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Research Gems: When What You Find Becomes Part of the Story

Sometimes, research is done to authenticate certain elements of your story. Other times, it’s the research itself that feeds the storytelling. Here, author Robert McCaw describes two discoveries he’s made that found their way into his writing.

One of my joys while researching my Hawaiʻi novels is finding unexpected nuggets of language, geography, or history. I call these finds “gems.” In the following paragraphs, I’ll describe two such discoveries. The first plays a significant role in Treachery Times Two, the fourth Koa Kāne mystery (to be published in January 2022). The second finds its way into the fifth Koa Kāne novel, currently in draft form and as yet untitled.

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In my wanderings around the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, I explored the backroads near Pāhala, a small former sugar town 20 miles south of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Around a bend in a rural road, I found dozens of colorful flags suspended on ropes from trees. They fluttered in the breeze. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be Buddhist prayer flags. Driving just a bit farther, I encountered a pagoda-shaped Tibetan temple decorated in bright red, yellow, and green. Two highly stylized shishi, Chinese lion-dogs, guarded the entrance, and a gong hung from the rafters. Eucalyptus, palms, and bamboo bordered the gardens surrounding the temple, and jasmine scented the air. Brilliantly feathered peacocks wandered the grounds. In addition to the temple and a monks’ dormitory, the 25 acre-site has a guesthouse for visitors and retreat participants. I had stumbled upon Nechung Dorje Drayang Ling, otherwise known as the Wood Valley Temple, a world-renown Buddhist monastery and retreat.

Fascinated by this unexpected find, I delved into its history. In the early 1900s, the Kaʻu District in the southeastern corner of the Big Island was sugar country like much of the Island’s best agricultural land. The original Nichiren Buddhist temple built in 1902 supported Japanese immigrants who worked the nearby cane fields. Originally located in a low-lying area closer to Pāhala, a 1917 flood damaged the structure. Volunteers disassembled the building and reassembled it in its current location on higher ground, where it reopened in 1925. It continued to serve the local community until the decline of the Hawaiian sugar industry led to its abandonment in the 1960s.

Tibetian Buddhists rescued the vacant, decaying Nichiren Buddhist temple in the 1970s in anticipation of a visit by Nechung Rinpoche, a high Tibetian lama who planned to start a center for Buddhist study and meditation in Hawaiʻi. Restoration began in late 1973, culminating in the arrival of the Dali Lama to dedicate the rebuilt temple as Nechung Dorje Drayang Ling in 1980. To this day, it holds services on Sundays and special occasions and has attracted many high lamas over the years. On a second visit to the temple in 1994, the Dali Lama drew a crowd of more than 3,500.

The temple’s remote location and irresistible beauty inspired me to fictionalize several scenes around this gem in Treachery Times Two.

Research Gems: When What You Find Becomes Part of the Story

Another surprising discovery sprang from my frequent travels to South Point, the southernmost tip of both Hawaiʻi and the United States. Rocky cliffs tower above the ocean, serving as a diving board for the more adventurous (or perhaps foolish) among us. The famous Green Sand Beach, a sandy cove inside what was once a volcanic cone, lies just east of South Point.

On trips around the area, I encountered and photographed a rather extensive set of concrete, graffiti-covered ruins. After deciding to set a scene in a new book on South Point, I began to dig deeper into the history of those broken concrete walls and discovered a historical gem. Although there is little or no trace of it now, in 1926, the War Department began constructing an airfield called Ka Lea Military Reservation at South Point. Later called Morse Field after a decorated WWI pilot, the site had a 6,000-foot grated steel mat runway and refueling facilities. Its location at the southernmost point of the US enabled propeller-driven airplanes on the transpacific air ferry run to Australia and other South Pacific destinations to save 200 miles over the alternative of refueling on Oʻahu.

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In my research, I found old photographs of Army Air Force B-18 bombers and P-26 “Peashooter” fighters parked at Morse Field before WWII. There are also reports that at least two later versions of the Peashooter fighter (P-39s or P-40s) were there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Alarmed that the Japanese might launch a further attack through Morse Field, the Army destroyed the landing strip, going so far as to tear up the surrounding flat areas. After the war, the Army declared the airfield surplus.

“Now,” as newscaster Paul Harvey used to say, “for the rest of the story.” In the post-war years, a local rancher surveyed the site and arranged to reopen the airstrip as South Cape Airport to export beef from slaughtered cattle. But, due to light traffic and sparse maintenance, the airport closed in the early 1950s. Still, the military presence at South Point didn’t end there. In the 1960s, the Navy and Air Force Services Command operated a portion of the site as a tracking station for test missiles launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Morse Field also hosted a ballistic rocket testing program. Yet even that rebirth was short-lived. The missile tracking function was moved to the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands on Kauai, and the ballistic rocket testing program ended.

In the intervening years, nature reclaimed the land, save for some shredded remains of the grated steel matting and what became the derelict, graffiti-covered remnants of the old Army Air Force barracks. Funny what “gems” you can find in crumbling concrete walls if only you dig beneath the surface. South Point and the relics of Morse Field will have a role to play in the fifth Koa Kāne mystery now in draft.

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