away. She was a middle-aged woman. Dr. Tuttle, who had been there ten years, told me that on his first day in the hospital he had to go home in midforenoon and go to bed. He was thoroughly sick.
Nobody knows how or when leprosy came to Hawaii. The first vague knowledge of its existence in the islands was recorded between 1820 and 1835. Once started, it spread like wildfire. A law for segregating lepers was passed in 1865, and the next year – January of 1866 – the first twenty-five were sent to Kalaupapa. The government simply dumped them there, made no provision for them at all, abandoned them. They lived in caves and grass houses, and under trees. They ate fish and birds, whatever they could get.
It wasn’t until twelve years later that a doctor was sent over; Father Damien had arrived five years ahead of him. Things improved steadily after that, but you might say that only in the past half dozen years had a social consciousness stepped into Kalaupapa. That came about during the administration of Governor Judd. He appointed a former army engineer to make a survey of the leper settlement. The engineer’s report started things rolling.
In 1931 a board of citizens was set up to direct the leper institutions. The board appointed as director the man who had made the survey. Harry A. Kluegel. Vast improvements followed. Before 1931 there were no electric lights. No paved streets. No paid nurses. No movies. Now Kalaupapa was in the midst of a continuing program of improvement. Many streets were already paved, and the paving was going on. Old cottages were being torn down and new one put up. A breakwater had been built, and an airport. Trees and flowers had been planted everywhere. Someday there was to be either a private room or a private cottage for every person in the settlement. There were to be more nurses and greater hospital facilities. And there was to be a crematory, to end that mental and actual hazard of thousands of graves at the edge of town.
Father Damien, the Belgian priest who gave his life to the lepers, arrived at Kalaupapa in 1873 and died in 1889, still in his forties. He became an almost legendary figure, and many books were written about his life. When I was there, the man who was wearing Father Damien’s mantle among the lepers was Father Peter d’ Orgeval-Dubouchet. He was a Frenchman who had been in Kalauapapa twelve years. You never saw a more lovable character. He was nearly seventy and had a steel-gray beard, and he weighed less than a hundred pounds. When he talked he talked all over; it took at least six square feet for Father Peter to talk in. He jumped, struck attitudes, and laughed loudly and frequently.
He lived alone in a cottage behind the church. At night you could see him flitting about the dark streets of Kalaupapa, cane in one hand, flashlight in the other. He must have carried the cane from habit, for he didn’t need it any more than a flea would. He could climb the steep pali trail in sixty-five minutes, which is only five minutes slower than a horse does it.
Ordinarily Father Peter didn’t smoke. But during my visits’ purely our of courtesy, I assume – he smoke cigarette for cigarette with me. And he puffed and waved his arms so furiously that he scattered ashes all over himself, and I became seriously alarmed about his beard.
Father Peter entered the priesthood when he was twenty-five. In his youth he had wanted to be a musician. He started on the piano at eight, and later studied in the Conservatoire at Paris. “Ah, I love music,” he said. “I love it too much. I could not serve two masters. It had to be either God or music. I gave up music.” but he was still a fine pianist. You should have seen him at the old upright piano in the rectory – bent over, intent, fingers flying, hand crossing, and the piano shaking with the classical thundering it gave forth. Then Father peter would get up and say, “Ah, very poor. Fingers too stiff.” But his hands were tiny – the hands of a boy – and they showed no age whatever. They were sensitive, frail hands; his whole character couldd be read in his delicate fingers.
Father Peter served as a chaplain throughout World War I. He said bullets went through his clothes but never touched him. He was gassed many times. After the war he had what he called his “nervous years”. He went into semiseclusion for two years. Then, well once more, he decided to apply for transfer to Kalaupapa.
“What put it into your head to come to Kalauapapa?” I asked.
“Ah!” Father Peter jumped, sat of the edge of his chair, gesticulated. “Ah,it came to me in one sec-ond! In one sec-ond it came to me, like that. Twice in life things have come to me in one sec-ond. First, to enter the priesthood. Sec-ond, to come to Kalaupapa. I do not know why. Just came, like that.” And then, as if anticipating my next question, he said, “And I never read a single book on Father Damien. I had heard of him, but never the details had I read.
Father Peter was fifty-three when he applied for Kalaupapa. He had never been out of France, and knew neither English nor Hawaiian. Before they would let him come he had to learn both languages and serve an appreticeship at the leper colony in Tahiti in the South Seas. He reached Kalaupapa in 1925.
Within two years after his arrival he contracted leprosy. It was generally agreed that he had been indifferent to the usual precautions. Some even said he wanted to contract leprosy, to follow literally in the footsteps of Father Damien. There is some truth in this theory, though perhaps it should not be put so flatly. I asked Father Peter himself about it. He gave me the answer: “I could not serve until I had made the sacrafice of putting myself in a position to become a leper.” Those weren’t his exact words – there is not way of putting Father Peter’s machine-gunned crazy-quilt English down on paper. But what he said, in substance, was that he felt that in order to serve God amoung the lepers he must go through the leveling spiritual experience of attaining that same “other world” in which the lepers lived.
