Saturday, April 20, 2013

Cutthroats and Outlaws - A Fish Story

“Sam Ballard,” Ron said with emphasis. “His name sounds like an outlaw from the wild west.”

Ron was talking to me while he measured a piece of lumber and marked it to be cut. The circular saw whirred to life and the blade screamed as it cut through the two-by-four lumber, kicking up a cloud of sweet smelling sawdust. The cut end fell on the floor with a thud.

“I never thought of it but you’re right. It does sound like an outlaw’s name! And he looks like an outlaw,” I offered as I got down on one knee preparing to handle my end of the freshly sized stud.
“The Outlaw Sam Ballard,” Ron said, as if he were reciting the title of a TV western.

Ron walked around the sawhorses, and with his long legs took a stride over his sleeping dog.

“Look out, Josh,” he said to his canine friend with good intention.

 Josh was an enormous Pyrenees and he was common on the job site. Where Ron was, so was Josh. With Josh in repose just mere feet away, Ron handed me one end of the board he had just cut. I grabbed it and lined it up on a penciled mark, then secured it with a trio of sixteen-penny nails.

Ron, being the taller of the two of us, aligned the top of the stud and deftly nailed it into place. Ron had huge powerful hands, and oddly crooked fingers that he used skillfully as a carpenter. He was also a excellent draftsman; his hands served him well.

“Sam said Hal is sending us to do a job near Seeley Lake to fix some kind of house fire damage,” I told Ron. “Sam will be the foreman while we are up there.”
“So you’ll be stuck in the mountains with an outlaw?”
“Yeah, they’ll find my body and all my money will be gone. The buzzards will be pickin’ my bones.”
“Or you could become his partner in crime,” Ron suggested as he dropped the end of his measuring tape for me to hold. “Ninety-two and five-eighths,” Ron read aloud from the marks on his tape.

It had never occurred to me how much Sam looked like an old west outlaw until Ron started talking about his gunslinger name. Sam’s face was defined with sharp corners and angular features. He had dark brown hair and sported a thick mustache that grew down around the sides of his mouth. He often had a five o’clock shadow by 9:00 AM. It was easy to picture Sam in a dusty black Panama hat, a long riding coat, and a six shooter on each hip. Instead of a house he probably lived in a Hell’s Canyon hideout.

“The murderin’ outlaw… Sam Ballard,” Ron reflected, not ready to let the notion go. He had a quiet, easy humor that rolled steadily along like a wide river.

Just then Sam came up the work ladder with Hal, the contractor we were working for, right behind him.

“Did I hear my name?” Sam enquired.
“Don’t shoot me, Sam! Take the money!” Ron quipped.
“Huh?” Sam looked at Ron then at me for clarity.
“Ron thinks ‘Sam Ballard’ sounds like an outlaw name.”
“Oh, brother!” Sam sighed as he rolled his eyes and shook his head back and forth in mock disbelief.  

Sam took a deep draw on his cigarette. Smoke rose into his eyes and he squinted from the irritation. Yep, he looked like an outlaw.

Hal took over:  “We got a ‘burn job’ to do up near Seeley Lake. I need you and Sam to go up there and work on it. The house had a chimney fire get loose in the attic and the roof is completely destroyed. It’s going to take a few weeks. We need to get on it and stay with it because if fall comes early the weather might really mess things up.”

Hal said all this while looking up somewhere in the sky. Ron and I looked up in that direction, mocking Hal’s habit of sky gazing when he spoke to us. Sam was looking at the ground and concentrating on his cigarette. The information didn’t concern Ron so he gave Josh a quick neck rub and went back to work, putting the latest measurement on another board. I was listening with interest to Hal.

“My camper is parked up there so you guys can stay there if you want. It’s a long drive up and back, so staying there will save you guys some time and gas money.”

Gas was cheap enough in those days, we didn’t really care about that, even on the short wages we were making in residential construction. Hal didn’t care that much how long it took us to get to work and back. His motive was to grease the skids for us to work long hours so we could beat the Montana fall weather, should it come on early at the higher altitude in the Seeley Valley. For a contractor this made good sense, and Hal was a sensible contractor.

Hal had some funny personality quirks, but he was a decent, honest man who lived by his principals and was guided by his morals. He was a World War II vet, an electrician, a carpenter – these were all worthy experiences that contributed to his good character. He treated all his workers with respect, and in return, his workers respected him.

“Monday you and Sam can drive up with me and we’ll get started on the job. When you go back up on Tuesday you guys are welcome to stay in the camper. You can stay all week if you want to.”

Sam cocked his head to the side so he could look up at Hal. Sam made a barely perceptible smirk, in good nature, to indicate he fully understood Hal’s ulterior motives. Now I couldn’t get the outlaw image out of my mind. Sam looked like a character from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

“I think you guys should take your fishing gear up with you. Clearwater Lake is real close to the job site. I’ve been fishing there this summer and it’s been pretty good.”

Hal didn’t know if we were fishermen; he must have assumed everyone was.

“That sounds good!” I said, not picking up on Hal’s work-more-drive-less strategy.  All I heard was fishing. “What gear do we need?”
“Well you could fly fish I guess, but just throw some spinners out there and you‘ll catch something.”

Hal was now scanning another section of Montana big sky.

“Sam, I’ll pick you up first. Then we’ll swing buy and pick Charlie up on our way out of town - about six-thirty.”
“Sounds good to me,” Sam said.

I’m sure Sam meant it when he said that it sounded good to him. He was a hard worker with a young family to support. During the time I worked with Sam I learned that had had grown up around Dillon, Montana. Dillon is about halfway between Butte and nowhere. His work ethic was the product of a hard scrabble life and he worked like he needed the money. He had a college education from Western Montana College in Dillon. Yes, there is a college in Dillon. Sam probably had a degree in bank robbin’ and cattle rustlin’.

“Me too, I’ll be ready,” I said with genuine enthusiasm, because I had forgotten all about work once I’d heard the word fishing.

I was a sucker for fishing. So much so I’d flunked my first term of college because a friend called early on finals day as asked “Want to go fishing?” My brain was all of a sudden like “What the hell is a final?” That’s all it took to derail my college career.

Monday morning we were up early and on our way to the job site. Sitting three abreast in Hal’s pickup, Sam and I were a captive audience for Hal’s non-stop narrative. He filled us in on a variety of subjects, like some of the details of the job we were heading to, the success of his cataract surgery (“I can see like a hawk now!”), how Jimmy Carter was going to “bring religion back to the White House when he’s elected,” how you don’t need studded tires in Montana, where to go deer hunting in the Blackfoot River drainage, and the most interesting subject of the day, trout fishing at Clearwater Lake.

While he drove, Hal was leaning over the steering wheel and peering up the road looking as if his “hawk vision” was really more akin to Mr. Magoo. My thoughts went back and forth between we’re gonna die! to fishing at Clearwater Lake. I tried to direct the conversation to the latter and got Hal talking about it.

Clearwater is a great little spot up here near the job site. It’s easy to get to but not too many people go there. You can’t see it from the road so people drive right on by. Today we might knock off early and I’ll show you guys where it is before we come home. I have my raft in the camper, maybe we can get out on the lake.”

