Prologue: Ventura California, Easter Sunday, 1973
The garbage cans spilled over at the Ventura State Beach after a warm and busy Easter weekend. Now, with the sun below the western horizon and no moon out yet, it was getting too dark to see. Cricket’s gunnysack was heavy with treasure and his stomach full. He’d eaten a charred hamburger patty and a half tub of potato salad. In a soggy egg carton he’d found a hard-boiled egg dyed blue which he placed in his pocket for later. Among his treasures was a torn volleyball net, two left-footed sandals, a broken transistor radio and half a bag of charcoal. He flung the gunnysack over his shoulder, felt his pocket for the egg and walked over the dune to the hard-packed sand by the water. He headed north toward the lights of the Pier a half-mile away.
A mist hung over the darkened shoreline and the waves crashed louder than usual. Ahead Cricket saw something white washed ashore. He walked closer and saw the white was the deck of a surfboard. He scanned the ocean, but could only see faint rows of white water rolling in. This wasn’t a surfer’s beach; he knew where the surfers went. He picked up the surfboard and continued north, over the jetties, under the Pier, around the point to the dry river bottom at the edge of town known as Hobo Jungle.
“I know what I want to be when I grow up,” nine-year-old Lance Stratton announced at the dinner table. He’d spent the whole day turning it over in his mind, it was the perfect job. The puzzling thing was why everybody didn’t do it?
His dad smiled. “Well, what could it be this time?”
“I know,” his older sister Ann said. “A hobo.”
“Ha,” his oldest sister Jean cried, “then what would he be for Halloween every year?”
Lance sat up straight and cleared his throat. “Joke around all you want, I’m gonna be a playboy.”
His dad choked and his sisters erupted in laughter.
“A playboy?” his mom gasped.
Jean pointed at him laughing. “Do you even know what that is?”
He’d imagined a playboy was someone who drove a fancy car and played sports. “I don’t know, I heard mom say Joe Namath was one.”
The laughter grew.
Lance sunk in his chair.
“That’s enough teasing,” his mom said. “Who wants pie?”
After dessert Lance went to his room to reevaluate. His mom had recently decorated his room red, white and blue and it still smelled of fresh paint. He fell back on his bed and looked at the new framed pictures on the wall. One was a portrait of his dad in a marine uniform from World War II. He looked young and serious. Another was a group photo of his dad with three hundred other marines aboard the U.S.S. Grimes, the ship that would deliver them to Iwo Jima.
Above the dresser was his dad’s Purple Heart. It was pinned to lavender felt and hung in a gold frame. His dad had cool war scars. There were two on his right side where a bullet had gone in and come out, and a big one on his upper left arm where his triceps used to be.
Lance had thought about being a soldier, but it wasn’t the same now as it was then, Vietnam wasn’t a good war like World War II.
Outside a train whistle blew and Lance could feel the house begin to tremble. Ann was right, he did think about being a hobo. He liked to imagine himself sitting on a log in a creek bed, under a railroad trestle, heating a can of beans over a small fire and eating them with a stick. But that wasn’t something he could talk about with his mom and dad. Whenever they drove across the Main Street Bridge over the Ventura River his dad would say, “That’s a hobo jungle down there, they’ll kill you for your shoes.”
The river bottom didn’t look like a jungle. It was just a dry riverbed with a bunch of bushes growing in it. The train whistle sounded again and Lance put his hand on the wall to feel the vibration. Above his hand were pictures he and his mom had framed from Life Magazine. One was of Gemini Astronaut Ed White in his silver space suit floating outside the space capsule, only a thin cord preventing him from drifting off into space.
Another picture was of a surfer riding a big wave in Hawaii. The guy stood tall on a red surfboard, white foam exploding behind him as he slid across the blue wave.
Lance tried to imagine what it would be like to be an astronaut going into space, or a surfer riding a big wave. The two images filled his imagination with adventure and intrigue. He decided to do some research.
* * * *
The next morning Lance approached his mom in the kitchen.
“Mom, what do you have to do to be an astronaut?”
She smiled as she stirred pancake batter. “Well, I think you’d need to join the Air Force and work real hard to become a pilot. Then, if you’re a really good pilot they’ll give you some physical and psychological tests, and if you’re the best at those they might select you to be an astronaut.”
“Hmm…that sounds pretty hard. I think I’m gonna be a surfer.”
