All We Are Is Space Dust
And other cosmic ruminations from the house of Rothman. Photography by Brent Bielmann, Steve Sherman and Hank Photo.
There are many different ways of being human…We are one species. We are star stuff harvesting starlight… –Carl Sagan
The road to the Rothman’s is paved with good stories. Lined with naupaka plants and plumeria trees, with tall tales and bloated rumor. The road to the Rothman’s is dotted with potholes, interrupted by oversized speed bumps, bordered with crude, homemade signs that warn: SLOW DOWN, KEIKI AT PLAY, and 5 MPH, and NO GMOs. And you better believe the sorry souls that exceed that limit will receive a stern talking-to. The road to the Rothman’s leads invariably to the ocean, down a road littered with lifted pick-up trucks, ancient sedans stained with red dirt, paved by the myth of the man that lives down Makanele Road. I park a respectable distance from the Rothman’s driveway (in case one was somehow pulling out or into his residence) and my hands are sweaty because I am to spend time in the home of the man whose name is often whispered, spoken of with reverence — nay, fear — in hushed tones and after looking both ways. Specific introductions aren’t needed for Eddie Rothman, his reputation precedes him as they say. Founder of notorious surf club Da Hui, written about as a Mafioso-type character, slap-bestower to industry types…bottom line: Don’t fuck with the Rothmans. Period.
But these are things the common surfer who has ever been to or read anything about the North Shore already knows and I am not here for sensationalistic journalism — but to observe Eddie as a father and Makua and Koa as his sons and however that familial dynamic plays out before a visitor in their home. My hands are really sweaty, however, because the only surfer in our entire recent 50th Anniversary issue — posed in a classic, fatally backlit Pipeline pit from the 1970’s — is apparently Eddie Rothman, who before I came, expressed his dissatisfaction at this blunder. In short, we labeled the most feared man on the North Shore “Unidentified.” I was fairly certain he’d address that fuck-up when I arrived. It’d be a miracle if he didn’t. Twenty-year-old Koa Rothman, the middle son and flourishing, young charger at Pipe (and Jaws and massive Teahupo’o) greets me at the gate. He has a laidback, liquid demeanor with the handsome, olive-tone looks of an Italian soccer star. We walk onto the property and a couple of huge pit bulls gallop toward us, one that looks half-Great Dane with a scrotum so large it nearly drags on the lawn. Truly, an impressive bag of balls. Koa leads us beneath his home, past a row of three dozen surfboards that all look strictly crafted for surf over 20-feet* We veer around the front yard, beachfront, and a stray chicken darts in front of me. I follow Koa up the stairs to the balcony deck that looks out upon Sunset Beach to the west, Backyards out front, V-land to the north and Phantoms, at the moment unloading a15-foot set, thundering on the turquoise outer-reef. Koa leads the way, but suddenly is gone, and standing in front of me is Eddie Rothman, shirtless and barrel-chested, with a large machete in hand. He looks over his shoulder and swings the machete down violently onto a wooden table. Gulp. This is it. He will take his pound of flesh for our magazine’s transgression. I approach furtively and with machete in one hand and freshly husked coconut in the other, he asks in a grizzly voice, “You like one coconut?” Did I ever. I reach out a hand to receive the gift, and with the other introduce myself to which he replies, “Eddie…or am I “Unidentified?”
Listen to the Quiet Ones
Koa gives me a tour of the pad, which pretty much looks like an average North Shore family’s home. Family portraits on the walls, surfing photos, too, souvenirs and artifacts from foreign lands, trophies, more huge boards now serving as relics and mantle pieces. In the kitchen making smoothies are Eddie and two babes, laughing and chiding each other between drones of the blender. I briefly wondered if these young women where his girlfriends, as if the plural suited the lore that surrounded him. One of the women was tall and fit with a volleyball player’s frame; an exquisite Amazon. Turns out I was so very wrong and she is one of the Gracie daughters, a world champion MMA, jiu jitsu and muay thai fighter, just visiting and staying with them on vacay. Koa is shy and humble when I ask him about growing up as a Rothman, a heavy name to live up to. “Our family is probably pretty different than other families. I dunno in what ways, but…we’re definitely not normal,” he laughs, “I mean, just look at our dad.” He motions to Eddie. “He’s not normal. Nah, he’s the best dad ever, though. Everything I know I’ve learned from my dad and I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without him. His guidance and help through life…I owe everything to him.” Koa shows me the bedroom he grew up in, tells me about his close group of friends (The Florences, Eli and Kiron) but I prod Koa to go deeper. What was it like to have the notorious Uncle Eddie as a dad? Was he and Makua raised by love, the lash, or an equal serving of both?