Knock off early? Get out on the Lake? That sounded terrific to me! It was going to be hard to concentrate on any amount of work that day, knowing that we might go to Hal’s fishing spot on Clearwater Lake.

We got to the job around eight o’clock. It was a beautiful late August morning in western Montana. The big sky was blue, the sun was bright, and the morning air was already warm. On arrival, it was easy to see that the house we were going to work on was a wreck. The chimney fire had indeed spread throughout the entire attic of the house. What the fire didn’t burn down the fire department tore up. The whole roof structure was going to have to be removed and replaced. We were going to be on this site for awhile.

After walking around the building and having Hal explain the work to be done, the three of us got down to the business at hand: dismantling the charred remains of roof trusses and plywood. It was dirty work handling the burnt wood. When the old roof was totally removed, we went to work inside the structure. In every room there was busted up sheetrock and soggy insulation. After clearing that debris, we removed the wet carpeting. It was messy work and Sam and I were black with soot. Hal managed to keep his blue work shirt and khaki Oshkosh pants practically spotless by standing back and giving us play-by-play instructions.  

We took a lunch break around noon. Hal talked about fishing and again said we might cut out early to check out the lake. After work resumed, I kept checking my watch and wondering if time had frozen in place? What did Hal mean by early? I was having the hardest time thinking about anything but fishing. I was anxious to see this Clearwater Lake Hal had bragged about.

Even though Hal had said we might “knock off early”, the afternoon dragged on and on. Around four-forty-five I was so antsy to quit work I could have just about wriggled out of my skin. I could barely restrain myself from yelling out “OH COMON! LET’S GO TO THE LAKE, ALREADY!” However, I bit my tongue and kept working.

About ten after five Hal finally came to his senses and said, “What do you guys think? Should we knock off early?  We can stop by Clearwater on the way home so you’ll know where it is. It’s hard to find if you don’t know it’s there.”

Are you kidding me? Early? Let’s get the hell outta here and let’s go to the damn lake,” I almost blurted out loud.
“That’s a good idea,” Sam said. “Do you want us to pick up our tools now?”

Sam was more reserved and mature I was. He had continued to focus on work all day and didn’t show any angst about getting off to go fishing. I knew he liked fishing, but he kept it in check, especially in front of the boss.

“Yeah, pick ‘em up. I’ll grab the raft and put it in the truck.”

As Sam passed by to grab the power saw he leaned in close and said in a soft voice “Shit! I thought he was never going to quit! I’ve been dying to see this damn lake he’s been talking off about.”

Ah ha! Sam had been wearing his poker face all day. That’s a good trait for an outlaw.

The lake was only about a five mile drive up a gravel forest service road from a turnoff not far from the job site. Hal parked the truck and we unloaded the gear and the raft. I was kind of shocked at the raft when I actually saw it. Sure, it was un-inflated, but still it looked as though it could be stuffed in my lunch box! Three of us were going to get in this thing?

“I’ve got this little two man raft but I think it’s big enough for the three of us. We’ll blow it up here and carry it over to the lake with our gear inside.”

Was Hal out of his mind? The raft was a teeny weenie oval of yellow reinforced rubber that I thought was small for one person, but three? It didn’t matter; there was fishing to be done and I wouldn’t let the inadequacy of Hal’s petite raft deter me. If Hal said the raft was big enough for three, then by golly it was big enough for three.

From where Hal parked one would never know there was a lake nearby.  There was no parking area or sign. Hal just knew by superior fisherman’s instinct where to stop the truck. After inflating the raft with Hal’s hand pump, Sam and I carried it with our gear inside over a small hill for about a quarter mile with Hal leading the way. The little raft seemed to gain weight as we walked. After about 10 minutes the splendid little lake came into view through the trees.

It was a gem. One-hundred-twenty acres of azure blue mountain water.  It was like a Montana sapphire transformed into a wonderful secluded lake. The sky was perfectly reflected on the surface, and the billowy white clouds looked like they were floating upside down in a sparkling mirror. It was back dropped by the glacier worn and stony slopped Swan Mountains.

“Oh, Wow!” Sam and I drew the words out in musical unison.
“This is the place,” Hal said matter-of-factly. “We might as well get out there and catch some fish.”

Clearwater Lake and the Swan Mountains
Hal was a big man. I don’t mean fat, but a tall man; about six foot two with a middle age spread. I topped out around six feet and but I was rail thin in those days. Sam was a couple of inches shorter than me and wiry. The two of us together didn’t account for much more than Hal’s weight, so Hal sat at one end of the raft and Sam and I at the other.

Hal took his seat atop the raft’s bow gunwale, while Sam and I sat next to each other in the same manner on the stern (if it were possible for the symmetrical raft to have a bow and stern). Each of us compressed the inflated hull of the raft enough to let water come in and get our butts thoroughly soaked.

“Never had three of us in the raft before.” Hal confessed. “There’s been two of us a few times but never three. If we don’t make any sudden moves I think we’ll be alright.”

Sam took a quick survey of the situation as we pushed off from shore.

“I think three’s a crowd.” Sam quipped nervously.
“There’s a high degree of probability we are going to drown, but first I’m gonna catch some trout!” I said as a joke to make Sam feel better.
“Oh, we’ll be fine.” Hal said in all seriousness, totally over looking my humor and thinking I was the nervous one. “These rafts are underrated.” he reported just as a gush of water came in around each side of his ass-depression in the inflated hull. “You could easily get four people in here.”
“Count me out on that cruise,” Sam was quick to counter. “That’s the kind of disaster you read about in the newspaper.”

Hal paddled us out to where we were about equidistant from each shoreline at the south end of the lake. We were going to be spin fishing so we all got out our appropriate lures for the task. We fished for about two hours, and despite a couple of close calls where we almost ended up in the drink, we each caught a pair of fifteen to sixteen inch west slope cutthroat trout. They were my first cutthroat trout, and bigger than I thought we would get from this small lake.

We had a good outing that afternoon. A couple of very big trout for each of us, a beautiful August afternoon, and as a bonus, nobody drowned. We headed home; Hal talked all the way back to Missoula. I dreamed about a return trip to Clearwater Lake.

The next morning Sam rode along with me back to the job site. We were prepared to spend the night up there so we had all the necessary gear to stay over. We also had our fishing gear. Both of us talked incessantly about that lake.

“Man, those were big trout,” I said, or Sam said, or we both said at some point, and we said it multiple times.

Concentrating on work was impossible. Both of us were talking about fishing Clearwater again, and we planned to do it that afternoon right after work. Sam had the bug as bad as I did now. Hal was not around, and it was a challenge for Sam to be the responsible job foreman he was entrusted to be. After lunch the bug was hitting us hard.

About one-thirty I asked Sam “what time do you want to knock off?”
“We need to get in at least most of a full day.” Sam said disappointingly.
“Yeah, I guess so. I’ll quit anytime you do. You’re the boss.”

