"I greet you at the beginning of a great career"-Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, July 21, 1855
True greatness, like providence, is fleeting and fickle; if you blink, you might just miss it.
For a brief stint in July and August, Tourmaline Beach was home break to one of the world's up-and-coming superstars-one with the potential to be the Michael Jordan, David Beckham and Mia Hamm of board sports. If you weren't paying attention, you probably missed him.
The sometimes-shy, sandy-blonde half-Costa Rican passed his summer afternoons in the back of beach-wagons, shooting the breeze with local surf cronies and past legends like Buddha and Parking Lot Steve.
His name is Kalani David, and he rips.
Though outside of boarding circles his natural talents aren't known, in the water he's considered godlike. No one who shares a break with him is unaware of his gift. On any given wave he'll make the young gape and the old recall the sensation of long-effaced dexterity.
He rubs shoulders with the likes of Rusty-owner of the international surf and clothing company-whose belly he purportedly rubbed one day, with the admonition, "You better be careful, you're getting like my dad."
That easy-going charm and ability to meld-the unconscious capacity to bring a situation down to the comfort level-is part of his magic.
Belly rubbing aside, Rusty's putting him up in Hawaii for the winter. Other companies are banging on his door, throwing boards at him, looking to adorn their surf and skate products with his gold locks and quintessentially Southern California countenance.
The trophies continue to pile up, meanwhile, as The Tonight Show's kicking around a possible appearance and his legend's growing at Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii. Through all of it, he seems only vaguely aware that the mad vortex spinning around him isn't normal.
Kalani David is 5 years old.
Old enough to understand regimen. His Tourmaline days were part of The Program: two-hour surf sessions every day followed by a couple hours at the skate park as the sun went down-life as he knows it.
"It's amazing," his father, David David, says. "People come up to us on the beach [in Hawaii] and ask if he's "the little surfer' from Costa Rica. I've never told anyone down here he's from there-he's just known. It's crazy, and it's like that wherever we go."
The elder David is quietly astounded by the spiraling events; he has a better grasp of what reality's supposed to entail. For Kalani, though mature for his age, it all must appear normal somehow-being the center of attention wherever he goes, the driving force in his single father's life, a source of admiration to men 10 times his age.
David David's spiky blonde hair and dancing green eyes lend him a classic So Cal appearance. He's at home in a spring-suit with a board under his arm. His tan and weathered complexion suggest a life spent on construction sites. There's something about his nature-rough and proletarian-that puts him on the blue-collar level, in spite of his white-collar work.
Having seen both sides of fate-15 years ago he moved to Costa Rica, the only place in the world he could surf as much as he wanted to and still eat-he seems poignantly aware that his son's life has taken off in a meteoric, surreal way.
His formative years were in many ways the opposite of Kalani's. The product of a 1970s divorce, he paints a Nessian picture of domestic life. There was the Army stepfather with whom he butted heads, and family life that lacked in an emotional way. As a military child, moving was common and he saw a lot of the country, Southern California included.
Living a life with that emotional void he turned to skateboarding and surfing circles-his other family-much as the Z-Boys did, up the coast in Santa Monica. Whatever lack of nurturing there was in those years, he speaks of them-and his parents-with respect for the deeper convictions he was taught; the tenets of hard work and independence.
Still a teenager, broke and hungry, finding himself in a tropical country, he took a caretaker position doing upkeep on a mansion. He derived confidence from his intrinsic strength-an intuitive flair for money and numbers-and relied on the self-support he'd learned at home. Things turned around when the owner of the property took a six-month vacation, leaving him in charge of the estate.
Early the next morning, David was at the airport with a hand-written sign offering a mansion for rent at an unheard-of price. Before the end of the six months, the surfing, skateboarding musician had afforded himself a comfort-level and lifestyle he's never relinquished.
From that move (he's since told the owner of the property, who wasn't surprised) he fell into the Costa Rican real estate market, one that had serendipitously begun its explosion about the time he arrived.
His innate gift for figures allowed him to take immediately to the industry. Through several years of hustle and grunt work he learned the market's fundamentals and was soon making the kind of money he'd never thought possible; playing guitar in a band and surfing when he wanted. He was young, wealthy, independent and happy. With no one serious in his rock 'n' roll existence, casual encounters with attractive women weren't uncommon. David David was living the life.
The first time I saw Kalani was at Tourmaline. He was doing things-pumping the wave for more, cutting hard and basically tearing it up-a kid his size shouldn't be doing. I paddled over to David and struck up a conversation.
"He's 5 years old," he told me, "and he's been on a board since he was 1 and a half."
David struck me much as what he is-an old surfer-but with a certain sense of refinement. After having seen some of the world and living the surf culture in different parts, he's come away with both spirituality and an appreciation for the fortunes in his life. Kalani, a Hawaiian word, means one god, one love, one peace. Of all the things he wishes for his son, one thing is paramount-that he live la pura vida, the simple life he learned from the natives of Costa Rica, one centered in nature and harmony.
