To be thirteen, with a surfboard, in Hawaii.
The budget for moving our family to Honolulu was tight, judging from the tiny cottage we rented and the rusted-out Ford Fairlane we bought to get around. My brother Kevin and I took turns sleeping on the couch. I was thirteen; he was nine. But the cottage was near the beach—just up a driveway lined with other cottages, on a street called Kulamanu—and the weather, which was warm even in January, when we arrived, felt like wanton luxury.
I ran to the beach for a first, frantic survey of the local waters. The setup was confusing. Waves broke here and there along the outer edge of a mossy, exposed reef. All that coral worried me. It was infamously sharp. Then I spotted, well off to the west, and rather far out at sea, a familiar minuet of stick figures, rising and falling, backlit by the afternoon sun. Surfers! I ran back up the lane. Everyone at the house was busy unpacking and fighting over beds. I threw on a pair of trunks, grabbed my surfboard, and left without a word.
I had been surfing for nearly three years when my father got the job that took us to Hawaii. He had been working, mostly as an assistant director, in series television—“Dr. Kildare,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Now he was the production manager on a new series, a half-hour musical variety show based on a local radio program, “Hawaii Calls.” The idea was to shoot Don Ho singing in a glass-bottomed boat or a calypso band by a waterfall or hula girls dancing while a volcano spewed and call it a show. “It won’t be the Hawaiian Amateur Hour,” my father said. “But close.”
“If it’s really bad, we’ll pretend we don’t know you,” my mother said.
I was beside myself with excitement just to be in Hawaii. All surfers, all readers of surf magazines—and I had memorized nearly every line, every photo caption, in every surf magazine I owned—spent the bulk of their fantasy lives, like it or not, in Hawaii. Now I was there, walking on actual Hawaiian sand (coarse, strange-smelling), tasting Hawaiian seawater (warm, strange-smelling), and paddling toward Hawaiian waves (small, dark-faced, windblown).
Nothing was what I’d expected. In the mags, Hawaiian waves were always big and, in the color shots, ranged from a deep, mid-ocean blue to a pale, impossible turquoise. The wind was always offshore (blowing from land to sea, ideal for surfing), and the breaks themselves were the Olympian playgrounds of the gods: Sunset Beach, the Banzai Pipeline, Makaha, Ala Moana, Waimea Bay.
All that seemed worlds away from the sea in front of our new house. Even Waikiki, known for its beginner breaks and tourist crowds, was over on the far side of Diamond Head—the glamorous western side—along with every other part of Honolulu anybody had heard of. We were on the mountain’s southeast side, down in a little saddle of sloping, shady beachfront west of Black Point. The beach was just a patch of damp sand, narrow and empty.
I paddled west along a shallow lagoon, staying close to the shore, for half a mile. The beach houses ended, and the steep, brushy base of Diamond Head itself took their place across the sand. Then the reef on my left fell away, revealing a wide channel—deeper water, where no waves broke—and, beyond the channel, ten or twelve surfers riding a scatter of dark, chest-high peaks in a moderate onshore wind. I paddled slowly toward the lineup—the wave-catching zone—taking a roundabout route, studying every ride.
The surfers were good. They had smooth, ungimmicky styles. Nobody fell off. And nobody, blessedly, seemed to notice me. I circled around, then edged into an unpopulated stretch of the lineup. There were plenty of waves. The takeoffs were crumbling but easy. Letting muscle memory take over, I caught and rode a couple of small, mushy rights. The waves were different—but not too different—from the ones I’d known in California. They were shifty but not intimidating. I could see coral on the bottom but nothing too shallow.
There was a lot of talk and laughter among the other surfers. Eavesdropping, I couldn’t understand a word. They were probably speaking pidgin. I had read about pidgin in James Michener’s “Hawaii,” but I hadn’t actually heard any yet. Or maybe it was some foreign language. I was the only haole (white person—another word from Michener) in the water. At one point, an older guy paddling past me gestured seaward and said, “Outside.” It was the only word spoken to me that day. And he was right: an outside set was approaching, the biggest of the afternoon, and I was grateful to have been warned.
As the sun dropped, the crowd thinned. I tried to see where people went. Most seemed to take a steep path up the mountainside to Diamond Head Road, their pale boards, carried on their heads, moving steadily, skeg first, through the switchbacks. I caught a final wave, rode it into the shallows, and began the long paddle home through the lagoon. Lights were on in the houses now. The air was cooler, the shadows blue-black under the coconut palms. I was aglow with my good fortune. I just wished I had someone to tell: “I’m in Hawaii! Surfing in Hawaii!” Then it occurred to me that I didn’t even know the name of the place I’d surfed.
It was called Cliffs. It was a patchwork arc of reefs that ran south and west for half a mile from the channel where I first paddled out. To learn any new spot in surfing, you first bring to bear your knowledge of other breaks—all the other waves you’ve learned to read closely. But at that stage my archives consisted of ten or fifteen California spots, and only one that I really knew well: a cobblestone point in Ventura. And none of this experience especially prepared me for Cliffs, which, after that initial session, I tried to surf twice a day.
“You’re overthinking this.”
It was an unusually consistent spot, in the sense that there were nearly always waves to ride, even in what I came to understand was the off season for Oahu’s South Shore. The reefs off Diamond Head are at the southern extremity of the island, and thus pick up every scrap of passing swell. But they also catch a lot of wind, including local williwaws off the slopes of the crater, and the wind, along with the vast jigsaw expanse of the reef and the swells arriving from many different points of the compass, combined to produce constantly changing conditions that, in a paradox I didn’t appreciate at the time, amounted to a rowdy, hourly refutation of the notion of consistency. Cliffs possessed a moody complexity beyond anything I had known.
