You didn't know I was a surfer? Well, I'm not. Never was. That there? Sure, it used to be a surfboard, but now it's a coffee table. Built it into one when I was just a kid. No, I never really rode it. Not the way you're supposed to, at least, standing upright and cutting diagonally across the face of the wave, away from the whitewater, on the green edge of the swell. Never quite got that far.
Don't sit on it. I'm no carpenter, and the legs might collapse. But have a close look at the shaper—the guy who designed the board. Down along the rail. Here. It's penciled in. Robbie Dick. They say he was one of the best.
Yeah, it's pretty old-fashioned, but boards back then weren't the tiny slivers they're riding now. It's a surfboard, all right, though, and a good one. I paid a hundred bucks for it, and it probably went for two hundred new. A lot of coin back then, almost thirty years ago, and a long ways away, out on the west coast, where I grew up.
Now, you say "west coast" and it brings to mind all kinds of gaudy images, of palm trees and bikinied blonds and crashing waves on broad sandy beaches—but I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, where the closest thing to a beach was the narrow concrete banks of the L.A. River flood control system. And the closest I ever got to surfers was viewing The Endless Summer on TV, which the local channels would show now and then on Saturday afternoons. I'd sit cross-legged on the shag carpet in our wood-paneled den and watch Robert and Mike traveling the globe, going from one airport to the next with their short haircuts and black suits, longboards under their arms, and for all the world looking like a couple Mormon missionaries wanting to squeeze in a little surfing between conversions. But Robert and Mike weren't bent on saving souls—they were on a quest for the Holy Grail: the perfect wave. And wonder of wonders they found it, at a secret spot called Cape St. Francis, a place of healing waters on a par with Lourdes but a heck of a lot more fun. Then after the credits rolled I'd switch off our console Magnavox and go outside to hop my clay-wheeled skateboard, riding clickety-clack down the street and pretending to shoot the curl at Cape St. Francis, old ladies and their schnauzers diving from the sidewalk as this pint-sized hellion streaked past. Gang way! Surfers rule! And maybe I'd keep it going to Sav-On to get an ice cream cone, paying my nickel and wandering over to the magazine rack where there'd be copies of Surfer and Surfing on display, one or both of their covers always showing a mammoth wave whose doomsday crest threatened to engulf the surfing Evel Knievel racing for his life down the heaving liquid slope. Other boys I knew at the time were into astronauts, and I remembered reading or hearing somewhere that NASA had once considered recruiting big-wave riders to blast off into space—the idea being, I suppose, to find guys who were on the absolute edge and ready for anything—but apparently the surfers were too busy having a blast in the waves. I could see their point. Nothing seemed quite so glorious. Not even flying to the moon. But my chances of doing that appeared somehow less remote (What was so tough about sitting atop a thirty-story rocket and letting someone light the fuse?) than ever becoming a surfer, one of those miracle men who walked on water.
Then in seventh grade I started paling around with Jim Kalahani. He was a full-blooded Hawaiian who could run faster and punt or throw a football farther and smack harder line drives than me or most anyone in our class. But in one sport I'd attained rough parity: basketball. We were starting guards for the Saint Teresa team. After practice I'd go with Jim to his house and we'd raid the refrigerator for roast pig or coconut cream pudding left over from one of the Kalahani luaus, then we'd either head to the backyard and he'd show me the moves he'd learned in his karate class that week, or else we'd listen to his older brother's rock music on the quadraphonic stereo in their shared bedroom, a speaker at each corner of the room blaring favorites like Jethro Tull, the Allman Brothers, and Paul McCartney & Wings. Jim was a neat friend to have. Even neater was that his father worked as bartender at a Malibu seaview restaurant called the Tonga Lei, and summers we'd leave behind the muggy swelter of the San Fernando Valley with Mr. Kalahani at the wheel and ride down Las Virgenes Road through the olive-brown hills that doubled for Korea in the television series M*A*S*H. Jim's musical taste was informed by his brother's record collection, and as we drove along he'd keep the radio tuned to "Too Hip" KMET, which featured a surf report that came on at 9:00 a.m., starting at the Mexican border and making its way on up the coast.
