The real me lives by the sea,
With flying hair and sun kissed brow,
I’d give anything to be there now.
A wave can propel you forward, pass you by or capture you in its turbulence. This is true in life and in the ocean. Sometimes you make the choice and sometimes it’s the wave. That’s deep, very deep (small wave joke). In this particular instance, I made the choice, or did I?
I was 14-years old but I remember it as if it happened last summer; it was that dramatic. Fourteen is a very strange time in a young man’s life. The hormones are just beginning to flow but the mind and the body are not quite ready. There’s hair down THERE but you don’t really know yet what to do with the hair or your pecker. But, you know things are changing.
For me, it was the summer of 1961 and I was about to enter high school. I was aware of the blooming young girls in my eighth grade class; oh yes, there were stirrings. I even asked a few out for a date and some close-mouthed making out with mixed success. That summer would push me further into teenage-hood but in a manner I could’ve never predicted.
For years my family rented a summer cabana at Capri, one in the string of private beach clubs in Atlantic Beach on Long Island’s South Shore. This particular summer my early teen stirrings were stirring. All of a sudden I was taking more notice of girls (and women!!) in their bathing suits – one in particular. Ah, young lust.
She appeared to be my age, close enough for me to fantasize that I had a shot – even though I wasn’t sure what kind of shot I wanted. She had ebony hair that hung in loose curls below her shoulders. Her eyes were deep and dark; even from a distance they beckoned for me to dive in. This was before the real bikini days but she wore a red two-piece bathing suit and her young body was just beginning to flourish. I was mesmerized every time I saw her and every time I saw her I was determined to go up and talk to her and every time I froze.
It tore me up. I didn’t have much manhood yet but I was questioning what little there was. I had little or no confidence about girls and every time I failed to approach her I sank a little deeper into self-doubt. Luckily I had some distractions, especially The Ocean.
I taught myself to body surf the waves; I loved it! I’d jump the waves and punch at them with all my scrawny-body strength and when The Ocean was calm I’d swim out as far as I dared, roll over on my back and stare at the sky. The Ocean was my friend and my playground.
One bright, hot, muggy day early in the summer, as I was waiting for the right wave to ride, I noticed two guys about my age, further from the shore and each on an inflatable raft about four feet long. I stood and watched as they both effortlessly caught the next wave and rode it until they hit the packed down wet beach sand. I was entranced.
Needless to say, it’s easier to overcome shyness regarding other guys and I wanted to know about those rafts. I swam out to where they were stationed and floated nearby to watch them catch a few more waves. Gathering up my nerve I finally approached them. “Hey guys. Cool rafts.”
They were obviously brothers, in fact they could’ve been twins except one definitely looked a year or more older. The younger brother replied first. “Hi.” He said with a friendly smile, “I’m Anthony and that’s my brother Dean.” Dean remained silent, concentrating on his position for the next wave. Anthony, however, was more than happy to sit on his raft with his feet dangling over the side and gab.
It was the usual stuff, where do you go to school, where do you live, etc. Anthony was my age while Dean was about 18-months older. They lived not too far from the beach and about 25-minutes from my house.
I began my campaign to get a raft on the drive home that afternoon. It wasn’t easy; we weren’t poor but we weren’t what you’d call well off and Dad watched every dollar. I was relentless, though and they eventually gave in and bought me a raft. It wasn’t like the guys’ rafts, though; we didn’t see any like that in the toy store we visited.
My raft was the traditional longer, rubber plastic thing with the pillow, designed more for lounging languidly than surfing. But, it was a raft and the next day I was out there with my new pal(s). Dean remained mum.
Anthony and I gabbed back and forth, lying on our bellies, waiting for the first good wave. And, suddenly, there it was! The three of us started paddling like mad with our arms, trying to catch that critical front edge of the roller just as it started to roll. We were all neck and neck, perfectly positioned but while Dean and Anthony got the ride, the wave slipped harmlessly under my raft. No problem, there’s always the next wave but it was not to be that day. Wave after waved passed me by like empty busses headed for the garage.
I don’t know what made me think of it but after this afternoon of surfing frustration I more closely examined the other two rafts. What I noticed was that the canvas surfaces of theirs had texture to them while mine was a slippery stretch of polyvinyl. That had to be the difference; I wasn’t getting any traction.
“Hey you guys, where did you get those rafts?” I asked.
“Army/Navy store.” It was the first time Dean had spoken to me. And so, the new campaign began. It was a much more difficult task. Upon finding and visiting an Army/Navy store (not very common in Southeast Queens it turned out), I/we discovered the raft I coveted was about five times the price of my “toy.” Coming this close to my goal and leaving empty-handed was not an option. I begged. I pleaded. I cajoled. I made promises I knew I could never keep but I walked out of there with my raft. Of course, it rained for the next four or five days and the new raft (and I) remained, deflated, in its box.
On the sixth day, god rested – short workweek – and the sun shone bright with warm promise when I awoke. I was dressed and down for breakfast in a flash. “C’mon mom, let’s get goin.’ We’re going to the beach, right?’
With a straight face and a stern look, she replied, “Well, no, I have some shopping to do.” I was crushed.
