When I was 8, my parents divorced and my mother married a man whose career took us from Washington to Melbourne Beach, a town on the “Space Coast” of Central Florida, where I learned to surf.
The ocean proved a refuge from the new, volatile atmosphere at home. Surfing became my everything, with all matters weighed on the scales of its rigors and ecstasies. The surfers of Melbourne Beach made up a kind of tribal family, one whose values might come as a surprise. There was a tradition of taking a job as soon as possible, for instance, typically as a busboy or carpenter’s assistant. The point was to have pocket money and financing for trips to surf destinations like Barbados and Costa Rica. But underlying these expediencies was a belief, transmitted to me by the older boys who were my idols, in the nobility of labor. Working with your hands and living close to the land — or in this case, the sea — were the cardinal virtues.
But this surf family broke up, too — my idols left for college or California or Hawaii. A friend was wheelchair-bound after falling from a scaffold. And when it came time to attend the university where my father taught, back in Washington, I quit surfing as if I were quitting a drug. I was afraid that it would fatally distract me from my studies, and I didn’t want to be an occasional surfer. If I couldn’t do it every day, couldn’t reasonably aspire to be one of the best, then I wouldn’t do it all. I had always assumed I would make the pilgrimage to Hawaii, the birthplace of modern surfing, but this was a dream I would have to relinquish.
So I plunged into a life of books and cities, bars and galleries, endless graduate school. Of my previous life, I rarely spoke. There were too many clichés about surfing and surfers to overcome.
Then unexpectedly, when I was in my mid-30s and living in New York City, I took up surfing again. And as though I never abandoned it, surfing set about saving me once more, this time from bad habits accrued in adulthood. I could now afford to take the trips I never managed to save enough for as a teenager — to Puerto Rico, Mexico and, ultimately, Hawaii, where my girlfriend, Juliana, and I went to be married.
Hawaii is somewhat emptily called the Mecca of surfing, but there is truth in the name. On my first morning there, I dropped to my knees in the coarse yellow sand and, under cover of waxing my board, let out a sob of joy mixed with regret at not having made the pilgrimage sooner. It hardly mattered that the waves were only two feet high. By midafternoon that same day, they were 20 feet and flawlessly shaped. The idle fantasies I’d entertained of riding such surf melted away before its sublime, terrifying actuality.
One day, when the waves had dropped back down to mortal size, I came in to find Juliana being chatted up by a guy who seemed drunk, though perhaps he had a speech impediment. We were in the parking lot of Hanalei Bay, Kauai’s premier spot.
“I think he said he’s from Melbourne Beach,” she whispered. He was waxing his board with awkward sweeps of his arm.
“You’re from Melbourne Beach?” I asked him. He nodded. “So am I,” I said. “What’s your name?” He said something I couldn’t quite understand. “Pardon?”
“Joe. . . . ” he managed, then, as if I were hard of hearing, “Finley!”
Joe Finley. I stared at him. In his weathered features I could make out the face I remembered. Joe was the one who fell from the scaffold at 16, never to walk again, much less surf. But here he was in Kauai, where he’d been living for the past 10 years, he said, collecting disability — and surfing. “Best physical therapy,” he told me with a grin. Passers-by called out greetings. He was clearly a fixture, well known and well liked. He invited us to his house and pulled on a white helmet, suggesting with a wry smile that I wear one myself. He then walked disjointedly down the beach.
We watched as he paddled out and, some time later, caught a wave. He had been such a graceful surfer when I knew him. Now he didn’t manage to get to his feet until he reached the bottom. He looked like a newborn foal struggling to rise. But he was doing it, the thing they said he’d never do again.