Several days ago, I did a Facebook post about my determination to paddle out into some sloppy but forceful waves on my surfboard after a three-year surfing layoff. I love surfing. Admittedly, I’ve never been one of those surfers that crowds line up to watch and surf photographers drool over. I ran a bunch of surfing competitions in the old days, but the only time I came even anywhere close to winning one was a third place trophy in a heat with two other old guys. And that’s been donkeys years, as the Irish say, ago. But what does surfing have to do with a Southern fiction author’s blog, you might ask? Well, I’ve a story to tell and it was Pat Conroy after all who said, “The most powerful words in English are, ‘Tell me a story.'” It’s all about the storytelling. And I didn’t think much about my story until I was riding my bicycle on the beach and stopped to watch a bunch of people, mostly kids, surfing.
I talked to a few other adult surfers while I was there. One of them, a guy quite a few years younger than me, left me with some words to chew on. I’ll get to those directly, in my usual meandering fashion.
I didn’t grow up with a surfboard tucked under my arm. I mean, about the only way to surf in Waycross, Georgia would’ve been for someone to have towed you behind a boat in the lake at Laura S. Walker State Park. It’s called wake surfing today but I’m not sure if anyone did it back then. And although we spent a lot of time here in Fernandina Beach, the closest I ever came to surfing as a kid was when one day my brother and I rented a big old log that was so heavy it took both of our skinny butts to haul it back up the beach where we were staying. It was a short-lived and ugly effort. After getting knocked around and nearly drowning, we gave up and lugged the ancient gun back to the rental stand and turned it in. I didn’t touch another surfboard until I was thirty-four years old when my wife and kids and I moved here to Fernandina Beach, Florida. Our oldest son, who was in second grade, decided right away that he was going to be a surfer. And his excitement made me want to learn, too. We learned how to surf together, but by the end of that summer, he was pretty good and I was just okay, and some folk might say even that’s a stretch. But that summer was magic, and I started to meet guys my age who were born with a surfboard, or stick, as they’re often called, under their arms. I got “the stoke,” as surfers call it. What’s the stoke? Well, it’s pretty much like any other sport or pursuit. You get so excited about it that it’s all you can think about on some days. You’ll hear surfers talk about being “stoked.” It just means they’re fired up about surfing, or going surfing, or “talking story,” as our Hawaiian surfer brethren say, about the surfing they’ve done or the waves they caught. I definitely got stoked. Like I said, I was never all that good but I loved it and went every chance I got. I confess to even skipping work a few times and even sneaking in a session on my lunch hours. Okay. I admit this, too. I checked my son of school a couple of times when the waves were good because he had “a doctor’s appointment,” and the two of us enjoyed an illicit surf with the other dads and their kids who also had doctor’s appointments that day.
I remember the glory days of waking up at dawn for the sunrise session, the “dawn patrol” as we called it, or, depending on how sleepy you were from surfing the day before, the “yawn patrol,” when a van full of your buddies pulled into your yard, blew the horn and woke you and all your neighbors up yelling those magic words, “C’mon, ya lazy bum! There’s a swell!” We’d surf until we were starved, make a mad dash to the nearest quickie stop and buy Doritos, Snickers Bars and Gatorade, devour it on the beach and rush back into the water. Cramps from going back into the water on a belly full of junk food? Not when you’re stoked, dude. If it was halfway good, we’d surf till late afternoon, take another break, run home for a quick bite of supper and then head back to the beach for that enchanted, pastel-colored hour right at dusk we called the evening glass off. It’s when the summer southeast breeze finally calls it a day, the slop and chop is off the water and the waves are glassy again like they were at dawn and the smell of the late evening sea is so good that you wish you could bottle it and get drunk on it that night. Then you’d talk story with your buddies all the way home, dream about surfing and, if possible, do it again the next day, even if you were sunburned, knackered and your arms felt like boiled pasta from paddling so much. Why? Because you were so damn stoked.
