Ron McElroy was born into poverty in Southern California where he survived discrimination, police violence and self-destructive peer group pressure. His mother “Tutu,” is an indigenous Hawaiian who grew up on the islands and was the greatest influence in his cultural and ethnic identity.
Street smart and reckless, McElroy graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Spending summers with his mother’s family in Hawaii, he learned to surf and became a high-ranking amateur surfer. But Ron discovered his true calling: real estate, gradually becoming an entrepreneur with his own companies in the shared office industry plus vacation residence and rentals in Mexico and Hawaii.
But how does a kid with an indigenous Hawaiian background escape a youth fueled by drugs, alcohol, and violence to become a successful real estate entrepreneur? This question is at the heart of Wrong Side of the Tracks, a memoir by Ron McElroy, a classic journey of transformation — an honest and revealing memoir filled humor, action, and adventure.
Take a few minutes to read the first chapter of Wrong Side of the Tracks, which Ron McElroy has generously shared with the LA Books Examiner. Additional information about Ron and his work is available at WrongSideoftheTracksBook.com.
*Reprinted by special arrangement with the author, Ron McElroy and Still Standing Publishing Copyright Ron McElroy.
Wrong Side of the Tracks: A Memoir by Ron McElroy
The first big thing you need to know about me: I have a really big family, and it’s often in a lot of trouble. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear from one or all of my family members: wife, ex-wife, daughter, sons, mother, brother, sister, uncles, aunties, cousins. . . . And when a family member is in trouble—Billy and my dad being the top two repeat offenders—I can’t ignore it or let it go. I need to do something to help. It’s sort of like, well, that’s my job.
In some ways, my life is a classic immigrant story—learn to fit in, work hard, assimilate, make it big in America, and enjoy the fruits of success. But unlike most American immigrants, who came from Europe or Asia or Latin America, my brother and sister and I were born right here, in Sarasota, Florida. Our dad and his dad were Appalachian hillbillies born and bred. But Mom always held strong to her Hawaiian heritage. In our mom’s heart—and in our hearts—we were never Americans, not really. We’re Hawaiians, through and through.
So the second big thing you need to know about me: I’m one-quarter pure Hawaiian, and it’s the most important part of me.
My family is a kind of rainbow coalition, our own little melting pot of cultures and attitudes: from native Hawaiian to Korean to English-Scottish-German, and more. But the strongest of my many roots starts with my mother’s mother Fannie, who was of pure Hawaiian descent, a 100 percent native indigenous Hawaiian, born to a proud, whole-blooded family that maintained considerable land holdings throughout Maui and enjoyed a good life, with all the amenities.
I guess her family figured she’d marry a Hawaiian too, but Fannie was a rebel. She fell deeply in love—a forbidden love, against kapu, the ancient Hawaiian code of behavior—with a Korean migrant worker named William Chee Sung Han, who was almost twenty years her senior. When she married the foreigner in spite of her family’s protests, they cast her out—off the island. Fannie and William were exiled to Molokai, the most Hawaiian of the Hawaiian islands—a beautiful, sparsely populated volcanic island famous for being a leper colony. Maybe you know it from James Michener’s Hawaii. It’s just a short ferry ride away from Maui, but a million miles away in attitude. Molokai is vehemently undeveloped—you won’t find any big tourist resorts there—and kind of spooky. You can feel the ancient Hawaiian nature spirits, rulers of the sun, the rain, the forest, the ocean.
Like my mom says, “Molokai has a lot of spirits.”
Fannie lived on Molokai for the rest of her short life, and eventually gave birth to nine live children: seven boys, William, James, John, Ronald, Harold, Clarence, and Paul; and two girls, my Auntie Ruthie and my mom, Glenna Arlene Han, born on April 21, 1935. Mom always called herself Arlene. But since my son Brett was born, we’ve all followed his lead and called her Tutu—the Hawaiian word for grandma.
For Tutu, it was a hard life in paradise.
“My days in Molokai was simple, and a struggle,” she told me. “My parents called our place ‘One-Acre Lot.’ We went without stuff—sometimes no shoes to go to school, or shoes were worn out—but we never missed anything. My mother’s sisters use to give us hand-me-down clothes.”
But pretty soon, this sparse life would start to look pretty good in comparison to what followed: December 7, 1941. That day, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Soon afterward, Fannie, forty-two, who had already endured a previous stillbirth, died shortly after yet a second stillborn birth. From then on, things for Tutu and her family just went downhill.
