Al Rodrigues sat behind a table in the courtyard at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center outside the Pacific Historic Parks bookstore, signing a stack of thin books titled, Diary of a Pearl Harbor Survivor. It was a perfectly sunny day and Al wore a pair of gold-tinted sunglasses.
His first words to me were, “Where are you from?”
When I said, Kauai, he asked, “Where?” When I told him Anahola, he said, “I used to swim there.” Turns out, Al was born on Kauai.
In the time I spent with Al earlier this week, I would learn this is classic Al behavior. He makes connections with people, putting them at ease and making them feel special.
When a woman approached his table and slid a book toward him, Al said to me, “Excuse me.”
he asked the woman, creasing back the cover of his memoir. The subtitle read: A Native Hawaiian son’s memories of Pearl Harbor and the War in the Pacific while serving on the battleship USS Washington.
“Larry,” she said.
“You don’t look like Larry,” Al said, adding the words, “Aloha Larry” above his signature. Then, he turned to me. “What’s the date today?
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“I’m positive,” I said.
Al added the date below his signature and handed the book to the woman. “Give my love to Larry,” he said.
I like older men. Correction: I like old men. Al Rodrigues is my latest crush.
And how could you not like him? He’s 94 years of energy and wit.
When the woman slid a $10 bill across the table, Larry had his retort ready. “You pay the cashier inside. They don’t trust me with money.” I would hear that phrase several more times before I left Al, still signing books and popping up and down for photographs with men, women, and children from Ohio, Virginia, California, Arizona, and elsewhere across the country. He does this most Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at from 9:30 to 11:00 a.m., one of the very few living survivors of the “Day of Infamy.”
A Hawaiian word came to mind as I was talking with Al. “Kolohe”
translates to English as naughty, rascal, prankster. Later that night, as I read Al’s book, I heard his kolohe voice in the pages of his diary.
On December 7, 1941, Al had the four-to-eight watch.
He was just about to eat breakfast when the general alarm sounded. He wrote:
“We all ran out to the armory where they issued us .30 caliber rifles or .45 pistols. We then saw the planes overhead with the red insignia on the bottom of their wings and we knew they were Japanese planes.
“They were flying low enough that you could see the pilots’ faces. We heard yells to shoot the pilots as they had open cockpits. Hell, it was hard enough to shoot the airplane much less the pilot. With a rifle of the 1941 vintage, you could only shoot one bullet at time then cock the rifle before shooting the next shot, and by then the plane was out of reach.”
He’s quoted in a Pacific Historic Parks flyer as saying, “I never had the opportunity to finish my ham and eggs that morning!”
A family from Idaho approached his table.
“Who to?” Al asked.
“H-A-R-P-E-R? That’s my mother’s maiden name.”
The, he gave me a sideways glance and asked, “What’s the date?”
Al’s last tour of duty in World War II took him across the country to New York City. “They said you’ve got a lot of combat duty, do you want shore duty? I said what do I look like? Sure, I want shore duty. There were 26 girls there and the oldest was 24 and I was 25. I was just hoping the war would never end. But it did end. I had taken my boss up to a meeting in Times Square, and we couldn’t move the car because people were everywhere, the place was so full of people, and that’s how we found out the war had ended.”
He returned to Hawaii then, visiting family on Kauai. It was the only time in recounting his story with me that Al got emotional, and it was when he mentioned his mother, a Hawaiian woman who died when Al was eight.
“Who to?” Al asked the next person in the line forming in front of his table.
“Brown? B-R-O-W-N? I married a Brown.
My wife was from Wyoming.”
Al married twice, actually. “Now, with four of hers, three of mine plus two of ours it adds up to nine in the family,” he wrote in his book. “And we are still one happy family. It is mine, hers and ours. Nice, huh!”
Al looked at me. “The fourteenth?” he asked.
“Twelfth,” I said.
“You want a photo?” he asked a young girl in line. “Let’s get in the sun. Turn this way.”
Three or four people appeared with cameras. “Which camera? Which camera?” Al asked.
A man was next in line. “My dad fought on all five European fronts, including Normandy,” he said.
“Normandy? Oh, they had it rough there
,” Al said. “Thank you very much for coming.”
Al was in an accident almost a year ago—a nine car pile-up on the highway. He broke a leg, arm, and some ribs. He spent a month in the hospital. “Personally, I just think the nurses wanted to hold on to him,” a volunteer named Rich told me.
“Can I get a picture with you?” a woman asked. “You don’t have to stand up.”
“No, for you, baby, I’ll stand up. Take one more,” he said. “She’s warm.”
“You just want a hug.”
When I left Al on Wednesday, he was posing for a photo, throwing a double shaka—hang loose sign—and wearing a special “Pearl Harbor Survivor” cap askew on his head and a medal around his neck. But before I could get away, he asked me one last question.
“Today’s the twelfth, right?
” And I would have sworn he was winking behind his mirrored sunglasses. So kolohe, that man!