Buttons was Aloha.
Little did I know when I began the last post that it would take this turn. This post is a continuation of the last blog with a person as an example of what Aloha means. I was only a pupil of Aloha; he was the master. Buttons was Aloha. He lived it, as many Hawaiians do. I understand that now. He shared it with me. I will try to share him with you…
The last thing he said to me was, “Man, you’re leaving. I’m about to jerk a tear.” Beth and I had stopped at Pu’uena to say goodbye to him on our way out of town. Button’s life had really turned around in the last 10 years. He had become a business owner, a loving husband and attentive new father to beautiful children, and much more. He had grown as a person and it was good to see. I attribute a lot of this to Hiriata, his loving partner in life.
Buttons and I had kept in touch over the years. We texted and spoke on the phone occasionally, but he was a public figure. He was everywhere, if you looked. From You Tube, to Facebook, to being a front man for fledgling companies. His surf school was successful and growing. Buttons was an enigmatic character that we all shared. He was fun. He made us laugh. He amazed us. He made us feel good.
Have you ever heard the saying, “People may forget what you say but they will never forget the way that you make them feel.”? He was the master at making people feel good, welcome, loved. That is Aloha. Buttons was friends with everybody. Everybody wanted to hang around with him. It had always been that way. When we would do things together it was like being with a celebrity. There was no hiding when you were with Buttons. For example, he and I took bike rides to Waikiki. (And I need to point out that he really flowed on a bike. No crossing you up at the intersection, even going fast. Traffic, no matter. He flowed.) We stopped so many times to talk with people. At some points I would have to leave for awhile and meet back up with him because he would take the time to stop and talk with people no matter who they were – old friends from school, a guy he had worked with, a friend of a friend, some wahine, his cousin’s auntie, you name it. He made people feel special. They wanted his attention, however brief, and he gave it to them.
Don’t get me wrong, Buttons was no angel (though he may be now). We were up to some less than Christian business. However, even then, his heart was right. His way was loving. He might have hurt himself but he didn’t want to hurt you. Maybe all the fanfare was his pitfall. I mean everybody wanted to party with Buttons, me included. His place was on Dillingham, in the surf shop. It was on my way home at night. Every night I would stop by his house on my bike, share with him what went on that evening and we would talk story or cruise a little, play some darts, etc. It was really a special time for me. Nobody around. I could ask him whatever I wanted. I think he enjoyed that someone wanted to know,that someone was truly interested. It was fascinating. We talked about so many things, everything I could think of. I really got to know him that way.
I saw him go through a lot of stuff in that period. This was around 2000- 2003 and we had already known one another for a long time. He was facing some court issues, stormy relationships, financial problems, and drugs. Neither one of us were doing very well. We spent what little money we had getting high. Me, I was working at the car lots on Nimitz. He was selling surfboards, doing odd jobs, surfing, cruising, spending most of his time in town. I wasn’t surfing much. Working all day and cruising Waikiki at night. We never slept. You see Hawaii isn’t all sunshine , rainbows and blue water. There is that Yin to the Yang like the Town and Country surfboards emblem depicts. There is a darker side to Hawaii also.
Nonetheless, this is how I got my real insight into his mind and thinking. He told me about so many things that had happened; an insiders view as to how it all went down. Almost anything I asked about he would share with me . He told me about the people, who they were to him – who was good, who was fake, who was real. I asked him about everyone from Bunker Spreckels to Eddie Aikau. He knew them all. It really was amazing to hear. He told me about things like his first wave at Backdoor and how scared he had been to go (it was in a contest). He explained to me how the whole Local Motion thing had happened and how they had left him flat when they sold the business. He felt like Local Motion had built the business on his (among others) success, surfing and popularity. He was disappointed that they sold the business for millions and gave him literally nothing. Many nights we talked. He told me that he really had wanted to be world champ. For those of you who know and remember, he really WAS the most radical and maybe even most talented of them all. He was gifted. His approach was totally unique. Think about it – Shaun Tomson, Rabbit, and MR were some of the greatest surfers of that generation. When did you see any of them come out of the tube, hit the lip while switching stance, and go into a roundhouse banking off the white water while switching feet back, into a 360, no less? No stumble. No jerk. All flow, all smooth. Hawaiian. He must have scared them to death! Who wants to surf a heat against a guy who does that?
Now suppose he had a coach? A workout regimen? Some organization? Like the surfers of today. However,that just wasn’t in the cards, or this would be a totally different story. I probably wouldn’t have known him like I did. In that sense I feel fortunate but it still makes me sad. What also bothers me is the way he was portrayed in the media. They talk about his rise to fame, his addiction to drugs. It isn’t fair to summarize him like that. Sure Buttons did drugs. Who didn’t? I just don’t like the way they encapsulate his life like that. “Great surfer. Became involved in drugs.” That’s bunk! He was so much more. Maybe partying prevented him from achieving what was possible in surfing and even a better life…but that IS life! Real life. His life. Not our place to say, and certainly not some categorical summary of three lines.
That is one of the reasons I am writing this , and because he has been on my mind so much lately. It’s time somebody spoke up. It may seem funny that it’s me – a haole, now on the mainland. Probably not too many people will even read this or know we were friends, but Buttons knew. The platform on my website is small ,but I’m going to say what I have to say. Buttons was larger than life. He was an ambassador of kindness. He embodied Aloha. Nothing was more important to Buttons than family, friends, people, his culture and the preservation of it. His story is really amazing. Not a small margin in an article, written by somebody who must not have even known him, but his real life with real people and a real love for surfing, and living.
My wife asked me, “If there was one word that described Buttons the best, what would it be?”. Off the top of my head, I said, “Cool”. But now that I give it more thought, the word would be “Aloha”. In my mind, “Buttons” and “Aloha” are synonymous. His smile comes to mind when I think of the word.
I always thought he would be the next Rabbit Kekai. Waikiki beachboy, dignitary, respected and loved by the surfing nation of Hawaii. I thought that we would grow old and visit, surf, watch the kids, share stories ,etc. When I spoke to him last, he was so full of love. He was in touch with God and nature. He told me that he caught a 15 footer that day at Sunset. To joke with him, I said, “a really, real 15 footer?” He looked at me like, “come on, man” and we laughed.
Hiriata invited Beth and I to stay with them the next year. That was two years ago. We invited them to come to Kauai with us last year, but it was busy season for his surf school. Now Buttons has passed. I still have many more questions for him and long to hear the stories he once told me. I miss him already. I guess its my turn to say, “Man, you’re leaving.” Now, I’m about to “jerk a tear”.
Aloha Oe, my friend. I will never forget you.
In honor of Montgomery Ernest Thomas Kaluhiokalani, March 30, 1959 – November 2, 2013