This is the Ocean Breeze Surf Shop in San Diego. Today we got a low pressure system making for some hot-doggy, three-to-five foot surf with occasional larger sets. A slight grit taking the bloom off that morning glass but still very workable, and it can only get better with the low....Welcome to the space world of cosmic surfing, earthlings, this is Tamarack Mack's in Carlsbad. Got some solar cruelty in the offing and it's hottin' up in the water too, some grinding overhead barrels that might be hazardous to the health of the Surgeon General but they're just what the surf doc ordered....Roger that, Carlsbad, this is Paradise Surfboards in Newport Beach and today we got some Orange County juice pumpin' in—a clean swell outta the southwest that's just startin' to blaze. I give it a six on the fun-o-meter-six foot and hollow! Awhooo!.... Then the report would finally check in at Malibu, whose hookup, Natural Progression, gave all those eager listeners in the hinterland deliberate bum steers so as to keep the water free of detested "Vals" and other non-locals. Here's the Flea from Natural Progression, came the drawling, deviated-septum surfer voice, and we got a fabuloso day shaping up: air temp seventy-eight, water temp sixty-nine, but the waves—sorry guys—a sloppy three foot with onshore winds picking up. Unless ya wanna put a bag over its head and do it for Old Glory, best bet today is just take your board to the pool and have Brian Wilson jump in. That would be the report. Then fifteen minutes later, after driving through Malibu Canyon, you crested the rise near the church and more often than not the ocean would be ribbed with swell and the waves peeling into shore with a smooth geometric precision.
After arriving at the Tonga Lei, Mr. Kalahani would start in to polishing up his glasses while we caught the bus on Pacific Coast Highway (the famous "PCH") and rode it to Zuma Beach, bellyboards braced between our knees. Jim had once rented a surfboard for the day at Waikiki, and I'd picked up rudimentary body-surfing on occasional family outings to Santa Monica Beach, but it was at Zuma that we gained our first real lessons in wave-riding. Here we learned how to judge the swells, time a takeoff, and keep cool on wipeouts as we got held under and tossed around like gnats in a high-speed blender. We also learned how to maneuver, riding a slalom course through all the fully dressed Mexicans and other waders splashing around in the shorebreak—no mean feat—and after swallowing our limit of saltwater we'd emerge from the surf and pick our way through all the dead jellyfish and kids digging for sandcrabs and then flop onto our towels before switching to our backs and staying propped on our elbows, watching the beads of water dry on our chests and breathing an air spiked with the fragrance of suntan oil as tinny transistors sounded from neighboring blankets and loud-mouth mothers warned their children not to go in the water if they'd eaten the potato salad in the past half hour.
After awhile we'd pick up and return to the Tonga Lei. Arriving there with bellyboards under our arms and sand still caking our ankles, we'd pass between carved tiki gods into a chill dark lobby and shiver and grope our way through to the lounge, its thatch ceiling hung with exotic lamps and its walls decorated with South Sea artifacts. Propped on the bamboo-trimmed bar would be middle-aged men in cardigan sweaters rolled to mid-forearm and scooping salted peanuts out of iridescent abalone shells and sipping vivid drinks with parasols and plastic monkeys hanging from the rims, and stationed behind the bar would be a stocky chocolate-skinned guy with thick black hair parted on the side and a double row of white Chicelets teeth. Mr. Kalahani. Our authentic kanaka barkeep. In his aloha shirt and in this kitsch tropical paradise, you half-expected him to grab up a yuke and start crooning Tiny Bubbles, hula girls in coconut bras swaying in from the wings.
"Hey, you litto bit guys—how da surf?"
"You hungry? You wunna eat?" he'd ask slyly, because after five hours in the sand and sea we needed grub wiki wiki. "Got da lomi salmon, da kalua pig. Broke da mout! Ono ono!"
Mr. Kalahani would first set us up with a couple tall cokes with cherries skewered on toothpicks bobbing in small cubes of ice, then we'd take our place in one of the red naugahyde booths in that part of the restaurant built on pilings over the water and affording a view to the pier. Beyond the pier we could make out the white lines of breakers peeling off the first point at Malibu, and just ahead of the white were upright figures, sovereign and in command. Surfers. Real ones. Guys who rode waves standing up.
