Pipeline: Mike Purpus on Buttons
“Buttons with his giant sun bleached Rastafarian Afro and a cake cutter comb sticking out the side was always ready to surf and out there putting on a show like no other.”
His name is Montgomery Kaluhiokalani but everyone calls him “Buttons”. When he was 5 years old his grandmother said his dark black matted looking hair resembled a lot of buttons. From then on Montgomery was simply Buttons.
In the early 70’s the surfing world was taken by surprise by a tall lanky young 16 year old kid named Larry Bertlemann whose loose double jointed style enabled him to make impossible maneuvers. Larry took the skateboard style to a Ben Aipa shaped Town and County Surfboards “stinger.” Aipa developed the “stinger” by combining the nose of a longer wider surfboard for the front two thirds with the tail of a pulled in narrow swallowtail. The stinger was short and very loose and the perfect board for Buttons to take over the surfing scene as he was next in line behind Bertlemann in the Aipa surfing stable.
Although Aipa didn’t like me, (he didn’t like any haoles) Bertlemann, Buttons and I got along great.
We had the utmost respect for each others surfing style that carried over into a one-on-one competition every time we surfed. Whenever Bertlemann and Buttons flew over with their best friend Ronnie Romero who took surf movies of every wave we caught, Larry would insist on letting me take the template off his new stinger. I would run over to Best Foods Market on Pier Avenue and get 10’ of butcher paper, lay the board on top then trace the outline like a pattern for a new suit. Aipa would always wonder where I got his designs so fast. He would’ve had a stroke if he knew Larry wanted me to ride them.
The 70’s was the best decade of my life. My surfing career was peaking and I was house sitting for Doc with my Hot Lips Surf Team at 15th and Strand. It was the hangout for South Bay’s best surfers and cute surfer girls. Pro surfers from around the world would stop by for a wave and a party that night. Everybody loved the setup and especially Buttons who couldn’t get enough. Every morning Teresa Gamboa would run a couple dozen coffee’s with a big box of donuts down from Winchell’s. While we were waking up Turkey Steve Martin and Turkey Tracy Stumbo would be drying our wetsuits at the local laundromat. After a four hour surf session we lunched at The Surfboarder where Lee gave us special rates in turn for our surf photos hanging on the walls or Nico would hook us up with JB Burgers and fries. It didn’t matter if it was The Hermosa Cove Movie Theater or Redondo’s Chart House Restaurant, we had Carte Blanche because surfers worked there. That’s why the best surfers wanted to stay me.
Terry Stevens, Mike Benevediz, Chris Barela and my brother Dan were my Hot Lips Surf Team along with Tracy Stumbo and Steve Martin who we called the Turkey’s trying to one day earn a spot. My Hot Lips Surf Team was ten years younger than me and worked like a shot of Espresso keeping me stoked on surfing. Buttons was the perfect surfer to keep me and the team energized like the Energizer Bunny.
Buttons not only pushed the surfing envelope, he tore it wide open, spilling out an array of impossible maneuvers that today’s pros can’t do. We complimented each other’s surfing flying into 360’s and deep carving roundhouse cutbacks at the drop of a hat. Buttons with his giant sun bleached Rastafarian Afro and a cake cutter comb sticking out the side was always ready to surf and out there putting on a show like no other. He would ask me what impossible maneuver I wanted him to do and keep trying until he did. I watched him swim in wave after wave at Off the Wall for an hour before finally making a carving 360. I had to buy him a 40 ounce beer for doing it.
In the winter of 77’, my next door neighbor at Sunset Beach was James Sherman who just returned from a lucrative Indonesian business adventure and needed to invest right away. Gary Capo from Playa Del Rey was living at Pipeline making an unfinished surf movie that needed cash to finish. I introduced the two who hit it off immediately working together on “Many Classic Moments”. All the best surfers were in it but Buttons was the star.
