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Norman Ollestad

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Father's Day: Sole Survivor Of A Plane Crash At 11 Grows Up To Teach His Son To Face His Fears

Posted: 06/17/10 07:50 AM ET

On the first morning, our surf guide, Mick, anchored his dory a quarter mile off Carenero Island, one of many sprinkled like bushy green jigsaw pieces along the Caribbean coastline of Bocas Del Toro, Panama. My eight-year-old son, Noah, stood beside me, eying the turquoise waves peeling gently from their peak.

"Perfect," I said.

"But the reef will cut me," he said, pointing to the cinnamon-colored reef dappling the ocean like underwater clouds.

"No way. It's deep," I said. "You'll never even know the reef is there."

"But I can see it."

"Isn't it beautiful?"

"No, it's scary."

The past six months came rushing at me: Noah's poor grades, Noah getting bullied on the playground, being excluded from birthday parties. Noah sobbing "I'm stupid" and "I can't do anything right." He needed a shot of confidence, he needed to experience some ineffable beauty, he needed a good surf trip.

A three-footer crumbled toward us--an open, smiling face.

"Check out that great little wave," I said.

Ignoring me, Noah sat down on the floor of the boat and started an epic battle between a container of sunblock and a bar of wax. In my fantasy Noah was supposed to be primed and ready for this very moment--salivating over the waves like a golden retriever spotting a ball. There would be no need for me to apply force. As I described in my memoir Crazy for the Storm, my father and I used to have similar battles when I was a boy.

"I hate surfing," Noah griped right on cue.

My voice dropped several octaves and I pointed to the water.

"Get in or I'll throw you in."

Surfing is the best medicine--my father had instilled this principle in me when I was very young. He coerced me into all kinds of dangerous situations while surfing and skiing. Being pushed to confront my fears instead of spending fun-filled weekends playing at birthday parties made me furious. "When you're thirteen you'll thank me for making you surf," he would tell me. "You gotta have a place to go, a thing that can make you feel good."

At age eleven, I was in a plane crash with my father, his girlfriend, and the pilot of our chartered Cessna. We slammed into an 8,600-foot mountain, engulfed in a blizzard. By the end of the nine-hour ordeal, after clawing down steep, icy terrain, I was the only survivor. Without my father's tests of will and focus in the surf and snow, I wouldn't have made it. And over the years, surfing has given me a sliver of lucidity, a tilt in perspective, a transcendent buoyancy that to this day helps me navigate adversity.

"Paddle for this one," I urged.

Noah stroked hard and I gave him a push, but the wave slipped under his board. We turned around to see if another one was coming. Uh-oh, big set on the horizon. The first wave stood up and pitched before we could make it over. Noah got crushed, held under for ten long seconds, and I had to tow him to the surface by his armpit. "You have to get right back in the saddle," I whispered as sweetly as possible. He was too dazed to protest and I pushed him into a punchy little three footer. Once he made it to the shoulder of the wave, he kicked out and paddled straight for the boat. "Now I really hate surfing," he declared.

That afternoon, loud voices woke me from a nap. The shrieks drew me to our wooden B&B. Noah was fishing off our porch with three boys on each side of him, his towhead as conspicuous as a single scoop of vanilla ice cream in a bowl of dark chocolate. The local kids showed him how to wrap the line around a stick and bait the hook with a ball of flour paste. With the line dropping between his dangling feet, Noah jerked the string as a fish darted for the bait. Too early, but Noah was hooked.

"How about a quick surf," I suggested.

"I'm fishing with these guys," Noah said, opening a plastic bag full of six-to-eight-inch fish. "This is their dinner."

"Cool," I said. We didn't come here to fish, I grumbled to myself.

"That's Chambo," said Noah, pointing to the cherub-faced kid wearing tighty-whities who had just snagged a fish. "Well, that's his nickname because he likes to fight. It means 'boxer.'"

"How'd you figure that out?" I asked, knowing he didn't understand any Spanish.

Before I got an answer, the kids stood up and rushed down the length of the pier, yelling and laughing. Noah followed them, jumping into the crystal blue water.

For the next four days, Noah would only surf the "Mushbomb"--a gutless dribble of a wave. Constantly preoccupied, I'd asked Noah where his head was. "I want to get back and play with the guys," he'd say.

I thought the local kids would grow tired of their toilsome exchanges with Noah--the hand signals and the maddening misinterpretations--but every morning Chambo and company would emerge from their shanties ready to engage. Noah would teach them how to roam the Internet on our laptop, then he'd organize a fishing expedition via canoe to one of the reefs.

* * *

On our last night, as the sun dipped behind Carenero Island, Noah and I drank out of a coconut and watched the waves limp into the Mushbomb. Noah was tired from the multiple rides he got that day. We had paddled up the beach to a well-defined point wave and surfed for two hours--a miracle considering he had refused the same offer four days in a row. He never snagged the long reeler I had envisioned for him, never clocked enough surf time to reach the next level where I believed he'd tap his well of confidence. Had the whole trip been a waste of time? Should I have forced the issue like my father would have?

The ocean darkened with the sky to a royal blue, and in the fading light I thought back on those eight-hour fishing adventures Noah had orchestrated. He could have given up, or succumbed to the pressure to find his confidence the way I had--two generations of dogma weighing down on him. Instead, Noah carved out his own path, finding that transcendent shot of self-esteem I thought only possible from surfing.

"You're a great son, Noah," I said, kissing his sun-glazed cheek. "I always learn a lot from you."

His little head nodded and he pointed to a dark wave hitting the Mushbomb--the biggest and best we'd ever seen break there.

"Ah, man. I wish I was on it," he said.