Bellows Field: A Writer’s Metaphor

Graham Salisbury

As a twelve year old, I was as free as a swim in the ocean. I suppose it should have bothered me that my mother seemed to know so little about where I was at any point in time. But I never thought about it, except on Saturday mornings, when she’d hunt me down and drag me home to cut the grass with our old, coughing green Toro, a machine I hated worse than centipedes. But when she didn’t need me to do something, she was quite pleased to have me out of the house.

It all should have bothered me.

But it didn’t.

Nothing about my mother bothered me. I’d never admitted it then, or even later, in my teens or twenties, but she was the glowing center of my life, even with all her quiet personal problems.

I knew she had them. I knew it by some kind of human-boy intuition. It was nothing I thought much about or ever tried to figure out, but I could tell her life was difficult. She wasn’t like my friends’ mothers, always cleaning and fiddling around in the kitchen. She tried. But she always ended up tossing the broom in the closet and going somewhere. Too much, too soon, had happened in her young life. She needed to be away from home, and endlessly busy.

My understanding of it should have increased a hundred times when my stepfather died, and my mother wept inconsolably, suddenly left with four children and the memory of two husbands who had died on her. She was barely over thirty.

But I remained ignorant by choice. Because, though I hardly understood any of it, the truth of her pain scared me.

After my stepfather died, I took my personal freedom to its farthest limits. Like Mom, I wanted to get as far away from the sadness at home as I could get—and stay there hanging around with my friends, doing anything that caught my attention.

We lived next to a golf course, at the time, in the flatlands of Kailua, O’ahu. Our toad-infested lawn ran down to a brown-water, slimy-mud-bottomed canal that drifted past our house and headed out toward a turquoise sea less than a quarter mile away. Bordering the flatlands was a range of low, scrub brush hills called Ka’iwa Ridge. On the other side of those hills was another world, a hidden world. There, in a jungle of thorny trees and dry bushes, was a small Army Air Force base called Bellows Field.

It was there that I sometimes found solace from the shock of life’s cruelties.

In the scheme of Hawaii military installations, Bellows Field was on the lesser end of the scale. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, they sent only eight planes out there to take care of it. But Bellows Field holds the honor of having been the site of the first capture of a Japanese soldier in World War II. Lord knows what it was doing there on the opposite side of the island from Pearl Harbor, but a midget Imperial submarine, which had taken part in the Pearl Harbor attack, had gone aground on the reef. One of the two submariners inside managed to get out alive. I used to try to imagine how that lonely Japanese sailor must have felt, staggering ashore at a time when the military in Hawaii was at its angriest.

In my days, though, long after Pearl Harbor, Bellows Field was a relatively quiet place...and very mysterious. It was there...but it wasn’t there. No one really thought about it. It was just trees, dusty roads, and landing strips. Maybe it was because of the huge Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station nearby that Bellows seemed so insignificant.

But for me and my friends, it was a gold mine. The army held maneuvers there. There was a gunnery range, and sometimes, if you got close enough to the hills, you could even hear the popping sounds of target practice. Better, if you climbed the ridge, you could sometimes see mock dog fights over that part of the island, and out over the ocean. But the best thing about Bellows Field was the simple fact that the place was off limits, especially to the likes of us nosy kids.

One day, my friend, Dickie, and I hung tin canteens on our government issue ammo belts and set out to explore Ka’iwa Ridge. We wanted to climb to the top and look down into Bellows Field. What else was there to do, anyway, except maybe hunt for golf balls in the swamp grass along the canal where white-shoed golfers had to tee-off over the water. But we always did that. We wanted something more exciting.

The hike up the ridge was long and hot, winding up a trail booby-trapped with sharp stones and prickly scrub brush that came up to just over my head. The dirt under my feet was dry and powdery, the kind that made you thirsty just to look at it.

First, we hiked inland, away from the ocean, then turned and climbed the hills at a low point. When we reached the top we found a fence with signs every fifty or so feet that read, Kapu! Keep Out. Restricted Area. Property of the U.S. Government.

But when we read them, they said, Welcome! Come in. Good Fun.