It was utterly difficult for me not to bolt right then and there, make my escape, and grab my rod and reel. Sam’s resolve was breaking down as well. After about another fifteen minutes, Sam cut a board wrong three times in a row.

“Shit!” Sam exclaimed. He put the saw down and lit a cigarette. Took a long drag and said “F—k it! Let’s go fishin’!”

We packed up our tools and grabbed Hal’s raft from the camper. By two o’clock we were heading down the road in my VW microbus, each of us with shit eating grins like a pair of Cheshire cats. We were on a mission as if Clearwater Lake were going to dry up and go all dust bowl before we could get there.

When we got to the trail head we repeated the procedure we had performed the day before – blowing up the raft – loading our gear – hiking over the hill – and casting off from shore.

With just the two of us, the raft was relatively roomy compared to the cramped conditions the day before. Our hind ends were still getting wet, owing to the fact we were supposed to be sitting in the raft, not on the inflated “hull” of it. However, sitting in the raft was a bit too intimate for Sam and me. We didn’t know each other that well. The little craft was a great deal more stable in Hal’s absence. We were already having a blast as we paddled out into deeper water.

We quickly attached spinning lures to our lines, casted out and reeled in. Wham! On my very first cast I hooked a fish equal to anything we had caught the day before. She put up a good fight, but I soon brought her aboard and held her both hands. I looked at her from all sides and showed her to Sam. What a gorgeous fish. She was healthy, fat, and radiantly iridescent. She had spectacular freckling on her sides, and nice, perfect fins. I put her on a stringer and went back to fishing.

A few casts later another strike! This time a seventeen incher. Just like the previous trout, this one looked like the apex of nature’s handiwork. I probably didn’t cast a half dozen times when I hooked another one. This was absolutely amazing and I was totally stoked. I had never been into fish like this in my life. But, what was even weirder than catching fish after fish, Sam hadn’t had one strike. Not even a missed strike. Sam had nothing on the score board.

“Jeeze! What are you doing right?” Sam exclaimed while I hauled in another lunker.
“I don’t know. I’m just casting out and reeling in.”
“When you’re on the fish you’re on the fish. Who the hell did I piss off?”

We fished on for about an hour. Sam’s frustration was becoming evident, and I was starting to try to conceal my exuberance. I mentally played with the fantasy of Sam being an outlaw.

Should I be nervous? I am alone in the middle of the woods floating in a two man raft with the notorious Sam Ballard, who is getting surlier with every fish I catch. He might just pull out his Colt Navy, shoot me dead, and steal my stringer of fish. I’ll have to keep an eye on him. They say Billy the Kid shot a man for snoring. No telling how far Sam Ballard would go. I have to do something to win his favor.

“Can we spin the boat around?” I asked. “The sun is really in my eyes.”
“Oh you bet!”

Sam was eager to cast into the same spot from where I had just been catching fish, so he spun the little raft about quickly. It was to no avail. As soon as I cast into Sam’s previously barren water, strike! Another fish on for me!

It was unreal and weird. I could do no wrong, and Sam could do nothing at all. As his frustration grew, my guilt increased. But it wasn’t my fault. I simply could not fail; it had to be dumb luck. Actually, it was absurd luck. I wasn’t doing anything to keep Sam from catching fish. It was the fish themselves that had conspired against Sam’s fortune.

“I don’t get it, man. You should be catching fish. I’m feeling kind of bad here.”
“You’re feeling bad? I don’t know what the hell’s going on. This is crazy. I’ve never seen anyone catch fish like you are catching. I’m fishing from the same damn raft in the same damn water. I should catch something!”

Sam was laughing a little about it a little, but it was laughter that mocked his own bad luck. His disappointment was obvious. Based on our performance the day before, he had anticipated catching something by now. He wasn’t a complainer. He could sense I was feeling sorry for him and he didn’t like that; he was a self-made man and that made him uncomfortable with sympathy.

Trying a new tactic to slow my own luck I would change lures. Sam would immediately ask if he could use the lure I had just taken off. “Oh, yeah. Go for it!” I would tell him. But it wouldn’t help. I would catch fish on any lure I put on, and for Sam my previously hot spinner was dead on arrival. It was heartbreaking.

It seems strange to say, but I was wishing I wasn’t catching so many fish, but only because Sam wasn’t catching anything. If Sam had been having the same kind of day I was it would have been the best day ever in the annals of fishing. Instead, Sam’s bad luck was turning into a huge thrill-kill. Why couldn’t Sam just catch one stinking fish! “Come on Sam!” I silently rooted.

In another attempt to slow down my own fish catching frenzy, I decided to switch to my worst ever lure: a brown Worden’s Rooster Tail. I had never caught anything on that lure. If there ever was a bad luck spinner this was it. So I hooked it on the swivel, cast out haphazardly, and beyond all odds and belief: strike!

This couldn’t be. This just - could - not - be! It was impossible. I couldn’t do anything to stop catching fish while poor Sam couldn’t catch a fish to save his life. He couldn’t catch fish in the water I was catching fish in. He couldn’t catch fish in the water I hadn’t even fished. He couldn’t catch fish with his best lures. He couldn’t catch fish with my successful lures. He couldn’t catch fish!

I had ten trout on my stringer in the first forty minutes. From that point on I released everything, and some of those were hard to part with. The legal limit was ten trout or ten pounds, so looking back I may have been inadvertently over the ten pound weight limit. I only had a total of ten, but the smallest trout on the stringer were fifteen inches and the biggest was an impressive eighteen inch leviathan. That’s as large as this sub-type is ever going to get. I didn’t have a concept for how much weight might be on my stringer, and I didn’t even think of it at the time. In all my previous experience a twelve inch trout was a remarkable catch. It simply did not occur to me that I might ever - in my life - exceed the weight limit with ten trout!

The afternoon was wearing on. I had a lot of fish to clean and refrigerate. I didn’t want to do that with the primitive facilities at the job site, so I was ready to get in the van and head back to Missoula. But Sam was determined to catch a trout. His eyes were growing beady and his jaw was clinched. With that resolute expression he looked like one mean hombre.

“What does it take to catch one goddamn fish?” Sam asked.

The sun was getting tired and had squatted behind a stand of tall larch. The trees cast a long gloomy shadow on the water, and we were in the middle of it. The air in the shadow had a chill. Sam deftly dropped his lure in a sunny patch right next to the shadow. In my own frustration I said firmly “Shit, Sam. Catch a damn fish!”

And he did! He got a strike and a damn good one. His rod tip bent hard. In his surprise, Sam pulled back on his rod and almost fell backward from his perch and into the now dark and shadowy water. He quickly regained his balance and started to pump his rod up and reel in as he dipped it back down in the direction of this fighting cutthroat.

Soon we could see the beautiful green-gray trout as Sam coaxed it closer to the boat. Trying a new strategy for escape, she flipped over on her side and came all the way out of the water. In that maneuver we could see the blood-red slash on her jaw, the identifying mark that said her name - cutthroat.

I leaned over the side of the raft with the net and swept the stunningly beautiful lady into the webbing. I held the net out to Sam so he could retrieve his prize. He reached in and pulled out a very nice sixteen inch west slope cutthroat trout.