She smiled, then her face grew stern. “For that you’ll need to be a strong swimmer, that means swimming lessons. And you’ll have to earn money to buy a surfboard.” She put a square of butter on the griddle. “I was already planning on signing you and Ann up for swimming lessons this summer.”
His mom liked to say she had salt water in her veins. She’d grown up near the beach between the Venice and Santa Monica Piers in the 1930s and 1940s. That was during the Great Depression era. She said because she was raised on the beach she never felt poor. As a teenager she belonged to a paddleboard club and would watch the early surfers riding waves on redwood planks. She spoke of them as if they were gladiators. When she reminisced of those days Lance thought he could feel the warmth of sun and sand emanate from her.
* * *
When they went to the beach that summer Lance would watch the surfers and chase after their loose boards when they washed in. If there was time he’d lie down and try to paddle.
After summer vacation Lance went back to school and played football and baseball with his friends. He added posters of Joe Namath and Wilt Chamberlain to the walls in his room. He asked his friends, Nicky and Martin, if they ever thought about being surfers.
“Sure, I guess so,” they said.
Lance was certain they’d get more excited about surfing when he actually got a surfboard.
THE SURF SHOP 1972
At age thirteen, after completing his Junior Lifeguard training, Lance’s mom bought him a copy of Surfer magazine. He studied every wave on every page and imagined himself as those surfers. He read the interview with Jeff Hakman, who told the story of how he’d learned to surf. It was as if the magazine was speaking directly to him. There was an article on how to surf new spots and it explained the difference between beach breaks, point breaks and reef breaks. Even the advertisements taught him the latest in surfboard design and wetsuit style.
Soon the posters of Joe Namath and Wilt Chamberlain were replaced by posters of Owl Chapman and Rory Russell. For Christmas Lance got a Makaha skateboard and rode it in endless figure eights on the cement patio, pretending every turn was on a wave.
Finally, on a Sunday afternoon in spring, Lance rode his bike to the end of Channel Drive, crossed over the railroad tracks and stood at the edge of the bluff in front of the lemon factory. There he looked out over Pierpont Bay. He could see north to the Ventura River and south to the Marina–three miles of coastline. He slipped his hand into his pocket and felt the wad of money–thirty-seven dollars, twenty-eight of which he earned mowing lawns and the other nine he’d skimmed from his school lunch money.
Lance had only been by the Surf Shop once, about a year ago, when out for a Sunday drive his dad slowed down and his mom said, “Look Lance, there’s the Surf Shop.”
Out the car window he saw an old wooden building at the end of an industrial street that ended at the railroad tracks, the paint was peeling and the whole place seemed to lean to the right. There were no windows, only five wooden steps leading to a glass door. Above the door was a plywood sign cut in the shape of a surfboard, it read: Surf Shop. It was the coolest place he’d ever seen.
“Now that looks like a fine establishment,” his dad chuckled, then turned right on Ash Street.
Lance turned around in his seat to look out the back window. Behind the shop he could see a fishing boat sitting on blocks, and across the railroad tracks was a pedestrian bridge arcing over the 101 freeway to the Ventura Pier.
Now, standing on the bluff at the lemon factory Lance could see the Pier two miles north extending into the Pacific Ocean. He took a breath of salt air tinged with lemon and pedaled along the bluff called Vista Del Mar. The street was lined on one side with ocean view homes and the other with eucalyptus trees that partitioned the homes from the railroad tracks. It was a mile down Vista Del Mar to Harbor Boulevard; there he continued to the Pier, across the pedestrian bridge to the Surf Shop.
He saw the fishing boat was still there on blocks, and the building had a fresh coat of brown paint. Several cars with surf racks were parked out front. He hoped it would be busy inside so he could slip in unnoticed and casually browse the used surfboards. He locked his bike to the railing on the wooden steps. The clang of his chain woke a large German shepherd sleeping on the landing. The dog opened its yellow eyes and closed them again. Lance climbed the stairs, stepped around the big dog. He pushed the door open and heard a round of laughter.
Lance stepped inside and the laughter quickly died. His eyes adjusted to the dim interior and he saw a large circle of guys sitting on the floor, all looking at him.
A guy sitting in a hanging basket chair smiled. “Can I help you find something?” The guy had shoulder length blonde hair and a fu manchu mustache.
Lance swallowed. “Do you have any used surfboards?” He heard snickering.