After eighth grade Jim and I temporarily parted ways when we graduated St. Teresa's and enrolled at different high schools. He went to Reseda High and I was placed in an all-boys Catholic academy, where in the spring I joined the track team and started polevaulting. I showed some aptitude for the event. As a kid I'd fooled around with gymnastics, so polevaulting's acrobatics didn't spook me, and that first season I made jayvees and then the following year I trained with the varsity and upped my personal best to 13'0", which was also cutoff for making the Los Angeles Times "Best Marks" list appearing every week, where it was parenthetically noted that the youngster who had scaled this worthy and honorable height was only a sophomore. With polevaulting I felt I'd really found my niche. Not only was it a sport at which I could excel, but it seemed to attract the type guys I liked being around. The polevaulters weren't "athletes" in the conventional sense, but nature boys swinging through the treetops, trapeze artists gliding through the ether and flipping and twisting above the fray, free spirits and renegades who conveniently forgot to wear the prescribed necktie to school on meet days, and who habitually violated the team hair code, and who wouldn't have been caught dead wearing some hokey letterman's jacket.
And they surfed.
When the Santa Anas blew hot and strong, they'd let the pit cover billow out and pretend a wave was pitching over their heads. On that same pit, lolling in the sun and waiting for practice to begin, they'd always talk surfing. "Was out at C-Street last weekend with a real nice south runnin'," one would begin. "Maaan, you shoulda hit Salt Creek," another would say, "it had these perfection lines." "That's a buncha bull," a third would weigh in, "cuz Creek walls up on a south."
And I would lie in the pit and listen.
"Ever surf Santa Maria Rivermouth?"
"Nope, but I hit Hazard Canyon last winter and that place spits."
"Hazard Canyon? Where's that?"
"You know the Diablo plant? Just north of there."
"Nuke water territory."
"Zackly. But man, this place spits. Just like Pipeline, breaks on a reef, and if you make the drop, baby, you're gold."
"What if you don't make the drop?"
"You eat some reef."
"How's that reef taste?"
"Well, it's not tasty. I broke a rib there once."
"Be happy that's all you broke."
"Yeah, it might of been my board."
In the past couple years surfing had been pushed to the back of my thoughts, but now the youthful longings came surging back. Here was a world of raw vitality and daring that made even polevaulting seem like pretty tame fare—while reducing practically everything else I'd ever experienced to the level of Disneyland. Kid's stuff. Yes, in fact, if I were to be honest, the pinnacle of adventure in my life to that point had been automaton pirates in a fake Caribbean and a Jungle Boat Cruise with pneumatic hippos rising out of the water to be shot by a cap-gun wielding teenager at the helm of a boat on underwater rails that always guided you safely past. This surfing world had nothing safe about it. The nomenclature itself conveyed a dangerous thrill. It was a world of "dawn patrols" and "cleanup sets," of "closeouts" and "wipeouts," of "elephant guns" and "surfaris" to places like Shark's Cove and Razor Blades and Hazard Canyon. It was a world I had to finally discover for myself, and when track season ended sophomore year I gave Jim Kalahani a ring and told him I was thinking of buying a surfboard.
"Me too," he answered promptly. "I got my car now. We can go together."
That's what I'd been hoping he'd say, since at fifteen I still wasn't driving. But it was more than that: here were my own private, cherished thoughts according exactly with those of another. We'd never discussed the matter before, and I felt a conspiratorial pleasure, as if confessing our mutual plan of running off to join the circus.
We started by going halves on a set of used Bay Standard surf racks we saw advertised in the paper. They'd experienced hard usage, with dirty wax build-up in the ridges of the supporting bars and the plastic-tubed bungee cords permanently blackened, but I think Jim went for that because mounted on his car it made him look like a seasoned vet. As for the boards, we planned paying a visit to Natural Progression, Malibu pick-up for the KMET surf report. It roosted over a drycleaners just across from the Tonga Lei on the landward side of PCH, and halfway up the stairs Jim turned to me and whispered: "So remember, ya gotta be cool. You can't let them know you're a beginner, else they'll rip us off major."
