I’ve taught thousands of people to surf over the last twenty-something years, but this guy in 2007 was the most memorable.
I avoided his calls for most of September. Four months of shoving an old man into nosedives was more than enough, even if he WAS paying me 60 bucks an hour. I’d never encountered a student I couldn’t teach, but his failure was my failure. His phone number was a buzzing reminder. He may as well have hired a plane to write it across the sky.
The little I learned about Gary between pushes was that he grew up in New York but was a Red Sox fan, and his only other physical activity was cruising on his Harley. His reddish-brown crew cut was obviously dyed, and by the look of his slow, stiff-legged gait I guessed he was in his sixties. Neither of us was big on small talk, and he was usually too winded to speak anyway. Before our first lesson, on a muggy day back in June, he’d nearly keeled over from wedging himself into a fullsuit, all before we’d paddled out. I made sure he signed a waiver.
Gary’s education hadn’t been a total loss. He got most of the way to his feet, occasionally rising to a hunched, four-point stance. Then he’d let go of the rails, and all hell inevitably broke loose. In bathtub-sized waves, his wipeouts were fantastic, as if blasted by an exploding underwater mine. His body contorted in a frenetic game of Twister, and he’d struggle in waist-deep water to extricate himself from the leash while gasping to the surface. He couldn’t paddle by himself, but with his own personal pusher, he didn’t need to.
I half-hoped he’d move on and forget about surfing, but perhaps inspired by his Sox’ charge towards the World Series he kept calling. Gary wouldn’t tell me how old he was but promised to come clean when (or rather if) he learned to surf. On the other hand, the days were getting shorter, and he was scheduled for knee surgery in November. It was now or never, or at least till next summer.
Finally, I caved and returned his call. I dragged The Blue Whale, a 12’ foam beast, down the sand to meet him. If you can’t stand up on this floating sidewalk, give it up. You’ll never surf.
For the first half-hour, it was business as usual – wait for Gary to lead the Whale to the lineup and regain his breath, hold her steady while he’d climb aboard, turn the two of them around, wait for a wave, give a heave, and watch in horror as he’d…crawl…up…almost…come on…you got it…yes…nooo! Damn mines.
I clicked away the minutes until my, I mean Gary’s torture would cease. He was so exhausted that the muscles in his face lacked the energy to make any expression at all. Buoyed by some unknown call of duty, he trudged ahead. Meanwhile, I nearly threw out my shoulder hauling him into yet another gentle wavelet.
This time I couldn’t bear to watch. I scanned the boardwalk and spotted a friend on a mid-work surf check. I wondered if my buddy was gonna paddle out. Maybe I’d stay out with the Whale and catch a few. Only ten more minutes of agony.
Oh yeah, my student. When I turned back to view the carnage, there was none. No Blue Whale popping out the back of the wave. No epic struggle between the old man and the leash. Nothing. But fifty feet further in, a most glorious sight. Gary had stood, let go of the rails, and managed not to detonate any mines. He was angling slightly down the line at the Whale’s behest. Holy shit! His failure was my failure. His success was my success. He’s surfing.
An unstoppable scream shot from my lungs. I splashed hysterically. Someone might’ve thought a Great White had chomped onto my legs. If one had tried, it would’ve choked on the goose bumps. Never had I been as stoked watching a surfer ride a wave. I’d never been that stoked while I was riding a wave.
Afraid to twitch for fear of the moment disappearing in a puff of smoke, Gary hung on with everything he had. His pose made the Duke statue at Waikiki look like a spaz. The Whale delivered him safely to the sand, where he remained frozen a few more seconds before clumsily dismounting. I was pretty far away, but I thought I could make out the slightest crack of a grin. We called it a day.
In my excitement, I forgot to ask Gary his age. We agreed to meet again the next week, but winter came all at once. His knee surgery was approaching, and he never called. Swept up with life, I didn’t think of him. A few months later, I got the message from one of his friends. “Yeah, uh, I believe you are the surfing instructor for Gary Slaughter. I don’t know if anyone has let you know, but Gary passed away. He said you had this little game going about how old he was. Well, he was 72.” Gary was diagnosed with prostate cancer soon after his knee surgery and was gone a month after that. If he had any family, they were estranged. He prepaid to be cremated and wanted no funeral, not even an obituary. “I just wanted to let you know,” the friend added at the end of the message, “that he really enjoyed it.”