There is a good reason why the Bernard Olcott Story, every so once in a while, makes a reference to the Aloha State.
On a late July 1977 morning, a slight man woke up in his modest efficiency apartment near Waikiki, the tourist district of Honolulu. He was 61 years old, somewhat gaunt, barely five foot seven. Wrinkles of a hard life lined his face as he switched on the radio after leaving his bed. The weather forecast came on, as if it were the news. For Honolulu it isn’t, since the weather is always the same, day in, day out. Highs will be in the low 80s, lows in the middle 70s. Winds are “trade.” Winds are always trade in Hawai’i (unless a cyclone comes to visit, of course.)
The weathered man had lived some thirty years previous at 3169 Alika Avenue in the Nu’uana – Punchbowl neighborhood, an up country residential district. The previous week, he had decided to travel from his current home in Exeter, New Hampshire to come back here to retrace his steps as a young naval officer and maybe plumb his soul. It’s about the longest trip you can make in the USA and still remain in the land of the free.
He found himself later that morning on Ala Moana Boulevard wandering alone in the sunshine on Wednesday, the 26th of July in 1977. As Honolulu is the southern-most metropolis in the nation, at these latitudes, the sun can cause a bad sunburn in as little as 15 minutes. The fair skin of a new arrival from Northern New England is at particular risk.
The man stopped in his tracks, his pace suddenly unsteady. As he wiped the sweat off his forehead, the traffic swirled around him and he became disoriented. It wasn’t the bright sun that had gotten to him, but a sharp pain in his upper chest. He gripped himself, but could only stagger forward and reach out vainly with his free arm. When he dropped to the pavement, he cut his face on the sidewalk. His last sight on this planet was the passing traffic – buses, trucks, cars – from ant level.
As the dying man went down, passersby unknown took advantage of his incapacity, rapidly relieving him of his wallet, cash, and watch. By the time help arrived, the corpse on the sidewalk could no longer identify himself.
The Honolulu County Medical Examiner later that day fingerprinted “John Doe.” A match came back the next day – from military records.
The man’s name was
It was a strange place for him to die. But the cause was the same as his beloved mother 34 years ago — a sudden, massive heart attack.
Like Venice, Honolulu faces the sea. The latter has the Ala Wai canal, the former has the Grand. Both were capitals of independent states at one time or another (there are 3 others in the USA). As nation states, Venice and Hawai’i each have (or had) it’s own language. If you hold the door open for someone in Honolulu, you will certainly get a “mahalo” in gratitude. If you ask a motorist politely to pull their car up a foot or two so you can park too on King Street, you may hear “Oa hiki no (no problem).”
Whereas Venice has a physical link to the mainland, Honolulu has none such. It is 2,379 miles to the closest domestic metropolis, San Francisco. Interestingly, the Golden Gate Bridge is only 100 miles closer to Pearl Harbor than it is to Manhattan. A trip over the Venetian lagoon on the Via della Liberta causeway takes only about 10 minutes, in no traffic. The hop from California to the Hawai’ian capital is a transcontinental flight, traversing abyssal plains inhabited by fearsome Oceanic whitetip sharks. Approaching Honolulu at night, you see the lights of the island metropolis surrounded by the inky blackness of endless leagues of ocean.
Before leaving for Hawai’i, Ed had reached out to Billy, his middle child between Bobby and Sally¹. He wanted to get together anywhere in New England. The only trouble was, Billy, like his younger sister, Sally, had had himself adopted by his stepfather a couple of years previous.
You see, it had not been an easy childhood for Ed’s kids. For example, Billy’s earliest memory in life – the very first thing he ever remembered as a toddler – was sitting upright on the floor of the family home in Texas circa 1957 and witnessing his father yelling at his mother, who was slumped over, yelling back, sobbing on the floor. As a two and a half year old, he covered his little ears and screamed. Welcome to life.
Ed in front of his 15th Christmas tree in 1931. Looks like he received some pens, a box of chocolates, a scarf, three books, and a gift box of some kind.
For some reason, Ed was always quick to assign, without warning, inappropriate tasks or chores to his children and berate them if not executed to some inflated level of completeness. One Thanksgiving, when Billy was five, Ed and the kids drove out to South Ozone Park to visit their (and my own) Grandfather Michael. On arrival, Ed snapped at Billy to unload the trunk and carry the heavy suitcases up the steep stoop and into the house. The suitcases were maybe 30 – 40 pounds in weight; Billy struggled with the first one and managed to pull it out of the trunk with a thundering thunk on the ground. He dutifully tugged at it and managed to drag it several feet until his Grandfather noticed the little boy struggling and caustically asked Ed “what’s the matter with you, asking a little boy to lug a heavy suitcase like that?!”
Billy always loved his Grandfather for that moment. Ironically, his defender seems to have been the ultimate source of discord in the family. A trolling father was all Ed and Bernard had known in their childhood. Berating and overbearing, they treated each other in like fashion. And then their own children in turn.
It never got any better. 365 days/year, and an extra day in leap years.
Even though you may keep a dog and feed it, you don’t have the right to beat it.
The Olcotts: Michael, Ed, and Bernie, sometime in the 1920s. Michael was known for praising Stalin. Looks like he was channeling hm for this picture. Photo by Patricia Olcott.
Thus, Ed was not pleasant to be with, in an understated kind of way. Three wives and children, they deserted his sinking ship over the years. Only Bobby, his oldest, kept the Olcott name.
So when Ed called Billy out of the blue in 1977, Billy was surprised, but not in a happy way. After his new stepfather adopted him, he entered a happier family life. He thus decided to leave the other, and its unhappy memories, behind. Permanently.
Billy declined Ed’s offer to meet up. He had made his mind up years ago. Billy was done and out.
Soon thereafter, Ed made his last journey to pass under the warm Hawai’ian sun.
After the Medical Examiner determined Ed’s identity, he tried to find his next of kin. Bobby, for some reason, could not be found. Billy and Sally had left the family, changed their names, and were themselves out of reach, at least by the Medical Examiner.
That left Ed’s younger brother. My Dad Bernard Olcott was easy to look up via directory assistance as he maintained an office number in area code 212 for New York City. So the call from Honolulu came late that July day to his offices in Weehawken, New Jersey.
Next week: The Aftermath of Ed’s Passing
¹ – Not their real names.