Philip Baham’s memories of the good old days in Hawaii might be more hell-raiser than halcyon, but the scooter-bound, f-bomb-dropping ex-sailor treasures them just the same.
"When I first came here, you could walk through Kapiolani Park and people would hand you a plate of food or a bottle of beer as you passed by," says the 88-year-old Kakaako resident. "You’d be stone drunk by the time you got to the other side. You walk through the park now and people look at you like ‘Get the (expletive) out of here.’ Hawaii has changed, and not for the better."
A conversation with Baham is a different type of walk in the park. Linger long enough and you’ll experience a full panorama of sepia-toned reminiscences and the off-color howlers, sentimental journeys and hide-the-children rants. And should you somehow walk away without Baham having threatened to sue you, knock you out or zap you with his at-the-ready pepper spray, consider yourself cheated.
Baham’s litany of modern-day ills runs longer than the battery charge on his motorized scooter-chair, but they boil down to a general flouting of the principles – honesty, respect, humility – that he learned working on the family farm in Louisiana.
"We were up at daylight to get the eggs and to get the animals out, and all of that was before breakfast," he says. "We did it because we had to. My father was 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, and if you were late, he’d take off his belt. My mom had the greatest left hand you ever seen, and if you weren’t careful, she’d grab a piece of stove wood and throw it at you. In those days you did what you had to, or you wished you had."
Baham survived the belt and the log, as well as three wars, two failed marriages and a lifetime of living on his own terms.
Not long ago a couple of robbers confronted Baham during one of his daily jaunts around town. One held a knife to his throat; the other punched him and stole his wallet and gold chain.
Gerry Thompson – whom Baham informally adopted after his father, a childhood friend, was killed at Guadalcanal in World War II – has been trying to get Baham to move to Arizona, where he and his wife have a home. But Baham refuses to budge. He likes it here, no matter how things seems to change.
"Sometimes I look in the mirror and ask myself how I made it this far," he said. "But I do whatever I want to do. Every morning, I get up and think, ‘I made it to another one. Now what am I going to do?’"
On Saturday, Baham donned a well-pressed, peach-colored shirt and gray trousers and headed down to Ala Moana Boulevard to catch the Kamehameha Day Floral Parade.
Taking his place amid the sleepy, sun-soaked crowd, Baham eased back in his chair, which has been adorned with dozens of miniature stuffed animals, a couple of vintage Mustang emblems, an American Indian dream catcher and other tchotchkes lovingly attached by Gerry’s children.
"Things have changed," he said, barely watching the lines of preening politicians and civic club marchers pass. "These days, it’s all ‘Hooray for me and to hell with you.’"
His thought was interrupted when a pa’u rider slowed at the curb and gesturing toward the scooter.
"Hey," she shouted. "That’s a great float."
Baham smiled and waved.
He’ll take his aloha where he can find it.