A Shore Thing
When a Washington wonk set out for his first visit to Hawaii, he caught more than a wave

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.

"I'm leaving," Warden said. "Wasn't that what you wanted?"

"Don't you want me either?"

Now what the hell, he thought. "Sure," he said.

"Hell yes. I thought you wanted me to leave."

"I do," she said, "if you want to. Go ahead. I don't want to force you into anything . . . I don't blame you a bit. Why would you want to stay? . . . There's nowhere in the world I'm needed."

"You're needed," Warden said, coming back and sitting down by her. "In this world beautiful women are needed more than any other thing."

Two chapters from the end, I looked out the window, and there were the Hawaiian Islands, like lush green mountaintops rising from the Pacific. Ten thousand feet above Oahu, I could see Honolulu, first Diamond Head high above the city, then the pastel-colored hotels along Waikiki Beach, and then, as the plane circled to land, Pearl Harbor. Probably like many people coming here for the first time, I imagined Japanese dive bombers swooping in from the north to attack the Pacific Fleet. In the distance was the USS Arizona Memorial on the spot where the sunken battleship had been anchored. But Pearl Harbor stayed in view less than a minute before we touched down and taxied to our gate under a big red "Aloha" sign.

Because Honolulu is a tourist destination and one of the most expensive cities on Earth, the meter is always running, yet you don't get the feeling that everyone's after your money. Even the car rental people, decked out in shorts and sandals, were so mellow they could have been at the beach. And since it was mid-afternoon -- only three hours by the clock after we'd left the East Coast -- that's where I went. Conveniently one just happened to be located right next door to my hotel.

From my room on the 12th floor, Waikiki looked almost deserted. With daylight fading fast, I tossed my bags on the bed and put on a bathing suit. Hawaiian sunsets in late October don't last long, and by the time I got to the water it occurred to me that swimming in the dark might seem a little desperate. Just the same, it felt good to spend a few minutes in the Pacific, even if my pale arms and legs screamed that I'd just arrived from the mainland.

In From Here to Eternity, downtown Honolulu was the place everyone went looking for a good time. The problem was that downtown Honolulu had moved in the half-century since the book came out. Old downtown "is kind of shady," the concierge said. On the other hand, if I wanted to risk it, he said, Chinatown, which was still there, had some great places to eat. How shady could that be? And off I went.

The dive bars and hotels James Jones wrote about had been abandoned long ago; in fact Chinatown looks like Detroit with palm trees. But the food at the Glowing Dragon restaurant was delicious, especially the shark fin soup. "Give you big energy," said the waitress. That I could use. The conference was scheduled to start at 8 a.m. the next day.

The program said "business casual," clearly a term of little or no use in Hawaii, where casual seems to be the everyday rule. Half the men in the audience showed up wearing Hawaiian shirts. "Where's yours?" asked a woman in the front row. Having been here for such a short time, I didn't feel I'd earned the right to wear one, I told her. "Sure you can," she said, "Everybody does." She recommended a nearby store, and I wrote down the address. "We call them 'aloha shirts,'" she said.

Sitting through a half-dozen speeches on military base closings and the impact of new Pentagon budget cuts, I planned how I'd spend the rest of my day. By 3:30 I was at Bailey's Antiques & Aloha Shirts on Kapahulu Avenue, several blocks from the beach. There didn't seem to be any tourists around, except me, and dressed in a coat and tie I must have looked like the neighborhood wacko. Bailey's not only carries aloha shirts of every color and design, it also sells hula girl lamps, palm-tree ashtrays and pineapple-shaped Christmas ornaments. "Shirts are what people come for," said Deena, the saleswoman.

Actor Nicolas Cage, a Bailey's fan, once pulled up on a Harley and spent $5,000 on two shirts. Cage liked the vintage 1950s styles; taped to the cash register is a snapshot of him wearing one.