One night, a few days after my grandma was buried, the three little ones—my mom, Arlene, her five-year-old brother, Paul, and baby Ruthie, just two years old—were huddled in bed with their dad, looking for comfort. It was dark and dead silent.
“As we lay there,” my mom told me, “I heard footsteps coming up the stairs, the doorknobs turning, and a chair moving. . . . At first I thought it was my two older brothers coming home from the movies, but no one came in the house, so my father said that Mom’s spirit had come home. We three were so scared.
“Another night, I stood up to turn the lights on, I swear I saw a figure sitting on the chair in the dark. I almost fainted when that happened.”
My grandfather must have been haunted too, just like the house. He was never the same after his wife’s death. Devastated and despondent, he soon drank himself into a fatal car crash. With both parents dead, the kids had to leave One-Acre Lot. The seven brothers and two sisters would have to create their own love and faith as they became the entire family unit.
“One of my brothers told me that my auntie wanted to adopt us three little ones,” Mom told me years later, “but my older brothers said no, because they were afraid they would use us as slaves.” At first, the youngest kids had to stay with their next-door neighbor. But after Mom’s older brother James got married, he took care of the three little ones.
Mom went to school in Molokai from kindergarten through the seventh grade, and spent some of her time then and later working in the pineapple fields. In those days, thousands of acres of Molokai were devoted to commercial pineapple cultivation.
“I tell you, it is not an easy job!” she once said. “You have to cover yourself from head to toe—goggles, a big hat, and your clothes had to be denim, long sleeves, so that the pineapple stickers don’t stab you.”
When she was thirteen, her oldest brother, Bill, got married and took Arlene, Paul, and Ruthie to live with him in Honolulu. Bill was a World War II veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart when he was injured at Normandy Beach. He put the whole family in veteran’s housing. With no car, the kids walked to school about a mile through the sugar cane fields. After a few years, the little family left the veteran’s housing and rented a small house in Kaimuki, near Diamond Head.
My Mom is a killer combo—tiny, beautiful, and smart—and a hard worker determined to take care of herself and her family no matter what. She has earned her own way pretty much her entire life. By 1953 she had graduated from high school and was hard at work in the Libby’s pineapple cannery in Honolulu, earning her own money. She saved up enough to fulfill her dream to visit the mainland. So in August of that year she went to live with her brother Ron and his wife and baby in navy housing in San Diego, California, where she signed up to attend junior college. Eventually, she moved to Los Angeles, worked as a clerk at an insurance company, met a tall, good-looking guy named Bill McElroy, got pregnant with my brother, chased Bill to Florida where, improbably, he was an art student, studying on the G.I. Bill, but with periodic visits to the VA psych ward for mental problems. They finally married and had two more kids, my big sister and me, the youngest.
Mom was sure to give all her kids both regular American names but also
Hawaiian names. My brother Bill’s name was Keola, my sister Susan was Leelani, and I was Hale, after my uncle Ron, pronounced Hah-Lee, two syllables.
Dad never finished art school, and we all moved back to L.A.
But that’s another story. What I really want to talk about first is Hawaii.
I first visited the Hawaiian Islands with my mom and my brother and sister in 1965, when I was seven years old. I wasn’t used to flying, and the descent into the Honolulu airport had me a little worried. But as the plane taxied down the runway I forgot my apprehension fast. We walked out onto a stairway that was rolled right up to the plane and took us down onto the tarmac. The air was so tropical and fresh smelling, warm and moist, and the sky was a magnificent blue, so much bluer than I ever remember our smoggy sky back in California. But that was only the beginning.
Each passenger who got off the plane was greeted personally by two beautiful Polynesian women. And they were wearing hula skirts! I reached the bottom of the stairway and a Hawaiian goddess smiled down at me with the most exotic pair of brown eyes. She leaned in closer and kissed me gently on the cheek as she put a lei over my head and around my neck. The fragrance of the fresh flowers, the closeness of her soft skin on mine, and the lasting red imprint of her kiss are still with me. Then another Hawaiian goddess smiled and handed me a small cup of pineapple juice. Our greeters were all smiles and very gracious, as if this was a genuine experience not only for us, but for them as well.
Wow, I thought. This Hawaii is really great.