The little shop smelled of fruity surf wax and factory-fresh rubber and neoprene. It was filled with surfboards and wetsuits and dacron-polyester surfwear, so jammed with merchandise that you could barely walk through the place without brushing up against something. Idly flipping through a surf magazine with his thonged feet up on the glass counter was a guy wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and a pair of yellow nylon trunks with scalloped slits in the sides. He had bleached-blond hair and bleached-blond eyebrows and a bleached-blond mustache, the hair on his legs standing out from his baked brown skin like a stubborn culture of white fuzz. He looked up and said: "Hiyadoon."
The Flea! No mistaking that nasal twang! If he downplayed his reports to discourage the Valley element, he'd probably do the exact opposite with his prices if he found out you were a Val. The stakes here were doubled.
"We need a couple boards," said Jim.
"Got plenny of those," said the Flea, kicking his feet down and scaling his magazine beneath the counter. "Whujya have in mind?"
"Something progressive," said Jim.
"Progressive?" said the Flea. "Progressive compared to what?"
Jim and I exchanged glances. I kept my mouth shut. He was point man here.
"Uh, like, you know," said Jim a little uneasily. "Something...state-of-the-art."
The Flea gave him an unblinking deadpan.
"Yeah, man, I get your idea and all, but couldjya be a little more specific? I mean, ya wunna amp or you lookin' for trim or what?"
Jim mulled that one over. If he knew the difference between "amp" and "trim," then he was a better man than me. "Amp," he ventured.
"Ampage," quoth the Flea, who slapped his thongs over to a stand of boards and cut a laid-back fart en route. He pulled out a lime-green specimen with a white deck emblazoned with a rainbow comber, the Natural Progression logo. "Here's a primo six-six," he said. "Twinfin swallowtail with fluted wings and good laminar flow for quick water release." He tilted the board Jim's way. "So you might wunna look at that." Jim took it but didn't seem too pleased. He'd heard that for your first board you needed something over seven feet—good laminar flow notwithstanding.
"You got something a little longer?"
"I thought you wanted to amp."
"So like give me a little help, dude—what exactly is it you're lookin' for?"
"Something over seven feet."
"All you care about is length?" said the Flea incredulously. "I mean, wutchya gonna do, surf the thing or turn it into a coffee table? There's like other stuff involved. What's the board you got now?"
I looked at Jim in his T-shirt with SURF INSTRUCTOR WAIKIKI BEACH splashed across the chest. He didn't have a board. A full-blooded Hawaiian, but not an actual surfer yet.
"It was blue," I said with quick inspiration.
"It's not blue anymore?" demanded the Flea.
"No, it's still blue," I replied. "But he sold it a while back."
"Right," said Jim.
A flummoxed Flea.
"And I'm looking for trim," I announced.
"Trim," muttered the Flea.
He scanned the rack and drew out a longer, slightly thinner board with the same NP logo. He rattled off its specs. "Seven-three, rounded pin, solid glass job, no stress marks."Then he gripped the board with both hands and made a show of drilling his thumbs into its underside. Nothing happened.
"So there's that," said the Flea, giving me the board. I took it and balanced it in my hands as if testing the integrity of its structure, like the faux-sophisticate who orders a fancy vintage and then has to pretend he's doing stuff like judging the bouquet as the waiter looks on. I knew next to nothing about surfboards, and what information I did have was confused. For instance, I was aware that the fin was for steering the board, but somehow I'd gotten it fixed in my mind that the fin's raked-back form functioned as a shark decoy that a shark, coming across it, would think it was another shark and split. (Why a shark would be swimming on its back, I hadn't got around to asking myself.)
"How much is it?"
"Hunert bucks," said the Flea.
"Sold," I said.
"And one-ten for the swallow," he said, indicating Jim's board.
"All right," said Jim.
We reached for our spinnaker-nylon Velcro-seal surf wallets.
"And I guess you'll be needing a leash," said the Flea to Jim, "since ya prolly sold it with your board."
Jim bought one. I didn't, since my "old board" already had a leash-natch.
"How about wax?" suggested the Flea. "Water's gettin' warmer. You're gunna need some summer wax."
We bought a few bars.
"And wetsuits? Vests are real good for summer," declared the Flea. "Prevent chest rash and whatnot. Got a couple here that're real light and limber."
We purchased two Body Glove zip-fronts, then escaped before he could offer us a week of start-up surfing lessons.
