Montgomery ‘Buttons’ Kaluhiokalani was the godfather of hot dogging. He’d churn a carving 360 through the lip on a single fin, then jump into switchfoot and belt the closeout as a goofy-footer. In the 1970s. When nobody was doing that. Over the weekend, the surfing world learned that Buttons lost his fight with stage four […]
Montgomery ‘Buttons’ Kaluhiokalani was the godfather of hot dogging. He’d churn a carving 360 through the lip on a single fin, then jump into switchfoot and belt the closeout as a goofy-footer. In the 1970s. When nobody was doing that.
Over the weekend, the surfing world learned that Buttons lost his fight with stage four lung cancer. He’d only been aware of his condition for six months. A smoker since age 12, Buttons gave up cigarettes as soon he was told. Like a lot of famous surfers of his era (and many afterwards), Buttons struggled with drug addiction for a time, but kicked the habit and turned his life around later in life. The enduring memories of Buttons won’t be of the dark times, though: He’ll be remembered for his copious amounts of rad on a surfboard, for his afro, for his grin, for his aloha and for everything he gave to surfing.
Hawaiian surfing legend Mickey Nielsen was close friends with Buttons from age 11. He was there with him through the good times and the bad, the latter of which landed Mickey in prison on drug charges for a stint. He’d been out for long enough to enjoy some time with his childhood friend before he passed away, and today he offers us some thoughts and recollections about the life and surfing of Buttons…
Interview by Damien Fahrenfort | Portrait by Justin Jay
Mickey Nielsen: “Buttons will be remembered for his surfing, he did stuff that other people never even thought of doing. He was doing it on a single fin surfboard. What guys are doing now, he was doing on a single fin surfboard back in the 70s. If you look at old videos he’s doing lipslides and carving 360s, doing that shit in the 70s. Nobody gave him credit for it, but it is what it is.”
“He was kinda the first guy that went against contests and did his own thing. The thing was, nobody knew how to judge him in a contest. And this is before there was photo incentives and guys were going on trips to do videos, which is where he could’ve actually made money. All those surf movies and shit, he never got money for any of that stuff. There’s no way to make money off of surfing that way. There wasn’t even enough to make money off surfing by winning contests. You won a contest, you won a thousand bucks. If he wasn’t such a partier and actually put his mind to it, he probably could’ve been a world champion. He was so far ahead of his time surfing-wise, he was free-spirited. And you gotta remember too, back in those days, there wasn’t a structured pro surfing organisation and all this stuff that’s around now. And back in our days, drugs were more acceptable to be doing. It was weird if you weren’t doing them. Buttons just wanted to have a good time, that’s all it was. I’ve known him since we were 11, he grew up with no money, and everyone wanted to party with him ’cause he was Buttons, and everybody was giving him everything, he didn’t know how to handle a lot of it. I’ve been there myself, at first it’s fun, everybody’s giving you all this free shit, and next thing you know it turns into an addiction. And now your whole life revolves around that instead of surfing.”
“He was always humble and mellow, he showed what aloha was. No matter what he did, good or bad, he was always humble and respectful to people, and he always treated people really well. He wasn’t a dick to people, didn’t matter what they were saying about him or anything. The way he carried himself was just humble and happy. The reason I say that is there’s a deep, dark side to him, that a lot of people don’t know, and I’ve been there with him through part of it. But even through that, he was always humble and mellow.”
“Through all the years of knowing him, he’s always been in great shape. Then right before he came to California, my brother said he saw him in Waikiki, and he said “Mickey, he’s like a shell of a person.” Through all the years, he’s always been in shape, but when I saw him when he first got here, I was like, woah, y’know what I mean? He was probably like, 120 pounds last week when I saw him. He lifted up his shirt to show me this tumour he had on his back, and you could see all the ribs in his back and everything. It was like, “You fucking lost some weight.” But you know what? All the way til last week, when I was with him last Saturday, his mind and his spirit was really good. It was just that his body was giving out. He was totally coherent, we were talking about shit we did when we were kids and everything like that. It’s not like he’d lost his memory. It was like, “This guy remembers shit we did 25 years ago, like it was yesterday.” Like I said, his mind and his spirit was strong, his body just gave out. The cancer had eaten his body.”
“The surfing world needs people like Buttons ’cause he put colour in the whole scene. Because he was such a character. If everybody was as serious about it as Kelly Slater and those guys who compete now, and we didn’t have those off-the-wall characters like Buttons, the sport would be boring. That’s my personal opinion.”
“We’re gonna do a paddle out on Saturday and spread some of his ashes in Malibu. And then his wife will take some of the ashes back to Hawaii and have a paddle out in Waikiki.”
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