“Finally!” Sam said in an exhale.
“Finally!” I echoed approvingly.

Sam lifted his trout by the jaw to eye level. He looked at it critically on one side then the other. Still looking at his trophy he nodded his head up and down in an affirmative gesture.

He looked at me and concluded “I’m done” with relief in his voice. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
“Woooo!” I hooted loud and long.
And the mountains hooted back “Woooo!”

It never made any sense how I could catch so many trout, while Sam might as well have been a ghost. Since then, I’ve never had a day come close to that kind of non-stop catching success. 

Sam and I spent about three weeks replacing the roof and making other repairs to the fire damaged house. During that stint we went back to Clearwater Lake two or three more times. Between the two of us we never again caught a single trout from that lake. Not one. We could see them mocking us as we rafted over in our undersized craft, but they would have nothing to do with us. Our fascination with Clearwater Lake soon waned. I don’t know about Sam, but I never went back.

A friend in Montana tells me the cutthroat are all but gone from Clearwater Lake. They’ve been pushed out by competition from illegally planted eastern brook trout. Too bad, I say. I liked the cutthroat.

On our last, long drive home from that job site, I was giving Sam some good natured ribbing about his outlaw name. Sam said that notion wasn’t too far off. He told me his family talked about an old relative; a great uncle or something like that, named Sam Ballard. He had been hanged for horse rustling around 1900.

I wasn’t surprised.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Courting Sally (Falling In Love From A Defensive Position)

When I was a sophomore in high school I chose to take German. It was a bad idea. That class was such a humongous disaster that I had nightmares about it for years. And having nightmares simply about doing poorly in a class is saying a lot, because I had never been a good student; I was a chronic and magnificent underachiever. But there was one good thing to come out of that class. That thing would change my life.

That life changing thing was a gorgeous freshman girl with the disarmingly cheerful name Sally. Her face was an archetypical example of classic beauty. Her light-olive skin was smooth and perfect.  She wore her thick and lush brown hair just shy of her shoulders. And her shoulders were beautiful in themselves.

We lived in the warm climate of southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, so owing to the weather, Sally would often wear something summery that showed off her bare shoulders. As my good fortune would have it, I sat in the desk directly behind Sally which offered the benefit of a close up view of her hair, neck, and, providentially, her shoulders.  

For a 15 year-old boy, having a girl’s smooth, wonderful bare shoulders to gaze upon was a mortal distraction. I seldom made it past “guten tag” when my attention turned to shoulder gazing. From that point on, Frau Hoffman might as well be saying “blah, blah, blah” for the rest of the hour. Not surprisingly, I flunked German. (blah, blah, blah is, by the way, expressed blabla in German.)

 In the entire year I sat there behind Sally, and despite all the visual distraction she commanded from me, I never said more than these seven words to her: “Can I borrow a piece of paper?”

That tiny verbal exchange was forced by circumstance. We were having a written exam and, no surprise, I was totally unprepared. Meaning I came to class with nothing but a house key and a pocket comb. It was the first time I had an opportunity to look her into her eyes, but that passed quickly. She gave me some paper and her attention was right back to her own preparation for the test. I was certain she thought I was a total dink, and if she did, she was correct in her assessment.

That year in German was the beginning of my interest in Sally. I was intrigued by her beauty and mystery throughout my high school career. She was silent and mysterious. Her looks were uncommon and exotic. Naturally, I thought I would like meet her, but, I didn’t have the confidence to simply strike up a conversation. In those days I needed some kind of set up or a lot of luck to meet a girl.

In my junior year a chance sighting of Sally would seriously intensify my attraction to her.  I was attending a school dance when I turned my head and saw her in the middle of the gym. There she was standing confidently with her hands in her back pockets while she listened to the band. She looked amazing in a fringed buckskin jacket, tight blue jeans, and, since the dance was a “sock hop”, her stocking feet. I was frozen in that moment and I just starred at her for awhile. I was totally arrested by her astonishing beauty. In a cinematic vignette, the rest of the scene went out of focus in my mind. The only thing I could see in the center of the blur was Sally.

After seeing Sally at that dance I was telling my friend, Steve, about how “really good looking” I thought she was. He agreed, but told me he heard she only dated boys from other schools. I don’t know where he got his information but I accepted his word and understood the broader implication that boys at our school (ergo I) did not meet minimum eligibility requirements. Fair or not, that was a rule that applied to any girl that dated outside the school. I was discouraged and considered her even farther beyond my reach than before. But with all that stacked against me, she was still on my mind – more than ever.

In 1969, by some miracle of academic generosity, I graduated from high school and lost any contact with Sally.


When we had been in high school, most of my friends and I had the same English teacher. After graduating, several of us started hanging out at his house. It was sort of a bohemian thing, if that characterization works in a southern Californian cultural context. We began showing up at his house almost nightly.  

George was someone we related to. He was in his very early thirties and to us he was very cool and hip. His teaching style was creative. He listened to the same music we did, he rode dirt bikes, and he was an intellectual thinker. Above all he and his wife, Marcia, opened their door to us and provided a place for us to socialize that was away from our parents.

Marcia was beautiful and warm and kind (and she still is). She always made us feel comfortable in her home, even though I’m sure we often far overstayed our welcome. We were there way too often and usually stayed much too late. We were immature and enjoying ourselves too much to recognize our rudeness, and George and Marcia were too nice to point it out.

To my delight, at some point, Sally started hanging out at George and Marcia’s. She was back in my life, or at least where I could see her.

I found myself arriving nightly at George and Marcia’s, hopeful to see Sally there so I could find a way to get close to her. I would arrive as early as I could, and stay so late that our hosts’ eyes would get noticeably heavy. For me this was a calculated effort to maximize my odds of being there at the same time Sally was. After several weeks of semi-stalking Sally in this way, I still wasn’t able to simply talk her. When she was around my confidence had the fortitude of wet wonder bread.

It was going to take a lot to get over four years of unconfident emotion toward Sally. I spoke openly to my friends about my feelings for her. They told me Sally was interested in me, and that’s why she was hanging around there. I was hard to convince. People kept encouraging me to just speak to her, but I was clueless. I distinctly remember George telling me in his simple, direct way “you should talk to her, Charlie.” Though George had not yet reached middle age, his words could carry the weight of a wise sage. I can still hear his voice replay that insightful six word phrase.

I was being a clumsy suitor. I spent night after night within fifteen feet of her, and it might as well have been fifteen miles. By being there Sally had made herself totally approachable, and even though my friends and mentors had advised me it was time to strike while the iron was hot, I was still holding back because I was afraid of rejection. Planets were going to have to align to get me to take the next step. Lucky for me, they were about to.

Among the young people hanging around George and Marcia’s was a guy named Scott. Scot was very handsome, with bright eyes, a square jaw, and a head of blonde hair in a semi-surfer haircut. He was jovial, full of energy, and he didn’t seem too serious about life’s consequences.

I didn’t really know Scott well but I liked him. Of all the people that would be helpful getting Sally and I together, he was the most unlikely I could think of. Something was about to happen that would challenge that perception.

