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Surfing Lee Street Beach

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Every night when I turn off the light, I conjure up an image: a summer's day in Satellite Beach, Florida, the surf three to four feet, a slight offshore breeze, I wheel my board around to paddle into a wave. Two strokes at precisely the right time as the wave tilts the board up onto its face, and in a move as practiced as a blink, I'm up and riding liquid energy. The sky blue, the water cool, the sun hot, my friends and I the only ones out, an endless wave with promises of nose rides or little tubes, and I fall into a deep sleep.

Every night.

Such is the power of memory, the pull of the ocean a thousand miles away, and that part of me that has never really left it. The pure joy of surfing. Even typing 'surfing' brings a smile and the taste of salt.

I'm just back from a bike ride in 31 degree weather along Evanston's lakefront. Just north of Lee Street Beach, two guys in full wetsuits, out surfing in tiny surf. I watched for a while as they paddled for waves without success. Ability counts, of course, in an aesthetic sense, but more importantly, surfers are divided into those who will go out in anything and those that won't. In surfing, as in bull fighting, there seem to be only two types of participants. Matadors are either insanely brave or absolute cowards. The insanely brave make your heart do something strange as they lean into the bull as it passes beneath the cape. The cowards, perhaps having experienced the horn, accept the derision of the crowd and collect their checks.

Learning to surf I became one of those who would go out in anything. Small days, big days, days when a northeaster would blow so hard that if you did make it paddling out through 10 foot waves, you were a mile down the beach by the time you caught your first one ... or to be more precise, for those extreme conditions, when the wave caught you.

Watching the two Evanston surfers reminded me of when I went surfing on an equally cold day, but without a wetsuit. I couldn't afford one. Ten cars were parked at Sea Park, filled with surfers looking at perfect waves, engines on, heaters full blast, but only five of us grabbed boards and ran yelling into the ocean. I can remember not being able to feel my toes or my chest on the board, but I also remember the horns of the cars blasting in salute as we paddled out.

I have two surfboards in my basement. One was made for the movie Big Wednesday. It was sent to me by the legendary Frank Casey of Warner Bros. direct from the set because, well, he was Frank Casey, and he did things like that all of the time. The movie, by John Milius, was a love poem on long board surfing in the mid sixties. A group of friends, coming of age, and a big surf day that separated those that would go out in anything from those who would not. Not realizing the board's value, I surfed it for years. Young boys would notice the logo and ask me if I was the mythological 'Big Bear' from the movie.

Writing this I am reminded also of the final soliloquy by Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, when he, dying, tells of the things he has seen: starships exploding amid the galaxies, things most will never see. Surfing is like that. If you come to love it you spend all of your time in the ocean. And, the ocean provides 'starships exploding in distant galaxies' all of the time:

Seeing the rising sun through the clear wall of a glassy wave as it tubes over you early in the morning. The whoosh and smack of an enormous manta ray as it leaps out of the water three feet away as you sit on your board in the lineup. The annual blue fish run as millions ruffle the water from shore to horizon, north and south and barracuda make speedboat runs feeding on them. A manatee and her calf popping up next to your board seeming to contemplate the late afternoon's strong colors with you. Paddling down the face of a big wave into a hard offshore wind that hollows the wave out like a pipe but not catching it. Then as you pull out and back, the wave breaks five yards further, and you are drenched by the breaking crest blown up and back by the wind turning it into a rainsquall and the sunlight creates a hundred rainbows in the drops...just for you.

I've told surfing stories to landlocked friends for years. One, perhaps influenced by the stories, went to a surf camp to see what it was all about. Returning after a week, body battered (learning to surf is hard), but spirit high. Changed forever. A surfer.

The two guys looked cold. God knows they were cold. The waves were crap. No warm sun. A pale, late November disk that provided light but no heat. Lake Michigan with no bluefish nor manta rays, but they were out. They were surfing.