Why there is only one surf movie (aside from that animated penguin flick)

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A friend I hadn’t seen since George Michael was urging everyone to have ‘fay-fa-fay-fa-faith’ came into town recently. Damian Bibic is an Aussie who lived here during my wonder years and showed me what good surfing looked like. He wasn’t aware of my sabbatical, and the first thing he said the other night was, “I went down to First Street to look for you. I wanted to paddle up and go, ‘Good swell, how big are the sets?'”

In you’re unfamiliar with the only Hollywood film about surfing that’s worth watching, Damian’s line is from Big Wednesday. Straight-laced Jack Barlow returns from three years in Vietnam and says those words to his frequently drunk buddy Matt Johnson as if nary a day has passed. Damian’s return after a quarter century set off a wave of nostalgia. I remembered being at a party and painting him with barbecue sauce so he could dive into a preheated oven (“We’re gonna roast the Masochist. How you like your haole?”). It was time for a screening.

Roasting the Masochist. Perhaps this was the root of Busey's later problems.

Roasting the Masochist. Perhaps this was the root of Busey’s later problems.


We had no smart phones in the ’80s, so our eyes had lots of free time. Mine fixated on a vhs cassette of Big Wednesday. I’m baffled the magnetic tape didn’t disintegrate after the thousandth viewing. I cannot recall a single postulate from geometry, but by the time I graduated I could recite every line in the film.

Several years later I got the movie on dvd. I never watched it, and after moving twice I considered it lost. I tried to find a pirated YouTube version but Warner Brothers demanded my credit card information. Oh well, I have a smart phone, so my attention fluttered back to Words with Friends.

Enter fate.

The next evening, I was sitting on my bum in the living room when in walks my son. His hair was wet from surfing, and he was carrying my dvd copy of Big Wednesday. I envisioned that somewhere Gary Busey cracked a(nother) beer, the clouds parted, and Ray Charles was accompanied by a flock of angels for an impromptu rendition of “What’d I say?”

Best seat in the house. I can finally throw quotes at my son.

Best seat in the house. I can finally throw quotes at my son.


An hour later, I was sprawled on my son’s bedroom floor for closer viewing as the narrator began, “I remember the three friends best – Matt, Jack, Leroy,” and the trio made their way down the concrete stairs toward The Point. I’ll spare you the whole story, but I was struck like an Enforcer uppercut by all the memorable lines. Big Wednesday says so much about friendship, growing up, and life in general that I can overlook the hackneyed ride-of-his-life-near-death-experience-saved-by-his-friends ending. Here’s a my list of my favorites quotes (in the order they appear in the film).

1. “You’re always alone out there anyway. You shouldn’t have to depend on anybody but yourself.” -Bear
One of the best things about surfing is that it isn’t a team sport, or possibly isn’t a sport at all, but a mental, physical, and spiritual sanctuary with real consequences. There are no tracks, coaches, fees, or support staff.

2. “At home being young is just something you do until you grow up. Here, here it’s everything.” –Sally
After growing up in Chicago, Jack’s girlfriend realizes the Great Lakes mightn’t be so great after all. That’s why there’re so many grownups there. The beach is more like Neverland, and everybody wants to be Peter Pan.

3. “They’ve condemned the pier, Jack. I’m gonna have to go and start livin’ like an inlander.” –Bear
We all reach a crossroads where that thug called “life” threatens to rob us of our passion. Some of us realize the moment isn’t a crossroads at all, but a speed bump. We get knocked around, spill our $5 coffee, curse the creator for playing such a cruel trick, and keep right on driving.

4. “I just surf ’cause it’s good to go out and ride with your friends.” –Matt
Competition, adulation, and free stuff get in the way of surfing. They aren’t reasons to do it. Going out and riding with ones friends, that’s the ticket – riding waves, riding flat spells, riding to Hatteras and stinking the car up with jokes and Hardee’s biscuit farts.

5. “Jack, your friends are the most important thing you’ve got. Have a drink…to your friends, come hell or high water.” –Bear One day your friends will lure you into a shady business deal, steal your gal, and have your kids calling them, “Daddy,” but until then, they’re the best thing you’ve got. Quit blowing them off. Blow everything else off and meet them for a drink.

6. “The change wasn’t in the beach or the rocks or the waves. It was in the people. Some got married. Some moved inland. Some died.” –Narrator
No matter where you live, people bitch about how the place has changed for the worse. Unless you live somewhere they’ve built a harbor over your break, shut up. All that’s changed is people have moved on. Adapt or die, the choice is yours.

7. “I’m not your brother, and turn down that crappy music!” –Matt I haven’t had a reason to attend Surf Expo or any other gathering of bro’s for several years, and I do not miss it. Unless you’re my brother, or we’ve been to war together, or at least on a surf trip, don’t call me, “brother.” And hippy music is indeed crap.

8. “Nah, only when it’s necessary.” Matt, in response to Jack asking if he’s been doing much surfing
I don’t like the idea of surfing as a routine, like going to a gym and hopping on a treadmill. Riding waves is an adventure, and if it isn’t you’re doing it wrong and may as well be on a tennis court or a golf course. Go out on a choppy day or ride a different type of board.

9. “I never thought old Waxer’d end up in the boneyard.” -Leroy
We all die, some earlier than others. You never expect to hear that one of your buddies has expired. I’ve been through it a couple times and you always wish you’d been a better friend. Refer to #5.

10. “No, I’m just a garbage man.” -Bear, in response to a guy asking if he surfs
If you don’t surf now, you never did. That sounds funny considering my present situation, but I believe it. Since many think of me as a surfer, they are impelled to tell me about their days in the water and how they long to return. I wish they’d accept reality; they’re garbagemen.

On a final note, I’d like to think that when I die, I will relive Matt’s experience as he walks to the beach on the big day. He reaches the sand, and Jack and Leroy are waiting for him. I’ll walk up to the boardwalk at First Street, and I’ll find Jeff Hunter and Zeke Sanders standing with their boards. Nothing will be said. We’ll paddle out.

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