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Understanding a Solitary Surfer

July 23, 1987|BONNIE B. HESSE

Summer's here. The sun's out most of the time and the surf's up, or it should be, which reminds me of a conversation with our surfer son a few weeks ago.

Trying to connect--this used to be called bridging the generation gap--my husband looked up from his newspaper and remarked, "Say, here's a great article on surfing."

Patiently our son read the whole thing, start to finish. "Yeah, Dad, that's pretty good," he said politely. "Only the guy's not a real surfer. He's a poser."

"A poser?"

"Yeah, you know--not real. He's been to the right beaches and all: Trestles, Blackies, River Jetty, but he's not, well . . . you know."

His dad didn't know exactly, but something about the article didn't ring true to me, either.

This is no claim on my part to be among the surfing elite nor any wish to invade their privacy. I am not an initiate, not even a pledge. When I went to high school, the Beach Boys were boys, not middle-aged men, and the boards were all "logs" too heavy for me to carry. Plus, I never did look good in a two-piece swimsuit--just not the teenie-weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini type.

Being the mother of an authentic surfer, however, I do claim to know a few things.

Take dings, for example. (These are holes in a surfboard.) I don't know how to fix them, but I can predict with exceptional accuracy when it's time to fix them. It's when my hair dryer is missing. You see, the liquid resin used to fill a ding dries quickly in the flowered cup from the kitchen. But for some reason, on the board the resin doesn't dry fast enough to suit the surfer. After all, who knows when the next big swell may come! So that's where my hair dryer comes in.

Another thing I've learned is how to get to the Surf Theater in Huntington Beach. Many times before my son could drive, we filled the van with friends to trek to the newest surfing movie. They really don't make them like they used to, though. The old Bruce Brown movies of the '50s were more fun--more humor and variety. Now the movies are just scenes of surfers sliding down wave after wave set to music.

When do waves shred? When do they have shape? Hard to say for someone who doesn't know the number of Surf Report. But I've seen the surfing beaches on the North Shore, off Ensenada, even Bondi in Australia. And as often as I've listened to ecstatic ravings about unbelievable emotional highs reached on perfect surf days, the only emotion I claim to know first hand is fear. A genuine mother's fear. Storm surf, for example, just blows me away.

One day not too long ago, sometime B.C. (Before the Car), I still had illusions of being responsible for my son's safety. The wind howled, the surf was up, and the hot spot was the Big Corona jetty. "You shouldn't go!" I called after him as he took off on his bike, wet suit and towel around his neck, board under his arm. After a few moments, panic got the best of me, so I followed him in my car.

The wind was so wild that the sand blew horizontally. Ducking my head against the flying grit, I pushed through the storm to the edge of the channel. Waves, topped with white caps and brown with bottom sand, were sloshing higher and higher inside the jetty. The water was littered with boys on boards, from "gremmies" to "watermen," paddling out against the current to the mouth of the jetty and riding back in.

Amazed at this contest with nature, I realized the feeling of being absolutely out of control. "Either he'll survive or he won't," I said aloud. And I left. I've never felt the same about surfing or my son since. The struggle to survive was between the waves and him. He was playing a duet, not a trio.

That's one reason why, in my opinion, surfing will never make it big as an organized sport. Its very essence defies organization. No two waves are the same, which may account in part for the addictive aspect of the sport. You have to keep going because the next wave might always be better than the last.

Yet, when my son gets that faraway look in his eyes, something tells me it's more than that. Boys seem called to ride the ocean today much as young men were lured to life at sea years ago. There's some kind of chemistry that unites the mysticism of the quest with the exhilaration of strength and speed.

Like a Hemingway hero, the true surfer is cool, courageous and disciplined--the epitome of grace under pressure. I don't know if Hemingway himself ever surfed, but if he didn't, he should have.

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