I kept surfing until a few years ago when my body, which I admittedly treated shabby a lot while trying to grow up, finally began to get even with me for the abuse I heaped on it. Both of my shoulders wore out and I developed rotator cuff tears in each, which necessitated three surgical repairs. But still I soldiered on. Then it was the onset of cervical disc disease in my neck that made it difficult to lie flat on my board with my head titled up so I could see where I was going. But I gulped down pain pills and anti-inflammatory medications, did physical therapy and kept surfing. Then, in the spring of 2006, I had my first heart attack and got stents. My cardiologist was unyielding in his edict that I not surf for at least six months, which would mean winter surfing, which he also nixed because the insult that sudden cold water immersion can have on a wounded heart, even if you wear a wetsuit. I was sidelined and couldn’t surf. All I could do was go to the beach and watch other surfers and be miserable. But it wasn’t just one heart incident. The dang pump tried three times to serve me with divorce papers. Three summers ago, I decided it was high time to get back in the water. A local surfboard shaper built me a new longboard. But before I could paddle out, another heart attack landed me in the operating room for double coronary bypass surgery. By the time all this mess was over, I was so out of shape and body-weary that it was depressing. My new surfboard hung dejected on the wall in my writing room and silently pleaded with me not to give up. Sadly, I pretty much did for a while. Two summers ago, I felt well and strong enough, after six months with a personal trainer, to paddle that new board out and do it again. Then, one day while hauling a beach seine for mullet with my sons, I completely blew a lumbar disc. I lived in excruciating pain and the neurologist gave me two choices: Wait for it to heal or have surgery. I took door number one. It’s taken all this time, and, in the interim, I got fat and out of shape again. And then along came Covid-19 and things got worse. Hell, the beach was closed for a good long while.
In January of this year, I decided it was now or never to get back into shape enough to make one last effort at the surfing I missed so much. I started riding a bicycle so often that the new tires I put on it are already getting bald from my four or five times a week, fifteen to twenty-mile rides. I started shedding pounds, sixteen of them since winter, and inches off my belly. All of a sudden, I felt energetic again. And then I started thinking about surfing. At first, it was just a notion. But the notion grew until, in the past month or so, I think about it all the time. I made the decision that, by this summer, I’d be surfing again. I made my first effort earlier this week on a gnarly day with fifteen-mile-an-hour northeast winds and heavy, choppy surf. I knew, while standing on the beach with my board strapped onto my ankle, that I didn’t stand a chance in hell of doing any actual surfing. But my goal was to paddle out through the churning mess and at least make it outside the breakers. If I could do that much, I would know that my strength and endurance was returning. I succeeded in doing that much but a big, surprise wave clobbered me and my ten-foot, two-inch nose rider shot out from under me, got caught up in the wave and dragged me back to the beach facedown and gagging on seawater. I hauled myself out of the water and was just about to get down on myself and then I realized that, despite the sloppy ending, I’d accomplished, after all, what I set out to do. Walking back to the car, a flame rekindled in me. If I could do that much after all I’ve been through without my heart bursting in my chest like a rotten melon, I could relearn to surf. The stoke had returned. I’m going to do it. I know I’m going to. It won’t be pretty for awhile. Hell, it’ll probably never be pretty, but I will do it. I can feel it, the feeling you get when you paddle a couple of strokes into an oncoming wave and feel the moment that you’ve caught it, when its own force takes over and you begin to glide and then all you have to do is get on your feet and do something with it, whether it’s cut and slash like the hotshots or just draw the line, walk out onto the nose, ride a big, glassy shoulder all the way to the beach, step off, raise your two fists over your head and hoot in ecstasy.
When I started writing this piece, I told you that a surfer on the beach today gave me something to chew on. I was telling him about all that’s happened to me, how it’s kept me out of the water for so long and all I can do is just dream about surfing again. I told him I’m so embarrassed by what I know will be ineptness and clumsiness that I’ll just go surfing in a spot where no other surfers are until I finally get my groove back. But I’m determined to do it. It’s been all I can think about these past few days. I took my board off the rack day before yesterday and propped it up in the corner where it stands waiting for me. Tomorrow or the day after or the day after that, I’m going to strap it onto the roof racks, haul it to the beach and go surfing. I’m determined to. I know I can do it even though it’s gonna take one hell of an effort. And one helluva lotta wipeouts. Before this summer’s over, I’m going to be out there with everyone else, sharing in our mutual joy at participating in what the Hawaiians call the sport of kings. I remember one day when I was a younger surfer being out on a day when there was a really big swell. A hurricane passing far offshore created big, glassy waves, some of them ten to twelve feet. I was surfing at a beach just south of St. Augustine with my son and a friend of his. I saw a big, lazy roller coming my way that just got bigger and bigger. I decided to go for it and caught the biggest wave I ever surfed, easily twelve feet. I eased my longboard into it and rode it gracefully all the way in. Nothing fancy. No tricks. No show-off hotdogging, just a long, languid soul ride. A group of people applauded. I’d like to have just one more of those before the fire goes out for keeps.
But here’s the thing the younger surfer told me today. The thing that caught like ten feet of fiberglass covered foam on a candy-sweet wave on an even sweeter day: “But you’ve still got the stoke, brother. For all you’ve been through, you still haven’t just given up. And now you’ve got the stoke again. You need to share this story for other surfers to read.” Then he strapped his leash onto his ankle and headed toward the water. He turned and looked back at me and grinned and gave me the “shaka” sign, the hang loose sign one surfer gives another and said, “See you in the water, dude.”
And I will. I know I will. Because I’m stoked. And this is my story.