We followed the fence, peeking through, standing on boulders, trying to look out over the brush. You couldn’t see very much of the field below, but you could see the ocean beyond the trees, and the long, white sand beaches of Waimanalo in the distance. We kept walking the ridge, now heading back toward the sea. I wanted to be on the other side of that fence so badly my hands started to sweat.

“Hey,” I finally said to Dickie, grabbing his arm, stopping him. We’d never been inside Bellows Field before. It really was off limits. But for some reason we were braver that day…or stupider.

He took one look at me and said, “Let’s do it.”

We squeezed under the barbed-wire fence.

Instantly I was in another world, not figuratively—literally. Being only one step inside that fence transformed everything about me—the way I thought, the way I moved, the way I saw things, even the way I breathed, shallow, and alert.

If you’ve ever been a civilian on a military base you know what I’m talking about. Things get serious once you pass through those guarded gates.

Somehow all that military stuff becomes glaringly real—harsh, severe, rigid, palpable—not some misty romantic thing you drive past every once in a while.

But for me, as a trespassing twelve-year-old, that sudden metamorphosis was amplified a hundred times over. Bellows Field was a danger zone. I could feel it. I could taste it, my tongue tangy, coppery, like when you lick a penny.

It was exhilarating.

It was forbidden.

And we started down into it.

Except for a slight breeze that rumbled in my ears, the place was deathly quiet. Below, the canopy of dry kiawe trees broke up in spots where you could see through to a dirt-colored road that meandered toward the beach. Beyond that, the blue-green ocean sparkled above a regiment of dark ironwood trees that lined the white sand beach. That would be our goal, Dickie and I decided. The ocean. We would hike down and follow the road. Then, when we got to there, we’d cut around Wailea Point into Lanikai and head back to Kailua.

About half way down the ridge Dickie spotted a bunker. Anyway, it seemed like a bunker, but was probably more like an oversized foxhole. We stopped to explore it.

What we found there was why I called Bellows Field a gold mine. There was stuff everywhere—spent machine gun shells and the metal clips that had once held them together, gold, brassy casings, glimmering in the sun. We gathered them up and jammed them into our pockets like spilled M&Ms. Later, we would reassemble the clips and shells into long bandoleers that we’d wear diagonally across our chests, like Mexican bandits. I found a pile of empty ammo boxes, the ones those belts of machine gun bullets came in, army green metal cartridge cases about the size of tall, rectangular lunch boxes. We each took one and jammed more clips and shells into them, even some misfired blanks we’d found. I loved the blanks, because they were the real thing, dangerous-looking brass bullets with flat, red paper heads.

With all our treasure dragging us down, we inched lower, crouching and sneaking through the bushes, creeping closer to the road with the sun burning the back of our necks.

It was spooky down there, hot and dry and foreign, devoid of any living thing, devoid of any movement, not even a mongoose or a lizard, which, on that dry side of the island, were as common as ants. In the distance, muffled by the trees, you could hear the soft thumping roll of the surf. Nothing but sorry-looking brown grass grew under the trees. The whole area looked like it had been worn down to bare dirt by combat boots and trucks and tanks and Jeeps. At one time the road had been paved, but now it was mostly pock-marked, rutted by heavy trucks and rain, or maybe by bombs from Japanese planes of 1941, which was the way Dickie and I looked at it.

There was an air field somewhere, nearby, but farther out toward Waimanalo, out in the open where we didn’t want to go. Anyway, we weren’t interested in any landing fields. We wanted bullet shells and whatever else like that we could find.

We came upon an old shack hidden in the trees just off the road. It had a wooden porch in front. We crept up two steps, inched across the porch, and went inside half expecting to be scared out of our pants by some army guys in there, or maybe even by some wild animal.

But it was deserted. There was nothing in it but dirty floors and beat up walls and windows with the glass all busted out. Even with no windows the place was hot and stuffy, and smelled like a mixture of seaweed, dead fish, and dust.

While we were poking around in there, shooting started. It was off a ways, maybe up in the hills near where we’d found the foxhole.

