The most interesting beach boy in Makaha

by Tim Matthews

Earl at one of his favorite “chill spots” past Makaha beach.

Earl and other local residents help in hauling a dead 6-foot reef shark from the beach near Earl’s work. Photo by Tim Matthew

Reminiscent of the days when Duke Kahanamoku, Buffalo Kealauna, and the other surf legends of yesteryear were regular fixtures along the shores of Waikiki, a man named Earl Pappas can be found on the beaches of Makaha and beyond playing host to similar misadventures and heroic feats of watermanship. Though his scars and crooked smile may seem off-putting at first, his warm expressions quickly drum up the curiosity of even the most timid of tourists. Most around the countryside know him well and his name can be heard shouted in the afternoon from across the beach; faithfully answered back with a long, drawn out Youuuuuuuuu! He has been called “the most interesting man in Makaha,” a clever twist on a familiar ad, and with genuine local boy charm he lives up to the title.

Upon first sitting down with Earl and being able to really see the features of his rough exterior, the deep valleys of scars along his face, his toothy smile more fitting for a backwoods hillbilly, you get the impression of a man of primitive origins who had to battle saber-toothed animals under a relentless desert sun to earn his distinguished features. However, it’s a much different image that comes to mind once you strike up a conversation. In no time you’ve learned a bit about fine French cuisine and, if you’re lucky, maybe he has already sautéed some mushrooms to further complement the lesson. After a bit longer, perhaps he’s delved into the stories of his travels throughout Europe and America. Soon your no longer see a cave-dwelling relic of ages past, you see a modern, 27-year-old Hawaiian Renaissance man of culture and class misshapen by the bumps and scrapes of a precarious and exciting life.

His modest shack decorated with whatever was free and handy is clean, if a bit ramshackle. Mangos hit the tin roof and startle most guests the first few times, but fade out of thought after the first four or so big ones bang and rattle off the edge into the grass. He reclines deep in his hand-me-down La-Z-Boy when I ask him about his scars.

“Well I got this one when a guy hit me in the face with a bottle, I got this one in Jack in the Box when a Marine kicked me in the face, and I got this one when I was jumped by some black guys on the beach.”

He speaks calmly and coolly, displaying no more emotion than if he were reciting sports scores or what’s for dinner. His finger zigzags his face while he skips the details, from his eyebrow down to his left cheek, to the corner of his right eye, and down to his chin. The stories are often a mood killer, Earl says, and when others pressure him to tell about his face’s topographical history, he always obliges with how he almost completely lost his eye, a relatively less sour note.

Earl at one of his favorite “chill spots” past Makaha beach.

“I got kicked by this Marine guy with boots and the thing was popped out of the socket. Good thing it swelled up and pulled it back in. It was animal.” Earl shows me a picture of his eye from the morning after the incident and on the right side of his face is a great, black, swollen spot. He required a surgery to repair some eyelid tissue and the tear duct that was severed, but managed to make it back to work the next day. Most who know him best say he has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and fighting for the little guy under even the most desperate of situations. Often to a fault.

A one-on-one sit down is always good for a few stories and a relaxing afternoon, but Earl at his most zealous and comfortable is on the sands of Makaha surrounded by friendly people. Earl is a regular fixture along a beach called Turtles’ in Makaha where he works as the maintenance manager at a hotel nearby. After his shift ends at 3 p.m., Earl makes his way down from his diligent vigil over the building to hustle and mingle with the tourists.

“It’s one of the best things about my job. You are so close to all these people from everywhere and you meet interesting people. If you make a little on the side helping them have a good vacation, that’s good too, but I really just like the atmosphere.”

Tourists from all over Canada and America, as well as locals just off from their own jobs, come down to the beach and Earl is always more than happy to oblige them with entertainment and jokes. In true Waikiki beach boys’ fashion, Earl plays his ukulele for them and lets out a few notes of his favorite Hawaiian songs, sometimes adding his own impromptu lyrics about passersby, among other things, for a ruckus laugh from his ever changing audience. Most weekends a canopy is erected and packed to capacity with the curious and familiar alike eager for their own authentic Hawaiian experience to take back home with them courtesy of the charismatic Earl.

“It’s always a good time with Earl,” Dana Davidson from Alberta, Canada, eagerly remarks. “He always brings the fun.” Dana has come out to Makaha every spring since she was a teenager and Earl has been a regular part of her vacation for the past few years. “I love it out here and Earl is a big part of the experience.”

This past winter Earl was very much a big part of one tourist’s experience when an older vacationer from the mainland was pulled out to sea by a strong current during a particularly big swell at a beach unpatrolled by lifeguards. Hearing calls for help coming from the beach, Earl grabbed a body board and swam to the stranded swimmer in 8-to-10-foot surf. Muscling his way back in and timing the sets just right, Earl swam the exhausted swimmer in safely and the story made it to the local Leeward newspaper with the tourist and his rescuer on the front page. This type of heroism was nothing new. Earl nonchalantly said it was maybe his fifth that winter; as with most things, he didn’t keep track.

That’s the basic mindset of Earl, low-key epic. He subtitles his amazing feats with a casual grin and relaxes in the palm tree shade on the white sands of Makaha, because if Earl is anything amazing, he’s consistent.