Scott said he was having a party on Saturday night. It was for couples, and he emphatically advised I should invite Sally and come. He was pretty insistent on the invite Sally part.

“You just need to invite her out,” he told me. “Just invite her to my party.”

Since I didn’t know Scott well, I was a little surprised he would invite me to a party. But it wasn’t that unusual and sounded like fun.

“This is a good chance for you to get together with Sally, and I need you guys to come to my party. You two have to be there,” he said with an impish smile and a nod.

He was really driving that point home.

“Ok. That’s cool. I’ll ask her the next time I see her and we’ll be there!”
“Alright, great! My house, about seven o’clock, Saturday night. Is that Ok?”
“Yeah. Right on.”
“All right, man. It’ll be great. I’ll see ya.”

Scott seemed pleased. He gave me a broad smile and hurried off. Being in a hurry struck me as his typical demeanor.

Now what?  The commitment to go to the party was also a co-commitment that I ask Sally to come with me. I was feeling comfortable with the arrangement. For the first time ever, I was feeling like I had a reason to talk to her. All I had to do was ask her to go. If she said yes that would be great. If she said no… I didn’t really think about that.

I can’t remember who, but someone pointed out to me that Sally was sitting alone. I remember hearing the words “go talk to her.” “Ok,” I thought, “I will.” As inconspicuously and nonchalantly as I could, I crossed the fifteen foot divide to where she was. I didn’t say much more than “hi”, then I told her about Scott’s party and asked if she wanted to go. She simply said “yes.”

Yes. With the utterance of that one word - a word with only one syllable, a word that is spoken millions of times every day, a word that is nothing more than a quickly articulated sound to which we have ascribed meaning, a word that has no glamour or beauty in its resonance… that one simple word almost matter-of-factly escaping from Sally’s amazingly beautiful lips - my life changed forever. And somehow, I knew it.

Instantly, there was no longer any barrier between us. All the previous tension I had been suffering fell away. It was suddenly easy to speak to her. I rambled on and on, sentence after sentence. She was a quiet listener, and I was an effusive talker; it was perfect. I probably said many inane and asinine things in the course of that first conversation, but I was afraid to stop talking. It might break the spell.

She was looking at me while I spoke, and I felt like she was genuinely interested in me. Whether or not she knew it, she was casting a spell on me and I was already falling in love with her.

On the day of Scott’s party (Saturday, May 2nd, 1970 by the way) I was walking over to George and Marcia’s when I happened to see Scott coming out of his house. I wanted to tell him I was coming to the party. I wanted to tell him that I had asked Sally and she said yes. I remember it was a bright sunny afternoon, and I was feeling good being outside and anticipating being with Sally that evening. I was happy to see Scott and to give him the news.

“Hey, Scott!” I hailed to him from about a house length away.
“Charlie! Dude, what’s happening?” he said, happy to see me.
“I asked Sally to the party. She’s coming. We’ll be there tonight.”

An expression of confusion came over him then quickly passed, which he hurriedly tried to cover.

“Ooh yeah! Hey, I forgot. I had to cancel the party,” he said with a sheepish look and a shoulder shrug that implied he had been caught in some kind of white lie - or perhaps a naive conspiracy. “I’m really, really sorry, man.”

I might have raised my eyebrows a little bit thinking I uncovered a plot, but I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable about his apology, if it was genuine.

“That’s ok. Uh, we can do something else. No problem.”
“That’s what I thought! Actually there is no party; I just thought you should ask Sally out.” and he started moving back in the direction he had been heading.
“Wait! What? There wasn’t a party?”
“Uh, no. Ahhh, Well I mean I just never got it together to plan a party. I told you about it, and then I forgot.”

His statements were conflicting with each other and they were not convincing. He stepped closer to me and put one hand on my right shoulder and patted me on my left shoulder with his other hand.

“ I thought you should ask Sally out, and I thought I might have a party so you would have a reason, but then I forgot about it. So, sorry, man. Are you mad?”
“No, it’s ok. No problem. We’ll figure something out. We’ll do something else.”
“Good. Great! Sorry again, but I gotta go.”
“Alright. Later dates. Have a good one,” I told him and I stepped back to imply his permission to leave.
“See ya, sorry, thanks,” and he turned away.
Thanks?” I wondered. “Thanks for what?

As he headed off he looked somewhat embarrassed. But while I watched him walk to his car and spin his keys on his finger, his manner quickly returned to normal. He really didn’t take life too seriously. I liked that about him.

I was kind of confused about the peculiar conversation that had just happened. It was totally weird and something about it was off kilter. I walked on kind of dazed by it and wondering what it meant. Was there ever a party? Did he really forget to plan a party? Was the whole party thing made up to give me an excuse to ask Sally out?

I was inclined to believed Scott had totally forgotten about the party’s plans (or plot) after he initially told me about it. Maybe he was put up to it? Maybe that’s why he went blank when I brought it up. That could wait until later. I needed to make new plans with Sally.

I told Sally that Scott’s party crashed and burned. She said she didn’t care about the party, and never really had. She just wanted to do something with me, and whatever we did was going to be fine. I don’t remember how we came up with the idea, but we decided to drive into Los Angeles to see the movie Woodstock.

George and Marcia loaned us their yellow Chevy Malibu for the drive into the city. My parent’s cars were dorky, and the Malibu gave the date a class upgrade and credibility. It was really cool and unforgettable to drive their most awesome car on our first date. George and Marcia took a leap of faith letting me drive their car into Los Angeles that night. Their confidence was humbling, and that one act became an important stepping stone to adult hood for me.

We arrived at the theater before the box office opened. To pass the time we went for a stroll around the neighborhood.

It was an area designed for commercial utility. The construction of a bygone era was plain and ordinary. Signs of wear and overuse were on everything. The traffic was noisy, there were car lots with harsh utility lighting, and the sidewalks were cracked and uneven. We either didn’t notice or we didn’t care.

While we ambled through the unfamiliar urbanscape, we put our arms around each other and engaged in nervous small talk. We stopped under a lamppost next to a row of new Audis. Their color looked off under the illumination of a mercury vapor lamp. Looking for something to say we remarked that the Germans built nice cars. We put our arms around each other and hugged for a long time. I could feel her energy flow through me.

On those streets, in that early evening, before the movie ever started, I was in love with Sally.


Sally at 17
When we ask someone “How did you meet?” it may be more interesting to ask “How did you fall in love?”

This isn’t just a story of how I met Sally. I’m not even sure at what point the actual meeting took place, and for that reason I’m never really able to answer the “How did you meet?” question. Instead, I end up telling the story of how we fell in love.

I don’t think most couples fall in love at first sight. They follow a path, usually from meeting, through courtship, to loving each other. Our path followed some twists and turns, split apart here and there, and it may have looped back on itself a couple of times. That’s ok. It was just a preview of the interesting road that was waiting ahead.

