The June 1 issue of the New Yorker magazine features an article called “Off Diamond Head: To be thirteen, with a surfboard, in Hawaii.”
I love this article and I can’t get it out of my head.
The article is the first chapter of a new book by New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan that comes out July 21 called “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.”
When he came to live in Honolulu with his parents at age 13, Bill Finnegan was already a surfer. He had been catching waves off the California coast since he was 10.
Finnegan’s family moved here in 1966 after his father was hired as the production manager on a new television musical variety show based on the radio show “Hawaii Calls.” His father later produced the original series of “Hawaii Five-0” for five years.
Finnegan surfing in Waikiki in 1967.
William Robinson Finnegan
Hawaii surfers are going to be fascinated by Finnegan’s extolling of the surfing spot “Cliffs” along the southern base of Diamond Head, his description of the particular nature of waves at “Patterson’s,” “Kaikoos” and “Mahoney’s,” his understanding of surfing etiquette — and his consuming passion for life on a surfboard “floating between two worlds.”
But most interesting to me in the article are his descriptions of life at Kaimuki Intermediate School where “… haoles were a tiny and unpopular minority …”
Finnegan thinks his parents sent him and his younger brother and sister to public rather than private schools here because the public schools in the middle-class suburbs of California, their original home, were at the time considered among the best schools in the country.
“The families we knew never considered private schools for their kids. Hawaii’s public schools were another matter …”
Finnegan eventually became close friends with the local surfers at “Cliffs” where, he writes: “Nobody bothered me. Nobody vibed me. It was the opposite of my life at school.”
He describes Kaimuki Intermediate as a battleground between insiders and outsiders.
A boy and his surfboard: William Finnegan in Hawaii.
William Robinson Finnegan
“The ‘natives’ as I called them, seemed to dislike us particularly. This was quite unnerving, because many of the Hawaiians were for junior high kids, quite large, and the word was they liked to fight.”
In an email, Finnegan told me, “ It was a huge eye opener for me. Before Kaimuki Intermediate, I had only lived in a very white bread California suburb. Suddenly I was in a school with all kinds of kids, from all kinds of backgrounds.
“I’d say Kaimuki Intermediate was the beginning of my education in the world beyond my narrow upbringing.”
Finnegan writes in the New Yorker article about the local kids picking fights with the haole students, especially the mainland haoles — beating them up in the frightening yet sometimes exhilarating after-school fights known as “beefs.”
I met Finnegan last year when my husband and I were invited to have lunch with him at Punahou School, where he was on a stint as a visiting writer to help the Punahou kids improve their prose.
When we got together for cafeteria-style salads in the faculty dinning room, I was expecting to be intimidated by the sophisticated writer. But, surprisingly, it turned out we were brethren.
I had no idea Finnegan was a local haole, that we had grown up in essentially the same 1950s-1960s era, in the same Kahala-Kaimuki neighborhood. And that the house his family rented was on Kulamanu Street, the same Diamond Head neighborhood in which I now live.
His parents didn’t hover over him, watching him all the time. Neither did mine. We had a lot of freedom growing up.
As a kid, I also had been a habitué of Cromwells and Kaikoos, where I liked to swim after school.
I went to a private school, not public school like Finnegan. But I experienced my share of anti-haole beefs on the city bus coming home every day from Punahou.
Our bus driver was an Irish man we enjoyed tormenting. We named him Tomato Face because his skin turned flaming red when he was mad at us, which was nearly all the time.
“I’d say Kaimuki Intermediate was the beginning of my education in the world beyond my narrow upbringing.” — William Finnegan
Tomato Face always dropped us off at a bus stop near where Kahala Mall is now. While we waited to transfer to another bus, we were forced to mingle with some thuggish females we called “ the titas,” a group of local girls from Palolo who enjoyed smacking us.
At first we were scared of them, but gradually encountering the titas became exciting — never more so, than when we pitted our fighter, Andy Durant, a petite but powerful blonde from Kahala, against the titas’ main fighter, Theresa, a hulking wall of a girl with pierced ears.
When the unsuspecting Theresa shoved tiny Andy, Andy punched her in the nose and followed up with a series of swift blows that decked the tita. We had to yell at Andy to stop as she straddled Theresa, trying to yank off her dangling earrings.
Finnegan writes that his fighting career at Kaimuki Intermediate tapered off after he was invited to join a haole gang called the In Crowd.
“Our main enemies were the ‘mokes’ — which seemed to mean anyone dark and tough. ‘You been beefin with the mokes already,’ Mike [the leader of the In Crowd] said to me.”
The In Crowd talked a lot about the mokes but never seemed to get down to starting fights with them.
Today, William Finnegan writes for the New Yorker.
Courtesy of William Finnegan
The most interesting observation Finnegan makes is that the racism he experienced at Kaimuki Intermediate was “situationist, not doctrinaire,” — meaning that it was not inherent but rather depended on particular situations.
“It had no historical pretensions — unlike, say the skinheads who came along later, claiming descent from Nazism and the Klan. Hawaii has seen plenty of white supremacism, particularly among its elites, but the In Crowd knew nothing of the elites. Most of the kids were hardscrabble, living in straitened circumstances…”
I have left out most of what Finnegan writes about surfing but I especially enjoyed his descriptions of the surfers who became his best friends, Roddy and Glenn Kaulukukui and Ford Takara. After they became close, the trio kept its surfboards in a stand of bamboo in the Finnegans’ yard.
The Kaulukukui brothers and Takara eventually started hanging out with Finnegan’s In Crowd, under the gang’s official monkeypod tree meeting place and going to drink beer at one of the hardscrabble haole’s homes on Friday nights.
“The In Crowd had been integrated with no fuss,” writes Finnegan.
Finnegan, like many of us who grew up here, was fascinated by the notion of the so-called holiday, Kill A Haole Day.
“The holiday got plenty of discussion, including editorials (against) in the local papers, though I never managed to find out precisely where on the calendar it fell. ‘Any day the mokes want,’ Mike, our In Crowd chief, had said.
“I also never heard whether the holiday had occasioned any actual homicides.”
Finnegan says people told him the main targets of Kill A Haole Day were off-duty servicemen hanging out in Waikiki and Chinatown, but I have never seen any proof of that.
It is amazing to see in a sophisticated national magazine writing on topics such as Kill A Haole Day, which until now I have considered closely guarded, insider information that’s probably untrue but nonetheless, fascinating.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.