The kid and I a few years ago at Lowers, when I was still bigger than him.

The kid and I a few years ago at Lowers, when I was still bigger than him.

As a youngen, my son asked brilliant questions about the world and about life, things I couldn’t begin to answer before Google came along. He’s now 17, so we seldom converse aside from me saying “Get out of bed” or “Get your ass home” and him saying “I need some money” or “I’m going surfing.” So when he sat beside me the other night and asked, “Are you any wiser because of not surfing all year?” I was baffled but delighted. My high school senior was a little kid again.

Am I wiser? Have I gained knowledge as a result of abstaining from my passion? What the hell does that even mean, and have I gained anything? Should I scrap the entire project and just go surfing?

Thankfully there are some far wiser cats than I, men who, if there was a Mount Rushmore of wisdom, would be cheek-to-granite-cheek. And they’ve left an endless supply of wisdom-y nuggets to guide this blind man to the light.

When I implored King Solomon, the supposed wisest man to ever live, he spoketh, “All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full,” which I deciphered as, “Go surfing, you kook.”

When I went to Confucious, the fortune cookie maven, he hit me with, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall,” which I took to mean, “Go surfing, you kook.”

Leo Da Vinci took a break from coding and insisted, “Water is the driving force of all nature,” which said to me, “Go surfing, you kook.”

And when I asked the rap god Eminem, he spat, “Hip-hop saved my life, man. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been even decent at. I don’t know how to do anything else.” I said, “But Marshall, what does hip-hop have to do with…” Then I got it.

I'm not philosophizing on this weird tree in Moorea, but it sure looks like I am. Photo: Bielmann

The only philosophizing I’m doing on this weird tree in Moorea is wondering how big a splash I’m about to make when I fall. Photo: Bielmann

They were all telling me the same thing, but since I didn’t actually speak with those guys and just pulled random quotes off the Internet, I wasn’t convinced. So, I turned to the one true oracle in 2014, The Google.

Wisdom, sayeth the omniscient Googs, is knowledge of what is true or right, gained from having many experiences in life; insight, sagacity. By distancing myself from surfing, I’ve been provided with truths I never could have discovered about myself and surfing. I’ve gained invaluable insight. And sagacity? I don’t know what it is, but if it has any correlation to gray hair I’ve gained some.

Here’s what I know. Surfing hasn’t ruined my life. Surfing is my life. 2014, looking back on it, will be devoid of memories other than being the year I didn’t surf, the year I didn’t go to Hatteras with my friends, the year I didn’t feel the fair but stinging tradeoff of a solid sunburn on my face, the year I didn’t catch the daggers of a northerly wind cutting through my wetsuit while I wait for one last wave, the year I didn’t experience the butterflies of applying a coat of wax to the deck of a fresh new board, the year I didn’t get to crack a celebratory beer after a glorious day of barrel riding, the year I found no joy in exercising because all I did was pedal and paddle and run, the year I didn’t follow the river to the sea, fall and rise again, feel the driving force of nature, do the only thing I’m decent at. 2014 will go down as the year I didn’t live.

Three weeks from accomplishing my mission, I’ve learned I can survive without surfing. The biggest challenge I’ve ever undertaken is 93.424658% achieved. And here’s another pearl of wisdom I’ve attained: A year ago I was foolish enough to walk away from it. Today, a rainy December Saturday with nobody around and sloppy waist-high waves trudging across 52-degree brown water, I’m wise enough to make a different decision. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, I’m awaking with time to make things right.

I’m returning to my happy place, beyond the shore where none of the bad stuff can find me. Thinking about it has me so giddy I’m literally shaking. I’m going surfing. Now. Today. Nowhere special, or tropical, or groomed by offshore winds. Just out back, with my son. Hope to see you out there.

Let's go! Photo: Moose

Let’s go! Photo: Moose


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

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.

