- Historic Sites
The Beach Boy
How Southern California capitalism and one mysterious loner met, courted, married, and gave birth to our modern surfing culture
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
But Jack London’s story, stirring though it be, is not what really happened. Charmian wrote her account in a later book called Our Hawaii. This, together with articles by Ford, provides the monochrome necessary to counterbalance London’s purple.
Jack and Charmian had met Ford at their dinner table in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Honolulu, on the evening of May 29, 1907. The couple were enjoying cocktails and canapés when up strode the young man, who introduced himself. Jack London had heard of him; Ford had a reputation as a travel writer. The Londons learned that he had been born in South Carolina to an old Southern family, had written plays with Mark Twain himself, had been globetrotting in the 1890s, and had a string of articles published by Harper’s and McClure’s . He’d arrived in Hawaii only a few weeks before but was already burrowing deep into the local culture and was anxious to revive the almost extinct art of riding down hills of boiling foam.
Suddenly Ford got up and snapped his fingers. “Look here, old chap!” he shouted. “Look here! If you’ll let me, I can introduce you to some whacking good material for your stories.” He proceeded to invite the couple to join him the next day for a trip to Waikiki. “And you must meet Freeth—he’s just your handwriting!”
By lunchtime London had scribbled down the long article that would spread the word about a new sport.
So the following morning the trio traveled by trolley car to Waikiki. That evening they dined al fresco at the Moana Hotel, amid trees hung with Chinese lanterns, serenaded by guitars and ukuleles. Charmian wished aloud that Jack would dance. … But he and Ford were immersed in beach plans for the morrow.
“Wait till you meet Freeth! Never speaks, you know,” said Ford. “He’s a man of deeds, not words. His walk alone is eloquence in motion.” Jack pressed for more. “Well, he’s twenty-three and only part Polynesian. His father was an Irish sailor and his mother we’re not quite certain about—probably a mulatto. Of course, the family claim to be descended from a local prince, but everybody here is royal, don’t you know, ha, ha! … Anyway, some noble uncle gave young Freeth a surfboard after the boy had seen an old picture of surfing in his relative’s house. By this time the missionaries had well nigh exterminated the sport. Well, the clandestine board was hellishly long—about sixteen feet—and Freeth had the bright idea of chopping it in two so’s he could at least pick it up. And then, of course, with the lighter board he was able to do lots more on it—like standing up, as the ancients did.
“There’s something spiritual about Freeth that makes him stand out from the rest, like a bright light. He’s a paragon of modern youth, yet he resists the mainland imports, and holds to the old pantheism. … When he rides the waves he’s almost—dare I say it?—a Christ-like figure. No—I’ve gone too far: he’s pre -Christian, of course. Sorry I’m overdoing it, Jack. Must be the wine. You chose a good vintage.”
The Londons were up early. Within the hour Jack had scribbled his ritual thousand words, while Charmian busied herself about the makeshift kitchen, chopping up raw beefsteak to stir into his mess of eggs. Then they waited—and waited. What kind of time did people keep out here in Hawaii?
Ford appeared at noon to escort the couple to nearby Kuhio Beach, where the local watermen congregated. It was here that Jack actually saw Freeth for the first time. Ford pointed him out, a silhouette way out beyond the reef, one hand resting easily on his hip. “Come,” ordered Ford. “He’s out where the blue breakers are.” Jack put down his notes, eager to be active. (So far he’d written, “Freedom, beauty, wonder! No more celebration of the beast! Beauty conquers all! I must enter the contest!!”) But when he dashed off down the beach to join the siren out beyond the reef, Charmian held back, frightened. “Be a boy!” said Ford. He grabbed her hand and led her down to the sea and into the small waves and, eventually, out to where Freeth was still standing. “Tell us your secrets, boy!” shouted Ford.
The Red Cars took visitors to the Hotel Redondo, where, at 2:00 P.M. and again at 4:00, a young Hawaiian “walked on the waters.”
But Freeth never replied. Perhaps he never heard. All he did was slowly turn and disappear, like a conjurer’s trick, into a thundering huge wave.
“They don’t know what they’ve got here,” said the author to the promoter on the day of leaving. The Snark was ready; further adventures were waiting. “I mean, Ford,” he continued as he gave his new friend a hearty farewell handclasp, “that you are in a paradise on earth. Remember that!”