Kimo Hollinger's look at Pop Aikau, and the Aikau family, ran in the November 1977 issue of SURFER Magazine. This version has been slightly edited.
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The invitation read, “Come Help Us Celebrate the First Birthday of Gerald Kelii Aikau.” I thought to myself, “Wow, another luau at the Aikau’s. Are you ready for it?” I decided I was. I telephoned Pop and asked him if there was anything I could do to help. He said, “Get me some squid.” I said I’d try, and he hung up. Then I hung up. That is the proper sequence. You don’t hang the telephone up first on Pop Aikau.
The Aikau compound is situated in the hills behind Honolulu, about a ten-minute drive from the plastic world of Waikiki and the high finances of Merchant Street. It might as well be a century away. The Aikaus long ago decided what part of Western civilization they wanted, and the rest they disregarded. What they kept is blended in with their Maui beginnings to produce a vintage that can only be called “Hawaiian Folk.” To describe their home would be like translating an old Hawaiian place song into English. It’s located in a Chinese graveyard nestled between Pauoa, Papakolea, and the Punchbowl National Cemetery. The Aikaus are the caretakers of this graveyard. The street running past the graveyard is pretty well traveled, but you better be sure of your credentials when you make the turn off that street and into the graveyard. You are now entering Pop’s domain. The road winds past the tombstones and banyan trees to the Aikau home. By checking out which cars are parked in front, you can pretty well tell who is there. The Aikau home doesn’t consist of one house, but is a series of houses. Each house chronicles an event in the family’s history—another son married, a relative down from Maui to try his luck in the big city. Their family, as in traditional times, is an extended family.
Chances are that the first one to greet you will be one of the sons. Eddie and Clyde are both world-famous surfers. Freddie looks like he could be a professional wrestler. Sol is a City lifeguard, and almost as strapping as Freddie. They all know who is Boss. If he’s around, Pop will soon make his presence known.
My arrival at that luau day went practically unnoticed; everyone was busy. I greeted whomever I met, and inquired as to Pop’s whereabouts. I was told he was in the “white house.” Trying to be as nonchalant as possible and yet with due respect, I entered. I was greeted with a perfunctory nod, told to put the squid in the freezer, and to sit down. I knew that that was all the greeting I would get. Luau time was Pop’s finest hour; no effort would be wasted on some jive surfer. Pop was now shouting for his daughter Myra to bring the knives and the chopping blocks. Within five minutes after my arrival, I was cutting up fish for the poki aku.
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Pop Aikau stands about five feet, nine inches. He is dark, but so are a lot of other Hawaiians. He walks with a limp, the result of an accident when he stevedored on the Honolulu docks. Nothing about his physical appearance suggests his character except his eyes. When you see them, you know you’re in for it. They dance. His voice, on a scale of ten, registers 15. He never sits still. If there is no action, he creates it. He usually wears a surfing T-shirt, a pair of jeans, and construction shoes—an outfit for action. Wherever he goes, he is usually accompanied by an entourage. The cast changes, but always remains colorful. A couple of this cast invariably belong to the “heavy” category. This is to ensure that whatever Pop decrees is understood by all. The others might be from anywhere or anything, but they all have this in common. They are all caught up in Pop’s charisma.
During a break in my duties, I finally am able to greet Mom. I kiss her cheek. As rambunctious as Pop is, Mom is gentle. To see her is to see the soul of the Hawaiian people, a race tempered by soft tradewinds and the warm Pacific Ocean. She asks about my family’s welfare. I say we are all right, and that my children will be coming to the luau tonight. She is pleased, and I feel good. Not wanting to drag her, I excuse myself. There is work to be done, and Pop’s spirit is infectious.
Above all things, Pop is a showman. This luau, like everything else he does, is orchestrated down to the last opihi. He’s here, there, everywhere. Nothing is done without his approval, and he checks on everything. After I finish cutting the fish, I am assigned to help Brownie with the chicken and long rice. Perfect. I can sit back and enjoy the best show in town. Pop is shouting orders to some big Hawaiian dude who turns out to be Levi Stanley, the pro football player. The guy sent down to buy ice is a famous lawyer. Pop’s inlaws, fresh off the plane from the Mainland, are included in the act. One thing about Pop, he only picks on his friends. This one guy shows up offering help. Pop ignores him. After he leaves, Pop turns to Brownie and me and gives us the thumbs down. Pop’s character judgments are instantaneous and unchanging. You’re either “in” or you're “down the road,” and no amount of currying favor will alter things. I feel grateful to belong.
Someone reminds Pop that it’s 1:00 PM, and time for the pig to come out of the imu. He leads us out the door to the imu site, barking orders the whole time. The best show in town.
To those of you who are uninitiated, the uncovering of the imu is the highlight of any luau. If the man in charge knows his stuff, the pig will be succulent. If he doesn’t and the pig is under or overcooked, shame.
Everyone gathers around as Eddie, Clyde, and the other boys shovel off the soft dirt. The burlap bags are lifted off, then the ti leaves and banana stumps. When the pig came into view, everyone gasps. It is perfect. Pop’s face beams, and he gives Mom a big hug. The others shake hands and the Mainlanders take pictures. Pop savors this little triumph for a moment then is off to another section of the luau, the whole time giving directions and orchestrating. Where is Francis Ford Coppola?
In the living room of the Aikaus’ main house, is a place set aside to display the family accomplishments. It is a Hawaiian trophy rack. Between surfing pictures of Eddie and Clyde are graduation pictures, baby pictures, surfing trophies, marriage pictures, and other memorabilia, all of it equally important to the family. No member is overlooked. It is also a religious shrine containing crucifixes and pictures of Jesus, Mary, and other Saints. The Aikaus are a religious family and, like everything else they do, their religion is close to the earth. One needn’t be terribly perceptive to be touched by the love and care that went into this display.
