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New Songs of Old Hawaii
Coles Phinizy
November 10, 1958
Beyond the familiar sights that have long attracted tourists to the Hawaiian Islands, visitors today are finding, in the deep waters off the storied beaches, in the craters and in the mountains, new sights, new beauty and a new bounty of sport
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November 10, 1958

New Songs Of Old Hawaii

Beyond the familiar sights that have long attracted tourists to the Hawaiian Islands, visitors today are finding, in the deep waters off the storied beaches, in the craters and in the mountains, new sights, new beauty and a new bounty of sport

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The vacationers who descend upon Hawaii find that, on these graceful islands, all the dreams spun in the travel ads do indeed come true. At the tourist port of Honolulu there is a lei for every traveler's neck. Out at the beach of Waikiki there are surf riders performing matchlessly on every wave and rainbows arching over Diamond Head. And as promised, Hawaii presents vivid sunsets, waving palms and dancing girls.

The basic tourist unit which now comes to Hawaii is not a married couple, but a trinity of man, woman and camera. So many have come, clicked their shutters and gone that it is possible to predict what sort of record each new trinity will gather. The record inevitably will include pictures of surf, waving palms, Diamond Head and dancing girls, and perhaps pictures of Mr. Tourist standing coyly among the girls, and inevitably pictures of Mrs. Tourist standing, stiff as a brandy decanter, in front of Diamond Head. The man, woman and camera who join a guided tour for a whirl of the outlying islands usually add to their record photographs of lava flows and flowers, old churches and sugar mills, and at least one picture of the historic sites where Captain James Cook's men landed long ago and gave the natives ironware, goats and trinkets.

To take in even a fair portion of sites and scenes the traveler must hurry, and in hurrying he gains and also loses. The traveler moving fast, bent on pleasing the eye, may miss entirely the fact that in their varied settings these islands offer a bounty of sport, a variety of things to do as well as see. After a week of being hustled through history and scenery on a guided tour, any man with a yen for action, with a jot of curiosity to him, is likely to rebel, abandon his tourmates and be found consorting with the natives. And the natives of Hawaii in 1958, though perhaps no more interesting than those of Captain Cook's day, are having a whale of a time on their island mountains and in the waters around.

More than 160,000 mainlanders vacation in the islands every year, and of late the annual migrations have included more and more sportsmen who find the islands offer action both ordinary and unusual. Though the fact has only recently been played up, it occurs to any fisherman that there should be fishing of several sorts in the deeps surrounding all the islands. It occurs to any hunter who has trod upon the tails of barred doves on the pavements of Waikiki that there must be game in the hills. There are many sportsmen, from age 20 to age 50, who now decide it is worth more to rent a surfboard and ride triumphantly and incompetently on a small wave than to passively watch the experts. Any man who wanders in a scant span of 15 miles from rain forest into arid plains of cactus and algarroba and sees snow crests standing over tropic water naturally comes to wonder about the excitements of this varied land.

To the visitor who comes for sport, the islands still guarantee a largess of beauty and a fair sampling of history. The islands are scarcely large enough to hide the sights from anyone. The pheasant hunter is hereby guaranteed his share of mist, rain and rainbows and livid gold light from the dying sun. The man going for bone-fish or to spearfish on the island of Kauai will pass an old sugar mill on his way. The fishermen who have recently boated very large marlin off the island of Hawaii were all running within sight of the oldest church and the bay where the Polynesians killed Captain Cook.

The sports which have attracted and very likely will continue to attract men and women to Hawaii are those which fit intimately into the original geographic plan of water, rock, beach, rain forest, moor and volcanic crater. None of these sports is unique; most of them are familiar experiences presented by Hawaii in new and very striking settings. Only one popular island sport—wave riding—is original; the rest are imports which have been enjoyed for some years by the islanders. There are among the islanders eminent performers in all these sports who, in some cases for reasonable pay and sometimes for the sheer hell of it, are pleased to guide and advise visitors. A few kings of sports are worth introducing here, since the outlander who moves into their domain may want to meet them, or may accidentally meet them, or—the sizes of the islands being what they are—may at least come upon the traces these kings have left upon the land.