The trick now was in finding a place with waves minus the crowds. Malibu was out of the question. It had the best surf, perfect for learning on, the waves so consistent and the rides so long that it was almost like surfing under controlled conditions, but the wave traffic was bumper-to-bumper. And highly competitive. To surf Malibu your maiden outing was like straying onto the Indianapolis 500 your first day behind the wheel. Afternoons, Zuma was off-limits to board surfing. Malibu and Zuma were the two places we knew.
We strapped our boards to the roof and took off down Pacific Coast Highway. The sky was a metallic blue, a dazzling sunlight edging everything in gold, and the inrushing air tickled our nostrils with the salt tang of the ocean. The first couple spots we cruised were pointbreaks like Malibu, salients of land jutting seaward and producing sets of tapered waves ideal for our purposes, but swarming with guys. Then a short while later some jetties hove into sight with rideable waves and the flesh-colored specks not in too great abundance. We pulled across the highway onto a slab of asphalt with foxtails growing up out of its cracks and fronting a cheesy-looking nightclub called the Sunspot Cafe. We joined a white Datsun pickup at the far end of the parking lot, then exiting the car we walked back across the highway for a better view of the set-up. Descending at a sharp angle from the highway to the beach were pell-mell chunks of granite like those of the jetty and where the chunks met the sand were surfboards leaning against them and sunbathers on brightly patterned beach towels, and beyond that lay a tan swath of beach and a sapphire ocean with the curl lines breaking turquoise as they thinned into translucent sheets.
We scurried back across the highway to retrieve our boards, then braved traffic once more and clambered down the salt-rimed granite to the sand. We placed our towels at the foot of the rocks and spent the next ten minutes giving the decks of our boards a lavish first coat of wax, which wafted a coconut-pineapple smell. I waited for Jim to tie his urethane leash to his board and Velcro it to his ankle, then we walked down the sloping beach with little tarballs dotting it and waded into the slowly deepening water. It was swimming—pool temperature and lapped coolly against my hot skin. When the ocean reached to my trunks I climbed onto the board, set its nose slightly higher than the tail, got my weight properly distributed, then began working my arms back and forth, cutting the water with my hands and the board sliding through the foam-laced blue, little rills of water bouncing the nose as I angled out toward the breakers.
When we made it out with the other guys, I looked around. What now? It was a lull and everyone was sitting on their boards with arms braced on their thighs and smoothly rising and falling with the swell. I tried sitting too. I pushed up on my board, brought my legs around to the sides...and keeled over into the drink. I tried it a couple more times with the same result. If you concentrated and gripped the protruding nose of your board with two hands you could hold an unsteady seat. But it was fatiguing. And frustrating. Here I was trying to learn to stand, and couldn't even sit! Jim wasn't having any better luck. So we skipped sitting and stood-on the ocean bottom. The water was to our necks. When a wave came we turned shoreward, wriggling onto our boards and paddling into the swell. It seemed to work.
"It's easier to stand," said Jim.
"I will never sit again."
But that's all that worked. As soon as I tried rising to my feet I lost my balance and took a dunking. Same for Jim. He blamed it on his board.
"At Waikiki they had these real heavy boards," he grumbled. "This one's all light and tippy."
"But you've got two fins and I only have one," I said. "You should be a lot more stable."
"I can't figure it out either."
We finally succeeded in rising to our feet and maintaining our balance—but only in the whitewater. That's not what we were shooting for. On our bellyboards we'd always taken dumpers straight off for the bounce in the trough, but with surfboards you wanted to slide the length of a wave, not just be pushed into shore like so much flotsam. The key was getting from prone to upright in one smooth motion as the wave took over from your paddling and before you bottomed out on the drop. It required split-second timing. At first, in attempting this, the nose of my board kept diving beneath the surface as if it had a chunk of lead up front. I scooted back on the surfboard to remedy the problem, but this presented its own difficulties. Either I had trouble getting into the wave or else, once standing, I'd stall, my board drifting apathetically out the back.
After an hour of this we headed for the beach. Although we hadn't "surfed" yet, the technical fluency would come with time. And we'd had our baptism—a full-immersion one at that.
We lay on our towels, basking in the sun and our initiate status.
"Hey Jim, why you think they call him the Flea? He doesn't look like a Flea."
"Maybe he's got 'em."