And trucks came. Five of them. Army-green troop carriers with the canvas hoods in back. We saw them rumbling toward us through a crack in the wall. They stopped out in the open, out on the road, maybe fifty yards from where we hid in the shack. The billowing screen of dust that followed them kept on going, heading into the dirt-caked trees and settling there.

The truck drivers got out and stood around in a group, their voices low and mumbling. A nightmarish charge of fear shot through me. I was as sharp as a razor—alert, vigilant. If even an ant on the floor had moved, I would have noticed it.

The drivers stood around for a minute or so, then got back in their trucks and pulled them off the road, pulled them closer to the shack.

They parked under the trees.

Jeeze!” Dickie whispered. “We gotta get out of here.”

But we couldn’t move. They’d see us. They’d catch us in a flash. Maybe they’d even shoot at us. I prayed they had blanks in those rifles like they were supposed to. But I’d heard that sometimes they used real ammo when they had maneuvers. Who were those guys, anyway? I thought Bellows was an air force base. Those guys looked like infantry.

The shooting in the distance started to get frantic, popping, popping, popping. You could see nothing, only hear the sound of it. Then machine gun fire started going off, like a string of firecrackers, only stronger, and scarier. The whole place out there sounded like the fourth of July.

But none of it seemed to interest the truck drivers. After they parked, they got out and walked toward the shack. My whole body tingled with the almost electrical feeling of fear and the thrill of imminent danger mixed together.

I cringed when the sound of boots thumped up the steps and clomped across the porch, shaking the flooring under Dickie and me. By some miraculous stroke of good fortune, none of the men came inside the shack. Instead, they settled down on the porch and leaned against the wall.

“You got a smoke?” someone said.

I heard the strike of a match. The sweet, sharp smell of a freshly lit cigarette drifted through the cracks in the wall. No one said anything more. They just sat there smoking, and listening to gunfire.

After about ten minutes, the shooting stopped. Dickie and I hadn’t moved an inch, not even a toe, or a finger. Finally, the drivers got up and went back to their trucks. In a great spitting, rumbling roar, they started them up and headed back the way they’d come, maybe to pick up the shooters and take them somewhere else.

Dust was still hanging in the air when Dickie and I grabbed our rattling ammo cans and took off out of there, sprinting through the trees toward the beach, toward the white sand and sparkling water, running for the safety of Wailea point.

We almost made it.

“Hey!” somebody yelled. A solider patrolling the ironwood trees. “You kids. Come back here!”

I dropped my ammo can, which I’d suddenly lost interest in. It burst open when it hit the dirt. Shells and clips spilled out and flew everywhere. We ran back toward the hills where we’d come from, back down the road where the trucks had just gone. Dickie held his ammo can close to his chest, refusing to leave it behind.

“Come back here!” the man yelled. In my mind, I could see him getting on his walkie-talkie and calling for someone to cut us off, calling for someone to trap us.

But we were moving pretty fast.

We scrambled back up the hill, past the foxhole, back under the fence, and down the other side of the ridge into the safety of civilian life, the safety of streets and cars and houses and gas stations and drug stores and men lying around in the shade in the park. Only then did we slow down and start bragging about how we’d ditched the army, how we’d braved Bellows Field and made it out with all kinds of good stuff, even if Dickie did razz me about dropping the ammo can like a yellow-bellied coward.

Over time, with various other friends, and once alone, I went back to Bellows Field five more times. I amassed a treasure of discarded army things—canteens, ammo belts, shells, clips, ammo boxes, a knife, and even a helmet liner, one of those light-weight helmets that goes under the heavy steel one. When I put it all together and dressed up like an army guy, with all my belts of reassembled machine gun shells, I looked like a walking surplus store.

I loved it.

Now, I look back on those days and shake my head at the vastness of God’s mercy in letting me live past fifteen. How I did it, I’ll never know. What we were doing at Bellows Field was dangerous, dangerous, dangerous! We could have found some misfired live ammo on the hair trigger of going off. We could have stepped on some kind of mine, for all I knew. There were explosion holes all over the place. And there could have been soldiers shooting at targets on the gunnery range, where they used real bullets, bullets that could have gone astray and made holes in our heads.