There was something new to see everywhere. I was fascinated by the airport, where—for some puzzling reason—old burnt-out wreckage of jet planes lined the runway. And as we drove toward Waikiki to my Uncle Paul’s house, I couldn’t help but notice all the new high-rise buildings going up. It seemed like hundreds, surrounded by huge cranes. A multitude of new condos, hotels, and apartments were blooming out of the wet tropical landscape. I’d seen buildings before, but these were somehow different—vibrant, active. An optimistic buzz poured into everything that the sunshine touched. The tall swaying coconut trees waved in the trade winds, palm fronds shimmering as they twisted and turned. Like cheerleaders, I thought, urging the day on with their green pom-poms. I was so excited by all the Waikiki hustle-bustle that I could barely sit still.
When we reached my Uncle Paul’s house in a quiet little neighborhood just outside of the city, things began to calm down a bit. His wife, my Auntie Sissy, was so friendly, all smiles. I soon realized that it wasn’t just the greeters at the airport—every greeting from a female relative or friend included a kiss on the cheek, so different than what I was used to. Right away, I was struck by how much Hawaiians touched each other just in the course of a normal interaction. And the words auntie, uncle, brah (meaning brother) and cousin almost always accompanied a greeting. I knew that everybody I met couldn’t possibly be related to me—although there were a lot of those—but Hawaiians just used these warm terms with anyone they considered family, like good friends.
I felt right at home, no question. And we were staying for two weeks!
We had a lot of Sunday school and church while growing up in L.A. It was a regular thing for my mom and the three of us kids, but I don’t ever remember Dad coming with us to church. I thought Sunday school was fun, like play time. But the sermons were boring and I couldn’t wait to get out. So when Mom started off our trip to Hawaii by taking us to be baptized at her brother Bill’s church, I was expecting more of the same. I was so wrong.
At that time Jesus Coming Soon was a small church in Honolulu, where my uncle, Pastor Bill, had built up quite a respectable fellowship of god-fearing patrons over the years. Jesus Coming Soon was Hawaiian holy-rolling gospel at its finest, bringing down the house. I can see it like it was yesterday: me and Susie and Billy are front and center, standing side by side wearing white, full-length robes over our bathing suits, looking like startled little mice waiting to be submerged into God’s good graces. Whew!
I was awestruck, fascinated, and petrified at being in front of the entire congregation—so many people, all of them carrying on loud and enthusiastically, as if it was just a grand old thing to be alive and well. Not used to being the center of attention, especially to a large strange crowd, and a loud one at that, I was a bit scared—but just a little bit, because I know that these people were considered family by all of my relatives. That made it a little easier to find comfort in this awkward situation.
The church itself, with its huge vaulted ceilings, seemed to tower over us. The walls were partially clad with volcanic stone, the floors covered in red carpeting, and a massive cross with Jesus nailed to it looked over everyone. The waiting seemed to go on and on.
Then, for no reason I could tell, there was a break in the loud singing. My cousin, Billy Han Junior (yes, there are a lot of Bills in my family), poked his head around the corner off to the side of the stage.
“Okay, you guys ready?”
He’s pretty enthusiastic. We all nod slowly.
Billy Junior waves us to come forward, so we follow him out in a line to the stage. We’re standing above and behind this large volcanic rock wall that has a glass fronted pool at least eight feet across, with steps leading down into it. You can see everything in the pool, like something at Marine World. There’s enough room for a small basketball team in there! Obviously, we’re not the first to be baptized at Jesus Coming Soon, nor will we be the last. But we were walking down those steps whether we wanted to or not.
Mom told me then, and assures me to this day, that the only reason she is alive is because her Mom, Fannie, took her to the Jesus Coming Soon church in Molokai a couple of days after she was born—a blue baby, deprived of oxygen at birth—and had her baptized. And now it seemed that Mom’s brother, Pastor Bill, also placed significant importance in being baptized. Come to think of it, this was probably my mom’s primary objective in getting all of us kids back to Hawaii at an early age: so she could baptize us at the Jesus Coming Soon church and protect us forever and ever.
So there we were, finally, standing in waist-deep water, looking out into the congregation. They were all staring back at us. My Uncle Bill was in the tank with us quoting scripture, dressed in a white robe like ours, holding his big Bible with one hand and gesturing with the other.
“May god bless these children and keep them safe through temptation and ill will. . . . ” And on and on and on. I tried not to look at the congregation. I tried to keep the fright from surging back, but it was hard.
Every once in a while, the thought that I was related to this rock star of a minister running this whole huge church would creep in to give me a brief secure feeling. It was really a beautiful thing for someone like my Uncle Bill to spend all this time and effort in front of his entire congregation for us, asking for all of those prayers to be directed strictly for our protection and well-being.
