One of my oldest friends passed away today. Buttons Montgomery Kaluhiokalani lost his fight with cancer. He was 54. Buttons had a list of surf contest credits, but those become incidental when compared to the playful exuberance that led him to become one of the most inventive and influential surf legends ever.
Many people know him only as ‘that guy who got busted by “Dog the Bounty Hunter”, but his appearance on that show was an insult to Button’s legacy.
I first met Buttons back ‘hanabada days’, at the Waikiki Beach Center, when we were both young teens. At the time, Buttons was this scrawny little kid. He was already hanging out with life-of-the-party Mark Liddell, years before they traveled and ‘starred’ in surf movies. Bertlemann made an occasional appearance, and Reno Abellira’s little brother Remi was a regular. Then there were the Waikiki alpha-male’s: Cippy Cabato, Little Al, Buckwheat, Bobby Mendoza…
We were once labeled by the Honolulu Advertiser as ‘the Beach Center Gang’, and even got our group shot on the front page. That was pretty funny. We did make some ‘pilikia’ from time to time; Sometimes, if the waves weren’t happening we’d start fights with the tourists. (Uh, that “we” is confined to a very few :).
I didn’t see Buttons for a long time after I started high school, when I left the Waikiki crew for Ala Moana park. I remember talking to him out at Ehukai on the north shore during the 70’s. That day looked like it wasn’t worth surfing, so I grabbed my fins and went out bodysurfing – Buttons was on a period single fin. We were the only guys in the water. He was taking off and carving 360’s on closeouts, and I had a front row seat. I was getting jealous and blown away all at the same time. He’d come such a long way.
I left for California in the 80’s to do standup comedy, and only ran into Buttons once in a blue moon on my return trips. I shared my show biz stories, and once even tried to convince him that they’d like ‘his look’ in Hollywood, and I could connect him with my agent. He wasn’t the star-struck type. Now I feel stupid for bringing it up – it was such an ‘LA thing’ to do.
I opened Banzai Surf School in 2010, and we quickly became ‘sista’ schools and shared customers. I always thought it was kinda funny, after our long and different life paths, that we both wound up in the same business.
His passion for the sport and aloha spirit will be missed. The hardest part about his passing is that Buttons takes with him another piece of my oldest memories of Hawaii. –pau-