I'm going to the North Shore, I told Deena, who took me to a display of expensive "Endless Summer" shirts with various scenes from the renowned surfing movie in color combinations that would have freaked out Gauguin. They're nice, I agreed, but I was looking for something in the $50-and-under range. "You're an XL," she said, pointing to a rack of used shirts in the far corner. There's nothing wrong, Deena assured me, with wearing used aloha shirts, which get passed down from person to person, accumulating more aloha spirit with each owner. I picked out a black one decorated with blue, green and orange banana leaves. Deena guessed I would be the second or third person to own it. "Lots of aloha in this."

I didn't wear the shirt to the conference the next day. Maybe I hadn't gotten Washington completely out of my system, but with no tan and still coming to grips with the spirit of aloha, it just didn't feel right. The woman who had recommended Bailey's looked a little disappointed.

Day Two went by quickly. The highlight was a speech by Yuri Maltsev, an economist who had defected from the Soviet Union in 1989. Several years ago, Maltsev told us, he was in San Diego and ran into a former cosmonaut who was driving a taxi. The man liked his new life in California and didn't see his job as a comedown after being in space. He made more money, he said, and it was a pleasure to drive something that really worked.

I got up early the next morning and, after a breakfast of crushed pineapple and coffee, began driving north. With the "working" part of my vacation over, I felt like a free man. Maybe the aloha shirt helped, but so did the open road, which followed the mountains that divide Oahu into a windward side, where it rains a lot, and a leeward side, where I was, that's usually sunny.

A half-hour out of Honolulu, I turned off Route 99 and into Schofield Barracks. At the gate one of the guards asked where I was going. "This might sound strange," I replied. "I came to see some of the places in From Here to Eternity."

It happens all the time, he said. He checked the trunk and waved me in.

James Jones served in the 25th Infantry Division during World War II and was stationed at Schofield before shipping out for the South Pacific. He wrote From Here to Eternity after the war. When it was published, in 1951, it became an immediate bestseller and two years later was made into a movie. Driving through the base, I began to notice buildings and backdrops that appeared in the film. In the quadrangle where much of the movie was shot, everything about the place looked familiar: the manicured lawns and parade grounds, the enlisted men's quarters. This is where Frank Sinatra, who won an Oscar for his role as Pvt. Angelo Maggio, was sweeping the sidewalk when Prewitt, played by Montgomery Clift, first arrived at G Company. Up on the roof is where Burt Lancaster as Sgt. Warden, the epitome of a soldier for life, grabbed a machine gun and started firing at Japanese planes on their way to bomb Wheeler Field.

The barracks' museum has a wall devoted to Jones. I picked up a brochure that read: "A young infantry man named James Jones wrote an epic novel of those early days as he recovered from his battle injuries years later. From Here to Eternity became an American classic."

I was surprised that only one of the nine or 10 soldiers I talked to had ever heard of Jones's novel -- and he had never read it. It could be that the problems of GIs in the old Army aren't that interesting to today's high-tech fighting men. Over in the barracks' recreation room, a soldier was playing a video war game with sound effects that made it seem like the real thing. "Unit destroyed!" a recorded voice boomed every time he hit a target.

Jones wrote other books, many of them about World War II, but nothing to match From Here to Eternity. My guess is that Hawaii had something to do with it. In a way it was his paradise lost; nothing would be the same after Pearl Harbor, which gave him the perfect turning point in a story about men with a score to settle.

Coming to Schofield was like visiting a part of America that no longer exists. From Here to Eternity was Jones's postwar analysis of life's basic pleasures and responsibilities. Some of those responsibilities, so obvious when Jones was a young soldier, such as doing an honest day's work and fighting for your country, have been debated and redefined many times since. As for the pleasures, they've hardly changed, and Hawaii still has plenty of them to offer.

Back on the road, I remembered something Jones had written about the two Hawaiis, the fake one for visitors, "this happy land . . . the tourists saw from the outside," and the real one inhabited by the people who live here. With the real Hawaii said to be rapidly disappearing, finding what's left of it, I was told, can be a challenge, particularly on Oahu. But the farther north I drove, the closer I seemed to come to the Hawaiian reality Jones had in mind, or, if not, something very different from Honolulu.