Friday, April 5, 2013

My First Time

The headline was brief and stirring: “STORM SURF!” It was accompanied by a quarter page photo of a huge, gnarly wave. I mean gnarly in the literal sense. The pictured wave was tall and it was thick and looked like a gigantic crushing machine; it was surely a monster. In black and white newspaper print it looked absolutely sinister. It was the offspring of a colossal tempest thousands of miles away. The paper said twenty to thirty foot storm generated waves were pounding the California coast.

The west coast surf spots famous for big waves today, like Mavericks, The Cortez Banks, and Nelscott Reef, were virtually unknown in 1969, so twenty foot waves were considered a rare occurrence. In my teenage mind, this was of course a once in a lifetime event! Imagine Oahu north shore big surf had been specially delivered for southern California surfers. I had to see this gift of nature. Actually, I had to surf it! Even though I had woken up before dawn (I’m a morning person – it’s a curse), I felt it was urgent that I get to the beach right away. These waves wouldn’t last forever!

Getting to the beach would be a problem. I didn’t have a car. I was reliant on my parents to let me use one of theirs. But my dad had already gone to work taking his with him, and my mom would need hers for work later. The obvious solution was to hookup with one of my friends who had a car of their own. But circumstances conspired against that idea. It was so early it was still dark out; I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call someone. This was in the days before cell phones, so there was no way to target my call to the one person I actually wanted to speak to.  My call would ring every phone in the house at once. If the family phone rang in the living room or kitchen… or master bedroom for that matter, it would no doubt have woken up a grumpy parent who didn’t want to have their early morning sleep disturbed by an indolent teenager. 

The only way I could see around this mess was to walk over to someone’s house and contact them in person. Obvious to me was the fact that walking is highly inefficient compared to telephoning, and it was going to result in precious time wasted.

The next vexing question was who did I know with a car that I could roust out of the sack that early in the morning, with the least chance of doing nothing but making them angry, and the most chance of coaxing them to drive me to the beach? My usual surf buddy was Gilbert. He had a car and he was always up for surfing. But his parents were strict. If I woke them up they might be miffed and put the kibosh on the whole deal. Maybe Gilbert was not the best first choice. I went down my mental list. Ah, ha! Kelly and Mike. They were brothers I’d been close to since elementary school. Both of them were easy going and I reckoned I could game their emotions in my favor. And Kelly had a car! What the hell? These were big waves! How could they refuse?

With my hastily thought out plan in place, I had to get going. Time was not standing still, and walking was going to take up valuable time. The sooner I got moving the sooner I would get to the beach.  To prove my case to the guys I grabbed the front page of the newspaper and stepped out into the early morning dimness. I was off in a rush to get to Kelly and Mike’s house.

From my parent’s house it was a two and a half mile walk. It would take about 40 minutes to walk there, and the time spent in transit might give everyone a little bit more sack time. Thankful for that, the extra sleep might lessen the chance they would just grump out and say “go home!”  Still, I was stretching it out; I was burning up the pavement with long, quick strides. I wanted to get to the beach before the epic surf flattened out, bid adieu, and said “so long, sucker. The party’s over.”

As I walked up to Kelly and Mike’s house I didn’t see Kelly’s car out front. That sobered me a bit. I hadn’t considered he might not be home, but I still had to wake someone up; that’s what I came for.

Kelly and Mike lived in their garage which they had converted to a bedroom. It was more secluded than a regular room in the house and made the perfect enclave for a teenage boy hang out. What it also had was its own side door, which I found unlocked. Excellent! I glanced at Kelly’s empty bed, but I didn’t let that reality sink into my mind just yet. Mike’s bed was closest to the door and he was in it sleeping like an enchanted princess. But I wasn’t going to wake him up with a kiss.

“Mike, Mike!” I shook his shoulder.
“Charlie? What the hell?”

He wasn’t happy to see me but at least he didn’t start swinging.

“Mike, check this out,” and I shoved the newspaper in his face. He propped up on one elbow and took the paper in his free hand. He attempted to fix his not-yet-fully-operational eyeballs on the picture and headline I was promoting. He squinted in the impossibly dim light.
“What am I looking at?”
“It’s storm surf, man. It’s huge. I’m thinkin’ we gotta surf this. You wanna go?”  
“Are you kidding? You’re crazy.”
“No, I’m not. It’s gonna be amazing.”

I was hoping it wasn’t going to require an extensive sales pitch, or an argument, and possibly a bribe to talk him into going.

Mike flopped back onto his pillow, “I dunno. It’s early. I was asleep. I wish I was still asleep.”
“I know, but the waves are huge. You’ll forget about sleep when you get there. We’ve never seen waves like this. And they won’t last forever.”
“You’re crazy,” Mike repeated.
“This is gonna be great. It could be a once in a lifetime thing.”

That sounded pretty lame and cliché, but that was pretty much the best I could come up with.

Mike just laid there with his a forearm arm over his eyes. I was afraid he might fall back to sleep but then, without opening his eyes he asked “Are you driving?”

“Ah, no. I can’t get a car. Can Kelly drive?”

I was thinking about not having seen his car out front and his empty bed, but I didn’t want to invoke reality by asking about where he was out loud. I was afraid of a superstitious jinx, I guess.

Mike rubbed his eyes and tried to organize his drowsy recollections. After a few seconds he directed me to look at Kelly’s rumpled but otherwise empty bed.

“Kelly's gone. He's driving totally across the country with Dave. You knew that!”
"Oh, Yeah! With Dave, your grandfather."
“Jeez I totally forgot about that,” I said with obvious disappointment.
"They left a couple of days ago. They're gonna be gone like, forever."
“Shoot, he's gone. Well, good for him; bummer for us.”

I moved to a nearby chair and slumped into it with my arms hanging limp to the sides and my head cocked back. I stared at the ceiling in the near darkness.

"Damn it!"

A minute or so passed and we said nothing. I was feeling too disappointed and sorry for myself to formulate a plan “B” yet. I needed to do some serious teen-angst brooding first.

Mike broke the silence. “If you get a ride I’d go.”

“Great,” I thought with some disappointment. Mike wants to go but he is not part of the solution. Still, it was good to have ally and I wanted him to be a part of history with me.

“Well. We gotta get a car,” I offered up.

I sat back in the chair waiting for inspiration or for Mike to have a breakthrough idea.

Still enjoying the comforts of bed Mike asks “what about Steve or Gilbert?”

Steve worked at Ralph’s Grocery store, and I knew he would be at work on a Saturday.

“Steve’s working. I guess we need to see if Gilbert can drive.”
“Ok. Come pick me up if he he’s going.”

What? Come pick him up? Crap! I was back to point zero and on my own to find a ride. It was still too early to call Gilbert’s house so I was going to have to walk there. Gilbert lived a mile and a half from my house in the exact opposite direction from Kelly and Mike. Now I had to cover the two and a half miles back and the mile and a half extra to Gilbert’s. Jeeze! This wasn’t going smooth at all. That was going to take me about an hour and 15 minutes. I was having a bit of a panic thinking I might miss the big surf altogether.