Take me to the river, no wait, drop me off right here

Boys in the wood

Boys in the wood

Saturday was the day. Third straight weekend with waves, and Hurricane Gonzalo made certain this was the best of the lot – south swell, wind straight offshore, gaping overhead barrels. Hatteras, to quote a few of my friends, was epic. Disregarding my promise of abstinence, I found myself in the water, laying on a board, stroking like a madman to get into a wave, and standing up.

Let’s back up. All those things happened, but I wasn’t in Hatteras. Our annual mamping (man camping) trip to the mountains was scheduled back when Gonzalo was just a butterfly flapping through West Africa, and I wasn’t going to let my son down. Even in a year without ridiculous sabatticals, I wouldn’t have blown off mamping.

So I was 250 miles from, and 2000 feet above, the ocean, on a red inflatable paddleboard in the New River near Blacksburg, and I was trying with every fiber of my being to break my vow of surf celibacy. The object of my desire could hardly be considered a wave, more like a stationary tricycle minus the pedals. This wasn’t the Snake River in Wyoming or Germany’s Eisbach, and it definitely wasn’t Hatteras. It was, at best, a shin-high, gurgling burp of river water. And I was as determined to ride it as I’ve ever been with an actual wave.

This is river surfing at its best.

This is river surfing at its best.

I’ll be honest; when I heard we would get an opportunity to surf a river wave, I was jacked. Standing along the riverbank a few minutes paddling out, our guide pointed the wave out to me. It was maybe thirty yards from where we stood, but I still couldn’t see it. “Right there, right past that rock,” he promised. I squinted, lowered my expectations, and saw it.

I wished I hadn’t. Talk about a letdown. The air left my balloon, and my dreams landed with a thud on the rocky bank. Ah, well, at least I’d be surfing.

Paddling into position for this natural, miniature Flow Rider was easy. There was very little current running alongside it, so I was able to sneak up on it from an angle without any struggle. If you can imagine paddling across your front yard and dropping off the curb into the street, you have a good idea of what I was looking at, that is if your yard is flat and your curb stands no more than eight inches in height.

This is river surfing East Coast style.

This is river surfing East Coast style.

Each time I stroked to the spot and leapt to my feet, the swirling current twisted me sideways. The ‘wave’ wasn’t steep enough or tall enough to keep the inflatable pointed upriver, so every attempt resulted in an awkward twist and fail.

After a dozen or so tries, I heard a distant cry that sounded like a call for help. Using my spidey senses, I ascertained that it was a beer calling from the cooler at our camp. No one else seemed to hear it, and I couldn’t in good conscience let the suffering continue. My dream of river surfing shattered, I headed downriver to rescue the poor bottle from captivity.

Thankfully, there was no phone service in the boondocks. I was spared the claims and photos of Hatteras until returning to civilization on Sunday. Better still, the tropics appear to have shot their seasonal load, and the forecast calls for pancakes this weekend. As sad as it sounds, these days a flat weekend is a good weekend.

Hell yes, bring it on!!!

Hell yes, bring it on!!!

The call that would change everything

I'd be lyin' if I told you this story has a happy ending.

I’d be lyin’ if I told you this story has a happy ending.

I’d refinanced my mortgage twice, each time skimming thousands off the top, blown a fat equity line, defaulted on one credit card, and maxed another. With three kids, two dogs, and a wife counting on me, I’d bungled my finances so royally that I’d run out of options. I swallowed my last drop of pride and returned, with my tail between my legs, to the classroom. I became a 40-year-old substitute teacher. To borrow a line from The Big Lebowski, “Darkness washed over the Dude — darker than a black steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night.” Then, that very afternoon, as I untucked my shirt and got on the interstate to mediocrity, I got the call that would change everything.

