A bamboo cannon: New Year’s 2009

First, Happy New Year 2009, or as we say in Hawaii: Hau’oli Makahiki Hou! Those of you who know New Year’s Eves in Hawaii will smile, while those of you who haven’t ever had the pleasure can’t imagine the noise and smoke of the fireworks, plus the enjoyment of the grindz — the food — and fun as families or even whole streets, especially in places like Laie, put picnic tables under easy-up awnings and go at the excitement of burning off thousands of dollars of fireworks. Some Laie families are well-known for their annual New Year’s Eve street parties.

Again, for those not familiar with Oahu, firecrackers up to a certain modest length and quantity are legal (with a permit, from licensed vendors), while almost every store sells the usual fireworks — sparklers, cones, spinners, pop-pops, etc., etc. But the legal limits have never stopped illegal pyrotechnics that also invade the community every year, including window-shaking aerial bombs, bursts and various rockets.

Amid all of this for the first time last night I noticed another noisemaker I hadn’t seen for many years: A Samoan fana ‘ofe or bamboo cannon.

A fana ‘ofe is a thick piece of bamboo usually about five-or-six feet long and at least a couple of inches in diameter. All of the “knuckles” or joints have been knocked out except for the last one at one end. A firing hole is cut near that end. I’m not sure how they were specifically firing the one last night, but back when I was a Mormon missionary in Samoa in the mid-1960s kids would pour a little kerosene in the hole, someone would also sometimes blow a puff of air in for oxygen, and then placing a lighted torch at the hole — just like an old-time cannon — would set off a pretty good “thump.” Depending on the size of the bamboo and the amount of kerosene the kids had, the pitch and volume of the cannons would vary . . . and you would hear them going off a lot at New Year’s and during other holidays.

Of course, the fana ‘ofe‘s pop was nothing compared to some of the modern fireworks, but it was still fun to see someone had taken the time to make one here in Laie.

Not that I stuck around to watch and listen: Unfortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also gotten more sensitive to all the smoke. We used to do all the stuff I’ve described above — and our extended family still does, but more recently New Year’s Eve for the Laie Foley’s means we shut all the windows, turn on the air conditioner, and watch a couple of good movies on TV . . . plus enjoy all the grindz accumulated for the event.

People with pets, especially dogs, usually have to sedate them; and some people with serious respiratory concerns consider checking into the Turtle Bay Resort to get away from all the gunpowder smoke that can blanket the communities and roads like fog. But like most people — having moved to Hawaii over 40 years ago (via Samoa) from Utah, where all firecrackers were illegal — I’ve always found New Year’s and July 4th celebrations exciting.

Of course, back in Utah as a kid I remember all firecrackers and similar items were illegal. Even little half-inch “ladyfingers,” a miniature firecracker about the diameter of a pencil lead which would go off with a  little “pip” — “pop” would be too generous — were illegal. You could get louder noise out of a cap gun, which were also very popular year round; and  older boys would sometimes pound whole rolls of caps with a hammer or a rock to make even bigger explosions. Actually, we discovered we could do the same thing with “dud” firecrackers, if we had a big enough hammer. Of course, this was all rather dangerous and I don’t mean to make light of that aspect. Indeed, people then and now suffer grievous fireworks-related injuries and burn buildings down. For example, I remember when I was a kid in Salt Lake City someone dropped a match into a large bin of fireworks for sale at Grand Central store on 9th South and State Street, and burned the entire building down; and a family friend in California lost a couple of fingers when an M80 went off in his hand.

Even so, kids and people who don’t grow up with firecrackers are usually drawn to them. As a teenager in Utah we could sometimes buy illegal firecrackers (which were legal in several neighboring states) and even bigger stuff: cherry bombs, silver salutes, M80s, and one of my favorites, buzz bombs. These were essentially two cylindrical cones attached to a metal disk (about 5-6 inches in diameter) that turned into a helicopter-like device which, after lighting the fuse, shot straight up in the sky with a tremendous whirring or buzzing sound. They could go quite high, and some of them would explode at the top of the ride. We also discovered that if you gave what’s now called a “spinning flower” a good kick just after it started to spurt, it could turn into a rocket. A couple of friends and I were having a great time doing this over in the little grassy area where Yale and Yalcrest Avenues split, until one of these impromptu rockets flew straight into the bay window of a large nearby house, and fell sputtering into the garden. Fortunately, the window didn’t break nor did the bushes catch fire . . . but it scared the heck out of us, and we dug out of there.

Last night there wasn’t much breeze in Laie, so the smoke was thick and slowly drifted makai (oceanward). The noise also didn’t seem as loud as in some years past; plus there was some rain, so perhaps that curtailed part of the celebration.

In any event, with the dawning of January 1, 2009 another aspect of a Hawaii New Year’s Eve celebration becomes apparent: Cars and windows are also often covered with a fine coat of sulfurous dust, and all those firecrackers and fireworks leave messy residue on the streets. A lot of the firecrackers are typically wound with red paper, so that plus the rain makes for a mushy pink and crimson mess.

On New Year’s Days when it hasn’t rained the night before, we usually see little kids digging through the piles of red paper, looking for unexploded firecrackers. They often carry a glowing punk, and set off their finds right away. My wife said she always did this as a girl, and so did our kids when they were little.

Of course, some families are really conscientious about cleaning the debris up right away; but others go to bed and get around to cleaning later in the morning or even afternoon; and still others just leave the residue where it lays. Sometimes we can see the dregs for weeks after.

As I write this it’s about 10 a.m. on New Year’s Day, and it’s still very quiet out there, but kids will probably be setting off the firecrackers they didn’t blow up last night for days. Later, Junior Ah You and his extended family will once again put on the Concert of Stars in the BYU-Hawaii Cannon Activities Center. Of course, those are also part of New Year’s in Laie. ALOHA.

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