If I could revisit any time in my life, I wouldn’t have to think about it for a second. Roaming the hood on bikes with my afro-ed brethren was my first taste of adventure. Traveling the East Coast, then far beyond, to surf and compete and write, played like a dream. Those experiences, while mind-opening and full of wonder, cannot match what came in between, the years of becoming so enmeshed with one spot that it will always be my adopted home, the place that shaped my own Wonder Years. First Street Jetty.
Forty-five minutes of early morning, back road pedaling and this wide-eyed, wide-stanced freckleface with pale skin and a faux punk sneer was in a new realm. My BMX bike-turned-surf-mobile, with the jerry-rigged rack that would come loose and smash the tail of my board on the street, lifted me from suburban blandness toward teenage nirvana.
The First Street Jetty was built in 1968 alongside what was already the best surf spot in Virginia Beach, the old Steel Pier. By the time I arrived, the pier had been torn down, and nothing but a few stray shards of pilings remained, marked by four buoys in the middle of the lineup.
My boys and I would get there early and take any wave we wanted. At least for a little while, until the real crew arrived. Then it was nothing but scraps for us as we settled in at the bottom of the pecking order (Yes, there was such a thing; longboarding was still in remission from the late ’60s transition to shorter boards). Grommet abuse was dished out as needed – dunkings, boards paddled out to sea, kids stuck in trashcans or taped to poles. We silently grumbled through sunburnt lips and lapped up the leftovers.
The last thing we wanted to do was make a mistake in front of the crowd. Blow a wave, and the entire peanut gallery let you know about it. Heckling at the jetty was an art form. You’d be so embarrassed afterwards that you wouldn’t want another wave if someone gave it to you.
Since the VCR had recently revolutionized surf movies by allowing us to watch at home, we all mimicked our favorite pros in the lineup. For me, the image of Tom Curren’s seamless arcs at Rincon was blazed into my soul at age 14. I’d found my god.
At the jetty, there was no shortage of talented locals to pave our path. Those who had the biggest influence on me were Quest, Pills, Joe Don, Twig, Big Island, Kochey, and the most talented surfer of my generation, the great Pete Smith, Jr.
Occasionally, even the established guys had to give way. The dark blue Ford Bronco would pull up to the concrete slab alongside 2nd Street, and fresh off the plane from some faraway venue, out stepped a nine-foot tall, John Wayne deliberate, real live surf star. OMG it’s Wes Laine.
Wes was in his world tour prime while I was learning the basics. Any time he showed up at the jetty, the session became an event. Months before I could read about his latest competitive adventure in the mags, I eavesdropped in the lineup to hear who won and how Wes finished. More importantly, I got to see what was possible in crappy VB waves.
This was the scene that sucked me in. I spent every moment of my teenage summers and most evenings after school camped at First Street. While the waves attracted me, what happened on land made it memorable. The camaraderie, the creativity to endure endless flat spells, the pranks. But that’s another story.