JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
FWF Yard Service crew, from left, Suprina R. Tungpalan, Flora C. Ramos, Roquisa Demetria and Josefina Videz, share a laugh Sunday morning after church before heading out to work on a client's yard.
For this crew ...
Wacking wild weeds
... means spending quality family time
One day, Flora Ramos was teaching a class of elementary school students in the Philippines. The next, she was pushing a lawn mower in a stranger's yard on Oahu.
It was supposed to be a temporary job, one her brother provided in his family business, just until something more appealing came her way. And she disliked it immensely.
"I wished I could go back to the Philippines. It was hard to adjust," she said.
Twenty-three years later, at age 80, she's running the business, one that's allowed her to stay in Hawaii, travel and pay for the education of three relatives.
Ramos, who taught language and math to third- and fourth-graders in the Philippines, did not know how to use a single yard tool at first. "I never did that kind of work," she said. "But now, I use all kinds of tools. I mow, use the Weedwhacker ..."
Tools, however, are only as useful as the strength and stamina of their operator, and Ramos seems to have plenty of both as she maneuvers a gas mower along the property, then wraps branches from cut shrubs with twine for green-waste pickup.
From the groundwork up, this has always been a family business. Employees who have come and gone include siblings, cousins and in-laws. Those who weren't related by blood or marriage were called "companions" and became as close as family.
The field crew now encompasses a mighty group of five: Ramos; nephew Reynaldo Ramos, 50, who drives the company van; and cousins. They interchange yard assignments, from mowing and trimming to leaf blowing and gathering debris.
The PHILIPPINES IMMIGRANT who was born and raised in Bacarra Ilocos Norte said her brother, Agapito Ramos, who started FWF Yard Service in 1971, was the first in their family to arrive in Hawaii, along with two brothers.
"They were part of the sakada, what they call recruits who work the sugar cane field," she said. "First he work on Kauai. He cut the sugar cane and carry it to the mill. Then he transfer to Honolulu."
While she was attending high school dances and going through the sorority rites of college in the Philippines, he toiled the fields of the Garden Isle and tried to lure her to Hawaii. She stayed to teach.
In the meantime, her sibling turned in his machete for a hammer, becoming an independent carpenter. It was only at age 57, when she opted for early retirement, did Ramos decide to trade the comfort of the familiar for the mystique of a different set of islands. By then, big brother had quit carpentry and had his licensed yard service up and running.
"When I got here I tried to work in the hotels, but they don't hire me," she said. "Maybe I'm too old for them."
Friends suggested she try her hand at after-school care for neighborhood kids, but there was a language barrier. Although these children understood Tagalog and Ilocano, which Ramos speaks, they seemed to have a language of their own that only those who belonged in their special club could make sense of. "I couldn't understand the (pidgin)," Ramos said. "It was broken English," so she'd never quite grasp what they were saying.
After a week of job hunting with no bites, she joined her brother, taming wild shrubs and weeds. The physical demands were a strain, but there was no turning back. "I couldn't go back (to the Philippines) to teach; I was already getting a pension."
SOMETHING about the tropical latitude and being on the job with family clicked, however, and after three months, "I enjoyed it after all," Ramos said. "Everyone I work with was older. I have fun talking to the companions and relatives."
Reynaldo, her nephew, joined the ranks 10 years ago after 13 years with the Philippine military, and has always liked working in his uncle's company. The outdoors and the mobility of the job give him a sense of freedom he'd never get from working indoors. "If you work in a hotel, you stay in the hotel. We drive all over. Our jobs are from Kailua to Kahala, all on East Oahu."
But what he likes best is the flexibility. "I just came back from vacation in D.C." just before the big snow hit, he said. "I was supposed to come back sooner, but I asked for an extension. It was fine with them."
On a typical day, the alarm is set for 4 a.m., when Ramos awakens to prepare home lunches for the family. Then, at 7 a.m., they hop in the company van, leave the two-story Kalihi home that their family owns and head for their first assignment.
A job can take an hour-plus to complete, depending on lot size. Today, at this site, she anticipates about two hours' work.
Their uniform consists of large-rimmed hats and head-to-toe clothing of cotton for protection from the heat and scrapes -- except for Reynaldo, who wears a navy cotton jumpsuit similar to those worn by auto mechanics.
Ramos' brother and founder of the company, who died in 2003, once distributed business cards, but the clientele is steady now, so there's no need for cards or advertising.
"Working with family, I learned to love the job. I'm healthier. I work in the sun, in the rain," Ramos said.
Unlike some relatives, who might end up on each other's nerves if kept within a 10-foot vicinity for an extended time, "We don't argue. We make jokes, cooperate."
There is no supervisor, no one bosses anyone around and time goes by pleasantly and fast, according to Reynaldo. Although, "Sometimes they say I'm the supervisor since I'm the driver," he said, laughing.
Being EMPLOYED in Hawaii has given Ramos more opportunities to travel throughout the mainland, including the Big Apple to visit two nieces she put through school. They've become nurses, working in places such as Saudi Arabia and New York. Ramos helped fund the education of another relative who is now teaching in Canada.
With all that she's done since making the big move to quench her sense of adventure and for family, citizenship is something she wouldn't consider -- and not just because she'd lose her pension.
"I want to go back to the Philippines for good, sometime soon, hopefully. I visited in November. I miss it."
And though she left what she considers her home decades ago and has not married, she has no regrets. "I have lots of nieces and nephews to keep me busy. I'm still enjoying the single life."