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Of Time and Tide: Feelin' Groovy Off 15th Street

October 01, 1992|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column will appear in O.C. Live! the first three Thursdays of every month. and

One demand of maturity is to surrender pleasure to obligation, though a wise person will often do the opposite.

On this particular dawn, the sun had just risen behind the city, and the Pacific was silver and smooth. There was no breeze. The waves, generated by a southerly swell, moved toward shore languidly, but you could tell from the low tide and the early hour that they'd be building nicely, and soon.

The beach was 15th Street in Newport, and the object of my mission was to do something I hadn't done in 18 years: bodysurf.

This misunderstood sport had been my greatest passion as a boy. Nothing on Earth had been as important as these waves. In fact, only the stronger, nearly tidal pull of books was eventually able to unseat this passion for the water.

As I walked across the cool, damp morning sand--the same sand I'd trudged across all those 18 years ago--the unspectacular idea struck me that life had once been filled with many pleasures.

Bodysurfing is not what most people think. Bodysurfing is not a person swimming wildly to gouge himself into a wave, shattering its dynamic symmetry, flailing to shore in the white water like a piece of manic flotsam, mouth agape and eyes addled with excitement. Bodysurfing is not the football player/jar head/muscle Nazi pounding his way into a monster at 18th Street and going straight over the top, arms stiffly forward and fists clenched. Bodysurfing is not the head-first suicide dive that results in so many ruptured vertebrae, broken clavicles and paralyzed young men. Forget all that.

The actual craft, performed well, is more this: a smooth, strokeless admission to the wave, shoulder back, one arm extended, hand planing upon the face of the water; back locked securely in the supportive, unfurling cylinder; torso extended and head erect ahead of the pursuing tunnel. The effect is less of intrusion than of agreement, more of harmony than of imposition. It is a beautiful sight to see and an exhilarating action to perform. Locking into a good wave, speeding along on a spray-shooting plane of palm is one of those few motions in life that can render a person absolutely opinionless. In velocity is serenity.

The serenity, however, is altogether fleeting. This, for the simple reason that bodysurfing, like life itself, and unlike other forms of wave riding, almost always ends in tragedy. There are no easy exits.

The rider knows--even as he appears to be outgliding the wave--that soon enough an indeterminate tonnage of ocean will overtake him and pound him like a piece of driftwood down into it. Just before that moment comes, the bodysurfer has this chamber all to himself--a brief solitude in which spiraling water and the hiss of briny exhaust enclose him--then, welcome worn out, he is lifted by a powerful hand and crushed into the turbulent disassembly of the wave.

Thus the heart of bodysurfing is grace under pressure. It is nonchalance in motion, a feigning of eternity in the fury of a moment.

All of which is to say that as I watched the waves build at 15th Street on this recent morning, I wondered dolefully if I was too fat to do it anymore. Too slow, too smoke-choked, too . . . old. It was a dreary possibility.

I drew a deep breath, sucked up my stomach and paraded my chest as I stripped down to my trunks. My two buddies did likewise: I can testify to the furtive, who's-in-better-shape? glances darting like hummingbirds between us. (For the record, the general condition of my body got only third place, but the relative fullness of my hair took a sweeping first!)

Squinting seaward, we made the knowing small-talk of veterans:

"Nice left."

"Watch the idiot miss it."


"Yep. What a goon."

"When's high tide?"

"Ten something"

"It'll blow out by 9."

"God, those waves are nice."

"Remember Briggs getting four spinners on that evening storm chop out here?"

"I'd drown now."


Memories flashed before me: Lineberger careening spider-armed down a monster at 17th Street; Jim Ray's fabled seven spinners all the way to shore; Fortner sucked over a towering wave for trying to escape too late, his orange Birdwells a semaphoric blur, his body, impossibly upright, pinioned like a fly in amber within the clear blue wall of water.

Some of the memories featured me: a particularly punishing dawn at 15th Street when I couldn't do anything wrong and everybody was there to watch; crashing heads with Martel in a contest (I got fifth); getting swept so far out in a rip that I could hardly see the end of the Newport Pier; watching from a wave top as my loyal dog peed boldly on a cross-legged Buddhist meditating ashore, then swam out to try to rescue me, his small black head and pink tongue visible only intermittently through the savagely angry sea. (I rescued him.)

"Check this left."

We swam out.

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