But we were twelve years old, and didn’t understand that kind of danger. We knew we shouldn’t have gone down into a restricted area, that’s for sure. But we did it anyway, walked right on down into the middle of a simulated war zone as if we were going to the movies, or the beach.

And we never got caught.

My mother frowned at all my army stuff, but never asked me where I’d gotten it. I don’t think she even considered the possibility of me getting into Bellows Field. She probably never thought about the place. Like I said, it was there, but it wasn’t there.

I didn’t learn much of a lesson about the dangers of military reservations. I only learned how free I was, and how that freedom could help me escape the uncertainties at home.

Though there was no lesson in those adventures down into Bellows Field, there is now, a metaphor for me as a writer. If I call my inner consciousness Bellows Field, then the outer me, the one who actually does the writing, would be the twelve-year-old, fear-suppressing, sense-electrified explorer. When I blend my mind with my heart, which is what I try to do when I write, I effectively wander into a battle zone. I’m ambushed by my own feelings. How powerful they can be. And how surprising.

Now, as a man, I can take it. I want to take it. I want to go down into that lead-lined safe somewhere in the far corner of my heart, that Bellows Field. I want to open it and re-feel my youthful confusion, and let it overwhelm me.

Because that’s what’s so important to me as a writer, as a human being—feelings—the swelling of emotion in the heart, the power of knowing your life is purposeful and meaningful because your full heart tells you it is.

More than anything, I reach for those affirmations when I create. And I can find them, as you can, as anyone can, down in the Bellows Field of the heart and soul. We find things there—sudden enlightenment, personal Epiphanies, you could call them—the boiling up and understanding of some suppressed pain, or the rush of love and tears in the memory of some small event consciously forgotten; and it’s down there that you build your perfect, blissful dreams for the future, dreams that are so necessary to growth as a human being.

It’s all down there in Bellows Field, where the noise of the world slows…slows …slows…and finally stops…and you can hear the faint whispers of the Universe.

I found some of those things while writing Blue Skin of the Sea, when I discovered Sonny’s engulfing infatuation with Melanie McNeil, when he felt his deep, deep love, not so much of Melanie herself, but for the idea of having someone so immensely close to him in his life. Then the wrenching adolescent pain that came after she left, amplified to almost unbearable heights each time he stared into his empty mailbox. I hadn’t expected that to happen to him—to me. I hadn’t thought he would feel that kind of pain. But he did. It grew out of the story, which grew out of me, out of my own youthful romantic disasters. Those feelings are still all there, in my inner Bellows Field.

When I read a book I want to be touched, to be moved. I want to empathize with love, or despise a character, and live that character’s experience vicariously. I want to feel it, all of it, or at least as much of it as I possibly can. That’s what makes reading such a powerful thing—that stimulation of the heart.

I now know more about danger than I ever did at twelve. I know enough to approach it with respect, not ignorance. And I know that fear is a warning to pay attention.

But as afraid as I may be at times, I’ll still go back to Bellows Field— again and again and again. I’ll climb down the ridge and creep along the chewed-up road. I’ll ditch trucks and guards and fear until I make it all the way to the ocean, until I stand knee-deep in the sea that sparkles beyond the dark ironwoods.

I’ll go there because I have to, because that’s...that’s…where the depth of my life is.

Graham Salisbury grew up on the islands of Oahu and Hawai’i. His first book, Blue Skin of the Sea, a fascinating account of a boy growing up in Hawaii between 1953 and 1966 which is set in Kailua-Kona, has received many awards, including an ALA Best Book of the Year, and the John Unterecker Award for Fiction from Chaminade University and the Hawaii Literacy Council. Salisbury also received the 1992 PEN/Norma Klein Award that recognized him as an emerging voice among American writers of children’s fiction. He has also received the Bank Street Child Study Children's Book Award, the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, the 1992 Judy Lopez Memorial Award, the 1992 Parents’ Choice Book Award, the Oregon Book Award, the NCTE Teacher’s Choice Award, and has been a featured author in Publishers Weekly “Flying Starts.” He currently manages an historic office building in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his family. This essay was presented as the luncheon keynote address at the Annual Conference of the Hawaii Library Association, Honolulu, March 26, 1994.