Photo by San Diego Shooter, subject to this creative commons license
I wish I had a time machine, or at least a more accurate memory. As recollection fades with age the easier it becomes to let the mind paste over the gaps with more flattering, if less honest, facts. The fish become longer, youthful triumphs grander, and long ago girlfriends more beautiful and more easily seduced by your charms.
In 1959 my father took a job with General Atomics in San Diego. My parents loaded me and my two redheaded younger brothers into Dad’s shiny green (?) Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and we trecked west from east Tennessee through the mid summer heat. My memories of that trip are fragmented: crossing the wide Mississippi, stopping in Oklahoma City to visit my paternal grandparents, talking to Clint Eastwood and other cast members of the popular TV show Rawhide somewhere in New Mexico (or was it Arizona?). Finally, my first glimpse of San Diego: a semicircle of twinkling city lights ringing the blacked out bay late on the night we arrived.
We spent the first few days in a motel in La Jolla, an upscale subdivision of the city. We were, I think, quite close to the shore. I swam in a small cove in restless blue water surrounded by high, richly colored rock (at least that is my memory). A boy, younger than me, pointed out a rocky promontory where, he claimed, a “woman was eaten by a shark!”. Years later I learned his improbable tale was true; she had been attacked by a great white in shallow water shocking close to the beach.
We moved into a apartment complex: a vast array of identical, sand colored buildings. I recall playing with a balsa wood model airplane with a bright red propeller and a single brief, sexually charged, furtive encounter with a girl a year or so younger than I was (she was the aggressor).
We finally settled in Del Mar, then a small, sleepy town further up the California coast, where we remained for the rest of our time in California. My parents never bought a house; we lived in a series of rented homes. In the winter we’d take a house on, or very near, the beach; in summer, when the popular race track on the north edge of town was crowded with affluent outsiders, and rents rose precipitously, we’d have to move up into the hills. One summer day I ended up briefly surf fishing with Jimmy Durante. As I’ve written before, I found a stash of old Playboy magazines in one hill house we rented which was owned by absent Navy flyers.
I quickly became a juvenile beach bum, especially after my parents relented and bought me a used blue surfboard. By that time most boards were light foam covered in fiber glass; mine, however, was crafted from balsa wood and was relatively heavy, especially compared to the newer models. I didn’t care. I was a surfer! I even purchase a black, zippered wet suit jacked so I would look cool and brave the colder, and rougher, winter surf.
Here, perhaps, my fifty plus years spent since those distant days may refine and enhance my recollections. Perhaps those waves have grown higher, my skills become more masterful, and those early morning rides stretched longer. Yet the memory of those countless hours I spent straddling my board, scanning the horizon in search of just the right incoming swells, and competing for those promising waves against the dozen or so other youthful surfers sharing the same patch of dancing blue water, remain vibrant and visceral: my dash across hot sand with burning feet, the clean smell of melting wax, the chill as I plunge into the green, foam laced water, the burning in my shoulders and back as I paddle furiously out through the rumbling surf, the heat of the rising sun on my bare back when the cooling offshore breeze died in mid morning, the giddy exhilaration as the quickly gathering swell catches my board and then hurls me forward with increasing speed down, and then across, its steepening, glassy face. And sometimes, the memory is panic when I plunge out of control to the dark, rough sea bottom after an uncaring wave beats me, then effortlessly tosses my upside down, spinning board toward the distant beach.
We left California and returned to east Tennessee in the summer of 1962, just before I started high school. The mostly rural western edge of Knox county was deadly dull. I wasn’t very popular. I went out for the freshman football team only to discover I was laughingly inept. My timid attempts to woo girls fared no better. I sank into teenage despair.
But I at least had those California memories to sustain me. I was a surfer! The sweet recollection of my heroic adventures on the restless water at the California shore buoyed my flagging spirits.
They still do so today.
Me, trying to resurrect my surfing skills in 1985 on the Outer Banks.
FLICKR GROUP: Surf Photography California
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