A Shore Thing

Surfing Contest at Bonzai Pipeline
A surfer at Rockey Point. (Charles Kogod)
By Bill Thomas
Sunday, January 22, 2006

It would not be a vacation!

Never mind the palm trees, sandy beaches and all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. It would be work. At least that's what I kept telling my wife when I found out I'd be going to Hawaii.

"Oh, come on," she said. "Nobody works in Hawaii."

After checking with a friend of mine who used to live in Honolulu, it turned out my wife might have been right. People in Hawaii don't work, he told me, or, if they do, they make sure to leave plenty of time for all the things Hawaii is famous for, like having fun.

I'd never been to Hawaii, though I had thought about it. Who hasn't? So when I was asked to moderate a Defense Department conference at a hotel on Waikiki Beach, it was obvious the time had come. The two-day conference would be like hundreds of others that go on all the time in Washington, except this one was on Oahu, which is about as far outside the Beltway as you can go and still be in the United States.

In getting ready for the trip, I was advised to prepare myself for a completely different reality. "Hawaii is just the opposite of Washington," said the friend who had lived there. "No one cares what you do or where you come from as long as your heart's in the right place."

In Hawaii, he explained, "the right place" usually means the beach.

Soon I was paying daily visits to Surfline, a Web site featuring weather forecasts for the prime surfing spots worldwide, from Zarutz in Spain to Santa Cruz in California (the closest to serious surfing I've ever been) to the North Shore of Oahu, home of the legendary Banzai Pipeline . . . Aloha, this is Kurt with the report for Sunset Beach Wednesday. Surf: 4-5 ft. with occasional 6 ft. Lumpy and bumpy but rideable. Sunny skies this afternoon. Northeast groundswell due late tomorrow . . . Surfline's motto is "Know before you go" -- information about wave conditions being the surfer's best friend -- and the North Shore, which Kurt was talking about, has some of the biggest waves in the world. Sunset Beach, I noticed, was hosting a $50,000 surfing competition the same week I'd be in Hawaii. I couldn't miss that.

Three days before takeoff time, I downloaded the Ventures' greatest hits, including the theme from "Hawaii Five-O," anthem of TV's most righteous cop, played by Jack Lord, whose single-minded dedication to law and order meant wrongdoers were going down, as in, "Book 'em, Danno." But every reverberating twang and aquatic gurgle in the Ventures' repertoire of classics only reminded me of what a landlocked guy I'd become, surfing the Internet and hanging ten behind a desk.

Suddenly, getting away from Washington, getting far away, seemed like the best idea in the world. My Hawaiian holiday, I decided, would be my own personal, if somewhat belated, surfin' safari.

The plane was packed, but I came prepared for the nine-hour flight with a copy of From Here to Eternity. James Jones's novel, set on pre-World War II Oahu, was so thoroughly confused in my mind with the 1953 movie version of the book it was hard to turn the pages without seeing Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing in the sand. Maybe that's what I was looking for, a romantic escape to someplace so exotic it might as well be fiction. Not that I'm the romantic type. But why else was I reading this book? Shortly after the seat-belt light went out, I was hooked, just as I had been the first time I read it. Jones had thwarted American manhood down cold. Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt and all the other soldiers at Schofield Barracks wouldn't know what to do without the Army telling them, except when they got lucky and won enough money playing cards for a wild weekend in Honolulu. Which was nothing compared with what Sgt. Warden (Lancaster) and Capt. Holmes's wife (Kerr) were up to.

"What are you doing?" she cried at him frantically.

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