It happened long before Hawaii became a state, the summer of ’49, when Art and Will were both sixteen, living in the fullness of their years, blessed with the conviction of invincibility, confident of a future with no limits.
They had been best friends since the sixth grade. When they first met, Art asked Will, “If your name is William, how come you call yourself Will and not Bill or Billy like everybody else named William?”
“Because I’m not like everybody else,” Will answered.
Will was Japanese and Art Caucasian, but that made no difference in their friendship.
“My family were samurai before, but now we own a market,” Will told Art once after they became friends. “How about yours?”
“Oh—uh—there were missionaries on both sides.”
“Oh yeah,” laughed Will, “My father said, ‘they came to do good, and they ended up doing real well.’ That’s okay, you are still a good guy.”
But there was the time that Art tried to take Will to the Outrigger Canoe Club as his guest and Will was refused admission.
“I’m a member and so are all my family. Why can’t I bring in my friend as a guest?” Art asked hotly, embarrassed for Will and for himself.
“Because we don’t admit them as members or as guests.”
“THEM? You mean like Japanese or Chinese?”
“Or Filipino. Look young man. I don’t make the rules. I’m just here to make sure they are followed.”
Art wrote his letter of resignation to the club that night, although his father told him he was making too much of the matter. “That’s just the way it’s always been. The Club admits Hawaiians so it’s not just for Haoles. And you know that William or any of your friends are always welcome in our home, so why let a little rule keep you from enjoying the facilities?”
Art never went to the club again.
They went to the beach a lot that summer of ’49, between tenth and eleventh grades. Sometimes going with the girls, and sometimes with the guys, and most times with both. They were both very good swimmers and body surfers. Art had convinced his parents to buy him a war surplus jeep so they were able to get about to anywhere on the island and they did, the jeep often overloaded with classmates. They dated and made out, and although the whos and hows of ‘scoring’ were much discussed, at least for that summer it remained only a tantalizing fantasy.
Three weeks before the start of school they were body surfing at China Walls, which was accessible then only by foot or jeep. There was a big south swell that sunny, bright afternoon, and there was no one else in the water. Will got into trouble, the waves catching him against the cliff. If Art hadn’t been there to help him, he could well have bought it.
“You saved my life, Art,” Will said after they had scrambled back on the rocks, breathing hard, hearts pounding, scraped up, but safe.
“You would have done the same for me. No big deal,” said Art.
“I owe you my life. If you save someone’s life it means you’re responsible for him afterwards.”
“That was just a bullshit discussion in Mrs. Lowell’s class last year. Got nothing to do with real life. Look, let’s get in the jeep and stop at the house so we can put some Mercurochrome on our cuts.”
Through high school, after graduation, and for all the years afterwards, they remained best friends, even while at different colleges. They served in the Korean War, then went to grad schools on opposite coasts, found wives, and eventually returned to Honolulu to work. Art in business, Will in law.
And now they were in their mid-sixties, hair thinning and waists growing. They lunched together regularly over the years, discussing deals, remembering good times, but now more and more reminiscing about their youth and school days as they considered retirement. Where had the years gone? It had been a long time since either of them had body surfed.
Both had done well in their professions, but their personal lives had gone in different directions. Art was still happily married to Lois, his wife of forty years, with two grown children on the Mainland. Will had just ended his third marriage. His first wife Ann had committed suicide because of his affair with his future second wife and his grown children blamed him. They had been estranged for years. The divorces and unfortunate investment decisions had left his finances in shambles. In addition, Will’s health was failing; a result of his years of heavy smoking, and his doctor advised that he would soon need supplemental oxygen because of severe emphysema.
Over lunch at the Pacific Club, he said, “Art, you know I was such a jock in high school. I never thought that I’d end up like this, so short of breath. The doc wants me to use oxygen. Dragging around a tank everywhere I go. That’s not living.”
“If it’ll help you breathe easier, well why not?” said Art. “You see people with portable tanks everywhere now. Even on planes.”
“Maybe that’s okay for some people, but I don’t feel that way. That’s not what I wanted for my retirement.”
“Maybe it’s not what you wanted. I wouldn’t either. But if you need it, then you’ve got to do it.”
“At some point, life isn’t worth living. And with this divorce, I don’t know if I can retire, I’m so deep in the hole. How can I keep working if I can’t even breathe?”