After the raw footage was in the can, Gary and James took up residence on 6th Street in Hermosa Beach next to Clark Stadium to edit and finish the film. Buttons was almost a Hermosa local flying back and forth from Hawaii. Aipa didn’t trust Buttons or his sidekick Mark Liddell with any money. The oldest and most serious of Aipa’s team, Great Dane Kealoha was always with them and in charge of the money. Aipa knew Buttons and Mark would spend any amount of money on party favors before the plane touched down.
After filming one hot Saturday afternoon, Gary and James took Buttons and I to the Egg Company in Manhattan Beach.The place was packed and everyone stopped to stare at Buttons walking in. Buttons asked for a large orange juice before we even sat down. Our red faced aspiring surf star waiter almost tripped racing over with Buttons’ OJ. Buttons thought the OJ was free, so he ordered a large OJ for every surfer that waved at him in the restaurant. The bill came to $100, and James and Gary had to pay for all of Buttons’ giveaways to his fans.
A few days later, we all raced down to Trestles after dancing all night at a big party on the Queen Mary. The Hot Lips Team and I slept in the car by the trail at Upper’s. Bud Brown met us at daybreak to film for “Going Surfing”. We walked down to Lower’s to find Ben Apia, Mark Liddell, Dane Kealoha and Button’s out shredding perfect 4’ waves. We jumped in the water racing out to the line-up to put on a show like it was a surfing Circus Soleil. When we first paddled out, it was packed but the crowd thinned out to it being just Aipa’s team against mine. There were at least 50 surfers on the beach cheering and screaming. An hour later it was just Buttons and me going at it. I can still remember every wave we caught that day as if it happened this morning. I collapsed on the beach afterwards feeling something big and slimy between my butt cheek’s. I jumped up reaching down my peeled wetsuits and pulled out an 8” sea slug. What a way to wake up. Buttons was laughing so hard he looked like he was having a seizure.
The following year I returned from South Africa and Brazil as part of the pro circuit. I won a little over a grand but only had half of it left when I departed Rio de Janeiro. Buttons was there to greet me at LAX. We partied for three days. At daybreak of the third day I noticed the waves were overhead so we jammed out there. After Buttons got a few radical waves that had the local surfers screaming, he got out. Buttons rolled up his trunks until they looked like a bikini bottom and made his T-shirt a bikini top. He picked up two pom pom sized clumps of seaweed and became my personal cheerleader screaming “Give me a Pm Gimme a U” and so on captivating the crowd’s attention in the water. I broke my new Rico Surfboard from Brazil trying to live up to his performance on the beach.
In 79’ I surfed against Buttons while competing at The Malibu Sunkist Pro. Buttons blew me and the rest of the final out of the water while wearing a Planet of the Apes Halloween mask. He got a $1,000 check and a trophy for the win. We went to the liquor store in the shopping center behind 3rd point where he tried to cash the check. The owner of the store recognized Buttons but declined on cashing the check. He gave Buttons a large shopping bag and said to fill it up for no charge and gave him a congratulatory handshake. It was party time again.
In 2001 Rocky Sabo paid for me to compete alongside Buttons in the San Clemente Pro Legends contest. Rocky gave Buttons 2 new surfboards that he sold for cash so he could party. I asked Rocky if he was upset. Rocky just smiled “It’s Buttons. You can’t stay mad at him.” Buttons borrowed boards off the beach that he had never rode before and won every heat.
About ten years ago, it was a late night smooch session with my girlfriend Donna when she pointed to the TV saying “Isn’t that the guy in that photo over there on your wall.” It was Buttons being cuffed by Dog the Bounty Hunter for the world to see. Buttons jumped bail on some drug charges and was caught by the Dog. He got his sentence reduced and put in rehab. When he got out he opened a few surf camps. One of his camps is strictly for under privileged kids and medically challenged kids. He is 55 years old, clean and sober looking like he did in the mid 70’s. He still rides radical shortboards doing things today that have the pro surfers scratching their heads. Buttons has lung cancer and his time is running out. Buttons is the biggest character in the surfing world inspiring me and everyone else to surf better everyday. I don’t want him to go.DZ