Mornings were especially confounding. To squeeze in a surf before school, I had to be out there by daybreak. In my narrow experience, the sea was supposed to be glassy at dawn. In coastal California, early mornings are usually windless. Not so, apparently, in the tropics. Certainly not at Cliffs. At sunrise, the trade winds often blew hard. Palm fronds thrashed overhead as I tripped down the lane, board on my head, and from the seafront I could see whitecaps outside, beyond the reef, spilling east to west on a royal-blue ocean. The trades were said to be northeasterlies, which in theory was not a bad direction, for a south-facing coast, but somehow they were always sideshore at Cliffs, and strong enough to ruin most spots from that angle.
And yet the place had a growling durability that left it ridable even in those battered conditions. Almost no one else surfed it in the early morning, which made it a good time to explore the main takeoff area. I began to learn the tricky, fast, shallow sections, and the soft spots where a quick cutback was needed to keep a ride going. Even on a waist-high, blown-out day, it was possible to milk certain waves for long, improvised, thoroughly satisfying rides. The reef had a thousand quirks, which changed quickly with the tide. And when the inshore channel began to turn a milky turquoise—a color not unlike some of the Hawaiian fantasy waves in the mags—it meant, I came to know, that the sun had risen to the point where I should head in for breakfast. If the tide was extra low, leaving the lagoon too shallow to paddle, I learned to allow more time for trudging home on the soft, coarse sand, struggling to keep my board’s nose pointed into the wind.
Afternoons were a different story. The wind was lighter, the sea less seasick, and there were other people surfing. Cliffs had a crew of regulars. After a few sessions, I could recognize some of them. At the mainland spots I knew, there was usually a limited supply of waves, a lot of jockeying for position, and a strictly observed pecking order. A youngster, certainly one lacking allies, such as an older brother, needed to be careful not to cross, even inadvertently, any local big dogs. But at Cliffs there was so much room to spread out, so many empty peaks breaking off to the west of the main takeoff—or, if you kept an eye out, perhaps on an inside shelf that had quietly started to work—that I felt free to pursue my explorations of the margins. Nobody bothered me. Nobody vibed me. It was the opposite of my life at school.
I had never thought of myself as a sheltered child. Still, Kaimuki Intermediate School was a shock. I was in the eighth grade, and most of my new schoolmates were “drug addicts, glue sniffers, and hoods”—or so I wrote to a friend back in Los Angeles. That wasn’t true. What was true was that haoles were a tiny and unpopular minority at Kaimuki. The “natives,” as I called them, seemed to dislike us particularly. This was unnerving, because many of the Hawaiians were, for junior-high kids, quite large, and the word was that they liked to fight. Asians were the school’s most sizable ethnic group, though in those first weeks I didn’t know enough to distinguish among Japanese and Chinese and Korean kids, let alone the stereotypes through which each group viewed the others. Nor did I note the existence of other important tribes, such as the Filipinos, the Samoans, or the Portuguese (not considered haole), nor all the kids of mixed ethnic background. I probably even thought the big guy in wood shop who immediately took a sadistic interest in me was Hawaiian.
He wore shiny black shoes with long, sharp toes, tight pants, and bright flowered shirts. His kinky hair was cut in a pompadour, and he looked as if he had been shaving since birth. He rarely spoke, and then only in a pidgin that was unintelligible to me. He was some kind of junior mobster, clearly years behind his original class, just biding his time until he could drop out. His name was Freitas—I never heard a first name—but he didn’t seem to be related to the Freitas clan, a vast family with several rambunctious boys at Kaimuki Intermediate. The stiletto-toed Freitas studied me frankly for a few days, making me increasingly nervous, and then began to conduct little assaults on my self-possession, softly bumping my elbow, for example, while I concentrated over a saw cut on my half-built shoeshine box.
I was too scared to say anything, and he never said a word to me. That seemed to be part of the fun. Then he settled on a crude but ingenious amusement for passing those periods when we had to sit in chairs in the classroom section of the shop. He would sit behind me and, whenever the teacher had his back turned, hit me on the head with a two-by-four. Bonk . . . bonk . . . bonk, a nice steady rhythm, always with enough of a pause between blows to allow me brief hope that there might not be another. I couldn’t understand why the teacher didn’t hear all these unauthorized, resonating clonks. They were loud enough to attract the attention of our classmates, who seemed to find Freitas’s little ritual fascinating. Inside my head the blows were, of course, bone-rattling explosions. Freitas used a fairly long board—five or six feet—and he never hit too hard, which permitted him to pound away without leaving marks, and to do it from a certain rarefied, even meditative distance, which added, I imagine, to the fascination of the performance.
I wonder if, had some other kid been targeted, I would have been as passive as my classmates were. Probably. The teacher was off in his own world, worried only about his table saws. I did nothing in my own defense. While I eventually understood that Freitas wasn’t Hawaiian, I must have figured that I just had to take the abuse. I was, after all, skinny and haole and had no friends.
At Waikiki, 1967: Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration.
