When Art Kamaka was three years old, his father had drowned, along with two friends, while fishing in the Kaiwi Channel. From the time he was old enough to be in the water by himself, which coincided with understanding how his father had died, he feared the sea, and no matter what his family and friends said to try to convince him it was okay to go into the ocean, he would not do it.
Now that Art had a son of his own, he wondered what he would say to him when the boy was old enough to learn to swim. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing, he thought, to have to admit that he didn’t know how?
He mentioned this worry to his wife Emily. She said, “I’m sure Kawika will understand eventually why you won’t go swimming, but until he’s old enough to see the reason, he might find it odd. At most, that’s all it’ll amount to, I’d think.”
“I wouldn’t want him to think I’m a coward,” Art said.
“You aren’t a coward, Art. I know you’re not afraid of anything except the ocean.”
“Fear is fear,” he said. “I don’t want Kawika to know that I’m afraid of anything, including the ocean.”
“Art,” said Emily, “it’s pretty rare to find a human being who isn’t afraid of something. I don’t know anyone like that.”
Art thought about that all afternoon. That evening he called his mother. “Mom, I’m having a hard time with figuring out what I’m going to say to Kawika when he gets old enough to know that I can’t swim.”
“Art, this is ridiculous. Why don’t you just go learn how? Your father loved the ocean. He’d hate to think it was because of him that you don’t.”
“Mom, I swear, I just can’t face being in the ocean. I even have bad dreams about drowning.”
“Ah!” his mother said, “that’s a lot of hooey. Just go learn already. That would make your father so happy.”
After Art hung up, he sat there wondering if it were all so simple. It would be great, he thought, to be able to teach Kawika to swim when he was old enough to learn.
“Emily,” he said that night as they lay in bed together, “I’ve decided I’m going to learn how to swim so that I can teach Kawika when it’s time.”
Art called the Nu‘uanu YMCA the next day. He was excited to learn that a beginner class for adults was starting up the following Monday. When he showed up for class he was surprised to find he was nowhere near the oldest person in the class. The teacher, Mike, a young Haole guy, put them all at ease quickly, and they were over the side on the shallow side, holding onto the edge before they knew it.
The lessons went well. Despite huge worries coming in, Art felt quite at ease in the water by the end of the six weeks, and all of the students were doing width laps of the pool by the end. Art liked Mike so much that he signed up for Mike’s beginner intermediate class. After taking an advanced class, again with Mike, Art graduated to the Masters group. He now swam nearly every night after work. He was extremely confident in the water now and could swim many lengths of the pool without much strain.
Emily noticed changes in Art. He was losing a lot of beer weight, he seemed more confident in general, and well, happily, he seemed to have a great deal more stamina in bed.
Everything was good. Art, Emily, and little Kawika would go to the beach on weekends and Art loved taking his son out in the shallow water by the shore and swishing him around, paddling his little feel and hands for him, and generally trying all that he could think of to make the little boy feel comfortable in the water.
They would be there for hours at a time, and in the evening, they would eat at the beach before they came home, a simple meal of rice, a salad of some kind, and beef or chicken cooked on the hibachi.
One late afternoon they were set up just off the sand at Magic Island. Just as he was lighting the hibachi, Art heard someone calling for help from the water. It was getting dark, the lifeguards had left for the day, and there were only a few people still in the water.
Everyone who was there heard the man calling. Art looked around. Everyone was looking at everyone else. Not hesitating, Art told Emily he was going in. She watched him as he dove into the water and swam for the man who was flailing about. Using powerful strokes, Art reached the him in no time.
Emily stood by the water, Kawika in her arms. It looked as if Art were struggling a great deal with the man. She grew more and more concerned as the two went under the water several times, but, eventually, Art was able to bring the older man to shore.
Later, as they sat eating, Emily said, “Art, I had a terrible feeling when you were struggling out there in the water that you both might drown.”
Art nodded his head. “At one point there it was pretty bad, all right. To tell you the truth, I got scared. But it wasn’t the kind of fear I used to have about the water. It was something I knew I could overcome instantly. And I did. You know how?”
She looked at him, not able to guess at what he was going to say.
Art said, “All of a sudden I told myself that I was out there saving my dad. And because I was out there to save my dad from drowning, there was no doubt in my mind that I’d do it.”