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A Beach Boy Looks Back
Tom Koppel - Click to Enlarge
Tom Koppel

“There was so much love,” said Thomas Vinigas, as he gazed out at the sunrise over Mamala Bay, Honolulu.  He was reminiscing about childhood times, when he enjoyed fishing in the Ala Wai canal for mullet and crabs alongside the old Chinese men.  Or about the beach at Waikiki, where his father worked as bartender at a luau. “If someone lost a surfboard, I used to run, grab it and paddle it back out to them.  So I learned to swim real quick,” he laughed.  It was ideal training for later life as a beach boy during what was, for him, the golden era of the 1970s and early 1980s.  

My wife and I listened, enthralled, as we lolled in the hot tub at the  Ilikai hotel and condo, enjoying the break of dawn.  Thomas, slim and athletic, was working a quiet morning shift as pool attendant, with plenty of time to chat.  Strong overnight winds had knocked down fronds from the surrounding coconut palms, and Thomas was gathering them up.  I happened to ask if he knew how to climb a palm tree, which got him talking about the beach life of so many years ago.  Idly, it seemed, he began stretching and splitting the palm fronds and weaving them into a rectangular pattern.  As he did so, he also wove a nostalgic tale that began and ended right there at our hotel. 

As a kid, he enjoyed visiting his aunt, who lived not far from the high-rise Ilikai.  It was a thrill to ride the external glass-sided elevator up 30 stories to the top floor.  The hotel was one of the hot spots of 1960s Honolulu, hosting such notables as Elvis Presley, Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, “Hawaii Five-O” star Jack Lord and the revered father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku.  “That monkey pod tree,” over by the open air restaurant, “was planted by Duke himself.”

Thomas’s family eventually moved from Honolulu to quieter Kailua, where Elvis, avoiding the Waikiki limelight, liked to swim and play with the local kids.  Presley’s butler would come down to the beach and serve them all sandwiches and drinks. But Thomas was so young that he didn’t really understand who the rich and famous man was.  His older brother had to explain it. 

At sixteen or seventeen, Thomas began coming to Waikiki on his own to play Frisbee with other teenagers.  Soon he discovered the surfing scene on the beach. “That’s where I met all my teachers in life,” he told us.  Several older beach boys made him feel at home. It was an exciting place.  “Somebody was always doing something.  Carving a tiki, weaving a coconut hat, making a shell lei, or going fishing or diving.”  That’s also where he learned to surf and paddle an outrigger canoe.  “We had a little group of guys who surfed together between Fort DeRussy park and the Reef hotel.” 

Their social life took place mainly under the shade of a sprawling and leafy ancient hau tree.  “We slept on the beach in good weather and hid our surfboards among the trees in the park.”  They all had homes to go back to.  “But why would we?   We might pick up some nice young tourist girls who invited us back to their rooms.  Sometimes we stayed there for weeks.  At one point, I stayed with the granddaughter of the owner of the hotel.  So I was very fortunate.  She was, too,” he chuckled.  “I rubbed shoulders with some very wealthy people, not even knowing they were wealthy.” 

One early mentor operated a beach concession that made and sold coconut hats, which is where Thomas learned to weave and climb trees.  “He taught me what leaves to pick from the coconut tree.  Every leaf was different,” and some were much better than others for weaving.  To get the finest fronds, Thomas would sneak onto the properties of the five-star beachfront hotels at 4 or 5 AM.  Security was lax, and the trees there were well watered, which made for better, more pliable fronds.  With a jackknife in the pocket of his jeans, he would grip the grooves in the tree with his bare toes, hang on with his arms and just kind of walk up the tree to cut down a few leaves.  “I never got busted.”

Next he was taken under the wing of his “Uncle” Tom Tom, a former merchant seaman who had traveled the world before becoming “the beach boy of all beach boys.  We became very close.  To the day he died, he lived with me.”  Tom Tom had turned dealing with visitors into a fine art.  “He had an entire philosophy of how to treat a guest.  And all it was, really, was aloha.”  The tourists came from far away and wanted to be friendly with the locals on the beach.  So, it was important to listen, try to give them what they wanted, and make them feel welcome. 

As the typical working day wound down, the clique of beach boys would gather under the old hau tree and party with the ever-changing coterie of visitors.  Any excuse was good enough to make it an occasion.  “Maybe it was someone’s birthday.  Or a holiday.  Or just the weekend.”  Thomas would go out spear fishing in fins and goggles and usually came back with a large unicorn fish. “If you speared one, you just threw it onto a charcoal grill and that was it.  You had a meal.  Nice white meat.”  There were also succulent slipper lobsters.  “We caught them in ten to twenty feet of water right off Fort DeRussy.  We’d put an old, junky piece of fishing net down on the reef.  The lobsters would crawl around, feeding or whatever, and become attached to the net,” which made them easy to pull up. 

Beach boys like Thomas earned fair money and costs were low, so life was good.  “The tourists would buy the beer.  They were our friends, but most of them did not know how to spear a fish or dive.  So, it was their way of trading.  And we had the entertainers from the hotels come down to join us and bring their guitars.  One person would clean the fish.  Another would cook.  It was just so neat.”  Like a big family.  Anyone with the right attitude was free to join in. 

But sadly, good things don’t always last.  The mid-80s brought a new era of mass tourism to Honolulu.  Thomas blames an influx of yuppies from California, fast-lane people who came for much shorter visits and were more in tune with disco than with languorous Hawaiian music on a steel guitar.  And there were the throngs of Japanese, who came for bargain weddings and duty-free shopping.  They, too, were out of synch with the laid-back beach set.  Instead of Hawaiian music, they wanted karaoke, so half the musicians who played the Waikiki strip lost their very modest jobs.  And then the beach scene was gradually discovered and spoiled by a sleazy local element from Honolulu itself.  Rip-off artists moved in, which gave the legitimate beach boys a bad name.  Gradually, the hotels and police cracked down.  It did not look good to have native Hawaiians drinking and sleeping on the beach.  The property owner cut down the hau tree, and military police drove the beach boys out of Fort DeRussy park. 

Thomas, growing older, saw the writing on the wall.  He became a certified, licensed beach boy, with CPR training and the right to give surfing lessons, but that was still a form of freelancing.  Eventually he realized that he needed dental work and health insurance.  So he landed a straight, steady job with the Ilikai, where he has remained for 13 years.  He also got married and had children.  Today, he enjoys the short commute from the other side of the mountains.  But he has stayed trim and fit, and still maintains an important part of his Hawaiian culture.  Nearly every weekend he trains with his canoe club, serving as captain and steersman in wild and strenuous inter-island races that can stretch over seven hours.    

By the time he wound up his tale, the sun had risen and we had finished our early morning swim.  Thomas was being coy, avoiding us and holding something behind his back.  But as we toweled down and got ready to go for breakfast, he showed us what he had been making.  It was a shapely coconut bowl, woven tightly and with the sharp end of each frond neatly tucked through the web of green and protruding along the base.  Together with his story, it was Thomas’s gift to us, a small token of the aloha spirit of the 1970s.  Today, it graces a proud spot on our sunniest windowsill at home.

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I flew to Honolulu with Harmony Airways, which offers excellent service and fares to Hawaii from western Canada.

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Email: (TOM KOPPEL) 

Tom Koppel is Canadian freelance writer and author with more than 15 years of travel writing experience, including features in Travel Holiday, Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, Historic Traveler, Beautiful B.C., Western Living, Country Inns, Reader's Digest, Georgia Straight, Porthole, Islands etc. Tom is now working on his third book as well. (More about this writer.)


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