Discreetly, I studied the surfing of some of the regulars at Cliffs—the ones who seemed to read the wave best, who found the speed pockets and wheeled their boards so neatly through their turns. My first impression was confirmed: I had never seen such smoothness. Hand movements were strikingly in synch with feet. Knees were more deeply bent than in the surfing I was used to, hips looser. There wasn’t much nose-riding, which was the subspecialty rage at the time on the mainland and required scurrying, when the opportunity arose, to the front of one’s board—hanging five, hanging ten, defying the obvious physics of flotation and glide. I didn’t know it then, but what I was looking at was classic Island style. I just took my mental notes from the channel, and began, without thinking about it, to walk the nose less.
There were a few young guys, including one wiry, straight-backed kid who looked to be about my age. He stayed away from the main peak, riding peripheral waves. But I craned to see what he did. Even on the funky little waves he chose, I could see that he was uncommonly quick and poised. In fact, he was the best surfer my age I had ever seen. He rode an unusually short, light, sharp-nosed board—a bone-white clear-finish Wardy. He caught me watching him, and he seemed as embarrassed as I was. He paddled furiously past me, looking affronted. I tried to stay out of his way after that. But the next day he cocked his chin in greeting. I hoped my happiness didn’t show. Then, a few days later, he spoke.
“Mo’ bettah that side,” he said, throwing his eyes to the west as we pushed through a small set. It was an invitation to join him at one of his obscure, uncrowded peaks. I didn’t need to be asked twice. His name was Roddy Kaulukukui. He was thirteen, same as me. Roddy and I traded waves warily, and then less warily. I could catch waves as well as he could, which was important, and I was learning the spot, which became something of a shared enterprise. As the two youngest guys at Cliffs, we were both, at least half-consciously, in the market for an age mate. But Roddy didn’t come out there alone. He had two brothers and a sort of honorary third brother—a Japanese guy named Ford Takara. Roddy’s older brother, Glenn, was a lineup mainstay. Glenn and Ford were out every day. They were only a year older than we were, but both of them could compete with anybody in the main peak. Glenn, in particular, was a superb surfer, with a style that was already flowing and beautiful. Their father, Glenn, Sr., also surfed, as did their little brother, John, though he was too young for Cliffs.
Roddy began to fill me in on some of the other guys. The fat one who appeared on bigger days, taking off far outside and ripping so hard that the rest of us stopped surfing to watch, was Ben Aipa. (Years later, Aipa photos and stories began to fill the mags.) The Chinese guy who showed up on the biggest day I had seen yet at Cliffs—a solid, out-of-season south swell on a windless, overcast afternoon—was Leslie Wong. He had a silky style, and deigned to surf Cliffs only when conditions were exceptionally good. Leslie Wong caught and pulled into the wave of the day, his back slightly arched, his arms relaxed, making the extremely difficult—no, come on, the ecstatic—look easy. If I ever grew up, I wanted to be Leslie Wong. Among the Cliffs regulars, I got to know who was likely to waste a wave—fail to catch it, or fall off—and then how to snag the wave myself without showing disrespect. Even in a mild-mannered crowd, it was important not to show anyone up. Male egos (I never saw a girl out at Cliffs) were always, subtly or otherwise, on the line in the water.
Here’s how ridable waves form. A storm out at sea churns the surface, creating chop—smaller and then larger wavelets, which amalgamate, with enough wind, into heavy seas. What we are waiting for on distant coasts is the energy that escapes from the storm, radiating outward into calmer waters in the form of wave trains—groups of waves, increasingly organized, that travel together. Each wave sets off a column of orbiting water, most of it below the surface. The wave trains produced by a storm constitute what surfers call a swell. A swell can travel thousands of miles. The more powerful the storm, the farther the swell may travel. As it travels, the swell becomes more organized—the distance between each wave in a train, known as the interval, becomes uniform. In a long-interval train, the orbiting water may extend more than a thousand feet beneath the ocean surface. Such a train can pass easily through surface resistance like chop or other smaller, shallower swells that it crosses or overtakes.
As waves from a swell approach the shoreline, they begin to feel the sea bottom. Wave trains become sets—groups of waves that are larger and longer-interval than their locally generated cousins. The approaching waves refract (bend) in response to the shape of the sea bottom. The visible part of the wave grows. The resistance offered by the sea bottom increases as the water gets shallower, slowing the progress of the wave. Finally, it becomes unstable and prepares to topple forward—to break. The rule of thumb is that it will break when its height reaches eighty per cent of the water’s depth—an eight-foot wave will break in ten feet of water. But many factors, some of them endlessly subtle—wind, bottom contour, swell angle, currents—determine exactly where and how each wave breaks. As surfers, we’re just hoping that it has a catchable moment (a takeoff point), and a ridable face, and that it doesn’t break all at once (close out) but, instead, breaks gradually, successively (peels), in one direction or the other (left or right), allowing us to travel roughly parallel to the shore, riding the face, for a while, in that spot, in that moment, just before it breaks.
My parents had sent me to Kaimuki Intermediate, I later decided, under a misconception. This was 1966, before the Proposition 13 tax revolt, and the California public-school system, particularly in the middle-class suburbs where we had lived, was among the nation’s best. The families we knew never considered private schools for their kids. Hawaii’s public schools were another matter—impoverished, mired in colonial, plantation, and mission traditions, miles below the American average academically.
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be taken out of context and put on Twitter and then it’ll be a whole thing.”
