Friday, Dec. 08, 2023 |
Share this story
I was given a mission from the President of the United States, my very own xeroxed form letter from Jimmy Carter.
The mission should I choose to accept it was to go forth onto the Island of Hawaii and improve racial prejudice in the islands.
Was this Mission Impossible? Was I James Bond ordered to destroy Smurf, or whoever? Not really. No Aston-Martin, no martinis shaken not stirred. No glamour girls on my arm.
It was the Peace Corps in Hilo and all that got shaken and not stirred was my mind when I saw my meager paycheck. It was $82 a week for saving the world. Great.
But it wasn’t about money, it was about helping people get along, and it let me give the best gift I ever gave to the islands. I’m still proud today.
It all started on a bright August morning in 1976.
I was snoring away in an abandoned cane shack above Hilo. A couple long-haired friends stopped by and one of them had just joined Volunteers In Service To America, a branch of the Peace Corps, but wanted to head back to the mainland, so he offered me the job.
I accepted and put on my cleanest dirty shirt and walked down to the Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council Office in Hilo and was sworn in as a bonafide secret agent of VISTA. Now what to do?
I was assigned to three elementary schools in Hilo where I would meet with kids for two hours a day in each school and read stories of the different races, Hawaiian stories of King Kamehameha, Japanese stories, Filipino stories, haole, er, Caucasian stories about Davy Crockett, Abe Lincoln, Colonel Sanders, famous people like that.
The idea was if they learned about different cultures as kids, they’d be less likely to punch each others’ lights out later in life. It worked, sort of. At least we hope.
I was so gung ho, I wanted to do something special so I wrote a song and taught it to the kids in the schools. With me singing with my guitar, the students sang it loudly every day.
It was called Colors of the Rainbow and it went, “We are the colors of the rainbow, we are like flowers in the sun, sometimes we might be different, but we know we all are one.” There were other verses with it, but that was the chorus. It got everyone singing together.
After a year of telling stories and singing my Rainbow Song, I felt President Carter would be happy that I’d accomplished my mission. He even wrote me a xeroxed thank you letter.
I left VISTA, but the good part is yet to come, I didn’t know it, but the song had caught on.
The first big moment was when I went to a May Day Festival in Hilo. I sat down in the stands and watched the kids from schools perform and sing songs. To my chicken skin delight, I saw about 20 kids in leis doing the hula and they started singing my song, “We are the colors of the rainbow …” I beamed, I cheered, I loved it.
But there was another time that really got me.
I was a substitute teacher and one morning I was at an elementary school in Hilo. The kids start the day with Hawaiian songs, and as they were on the rug ready to sing I thought I’d be original and sing them my Rainbow Song.
I started to sing the verse and the little guys all smiled and said, “Wait, mistah, we know that one,” A kid stood up and flipped over the class song sheet and there were my words written right there! And the class began to sing, “We are the colors of the rainbow, we are like flowers in the sun..” I smiled wide.
My song had become a standard song sung in Hawaii schools. There’s a gift, bruddah.
Here’s the whole song:
Colors of the Rainbow
We are the colors of the rainbow
we are like flowers in the sun,
sometimes we might be different
but we know we all are one.
Hawaiians got here first,
sailing across the sea,
they love to quench their thirst
and they sing to feel free.
Then came Captain Cook
he came to take a look,
he tried to sail away
but we’re still here today
(there was an alternative line I taught the kids, “he tried to sail away but they ate him anyway.” They would love it and laugh.)
Then came the Japanese
to plant the sugar cane,
The Chinese and Portuguese
to live in Hawaiian rain.
Then came everyone else
to come find something new,
put your bad times on the shelf –
Hawaii I love you.
Dennis Gregory writes a bimonthly column for West Hawaii Today and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org