The first king that a visitor should notice is Robert (Rabbit) Keki, who is usually accessible on Waikiki Beach, for he is a master of wave riding, the original island sport. One hundred and eighty years ago, at a time civilized Europeans were still possessed by a medieval dread of water, Captain Cook in his journal marveled at the bold, swimming Polynesians. When Cook was fatally stabbed by natives during a sad misunderstanding, a Lieutenant James King took up the captain's quill, writing about the natives without rancor, as coolly as if he were merely substituting while the captain recovered from a night of rum. The natives, Lieutenant King noted, actually made sport of the fearful surf, scurrying to sea on boards, then sliding back on a boiling wave.

Wave Rider Rabbit Keki warrants attention but not because he is necessarily the best rider—there are indeed a dozen thereabouts who might outslide and outrun him on a given wave. Keki epitomizes several things about Hawaii and the Hawaiian attitude toward sport. He is, first off, composed typically as a Hawaiian, which means he is not pure Polynesian but, rather, a racial mishmash of the sort that distresses ardent racists and makes Hawaii a bright land in this morbid era when great races and nations are bickering like baboons. Rabbit Keki is a 5-foot 6½-inch, muscular 164-pounder, a genetic compound of Polynesian, Scotch, Chinese, Irish and Shoshone Indian. The man on the board next to Keki on a wave may be fractional parts of French, Portuguese, Filipino, Japanese and Spanish, and this may have nothing fundamental in common with Keki except wave riding, which in Hawaii is usually enough. Hawaii and its spirit of compatibility stand as some sort of shining example for the rest of the world. It is this compatibility, above all, that makes the island a good land for active visitors. In Hawaii the visiting sportsman necessarily (and happily) mixes. Today the man on the surfboard next to Rabbit Keki may be another islander or he may be a 100% tourist from Waukegan, Illinois, 50 years old, ashamed of his paunch and so surprised to find himself standing on a wave that he shouts futilely to his wife ashore for God's sake to look quick.

At Waikiki, Rabbit Keki has taught surfboarding to over 5,000 visitors (among them Mrs. Gary Cooper, Actor Robert Mitchum, Shotputter Parry O'Brien and Swimmer Robin Moore). Several years ago Keki taught two gentle 70-year-old ladies from Minnesota to stand on a board in their first lesson. The picture of them lingers in his mind—two ladies standing stiff and gaunt-legged as blue herons, shrilling with glee as they slide to shore—and it has confounded Keki ever since that hundreds of thousands of tourists never try the sport. Keki and other instructors estimate that not one in 50 visitors tries surfboarding, though certainly one out of every two could learn enough in one lesson to get a taste of it. Without trying, many visitors conclude that they cannot learn. Too many are inhibited, coming to the islands in the thrall of an unfortunate mainland belief that any sportsman over 30 who does not have a physique like Sandow should confine himself to dog paddling, occasional tennis and a slow death of weekend golf.

Rabbit Keki epitomizes the rather different Hawaiian attitude, a zest for many sports that wanes only gradually with age. Hawaiians perhaps lack the slam-bang fervor of the Australians, but they have a special, seemingly almost mystical gift for doing very vigorous things with remarkable ease. Rabbit Keki is now in his early 30s, an old man by some mainland sporting standards, but still ready for almost any sport. In recent years, in the islands and on the mainland he has enjoyed himself thoroughly riding waves, skiing on both snow and water, playing football, tennis, ice hockey, golf, handball and squash. Keki was scheduled to represent the U.S. in wave riding in the international meet in Australia three years ago, but before embarking he broke three ribs when an oddly cracking wave carried five surfboards away from greenhorns and dashed the whole lumber pile into Keki's back. He has several times paddled in an outrigger canoe in the 36-mile marathon race through the wind-torn channel from Molokai Island to Oahu. He won Hawaii's international surfing title three years ago at Makaha, Oahu's leeward beach, where a series of 20-foot waves may suddenly rise and thunder in and as suddenly subside, so that a good rider on the last wave can sometimes catch the rebounding back swell and ride back out to sea. Keki occasionally may be found riding on his chest in the steep, dumping waves at Makapuu, the small windward beach where body surfers must know how to angle left or right on the shoulder of the wave to keep from gutting themselves on the rocks.

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