By the time I retraced my steps back to my house I was getting hot and winded from the race-walking pace. I went in for a glass of orange juice and a cheap frozen pastry before I headed on to Gilbert’s. Sitting at the breakfast bar, enjoying the cold juice and “carb rush”, the desire for walking the rest of the way to Gilbert’s house was waning. “Hell with it” I decided. I was going to call and take whatever heat his parents handed out for waking them up. And after all, it wasn’t that late any more. They just might be up by now. At any rate, I was going to call and not walk.

I called Gilbert’s number, and phone seemed to keep on ringing. “Oh man,” I was thinking, “everyone’s asleep.”

“Hello?” a husky voice finally answered.
“Gilbertl? Did I wake you up?”
“Sorry. Did I wake up your mom and dad?”
“They’re not home. The rest of the family went camping. They left yesterday, but I had to stay home because I’m scheduled at work this weekend.”

There was nobody home? There are no other family members there to disturb? I could have called two hours ago? Are you kidding me?!?

I filled him in on the scheme: “Do you want to go to the beach? The surf is up big time. It's record storm surf. I’m talking bigger than we’ve ever seen it.”
“Yeah, that sounds good. I’m in. When do you want to go?”
“Now!” I said with emphasis. “I wanted to go a couple of hours ago but I didn’t want to call and wake up your parents.”
“They’re not at home. They went camping,” Gilbert repeated.
“Yeah, I kinda got that. Can you drive?”
“Yeah. Can you pitch in for gas?”
“Yeah, and Mike wants to go to. Can we pick him up?”
“Yeah, that’s ok. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

With the car facing the ocean, we parked on the north side of 39th Street in Newport Beach just about at the intersection with West Oceanfront. The sky was gray and dreary with costal overcast, but the air was warm for December. A weak Santa Ana weather condition was causing an offshore breeze. As I got out of the car, that same breeze was comfortably fresh on my face and it rustled my hair. The wind was dry, which implied that even with the overcast, it was going to be a comfortable day on the beach. We were preoccupied getting our paipo boards and fins out of the car, but we froze in mid motion when we felt the ground shake, and then heard the deep, thunderous rumble of a crashing wave. We caught each other’s gaze and chuckled “whoa!” expressing nervous expectation.

“We’re gonna die,” Mike said drearily. Mike is very funny, but I wasn’t sure he was joking. Gil and I just looked at each other.

Never before had we heard the discrete sound of a single wave crashing when we were that far from the break. From where we were it was normally possible to hear the white noise of all the waves mangled and mashed together, but with the offshore breeze that was blowing that day, even that sound would have been unlikely to detect because the wind would blow the sound out to sea. The volume of a single crashing wave and its accompanying ground vibration was unnerving and thrilling. With renewed purpose we got our boards, locked the car, and headed for the water.

The beach was humped up into a slight dune between the street and the water. Stepping from the pavement onto the sand we could not see the ocean over that rise, but we did see the top of a massive wave crest and fall. I don’t think we said anything to each other. We kept on walking with our eyes fixed on the sight ahead; waiting to see if another wave would confirm that what we just witnessed was genuine. With a measly paipo board under my arm I was feeling under equipped. Perhaps I should have brought something more sea worthy – maybe aircraft carriers would have been appropriate.

When we topped the high point and walked down toward the water another huge swell was rising to attention as it approached the beach. After crossing thousands of miles of open ocean there was no more deep water for it to lay low in. As the water got shallower, the swell had nowhere to go but up. And it did. Like a giant rising up from a chair, its huge mass got taller and broader. The wave took on a perfect form for riding. It had a steep, smooth face. It crested and broke left, and continued on for about seventy-five yards before collapsing into a mass of foam and sudsy turmoil. Predecessors of that wave had already ripped the “KEEP OFF GROIN” warning sign from its iron post twenty feet above the water.

The groin was wall of rust colored sheet-steel about ten feet tall that extended into the water fifty yards or so. Its purpose was to prevent beach erosion. It made this site at the end of 39th Street a great surf spot by creating a shallow sand bar on its north side, and focusing a north swell back onto itself creating a wave peak that would break perfectly left. Today the waves were ignoring the groins existence, but the sand bar was working wonders on the waves form and personalities. These were massive waves, twenty feet tall, thick, and bestowed with awesome power. Waves like these, huge and rideable, were mostly unknown in to California surfers in 1969.

The swell that first generated fifty-foot waves in Hawai’I, and now these twenty-footers in Southern California, emanated from three overlapping storms in the Pacific:

The first was identified on November 27, off the Kamchatka Peninsula. On the 28th, the fast-growing east-moving storm met with another low pressure area and doubled in size, and by the following day 60 mile per hour winds were blowing across a front measuring 2,000 miles, from just north of Hawaii to the Aleutian Islands. Furthermore, the storm remained nearly stationary for more than 24 hours, helping to generate even bigger swells. Meanwhile, a third storm, smaller but still powerful, began tracking along the initial storm’s wake. (Warshaw 2004, 619)1

There were thirty or forty people standing and watching the colossal waves at the groin. A few were surfers with their boards. They had come to ride big waves that day, but their enthusiasm had succumbed to second thoughts and better judgment when they saw the genuine hugeness of the waves live and up close. A grand total of only two brave souls were actually in the water riding the waves. Both of them were riding with skill, making it look easy. As well formed as the waves were, maybe it was easy? One rider was a standup board surfer; the other was knee riding a piapo board. I was admiring the compact, efficient style of the paipo boarder. My interests had gone to paipo boarding in those days, following gurus of the sport like George Greenough2 and Ron Romanosky. When the standup surfer got to the bottom of one of the waves, it looked like the fluid wall behind him was three times his height over his head.

We watched for about 15 minutes. We remarked about the wave, the surfers, and the missing signage on the groin. Finally I asked if they wanted to go in.

“No,” Gilbert said. “What about you.”

I looked at the wave coming in. Neither of the two surfers was riding this one.

“I want to, but I’m not going out there. It’s too f—in’ big.”
We both looked at Mike. “No way!” he protested. “Don’t look at me. You’d have to be crazy to go out there. “
“Or really good,” I said.
“Good… and crazy,” Mike added.

So we continued to watch waves like we never imagined we would see on our beach. We watched the two surfers ride these incredible ramparts of water with ease. We were jealous of their fun and adventure. I wanted to go out into those waves in the worst way. I wanted to carve a line with my board across the unmarred face of one of these behemoths. I wanted at that moment in time to be brave. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make my feet take me to the water. I couldn’t take up my board and surf. I could only admire the waves and be disappointed in myself for my spinelessness.

We watched the pair of unknown wave riders for most of an hour. They both got out of the water about the same time the waves started to lose their shape. They were still beautiful waves, but now they were empty. 

Being intimidated by the surf at 39th Street, but still wanting to surf something that day, we decided to go north to Huntington Beach and see if there was something there we could handle.