It was Perry Moore, a fellow Virginian who’d been living in New York. He’d received a copy of my recent self-published how-to, The Kook’s Guide to Surfing, from his sister for Christmas. He raved about my writing and insisted that the book needed to be made into a movie. “That’s what I do, take books and turn them into movies.” he said. “You may have heard of them, they’re called Narnia.”
Perry was the executive producer for The Chronicles of Narnia series, among the highest grossing series ever. You may have heard of it. Perry was also the author of Hero, a novel about a gay superhero published by Disney’s imprint Hyperion. His book was well-received and an inspiration within the younger LGBT community. Its author, by the way, was also gay.

I agreed with Perry that my book was awesome. Using my background as a teacher, pro surfer, instructor, and writer, combined with a sprinkling of humor (and don’t forget modesty), I believe it to be the best surfing instructional on the market. But a movie? I hadn’t pictured that. However, after listening to Perry’s vision — a guy wants to impress a girl so he learns to surf, complete with graphics pulled straight from the book — as well as his passion, I was sold.

Although we were around the same age and grew up surfing in the same town, we’d never met. After ten minutes on the phone, where he’d promised a bidding war for my book and a deal for the movie rights with Disney, we were best friends. That I’d just become a substitute teacher to earn a few grocery bucks suddenly seemed like a fun fact for the VH1 special on my impending meteoric rise to fame.

I’d learned that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is, so I tempered my expectations. While I dreamed up an exotic surf trip to be funded with my advance from Disney, and what I’d say to Oprah when she had me on her sofa, I kept subbing.

Perry and I spoke regularly over the next month. His fervor had me diving into a screenplay while he focused on securing me a literary agent. I booked a flight so we could meet to hash out some details and solidify our plan, but a February blizzard shuttered New York airports. Not a big deal, as I’d accepted a long-term sub position. And no matter how many classroom shenanigans I dealt with, I’d soon have the last laugh. Mr. B was cashing in and looking forward to the day I could moonwalk out the door yelling, “See ya, bitches!”
I rescheduled my flight and kept hacking away at the screenplay. It had been a few days since I’d heard from Perry. Last we’d spoken, he’d received the books I’d sent and was putting them in “the right hands.” We discussed surfing on Long Island, and a trip to Montauk was penciled in for spring. Then, one night, I got word that Perry wasn’t busy making me rich. He wasn’t busy doing anything. Perry Moore was dead.

After I came to, I learned that he’d been prescribed multiple medications that, when taken together, apparently caused a heart attack. As horrible as I felt for his family, part of me had to ask, How could he do that to me?

For a while, I kept at it, feeding off the remnants of Perry’s enthusiasm. I refused to allow the project to die with him. This was, after all, my game changing moment. After years of living Demeter’s schedule – thriving in summer and scraping every winter – The Kook’s Guide was going to be my salvation.

The call that would change everything changed one thing. I acknowledged the clusterfuck I’d made of my finances. Surfing wasn’t enough to support my family. Like it or not, I’d have to work for a living. Unfortunately, it still wouldn’t be enough.

This is Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest. She created the seasons after Hades tricked her daughter into marrying him. Each year, when her daughter heads to the Underworld to be with Hades, we have winter. Even a goddess is prone to the occasional wardrobe malfunction.

This is Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest. She created the seasons after Hades tricked her daughter into marrying him. Each year, when her daughter heads to the Underworld to be with Hades, we have winter. Even a goddess is prone to the occasional wardrobe malfunction.

Urge overkill

What, me worry? (This was part of a Halloween costume from ten years ago.)

What, me worry? (This was part of a Halloween costume from ten years ago.)

I used to get the urge to take a slab of foam and ride it down a wave, so I’d do it. I still get that urge. A lot. I’m forced to deal with the urge like never before, so I’m getting chummy with it. It isn’t the urge to follow your big brother, nor the urge to go with the crowd in hopes of being cool, nor the urge to become really good at something, nor the urge to outperform an opponent, nor the urge to fulfill a contractual obligation, nor the urge to make your homeboys proud, nor any other stupid reason I’ve ever stood atop a slab of foam and slid down a wave.