“Yeah, back in the corner.” Fu Manchu pointed his thumb over his shoulder.
Lance looked for a place to step, two guys parted. He carefully passed through the circle.
“Don’t trip, man,” someone said, followed by more snickering.
Lance headed for the safety of the used board area. It was partitioned off by a wall of new surfboards standing in a wooden rack. The floor in the used board area was covered in bark dust and his canvas deck shoes sank into the mulch. The conversation out front started up again and Lance inspected the three rows of used surfboards.
There were longboards, short boards, skinny boards, wide boards of all colors, even psychedelic. One board looked like a needle, long and narrow and pointed at both ends. Lance walked the aisles touching each surfboard. They were all marked on the outside rail with a white sticker and a hand written price. A nice looking white board was sixty dollars, an okay yellow one was forty-five and a beat-up green board was marked at twenty-two.
The place smelled of laminating resin and Lance liked the aroma. He inhaled deep and dug his fingernails into the wax on the green board’s deck. He rolled the wax into his palm and formed it into a ball. Suddenly the voices out front got much louder and the guys were talking over each other.
“Did you see how long he was in that tube?”
“I think they sped up the film on B.K.”
“That wipeout sequence was far out.”
“It was that splinter he was riding, the dude just surfs fast.”
“Did you see how many chicks were there?”
Lance knew they were talking about the surf movie that had played at the Women’s Center last night. He’d almost gotten to go. His sister Jean promised to take him, but at the last minute some guy named Alan asked her to go.
Lance squished the ball of wax flat and peeked through the partition of surfboards and listened.
“Did anybody see Harmony last night in that halter top?” asked a frizzy blonde guy.
Cat calls and laughter rose up.
“Didn’t McGillis take her out?”
“Yeah, he took her to the Trade Winds and spent thirty bucks on dinner and didn’t even kiss her.”
“Man, don’t let him hear you say that. Anybody see him kick that guy’s ass at the Pipe last week?”
“I did,” said a freckled guy. “Some souther from L.A. cuts him off and McGillis pulls the dude’s board out from under him and surfs in with it. He takes the guys board and throws it on the rocks, then he picks it up and throws it again.”
“That souther came in wanting to kill him,” said the frizzy guy. “But McGillis picks up a rock and throws it at the guy’s foot then punches him in the face. It was classic.”
Cheers and laughter broke out.
“Yeah man, we need more stuff like that happenin’ around here, seems like there’s more southers in the water everyday. I say we start slashing tires and breaking windows, make ‘em think twice about coming up here.”
“That’s the kind of crap that needs to stop,” Fu Manchu said quieting the room. “Fight on the beach all you want, but vandalizing and stealing is where I draw the line.”
“Ha, Dennis, you just want more southers surfing up here so you’ll get more business,” said Frizzy Hair.
Dennis ran his fingers over his mustache. “Look man, I don’t want crowded waves any more than you do, but you can’t just randomly attack guys’ cars.”
Frizzy Hair shook his head. “I say whatever it takes to get ‘em to surf somewhere else.”
The room erupted in debate. Lance never imagined there was hostility and violence among surfers.
“It’s the younger kids that need to step up,” somebody said. “They’re the ones that should be doing this stuff. The Rats need to pay their dues.”
“That’s great,” Dennis said, “turn the kids into criminals–”
“More like pirates, you know, protecting their treasure. Plus they’re minors, they can’t get in trouble.”
Dennis called out, “How you doing back there?”
Lance saw heads turn his direction. He ducked back and yelped, “I’m fine.” Near the end of the aisle he noticed a red board that looked cool. The deck was solid red and the bottom was orange and yellow like flames. He pulled it out of the rack and another board came with it. He caught the other board before it fell but the two surfboards clunked together.
“You break it, you buy it,” someone said. Everyone laughed.
“Everything okay?” Dennis asked.
“Yeah, it’s fine.” He put the board back and looked at the red one. He liked it. He imagined the flames on the bottom flashing as he cranked a bottom turn. He looked at the sticker; forty bucks, crap. He put the board back and continued pacing the three aisles wishing the damn pow wow would end.
Finally someone said, “Well, I gotta get going.”
“Yeah man, me too.”
Lance peeked out. They were getting up.
“Later man, peace.”
“See you in the water.”
A raspy voice spoke up. “Hey, has anybody heard anything more about the body that washed up at the Pipe?”