Ignorant of all this, my parents sent two of my younger siblings (I have three) to the nearest elementary school, which happened to be in a middle-class area, and me to the nearest junior high, up in working-class Kaimuki, on the inland side of Diamond Head crater, where they assumed I was getting on with the business of the eighth grade but where I was occupied almost entirely by the rigors of bullies, loneliness, fights, and finding my way, after a lifetime of unconscious privileged whiteness in the segregated suburbs of California, in a racialized world. Even my classes felt racially constructed. For academic subjects, at least, students were assigned, on the basis of test scores, to a group that moved together from teacher to teacher. I was put in a high-end group, where nearly all my classmates were Japanese girls. The classes, which were prim and undemanding, bored me in a way that school never had before. To my classmates, I seemed not to exist socially. And so I passed the class hours slouched in back rows, keeping an eye on the trees outside for signs of wind direction and strength, drawing page after page of surfboards and waves.
My orientation program at school included a series of fistfights, some of them formally scheduled. There was a cemetery next to the school grounds, with a well-hidden patch of grass down in one corner where kids went to settle their differences. I found myself facing off there with a number of boys named Freitas—none of them, again, apparently related to my hairy tormentor from wood shop. My first opponent was so small and young that I doubted that he even attended our school. The Freitas clan’s method for training its members in battle, it seemed, was to find some fool without allies or the brains to avoid a challenge, then send their youngest fighter with any chance at all into the ring. If he lost, the next biggest Freitas would be sent in. This went on until the non-kinsman was defeated. It was all quite dispassionate, the bouts arranged and refereed by older Freitases, and more or less fairly conducted.
My first match was sparsely attended—really of no interest to anyone—but I was still scared sick, having no seconds in my corner and no idea what the rules were. My opponent turned out to be shockingly strong for his size, and ferocious, but his arms were too short to land punches, and I eventually subdued him without much damage to either of us. His cousin, who stepped up immediately, was more my size, and our sparring was more consequential. I held my own, but we both had shiners before a senior Freitas stepped in, declaring a draw. There would be a rematch, he said, and, if I won that, somebody named Tino would come and kick my ass, no questions asked. Team Freitas departed. I remember watching them jog, laughing and loose, a happy family militia, up the long slope of the graveyard. They were evidently late for another appointment. My face hurt, my knuckles hurt, but I was giddy with relief. Then I noticed a couple of haole guys my age standing in the bushes at the edge of the clearing, looking squirrelly. I half recognized them from school, but they left without saying a word.
There were more fights, including a multiday brawl with a Chinese kid in my agriculture class who refused to give up even when I had his face shoved deep in the red mud of a lettuce patch. This bitter tussle went on for a week. It resumed each afternoon, and never produced a winner. The other boys in the class, enjoying the show, made sure that the teacher, if he ever came round, didn’t catch us at it.
I don’t know what my parents thought. Cuts and bruises, even a black eye, could be explained. Football, surfing, something. My hunch, which seems right in retrospect, was that they couldn’t help, so I told them nothing.
A racist gang came to my rescue. They called themselves the In Crowd. They were haoles and, their laughable gang name notwithstanding, they were impressively bad. Their leader was a jolly, dissolute, hoarse-voiced, broken-toothed kid named Mike. He was not physically imposing, but he shambled around school with a rowdy fearlessness that seemed to give everyone but the largest Samoans pause. Mike’s true home, one came to understand, was a juvenile detention center somewhere—this school-going was just a furlough, which he intended to make the most of. He had a younger sister, Edie, who was blond and skinny and wild, and their house in Kaimuki was the In Crowd’s clubhouse. At school, they gathered under a tall monkeypod tree on a red-dirt hill behind the unpainted bungalow where I took typing. My induction was informal. Mike and his buddies simply let me know that I was welcome to join them under the monkeypod. And it was from the In Crowd kids, who actually seemed to include more girls than boys, that I began to learn first the broad outlines and then the minutiae of the local racial setup. Our main enemies were the “mokes”—which seemed to mean anyone dark and tough. “You been beefin’ with mokes already,” Mike said to me.
That was true, I realized.
But my fighting career soon tailed off. People seemed to know that I was now part of the haole gang, and elected to pick on other kids. Even Freitas in wood shop started easing up on me. But had he really put away his two-by-four? It was hard to imagine that he would be worried by the In Crowd.
Day in, day out, Glenn Kaulukukui, Roddy’s brother, was my favorite surfer. From the moment he caught a wave, gliding catlike to his feet, I couldn’t take my eyes off the lines he drew, the speed he somehow found, the improvisations he came up with. He had a huge head, which appeared always to be slightly thrown back, and long hair, sun-bleached red, also thrown lushly back. He had thick lips, and black shoulders, and he moved with unusual elegance. But there was something else—call it wit, or irony—that accompanied his physical confidence and beauty, something bittersweet that allowed him, in all but the most demanding situations, to seem as if he were both performing intently and, at the same time, laughing quietly at himself.
He also laughed at me, though not unkindly. When I overpowered a kickout, trying to put a flourish on the end of a ride, slicing awkwardly over the shoulder and into parallel with his board in the channel, Glenn said, “Geev ’um, Bill. Geev ’um da lights.” Even I knew that this was a pidgin cliché—an overused exhortation. It was also a dense little piece of satire. He was mocking me and encouraging me both. We paddled out together. When we were nearly outside, we watched Ford catch a set wave from a deep position and pick a clever line to thread through a pair of difficult sections. “Yeah, Fawd,” Glenn murmured appreciatively. “Spahk dat.” (“Look at that.”) Then he began to outsprint me toward the lineup.
