I wake up early so I can hit the beach at high tide. It's the middle of January on the Oregon coast, rainy and cold, but I don't care. I'm happy as I tug on my wetsuit. Twenty minutes later, I'm out in the Pacific Ocean, jumping over the incoming waves on my bodyboard. The light rain has turned to sleet, but I don't feel cold. I look back at the beach and the jetties, then out toward where the bigger waves are breaking, and I paddle out that way.
I had surfed when I was a kid, back in New Jersey. Yes, there's surfing in New Jersey, even if the waves are not particularly gnarly. I loved being in the ocean. My family had been spending summers on Long Beach Island as long as I could remember. Eventually we bought a little cottage. I think my father had dreams of retiring there, but he died before that could happen. In any case, I always thought summer was the best time of the year; it was my release from the dreariness of Philadelphia and what I considered to be my gray life. Summer was bright and yellow; it was when I was alive, when I was full of juice, when I was in the ocean for hours every day.
At first, it was body surfing, which is a pretty exciting thing to do, if you know how to do it right. I was a good body surfer, knew just when to dive ahead of the wave to catch the best ride. It was always thrilling to go rocketing into shore at what felt like a hundred miles an hour. You have to hold your position to get the best and longest ride, hands pointed out in front, body solid, and not lose your position even when the wave crashes onto the beach.
If you're riding it right, your body slides smoothly on to the wet sand, without even a scratch, but if you lose your form, or try to bail, the wave will crack you down onto the beach, twisted and scratched. But what the hell, getting hurt was not a big deal. When I wiped out, I'd pick myself up and run back into the surf, looking for the next big wave. I could, and often did, body surf all day long.
Surfboards didn't come around till the early '60s (at least in New Jersey), and I wasn't on board right away, because there was an investment to be made and a surfboard didn't come cheaply. Mom and Dad did not approve of me wasting my money from summer jobs, money that I was supposed to be saving for college. I could have told them that I'd rather be a surfer than a college student, but that was not the kind of statement that would have proved beneficial to my health or well being. If you were a Jewish boy, you went to college. Especially if your father was a doctor and had big hopes for you.
Still I managed to do some surfing on borrowed boards, but not enough to get really good at it, and at the end of the summer of 1962, I went off to college in Ohio, nowhere near an ocean, and didn't much think of becoming a surfer again. I mean, that's the way it is. You're either gonna follow the waves, or follow the rules.
I never did fulfill my family wishes for me. Was not a diligent college student. Probably missed more classes than I attended, and was in no way qualified to apply for medical school when I graduated, which was when my father pretty much gave up on me. Or maybe that happened earlier, when I told them I was going to change my major to English. "And do what?" Dad asked.
"I don't know," I mumbled. "Teach maybe? Write?"
Dad snorted and held his newspaper up in front of his face, which is what he always did when he was through with a conversation. After that, I hardly even went down the Shore anymore. Forgot about surfing. Eventually moved away to the West Coast, to Seattle. I still loved the ocean, though the waters in Puget Sound and off the Washington Coast were always frigid, even in the summertime. All you could do was hold your breath and plunge in, then rush out before you developed hypothermia. Even body surfing was out of the question; the waves were just too unpredictable, the beach too rocky. And, anyway, I was raising a family by then, holding down a teaching job, struggling with an unhappy marriage. Being an adult. Feeling way older than my years.
Many years passed. Many. Damn it all. And somehow, I never did get back to surfing. Even though we were now living in Oregon and the Oregon coast had a thriving surfer community, but I was playing it safe. Or maybe that's just another way to say I was scared. But scared of what? It wasn't the ocean or the waves I feared, or even the cold. I knew about wet suits, and I wanted to go, would spend hours at a time some days watching the surfers out on the waves in Seaside. Maybe I was scared I wouldn't be able to cut it anymore, that I would look foolish and fall. Or that the real surfers would think I was too old to be on a board. Or maybe I was scared that my knees were too creaky now to get up.
Yeah, all those things were going on, but what was really holding me back was the unshakeable, though deeply submerged, feeling that I didn't deserve to enjoy myself. That surfing was self-indulgent, and that at my age (40ish!), I had to be serious, dignified. You never would have caught my father out surfing. Even after Dad passed away I still felt his eyes and his judgment on me. I still needed to please him. And how about this for a reason I didn't go surfing all those years? I was a dumbass. And I can't blame that on anybody but myself.
But even dumbasses sometimes get a chance at redemption. This past August, on my 70th birthday, I rented a wetsuit and a long board and went surfing—for the first time in 50 years. And I loved it. All the old excitement was there; the adrenalin coursed through my veins, the best drug in the world.
Of course, I fell that day way more than I got up, and probably the other surfers looked at me with a mixture of amusement and disdain, but I didn't ever think about it; I was way too busy for that. It was only after I became so exhausted that I coud no longer make another attempt and reluctantly paddled back to shore to my waiting wife and grown daughter, who were cheering me on, that I was able to think about what had just happened in my life.
Yes, I'd spent a few hours in the ocean, felt pleasantly worn out, and pleased with myself; but there was something more going on. Something had shifted. I knew right away that I would keep on surfing now—one way or another—but also that I had finally reached a place where it was OK to do the kind of things I wanted to do. Age and seriousness of purpose were no longer acceptable excuses.
Over the next few months, I came to realize that for me, surfing could be an integral part of my life, and a metaphor that might keep me going for longer than I would have otherwise. I now live at the Coast, and the first thing I do each morning is go out on our deck and check out the waves. If the surf looks promising, I quickly get on my wetsuit and go. Sometimes, my wife Beverly comes with me. She worries about me, I know, but she still smiles and tells me to have a good time as she goes for a long walk on the beach while I play.
She and I both know that what I'm doing is not safe. There are rip tides that could quickly pull me far away from shore. Most days there is no one around who I could even wave to. And I've wiped out plenty, sometimes slammed down so hard that I come up without any idea where the shoreline is and hoping my board won't come back and smack me in the head. The other day a surfer was attacked by a shark not far from my favorite spot. Still, I tell Bev not to worry. If I'm going to go, this is how I want to do it.
Surfing (or since my knees exploded, bodyboarding) has become for me a touchstone for my later years. Being in the ocean, riding a hard breaking wave, is my reminder to let go, relax. There is nothing but right now, right here. Present tense, baby. Once again, I am a happy boy.