“Both my dad and Makua guided me but it was my dad that took me surfing out there everyday,” he says pointing toward V-Land. “He showed me each break, then took me to Pipe for the first time. He’d make me where this little helmet — actually he’d make Makua wear it, too. He used to force us to wear this helmet and I hated it. But it’s funny now that I look back on it; he was just always looking out for us. I had to have been like 15…no, it was in Tahiti for the first time before a trip and my dad said, ‘Here, take your helmet, boy.” But I purposefully left it at home, and then I didn’t wear it much anymore.” So Eddie forced his boys to wear a Gath helmet? Epic. And a helmet they hated and soon shed to forge their own path? Hells yes. As I talk with Koa, occasionally Eddie interjects from the kitchen or living room, adding an accomplishment or flattering detail Koa modestly forgot to admit. When Eddie talks, he doesn’t like to sit down. He uses his hands when he speaks and puts a foot on the bench. He keeps his shades on to hide his ptyergiums. “You wanna know how I raised my kids?” says Eddie gruffly. “The first thing I tell them when they’re going to grade school is: you don’t make fun of people. Maybe there’s some girl that’s a little chubby, a little overweight and there’s kids teasing her, you know how bad she feels before she even leaves her house? This person already feels bad, why make them feel worse? If I catch you making fun of those kids — I’ll come to school and give you lickings right there. The kids that everyone picks on, you leave them alone. If you wanna fight — you fight with one of the bullies. That’s how you get respect; you don’t just pick on somebody that everyone else picks on. Don’t worry about the kids that have the clubs and think they’re ‘the guys;’ fuck them. When the quiet people talk that don’t have much to say: you listen. Not to the guys that are always yapping. Listen to the quiet people.”
Indeed, Koa Rothman is one of the quiet ones. Which I imagine must have been hard filling the shoes of a North Shore legend and brother who won the XXL Big Wave award at 16 years old. Koa, however, just got back from Jaws, like, yesterday and would catch a wave of the winter later that evening when Pipe Masters is called off. Last year, of course, he caught one of the heavier waves ever ridden in Tahiti. “Koa has always been a super relaxed person,” says Eddie. “Even when I was trying to tow him in at Phantoms out here, he just wanted to paddle. He didn’t wanna tow until he learned to paddle. He wanted to get his stripes first, you know? Like, this one day he didn’t have a flotation device, it was 20 feet out there…So I was like, ‘OK, boy, go ahead.’ Then me and Kala [Alexander] watched him and he got flossed a few times but he caught some too. He cut his teeth out there, before the vest.”
The Ghost of Aloha Passed
I was pretty sure that we’d squashed the “Unidentified” thing, so Eddie and I sit on his balcony lanai just, you know, kickin’ it. I ask him questions about raising his boys, and he, now a proud grandfather, imparts gem after gem with candidness and flair, many of his lessons going from parable-to-awesome with disarmingly quick speed. Like: “Life’s one big hallway and there’s a lot of doors. You open up the wrong one — you’re gonna be fucked. That’s the drug one.” Or, “Don’t listen to the teachers who tell you the things about life — fuck them, you come to me.” It feels clear that Eddie is the kind of guy that fought tooth and nail for a place in this world. And while not an imposing figure height-wise, his persona, personality and sheer aura is larger than life. Eddie also sure didn’t teach his family of beatific grace and “turning the other cheek,” but rather quite the opposite. There is a pervading if not magnetic sense of disobedience and distrust in authority that is captivating about him.
I ask him about “Aloha Spirit,” a concept you hear about both growing up and visiting Hawaii. I was curious how he felt as a perennial (and incidental) host to North Shore visitors. “Aloha Spirit? Aloha Spirit is something that’s been beaten out of the Hawaiian people when the white man came here and committed genocide on them. Stole their fuckin land. And incidentally I’m white if you haven’t noticed — tough shit. To me, there’s not much aloha spirit left, especially when foreigners come and take, take, take and never give back. I teach them [his boys] to be nice to their friends, but to welcome everybody? Fuck that, that’s over.” I sip the last of my coconut milk through the small, natural spout. Eddie walks back over to the machete and offers to hack it open so I can peel out the flesh.