“Will, what are you talking about? I know you’re feeling depressed because Aileen divorced you, but come on. You’ve always been a fighter.”
“It’s been a long time since I put on gloves, Art.”
They were both quiet for a long time. Finally, Will said, “Remember before junior year when we went to the beach all summer? That was so great.” His lips smiled but not his eyes.
“Yeah, we never got laid, but we sure talked about it a lot.”
“You saved my life at China Walls.”
“I told you then, no big thing. You would have done the same for me.”
“And before that, you quit the Outrigger because of me.”
“Ah, you’re my best friend. I couldn’t let them treat you like that. You would have done the same.”
“If you hadn’t saved me that day, I wouldn’t be in this miserable mess now.”
“Quit it, Will,” said Art. “Stop talking like an asshole. You’re starting to scare me with that kind of talk. We’re still friends. Don’t be such a proud bastard. If you need some help to tide you over, just say so.”
“Yeah. No, I’m okay. I guess I’m just feeling sorry for myself. I’m lucky you’re still my best friend. Always was, always will be.”
“Damn right. I’ll call you about lunch in two–three weeks, okay? And if you want to talk, call me anytime.”
Art was worried by Will’s mood. He called him a day later to check. Will was now in a small two-bedroom rental apartment. He’d had to sell the big house to pay off Aileen and the debts she’d run up.
“Let’s go for a ride this weekend,” suggested Art. “We always just meet for lunch. We could revisit some of the beaches we went to that great summer.”
“I can’t swim anymore, Art, let alone body surf.”
“Neither can I. But that’s okay; we can watch the kids surf and talk. I’ll call you Friday to confirm, okay?”
Will sounded surprisingly cheerful when Art called on Friday. “I got a better idea. You still got that boat? Let’s go back off Koko Head where we used to body surf. I’d like to see it from the water just once more.”
“You mean go in and swim? Shouldn’t you check that out with your doctor?”
“It might be my last chance before my lungs get worse. I’ll take it easy if I do.”
That Saturday, they trailered the boat out to the Maunalua Bay boat ramp. The water sparkled brightly in the morning sun and there was a brisk trade wind ruffling the surf.
“Let’s go out past the Point and take a look before we come back in closer to China Walls,” said Will.
As they motored out past where the surf broke on the reef, Will started to strip down to his trunks, breathing heavily as he did. To Art’s inquiring glance he said, “Just catching some rays and getting ready.”
“It’s rough out here,” said Art. “You’d better sit down. The boat had now gone past the Point and it rocked and bobbed as it slowed to a stop and drifted slowly, motor in neutral.
They sat silently for a long while, the boat lifting and falling with the swells, looking back over the deep blue water towards the shore where the island spread out before them, to the rising green Koolau Mountains, brown Koko Crater and brown Koko Head, at the many houses sprinkled along the shore that weren’t there, that long-ago summer.
Will finally spoke, “Remember when you saved me and I told you that saving a person’s life meant that you were responsible for that person afterwards?”
“And I said then that was a pile of crap. I still think so.”
“Well, I would have died that afternoon if it wasn’t for you. I want you to promise as my best friend that you’ll honor my wishes.”
Art started towards him, and Will backed away to the stern. “Stop,” he said. “Or I’ll go over right now. Let me talk. I think it’s fitting that I come back to where I should have died. Thank you for always being my best friend. Even when Lois blamed me for Ann’s death, you stuck by me. Now don’t try to stop me or save me again. You’re not so young yourself, and I don’t want your death on my head. Just tell the police that I insisted on going swimming and disappeared and you couldn’t get to me. That’s the truth. If they do find my body, scatter the ashes out here where we had our best days.”
“Don’t do it, William!”
Will climbed up on the rear bench and wobbled there an instant. ”So long old friend. Take good care of yourself and Lois. Live well.”
Art lunged towards him but the boat lurched as Will jumped and Art fell to his hands and knees, scraping them. “Will. No!”
Afterwards, Art remembered Will’s smile, how boyish and open it was, and how cleanly he dove into the waves. Just like when they were sixteen. His head resurfaced eight feet away, and he never looked back as he swam towards the open sea with strong, even strokes. Before Art could get to the controls, Will’s feet flipped up into a dive and he disappeared.