“GOTCHA!” she almost shouted. Gawd, that was so unlike my mom I didn’t know whether to laugh or say something stupid. I opted for rare silence and ran to get my raft. Two hours later my little 14-year old lungs were nearly in pain as I sat on the beach huffing and puffing through the small air valve. I have no idea how long it took for the raft to fill but it seemed like hours. The surf was perfect and the two brothers were riding ceaselessly. Finally, FINALLY, I was ready to roll.
The inflated canvas raft – rubberized on the inside – was far heavier than my little plastic thing and it was difficult to look cool walking down to the water while struggling to keep from dropping it. Fuck cool; I dropped it in the sand and dragged it by the short towrope tied to the front end.
What can I say? That first wave was amazing! It began far from the shore, rising to about four or five feet before beginning its forward roll. I caught it perfectly along with Anthony and Dean. Before I knew it I was shrieking with joy at the top of my lungs and the two brothers joined in just for the hell of it. It was the beginning of a great summer of teen bonding and endless hours riding the waves.
Dean apparently decided I was cool-worthy and allowed me into his 18-month older world. This meant parties, with GIRLS, at their house almost every week. Alas, my dark-haired beauty never appeared but she was almost forgotten; so deep was my boundless joy and pleasure in The Ocean. Oh, I still saw her around the beach club and, yes, there were stirrings still stirring in my youthful loins but the ache of unspoken rejection was gone. One day blended into the other with an endless line of perfect waves until that one fateful day toward the end, the day I confronted The Wave.
It was rough surf that day. The waves were rolling in much faster and much closer to each other than usual. Still, we picked the best ones and rode ‘em the way we always did. By now, we were all “experts” and had experienced this kind of action before. As the day wore on, though, things changed, first subtly and then more dramatically. The waves were growing in size and intensity, the rides getting wilder and bumpier – so much the better, we figured.
Then, toward late afternoon and as high tide approached, all the lifeguards appeared at water’s edge with bullhorns. “Please exit the water,” they boomed. “The ocean is closed due to dangerous surf conditions. We are experiencing waves ten feet high and larger. Please exit the water immediately.”
“Hah,” quipped Dean, “didn’t know ya could close an ocean.”
Maybe we were having so much fun, maybe we were so focused that we hadn’t noticed the change but now, the waves were a bit further apart and they were bigger, much bigger. We were far enough out, in fact, further than we thought, so the waves were breaking after they passed us. But the swells under our rafts were getting higher and we could feel their strengthening power – definitely time to head for shore.
We began paddling in and, as we reached the point where the waves were breaking Anthony and Dean hopped off their rafts and tried to jump the waves while tossing the rafts over the top. They had little success; both lost their rafts to a monster wave that tossed them around like rubber ducks in a bathtub before depositing them on the beach. The two brothers struggled toward the beach, diving under the waves in an attempt to get under their most powerful thrusts.
For some reason I hadn’t paddled in as quickly as the guys and I paused in that nether world where some waves were breaking while others were still building. Then, looking over my shoulder I saw it – The Wave. I could see the nascent swell building much further out than any other. I stopped paddling and watched, transfixed with a mix of awe and fascination, as it grew taller and taller, picking up speed as it rumbled forward.
In retrospect, I have no idea what I was thinking. In fact, there was no thinking; I instinctively started paddling, trying to time my forward progress with The Wave’s peak. Before I knew it, I had traction and I was hurtling forward – and upward – with astonishing speed. No turning back now, shit, no turning back now! It took all of my strength but I still had the presence of mind to keep the nose of my raft out of the water, minimizing the chance of rolling under the torrential power of The Wave.
Before I knew it I was in The Wave’s curl and flying straight down, perpendicular to the ocean’s surface. There was no sloping down the front of The Wave; I was headed straight to hell. Luckily, I still had that traction.
If there was ever a time in my life when everything slowed down, it was those fleeting few seconds. Halfway down this surging, frothing monster I knew I was going to make it; I just knew. Finally, and with my arms aching from the effort, The Wave and I bounced violently several times and settled atop the white-capped ocean’s surface, speeding toward shore. I couldn’t wait to hook up with my cheering buddies and the throngs who were certainly awaiting my heroic landing.
When my eyes finally cleared away their salty sting and I rolled off my raft in the now shallow wave’s rippling end, there were no throngs; the shoreline was empty. I could see the throngs, with their backs to me about a hundred yards away, thronging off the beach and back to their cabanas. I was alone with my triumph.
Whether from pent up fear, the draining adrenaline or just fatigue, I started a slow, shaky walk up the beach. “What the fuck,” I thought with surprising clarity. “I did it and I know I did it.”
For that moment it was enough for me.
©2013 by LeeZard
Joe must have known something. By age 22, Lee was an editor and correspondent in Washington, D. C. for the Metromedia Radio Network. He went on to an award-winning 20-year career as a broadcast journalist, including stints at the ABC and CBS Radio Networks. After another 20-years in public and media relations, Lee began writing for himself.
His blog can be found at www.leezardonlife.blogspot.com.
He’s also published two books: