Ho Hum, Another Dirty Day in Paradise

I was based in Hawaii between 1979 and 1989. At the time there was a popular car bumper sticker showing a rainbow and the wacky observation: Ho Hum, Another Shitty Day in Paradise. That bumper phrase cracked me up then, and still does. Even a really bad day in Hawaii is not like a bad day on the Mainland. The rainbows make all the difference. Wearing pretty shirts, shorts and flip-flops to work helps too.

In 1979, I was invited to spend some time on a “Temporary Transfer” between the Vancouver office of Dames & Moore, and the Honolulu office. Temporary Transfers were a feature of life with Dames & Moore; one had to be prepared to spend short assignments working for other offices. Trouble was, “short” was never “short”. Two weeks meant 6 weeks to 6 months. I was asked to work in Honolulu for two months. That meant a lifetime, probably.

Since joining the firm over a year earlier I had spent nearly all the time away from home on field assignments at the Syncrude Oil Sands project near Fort McMurray in the permafrost of Northern Alberta. So the prospect of a forever assigment in exotic, warm Hawaii seemed a dream. But the manager of the Vancouver office said No. I said Yes – or I leave the firm. The manager said Yes.

Barbara and I were so convinced that it would be a long time before we would return to Vancouver, that we leased our newly-mortgaged home, put all our stuff into storage, and sold our new car. But when we got to Honolulu the project manager told me that the job was delayed and we should go back to Vancouver. Barbara cried. I pleaded for some small job to do. I got my wish.

There was an ongoing drilling job at the Hawaii Electric Co (HECO) power station at Kahalui, on Maui. There had been a violent argument between the driller and his helper and the young engineer on the rig had taken fright and fled back to the Honolulu office. The drill rig was standing conspicuously idle in HECOs’s back yard. I offered to take over the engineer’s job. When I got to Maui, I also offered to help the driller advance the drill hole. This was/is unheard of: an educated engineer getting dirty and oily? But I was/am used to getting dirty- indeed I advocate dirty work for engineering professionals!

Bruce S~, the driller and I got on just fine and finished the job promptly. As I was cleaning up, another of the office engineers appeared and asked me if I knew how to observe earthwork construction and perform survey levelling. Saying Yes! eagerly, I went to the Marriott Hotel construction site at Kaanapali, near Lahaina. The construction of an engineered fill surcharge had just started and full-time construction observation was required.

Barbara and I found a condo near Kihei, one block from Kamaole II beach park. Dames & Moore paid all our living expenses. I taught Barbara how to perform Atterberg Limits, gradation, moisture-density and other simple soil tests. And before long we had picked up a lot of work at the fast-growing Wailea and Makena luxury developments, and nearby hotel sites, Before long we needed more junior staff and they were more willing to come and spend temporary assignments on Maui because Barbara and I, in our early 30’s, took the youngsters under our wing.

Before long we had an informal small office on Maui. Nearly all the work was construction observation – a type of endeavour that many geotechnical engineers do not care for given that it means watching the work of contractors. It is still treated as a lower form of engineering endeavour. Observation, or watching other people do their work and holding them to specifications, inevitably leads to friction, something that that many people in Hawaii avoid, being deferential, diplomatic, polite and adverse to confrontation. But I was a Mainland haole (an insulting Hawaiian term for white person) and it was expected that I would not be refined and polite. I did just fine working in construction and construction management. I was also happy performing my own soil (dirt) tests in our kitchen and at the job site.

I rarely went to Honolulu, having close ties with only two senior engineers in that office. It was very independent living – we made the Honolulu office a lot of money and we did very nicely too with our expenses paid. But after about 12 months, Vancouver wanted me back. I was offered a small promotion. Ambition persuaded me that we should return home. But Barbara did not care for my ambition as much. By then she had fallen in love with Maui, swimming, diving, kayaking, and the aloha lifestyle. We argued fiercely.

One morning soon afterwards, I had a rare epiphany. Driving at dawn to Kaanapali, beside the shore at Maalaea Bay, I was struck by the glorious reddening of the West Mauai mountains as the sun peeped around the flanks of Haleakala. It was beautiful. How on earth could I even think of leaving this Paradise, where even a Ho Hum shitty, dirty day was way better than a really dirty, shitty day at the frozen tundra of the Fort McMurray tar sands? The answer: I could not bear to leave. So we stayed and I applied for a permanent position in Honolulu, which eventually lead to Barbara and I becoming Resident Aliens.

Although we had to leave Maui in 1983 because the work load fell off badly, I still think that those dirty days on Maui were some of the closest to Paradise I have ever had. They certainly were not Ho Hum.

About Ed Medley

Ed Medley has been on a random walk for over 50 years. Many scribbles and snapshots at this site are from his vagabond transits; others are from his decades of international experience in geological and geotechnical engineering, academia, and mineral exploration prospecting.
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