The Need for Heroes

Author: Ben Tamashiro, D Company
Puka Puka Parades, 4/24/1990
Puka Puka Parades, June 1990

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the eulogy given by Ben Tamashiro for his fellow Dog Chapter comrade and childhood friend, Spark Matsunaga, at the special memorial service held for the senator at the clubhouse on Tuesday, April 24, 1990 – Ray and Aki

Every age and time needs its heroes – those who rise above themselves to act as beacons for the rest of us. We need their light to prevail over the depressing consequences of the anti-heroes who, for instance, sully our professional sports, tarnish our financial markets, and clog the cloisters of government.

Heroes appear in history from time to time but there are so few of them at the moment. Where have they all gone? One there is, however; one whom we all know. And I’d like to tell you something about him… Spark Masayuki Matsunaga.

But first – in behalf of the Club 100, I would like to extend condolences to the Matsunaga family upon the great tragedy that has fallen them at the death of the beloved senator. We would like to ask Mr. Matthew Matsunaga to convey our sympathies to his mother, Mrs. Helene Matsunaga, and the rest of the family.

Sparky was beloved by all because he was one who was always involved in mankind. To cite an example of this love for him, over the weekend I received a card from a friend of mine, Bill Evans, who lives in Kailua. It was a sympathy card. Puzzled, I had to sit back for a moment wondering why. But it was about Senator Matsunaga, and I understood.

“Although we didn’t know Senator Matsunaga personally,” writes Bill, “his compassion touched us when we received a sympathy card from him noting my mother’s passing just recently. Some years ago he took the time to write a beautiful eulogy for our friend, Wally Shiroma. Spark Matsunaga’s caring nature must have made for a long and good friendship. He was certainly a fine statesman and the kind of American we ought to be.”

Think of that for a moment – “the kind of American we ought to be.” It’s as good a guide as any as to what makes a hero. And where do heroes come from? I’d like to take you to the little town of Hanapepe for a moment, the place where Sparky grew up on Kauai. The river valley town is split in two by the Hanapepe River. There were three ways to get from one side to the other:

A one-lane concrete bridge near the center of town. It was not only the main connecting link between the two halves but also to west Kauai. My father’s little tailor shop was situated at the west end of the bridge.

And a swinging bridge further up by the Japanese Christian Church. It led to the rice paddies on the other side of the river.

Then the railroad bridge near the mouth of the river. This is where the Matsunaga’s lived. In reminiscing about the bridge with Andrew Matsunaga last week, we recalled the times when, upon hearing a train coming, we’d shinny down to the trestles below, to feel the rumble and the roar of the train as it passed overhead with its string of cars filled with sugar cane headed for the McBryde plantation sugar mill. It was scary; something that only young boys would dare. And I’m sure that the young Masayuki himself must have gotten his kicks out of such foolishness!

And you’ve all read in last week’s series of stories in the newspapers about how Sparky got his nickname. He was a go-getter even as a schoolboy during his Eleele School days. Although sharp in mind, he was rather slow on foot so one of his friends tagged him with the nickname, Spark Plug, after a slow-footed comic book character of the day. In time, the name shortened itself to Sparky, then legalized to Spark.

Andrew says that although they came from a poor family, his father was a remarkable man. An immigrant without any formal education, he used to practice the art of massage, acupuncture, yaito, and the like. To him, any form of worship was good. He worshiped many gods.

Sparky seems to have grown up not only with the pervasiveness of his father but also with the gentleness of his spirit. His prolonged one-man crusade to establish the position of a national poet laureate seems to reflect this part of his heritage.

For one who was born poor, he had come to live a life rich in ideas. His book, “The Mars Project – Journeys beyond The Cold War” is a thought-provoking treatise calling for a wide range of joint ventures with Russia and other nations instead of trying to fight each other. Above all, he wants the United States to take the lead in promoting democracy in space.

In this vein, he worked hard and long to establish the United States Academy of Peace. And the MATSUNAGA PEACE FOUNDATION has now been incorporated as a nonprofit public charity devoted to the support of institutions and scholars pursuing pace studies, research, and the application of conflict resolution techniques. When we read of all of the conflicts raging around the world – in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, elsewhere – the world certainly could stand some help in striking a balance between competing or opposing forces through conflict resolution techniques.

The idea could also stand some application right here at home, too. Over a decade ago, Sparky started the push to right the terrible wrong of the incarceration of a whole group of people because of race – the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II in the so-called relocation centers. Led by his efforts, justice in this matter has finally come about. And although it is our hope that a thing like this will never happen again, racial conflicts continue to pop up all over the land.

Sparky’s humanism, his concern for man above everything else, is real. To illustrate, I’d like to go to Bernard Akamine, Baker Chapter, who tells of the time in the summer of 1967 when Spraky [sic] had accompanied him and his family to a White House ceremony in which his daughter received a “Young Americans Medal” from President Johnson. Two others, from New York and Florida, also received the medal. Following the ceremony, while the congressmen from these two states were busily preening themselves in a photo session, Sparky corralled the president and introduced him to the other members of the Akamine family, including Bernard’s father and father-in-law, both Isseis. The two were astounded that the president would shake their hands. The president also whispered in Bernard’s ear, “You should be very thankful you have a hard working congressman.” The other award winners and their families could only gape at the presidential attention being extended to the family from Hawaii.

That very evening, the president called Sparky and asked him to go to Korea and represent him at the inauguration of the new South Korean president. Even at the moment of such an honor, Sparky modestly claimed that it had come his way only because the president had been impressed with the Hawaii group at the morning’s ceremony; reason enough for him to call upon Sparky to represent the United States in the inauguration ceremony. So Sparky got to ride on Air Force Two to Korea. And we are all painfully aware that it was on Air Force Two that Sparky took his last plane ride when he came home for the last time a week ago.

To return to the awards ceremony, when the limousine returned the group to the Capitol building, Sparky invited the driver to join them for lunch in the House dining room. In the years that he had been driving dignitaries around Washington, this was his first such invitation. He was as touched by Sparky’s action as the two Issei fathers were bowled over by the president’s gesture.

And so as we come to pay homage to his memory, it is fitting that this particular memorial service be held in this hall dedicated to the first commander of the 100th Infantry Battalion, Colonel Farrant L. Turner. Like Sparky, he was one whose foremost concern was people. The “Old Man” – a term of affection we used in referring to Turner – and Spark are of the same mold; they both sought peace. Listen to the then-Delegate to Congress John Burns speak of Turner upon his death in 1959: “The divine providence has taken him from us in the midst of our common endeavor in behalf of peace.” It is a statement apropos to Sparky as well.

The Old Man is buried on the northeast slope of Punchbowl where the trade winds and the rains first come rolling over the top to sweep across the grandeur that is The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific; where the shine of the early morning sun is softened by the clouds as they cast their shadows over the perimeter of the cemetery. This is also the spot where they buried Spark Matsunaga last Thursday. The two lie within a hundred feet of each other. Around them and throughout Punchbowl are the boys from the 100th Infantry Battalion who also lie there in honored glory – the heroes of our generation, the kind of Americans we ought to be.

War and peace are ends to the same rainbow. Having tasted the dregs of war, Sparky has more than ever been seeking the means to peace. No one is destined by birth to seek peace. There are no vague injunctions about his search; everything he has done for people attest to that. His only fault is that he did not leave much time for himself. But in death, his spark has been rekindled anew. Me ke aloha pumehana, Sparky.