Monday, February 2, 2015

The Race Within: Things cut from the book #1, Coconut Man


Tim Carlson's original photo of Coconut Man

There were way too many stories to fit them all in one book. At the end of the day, you only get so many pages and you have to make the hard decisions about what stays and what goes. There's no better place to tell them than the accompanying blog for the book, so here's the first installment. I spent an inordinate amount of time running down the why's and wherefore's of "The Coconut Man," but in the end there just wasn't room. So here's a little "extra content" that was originally in the chapter marked "Bleeding Deacons and Minotaurs."

The legend of Coconut Man probably existed in triathlon lore for a decade before it was finally written down in a 2001 article by Timothy Carlson for the magazine Inside Triathlon. While covering the Ultraman race that year, he noticed a surreal figure emerge from the lava fields along the run course on the Queen K. The man looked like a shipwrecked sailor: over his gaunt frame was draped a makeshift vest and loincloth fashioned from rags and seaweed and stitched together with hemp. He carried a bundle that appeared to be made of leaves slung across his shoulder with a hemp rope. His hair grew down to his shoulders, frayed and beaten by the wind and sun. A thick beard completed the long-lost sailor appearance, sprouting wildly from his chin and hanging downward like moss along some waterfall unmolested by civilization. He wore no shoes and on his head was an odd hat made from coconut, leading him to bequeath the title of Coconut Man. The race staff and athlete support crews were unsettled by the man's appearance. Believing him to be in some kind of distress, they tried to communicate with him. Though the man clearly understood English, he made no attempt at a verbal response. He either nodded or shook his head, or made crude hand signals to convey his meaning. He took only water and natural food; nothing with preservatives, added chemicals or vitamins. Nor would he handle anything involving modern technology, including synthetic plastics that contained items he was offered. They poured water from their bottles into his coconut cup and he accepted a few raisins, bananas and nuts. After watching the athletes pass by for a while he went on his way.

Carlson asked Cory Foulk about the character. Foulk told what he knew of the story. No one really knew how, why or when he showed up to the island. It all lay in speculation and rumor. He first began showing up in the 1980's. Depending on who tells it, he lived either in a large white van or an old Wonder Bread truck down by the beaches near the Sheraton Waikoloa. It was believed that he had been some brilliant advertising designer for the New York firm Ogilvy and Mather until he had suddenly snapped. After that, he gave up all his earthly possessions to become a hermit on the beaches of paradise; an amalgam of Howard Hughes and Robinson Crusoe. Assuming that Foulk knew as much as any local possibly could about such an odd character, Carlson compiled the background information with a quick narrative of the encounter and published the story.

After that, triathlon enthusiasts visiting the island for training and major hoped to catch a rare glimpse of the elusive Coconut Man. As they described him to locals, there was a chance they might hear tales of him recently appearing on the streets of Kona itself, making his rounds of the local grocery stores asking for shopping bags. Or they might be given vague directions toward the site of his vehicular abode. No one ever spotted him, though. No sooner had the Coconut Man risen to mythical status than he disappeared from all but the oral tradition.

Ironically, it's quite possible that Carlson's photograph is the last recorded instance of a genuine Coconut Man encounter. It was used in the missing person report issued by the Hawai'i Police Department in 2008. According to the police, his name was Tucker Burling. As of 2008, he was 58 years old and his last whereabouts are listed as "walking along the Queen Kaahumanu Highway in South Kohala." Local residents indicate that Carlson and the Ultraman athletes may have been luckier than they thought in their encounter. Burling was known to go for a stroll in the nude. The popular speculation is that Burling often took refuge in the lava tubes and caves throughout the deserted fields and became trapped in one, where he ultimately died.

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