Whatever it is that entails "cool" (cool as a human characteristic, not as something less than hot), a brief encounter with Rocky Aoki gave me an inkling.
It was Nov. 12, 1981. A rainy morning in Ukiah, California, though, of course, it always rains on November mornings on the green coastal reaches north of San Francisco. Ukiah was known in those days as marijuana country, where illicit hippy farmers cultivated pot of mythical potency. I want to emphasize, however, that I was there in pursuit of a Miami's most flamboyant adventurer, Rocky Aoki. He and the crew of his Eagle V were making the first ever crossing of the Pacific Ocean in a balloon.
The balloon had launched on Nov. 10 in Nagashima, Japan. The Herald launched me from Miami with orders to be there, notebook in hand, when he landed in California. Landing balloons are not a precise science and it took some insane driving along hundreds of miles of the coastal highway, but I managed to find the hilly farm where the Eagle plopped down. Locals had warned me, though, to be careful. There were certain farmers, armed and very paranoid, thereabouts. Some stranger trying to explain he was from Miami in search of a rich restaurateur who had just floated in from Japan might suffer a serious credibility problem.
But I found Rocky just as he emerged. Both of us were intact. I always thought I found the meaning of cool. His extremely beautiful wife ran to embrace him. He was wearing a black snakeskin flight jacket. He was handsome. And he had a fine mustache just like mine. And he exuded that unflappable, daredevil attitude, that something the movie heroes are always trying to approximate. He had it. He oozed it.
His 6,000 mile flight across the pacific was only a minor footnote in his biography. Rocky had been a champion college wrestler and a member of two Olympic wrestling teams, first Japan and then for the United States. He had founded, in a four-table restaurant in New York, the American version of Benihana Steakhouse chain (named for his father's successful restaurant in Tokyo), where the knife waving chefs slice and cook and dazzle right at the table. The chain was a huge success.
Aoki was a speedboat racer, not only a winner but a record holder for the Nassau to Miami race. And he was known for spectacular crashes. He broke 21 bones in his racing career. Doctors removed his spleen and his gall bladder. Finally he donated his seven racing boats to charity. And it was off to new adventures. Archeology exhibitions in Peru. A deep water salvage operation in the Pacific where a Japanese battleship had gone down.
Rocky had a famous little run-in, too, with the feds, for a stock trading transgression. And he had legendary tussles with his corporate partners and his own heirs over control of the Benihana empire.
None of this explains it exactly. Explains what there was about that guy I met in the incessant drizzle in Northern California. You knew, somehow, that it wasn't money, or the high priced adventures, or even the glamorous women that told the story about this guy. He just exuded that something. Whatever "cool" means, Rocky had it.
Hiraocki Aoki, who was 69, died July 10 in New York. The news stories said Rocky died in bed. That just seemed too improbable to be true.