Living simply, he's come far for a man with no more than a high school diploma. After learning the ropes in real estate, he accidentally fell into land speculation when he bought a lot for $1,500, hoping to build on it one day. A man approached him, not long after, looking to buy.
"I didn't really want to sell," David says, "so I told him I wanted $30,000. He said "no problem.'"
And just like that he was an entrepreneur.
Dexterity with numbers and his hard-earned knowledge of the country's real estate opportunities were natural bed partners. Thirty-grand was re-invested in more property, which turned into bigger paydays, with which he speculated on more property. Today he's managing a multi-multi-million dollar investment deal that promises a smart turn-around for a cadre of well-heeled investors. It's a huge deal and it's all his baby-he conceived it, put it together and found the backing.
"When I'm down there on business, people come up to me and try to hand me $50,000 in cash," he laughs. "It's incredible. I have to tell them, "No way. I can't do that-write me a check on Monday.'"
It's smile-evoking to hear him talk in the foreign chatter of numbers and finance-the picture of him as a surf-rat, washed up on a Southern California beach, is hard to let go of. That he's constructed a deal bringing a roomful of millionaires together, anxiously awaiting his phone call, his explanations, his confidence in what he's doing-and that rich people in high places get nervous when they don't hear from him often enough-is a pleasant realization.
Issue of la pura vida, she's young and beautiful with the supple brown skin of Costa Rican natives. Tonight she's come to her favorite local bar to watch a rock 'n' roll band from the United States.
"I need to talk with you," she tells David after the show. "You have a son."
David knows the child isn't his-he's always careful. He likes the girl, though. They'd had a brief fling before he returned to the states for a 10-month stint. Now he's back and he's just gigged with his band. And this is quite a surprise.
The period the girl's talking about, a year before, is a bit of a blur; lots of band gigs and after-hours, lots of late nights he doesn't quite remember.
"She was a friend and I didn't want to hurt her feelings, so I figured I'd humor her," he says. ""Sure,' I told her, "I'll come back to your place and see him.'
"We got back there and... I don't know how to explain it-it was almost religious. He was lying in the crib and there was only a little light in the room and all I could see was this part of him," he says, touching the lower back and hip of his right side. "I knew then and there he was part of me. It was incredible, like looking at yourself in miniature."
The two talked about the best course of events. David felt it wouldn't be a good idea for them to get married for the sake of the "right thing'-a pragmatic reaction, no doubt, to his own childhood. He was committed to fatherhood, though, and wanted shared custody.
"When we talked about it, she said, "He should go with you.' She said she knew he'd have a better life. She was young and I don't think she was ready to be a full-time mother."
She's married now and living in Miami. Though frustrated he has to track her down to keep her involved in Kalani's life, David says her infrequent relationship with the boy is a positive one.
Fatherhood has had a crystallizing effect. David's the consummate concerned parent, intimately involved in every aspect of Kalani's life-the two seem inseparable. The band, the late nights, bouts with drinking and with drugs-the entire lifestyle-all those things have gone by the wayside.
His sleeping and waking, eating and entertainment now run on a 5-year-old's timetable. With the exception of a Costa Rican nanny and a group of friends at the beach-friends of Kalani and David alike-they are their own unit.
Kalani David went out on a board for the first time in his 18th month, on a mild day by Costa Rican standards.
"I took him out on a long board and the waves were small but somehow one snuck up on us and we got tumbled-I was so scared," David says. "Scared enough that I took him right in to shore. He was fine, so I handed him off to his nanny. I turned to go back out and he started kicking, hitting and screaming-he was determined to get back in the water."
And so it's been ever since.
David talks about trying to sleep in past sunrise on early Costa Rican mornings. He'd invariably be awakened by the 3-year-old, wave-ready Kalani.
"He'd shake me and say, "Come on, you wussy, I already looked and the waves are good today; get out of bed, lazy.' A lot of times I didn't feel like getting up so I'd turn back over. He'd go out and get himself a bowl of cereal and then I'd hear him flick on the TV and that's what did it every time. I'd think to myself, No way... no way am I going to lay here and let him watch TV while we could be out there."
A natural in the water, it wasn't long before Kalani had a reputation on certain beaches in Costa Rica, and newspapers started taking notice. His picture-at 4 years old-was in Surfer magazine. It was clear the kid had talent and that it was his passion. Like a lot of parents, David decided to foster that talent.
He knew that an estimated 90 percent of the world's surf and skate companies call Southern California home-a mecca to the booming international board-sports culture. With the advent of the X Games, and the salable notoriety of boarders like Tony Hawk and Kelly Slater, former pastimes have turned into mega-big business.
With loose ties to San Diego and enough money in the bank to support the two of them for several years, David pulled up stakes in Costa Rica and made the move to Pacific Beach last summer. It would be a shot at the type of exposure Kalani would never get in Central America.