Back to Pop.
I don’t know if Pop surfed in his youth. Does it matter? He turned up on the surfing scene when Eddie began to make a name for himself, around 1966. Wherever Eddie surfed, the family was sure to be there. Pop and his cohorts ran the beach, making sure that everyone understood, and that no one took off in front of Eddie. When Clyde followed and began to make his mark, matters intensified. Then the perfect vehicle for Pop’s enormous energy and organizational ability appeared—surfing contests. Pop’s surfing contests were classics. Those were the pioneer days, and were they a lot of fun. Guys like myself couldn’t have cared less who won. Being a part of it all was what counted. I was usually a judge and was able to witness the whole operation from a good vantage point. The cast of characters was colorful and diverse as only Hawaii is. The few bucks that we did make, from entry fees and small sponsorships, went right into the party afterward. Pop would sound us and the surfers out for advice concerning the waves, the wind, the weather, etc., and make his decisions. I don’t know if those decisions were always right, but nobody can ever accuse Pop of being wishy-washy. Those contests were over, start to finish, in just four hours. The world’s greatest surfers, his sons included, were treated like so much meat. Pop ran the show, and if they didn't like it, “down the road.” Same for any overzealous spectator who tried to interfere. “Short and sweet” was Pop’s philosphy. Amen.
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I noticed a commotion. People were shouting to one another to get in the cars. They were going to the cemetery. A few years ago, one of the Aikau brothers was killed in an auto accident. His name was Gerry, and the new child, his nephew, whom the luau was for, was his namesake. I always liked Gerry. He wasn’t the surfer that Eddie and Clyde are, but because he wasn’t as intense, he was much more outgoing. He had returned from the Vietnam War, and to what extent that debacle had made an impression on his mind, I don’t know. He rarely talked about it, to me anyway, but seemed content to be exactly what he was, a fun-loving Hawaiian.
The shock of Gerry's passing devastated the family. How they recovered from it was typically Aikau. All the remaining siblings, four sons and a daughter, moved back with Mom and Pop. And there they were when Brownie and I arrived at the cemetery, sitting around Gerry’s grave. In an age and a system that stresses the individual, the Aikau family has stuck together. They talk as if Gerry were still alive. Each member of the family said his or her piece, and then, in unison, said some prayers. Afterward, they all kissed his headstone. I touched it. Mom lingered on; Gerry had been her favorite. It was a bittersweet occasion. This is for you, Brother Gerry.
As the hour for the luau to begin approached, things got more hectic. Pop was orchestrating to the crescendo. All the ingredients for these far-out Hawaiian dishes had been prepared. All that remained to be done was to mix them together and add the Hawaiian salt. The amount of salt is critical. Too much and the dish is spoiled. Too little and the food lacks flavor. Pop played this to the hilt. Smiling at his audience, he said, “Hey, Junior, how much you think?” Junior, smart boy, was noncommittal. “Well,” he says, “how about one handful for Hawaii. And one more for Maui. And the last one for Sammy Lee and Kauai.” Everyone cheered and got in line to taste. Pop was shouting for Mom to be the first. We all followed.
Pop had done it again. Everything was perfect. Eddie got all the workers together, and we had a big toast. It was time for me to go home and pick up my family, but how I hated to leave the best show in town.
For a while, Pop was afraid that no one would show up because the rain had started to fall, but by the time I returned with my family the place was packed. A parade of musicians came up on stage. The food was delicious. Pop had made enough pineapple swipe to sink (or float) the SS Lurline. The decorations were outstanding. My daughters could not keep their eyes off the crowd. Holly, who is twelve, said, “Daddy, who is that guy over there?” I said, “That’s Larry Bertlemann, baby,” all the while thinking, “Oh oh, I’m in for it now.”
Other surfing-world notables in attendance included Buffalo Keaulana, Conrad Canha, Peter Cole, Ricky Grigg, and a host of younger cats whose names I don’t know. Pop, by this time, was well into his pineapple swipe. One of the dignitaries invited was Fearless Frank Fasi, the Honorable Mayor of the City and County of Honolulu. No politician ever wants to play second banana, but what could Fasi do? The last I saw of our Mayor, Pop was leading him around by the hand, with the Mayor meekly following.
At one point, the band was in a full-on boogie, and a cry was heard, “Stop the music!” It was Pop. He then mounted the stage and motioned for everyone to quiet down. By this time, everybody was so juiced that God himself couldn’t have quieted them. Pop persisted. He finally got the first three rows quiet and made his announcement. I’m trying to remember what it was all about, but I can’t, and no difference. It was all just part of the show.
Meanwhile, the rain really started coming down, and water was collecting beneath our feet in great puddles. This in no way deterred Pop and the family. The boys had sheets of plywood in reserve, which they laid down where people were walking. I was worried that my truck was going to sink in the mud and that I’d never get out of there. Reluctantly, I decided to leave. I sought out members of the family to thank them and say goodbye. I found Pop in the gaming room. Those dancing eyes by this time were having a hard time focusing and I wondered how he was managing to maintain. It was about 10:30, and I figured he wouldn’t see midnight. The professional musicians had since departed, and it was time for Eddie and Clyde to take over. Down-home time. I really hated to leave, but the rain, if anything, was coming down harder. I made it to my truck, started her up, and eased out the driveway. From the street, I looked down on a scene that except for the automobiles and the electricity could have taken place centuries ago. God bless the Aikaus.
Pop made it to three in the morning; the best show in town.