Then a guy strolled over. He was about twenty and had cracked lips and salt-stiffened blond hair and the skin of his nose was peeling up like paint on a weatherbeaten fence. He was shirtless and wore a pair of low-hanging jeans that showed the waistband of his paisley-print boxer shorts. He was smoking a cigarette. We exchanged "whussup" nods and he glanced at my board.
"That a Robbie Dick?"
"Robbie Dick." He bent down to indicate some writing beneath the fiberglass that said R. Dick. "Robbie's a friend of mine."
"He make the board?"
"That's right. Hey, ya mind if I take it out for a spin? Wasn't gonna hit it today, but things are pickin' up real nice."
I tried to gauge his reliability.
"Come on, I won't hurt it," he said. "And if anything happens to the board, you get her." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "She's my deposit."
About thirty yards off lay a girl stretched on a towel soaking up vitamin D. She was slithery with oil and her skin was like lacquered walnut against a tangerine bikini. Okay. Right. He wasn't going anywhere.
"Way to be," he said. "Even throw my pants into the deal."
He blithely shed his jeans and grabbed the board, flipping it under his arm and trotting down to the surf in his paisley-print boxer shorts. He started paddling toward the jetty and when he reached the end of the long finger of angular rocks he didn't stop there but kept paddling around to the other side and disappeared from view. Hey! Where was he headed?! I jumped up and started running for the jetty's far side and was just in time to see him paddling for a wave pushing across its tip. He was paddling straight for it—straight for the jetty! Oh, why hadn't I bought a leash! Then the wave humped and he sprang to his feet. It looked like he was going to smash up, but at the last second he made a slick turn and maneuvered the board safely past the rocks and proceeded to ride the wave expertly, performing little squiggles across its face and keeping always just beneath the white-maned crest until he came to the end of his ride and angled over the wave's back while still standing on the board as it came to a rest in calm water, cigarette still in his mouth.
On the way back to my towel I passed the girlfriend lying on her stomach. Her eyes were closed and she was absorbed in the act of tanning. I got absorbed in it as well. Her bikini top was untied, so from the side you could see the dirty whiteness of her breast crushed against the towel, while her bottom was barely covered by a miniscule triangle of bikini, the cloth low on her hips and giving you a shot of her crack. I squinted one eye and raised my thumb to the other, blotting out the scrap of bikini while retaining that breathtaking inch of inferior cleavage.
The effect was one of total nudity.
"Relax," said Jim when I returned. "The guy knows what he's doing."
"Easy for you to say."
I craned my neck, watching Paisley-Print flirt with the jetty some more. Time passed. A yellow lifeguard truck with red torpedo floats lining its racks lumbered by. A biplane buzzed overhead pulling a canary banner advertising COPPERTONE in brown letters, flat and unruffled as a plank-wood sign. Off in the distance floated a supertanker, its dark hull silhouetted against the sky where it shaded into a pale band of blue at the horizon. Then at length Paisley-Print paddled in, board intact and hair still crisp and dry. With a firm thrust he planted my board in the sand as if setting a man-size exclamation point to his performance.
"Solid glass job."
"Have a good one."
Concern had turned to pride. My new purchase had been test-piloted by a real live surfer and proclaimed good! A memorable day! But this could also be a problem. If people kept wanting to borrow my board, I wouldn't be able to get much surfing done myself. Perhaps I could rent it by the hour, make a little cash on the side.
A while later Jim and I gathered up our stuff, climbed the rocks, and crossed back over the highway. Paisley-Print and his girlfriend were sitting on the lowered gate of the Datsun pickup, rinsing the sand from between their toes with water from a plastic bottle.
"Rad truck," I said by way of conversation.
"You carry your stick in back?"
The girl had a Farrah Fawcett hairdo, blow-dried and feathered in layers, and she was wearing a T-shirt which made public the fact that she was "Slippery When Wet." I wasn't quite sure what that intended to convey, but my adolescent mind took its own erotic initiative by conjuring an image of her sliding down a Slip 'n' Slide, the jets of water playing about her wantonly naked body and speeding her in my direction at the end of the long rubber strip. Yes, coming my way! Girls like her had always seemed unattainable, hopelessly beyond me, but these were the babes you got when you were a surfer! And now I was one! With my clean Robbie Dick stick!
Jim and I loaded our things, then took off down the highway. He turned to me with a pained expression.