“You just missed her.”
One afternoon, Roddy asked where I lived. I pointed east, toward the shady cove inside Black Point. He told Glenn and Ford, then came back, looking abashed, with a request. Could they leave their boards at my house? I was happy for the company on the long paddle home. Our cottage had a tiny yard, with a stand of bamboo, thick and tall, hiding it from the street. We stashed our boards in the bamboo and washed off in the dark with a garden hose. Then the three of them left, wearing nothing but trunks, dripping wet, but clearly stoked to be unburdened of their boards, for distant Kaimuki.
The In Crowd’s racism was situationist, not doctrinaire. It had no historical pretensions—unlike, say, the skinheads who came along later, claiming descent from Nazism and the Klan. Hawaii had seen plenty of white supremacism, particularly among its élites, but the In Crowd knew nothing of élites. Most of the kids were hardscrabble, living in straitened circumstances, though some had been kicked out of private schools and were simply in disgrace. Among Kaimuki Intermediate’s smattering of haole students, most were actually shunned by the In Crowd as insufficiently cool. These unaffiliated haoles seemed to be mainly military kids. They all looked disoriented, scared. The structural privilege that came with being white was all but invisible to me at school.
I thought the In Crowd’s main activity would be gang fighting, and there was certainly continual talk of impending warfare with various rival “moke” groups. But then Mike always seemed to be leading a peace delegation to some powwow, and bloodshed would be avoided through painstaking, face-saving diplomacy. Truces would be formalized by solemn underage drinking. Most of the group’s energy actually went into gossip, parties, petty theft and vandalism, and being obnoxious on the city bus after school. There were a number of pretty girls in the In Crowd, and I was serially smitten with each of them. Nobody in the gang surfed.
Roddy and Glenn Kaulukukui and Ford Takara all went to Kaimuki Intermediate, it turned out. But I didn’t hang with them there. That was a feat, since the four of us spent nearly every afternoon and weekend together in the water, and Roddy was soon established as my new best friend. The Kaulukukuis lived at Fort Ruger, on the north slope of Diamond Head crater, near the cemetery that abutted our school. Glenn, Sr., was in the Army, and their apartment was in an old military barracks tucked into a kiawe grove below Diamond Head Road. Roddy and Glenn had lived on the island of Hawaii, which everybody called the Big Island. They had family there. Now they had a very young stepmother, and she and Roddy didn’t get along.
Confined to quarters after a fight with his stepmother, he poured out his misery in bitter whispers in the stifling room he shared with Glenn and John.
I thought I knew something about misery: I was missing waves that afternoon in a show of solidarity. There wasn’t even a surf mag to leaf through while grimacing sympathetically. “Why he have to marryher?” Roddy keened.
Glenn, Sr., occasionally came surfing with us. He was a formidable character, heavily muscled, severe. He ordered his sons around, not bothering with niceties. He seemed to loosen up in the water, though. Sometimes he even laughed. He rode a huge board in a simple, old-fashioned style, drawing long lines, perfectly balanced, across the long walls at Cliffs. In his day, his sons told me proudly, he had surfed Waimea Bay.
Waimea was on the North Shore of Oahu. It was considered the heaviest big-wave spot in the world. I knew it only as a mythical place—a stage set, really, for the heroics of a few surf celebrities, hyped endlessly in the mags. Roddy and Glenn didn’t talk much about it, but to them Waimea was obviously a real place, and extremely serious business. You surfed it when you were ready. Most surfers, of course, would never be ready. But, for Hawaiian kids like them, Waimea, and the other great North Shore breaks, lay ahead, each a question, a type of final exam.
I had assumed that only famous surfers rode Waimea. Now I saw that local fathers rode it, too, and in time, perhaps, their sons would as well. These people never appeared in mainland magazines. And there were many families like the Kaulukukuis in Hawaii—multigenerational surfing families, ohanas rich in talent and tradition, known only to one another.
Glenn, Sr., reminded me, from the first time I saw him, of Liloa, the old monarch in a book I loved, “Umi: The Hawaiian Boy Who Became a King.” It was a children’s book, first given to my father, according to a faded flyleaf inscription, by two aunts who had bought it in Honolulu in 1939. The author, Robert Lee Eskridge, had also done the illustrations, which I thought magnificent. They were simple but fierce, like lushly colored woodcuts. They showed Umi and his younger brothers and their adventures in old Hawaii: sailing down mountainsides on morning-glory vines (“From vine to vine the boys slid with lightning speed”), diving into pools formed by lava tubes, crossing the sea in war canoes (“Slaves shall accompany Umi to his father’s palace in Waipio”). Some of the illustrations showed grown men, guards and warriors and courtiers, whose faces scared me—their stylized cruelty, in a pitiless world of all-powerful chiefs and quaking commoners. At least the features of Liloa, the king (and Umi’s secret father), were softened at times by wisdom and paternal pride.
Roddy believed in Pele. She was the Hawaiian goddess of fire. She lived, people said, on the Big Island, where she caused the volcanoes to erupt when she was displeased. She was famously jealous and violent, and Hawaiians tried to propitiate her with offerings of pork, fish, liquor. She was so famous that even tourists knew about her, but Roddy made it clear, when he professed his belief to me, that he wasn’t talking about the kitsch character. He meant a whole religious world, something from the time before the haoles came—a Hawaiian world with elaborate rules and taboos and secret, hard-won understandings about the land, the ocean, birds, fish, animals, and the gods. I took him seriously. I already knew, in rough outline, what had happened to the Hawaiians—how American missionaries and other haoles had subjugated them, stolen their lands, killed them en masse with diseases, and converted the survivors to Christianity. At the time, I felt no responsibility for this cruel dispossession, no liberal guilt, but I knew enough to keep my junior atheist’s mouth shut.