There were little villages in the hills, and people selling shrimp and pineapple along the road. I bought a $3 bag of pineapple chunks (plastic fork included) from a man operating out of the trunk of his car, under which several chickens had gathered for a siesta. "They're wild," he said. "And you should see them go crazy when there's a mongoose around." Chickens aren't the only ones. Oahu apparently has a big mongoose problem. The weasel-like creatures were imported years ago to help control the island's rat population. But rats are nocturnal and mongooses hunt by day, which means the two most likely have never met. It gets worse: The mongooses have been dining on some of Hawaii's rare birds.

The small beach towns along the coast appear to be populated entirely by surfers. There were surfers in gas stations, surfers in grocery stores, surfers everywhere; male surfers, female surfers, young surfers, middle-aged surfers and senior-citizen surfers; surfers of every race and shade of tan, living in sync with the rhythms of the ocean, which is what brought them here in the first place.

Waimea Bay fills a rugged cove at the foot of the mountains. Just up the road is a Catholic church, and as I pulled into the dirt parking lot next door, I noticed a sun-bleached statue of Christ wearing a lei, the ideal place to pray for surf. From the beach down below I got my first close-up look at the waves, which were so rough only a few surfers had the nerve to go out. The competition was several miles away at Sunset, but with so much "wind slop," as an off-duty lifeguard called it, there wouldn't be any "money surfing" today. When I told him it was my first trip to the North Shore, he gave me some safety tips.

"Never turn your back on the ocean," he warned, telling me about a man and woman who were walking along the beach recently when they were caught by a wave. The man was saved, but the woman was never heard from again.

What about sharks? I asked. "Sharks are like dogs," he said. "If you're not afraid, they won't bother you."

But sharks are just one hazard, and for surfers they're not very high on the list. The waves can be deadly. Pushed up by winds that sweep down from Alaska, they are not to be taken lightly. A surfer can easily be killed if he wipes out on a coral reef. The best surfers are as fearless as bullfighters, the lifeguard said. And this time of year when breakers can reach heights of 20 feet, they put their lives on the line every time they ride one.

The competition had been called off, but there were still a few participants gathered on the beach at Sunset. "This is the Mount Everest of surfing," said Rainos Hayes, coach of a team sponsored by Billabong, surfing's equivalent of L.L. Bean. Today, however, was a disappointment. "I'd give it . . . a two," declared Hayes.

Heads nodded.

"Rainos talks, people listen," said Guy Frazier, a surfboard designer who stopped by to hit the waves before going back to work. "I try to get in two or three hours every day . . . You surf?"

When I admitted I hadn't in some time, Frazier frowned. "I guess you don't live around here."

I said I was from Washington, which elicited what sounded like a gasp. He called the place "far out," then proceeded to list some of its many shortcomings, including a connection to "the industrialized, imperialist, capitalist world" he'd given up on when he moved to the North Shore after a hitch in the Army at Schofield. A respiratory therapist by training, Frazier, whose thinning sandy hair and beat-up wetsuit said he'd spent a good part of his life at the beach, thanked "the universe, or whatever, for directing me toward surfing."

You're lucky, I said, promising I'd be back the next day.

"Hey, if you want to surf, I'll give you a board."

My brief encounter with surfing had consisted of a handful of summer weekends in California, where I lived in the 1960s. As a sport, surfing never appealed to me as much as the way of life surrounding it had, the laid-back beach culture, the goofy language and music, all of which made surfing the greatest babe magnet the West Coast had ever seen. Getting on a surfboard now would be suicidal, I thought, but watching surfers out on the waves made it seem worth the risk, until one of them flipped head over heels and I came to my senses.

The times had changed, but surfing hadn't, and on the North Shore nothing short of an explosion in seaside development -- a remote possibility in this eco-obsessed area -- could alter the local way of life. The place is a tropical time warp. The cares of Washington -- terrorism, the trade deficit, the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court --make no sense. Here, no one seems to have anything more important to do than hang out, talk about the ocean and surf. That could get boring eventually, but it's hard to think of a better place for getting bored.