His condition was noticed immediatelly by settlement physicians. It showed itself as a dark spot high on his forehead. He was operated on at once – the scar on his high forehead was still visible after ten years – and the spot was removed; it was definitely leprous. It is most unusual for the disease to be discovered so quickly; Father Peter said the doctors told him his case was one in a million. He was more careful afterward, and thre seemed little likelihood of his contracting leprosy again.
Conditions had changed enormously since Father Damien’s day, and the priest now did no manual toil among the stricken people. His work was solely spiritual – he visited the patients in their homes, preached his sermons, conducted funerals. His days were busy.
He preached in Hawaiian, and he said he thought the Hawaiians understood about half of what he said. He would write out his sermons in Hawaiian, then have a Hawaiian boy come in and correct them. One day the boy played a joke on him. Father Peter had wanted to use the phrase “fallen woman”, but the boy put in a word that meant something else. It wasn’t dirty, but it was very funny. When Father Peter came to it, the whole churchful of people howled.
Father Peter frequently went over the pali to leeward Molokai, and at least once a year went to Honolulu for a week or more. “Father Peter,” I asked, “have you been happy here?” He wasn’t sure. He loved Kalaupapa – the scenery, the climate, the people – but those things didn’ matter. It was how well a man served his God. He tried, but he didn’t know how well satisfied God was, to put it mundanely. That’s the reason he couldn’t say he had been fully happy. “Let’s say I have not been unhappy,” he said. I loved Father Peter, as did everyone else in Kalaupapa. He would undoubtedly spend the rest of this days there. And spend them, I was sure, “not unhappily.”
Shizuo Harada and I became friends, through the simple process of sitting down and talking with each other. Our subject was leprosy. We talked about how it affects people – their minds, their attitude, their whole remaining lives. Shizuo Harada could tell me these things because he was a very intelligent man – and because he was a leper.
Harada managed the settlement’s general store for patients. I was introduced to him over the counter. He was a small but well-built man in his early thirties, and he was wearing a blue work shirt and blue dungarees. His hands were bandaged. He did not, of course, offer to shake hands. I knew he couldn’t do that, but still I felt that he resented my wishing to talk with him. For privacy we stepped into the warehouse back of the store, and I asked some questions about the volume of sales and so on. It took only a few words to show that Harada was a mentally keen man. Our conversation drifted from the store to Harada himself, which was what I wanted.
I asked if he was a full-blooded Hawaiian. He said, “I don’t know what I must look like to you, Mr. Pyle, but I am a full-blooded Japanese.” I could see then that he was Japanese. He was born in Hawaii, however – had been to Japan only once, and then he was so little he couldn’t remember it. He spoke perfect English with no accent. He went through high school in Honolulu and then on to the University of Hawaii. He graduated on June 5, 1925, and on June 21 they found he had leprosy. It started as a numbness in his finger.
“What were your feelings when you knew what it was?” I asked. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought the doctors were wrong. I thought for years they were wrong.” Like most of the patients at Kalaupapa, he had no idea how he contracted the disease. There had never been leprosy in his family.
It had been nearly thirteen years now since he discovered he had leprosy. “Up until three years ago,” he said, “you couldn’t have told by looking at me that anything was wrong. But three years ago it broke out, and once it started it came on fast. In a few weeks I became as you see me now. There is a possibility that some day I may have what they call a ‘reaction’, and be very sick and have a high fever, and then come out ‘clean’ and be almost normal again.”
Later I asked Dr. Tuttle about it, and he said that was right. He said that if Harada did go through the reaction and came out clean – by which they mean that sores would heal up, enlargements would diminish, and the appearance would return nearly to normal – he might live for many, many years, and might never have another flare-up. But some patients never get this reaction. A visiting Johns Hopkins specialist had suggested the possibility of using the machine for artificially inducing fever in an attempt to bring on the reaction in leprous patients. But there was not sufficient personnel at Kalaupapa to handle such work.
Harada said he imagined there wasn’t a leprosarium in the world where the patients were treated better than at Kalaupapa. But he felt that lepers had not had a fair break from the medical world. “The doctors don’t know any more about it than they did thousands of years ago,” he said. “So few doctors go into deep research on leprosy. Of course you can’t blame the individuals; a doctor has to make a living, and there isn’t any living in doing research on leprosy. Lots of my classmates in the university were studying medicine, and some of them have already made names for themselves and are well off. But not a one has gone into the study of leprosy. I don’t blame them. They’d starve. There should be pay that would induce doctors to go into it.”
