If you have ever heard the roar of the ocean, been in it, you know it’s something, a force of nature that deserves respect. During my first lesson, it not only brought me to my knees, it turned me upside down and flattened me to the shoreline. Talk about a humbling experience.
My teacher Doug carried his surfboard with ease in front of me with his nephews telling him that I needed more practice. Think about the two kids from Hawaii who had probably been surfing since they could walk. They had spent more than a few times at the “Pipe” on O’ahu’s North Shore. By comparison I was a grommet or kook. I ran out of the crashing waves to avoid further embarrassment, but realized a large loogy was hanging down from my nostril. Doug handed me a towel.
“Man, wipe that off,” he said. “You don’t want to some chick to see you.”
Too late. There she was. A lifeguard to rival a Baywatch beauty walked by, but there was nothing mythical about her beauty – all blue haired and blonde eyed. The expression on her face made her look like she bit into a big fat lemon. That was my cue. Make lemonade.
“Today’s not your day,” Doug said, as he strapped the two long boards to the top of the VW van. He was one of the original surfer bad boys, stealing alcohol at the local package store and skipping classes when the surf was up. Manhattan Beach was a different story back in the 1960s, the boondocks, covered in dunes, weeds, and hippy shacks, while inner-city burbs like Inglewood and Hawthorne housed the middle class.
His bald head, greying hair, tan skin gave people the wrong idea. He was a Larry-David look alike – not as wisecracking. Better. He was for real, lived the life and survived it. His gravelly voice said he had been there, done that, and you’d get no sense he had any reason to lie, especially about catching 20-footers during a storm. Get him into a wetsuit, he swam like a freakin’ sea lion.
During my first lesson, he pushed me on a longboard, a thick coating of Sex Wax, into a three-footer. He called the plank of fiberglass and polyurethane a “stick.” It was about nine feet, six inches, roughly a canoe or small boat. Hoist a sail, and we’d be on our way to Catalina. Instead, there was something more practical. I attached a black cord to a Velcro band around my ankle, a tether which had only a psychological effect, and fooled me into thinking I would never lose my board. The ocean had other ideas.
“You a good swimmer?” I nodded. “Good. This thing comes loose, all you have to do is make it to shore.”
The salty seawater helped me stay afloat, but then there were riptides, those strong currents of water rushing back out to the Pacific. Sometimes the dolphins heckled you. This is crazy, I thought. Here I am, this dude who grew up in Nebraska, the nearest ocean more than 1,200 miles away, wanting to see what it was like to harness a wave, pull on its reins and last at least 8 seconds. The cord never came loose. Coincidently, we called my surfboard Big Red or the Barn Door, both references to my home state, either to Husker football and farming, you can take your pick. I took this as a sign. I was supposed to learn how to surf.
When I saw the ocean for the first time, I thought, no way. Guys and their boards were being swallowed up like they were nothing, and Doug, he waited to see how this farm boy might respond. Without saying much, he turned off the road following the shoreline, part of the calm laid-back culture. No demands. No pressure. When he was younger, he’d say, ‘let’s go get high.’
Instead he said: “We’ll wait until later.”
There was no ridicule, no embarrassment. Wide eyes. Hem-hawing. He got the hint.
Later in the day, when the ocean calmed, and he described the waves as “crumbly,” he said, “this is perfect. Let’s get in the water.”
I could feel the warm rolling tide lift me up.
“All you got to do is paddle quick. Just keep those arms moving.”
Another surfer coming back out to take advantage of the last sets of the day, said, “you just learning?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “Just go man, go! Paddle like crazy.”
And like that, I rolled off the rising wave gentle into the fold. The fins cut into it, and the board dipped down, then came horizontal. I jumped to my feet the way Doug showed me. I couldn’t see them facing the shoreline, and cruising along with the wall of water behind me, but I could hear them both yelling at me to walk the board, as was tradition with long boarders performing those graceful tricks, dancing on water, hanging ten.
Then as the ride ended in frothy foam, the remnants of a dissolved wave, I jumped down and landed cleanly on a sandbar, making it easier to get back out. No rodeo clowns here. There were a few more swells on which I cut my teeth, but the best part was soaking up the reds, purples, wisps of gray, against a brilliant blue sky, my body leaning back on Big Red, soaking up the sweet summer kisses of sunlight, its soft rays gleaming, like searchlights, reflected on the ocean at its happiest.
The day was over, but I swore that wasn’t the end.
“You’re gonna sleep good tonight,” Doug said.
He was right. Getting back to the pad, my one-room studio, I set my board against the wall near the window, and had a few swallows of beer, then dreamland took over. There was no mistaking, that despite the powerful forces at work, the ones that made me feel like the fragile mortal I am, I found peace, and quite perhaps love. More important, this wannabe surfer found a friend.