I’d like to think the chance to be better than my brother at something wasn’t the reason I turned my 12-year-old life over to riding waves, but let’s be serious. Could you blame me? In everything else that mattered under the sun – football, baseball, basketball, karate, skateboarding, bmx, kicking ass – Derrick, well, he kicked my ass. It didn’t matter that his extra two-and-a-half years of size and strength all but guaranteed I couldn’t contend with him in any of these pursuits.
Take football for instance. My 95-pound team had a scrimmage game against my brother’s 110-pound team. On one particular play I was lined up on defense and found myself trying to cover Derrick. There was no way I could stay with him, and he knew it.
He called over to his quarterback before the snap and pointed to me to indicate, “Mismatch.” Derrick set his sights way downfield and I rocked back on my heels to get a jump on him and hopefully keep pace. I was ready.
The ball was snapped, and I immediately backpedaled. Derrick took one step and froze.
I was hoodwinked!
The quarterback zipped a screen pass to him. I halted my backward momentum and zeroed in on his guts. I would not be fooled again. He was in my sights, so I lowered my head to deliver the blow that would make me the envy of Green Run Elementary. Girls would swoon, and the Pittsburgh Steelers would soon call on me to replace Mean Joe Green.
Derrick angled ever so slightly to the right, and I took the bait. He cut back left, and I corralled an armful of air on my way to the ground. I peeled my face out of the dirt and looked up in time to see Derrick high-stepping into the end zone while his teammates alternated between hooting for him and laughing at me. My cleats, which I’d just been juked out of, were soon hung up for good.
I wasn’t bad at any of those sports; I’d say I was above average. I once whiffed eight batters in three innings as a pitcher, and I stockpiled various trophies in a time before they were given out for mere participation. Still, I compared myself to my big brother. And in that rivalry, I was sick of sucking.
In 1982, I had never seen a human being stand atop a board and ride a wave. Surfing wasn’t used to sell erectile dysfunction drugs like it is today, and there was no such thing as youtube. I could count the number of times my toes had burrowed into the sand – aside from in a sandbox – on one foot. Still, as soon as I saw Derrick take off with his friends in a car filled with surfboards, I realized that surfing was in my future.
All I knew about the sport was that people stood up on a wave and aimed for the beach. For some reason, I was under the impression that a board was to be ridden with the fin pointing skyward like the dorsal fin of a shark. Luckily, Derrick brought home some surf magazines before I ever paddled out. So in addition to popping the first of many bikini-boobs-induced boners, I saw that the fin goes in the water.
Surf schools didn’t exist, and Derrick wasn’t about to sacrifice the jumpstart he had on me by divulging any trade secrets, so I was on my own to figure things out. I borrowed an all-yellow, 5’9″ Hansen twin fin from my new Uncle Billy, a long-haired, long-time surfer who’d recently married my aunt. I wasn’t thrilled that he’d robbed us of my favorite babysitter, but I was too old for that anyway. Besides, as much as I loved my aunt, the board seemed like a fair tradeoff.
A couple of my friends – Chris Decker and Brad Harrell – already surfed, and Chris’ dad dropped us off at the beach on a dreary weekend afternoon in May. The ordeal of squeezing into a borrowed wetsuit for the first time was no easy feat. Only after I struggled into the stinky thing did they inform me that I’d put it on backwards. The boys grabbed their boards and took off into the water, leaving me to struggle with my wardrobe malfunction. My surfing career was off to an inauspicious start.
I had just turned twelve and was weeks away from graduating from middle school. Armed with The Yellow Submarine, I walked off the edge of the earth into the unknown.
To be continued…