“Let’s go surfin’ now!
Everybody’s learnin’ how!
Come on a safari with me!”
~The Beach Boys
Summertime in California, early 1960s . . . If you lived down by the Pacific Ocean, you may not have known how to surf, but you certainly couldn’t help but be lured out to the beach on warm summer days. Once there, you could see thrilling visions of surf riders daring the onrushing tides, or tossed/washed off their gleaming boards in hungry curls of carnivorous snarl. In either case, the contagious excitement of taking it to the limit was just the kind of adolescent allurement that laced through many of the Top 40 tunes of the day. I was certainly not immune to the siren songs that promised fun and glory in the blue-green waves. “Everybody’s gone surfin’ . . . . surfin’ USA!”
I grew up in the Richmond District in San Francisco, adjacent to the emerald majesty of Golden Gate Park, about eight blocks up Fulton from Ocean Beach. Stretching south below the post-card Cliff House and the old Sutro Baths (incarnating as a swell skating rink at the time, now in ruins), there’s a spit of sand known as Kelley’s Cove. A short bus ride, and I was there.
First stop was at Playland concession (the deteriorating amusement park across the street from the beach) for some tasty french fries to complement the salty ocean air. From there, I shepherded my two younger brothers and sister over to the shore, down the steps of the concrete sea wall, and out to “our spot” near the pier (also now washed away). Here we sat and conducted cultural-anthropological musings about the various tribal gatherings and cliques – the “surfers” and the “greasers” – but mostly just watched in awe as the wet suited warriors rode the waves.
When it got hot enough, we’d swim out a bit, and practice “body surfing”, unconcerned with the posted warning signs about dangerous undertows in the area. The internal chemical rush from catching the right wavelet only whetted my appetite for the real thing.
I eventually acquired my own training board, as well as an ill-fitting rubbery wet suit top. I ignored the odd glances from the other passengers when I boarded the bus on the way to the beach. I had just turned 13 in June, and it was my last summer vacation before I was to enter a Catholic Seminary in the Fall, and renounce my earthly life in service to my fantasy of the saintly path.
With Beach Boy lyrics romping in my ears, I fearlessly paddled out to the big waves, and hunched up from my prone position to a sitting one, dangling my shark-bait legs in the water and feeling like I had finally arrived.
After studying the methods of the various older guys – how they chose their own individual waves, got a good start, and then climbed their boards to marry with the roll and surge of surf — I pumped up my courage and away I went!
Within seconds, I found myself buried in the wave I had challenged, minus my board, coughing salty water and being swept swiftly, helplessly — not towards the shore — but out towards Hawaii.
After the turbulence had subsided and I had regained the surface, I began a desperate, futile effort to swim against the tide, and it was now quickly dawning on me why the warning signs about the undertow were placed near this beach. I had heard stories, but of course such things only happened to other people. At 13, I was invincible –summer had just started, for chrissake! I had my whole life ahead of me!
Then panic gripped me, and I started to scream for help, but I was too far out by now to be heard, and as I tried to see the shore, I found, to my even greater panic, that the shore was no longer visible. The more I struggled, the wearier I became, and I began to realize that I could die! Yes! I could actually die out here, and, in fact, I probably would!
Then I remembered the previous summer, when I fell off my rubber tire while “tubing” a river in the Sierras. After being tossed wildly in the froth, I had grabbed onto a rock in the middle of the rapids, clinging to it for dear life. Eventually, my arms had grown too tired to hold it any longer in the force of the oncoming river. Finally I just surrendered, and soon was washed into the still pool at the foot of the white water, breathing such a sigh of relief!
There was a lesson there, and it now raced back to me. I once again had found myself in a powerless condition, and so I stretched into a floating position on my back, exhaled, and gave up the struggle. I let everything go.
It all seemed so peaceful now, and timeless. I rested in the unknown of it all. Above me, the blue sky was beginning to blaze into the light of a glorious sunset, and I had become numb to the chilly embrace of the ocean on my skin. Gradually, an older, deeper remembrance began to flood my consciousness, obliterating any lingering traces of fear, or any concern at all.
I recall nothing after that, except a kind of dreamless slumber, and then the waking up at sea. I realized that I had been carried for miles in a great arc, borne along by a Grace beyond comprehension. I was so very gently and naturally being returned to land in this lovely twilight, far down the beach from where I had embarked, and lifetimes, really, from the child who had drifted and rocked so innocently to sleep in the arms of the ocean mother.
At last I was climbing back onto the shore, and after all that had transpired, I was simply famished for french fries. As it turned out, the concession had closed by then, but it didn’t really matter. Just the hunger pangs alone were enough to make me smile.