Naomi, Sandra, Howard, Melissa, Adam – Santa Barbara, August 8, 1987
This is a story I’ve told many times, but never written down. With our 30th wedding anniversary coming up in two days, however, this seems a good time to finally commit to “paper” the tale of how Sandra and I met and married.
Total strangers, we first met at breakfast at Volcano House, overlooking the caldera of Kilauea volcano, on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, on August 12, 1986. Sandra was there alone. I was with my two kids – Naomi, about two weeks shy of her 13th birthday, and Adam, who had turned 11 just two weeks before. It was a little after 7 o’clock, and we were sitting at adjacent tables, each anticipating a full day of exploring Hawaii Island’s volcanic moonscape.
Sandra was in Hawaii on a much-needed vacation. A graduate student and single mom who also worked part-time, she badly needed the break, and her parents had given her the gift of a plane ticket from her home in Santa Barbara, California, to Honolulu, where she was staying with a cousin – actually her dad’s first cousin, Pat Kelley, and her husband Pete. The trip coincided with the two weeks in the year when Sandra’s daughter Melissa, then almost 10, would be staying with her dad.
Only a day or so after Sandra arrived in Honolulu, she took a few days to go see the Big Island. As she tells the story, she went there because she’d been a “closet geologist” ever since her undergraduate years. She wanted to explore Hawaii’s richest geological playground, the island with the only active volcanoes in the archipelago.
I was there because I thought it would be the most interesting place to take my kids for a few days. I was a new Hawaii resident at the time, a malihini, having moved to Honolulu early that year to collaborate with my dad, who’d been there since 1974 and who was trying to commercialize a new type of oceangoing vessel, the SuperOutrigger, that he’d invented. (Details toward the end of this link.)
What? The volcano’s erupting now?
Like Sandra, I was also a single parent, and the kids were with me for the summer. (Their mom was living near Washington, D.C.) The kids and I began our Big Island visit in Kona, some distance from Kilauea, but while we were there, someone I happened to meet asked if I was aware that Kilauea was erupting at that time. I wasn’t. Actually, the eruption began in 1983 – and it’s continuing today, 34 years later. Although the volcano is producing prodigious amounts of lava, it’s a mostly peaceful eruption, with the lava flowing quietly down the slope across mostly uninhabited land to the sea. The eruption makes news only when it occasionally threatens to burn down a few rural houses or, even less frequently, when, instead of flowing gently, it spews a red-hot “fountain” hundreds of feet into the air. Since nothing like that had happened since my arrival in Hawaii just a few months earlier, I didn’t know about the eruption.
The afternoon before Sandra and I first laid eyes on each other, I’d driven with my kids from the Kona Coast – the state’s most famous coffee-growing region – to the little town of Volcano, about 30 miles southwest of Hilo, which is home to Kilauea Caldera and the headquarters of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The guy who’d told me about the eruption had also said the only way to see it was from a helicopter, because the site of the eruption was inaccessible from the ground. As we got close to Volcano, I spotted the chopper and the trailer where I’d been told I could book a flight. I went in and asked about a booking for the next day. They said there was room for the kids and me on a flight that was just about to take off – so we locked the car and climbed aboard.
Burning trees, seething red ‘fault’ lines … and heat
The experience was breathtaking. We flew over burning trees, flowing rivers of red, a tall dark cone of volcanic cinders capped with something that looked like snow but which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a cloud of carbon dioxide, much like the white CO2 that floats over a bowl of water into which a chunk of dry ice has been dropped. And we circled a lava “lake” whose surface was broken by jagged, seething red “fault” lines in the blackened lava crust. It looked like depictions of the Earth’s tectonic plates jostling against each other – or, perhaps, like the spring breakup of river ice, only with black lava in place of white ice. As we stared at the lake several hundred feet below, I felt its heat seeping through a vent in the copter’s window.
When we landed, I’d never seen the kids so excited. We drove to our hotel in Hilo, and promised ourselves that we’d return to Volcano for an early breakfast that would give us most of the day to see the out-of-this-world features formed by countless earlier eruptions. That’s how we wound up at the table next to a certain young lady at breakfast.
As we went to work on our bacon and eggs, I noticed that the young lady had maps and brochures laid out on her table and was clearly dressed for a day of hiking. I couldn’t help but wonder if she too was unaware that the volcano was erupting. It seemed a shame that she might not know of it.
So I spoke up and asked. Naomi, on the cusp of teenagehood, was visibly embarrassed to see her dad talking to a strange young woman.
But no. Our breakfast neighbor had not known about the eruption. So I told her about our experience the previous afternoon – and where she could find the helicopter.
That was our entire conversation. We did not introduce ourselves, let alone exchange phone numbers. We finished breakfast and went our separate ways, heading out to see the sights at numerous volcanic sites.
About two hours later, on the far side of the half-mile-wide caldera, we stopped at a major feature called the Halemaumau Fire Pit, said to be the home of Madame Pele, Hawaii’s Goddess of Fire. By pure coincidence, Sandra drove up and parked there at virtually the same time. She saw the kids and me walking ahead of her and, somewhat uncharacteristically for her, decided to come up and say hello.
A real conversation ensued. I learned she was returning to Honolulu that evening and would be staying with her cousins. She learned we’d be flying back to Honolulu that day too. She told me she’d booked a helicopter flight for later that day, so we exchanged phone numbers and agreed it might be nice to compare photos. (“Let me show you my etchings, my dear!”)
Talked much, ate little … had a great time
Two days later, back home in Honolulu, I called and asked if she’d like to join me for dinner. Yes, she said. I then asked if she liked Thai food. That was a gamble. I knew practically nothing about Thai food at that time, but I’d heard about a great restaurant that I thought might be a nice place to take her. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I love Thai food.” That was, ahem, a slight exaggeration. She later admitted she’d never even sampled it.
So I drove to her cousin Pat’s house, picked her up and took her to Keo’s Thai Cuisine. We ordered drinks and pupus (hors d’oeuvres) and began talking. We sat and talked for a very long time. We ate very little. Drank less. But greatly enjoyed each other’s company.
After dinner, I asked if she’d like to take a walk on Waikiki Beach. Yes. We drove the short distance and parked. As we walked across a grassy area toward the water, we could see a nearly full moon hanging low over the ocean. It shone, bright and creamy, laying a pathway right toward us across the nearly still water. Wavelets lapped gently on the sand. A balmy breeze stirred the palm fronds and caressed our faces. And unseen, somewhere nearby, someone was playing a ukulele.
It’s a setup. No, it’s a kiss!
Sandra reports she thought this was so unreal it might as well be a setup.
I thought it would be nice to put my arm around her waist and give her a kiss.
That began a whirlwind romance that occupied practically all the remaining time of Sandra’s vacation. Cousins Pat and Pete saw almost as much of me as they did of Sandra. Which wasn’t very much!
When Sandra flew back to Santa Barbara, we planned to spend every available vacation opportunity visiting back and forth. That idea lasted about two weeks. We spoke on the phone every evening until Sandra suggested that she and Melissa come to Hawaii so we could try living as a family and see if our feelings would stand the stress of real life.
Despite a few wobbly moments, we passed the test. Not quite a year after that first romantic evening, on August 8, 1987, standing on the deck of Sandra’s parents’ home in Santa Barbara, we were married.
And we’ve lived happily – with a few ups and downs – ever after.