"Did you say bitchen?"
"Sure—it's a word."
"From the sixties. Don't embarrass me like that again."
"I dunno, a sonic boom?"
I looked out and saw my board bouncing crazily down PCH like a punted football. It tumbled and skidded and got nailed by one or two cars before finally coming to rest on the highway shoulder. I yelled at Jim to pull over and then got out and dashed back down the road, the gravel pavement prickling my bare feet.
When I saw my board I wanted to leave it—or just shove it into the middle of the highway and have some eighteen-wheeler finish the job. It was battered and scarred, the surface area covered with little spiderweb ruptures and the nose hanging by a thin membrane of fiberglass. I truly wanted to leave it. But finally I made myself pick it up and plodded mournfully back to Jim's car, putting the board on the racks, pulling the bungee cord over it, and setting the metal hook, which I'd neglected to do the first time around.
When I got home I sat staring in numb horror at the board. What now? I was too embarrassed to take it into a shop, and, on top of that, any repair job would probably be equal in cost to simply replacing the thing. Assuming it could be repaired. Would it even float? Or just sink like a stone and sleep with the fishes? That's what it resembled—the victim of a gangland hit. As things stood it wouldn't even make a decent coffee table.
Or would it?
Determined to salvage something from this fiasco, I fetched a couple sawhorses from the carport and laid down newspapers on the back porch. First I sliced away the shattered nose, then I mixed some resin with catalyst and covered the really bad spots, let the board sit overnight, and that next morning smoothed over the rough edges of dried resin with sandpaper and used my dad's car wax to give the board a high sheen.
It looked all right.
Then I hammered in the two-by-fours and set it up in my bedroom.
I had every intention of buying another surfboard when I got the extra cash, but at that time I was also saving for a car. Hey, if I was going to be a full-fledged surfer, I had to have wheels first. Jim couldn't drive me around forever. In fact I had my eye on a '66 Ford Mustang, since they looked so racy and—yes—bitchen with surfboards on top. But then junior year I got very into polevaulting, and senior year was spent in a kind of lovesick funk over some faithless and undeserving girl who had nevertheless commandeered my emotional life (I mean, you sort of took what you could get at a school where every time females arrived on campus news of it raced through the halls like we were some forward army unit and a bunch of WACs had suddenly materialized), and by the time I graduated high school I'd bought that '66 Mustang but somehow still hadn't managed to purchase another wave vehicle.
Then I got the track scholarship to the University of Kansas. Although I wasn't too keen on enrolling at a place where they probably thought Hang Ten was some ancient Chinese philosopher, I wanted to put distance between myself and the girl and was flattered by the scholarship and figured, heck, if the Jayhawks were good enough for Jim Ryun and Wilt the Stilt then they were good enough for me. And you know the rest of the story. College is where I met Sharon. We began dating and one thing led to another, so that we finally tied the knot and started our own family and twenty-five years later I'm still here.
A denizen of the heartland.
Jim Kalahani? He kept surfing. Back in the mid-'80s I got a postcard from him that was forwarded by my mother and postmarked Hawaii. Apparently he'd returned to his ancestral homeland and was riding big North Shore surf and making good money nights by twirling a tiki torch at Waikiki tourist luaus.
Anyway, I've always held on to that coffee table. For sentimental reasons, I guess. And as a reminder of past dreams. Maybe things would have been different if I'd caught the perfect wave.
Kevin McAleer was born and raised in Los Angeles and now lives and works in Berlin, Germany as a translator and writer. He is co-editor with Allan Mitchell and Istvan Deak of the two-volume work, Everyman in Europe: Essays in Social History (Prentice-Hall 1990), he is co-author with Adam Blauhut of the humorous short story collection, Zwei Amerikaner im deutschen Exil (Kiepenheuer & Witsch 1998), and he is author of the historical monograph Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Germany (Princeton University Press 1994), which was chosen one of Encyclopaedia Britannica''s "Books of the Year." He is presently seeking publication of his novel Surfer Boy, of which "Surfers Rule" is an adapted excerpt, and is hard at work on a one-man play about Errol Flynn which he hopes to see staged no later than 2009, the Tasmanian Devil's centennial.
Copyright 2005, Kevin McAleer. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.