It would also be prime territory for The Program-a foreboding term to anybody who's grown up with an overbearing parent. After settling in PB, life quickly fell into a steady pattern. The two would wake early, eat and head to whatever beach had the best waves that day, usually Tourmaline, where they'd surf through the morning and hang out with the locals.
After that they'd take a break and go home for lunch, which was followed by an afternoon surf session and more hanging out with the guys. From there they'd go home for dinner and then head to the skate park for an evening session as the sun went down.
Bed came not long after dark, and sleep was always good. The schedule wasn't rigid, but they didn't deviate, either-in effect, seven days a week, the entire summer.
While not overly strident, by most sporting standards, the simple idea of a program for a 5-year-old is enough to raise eyebrows. Macaulay Culken, Jennifer Capriati and Joan Benet Ramsey are but a few examples of children pushed by their parents to capitalize on natural talents.
Questions are raised about the line between supporting and pushing, nurturing and exploitation. David's forthcoming and direct in discussing the situation.
"I just want him to have every opportunity," he says after a long pause. "I... I see so many kids that aren't driven. They have so much opportunity and they blow it. I don't want anybody to ever say I didn't give him every chance to live the kind of life I couldn't."
It's still Kalani, he says, pushing to get out in the water; who gets bored at home and wants to leave early for the skate park.
And what if 10-year-old Kalani comes to him and says, "Thanks, Dad, but I don't really feel like being on The Program anymore?"
In answer to the question, David talks about the boy's demeanor on the water, pointing out that in just one summer he's returned to the comfort level he enjoyed in Costa Rica as a 4-year-old. After a bit of insecurity on the crowded California waves, he's regained a sense of self-reliance.
Indeed, the first time I saw the two, David was lining Kalani up with waves and pushing him in. It wasn't that Kalani needed the push; it was about being closer to his Dad in unfamiliar territory. I saw them a couple months later and Kalani acted the archetypal 5-year-old.
"No, I can do it-don't touch me," he'd say and paddle off by himself. Independence is a big issue at 5 years old.
"Realistically speaking," David says. "I have five years with him. I figure about [age] 10 he's going to start hanging out with his friends, and it's not going to be cool to hang out with Dad anymore. So for five years it's just the two of us."
And The Program.
Kalani's not being pressured into anything he's not comfortable with. He often seems in charge of the show. When he's had enough surf he'll say, "Let's go, Dad" and off they go. At times David acts the personal valet, following the boy around the Tourmaline parking lot, waiting for him to shower off and carrying his miniature equipment-despite an agreement that Kalani's responsible for his own gear.
If anything, one worries the boy might end up being too much in control. Whether it be the top spot at surf competitions (in front of kids two and three years his senior), the stares he draws on any given beach, the media interest he's engendered or the ubiquitous attention given to him by adult friends at Tourmaline, it's easy to imagine it all going to his head; for the youngster to become patently spoiled.
So far he's just a 5-year-old kid, taking it all in. Though he's picked up a sense of maturity and a showman's disposition through all those hours of hanging out with mostly adults, he still carries himself with the curiosity and prankish behavior of any boy his age.
He's in public school this year, making friends with the younger set. The books they have can't be a challenge as David's been home-schooling him on all those trips to and from the beach.
"I want to take him back to Costa Rica," he says, "to show all those ladies that were always chastising me, saying, "He surfs all the time-he'll never learn to read.' He's in first grade and he's already reading and he knows most of his times tables."
By appearances, the lack of a mother figure-atoned for in a small way with the feminine influence of his nanny-doesn't seem to affect Kalani. Surrounded by his father's friends, the guys at the skate park and the predominately male population of the surf culture, there's little doubt he'll grow up a boy's boy.
In some regards, the masculine influence is apropos. I paddled out with the two of them on a chilly September afternoon at Tourmaline. David wore a pullover spring suit and swimming trunks. He looked over at me, as we gingerly waded in to waist level, and then nodded in the direction of Kalani.
"This is the hardest part of surfing, getting in past the balls," he said, rising up on his tiptoes. "That's what I tell him all the time."
In the water, Kalani's a pretty serious kid, but his quick smile and outgoing nature are indicative of an apparently carefree childhood. On the cusp of 6, he's blissfully bound to the present-free of those neuroses that come of replaying the past and uninhibited by the notion of future pressures.
Progeny of la pura vida and pre-eminent grandson of the Z-Boy generation, he's primed to collect on the explosion of its culture. With his natural good looks, easygoing nature, and athletic prowess, there's little doubt he'll be a heartbreaker-regardless of all that high-dollar sponsorship potential.
Talking with him at Tourmaline is like talking with any 5-year-old. His attention is grabbed by everything; he goes in three directions at once. It's hard to pin him down on the meaning of surfing-it seems too much a part of his life.
What does one say to the big-winner in the draw of American Royalty: That he's inherited his father's affinity for good fortune? That he's been smiled on by fate? That he won't understand for decades how blessed he is?
"Keep your eyes wide open," seems the only appropriate thing to say.
Providence, like greatness, is fleeting and fickle-if you blink, you might just miss it.