“They think it was a bum that washed out of hobo jungle with the rain last week.”
“I heard his skull was cracked,” Dennis said.
Lance thought about what his dad always said about hobo jungle.
“Did they find who did it?”
“I doubt they investigated a dead hobo.”
Lance saw Dennis coming his way and put his hand on the nose of the nearest board as if sizing it up.
“See anything you like?”
Lance squished the ball of wax in his hand and pointed to the red board. “Uh, I kind of like that one.”
“Oh yeah?” Dennis pulled it from the rack. “This is a good board, you just starting?”
“Yeah, I’m not sure what I’m looking for, I just like the looks of that one.”
Dennis smiled. “Well, you wanna like looking at it, you’ll probably spend more time with it than your girlfriend.”
Lance flushed. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Yeah, you’re probably a little young for that. How old are you?”
“Great age to start.” Dennis placed the nose of the board on the ground and held the tail close to his face. He closed one eye and lifted and lowered the tail like a golfer eyeing a green.
“Was that a club meeting you guys were having?”
Dennis laughed. “No, just a rap session, it happens a lot.” He turned the board on its side and eyeballed the rail. “Rails are soft, it’ll be easy to turn. I think this would be a good first board. A little hard to catch waves on at first, but you’ll get used to it.”
“Cool…but, I can’t get it today, I’ve only got thirty-seven dollars.”
Dennis looked at the sticker and raised an eyebrow. “Hmmm, forty bucks?” He looked at Lance. “And you have thirty-seven…” He opened his mouth and smoothed his mustache. “I think I can do that.”
Lance wasn’t sure he heard right. “Wow, really?”
Dennis tapped him on the shoulder. “We gotta get you in the water. I’ll throw in a couple bars of wax too. Do you have a wetsuit?”
Lance shook his head.
“Well, you don’t need to worry about that now, you’re young, a little cold water won’t hurt you.”
Lance sucked in the resin soaked air. He was getting his first surfboard.
Dennis smiled. “It’s a special day, you only get your first surfboard once.”
Lance handed him the thirty-seven dollars and with a bar of wax in each back pocket he carried his red surfboard down the steps for the bike ride home.
It was awkward riding at first, but once he got going it wasn’t bad. After a few blocks he had to stop and switch arms, then again a few blocks later. It was a lot harder than he thought it would be, but he felt like the luckiest kid in the world.
Nicky slid his lunch tray onto a table in the cafeteria. “I can’t believe you spent thirty-seven bucks on a surfboard. When you ever gonna a use it?”
Lance put his tray down across from his friend. “I’m gonna use it today, I’m gonna use it every day.”
Marty sat down next to Nicky. “I’m saving my money for a mini-bike.”
“I thought you guys wanted to learn to surf too.”
“No way, I’m not shiverin’ my balls off just to get water on the brain,” Nicky said. “I’m stickin’ to throwin’ touchdowns.”
Lance cut into his macaroni casserole. “You can surf and still play football. I’m going to.”
* * * *
After school Lance didn’t wait around for his friends at the bike racks like usual. He raced home, grabbed some food and his surfboard and pedaled down to Schoolhouse jetty. Schoolhouse was one of the seven rock jetties spaced twelve hundred feet apart between the Pier and the Marina. It was the second closest to the Marina and was located in front of Pierpont Elementary School. It was also the beach his parents took them to most often and he figured it was as good a place as any to learn.
It was early May and the afternoon wind was cool. Lance had his swim trunks on under his corduroy pants. He decided it would be warmer to just leave the cords on. There were a handful of surfers on the south side of the jetty, so he kept to the north side to give himself room to practice.
As he waded into the cold water his cords became clingy and heavy. He laid on the wobbly board and tried to paddle. A whitewater slapped him in the face and took the board out from under him. He scrambled after it and waded back out to waist deep water. When a two-foot wave broke in front of him he turned and dove onto his belly. The board was fast, much faster than the cheap Styrofoam Waveriders he used as a kid.
He waded back out, this time he’d stand up. He caught another whitewater and struggled to get to his knees. Shivering and weighed down by his pants he groaned. He knew he wouldn’t stand up today. He forced himself out to catch one more wave then went in.
Teeth chattering and wet cords clinging to his legs he climbed onto his bike and headed home. Lesson one, Never wear pants in the water.
* * * *
“Man, what’s the matter with you?” Marty asked. “It’s been two weeks since you played football.”