When we got to Huntington we scoped out the surf for awhile.   It was big there as well. There were two breaks happening – inside and outside. The inside break was typical Huntington in size, but nothing much to ride unless you were looking for a bubble bath. It was rough inside; lots of chop and swirling currents. The outside break was more remarkable. These waves were big and long; bigger than we had ever seen at Huntington. They didn’t have the beautiful shape of the beauties at Newport. It looked like they were coming in sets of 4 or 5. The first waves of the set would close out (the whole wave break at once), but the later ones were more agreeable and broke mostly right, opposite from the breaks at the Groin. It was hard to figure the lineup on those waves as they seemed to break wherever they wanted. And we couldn’t figure out how big the outside sets were. Unlike the waves at the Groin that were breaking only about thirty or forty yards out, these were breaking so far out that perspective seemed to shrink them, and the break was so far beyond the end of the pier that it was useless for a comparison. We guessed maybe ten feet. After looking it over, and not wanting to go home without riding the big surf we came for, we decided to paddle out and give it a try.

 Mike stayed on shore while Gilbert and I entered the cold December water. He hadn’t even brought a board that day. I don’t think he ever intended to risk his life by getting pounded to death in a giant washing machine. In retrospect, he was the wisest of us three.

Gilbert and I set to paddling out - well kicking out - on our piapo boards. Getting through the inside breaker and chop was a struggle. The currents would wash us up the beach then down. Finally after many minutes of this we moved into a stretch of relatively calm water. We were a bit winded from the initial ordeal, but able to take a breather. There wasn’t much between us and riding epic surf now but a stretch of open water.

As we got closer to the outside break it started to get difficult again, physically and mentally. We had to push our way through the turbulence of every broken wave since there was no way around them. The pier was now far behind us, and getting farther away as we ventured out to sea. Every time we looked back at the pier it got smaller in the distance. We looked at each other for some comfort. Gilbert’s face had gone white and his wide-open eyeballs didn’t do much to comfort me. I’m sure he saw about the same expression on my face.

“We’re way the hell out here, man,” I said to Gilbert. “This is really weird.”
Gilbert noticed my reticence. “I know. It’s freaky.”

With a spin of his head each way he checked our surroundings. He looked me in the eyes.

“We came this far. We gotta go for it.”

I nodded a commitment and we kept heading out to catch the wave or our lives.

Finally! We made it out past the break and a chance to rest. Our little piapo boards didn't provide much of a platform for comfort. We clung to them tightly. There were no leashes in 1969 unless you were walking your dog. Lose your board, and you were a free swimmer – and it was a long swim home. It was a forbidding and uncomfortable feeling of isolation looking back at the beach. It looked like a distant planet. We were alone out there; only the two of us in what seemed to be the middle of the ocean.

It wasn’t long before saw a big set coming so we maneuvered inside to get better position. As the swells move closer they got bigger… and bigger… and BIGGER! Holy shit! We had seriously underestimated the size of these things when we were on the beach, and nothing this big had rolled in while we were on the way out – at least not that we had noticed. The first wave closed out and almost sucked us both over the top as it broke. With our fins and our fear we kicked as hard as we could and barely managed to escape the suction of the massive wave behind us. The next wave formed up quickly. It looked like the side of a two story house. It scared the crap out of me. We repeated our desperate efforts and again just barely made it. My heart was pounding and I was sucking air for all the oxygen I could strain from it.

In an instant the next wave stood up in front of us. Gilbert was in position and he had little choice but to take off on it or be crushed. From the edges of my vision I caught a glimpse of him sliding off to what was undoubtedly an appointment with the Davey Jones Locker welcoming committee. I’m certain I heard his signature yell, “bonsai!” and he was gone.

There was no time to savor Gilbert’s fortune or fate; I had to deal with the malevolent giant in front of me. I was too far out for this wave and struggled to duck dive through the top and not get sucked over the falls. By this time I was starting to panic. I was getting seriously low on stamina, and there was not an instant to catch my breath. I was kicking with my fins as hard as I could and looking at a wall forming right in front of me. Another behemoth! My heart was hammering out of my chest from exertion and terror. There was no way I could make it through another wave; I was too tired and too far inside. So as I started to climb the face of the wave I turned around. The face was so steep it took very little effort to take off. In an instant I was screaming along the face of a nicely formed right break. The face was not glassy but it was smooth. The chop in the water in front of the wave gave in to the mass and power of the wave and laid down in front of it as if in respect. From the thrill of the ride all my energy seemed to return and I was quickly on my knees, but holding on to the rails of my board with both hands. I was scared for my life but screaming at the top of my lungs from the exhilaration! “Whaaaa!” I have no idea how long the ride lasted. It seemed to last forever, yet it was over in an instant. As the wave started to close I went back to prone and turned toward the beach. The immediate deceleration scared me. I didn’t want to be over taken and have the wave crash on my back, but I was saved. The wave had broken behind me, and as it caught up to me I accelerated again and was push forward in a mass of foam and turbulence. I clung to my board and rode the foam in as far as I could; I’d caught my big wave and I was wrung out.  The wave settled down almost flat as it moved off the outside sand bar and it left me stranded between the breaks. I was still beyond the end of the pier. I saw Gilbert paddling in fifty or sixty yards ahead of me. It looked like he was done as well.

“I thought you guys were dead!” Mike told us as we came out of the water.
“Me too,” Gilbert said through breath heavy from exertion.
“You guys are crazy,” Mike scolded, a bit peeved that we had left him alone on the beach with nothing but to watch us perish.  “I went to the end of the pier to watch you guys and you were way f--ing farther out than that!”
I looked at Gilbert. “We were way the hell out there. I can’t believe it. Did you catch that wave?”
Gilbert shot me a broad grin. “Hell yeah! I ate it at the end and almost drown, but I got a great ride!”

Then Mike was back at us: “That’s the last time I’m going to the beach with you guys. I don’t want to be the guy to tell your moms you f--ing died!”

Mike was brooding a bit; I didn’t blame him.

“Ok, Mike, you’re right. We won’t do it again,” I assured him.
“Right on,” Gilbert added. “The next time you’re going in with us.”
“Forget that!” Mike responded.

Gilbert and I broke into laughter, and Mike joined in. This was all pay back to Mike who had freaked us out on another day, when he hitched a ride on a rip tide heading to Honolulu! But that’s another story.

There is a first time for everything one does. Sometimes it’s a memorable experience; sometimes it’s forgettable. I caught my first big wave in 1969, and to tell the truth, I’ve never really thought about it much. I went through fear of drowning and nearly becoming shark chum to do it. I paddled (well kicked) my dinky piapo board to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But for all the adventure, the waves at Huntington didn’t touch me like the surf I cowered from earlier that morning. Lying in bed that night I was saying to myself “I should have tried! I should have tried!”

So I accidentally ended up dancing with a rough and rowdy dancehall girl because I lost my nerve with the beautiful and sophisticated temptress. I’ve told the story of the temptress many times over the years, and seldom remembered the dance hall girl. Real surfers - surfers who ride big waves as a matter of course - will think this story is silly and overstated. But it’s not really about big wave surfing. It’s about first times and missed opportunities. It was my first time that day, and it should be the main story. But the wave I remember is the one I didn’t ride.

1 Warshaw, Matt, The Encyclopedia of Surfing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005, Print

2 Further reading about George Greenough:
Campion, Drew, George Greenough (1941 -), Surfline,