We started surfing new spots together. Roddy wasn’t afraid of coral the way I was, and he showed me spots that broke among the reefs between my house and Cliffs. Most were ridable only at high tide, but some were little keyholes, slots between dry reef—sweet waves hiding in plain sight, essentially windproof. These breaks, Roddy said, were customarily named after the families who lived, or had once lived, in front of them—Patterson’s, Mahoney’s. There was also a big-wave spot, known as the Bomb, that broke outside Patterson’s. Glenn and Ford had ridden it once or twice. Roddy had not. I had seen waves feathering (their crests throwing spray as the swells steepened) out there on big days at low tide, but had never seen it big enough to break. Roddy talked about the Bomb in a hushed, strained voice. He was obviously working up to it.
In the meantime, we had Kaikoos. It was a deepwater break off Black Point, visible from the bottom of our lane. It was hard to line up, and always bigger than it looked, and I found it frightening. Roddy led me out there the first time, paddling through a deep, cross-chopped channel that had originally been cut, he told me, by Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress, to serve a private yacht harbor that was still tucked into the cliff under her mansion. He pointed toward the shore, but I was too worried about the waves ahead to check out Doris Duke’s place.
Thick, dark-blue peaks seemed to jump up out of deep ocean, some of them unnervingly big. The lefts were short and easy, really just big drops, but Roddy said the rights were better, and he paddled farther east, deeper into the break. His temerity seemed to me insane. The rights looked closed-out (unmakable), and terribly powerful, and, even if you made one, the ride would carry you straight into the big, hungry-looking rocks of outer Black Point. If you lost your board in there, you would never see it again. And where could you even swim in to shore? I darted around, dodging peaks, way out at sea, half-hysterical, trying to keep an eye on Roddy. He seemed to be catching waves, though it was hard to tell. Finally, he paddled back to me, looking exhilarated, smirking at my agitation. He took pity on me, though, and said nothing.
Roddy was transferred, for some reason, to my typing class. Listening to him report to the teacher, I was stunned. He abandoned, briefly, his normal pidgin and spoke standard English. Glenn, I learned later, could do the same thing. The Kaulukukui boys were bilingual; they could “code switch,” as we would say now. There just weren’t many occasions in our daily rounds—indeed, almost none—when they had to drop their first language.
But keeping my two worlds separate got suddenly trickier. Roddy and I started hanging out at school, far from the In Crowd’s monkeypod. In the cafeteria, we ate our saimin and chow fun together in a dim corner. But the school was a small pond. There was nowhere to hide. So there should have been a scene, a confrontation, perhaps with Mike himself—Hey, who’s this moke?
There wasn’t, though. Glenn and Ford were around then, too. Maybe Glenn and Mike hit it off over some shared laugh, nothing to do with me. All I knew was that, seemingly overnight, Glenn and Roddy and Ford were showing up not only at the In Crowd’s schoolyard spot under the monkeypod but also at Mike and Edie’s house in Kaimuki on Friday nights—when Mike’s uncle supplied the Primo (local beer) and mod Steve, one of the gang’s cooler kids, supplied the Kinks. The In Crowd had been integrated, with no visible fuss.
This was at a time when the Pacific Club, the leading local private club, where much of Hawaii’s big business was conducted over cocktails and paddle tennis, was whites-only. The Pacific Club, apparently unmoved by the fact that Hawaii’s first U.S. representative and one of its first two senators were Asian-American (both were also distinguished veterans of the Second World War; one of them, Daniel Inouye, had lost an arm), still formally excluded Asian-Americans from membership. This sort of bald discrimination wasn’t exactly un-American—legal segregation was still in force in much of the country—but it was badly out of date in Hawaii. Even the low-rent haole kids in the In Crowd were more enlightened. They saw that my friends were cool guys—particularly, I think, Glenn—and, at least for gang purposes, just let the race thing go. It wasn’t worth the trouble. It was radioactive crap. Let’s party.
Not that kicking it with the In Crowd was the fondest ambition of Glenn, Ford, or Roddy. From what I knew, which was a lot, it was no big deal to them. It was only a big deal to me. In fact, after Roddy got to know a couple of the girls I had been telling him about—In Crowd girls I had agonized over—I could see that he was unimpressed. Roddy had been suffering his own romantic torments, which I had also heard much about, but the object of his affections was a modest, notably old-fashioned, quietly beautiful girl whom I would never have noticed if he hadn’t pointed her out. She was too young to go steady, she told him. He would wait years, if necessary, he said wretchedly. Looking at my erstwhile girlfriends through his eyes, I didn’t like them any less, but I began to see how lost they were, in their delinquent, neglected-child glamour, their sexual precocity. In truth, they were more sexually advanced than I was, which made me timid.