The plan had always been for Lance, Nicky and Martin to play football together at Ventura High, but now Lance hadn’t shown up at the football field since he’d gotten his surfboard.
“I wanna learn to surf right now. I’ll play football again, just give me some time.”
“I was right, he’s gettin’ salt water on the brain,” Nicky said.
Lance endured the last few weeks of eighth grade and accepted the growing distance between him and his friends. He stopped eating lunch with them, preferring to sneak up to Cemetery Park and eat where he could see the waves breaking at the Point.
On the last day of school they got out early to sign yearbooks. Lance made his way around the huddles of students to get to the bike racks. He saw Nicky and Martin standing amongst a group. Nicky shouted, “Hey Lance, surf’s up.” He mocked standing on a surfboard and the others laughed. Lance smiled and waved. He was free.
* * * *
From the first day of summer Lance slept in his surf trunks. He’d wake up early, eat breakfast, pack a lunch, stuff it into his backpack with a towel and canteen, tuck his board under his arm and bike to Schoolhouse. He’d surf all day, come home, eat dinner, play records in his room, read Surfer magazine and fall asleep in his trunks again. Showers and underwear were no longer necessary.
“You can’t sleep in your trunks every night,” his mom said. “And when was the last time you showered?”
“I wash every day in the ocean.”
“You need to rinse the salt off.”
“Why? I’m just gonna get salty again.”
Lance practiced standing up on his red surfboard in the whitewater until he could do it almost every time. The next step was paddling into a swell. He spent hours sitting on his board, waiting, teeth chattering. It was all about reading the waves, timing and position, but most important was staying out of the way of the other surfers. Every day they called him “kook,” short for pain-in-the-ass beginner.
“What are you doing out here, kook?”
“Out of the way, kook.”
“Why don’t you move down the beach, kook.”
Just catching a wave was hard, let alone trying to stand up and not pearl (nose-dive). How was he supposed to concentrate on that and keep tabs on what everybody else was doing?
He kept to himself and avoided eye contact. After a few weeks the other guys seemed to tolerate him as long as he stayed out of the way.
On July 4th Lance turned fourteen. His mom made him a cake with a surfer on it. He got a clock radio, a subscription to Surfer magazine and twenty bucks to buy a wetsuit.
That night he and his sister Ann sat on a towel on the roof of the house and watched fireworks. Ann was two years older, they had been close as kids, but now they seemed worlds apart. She was a cheerleader at the high school and had tons of friends. He was a loner trying to learn how to surf while getting heckled at the beach every day. The evening was warm and after a cluster of fireworks Ann asked, “What happened to your friends?”
“What do you mean?”
“I never see you with Martin or Nicky anymore.”
Lance leaned back on his elbows. “I started surfing.”
“So, you’re not friends because they don’t surf?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
The sky lit up with another flurry of fireworks.
Ann turned to him again. “What about at the beach?”
“What about it?”
“Do you have any friends there?”
“What do you care?” He sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees. “I go there to surf, not to make friends.”
“I was just wondering.” A single firework sparkled across the sky followed by a delayed boom. “I thought if you didn’t have anybody to hang out with at the beach, maybe I could go with you sometimes.”
He studied her face to make sure she was serious. “You want to come to the beach with me?”
“Sure, I get bored laying out in the backyard. It’d be fun to go the beach and watch you surf.”
He smiled. “I’m in the water almost all day you know.”
“Lance, I’ll be in the sun with a book. You don’t have to worry about me.”
From the moment Ann started coming to the beach things were different. Guys who’d never given him the time of day suddenly nodded like they knew him. They asked him how it was going and started giving him pointers.
“Don’t go to your knees first, jump straight to your feet.”
“Work on your paddling, the stronger you paddle the more waves you’ll catch.”
He knew they were trying to position themselves closer to Ann, but she seemed to like the attention and he was finally accepted.
One morning at home Lance ran into his older sister Jean in the hallway waiting for the bathroom. “Hey Lance,” she said. “I was at the Pier yesterday and there’s a whole bunch of surfers about your age there. Christine’s boyfriend calls them Pier Rats. I bet you could make some friends there.” Jean was eighteen and worked at a hip clothing store called Calamity Jane. She was ultra cool and sort of a fashion maven. She convinced their mom to buy him a pair of bell-bottom pants in third grade. He got teased at first, but by fourth grade everybody was wearing them.