We talked in the forenoon and we weren’t through, so we talked again in the afternoon. I said: “I had always thought of Kalaupapa as a place of great gloom and dejection. But they tell me it is really a happy community, and it seems so to me.” Harada said: “Well, I guess it depends on the individual. Most of the patients are Hawaiians, you know, and they are by nature a happy people. They take things as they come. They aren’t so much affected by being here as some of us. As for me, sometimes I feel in good spirits and sometimes I get way down in the dumps. We get down in the mouth, and then see somebody in worse shape than ourselves, and then pick up a little and say, ‘It could be worse.’ And with me, I feel so often that if I could just sit down and talk about it – just get it off my chest, as they say, like talking to you here – then I’d feel better. It does something to you after a few years here. I can tell it has done something to me, but I fight against it. You lose the spirit of – I don’t know what you’d call it – the spirit of fraternity, I guess. That’s the reason I’ve tried to keep busy and keep little activities going among the others. In school I was active in athletics, and in organizing things. Here I’ve got several leagues going – handball and things like that. I can’t play myself any more, on account of my hands. But it’s hard to keep an organization going. There isn’t enough permanence about it. You get some good key men, and the first thing you know they’re gone. It takes the spirit out.”
Harada had not suffered any extreme pain from his disease. There are two types of leprosy and his was the less painful type. In most cases the disease seems to deaden some of the nerves. “I could break off my fingers and never even feel it,” he said. Sometimes he hadn’t felt very well and couldn’t sleep, but he was proud of the fact that he hadn’t missed a day’s work in the four years since he took over the store. He was glad of the opportunity to manage the store, for it gave him some slight way to use the knowledge acquired in the university. He had majored in economics, and had read widely on political science and commerce.
“Do you do much reading now?” I asked. His answer was one of the really sad notes in our long conversation. “I used to,” he said. “For a long time I kept on reading in economics and agriculture, which is a sort of hobby of mine. But now I’ve got so I just read light stuff whenever I get a hold of a magazine. There isn’t much point in trying to keep on learning…”
He was lonely, because there was no one in Kalaupapa that could really talk with as he was capable of talking. He apologized for saying what he did, and explained that he didn’t feel himself any better than the rest, but there was a difference. He felt that he was stagnating mentally. He told me of a former teacher of his who came down to the settlement to see him one visiting day. The teacher told him she could notice that his grammar, which had been perfect, now had many errors in it. He hated to think of things like that happening to him.
I had completely lost the feeling that Harada resented my wanting to talk with him. As we sat and chatted and the hours passed, I realized that his facial expression was merely a result of the disease.
He was as interested in talking of the psychology of lepers as I was. He was eager and kind. He said several times that if there was anything personal about the patients I could think of to ask, he would try his best to give me the answer. But I ran out of questions, and then we talkied about general things. He was interested in my job, and I told him of things I had seen in Alaska and other places. I shall always have a mental picture, to the end of my days, of us sitting there talking. Sitting in chairs, face to face, not three feet apart – one “clean” and one “unclean”, as Harada would put it. The truth would be: one lucky and one unlucky. But whatever our appearances, we talked and talked and talked. Thoughts are wonderful things, that they can bring two people, so far apart, into harmony and understanding for even a little while.
When I got ready to go, Harada asked for my address, so he could write to me some time. And as I handed him the paper, and told him how grateful I was for the talk with him, he paid the me most touching compliment I had ever received – a compliment of such poignancy that I could barely acknowledge it. He said, with eagerness and deep feeling: “You have given me the happiest day I have ever hadsince I came to Kalaupapa. Thank you. Thank you.”
My stay on Kalaupapa was one of the most powerful adventures in my life. There is something I need to say about it, and I cannot say it very well. It was a feeling something like this: out of the defilement and abuse that nature had heaped upon those people, there had arisen over Kalaupapa an atmosphere that was surely spiritual, almost heavenly. It was a strange atmosphere of calm – a calm that was invitational, and almost irresistible.I am sure it was true that there were no martyrs serving there, and yet I don’t see how they kept martyrs from pounding down the gates to get in. I myself wandered into the foothills of martyrdom. Roaming Kalaupapa, I felt a kind of unrighteousness at being whole and “clean”; I experienced an acute spiritual need to be no better off than the leper. It wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t drama; it was something akin to that urge that lures people standing on high places to leap downward.
My feeling will likely seem ridiculous. But I did experience it. The emotion itself wasan adventure in desire, and I am glad I had it. But I am glad also that I had to go on, for I know that in real life I am a sprint martyr; the long steady pull is not for me. I tire of too much goodness, and wish to dart off and chase a rabbit.
No man dare say that he has advanced through the curriculum of all emotions until he has had sung to him the beautiful “Aloha Oe”, Hawaii’s song of greeting and farewell, by the leper singers of Kalaupapa.
There were ten of them, all men, some with leis around their hats. They sang in a harmony of high pitches, yet infinitely soulful and soft. They sang in Hawaiian, which is the only way the song can really be sung. They sang slowly and with love – for a Hawaiian, no matter where he is, loves everything. The ten voices intermingled, and swept in harmonies to a perfect blend. There were modulations and graceful interweavings of tones that I had never dreamed existed in this or any other song. The sound fell at times almost to a sweet whisper; it never rose above the level of graciousness.The night was dark, and even the nervous palm fronds were still. I stood while they sang. Aloha oe…farewell to thee…farewell to thee forever…. And any man, going away, who can stand and hear the last fragile notes fade from the throats of the leper singers of Kalaupapa without tears in his eyes – well, he would be better off dead.”