Sweet Sixteen    

Kirby Wright


© Copyright 2018 by Kirby Wright 



Photo of Julia Wright.

Julia Wright strolled a shoreline boardwalk fringed with kiawe trees. The last of the Chinese ponds was still in operation and she could see a gathering of ducks on a muddy bank. Julia had just turned sixteen. She had on her black-and-white striped swimsuit, with black knickers and white lace-up boots. She preferred walking Waikiki not accompanied by her sisters—Sue and Kay were popular and could steal the attention of admirers. Sue, her big sister, was tall and wore tight-fitting dresses that showed off her curves. Kay, her kid sister, dressed more conservatively but nonetheless attracted the educated set.

Julia preferred Outrigger Canoe Club types, those outdoorsy boys with great tans and good senses of humor. But the malahini men who’d traveled vast distances by steamer to see Hawaii also intrigued her. Some of those malahinis had brought wives but she still saw them stealing glances at her. And why shouldn’t they? She was a brunette with the figure of a New York City model and the face of a playful angel.

Julia was an inch over five feet tall. She’d developed a sexy strut that made men think she was strutting the red carpet at a Hollywood premiere. She kept her Hawaiian blood a secret. Haole boys from established families shunned local girls because they figured those wahines were poor, uneducated, and wouldn’t please their wealthy parents. Except for her slanted eyes, Julia passed for haole. Her slender figure and knack for provocative dressing often summoned whistles and catcalls along the boardwalk. The one thing she wished she could change was her height, since it hurt her chances at dances and parties. Men had trouble noticing her in a sea of taller girls. Julia craved high heels. She’d slipped into a pair of red strap pumps at the B. F. Ehlers department store—those magical heels made her three inches taller. She’d begged her mother for an early gift, one combining Christmas with her seventeenth birthday two days later.

Catarina shook her head. “Heels mean you want something.”

“I do want something, mother.”

“What would that be?”

“Admiration. Kisses. The love of an adoring man.”

“You’re too young to be thinking of love, Julia.”

“I am not.”

“Wear red heels in town,” Catarina had warned, “and you get that and much more.”

“But I want more.”

“No, you do not,” her mother’d said, “believe you me.”

Julia spotted Chipper Gilman riding a wave offshore on his redwood board. He was tall, lanky, and dark from the sun. His perfect posture pushed out his chest. He hopped off the board in the shallows. Chip had never given up the boy in him and his carefree nature made him appealing to Julia. His trunks hugged his muscular thighs. Chip plucked up his board and talked story with Duke Kahanamoku onshore. The surfing pals stuck their boards nose down in the sand, deep enough to stand straight up on their own. Two blondes sauntered over. She guessed these girls were from California because they wore the latest two-piece suits that revealed their legs, arms, and shoulders. The blondes were crab shell-red from the sun. She heard them laughing. “Duck soup,” said one and her friend cartwheeled. Chip and Duke clapped. The foursome headed over to the Hau Terrace, an open-air restaurant build on a pier.

Chipper was one of the Makai Boys and a founding member of the OCC. He’d once called Julia a “freckle-faced pineapple” when she was a kid taking swim lessons from her brother Tommy at Sans Souci Beach. Julia knew Chipper had a bad reputation. He’d been the only competitor who stuffed his canoe with shark and balloonfish air bladders for buoyancy and remained undefeated at the annual Waikiki Regatta. Julia thought it was cruel to use the innards of sea creatures like that, but she was still infatuated. Chip had a habit of surfing naked, which caught the eye of Alexander Hume Ford. She’d seen Chipper dog paddling out to an anchored catamaran holding the neck of a whiskey bottle between rows of teeth. His wildness attracted and repulsed Julia. Part of her wanted to tame him. Another part wanted to run wild with Chipper through Waikiki. He was seven years older but that didn’t bother Julia. She’d felt an animal magnetism whenever they crossed paths. Julia knew, sooner or later, they’d be together.

Julia headed for the Hau Terrace. The blondes followed Duke into the bar. Chipper remained on the pier. Julia liked how he stood with his arms crossed, as if declaring ownership of Oahu. She sensed nobility about him, as if some heroic moment was waiting for him. Chip spotted her and motioned for her to join him. Julia wove her way through an encampment of tourists sprawled on towels and shaded by Moana umbrellas. It was tough walking the sand in her boots. Chipper extended his hand. She took it and he lifted her onto the wooden slats of the pier. Glasses clinked in the bar. The sound of ukuleles drifted out from the terrace.

“Takin’ in the sights?” Chipper asked her.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Wanna know a secret?”


“Heard of Alexander Hume Ford?”

“Sure. He’s the OCC’s founder.”

“Yes. But guess what.”


“Ford never learned how to surf.”

“Funny, he was surfing in that picture in The Mid-Pacific Magazine. ”

“The Makai Boys held up a board while he balanced on top. Ford wasn’t even in the surf.”

“Then Ford’s a crumb.”

“As crumby as they come.”

“Say, Chip,” Julia said, “Sue told me you got hitched. Is that true?”

Chipper took his eyes off her and gazed at Diamond Head. “I eloped with Adene Winter last Saturday, and we signed our marriage license in Waialua. We’re living at my old man’s house beside the Hau Tree Hotel. Wanna help me find a cottage?”

“No,” Julia answered. “Do you love her?”

He tilted his head and raised a cheek searching for the right words to say. “It’s more like than love,” he admitted.

Now Julia knew why his wife wasn’t by his side. She wondered why Adene wasn’t with her man today. Tommy, her big brother, had told all three sisters that the Gilman boys were the sons of parents with roots in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Atherton Gilman, the oldest, was an All-American tackle on the Harvard football team.

Chipper’s marriage didn’t stop her from wanting him. She was convinced that fate would step in and deliver him into her arms. She disliked Adene, a Daddy’s-girl redhead always sporting the latest fashions. Maybe she was off shopping downtown or getting her hair curled at a beauty shop. Julia knew Adene would drive Chip pupule over time and she wanted to help comfort him when his marriage collapsed like a house of cards.

Duke emerged from the Hau Terrace with the two blondes in tow. “Hui!” he waved.

Chipper raised both arms and flapped them up and down like a bird. “Hui!” he called back.

Julia stood on the pier not knowing what to do.

“See you later, freckle-faced pineapple,” Chipper told her.

That made Julia feel young and foolish. She hopped off the pier into the sand and marched through a mob of sun-worshipers. She gazed back at the Hau Terrace upon reaching the boardwalk. Chipper had his arms around one of the girls—he was showing her a swim stroke. She knew the blondes would return to the mainland with beach boy stories, exaggerated tales that would become distant memories. Duke and Chip would eventually be forgotten. But Julia vowed to never forget. Chipper Gilman was the man she wanted and she had the stamina to wait until the newlyweds threw in the towel. She shortened her steps and swayed her hips. Someone whistled. Next came the wolfish howl of a man. She smiled knowing she wasn’t chopped liver.

“I will learn to be patient,” Julia said. “Patience will be my best friend.”

Kirby Wright's story "Sweet Sixteen" is the opening chapter of The Queen of Moloka'i, his creative nonfiction manuscript slated for publication in 2019. He won the 2018 Redwood Empire Mensa Award for Creative Nonfiction. 

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