“I can’t just go to the Pier,” Lance said.
“Why not, it’s just a beach.” She pounded on the bathroom door. “Ann, what are you doing in there!”
“It’s not just a beach it’s a surf spot, there’s rules.”
The Pier was the closest thing Ventura had to a tourist attraction. It was the oldest and longest fishing pier on the West Coast and had a snack bar and bait shop. As a kid Lance loved to walk out on the Pier to see what the fishermen were catching. He and Ann would get nervous walking over the wide gaps in the planks where you could see the water below.
He knew if he tried surfing the Pier he’d be back at the bottom of the barrel getting heckled.
A week later when the waves were small and Ann hadn’t come with him to the beach, Lance decided to bike to the Pier and check it out. The distance was almost twice as far from home as Schoolhouse and he remembered how hard it was carrying his board home from the Surf Shop. But now he made it all the way there without having to switch arms.
He rode onto the Pier and looked out over the beach. The white sand was covered with colorful towels and umbrellas. He smelled hamburgers and french fries cooking in the snack bar. He stopped and put his foot on the railing. Kids were drinking soda pops and licking ice cream cones. Seagulls squawked and children laughed. There were girls in bikinis and kids building sandcastles. It was like an amusement park compared to Schoolhouse.
In the water there were five or six guys getting perfectly rideable waist high waves, even in the windy conditions. On the beach five surfboards stood like totems in the sand directly in line with the surf peak. Lance crossed to the north side of the Pier where the wind blew in his face. About fifteen guys were surfing the Point. He thought how cool it would be to surf the Pier, eat a hamburger, then walk up the beach and surf the Point. He rode back to Schoolhouse knowing someday the Pier and the Point would be his territory too.
* * * *
By the end of summer Lance was an accepted local at the jetties, an official Jetty Jerk. But still, none of the Jerks was a real friend. When school started he put on socks and shoes and long pants for the first time in almost three months. He roamed the halls of Cabrillo Junior High only thinking of the waves he was missing. He felt like an alien with nothing in common with the other kids.
He went to class and drew waves on his Pee Chee folder waiting for the next bell to ring. What did math and English have to do with dropping in and bottom turns? He had so much to learn about surfing. Surfing was his future, not school. He daydreamed of tropical beaches where the waves were always good and he could snorkel for food and live in a grass shack on the beach. He created that scene over and over on the backs of the zillions of handouts the teachers gave him.
When he saw Nicky and Martin talking with some classmates he nodded and smiled. They nodded and turned away. That first week was tough.
At the end of school on Friday Lance hurried to the bike racks excited for the weekend. He saw a kid there he recognized from the year before–Pee Wee, but he’d changed. Lance noticed Pee Wee’s hair was longer and sun-bleached, just like his. His face sunburned and blistered, just like his. They approached each other and Pee Wee said, “You surf now?”
“Yeah, started this summer.”
“Me too. You’re Pee Wee, right?”
“Used to be, now they call me Sandcrab. You’re Lance, right?”
“Yeah, still Lance. Where do you surf?”
“The Pier. How ‘bout you?”
Lance’s heart raced. “Schoolhouse.”
“Cool, I’ve never surfed the jetties before.”
“You want to?”
“I’m gettin’ my board and going down there now, you want to meet me?”
“Is it cool?”
“Yeah, I know everybody there. You know where Surf Liquor is on Pierpont?”
“Sure,” Sandcrab said. “I can be there in half an hour.”
Lance smiled. “That’s fast, I’ll see you there.”
Lance rode his bike on a little cement wave outside of Surf Liquor. “I beat you,” he said as Sandcrab coasted up.
“I ate a banana and jammed down as fast as I could.”
They pedaled down Pierpont Boulevard and cut down the lane to Schoolhouse Jetty. Sandcrab asked, “Are you goofy foot or regular?”
Lance wasn’t sure, he knew he faced the wave when he went right, but wasn’t sure which was which. “I don’t know.”
Sandcrab laughed. “Do you surf with your left foot forward or your right?”
“Then you’re regular foot, like me. It’s got nothing to do with whether you’re left handed or right. There’s twins that surf the Pier and they’re both right handed, but one’s a goofy foot and the other one’s regular.”
They locked their bikes to the railing where the street met the sand.
“Nobody’s out yet, we have it all to ourselves,” Lance said.
