Friday, May 24, 2013

Mike Flirts with Danger: The Riptide and Peroxide Incidents

By the time I was a teenager, I’d already known Mike for several years because he was the younger brother of my longtime friend, Kelly. In my mind, I sort of adopted Mike as my own little brother. Perhaps Mike wouldn’t care for that dubious honor, but I wouldn’t have felt that way about just anyone.

When you are a kid, a year makes a big difference in the social hierarchy, and Mike was “the little brother” among several of the guys in our circle. However, he deserved nothing less than equal standing among his slightly older friends. His wonderful sense of humor was more mature and sophisticated than the rest of us. He had a smooth, laid back personality, he was hilariously sarcastic, and his laugh came easily. Add to those attributes the title “exceptionally talented artist” and you have Mike. So talented, in fact, his artistic ability later earned him a highly respected career in Hollywood.

As boys get older, things change. The differences in age compress and younger friends gain equality among their peers. By the time I was a senior in high school, Mike was no longer relegated to my honarary little brother status. He became a full-fledged friend, and I hung out with him as much as I hung out with anyone. Mike and I became close enough that he would sometimes offer me his advice. One night, while we were in his garage looking at his brother Kelly’s newly acquired, begging-for-restoration 1938 Ford pickup truck, he counseled me on a girl he said I should not date.

“Why shouldn’t I go out with her?” I asked.
“She’s stuck-up,” he warned me.

Mike and his human hair safety helmet
I didn’t think she was stuck up, and if she was I didn’t care. There was more to the conversation, but that was the gist. The girl in question was Sally, and we’ve been officially hanging together since 1970. Mike was a great friend, but his advice in this matter wasn’t particularly spot on. I still get a kick out of that conversation. By the way, Mike now says he takes that statement back. I’ll give him that one.

One day, Mike and I hooked up for a trip to the beach. Gilbert was there too; it was a beautiful day. We went to Newport to check out conditions at the wedge. We flopped around in the water there for awhile, but it just wasn’t happening, so we headed up the beach a couple of miles. The wave and current conditions that day had set up riptides that were spaced about a quarter mile apart up and down the beach. They were easily noticeable, each one looking like a green, sandy river running back out to sea.

These riptides were an attractive nuisance to teen age boys looking for surfable waves. On the north side of each riptide were the best formed waves that day. Gilbert and I had come to the beach for business, so we ended up scoping out the waves right next to one of the riptides. We had our piapo boards and fins, and we wanted to ride waves. Mike showed up casual style, in his floral jams, a beach towel, and a pair of flip-flops. There was an economy of sparseness in his approach to clothing, equipment, and life situations.  That’s why I loved him; to me no one was more laid back than he was.

In short order we were in the water and heading out to the break. Gilbert and I were on our piapos and Mike was swimming out to body-surf “native” style (that has become my preferred method in recent years). Even though the surf was storm generated, and it was choppy inside, it was still an easy out. The waves weren’t very big, but they were good enough!

We were having a good time, catching a decent wave here and there. Then Mike body surfed right into the riptide we had been skirting for the last twenty minutes. The rip turned out to be pretty strong, and it had an undertow current that made it especially nasty. Mike started struggling immediately, getting swept out and pulled under simultaneously. In a panic, instinct tells us the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and Mike started swimming a straight line to the shore. That was the wrong way to go; he was swimming against an impossible current. The way to get out of a riptide is to swim parallel to the shoreline, but instinct and intellect are often at odds when panic sets in.

Mike started yelling for help, and he was going down. We quickly headed over to help him out. Gilbert was closest to him, and got there first. He held Mike up with one arm and wrapped his other arm around his piapo board. I’m sure Gilbert was wishing his thin piapo, which had been built for speed, had had been built for buoyancy instead. Both of the guys barely had their heads above water when I got there.

“Get help!” Gilbert managed to choke out.
“You gonna be ok?” I asked, starting to panic myself.
“Just go… NOW!” Gilbert implored.

Now it was my turn to instinctively surrender to the “straight line” hypothesis. I started kicking my fins as hard as I could against the riptide to get back to shore. I could feel the current fighting against my progress, but unlike Mike, I had help from a good set of fins and the piapo board. I was able to overcome the current, and after a few minutes of intense effort I successfully struggled to shore. It seemed like it had taken an interminable length of time to get back to the beach. I was deeply winded and I struggled onto the sand with my fins on. From my knees I reached back and pulled them off. I was afraid to turn around to check on my friends, imagining I would only see empty water where Mike and Gilbert were supposed to be. I glanced up and there they were, but swiftly vanishing out to sea and really struggling to stay chin-above-water.

