Churning left tubes, easy rollers and high-performance rights

"I was born in Honolulu, almost 75 years ago," Lee Allen told me recently as we sipped coffee and sat at a table outside in the warming sun, "My actual name is Lei-bert; I was named after the first Hawaiian Catholic bishop."

Looking at and listening to this bespectacled, gentle man with neatly trimmed gray-white hair, soft brown eyes and a freshly pressed Aloha shirt, it was easy to see that he possessed what is referred to as "the Aloha spirit."

Allen had just moved into a Magnolia apartment, and we engaged in easy conversation one morning as we whiled away the beginning of the day.

Both of Allen's parents were half-Hawaiian and half-haole (Caucasian). They could speak Hawaiian, and when he went to live with an Auntie on Maui when he was only 6, she taught him the language. But as he says now, "From not using it, I've forgotten a lot."

It was from another Auntie's yard, up the hill on Oahu, that he watched Pearl Harbor being attacked when he was only 14 years old. He went to public school in Honolulu and graduated there from Roosevelt High School.

Growing up in the Islands, you're obviously surrounded with water. As a one-time competitive swimmer and former surfer, I steered the conversation toward those subjects. It wasn't every day, I thought, that you have a chance to talk with an ex-perienced waterman who was there to watch the birth of "modern" surfing.

"I started really swimming in ... oh, I guess I was about 7 or 8 ... that must have been sometime around 1936 or 1937," Allen told me. "Then, when I was about 17, I started surfing at Waikiki. The board was just one of the big, heavy, skegless planks that belonged to the Waikiki Tavern, and in exchange for cleaning up around the tavern, I got to use one of the boards - if someone else wasn't using it."

"While maps define Waikiki Beach," says "The Encyclopedia of Surfing," by Matt Warshaw, "as a narrow strip of shoreline just a few hundred yards long, fronting an enormous wall of high-rise hotels, surfers generally think of Waikiki as extending over two miles from Diamond Head to the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor - an area containing more than 20 reefbreaks, including the churning left tubes at Ala Moana, the easy rollers at Canoes and the high-performance rights at Queens."

"My second board," Allen continued as I encouraged him to tell me more surf stories, "was a big, laminated, pine-and-balsa board with redwood rails [edges]. It also was skegless" - the skeg is the short, stabilizing fin on the rear underside of some boards - "so you had to ride pretty much straight off. You could drag a foot for a little angle, but you couldn't cut across the face of a wave.

"My third board was a hollow board that I paid a Japanese cabinetmaker in Honolulu to make for me using Tom Blake plans." Blake was a noted surfer/paddleboarder whose plans were published in a 1939 issue of Popular Science magazine. "It was made out of spruce and weighed a lot less than the solid boards."

"If you were a Waikiki regular," I asked, "during those early days did you know Duke Kahanamoku?"

"I knew him enough to recognize him," Allen stated, "and he once coached us on an outrigger canoe team that I paddled on. But we weren't that close. Oh, when he was sheriff I did ask him for a job, but it didn't work out."

That led me to the next question. I have a T-shirt that reads "real surfers don't have real jobs." I wondered what Allen was doing to support himself and his surfing.

"In 1950 I went to the Honolulu Technical School," Allen told me, "to learn drafting, but mainly electrical schematics. I served an apprenticeship at Pearl Harbor and then trans-ferred over to Hickam Field airbase where I specialized in working on aircraft instruments."

"Did you ever ride the North Shore?" I asked next.

"Waikiki is primarily a summer break," he said, "so during the winter we'd drive across the island. We rode Makaha, Pupukea, Haleiwa and Sunset, although Makaha is technically on the West Side of the island. I rode the Makaha contest [which started in 1954] a few times.

"I was riding a 9-foot-4-inch foam board with a skeg by that time. I busted one up on the rocks at Waimea, and I swore I'd never go back there again.

"Along about that time I'd bought a Greg Noll gun [a big wave board, shaped for speed] from Buzzy Trent [a famous big-wave rider], because I was using it in the Makaha contest. Somebody stole it from my shop where I refurbished boards for spare change.

"One day I spotted these kids with my blue Noll gun on top of their car, stopped on the highway. One thing that you can recognize is your own board. So I just walked up and unstrapped it and put it under my arm as I carried it off.

"'Hey!' they yelled, but I told them it was my board and if they wanted to do anything, to call a cop. They just drove off."

Given his strong Hawaiian background, I asked Allen what he was doing on the mainland.

"I came over for the first time in 1965 for a two-week vacation, and then in 1967 I came over and went to work for Boeing at their flight-test facility. I got caught up in the layoffs in 1970.

"From 1971 until 1993 I partially owned a plywood mill. I guess you could say I'm retired now."

"One last question," I asked: "When was the last time you went surfing?"

"That's an easy one," Allen replied. "It was only three years ago at Canoe surf, one of the many Waikiki breaks. It's right in front of the Moana Surfrider hotel, and I was out with my daughter and my son-in-law when they went over to the Islands."

"Mahalo," I said as I folded my reporter's notebook.

You never can tell who you'll meet any morning over coffee. The important thing is to smile and start talking. Everyone has at least one interesting story to tell.

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