And so I developed a disastrous crush on Glenn’s girlfriend, Lisa. She was an older woman—fourteen, in ninth grade—poised, amused, kind, Chinese. Lisa was at Kaimuki Intermediate but not of it. That was how I saw her. She and Glenn made sense as a couple only because he was a natural-born hero and she was a natural-born heroine. But he was a wild man, an outlaw, a laughing truant, and she was a good girl, a good student. What could they possibly talk about? I would just wait, impatiently, for her to come to her senses and turn to the haole boy who struggled to amuse her, and worshipped her. I couldn’t tell if Glenn noticed my hapless condition. He had the good grace, anyway, to say nothing off-color about Lisa within my hearing. (No “Spahk dat”—which boys were always saying to one another, popping their eyes at girlish rumps and breasts.)
“Now you’re going to be procrastinating with the big boys.”MARCH 13, 2000
Lisa helped me understand Ford. She knew his family, including his hardworking parents, who owned a gas station. I knew that Ford was considered unusual for a Japanese kid. Glenn sometimes teased him, saying things about “da nip-o-nese” and what a disappointment Ford, who cared for nothing except surfing, must be to his family. But he rarely got a rise out of him. Ford had a powerful inwardness about him. He could not have been more different, I thought, from the kids in my academic classes. They looked to teachers, and to one another, blatantly, fervently, for approval. I had become friendly with some of the funnier girls, who could be very funny indeed, but the social wall between us stayed solid, and their brownnosing in class still offended my sense of student-teacher protocol. Ford, on the other hand, was from my planet.
My father’s Hawaii was a big, truly interesting place. He was regularly in the outer islands, herding film crews and talent into rain forests, remote villages, tricky shoots on unsteady canoes. He even shot a Pele number on a Big Island lava field. His job involved constant battling with local labor unions, especially the teamsters and the longshoremen, who controlled freight transportation. There was abundant private irony in these battles, since my father was a strong union man, from a union family (railroaders) in Michigan.
My dad gained enough sense of local working-class culture to know that the streets of Honolulu (and perhaps the schools) might be a challenge for a haole kid. If nothing else, there was a notorious unofficial holiday called Kill a Haole Day. This holiday got plenty of discussion, including editorials (against) in the local papers, though I never managed to find out precisely where on the calendar it fell. “Any day the mokes want,” Mike, our In Crowd chief, had said. I also never heard whether the holiday had occasioned any actual homicides. The main targets, people said, were off-duty servicemen, who generally wandered in packs around Waikiki and the red-light district downtown. I think my father took comfort in seeing that my best friends were the local kids who kept their surfboards in our yard. They looked like they could handle themselves.
He had always worried about bullies. When confronted by bigger boys, or outnumbered, I should, he told me, “pick up a stick, a rock, whatever you can find.” He grew alarmingly emotional giving me this advice. My dad seemed scared of no one. Indeed, he had a cantankerous streak that could be mortifying. He wasn’t afraid to raise his voice in public. I found his combativeness intensely embarrassing. He sometimes asked the proprietors of shops and restaurants that posted signs asserting their right to refuse service to anyone what, exactly, that meant, and if he didn’t like their answers he angrily took his business elsewhere. This didn’t happen in Hawaii, but it happened plenty of times on the mainland. I didn’t know that such notices were often code for “whites only.” I just quailed and stared desperately at the ground as his voice began to rise.
Now, in Hawaii, I felt myself drifting away from my family. My parents knew me only as Mr. Responsible. That had been my role at home since shortly after the other kids began arriving. There was a substantial age gap between me and my siblings, and I could usually be counted on to keep the little ones undrowned, unelectrocuted, fed, watered, rediapered. But I resented my babysitting duties, and the snug fracas of the family dinner felt vestigial. Mom and Dad knew less and less about me. I had been leading a clandestine life, not only at school but in the water. Nobody asked where I went with my board, and I never talked about good days at Cliffs or my triumphs over fear at Kaikoos.
The surf changed as spring progressed. There were more swells from the south, which meant more good days at Cliffs. Patterson’s, the gentle wave between wide panels of exposed reef out in front of our house, started breaking consistently and a new group of surfers materialized to ride it—old guys, girls, beginners. Roddy’s younger brother, John, came out. He was nine or ten, and fantastically nimble. My brother Kevin began to show some interest in surfing, perhaps influenced by John, who was about his age and kept his board in our yard. I was surprised. Kevin was a terrific swimmer. He had been diving into the deep end of the swimming pool since he was eighteen months old. Pigeon-toed, he had a piscine ease in water, and was an expert bodysurfer already at nine. He had always professed indifference to my obsession, though. It was my thing; it would not be his. But now he paddled out at Patterson’s on a borrowed board and within days was catching waves, standing, turning. He was a natural. We found him a used board, an old Surfboards Hawaii tanker, for ten dollars. I was proud and thrilled. The future suddenly had a different tinge.
But one day at Patterson’s I heard people calling me from the shore. “It’s your brother!” I paddled in, frantic, and found Kevin lying on the beach, people standing around him. He looked bad—pale, in shock. He’d been hit in the back by a board. Apparently, he had got the wind completely knocked out of him. Little John Kaulukukui had saved him from drowning. Kevin was still breathing heavily, coughing, crying. We carried him up to the house. Everything hurt, he said. Mom cleaned him up, calmed him down, and put him to bed. I went out to surf some more. I figured he would be back in the water in a few days. But Kevin never surfed again. He did resume bodysurfing, and as a teen-ager became one of the hotshots at Makapu’u and Sandy Beach, two serious bodysurfing spots on the eastern tip of Oahu. As an adult, he has had back trouble. Recently, an orthopedist, looking at a spinal X-ray, asked him what had happened when he was a child. It looked as if he had suffered a serious fracture.