At the Sharks Cove Grill, a roadside trailer with picnic tables, two women were drinking Kona coffee and talking about living on the mainland for a couple of years before moving back to the islands. One said she had a hard time being anywhere that's not 84 degrees and sunny every day. I could see her point.

Why not live here? I've done crazier things, though not in a while. And besides, what was crazy about it? Later on, walking along the beach and trying to imagine how moving to Hawaii would change my life, I ran into a guy named Larry, playing with his dog, who said he also fell hopelessly in love with the place his first time. "I got addicted." Since then, he's been a cop, a store manager and a counselor for troubled youth -- "whatever it takes" to stay on the North Shore, he said, where he lives next to the ocean in a "studio garage."

I went back to Honolulu and returned to the North Shore the following morning. The surfing competition was postponed again. Wave conditions hadn't changed much. But I had. Part of me was ready to pull up stakes and follow in Larry's footsteps. Who cares about living in a studio garage in these surroundings? Of course, I'd have to convince my wife first, which wouldn't be easy. Also, without any marketable skills in a place fixated on going to the beach, economic survival might be an issue. I searched for answers over a tuna burger at the Sharks Cove, where, after two visits, I was starting to feel like a regular. The best solution I could come up with -- and my wife wasn't likely to go for it -- was selling everything we owned.

Sunset Beach was virtually empty, except for some sunbathers. The waves, puny by professional standards, were still impressive. Two hundred feet offshore, four surfers were bobbing up and down, waiting for breakers. As I took in the scene, I saw one of them heading into shore. He introduced himself as Steve Howells. We started talking about the surfing life, which he'd been pursuing for the past decade from South Africa to the South Pacific. "Searching for the perfect wave," he sighed, noting that the surfer's lot is never to be in one place very long. "I'm Welsh. It's my fate to wander."

Howells said in his spare time he writes music inspired by the sea. We walked to his car, and he gave me a copy of his latest CD, "Into the Blue." When I confessed I'd been thinking about moving to Hawaii, he admitted that he'd been thinking about leaving to seek new adventures.

"Play this," he said. "Maybe it'll inspire you."

I can't say that it did, but listening to the CD the next morning as I drove around Honolulu did make me realize how little impact the Ventures and their twangy guitars had had on the sound of today's surfing music, which comes across like a cosmic tsunami.

Before starting for the airport, I had to see the secluded beach, near the Blowhole, where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr played the most romantic scene in movie history. Maybe it would help me resolve my Hawaii problem, get me thinking like Sgt. Warden, whose devotion to duty finally saved him from falling for Mrs. Holmes and taking the worst nosedive of his life. When I got to what looked like the right location, I asked a lifeguard just to be sure.

"That scene in 'From Here to Eternity,' didn't it take place around here?"

"Yeah, right over there," he said, motioning to a narrow stretch of sand and coral.

The surf was too choppy to stage a reenactment, even if I'd had a stand-in for Deborah Kerr, but somehow just being here helped. Was I chasing an illusion, some hopeless love, the same way Sgt. Warden chased the captain's wife? Had I fallen for Hawaii and gotten in over my head?

The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became. What the hell was wrong with me? I'm no surfer. I'm not even sure I've got the makings of a good beach bum. I don't belong in Hawaii.

It was a good thing I did this, I thought. Thank you, James Jones. Now I could fly home in peace.

At the airport, with an hour to kill, I was browsing for something to read on the plane. Flipping through some souvenir calendars, I made a startling discovery. There, in beautiful color, illustrating the month of July 2006, was a photograph of "the beach made famous in 'From Here to Eternity'"-- and it wasn't the beach where I'd just been!

That lifeguard lied.

Wait a minute. So what if it was the wrong beach? As much as I hated to admit it, the romance was finished. Sure, I'd be back, but any long-term commitment was out of the question.

It's better that way. For me . . . and Hawaii.

Bill Thomas is the co-author of Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia and other books.

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