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SATURDAY JOURNAL

Beach Boy Forever

June 19, 1999|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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, true enough. 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.

So it is 9 o'clock in the morning. Honolulu's commute chokes the roadways and the New York Stock Exchange heads for its daily close. The first vacationers trickle out of their hotels onto the warming sand, globs of suntan lotion still visible here and there on a foot and behind an ear.

Rabbit Kekai saunters down with them. Wearing beach slippers, board-shorts and batwing sunglasses, he needs no sunscreen. He didn't use it on the beach during the Great Depression. He wasn't using it when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He surely doesn't need it now. 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 is a small man with oversize hands and bandy legs. He has been a beach boy since Al Capone ruled the mobs and the Empire State Building was still unbuilt. That was 66 years ago. He has been a surfer even longer and walks with the easy gait of someone who has spent his life balancing. 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."

Adding Magic to Hawaiian Holidays

Today among Waikiki's 50 or so beach boys are the shiftless and the drifters, of course, but also those whose ways go back half a century before Michener, and even longer. These traditionalists endure and the others move on because the beach boy, native Hawaiian and non-, answers to the purest yearnings of capitalism.

Their charm and skills add magic to Hawaiian holidays, and the favor is returned with a tip, by which the beach boy prospers or not. Living on Waikiki is not hand to mouth as much as smile to mouth.

Kekai (pronounced keh-kai) scans the waves, still crowded with lingerers from surfing's dawn patrol. He drops his backpack against the trunk of a palm tree and takes up his station at the yellow-painted 5-by-6-foot plywood shack with a pop-up roof. It is right next to the snack bar on the remaining wedge of public beach where there are no hotels between the road and the water. Offshore is that part of the Waikiki surf break known as Canoes.

This is a service economy, and the banners hanging on the shack read, straightforwardly, "Lessons" and "Surfboards," rather than the name of the establishment, C&K Beach Service.

Two generations of beach boys intersect as Rabbit Kekai greets Clyde Aikau, the 49-year-old beach boy who employs him and owns the shack. Powerfully built and cat-like in his movements, Aikau (pronounced eye-cow) arrived an hour and a half ago in a wrinkled delivery van that holds 50 rental surfboards.

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.

It is clear that the younger of these boys reveres the older. For purposes of introduction, Aikau calls him "Mr. Kekai." Also apparent: The admiration extends to a third generation of beach boys on duty today at C&K.

"Clyde Aikau is a legend to surfers like me," says Ivan Moreira, a 20-year-old Brazilian. "He has ridden big stuff, really big stuff. He's really famous in Brazil."

Outside their own circle, though, the pair seem content, or resigned, to being just part of the local color. "Oh, really," says the United Air Lines 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."

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