When 23-year-old David Butwin of Minnesota boarded a plane in 1963 to go to Hawaii, he knew only a few facts about the place.

It’s where Pearl Harbor is located. “From Here To Eternity” was filmed on Oahu. There was a television detective series called “Hawaiian Eye” starring Robert Conrad, Connie Stevens and Troy Donohue. An aunt and uncle brought back a plastic ukulele after a trip in the early 1950s, and he managed to play a few chords.

And that’s about it. A friend from Butwin’s school days, however, urged him to relocate.

“Get out here, it’s pretty neat,” he advised.

He did, and what followed is chronicled in “Barefoot Days, Electric Nights: A Kid Reporter Lands in ’60s Honolulu.” (Copies can be ordered at davidbutwin.com.)

Butwin’s book centers on his work as a reporter for the morning Honolulu Advertiser, which competed with the afternoon Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

He captures a Honolulu of a bygone day — a two-newspaper town! an afternoon paper! — one where phone numbers “were five or six digits,” television programs arrived by commercial jet from the mainland and aired a week later, there were no freeways “and some drivers were still using arm signals like semaphores.”

It sounds idyllic. He drove a nifty sports car and smoked grass. He rented an apartment in a house near Kapiolani Park for $60 a month, parking and utilities included.

But Hawaii was also changing. Tourism was becoming big business, there was a war in Vietnam and there was an evolving “pecking order” that defined what was a supposedly harmonious multicultural milieu that embraced a so-called Aloha Spirit:

I saw the haoles as mostly well off and vain, represented by the still powerful missionary families from the early 19th century, but there were divisions within that division, and down at my level I was a coast haole, set apart from the long residing or the even more blessed island-born haoles. These latter types called themselves kamaaina.

It was said you could claim kamaaina (“comma-eye-na”) status after seven years, but no locally born haole would buy that, and it certainly didn’t apply to Asians or other ethnicities. A third generation Chinese, no matter how influential or wealthy, was not a kamaaina.

Butwin has a frank way of addressing ethnicity that may upset some readers and ring authentic to others. Another example: “Each ethnic group had a pet name, often disparaging in tone. A Japanese was a Japanee, Ricehead or Buddhahead; never Jap. The Portuguese, who had come from the Canary Islands to work the fields, were Portugees. Chinese were known by the Hawaiian word Pake (pah-kay), also meaning cheap.”

Butwin says the Chinese stereotype reminded him of the stereotype for American Jews (“valued education, made good money, married inside the clan”). He laments that police officers considered Filipinos as “a volatile even violence-prone group….If a domestic row involving Filipinos resulted in a death, the cops called it a misdemeanor homicide.”

From Twigg-Smith To Sinatra

Butwin’s journalism career brought him in close contact with storied newspaper staff, names that will be familiar to longtime local readers — George Chaplin (“a Serious Man,” Butwin opines), Thurston Twigg-Smith (“a Yalie and every inch a WASP”), Buch Buchwach (“cackled with laughter when his hunch paid off in a scoop”), Bob Krauss (“cheery, indefatigable”), Chuck Frankel (“a free thinker”) and Eddie Sherman (“wrote ellipses-spaced items of light concern”).

Of the Advertiser staff, Butwin observes that it was not diverse: The reporters were mostly haole and the photographers mostly Asian. He also points out that a number of employees were Jewish, “though they didn’t make much of it, nor did I, a kid brought up in a culturally Jewish, politically left house in St. Paul without much use for practiced religion.”

Field of dreams: The intrepid reporter, who also served in the U.S. Army Reserves, in an Oahu pineapple field circa the 1960s. Courtesy

He goes on to say, “Hawaii had a strong churchly presence, as Minnesota had. But religion never mattered much to the ink-stained wretches on our little island, the city room of the morning rag.”

Butwin also dated Denby Fawcett (“bright, attractive Punahou girl”), who today is a Civil Beat columnist, and knew Bob Jones (“a swarthy lothario”) who today writes for “MidWeek.” Fawcett and Jones are now married.

Butwin’s book depicts a Hawaii inhabited by the likes of union leader Jack Hall, progressive politician Tom Gill, songwriter Kui Lee, industrialist Walter Dillingham, radio personality Hal (Aku) Lewis and veteran Dan Inouye, of whom Butwin writes, “lost an arm in battle and, it was said around the newspaper office, showed up at campaign events sporting the empty sleeve for better political effect.”

But Butwin also met or interviewed in the islands Frank Sinatra, Martin Luther King Jr., John Steinbeck, Marine Gen. Victor (Brute) Krulak, George Lincoln Rockwell (the “American Nazi”) and Joan Baez. Particularly amusing is a conversation captured with Rat Pack members Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. on whether Ronald Reagan had a future in politics.

‘Dronelike Species, Reporter’

Butwin is an old-school journalist, the kind fast fading away in the internet age. Here’s what he has to say about his then colleagues:

We were a mishmash of personalities and backgrounds at our tucked-together desks. … In the city room we all belonged to a dronelike species, reporter, although there was sometimes a distinction made between reporter and writer, the former a driven soul who had the push and moxie to work his sources, happy to spend hours poring over ledgers and piles of clippings, and in a nervy moment could peer across a source’s desk and read a document upside down. The writer fancied himself a wordsmith, a deadline poet, a specialist at the feature or color story.

You can almost hear the typewriters clacking, smell the cigarettes burning and detect a bottle of booze stashed in a desk drawer.

One gripe: Butwin tells of his love life, the highs and lows, and at times is a bit too graphic.

A woman named Samarra, for example, is a “beautiful, zaftig, dark-haired creature, perhaps a little on in years (upper thirties?) … Was she a true exotic? From the Levant? Or Perhaps Down Under … I was reading John O’Hara at the time, and I liked to crack to friends that I craved an appointment in Samarra, though of course it was out of the question.”

There are also minor errors — milihinis (newcomers) rather than malihini. And he reprints perhaps too many excerpts from his own reporting of the time. But then, what writer doesn’t love their own copy?

Butwin’s eye is sharp, his recall seems pretty good and he admits it when it isn’t. I admire how he frequently follows up on the people he used to know to see what happened to them, still exercising his investigative chops.

Barefoot In Jersey

The author, 77, lives in Leonia, New Jersey, with his wife, and they have a summer home in Owls Head, Maine.

“Those formative years in Hawaii mean I go barefoot in almost all weather and teriyaki everything,” he said via email.

Not retired: David Butwin in a recent photo. Courtesy

After leaving Hawaii in 1968, he was travel editor of the Saturday Review magazine and then did freelance writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Esquire, Travel & Leisure, Gourmet and Cosmopolitan. Butwin says he is “by no means retired as I will probably sweat out another book, on a subject I have not quite chosen yet.”

He adds, “There were many working visits to Hawaii — summed up in the last chapter of the book, ‘The Years After.’ On those trips I came to love Hawaii all the more for seeing its fragile beauty, its threatened equilibrium. It’s all in those closing pages …. I keep up the best I can from 5,500 miles away.”

I asked Butwin his reaction to the recent financial woes that have lead to buyouts at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

He replied, “Of course, as one with printer’s ink still flowing, I worry for Honolulu’s single-newspaper status; and a shrinking newspaper it is.”

Yes, sadly. To employ a term familiar to print journalists like Butwin, I will end this column appropriately:


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