I eventually learned to like the rights at Kaikoos. The spot was often empty, but there were a few guys who knew how to ride it, and, watching them on good days from the Black Point rocks, I began to see the shape of the reef and how to avoid, with a little luck, catastrophe. Still, it was a gnarly spot by my standards, and when I bragged in letters to my friend in Los Angeles about riding this scary, deepwater peak, I was not above spinning tall tales about being carried, with Roddy, by huge currents halfway to Koko Head, which was miles away to the east. My detailed description of scooting through a big tube—the cavern formed by a hard-breaking wave—on a Kaikoos right contained, on the other hand, a whiff of authenticity. I still half remember that wave.
But surfing always had this horizon, this fear line, that made it different from other things, certainly from other sports I knew. You could do it with friends, but when the waves got big, or you got into trouble, there never seemed to be anyone around.
“You’re never going to be happy if your only definition of success is Heaven.”MARCH 19, 2007
Everything out there was disturbingly interlaced with everything else. Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time, they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy. The surf was your refuge, your happy hiding place, but it was also a hostile wilderness—a dynamic, indifferent world. At thirteen, I had mostly stopped believing in God, but that was a new development, and it had left a hole in my world, a feeling that I’d been abandoned. The ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure.
And yet you were expected, even as a kid, to take its measure every day. You were required—this was essential, a matter of survival—to know your limits, both physical and emotional. But how could you know your limits unless you tested them? And if you failed a test? You were also required to stay calm if things went wrong. Panic was the first step, everybody said, to drowning. As a kid, too, your abilities were assumed to be growing. What was unthinkable one year became thinkable, possibly, the next. My letters from Honolulu in 1966 were distinguished less by swaggering bullshit than by frank discussions of fear: “Don’t think I’ve suddenly gotten brave. I haven’t.” But the frontiers of the thinkable were quietly, fitfully edging back for me.
That was clear on the first big day I saw at Cliffs. A long-interval swell had arrived overnight. The sets were well overhead, glassy and gray, with long walls and powerful sections. I was so excited to see the excellence that my back-yard spot could produce that I forgot my usual shyness and began to ride with the crowd at the main peak. I was overmatched there, and scared, and got mauled by the biggest sets. I wasn’t strong enough to hold on to my board when caught inside by six-foot waves, even though I “turned turtle”—rolled the board over, pulled the nose down from underwater, wrapped my legs around it, and got a death grip on the rails. The whitewater tore the board from my hands, then thrashed me, holding me down for sustained, thorough beatings. I spent much of the afternoon swimming. Still, I stayed out till dusk. I even caught and made a few meaty waves. And I saw surfing that day—by Leslie Wong, among others—that made my chest hurt. Long moments of grace that felt etched deep in my being: what I wanted, somehow, more than anything else. That night, while my family slept, I lay awake on the bamboo-framed couch, heart pounding with residual adrenaline, listening restlessly to the rain.
My parents were dutiful, if not particularly enthusiastic, Catholics. Mass every Sunday, Saturday catechism for me, fish sticks on Friday. Then, around my thirteenth birthday, while we were still in California, I received the sacrament of confirmation, becoming an adult in the eyes of the Church, and was thunderstruck to hear my parents say that I was no longer required to go to Mass; that decision was now mine. Were they not worried about the state of my soul? Their evasive, ambiguous answers shocked me again. They had been fans of Pope John XXIII. But they did not, I realized, actually believe in all the doctrine and the prayers—all those Oblatios, Oratios, frightening Confiteors, and mealymouthed Acts of Contrition that I had been memorizing and struggling to understand since I was small. It was possible that they didn’t even believe in God. I immediately stopped going to Mass. God was not visibly upset. My parents continued to drag the little ones to church. Such hypocrisy! This joyful ditching of my religious obligations happened shortly before we moved to Hawaii.
And so, on a spring Sunday morning, I found myself slowly paddling back from Cliffs through the lagoon while my family was sweating it out at Star of the Sea, a Catholic church in Waialae. The tide was low. My skeg gently bumped on the bigger rocks. Out on the exposed reef, wearing conical straw hats, Chinese ladies bent, collecting eels and octopuses in buckets. Waves broke here and there along the reef’s outer edge, too small to surf.
I felt myself floating between two worlds. There was the ocean, effectively infinite, falling away forever to the horizon. This morning, it was placid, its grip on me loose and languorous. But I was lashed to its moods now. The attachment felt limitless, irresistible. I no longer thought of waves being carved in celestial workshops, as I once did. I was getting more hardheaded. Now I knew that they originated in distant storms, which moved, as it were, upon the face of the deep. But my absorption in surfing had no rational content. It simply compelled me; there was a profound mine of beauty and wonder in it. Beyond that, I could not have explained why I did it. I knew vaguely that it filled a psychic cavity of some kind—connected, perhaps, with leaving the Church, or with, more likely, the slow drift away from my family—and that it had replaced many things that came before it.
The other world was land: everything that was not surfing. Books, girls, school, my family, friends who did not surf. “Society,” as I was learning to call it, and the exactions of Mr. Responsible. Hands folded under my chin, I drifted. A bruise-colored cloud hung over Koko Head. A transistor radio twanged on a seawall where a Hawaiian family picnicked on the sand. The sun-warmed shallow water had a strange boiled-vegetable taste. The moment was immense, still, glittering, mundane. I tried to fix each of its parts in memory. I did not consider, even in passing, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it chose. ♦