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The One and Only Buffalo Keaulana

By Chad Pata

When young Richard Keaulana’s mother couldn’t find her son, she always knew where to look. Just like the buffalo working the taro patch and the rice paddy, her boy was always in the water.

Thus a nickname and a lifelong love affair were born.

This weekend he will be holding his 28th annual Buffalo’s Big Board Surfing Classic at Makaha Beach celebrating the renaissance he started when things were looking their bleakest on the west side of Oahu.

Drugs and crime were ravaging this secluded little town. With nothing to do, idle hands were finding ways to amuse themselves.

“A lot of bad things were going on,” remembers Brian Keaulana, Buffalo’s eldest son.“Dad wanted to get ’em more in tuned with the water culture.”

When Buffalo was growing up, he had learned to find sanctuary in the ocean. His father died while Buffalo was very young and his replacement was abusive. He retreated to the ocean and found support from his older brothers. The step-father eventually returned to the Philippines, and the lack of paternal support spurned him on to never let others suffer as he did.

Buffalo does not speak much of his youth, though he does reminisce about surfing all day, then paddling in when they would hear the train coming, leaping up and catching pineapples that migrant workers would throw off as they passed.

After dropping out of high school he moved from his native Nanakuli into Waikiki to work as a beach boy with notables such as Duke Kahanamoku and Rabbit Kekai. More importantly though, in 1959 he met Momi Whaley, sister of legendary beach boy Blackout Whaley. They quickly fell in love and were married in November of the next year.

Two weeks later he took a position as park keeper of Makaha Beach, with accommodations on the second floor above the restroom. He soon realized the troubles some of the local kids were having and invited them to live with him. Only a month into their marriage and Buffalo and Momi suddenly had 30 kids!

“I told him I thought I married you, not all your friends,” says Momi with a laugh. “But he said, ‘Hey, honey, they just need some help.’”

Into these kids he fostered a love for the water and appreciation for their culture. They spent the next eight years above the lua until Mayor Blaisdell created the position of lifeguard of Makaha Beach for him in 1969.

“Before that it was all volunteer lifeguard who got paid with a plate lunch,” says Buffalo. “They would try really hard to save your life before lunch, but after that, you were on your own ’cause no one was bringing them dinner.”

As word of Buffalo’s work grew, the Pacific Maritime Institute and Governor Ariyoshi sent Buffalo to Alaska to work with the Aleut Indians, who were having problems with drugs and crime with the kids themselves.

“Buffalo told them, ‘Everybody’s got those kind of problems no matter where they live, but you have to give your kids a sense of pride,’” recalls Momi.

Buffalo encouraged the Aleut to train the children in the native arts of canoe racing and carving whale bone figurines to keep the kids too busy to get in trouble. He was also an example of what you could do, even without a high school diploma. For Buffalo, despite his struggles to read, had received his captain’s license from Pacific Maritme Institute.

This would help immensely in his next task. In 1976, Buffalo worked as the steersman on the historic first sailing of the Hokule'a. Despite the cultural significance of that voyage, it was the decision he made when he returned that may have had a larger impact on his people.

“When we got back from Tahiti, everyone suggested I start a surf meet, since surfing had given up on the long board,” says Buffalo in his provincial tone, both regal and rural. “I also thought I could help the people this side find themselves.”

And so he organized the most original and enthralling surf meet ever imagined. He put the crooks to work, as security. Couples would surf together, men would surf on their heads and no monetary prizes were awarded, just baby coconut trees for the winners to take home and plant.

They even had the beach boys put to work organizing a royal court, with a king and queen descending the mountain to the meet.

“It really gave each of them a lot of respect for themselves, as well as who they are and where they come from, the proud side of our heritage,” says Brian, who was in high school at the time. “From right there the whole attitude changed from Makaha being a bad place to being a great place.”

Buffalo’s wild idea exploded in popularity over the next few years with concerts being held in conjunction with the meet. Traffic would back up all the way to Waipahu trying to get out for the weekend, eventually leading him to cut out the musical side of the show.

“Now we cater it just to the surfers, not just the people that were coming for the sheer party of it,” says Brian, citing how some would come just to get drunk and fight. “We want to focus on what the real intention was, which was to have fun, not to have fun and get hurt.”

While the meet has evolved, it has never lost touch with its fun roots. What other contest would have an event for the over 250-pound group?

“Sometimes guys that are overweight are ashamed to come down to the beach, but this is a time when weight is to their advantage,” says Brian.“We interview them at the weigh in about how they train and they say ‘I went Makaha Drive-In and had five plate lunches.’”

The meet’s success has brought sponsors and media to the event. They have spurned advances from ABC and NBC, who wanted them to change the format of the contest.

“When we said no, they were like, ‘Lady, are you nuts, don’t you want the money,’” says Momi over the network advances. “We told them they could stick the money where the sun don’t shine.”

Such is the attitude of the Keaulanas; they live according to the old cultural adage, “Respect means a lot more than the dollar.”

They have accepted the sponsorships, though, but only as a donor of prizes, allowing them to shower their winners with gifts.

“I don’t like to give away trophy, they pick up lots of dust,” says Buffalo. “Good to win surfboard cause you can use it, then hang it up like your pistol.”

One surfboard this year will be going to the winner of the new event, Beach Boy Surfing. Many who see the style think it is brand new, but it actually hails back to Buffalo’s youth when he used to watch Duke surf that way in Waikiki.

It involves an extra long and thick surfboard and an extended length oar. The surfer stands on the board and paddles out into the surf upright, using only the oar for propulsion. It evokes the charm of a gondolier and the majesty of ancient Hawaiian kings.

“It makes you more tired in a half hour than six hours of hardcore surfing,” moans Brian, rubbing his triceps after a session.

This is just one more way for Buffalo to keep the old Hawaiian ways fresh for today’s kids. At 69, he’s 10 years removed from lifeguarding, yet he still spends every day on his favorite stretch of sand worrying about today’s youth.

“The kids listen to the boom, boom music today, it’s killing our culture and it has no meaning,” says Buffalo of the rap music that pervades today’s schools and airwaves. “Used to listen to the bird and the wind for melodies, now they are listening to the muffler, Bam, Bam, Bam.”

He still knows how to keep the kids in line, he and Momi fill their days after school with learning the water sports.

“I think our kids are the luckiest in the world getting to learn all this from him,” say Momi of their 10 grandkids.

He knows Makaha is not perfect, ice is still a problem and car break-ins still occur, but he maintains that the ocean is a panacea.

“Nobody’s perfect, but if you want to get your brain together you got to wash ’em and come surf,” says Buffalo.

Or to put it another way, Momi remembers Buffalo’s response when someone inquired why he never went to church.

“He said, ‘I’m in church every day. When I go out in the ocean, I look up in the sky and I look in the water and I look all around and see whales, dolphins, turtles. What a wonderful place we live in, if people would only open their eyes and look and appreciate where they are.’

“What can you say to a man who thinks that way?”

Nothing, of course, is the answer to that. These days he sits beneath the trees they planted all those years ago that now shade the whole west corner. Some of them were trophies from the Classic that the winners thought would be best served staying home. and one was planted for each of their five sons’ births.

The trees really serve as a metaphor for his life, planting seeds in youth that grow up to become pro surfers, architects or just good parents. Momi watches him at the beach and cannot help but laugh.

“He’s retired, but nothing’s changed. He still goes to the beach every day,” says Momi. “That’s one lady that I can’t compete with!”


Posted: March 5, 2004 @ 7:55 AM HST

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