You Ask, We Tell
Makuakai Rothman, like his younger brother Koa, is handsome with fierce and lively eyes. Makua is also fresh off a plane back from Spain where he placed 2nd in the Big Wave World Tour’s Punta Galea event. (following a 1st in Peru). He leads the ratings and is visibly psyched, optimistic about his first year on this Tour. “He’s always wanted to be on the Big Wave World Tour and now he’s on it, has a 1st and a 2nd and their worst nightmare came true,” laughs Eddie. “They thought he couldn’t surf cold water.” The two of them roust one another, sparring verbally. It’s plain to see their bond, where Makua got his charisma from, unmistakably more outgoing than Koa, 10 years his junior. Makua shows me around the property and I ask him if he was raised any differently than Koa, he being first born. His eyebrows raise and he laughs, “Way different. Koa has no idea how it used to be. Pops is way more mellow now. The beginning of my life was a little rough, cops raiding the house and taking your dad away, holding a gun to you, slapping around your mom when she has no clothes on; basic government trips: Real fair to everybody. Then we moved over here and I lived in a tent on the beach, then we got this property and I’ve lived right here where we’re sitting from about 5-years-old on. But I had a wonderful dad. Him and my mom split up and I’d see her once and a while but mostly it was me and him. We worked through whatever obstacles there were and 30 years later — here I am.”
Makua is also a father now with a three year old son and six month old daughter and between raising his kids and the BWWT, performs as a professional musician around Hawaii; around the world, even. I ask him what he’s learned from his father that he plans on imparting to his own children and he unknowingly reiterates everything Eddie had told me earlier. About defending the misfortunate, standing up for the weak, standing up to the bullies. About not taking shit from anyone. I tell him of these mirroring testimonies and he replies, “You gonna come over here and you not gonna get no lies, brah.” He shrugs. “You ask, we tell.”
Beyond the balcony the swell keeps building. The horizon blurs, feathering with outer reef wash-through sets. Phantoms is cranking and the Rothman boys seem anxious to surf…somewhere. Makua is about to train, presumably for the next contest, in their gym downstairs. Cardio, jiu jitsu, mixed martial arts. But there was still a question. Of the Rothman name itself and what stories — whispered, rumored, fact or fallacy — that this name conjures. How do they as a family feel about this apparent reputation? Do they take pride in it, pull rank, or despise it? “I don’t know why people fear the Rothman name…unless you did something wrong,” says Makua, grinning slyly with a comic’s timing. “There’s no reason to fear me, my brothers, my dad. My dad has a reputation for this and that, but without him, the North Shore would be totally different. People can say whatever they like about us. As long as they’re saying something, we’re still relevant.” He shrugs and laughs. “I dunno, I don’t care for that shit. I don’t live behind that [reputation],” says Eddie, pausing for emphasis, “Listen, I teach my kids that all we are is space dust. We’re not that important. You can’t eat your fucking ego, so try to have a good time and be honorable and do what you say you’re gonna do. I don’t think anybody on this earth is separate or that different from one another. We’re just space dust, and in the whole grand scheme of things we’re not as important as we think we are. Like those people that go, ‘Do you know who I am?’ Ha! Who the fuck are you? A bigger piece of space dust?”
Space dust. Intergalactic residue of the stars. We as humans, at our core physical value. All we are is space dust and nothing more, says Eddie Rothman. Equals in everything and thus equality he imparts. The phrase reminds me of something Carl Sagan, one of the world’s greatest astrophysicists and minds of our time, once said. “Space dust,” I repeat. “That’s really poetic, Eddie.” “Well, I dunno what ‘poetic’ means,” he says, gruffly. “I try to instill that in them, to keep the ego out of their life, be your own hero; don’t idolize anyone. That, and to be nice to the girls that aren’t so good looking because some of them got some cousins that are on fire!” This is a story about a family on the North Shore. The Rothmans were gracious and kind hosts, but even more: unguarded and open. This is a story about sons carving their own way, shedding Gath helmets and waving off Skis to prove their own mettle, and perhaps that’s what Eddie as a father wanted — more than a hand continually reaching for help — the whole time. This is a story about space dust. Star stuff, the ash of stellar alchemy, had emerged into consciousness. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself… Lost in thought on the road home from the Rothmans, there is an itch in my throat and suddenly I am sneezing…something…or someone? Hitler? Gandhi? The primordial ash of a fallen empire? Grandpa, perhaps? It could be anyone, really. Definitely some kind of matter more tangible than rumor or repute. Space dust. There are many different ways of being human… We are one species. We are star stuff harvesting starlight.