You never know how you’re going to react when you hear the news.
And it’s never news you want to hear.
I got a text on Wednesday morning, on my way to the bus stop, that read, “Soyu passed away this morning.”
I froze and stared at my phone.
Wait… what? But I just saw him!
Soyu — or, Gilbert Kawamoto — is the guy we all thought would live forever.
Though 74, he surfed every morning — and on a shortboard sometimes barely taller than him. He was one of the guys who started the garden up at the Diamond Head lookout, tidying up the area, watering the plants and cutting grass. Longtime friends with the family who owns Rainbow Drive-In, he often cut the grass there, too, in exchange for a Slush Float. He helped at most of the events the drive-in catered, unloading the van or serving chili and rice at surf contests at the beach.
I’ve known Soyu for years, back when I was in my 20s and started surfing at Queen’s regularly. While he mostly surfed at Diamond Head — even in my definition of hurricane-force winds — he would occasionally paddle out in Waikīkī during a good-size south swell, opting to sit on the inside and heckle. The heckling (he would never let you live down a wipeout) was one of the best parts about surfing with him.
Everyone, it seems, knows Soyu. A fixture in Hawai‘i’s surf community for decades, he’s competed in contests and surfed with the world’s best. His best friend growing up was famed shaper Donald Takayama. He’s even been in legendary surf films, including — his claim to fame — a quick cameo of him surfing at Bowl’s in the 1966 surf classic “Endless Summer.” Don’t blink, though, or you’ll miss it.
But there’s so much more to Soyu than surfing.
He was a husband, a father of two and grandfather of adoring grandkids. He worked at his father’s shop, Kawamoto Radio & TV on King Street, until it closed. He served in the Army and was stationed for a year in Germany, a time he fondly reflected on. He worked for a few years at Rainbow’s, doing odd jobs. Even in “retirement,” he still helped out at catering events and made the Slush Float Freeze (which I used to make) the drive-in sells in its retail store.
He loved Christmas, so much so he would plan how he would help decorate Rainbow’s during the holidays. Down to finding deals in the stores months before December.
He also loved going to Vegas —— though he always seemed more interested in visiting some magical hardware store than gambling or going to Trader Joe’s. A few years ago, on a trip there, we planned a trek to the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a 10-foot-wide, horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that extends 70 feet out over the rim of the canyon. He refused to go. He said he had already watched a documentary on it — and on a big TV, too — so he saw it already. And he insisted what he saw would be better than the real thing, so he stayed behind.
That was Soyu.
He was one of my favorite people, and I think he knew it. He was the strangest, quirkiest, most interesting person, and he always did or said something that made me laugh, often for days. He was super meticulous about his car, a black Scion. He had a strict ritual for getting ready to surf. He was particular about the thermos he used for his coffee. He preferred his Spam and bacon extra crispy. He always had surf wax on hand, and didn’t mind parting with it since he usually got it for free at surf meets. He had his own logic about things, sometimes hilarious, often genius (though we’d never admit that). He argued the best way to remedy a box jellyfish sting was to put a hot frying pan on it, for example.
Once, we thought he was starting to lose his hearing. He would take calls on his fancy new phone — not a smart one, just a regular one — and walk away because he couldn’t hear the caller. He strained to hear the person on the other line. Turns out, he had inadvertently turned down the volume on his phone. This had gone on for months.
Then there are the stories — or maybe it’s advice — that have stuck with me for years, advice that now makes so much more sense as I’ve gotten older.
He told me when he became a dad, he completely quit surfing. He didn’t get in the water for 20 years, opting to be his son’s coach or just a present dad. You have to sacrifice, he explained to me. Your life changes.
I remember asking him why he started shortboarding, a relatively new thing for the longtime longboarder. You gotta change it up, he said. Otherwise, you going get bored.
After I had my baby last November, I didn’t come around as often. I couldn’t meet the guys in the surf at dawn or for breakfast afterward. But I always made a point to drive by Diamond Head after walking the dogs, just to honk my horn at Soyu, just to hear him yell at me and wave.
There’s no one left who knows why he was nicknamed Soyu. (And it’s S-O-Y-U, not Shoyu.) He wouldn’t tell anyone the story. And now we’ll never know.
No matter, though.
I’m just glad I knew him. I just wish we had a little more time.