I wasn’t able to catch all of the ESPN 30 for 30’s Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau, but it was one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever seen. **SPOILERS**
I grew up in Hawaii, so of course I had heard of Eddie Aikau. But since I was not a surfer or beach-goer, my knowledge was limited. I knew about the contest, and I knew a few details of his death, but most of all, I knew about the ubiquitous bumper sticker and its tagline: Eddie Would Go.
Having virtually no context, I simply assumed as a youngster that it was a statement of bravado. It used the memory of a man to illustrate fearlessness. One version (the one featured on Aikau’s Wikipedia page) of the tagline’s origin story credits the late big wave surfer Mark Foo with coining it:
The phrase originated during the first Eddie contest. The waves were huge and the conditions were extremely dangerous. While the contest organizers were discussing whether to put it on, Mark Foo looked at the conditions and said “Eddie would go.”
But I don’t think that statement has anything to do with fearlessness, not exclusively, anyway.
I know that documentaries such as this one are subject to editing and they rely heavily on the old memories of imperfect human beings, but this story gave me chills because of something that had started to become so obvious, it didn’t matter how the story was framed. Maybe Eddie is best known as a surfer, but I don’t think that was the biggest part of him. In looking at the highlights presented in the documentary – his position as lifeguard at Waimea Bay, his resolution of the conflict with the Australian surfers, his reasons for wanting to join the crew of the Hokulea, his heroic attempt to save them – it becomes clear that above anything else, he was someone whose natural instinct was to save things, to preserve them. If the recollections are to be believed, this instinct informed nearly everything he did.
Considering the specific context in which Mark Foo uttered the phrase, it’s likely that fearlessness was the point: of course they should surf. That’s what Eddie would have done. After learning more about Eddie’s life, however, that’s not what those words mean to me. In the documentary, Nainoa Thompson recalled a moment just before Eddie left the crew of the Hokulea to get help. Thompson said he asked Eddie if it was the right thing to do. According to Thompson, Aikau never even looked at him. He didn’t answer. He didn’t say goodbye. He just went. Thompson believes that Eddie’s behavior was due to the fact that the question asked of him was irrelevant. When applied to the man’s life, “Eddie Would Go” says nothing of fearlessness and everything about responsibility. He didn’t do all of those amazing things simply because he wanted to or because he could; he did them because he perceived them as necessary.