Whatever it isn’t, the urge is on. By 10am on Saturday, I’ve been to the beach four times, and not because I like the beach. Who does? The beach is nothing without the sea. The only thing the beach has going for it is the view. You never see a golfer hit into a bunker and pause to dig his toes into the sand. But plop any yokel on a beach towel and they’re stoked for eternity. Sand is a nuisance, but the sea makes it appear a worthwhile destination.

Anyway, for the second straight weekend, I’m faced with good, clean, warm waves just steps from my front door.

What a beach!

What a beach!

Finally, I swim out. I watch a couple goobers do everything in their power to blow perfect setups, but the waves are too faultless. I bob in the impact zone, ducking my head under lips for a peep. Is this satisfying the urge or making it worse, I can’t tell?

I’ve tried to replicate the feeling during the recent wave-spell known as autumn. Sticking my arm out the window on the interstate isn’t the same. Swerving my bike to ride beneath an overhanging tree branch is useless. Laying into a carve on a skateboard in the road feels too manufactured.

Thanks goodness for work. For eight glorious hours (aside from the times I’m checking my Surfline app or peeking at a heat from Trestles or Hossegor) I’m afforded a hiding place. My mind is occupied with learning plans, and IEPs, and SOLs, and PLCs, and PLPs, and ESLs, and SISs, and IPTs, and…WTF?!

If you're not following @thetweetofgod, you're going to hell.

If you’re not following @thetweetofgod, you’re going to hell.

Now I remember one of the reasons that satisfying the urge was my priority. It’s my way of saying FU to the BS. We all need that sort of outlet – an activity, pleasure or pasttime that enables us to disengage from the futility of trying to win the game of life, navigating the endless onslaught of shit, being “successful.” We have to be able to say, Hey life, FU!

Everybody has a FU. For some it’s drugs or alcohol or just going crazy, anything to tune out the BS. Surfing is my FU, and this year I’ve FU’ed my FU.

As of a month ago, I was winning. The surf had been below average for the year, and I had this challenge firmly by the balls. I was cruising into the final turn and looking towards the home stretch. But as the best waves of the year have since rolled off without me, I’ve begun to resent this entire project. Missing a day of surf is no biggy, but missing a year feels like my world has been pulled from beneath me.

Reality bites.

Reality bites.

Just as I realize that I need a shot of reality, reality obliges. On a Sunday morning bike ride with my son, reality pulls a Ray Rice and coldcocks me square in the jaw. We pedal smack into the JT Walk, a fundraiser for ALS named for my friend Josh Thompson who contracted the disease eight years ago. ALS has rendered Josh a prisoner within his own body, and his friends and family organized the walk to raise money and awareness. It raises my awareness that to whine about not surfing, with so much to be thankful for, is beyond lame. You won’t hear me do it again.

Welcome to the Kellydome

Look at those eyes. No, please, just look at those eyes. Look at the frigging eyes!

Look at those eyes. No, please, just look at those eyes. Look at the frigging eyes!

“Let’s face it, your writing isn’t what’s going to sell this book. Kelly’s eyes on the cover are what’s going to sell this book to 12-year-old girls.” These words, flying into my ear at 3800 mph (five times the normal speed of sound) from the mouth of Kelly Slater’s manager across the country in Los Angeles, struck my temporal lobe and knocked me off my chair. He was probably right, and the bargaining technique his ancestors developed through centuries of bullshitting was probably effective, but I wasn’t having it.