Then, one kid at a time, he started. For some reason I was first, so I had no idea what I was in for. Uncle Bill put one hand on my forehead, the other on my shoulder. He said a deep, deliberate last rites of blessing and forcefully dunked me into the pool. He held me down for a few seconds, fully submerged, and I wondered how long I could hold my breath.
One, two, three . . . Then he brought me back upright forcefully in the name of the Lord and the Holy Ghost. Whew!
I was glad that I was done first. After a few more prayers and a few loud hymns by the raucous congregation we were all three of us—Billy, Susie, and me—baptized, blessed by God, and protected from life’s many travesties, with which mom and her brothers were all too familiar.
We stayed with Uncle Pastor Bill and family for the next couple of days. Running around their sprawling property made me feel so connected to Hawaii. Mom had us staying with each of our uncles for a couple of days each. The uncles fought over their share of time with her, so she had to be mindful about giving each of them equal shares of visiting.
What a great time that was, staying with each of the families, playing, and getting to know each set of our cousins—cousins I would grow up to be tight with from then on. I could see that my mom felt good about it all, but it’s only been recently that I learned that simple things I’d always taken for granted, or had not given more than an idle thought to as a kid, turned out to be of utmost importance to her. She truly felt one of her fundamental tasks was to save every penny she got her hands on to get her kids back to Jesus Coming Soon, so we could receive our cloak of invisible armor against all the evils that life would surely impose on each one of us.
Like a salmon’s going back upstream to spawn, her long journey has paid off, at least for me. The acceptance I felt from my mom’s family, and the deep understanding of Hawaii I practically inhaled from them, would change me forever. The kapu concept of right and wrong, good versus evil, was impressed upon my young brain very early. It pulled me back from the brink of oblivion many times. Maybe it was guilt about what these people who prayed and sang for me might think, but thoughts of them have stopped me many times from going entirely over the edge. Pretty close, but not entirely over the edge.
My second baptism on that trip came by way of my Uncle Paul, because he taught me to surf. I went with Uncle Paul and my cousins to the clear warm water at Ewa Beach. The ocean surrounds everything in Hawaii—you can’t escape the sound of the waves, the salty air, the endless blue and green stretching off forever. It’s a beautiful sight, and I never get tired of it. But riding those waves for the first time was something else entirely.
Today’s surfers like short boards, but in those days twelve-foot-long boards were standard—so there was plenty of room for a small kid to sit up front with the regular surfer behind. Uncle Paul was such the proficient waterman—he could surf, spearfish, bodysurf, swim, or paddle long distances. When he put me on his board, kneeled behind me, and started paddling out over the smaller inside waves, the rhythm of his stroke was like a motor, the digging motion deliberate and precise. And even with my dead weight on the front of the board, he never got off balance. The whole experience was more than I could imagine, in every way.
So far in my brief life, I had grown up with virtually no interaction with my father, especially not anything to do with sports or fun. So being way out in the ocean with a male authority figure who was laughing and encouraging me? It was surreal. And then, before I knew what was happening, Uncle Paul paddled us right into a wave and coached me upright:
“Stand up, shift your feet, hold your hands out for balance, shoot your stance farther apart, . . .” It seemed easy, but the water was moving by so fast! Still, I found my balance and never looked back. Crouched, with my arms extended . . . I could have done that over and over all day long. What a day.
Uncle Paul took me to a local surf shop and bought me my first real pair of surf trunks: Hang Ten mustard colored shorts with two footprints, the Hang Ten logo, at the bottom of the right leg. It even had a Velcro fly—a big deal at the time, especially for a kid. I was hooked on surfing from that day forward. Forever after, I would beg, borrow, steal, or hitchhike to go surfing. It really hooked me, for life.
Just as Mom had lost no time making sure that her wayward children were baptized into the evangelical Christianity that was popular with so many Hawaiians, she made sure we were equally immersed in the deeper, more pervasive Hawaiian spirituality—which despite nearly 200 years of oppression, has never been driven from the island or the consciousness of real Hawaiians. She did it by bringing us back to where it had all started with her, to Ho‘olehua in Molokai, to visit all the many relatives we had on that island.
*Reprinted by special arrangement with the author, Ron McElroy and Still Standing Publishing. Copyright Ron McElroy. Get your copy of Ron’s memoir Wrong Side of the Tracks in paper back or for Kindle at Amazon.com. Additional information is available at WrongSideoftheTracksBook.com.
Read Chapter One is a special feature at Frank Mundo’s LA Books Examiner where authors, from emerging to bestsellers, share an excerpt of their newest books.
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