Fast Eddie Rothman is standing on the front deck of his perfectly tropical Oahu house, blocking the perfectly temperate 75-degree sun, waiting for me. His hands, gnarled and scarred with the memories of many teeth, are balled up into tight fists and he drums the deck’s railing.
His fists have drummed often. There was the time they drummed the teeth out of the big Australian surfer’s mouth. There was the time they slapped the vice president of a major surf brand 11 times for bald-faced lying. There was the time they bashed the head of a pervert jacking off in the tropical bushes near the bike path. Or, wait—those weren’t his hands proper, those were his hands gripping a piece of rebar. There was the time they landed repeatedly on the sunburned cheek of a man who had partnered with a local podiatrist to smuggle pain pills by strapping them to children. This man threatened to blow up Rothman’s house with a grenade and bounced his secretary’s head off a rock wall. Rothman gave him a drumming so solid that the man spent a week in the hospital, because like the Australian surfers, surf-brand vice presidents and perverts before him, he had it fucking coming.
Oahu, the most mythical island in the Hawaiian chain, is not commonly associated with bloody beatings and broken teeth. It has, rather, been etched into the subconscious as an island paradise since the turn of the 20th century, when wealthy families, inspired by pastel-hued postcards, steamed across the sea on coconut-scented winds and basked in its flawless climate. GIs followed on their way to World War II’s Pacific Theater, gaped at hula girls, got lei’d under a tropical moon and thought, Thank you, Uncle Sam. And their sons became surfers and went in search of their fathers’ dreams. They found them on Oahu’s North Shore, where the waves were massive and perfect if you had the courage and skill to ride them. They were joined by men with names such as Da Bull, Butch and Duke, and they too etched Oahu into the subconscious. As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, surf-ploitation films about exotic Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline became the rage, and the Beach Boys crooned about riding the wild surf.
But the decades between then and now have been marked by immense struggles for the men who were born into this paradise or who arrived and never left. Men like Eddie Rothman. Today I walk down a dead-end road not five miles north of Waimea Bay, where he is waiting for me. I turn left and push my way into his million-dollar beach compound. Rumors and whispers about his penchant for violence haunt the North Shore. Brave surfers speak of him in hushed tones, afraid they might turn around and see him standing there and then see the darkness of a knockout.
On paper Rothman is simply a successful surf promoter and co-founder of the surf brand Da Hui, which makes boardshorts, surf apparel and, more recently, MMA fighting gear. But the past, as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, is when Rothman’s specter was born dark. He is the elder statesman of Hui O He’e Nalu, or Hawaiian Club of Wave Riders, which he formed nearly 40 years ago along with local surfers Kawika Stant Sr., Squiddy Sanchez, Terry Ahue and Bryan Amona. The mission of the club (from which the surf brand later took its name) was to advocate for Hawaiian surfers on the professional circuit and to help bring a sort of sanity to the winter surf season, which had grown increasingly chaotic due to an influx of foreign surfers who had watched the films, listened to the Beach Boys and decided the North Shore was theirs. But it was not theirs. And Da Hui taught them this by knocking the teeth out of their mouths. During the winter of 1977, visiting surfers’ blood ran both freely and cold, and Rothman became the embodiment of fear.
Hawaii was never, in truth, a pastel-postcard island paradise. Its name most likely comes from the ancient Maori word Hawaiki, meaning “heaven” and “hell.” Early inhabitants practiced a harsh form of governance that included human sacrifice by crushing the victim’s bones. Captain Cook and the first European contact brought disease that wiped out half the population. Inter-island war followed inter-island war until wealthy American agricultural interests convinced President William McKinley to annex Hawaii, subjugating the locals and immigrant laborers under a feudal-like system. Eventually there were enough locals and immigrants in the U.S. territory to demand statehood, which was granted in 1959. And then the surfers came, beginning a new sort of annexation until Fast Eddie Rothman shoved his gnarled and scarred fists down their throats.