“Look,” Mister Hollywood Manager Guy added, “there are three other people on our list, so if you don’t want to do this, we’ll move on to the next guy.” Not that I’d be stupid enough to pass on an opportunity to write the life story of the greatest surfer, arguably the greatest athlete, of forever, just because of a couple grand and some royalties. I would’ve taken the gig pro bono, but I wasn’t going to let some silver-tongued douchebag talk me into a corner. I hung up and called Kelly.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

Lucky for me, Kelly had been hearing the “your manager is an asshole” line for so long that he knew his manager was…well, if you don’t have anything nice to say. I’d known Kelly since we were ESA groms, and he’d been humbled by a piece I wrote about him for Surfer’s “Most Influential Surfers of the 20th Century.” We weren’t bosom buddies, but the powers that be figured a fellow East Coaster from the same generation could best tell Kelly’s story. Manager Man was bypassed, and royalties were added to the contract. I had a job. A good one.

The timing of the project couldn’t be better for me. I’d recently lost my Surfline position in a final slash of the editorial staff, and had I still worked there I wouldn’t have had six months to dedicate to the book. Oh, and Kelly was in Hawaii for the Pipe Masters, so I had to bail on Va Beach in December and fly to meet him on the North Shore. Duty calls.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

For two weeks, I slept on a sofa or under my friend Cab Spates’ dining room table, the whole night alternating between battling mutant mosquitos and sweating inside my boardbag. Don’t feel sorry for me. I spent the rest of the trip surfing the seven-mile-miracle, watching the event at Pipe, and swimming through the head of a waveriding genius nonpareil.

I learned a few things about the champ in the process:

He’s late. We set up a time to meet every day, and every day I sat around waiting for Kelly to show up. His tardiness is not due to rudeness but negotiating an endless parade of people asking for his attention. It’s a wonder he makes it anywhere, ever.
-He’s patient. That endlesss parade of hangers on would be enough to break any lesser man. Kelly, lemme get a photo. Kelly, sign my vagina. Kelly, gimme some free clothes. Kelly, tell your manager to stick his offer up his ass. Slater understands that invasions of privacy comes with the territory and never loses his cool.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

Not that Pipe Dreams.

-He’s sensitive. You might think the best water-walker in 2000 years (if you believe the gospels’ accounts) would have thick skin, but the guy is human. I mentioned Kelly’s receding hairline in an article, and he reacted by calling and telling me it was a surf mag, not a hair mag. He was being serious.
-He’s generous. Kelly didn’t hesitate when I asked him to give up a piece of his royalties. When the book was complete, he also offered me two custom boards from Channel Islands. (I didn’t need any boards at the time so I grabbed one of his personal sticks as a raffle prize for a local fundraiser and gave the other to Steve Hawk for helping my career.)
-I wouldn’t want to be in his flip flops. People see Kelly’s magic and think, I’d love to be him. I beg to differ. In addition to being pulled in fifty directions, hounded by fans, and belittled by wannabe journalists, imagine the pressure he faces every time he paddles for a wave. Kinda tough to have fun when every pair of eyes expects you to surf like Kelly Slater. I have mad respect for the way he handles his stardom.
That Pipe Dreams!

That Pipe Dreams!

All in all, the experience was invaluable. I wrote the book, convinced the publisher to abandon the kooky sea animal images they wanted at the start of every chapter, and handpicked the title, the cover, and the photos (many of which I plucked from digging through Kelly’s closets). As Slater made the late night TV circuit and signing tour after the release, Pipe Dreams peaked at #29 on the NY Times bestseller list for hardcover non-fiction.

The weirdest thing about the process, which makes perfect sense, was that after six months of writing Kelly’s story in the first person, I felt like I was inside his head looking out. Seeing the world through his eyes made me hyper-aware of my surroundings, especially when I was surfing. Things made more sense, except I couldn’t figure out why so many 12-year-old girls were staring at me.

The short happy life of the septuagenarian grom

There's nothing in the quiver that is big enough for Gary Slaughter.

There’s nothing in the quiver that is big enough for Gary Slaughter.

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.

I wish I had a photo of Gary, but this guy does a fairly good impersonation.

I wish I had a photo of Gary, but this guy does a fairly good impersonation.

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.

After our lesson, this was Gary (on the inside at least).

After our lesson, this was Gary (on the inside at least).

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.”