Without hesitation I started running up the beach toward a lifeguard tower. I was a fast runner when I was 17, but the sand, the panic, and the prior exertion made it feel like I was running in slow motion. My legs were wobbly and I was running against some unseen resisting force. It was about a hundred and fifty yards to the lifeguard tower. When I finally approached to within about twenty-five yards, the lifeguard saw me coming. I made eye contact with him and in an instant he recognized I was a messenger of trouble. He stood up, raised his binoculars, and looked past me in the direction I’d just come from. In just a couple of split seconds he grabbed his float and fins, jumped from his perch and ran past me. We never said a word to each other; action was automatic. I collapsed to my hands and knees, with my chest heaving and my lungs burning.

I rested for the shortest time I could before jogging back to my friends. When I got there the lifeguard had Mike almost out of the surf and into waist deep water. Gilbert had been left to fend for himself, which he was able to do with fins and a paipo board to float on. The life guard rolled the nylon line around his float and took off his fins.

“That green water right there is a riptide. You guys should stay out of it,” he said casually with a friendly smile.

I raised one hand halfway up in affirmation, too out of breath to speak. He trotted off to his tower. I noticed this guy wasn’t much older than we were. He was very handsome, with a square jaw, thick, blond hair cut short, a dark tan, and ripped abs. No doubt he was hired by a Hollywood casting director.

Mike and Gilbert both slogged onto the sand as far as the point where the waves rolled up and receded. They collapsed and rolled onto their backs looking at the blue sky.  Gilbert put his arm over his eyes to shield them from the sun. I was standing with my hands on my knees. No one talked for awhile. I broke the silence.

“Shit, Mike!”
“Yeah, I know.”

Half a minute passed and Mike, still looking at the sky from his back said “my life passed before my eyes.”

A few seconds later we all broke into laughter. We went back in for a few more rides that afternoon, but we stayed away from the riptide – mostly.


How can anything be better than skateboarding in leisurely circles around the driveway, on a beautiful southern California summer afternoon? That’s exactly what Mike, Gilbert, and I were doing until I suggested we go skate around in the Covina hills. I said it would be more exciting to play with gravity than skating on that flat, driveway. We piled into my dad’s barf green ’61 Corvair and headed for the hills.

We ended up in a brand new sub-division carved from the undulating hillsides. Everyone had brand new immaculate lawns and landscaping. The sidewalks were smooth, and the roads were steep. This was going to be fun!

We drove around a bit until we found what looked like a great hill to ride. It was pretty steep all the way down, and it had a nice serpentine curve to the left and then to the right. At that time of day there wasn’t any traffic to run us down. That was a bonus.

Today, skateboarders like my grandson, “bomb” hills on their longboards. It is a science and an established sport. The practice is known as "downhill." We casually called it “bombing down hills.” I guess it took forty some odd years to for the term to devolve down to one word. But the actual activity is different as well. What we did was try to slalom down a hill of moderate grade. The riders today go straight down steep hills acquiring great speed on the way. It’s fun and it’s dangerous. Their equipment makes it all possible. The state of the art for us was the Hobie Skateboard. It was much smaller and had a very narrow wheelbase compared to today’s longboards. The Hobie was too unstable at speed to bomb a hill. They would wobble and then you would lose control. So, as I mentioned, our approach was to slalom down the hill, picking up speed on the downhill turn, then slowing down on the cross-street run. By precisely executing this method, one could stay in control all the way to the bottom of the hill.

And that was the unspoken plan among the three of us that day, or so I thought.

With asphalt and concrete being hard and rough on the human body, one should wear the proper attire when participating in any street sport. Following this maxim, Gilbert and I were wearing tee-shirts, jeans, and canvas topped deck shoes (the precursor to today’s popular skateboarding shoes, Vans). That was the total of our safety gear. Owing to the warm summer weather, Mike had shunned any formal attire and showed up in casual dress: a pair of red Covina High School gym trunks and a suntan. That was it. No shirt. No shoes. He did have a great, bushy head of hair that might cushion his cranium, should a fall happen to occur. He was the consummate California kid.