Stories of the “black shorts,” as the members of Da Hui were called after their austere beach uniform, beating down disrespectful foreign surfers are still told today. But the club has mellowed in recent years, hosting beach cleanups and preaching the gospel of water safety for surfers and swimmers alike. And it has been some time since Rothman’s been in the local papers for illegal activity: In 1987 he was indicted on racketeering and drug distribution charges, which were dismissed because of prosecutorial misconduct. He had been in and out of jail before and has been in and out since, but his relationship with “legality” is, again, only ever whispered about. Few are brave enough to ask directly what it is that he does. There are outrageous, whispered rumors that he’s in the Hawaiian mafia, that he’s a drug dealer, that he’s a murderer for hire. But no one really knows, because when Rothman takes care of business his way, it quickly and quietly goes from rumor to whisper to legend. No one questions the legend.
And he is waiting for me because I broke the rules. I wrote a book about the North Shore that included him and his specter, which was a severe breech, on my part, of North Shore whisper etiquette. (Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell is being published by Harper Collins in December.) He got a copy of the unfinished manuscript from Scott Caan, who plays today’s version of Danno on the remake of Hawaii Five-0, and Rothman ordered me to his house.
He watches me approach from his wraparound deck, and the reality of the man matches the whispers, even though he is 65 and only five-foot-six if generous, five-foot-five if honest. He is roping muscle. His arms, usually bare, are perpetually flexed. His expression rarely changes. His pug nose has been broken more than once. His gray hair is shaved to a fine stubble. The neck that holds that head up is as thick as a tree. He is a testament to the power of attitude and intention. He has bested more men than he can count, and it looks as if I will be counted among the multitude.
Rothman looks at me and takes me by surprise. Instead of a left hook he drops this bomb: “If you want to tell a fucking important story, then tell this one: Monsanto. Those fuckers are here. They have all these experimental farms right over the hill and are poisoning the land and poisoning the people. Write that shit.” While my eyes had been trained on the pounding surf and the surfers and the fighters, by Rothman’s reckoning I’d had my head in the sand. He is asking me to turn 180 degrees and look squarely toward the island, to those verdant hills, to where Monsanto has alighted like so many interlopers before.
Monsanto is, of course, the multinational agricultural biotechnology company based in St. Louis—some 5,000 miles from the North Shore. It is the staggeringly profitable company that once manufactured PCBs and Agent Orange but for the past 20 years has been making genetically modified seeds that grow herbicide-resistant crops such as soybeans, corn and sugar beets. In Hawaii, Monsanto, along with Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer Hi-Bred, Dow AgroSciences and BASF, is growing some 7,000 acres of crops, including soybeans and corn. These crops are not intended for human consumption per se; rather they are seed crops that will be shipped to farmers worldwide to plant in their fields to sell on the open market. Much of it ends up as feed for livestock in countries around the world. While international farmers have become dependent on Monsanto’s incredibly effective Roundup Ready seed and Roundup herbicide, Rothman is part of a growing group of Hawaiians who see this as yet another encroachment on their beloved land.
His take on them is quite simple: “They are greedy fucks. They don’t care about anything but making money, and they are doing it all right here on Oahu and all over the islands—threatening farmers, closing the local people down, closing farmers’ markets. You know, if some of their GMO seed blows on someone’s land, then they own it. They are controlling our politicians too. Laws to label food as GMO have come into our Congress, but they get shut down. They are taking over the land, just like in the past.”
And his rant continues as he lists past wrongs on Hawaii—the early explorers bringing diseases to the islands, the Mormons bringing Mormonism, the sugar barons overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy and enslaving the people, foreign surfers coming and stealing the waves, the methamphetamine epidemic now engulfing the islands. He eventually brings it back to Monsanto. “And now they are fucking with our food. They are fucking with the very root of who we are as people. It’s the worst thing they could be doing. Greedy fucking fucks. For what? For money? Money does strange things to people. Fuck them.”
I’d never heard him talk about anything with such passion other than Hawaiian wave sovereignty, the notion that these are their waves, to be surfed their way. With Monsanto, as with everything, Rothman goes with his gut.
“They got all these research farms right over the hill from my house,” says Rothman. “We’re having a March Against Monsanto in Hale’iwa tomorrow.” He grinds me with his eyes and it is completely expected that I will show up.