Waikiki's aging boys of summer

SUN JOURNAL

Play: On Hawaii's sunny beaches are found the `perpetual adolescents' who spend their days playing while they work, selling the joys of freedom.

July 23, 1999|By John Balzar | John Balzar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WAIKIKI BEACH, Hawaii -- Sometimes you don't have to grow up. Sometimes a man can be a boy forever.

A century's worth of progress has rendered the streets of Waikiki cluttered and teeming. But just offshore, the arc of Mamala Bay and the pulse of the Pacific still converge and form a small wave as lovely and gentle as exists. And some of the men who ride these waves persist with a free-spirited, ocean-loving life like nowhere else: the Waikiki Beach boy.

Here, a youngster can aspire to surf and swim, to paddle the outriggers and sail the catamarans. Without drawing distinctions between living and working, he can rent out beach umbrellas and surfboards and "boogie" boards and swim fins.

He can show off in the water and strike poses on the sand and be called neither showoff nor poser. He can teach tourists to ride the surf. He can rub coconut butter onto a lonely back. Then, oh yes, he can romance the tourist ladies at the end of the day.

It is 9 o'clock in the morning, and here, in beach slippers, board-shorts and batwing sunglasses, is Rabbit Kekai. He is a small man with oversize hands and bandy legs. He walks with the easy gait of someone who has spent his life balancing. He needs no sunscreen -- his shoulders are the hue of strong coffee, his skin callused by the tropical sun, his wispy goatee sun-bleached the shade of pewter.

He was a beach boy during the Depression, before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He is 78 now, and looks an athletic 55 until he takes off his sunglasses. Then his deep-set eyes reveal the watery squint of age.

The perpetual adolescents of the ocean -- that's what James Michener called them back in 1951: "Without these remarkable people the island would be nothing. With them, it is a carnival."

Kekai drops his backpack against the trunk of a palm tree on the remaining wedge of public beach and takes up his station at the yellow-painted 5-by-6-foot plywood shack with a pop-up roof. The banners hanging on the shack read, straightforwardly, "Lessons" and "Surfboards."

Two generations of beach boy intersect as Kekai greets Clyde Aikau, the 49-year-old beach boy who employs him and owns the shack. Today, as most days, these two men will take turns giving $30 surfing lessons on old-fashioned Waikiki long-boards.

In between, they will pause and unfold card chairs in the shade of a palm. They will share stories about life as watermen, about Waikiki and what endures of its celebrated aloha spirit. Oddly, not a single customer will understand that they have been touched by a pair of originals.

"Oh, really," says the airline pilot when informed that he was just taught to ride the surf by a man whose history on Waikiki goes directly to the most famous beach boy of all, Duke Kahanamoku. "He sure doesn't look that old."

The Duke reigned here during the first half of the century. The single civic statue that stands on Waikiki is a 10-foot bronze likeness of Kahanamoku, arms outstretched.

"Those were the salad days," Kekai recalls, smiling to himself. "Life was free. You could live off coconuts and dates."

At age 5, Kekai was standing on a surfboard. As a teen, he remembers running the 100-yard dash in under 10 seconds. ("Can't catch the rabbit.") If he needed to buy something, he would caddy at the golf course. ("A quarter made you king.") The center of the world was that stretch of Waikiki east of the hotels, toward Diamond Head.

"As a kid, Duke took me under his wing and taught me pretty well," Kekai says. "Then, when I was 12, I began to compete with him in canoe races.

"The Duke never lost." But one day Kahanamoku's team came in second. "He told me, `Kid, you learned well. Damned kid.' "

Rabbit was no longer an apprentice beach boy. Like a character in a Gunther Grass novel, he achieved boyhood and a boy he would stay.

Kekai guarantees this: One hour in the water with him and you'll stand and ride a wave. It worked with the likes of Gary Cooper and still succeeds.

So now, speaking broken Japanese and using gestures, he puts a shy tourist through a lesson. Sixty percent of his business comes from Japan.

A 10-foot long-board is placed skeg down on the sand. The "Lesson" is made to lie down on the sticky wax on its surface. Over and over, he is coaxed into moving his knees forward and his hands back until all his weight is centered. Then stand, knees bent. That's the secret. The Lesson practices until he seems to droop.

Kekai selects a board for himself, handling it with the casual ease a carpenter shows for a 2-by-4. The two paddle out, past the swimmers and wading children.

He will instruct five people today. When one Lesson tires halfway through, Kekai will hook a toe on the man's surfboard and paddle both of them out to the next setup -- never mind that the Lesson is 30 years younger.

"That's OK," he says. "I do this for a living. But I have to work out two hours now just to stay in shape. It used to take me only one." Then, in case one has forgotten, he adds, "I'm way old now."

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