I started my run first. I cut across the street and turned downhill for my first turn. “Whoa!” The acceleration was unexpected. The street was really steep! It freaked me out and I almost didn’t make it out of the bottom of the turn, but somehow I did. I was able to slow down and make my next cut across the street. I could hear Gilbert’s wheels grinding on the pavement above me; he was coming now. Starting the next turn, I was nervous from the previous one. The incline was a bit steeper now, and my speed increased so fast I just freaked out and lost control. I didn’t make it halfway through the turn before I hit the curb and wiped out on someone’s grass strip.

Gilbert was keeping it under control, making tighter turns, and making his tacks across the street at less of an incline. Smart! He made his second turn a few feet uphill above my failed attempt and headed across the street. The steepness got to Gilbert on the next turn. He got his board facing downhill and couldn’t control the wobble. He jumped off his board, ran a few steps on the pavement and rolled on to the grass as I had done. It was obvious the hill we chose was too steep.

No sooner did Gilbert recover and we heard Mike yelling in terror, “Ahhhhhhhh!” We looked up to see Mike, barefooted, bare-chested, gym shorts flapping, bombing the hill. He was coming straight down the grade and he was breaking all land speed records in the near-naked novice class. Before our eyes his speed continued to increase. I imagined smoke coming off his wheels, and pre-warp speed color shift as he accelerated beyond the speed of light. We could see that something awesome and unprecedented was about to happen!

Inevitably Mike’s board started to wobble. In less than a second he was fully out of control. His board shot out from under him in one direction and he went down on the hard asphalt in the other. He fell short of breaking the speed of light, or even the speed record, but he was commencing a great and wonderful, pavement-eating wipeout like we had never seen. He was bouncing, tumbling, and thumping. Sliding, grinding, and scraping. Every time his bare skin hit the pavement another patch of flesh was clawed off by the raspy tarmac. His cart-wheeling crash seemed to go on and on. We thought Mike might grind all the way down to a raw quarter-pound hamburger patty.

Mercifully, he hit the curb and bounced onto the grass. This quickly halted his careen down the endless asphalt skid-way. He promptly popped up and hopped around in obvious agony.

“Ouch, ooh, ow!”

He was holding his elbows up trying to keep his arms away from his body, and sort of standing on one bent leg with his other leg hanging in the air performing a cross between the Karate Kid “Crane” stance and spastic version of the chicken dance.

Despite Mike’s misfortune, Gilbert and I were cracking up laughing. We were rolling around on the ground in uproarious guffaws. Mike’s antics were hilarious. He was almost one solid pavement raspberry, and blood was starting to ooze from multiple deep scrapes. Poor guy, he was in fiery pain and all Gilbert and I could do was laugh. Through all the pain, Mike laughed a bit himself out of relief he wasn’t dead, or maybe because he had an unstoppable sense of humor.

Mike’s wipeout ended our outing. He got in the car and sat on the edge of his seat trying his best not to let any of the tender spots touch anything.  When we got to his house his mom immediately saw he was a mess.

“Michael, what did you do to yourself?” she said with concern.
“I skidded down an asphalt slip-n-slide. Or more like a long slip-n-grind!”
“I mean! It’s a good thing you didn’t kill yourself. Go put some peroxide on those scrapes.” She walked away shaking her head, concern turning to disbelief.

Gilbert and I squeezed into the bathroom with Mike to help administer the first aid. Mike got a brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide out of the medicine cabinet. Gilbert poured some on Mikes back wounds.

“Eeeeee! That’s cold!” Mike said, and he tensed up against the uncomfortable sensation.

Then he took the bottle and started pouring peroxide on all the raw patches he could reach. Where ever the peroxide ran over Mike’s raw flesh it bubbled and fizzed, and was accompanied by a disconcerting sizzling sound. The whole ordeal was bumming him out, but he was still clinging to what humor he could.

“I’m covered in foam. I look like a snail in a salt mine,” he quipped.
“That means it’s working,” I replied with confidence.

Mike looked at me cockeyed.

“Right,” he said, drawing the word out wryly.

And that was our queue to crack up. Laughter was good medicine.

Mike survived without heroic measures, but it did take him awhile to recover. He moved around a little stiff for a few days. It still makes me laugh. I’m sorry for the comic relief at Mike’s expense, but it’s not my fault; life can be cruel. Ha, ha. After all these years, it’s my turn to give Mike advice – put a shirt on!

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