Sandcrab shielded his eyes and looked at the water. “Tide’s going out, will it get better?”
Lance thought for a moment, he’d never been asked about the moods of the waves before. “Uh, it’s mushier at high tide…and more peaky. It gets faster and hollower as the tide goes out, but it walls up more. Looks like high tide was about an hour ago, so yeah, it should be getting better.”
They walked across the sand to the jetty and climbed over the rocks to the south side and got out their wetsuits.
Lance had a beavertail jacket he’d bought from a Schoolhouse local with the twenty bucks his parents gave him for his birthday. The guy had told him it was more important to keep his upper body covered, not only to protect against the cold water, but also the wind chill. The jacket zipped up the front and had a wide flat tail like a beaver’s that hung in the back. The tail was meant to come up around the crotch and snap in the front, but the guy warned him, “Only dorks do that.”
Sandcrab had a simple pullover wetsuit top called sleeves. It had no zipper and required the skill of Houdini to get on and off. He got his head and arms in, but Lance had to help him pull down the bundle of rubber around his chest.
Lance thought he’d add a little adventure to Sandcrab’s first experience surfing Schoolhouse. “You wanna try jumpin’ in off the jetty? We can paddle straight into the lineup without even getting our hair wet.”
“Sure, I guess, whatever you think.”
Lance led the way up the rocks. He skipped out boulder to boulder over the water sending sunning purple crabs scuttling for crevices. He stopped a little beyond the breaking waves. “This is good.”
Sandcrab looked down at the barnacle-covered rocks at water level. “You sure this is safe?”
“Yeah, it’s easy.”
Lance climbed down and stood on a rock just above the water line. He waited for a swell to pass, then jumped down to the barnacle-covered rocks where hundreds of little waterfalls spilled out around him. The next swell surged around his knees. He looked up at Sandcrab still on the dry rocks.
“Come on down, get on this rock next to me.”
The water drained away exposing the jagged boulders around him. Sandcrab looked nervous but started down. After the next surge he jumped onto the rock next to Lance.
“Now we’ll wait for a big swell to go in on,” Lance instructed. “You don’t want to hit your fin on a rock.”
A small swell washed over their ankles.
“I don’t know,” Sandcrab said, “paddling out seems easier.”
“Nah, this is cool, get ready, I’ll tell you when to jump.”
“You’ve done this before, right?”
“Yeah, a bunch of times…well, a couple…okay, here comes one, this looks good, okay…get ready…jump!”
The ocean rose around their legs and they jumped to their bellies and paddled. Lance felt a jolt as his fin snagged a rock. The water receded and the bottom of his board scraped on barnacles. He rolled into the water and found a rock with his foot and launched himself into deeper water. He stroked to catch up with Sandcrab who sat dry in the lineup.
“You were right, that was cool. Hey, how’d you get your hair wet?”
Lance paddled in front of him and lifted his foot. “Am I bleeding?”
“Looks like a cut on your big toe and ankle. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for sharks,” he joked. “Here comes a wave.”
Sandcrab paddled away and to Lance’s surprise caught the first wave he tried for. He rode it all the way in. Lance had expected him to struggle, at least a little. Now he felt pressure to prove he could surf too. Lance went for the first wave that came and scrambled to catch it. He dropped in late and almost pearled. He barely made the turn and had to jump to the nose of his board for speed. He surfed past Sandcrab who hooted as he paddled over the shoulder.
Lance felt embarrassed, he’d almost ate it on the takeoff, then barely made it through the section. He paddled to Sandcrab who grinned wide.
“Man, that was a killer drop you made and you powered through that section, that was hot.”
Lance swelled with pride. “That looked like a good wave you got.”
“Not as good as the next one I’m gonna get.”
For the first time Lance knew what it was like to have a friend in the water. He knew they would make each other better.
Back on the beach Lance unzipped his wetsuit and Sandcrab pulled his sleeves up around his chest. Lance helped him yank the wetsuit over his head. “How do you get this thing on and off when nobody’s around?”
“It’s not easy.” Sandcrab worked an arm free. “You wanna meet again tomorrow?”
“Sure, you wanna surf here again?”
“How about we try my side of town? We can meet at the Surf Shop and go to the Pier.”
Lance suppressed his excitement. “Sure, what time you wanna meet?”
Lance ate a large bowl of cereal as his mom poured water into the coffee percolator.
“Slow down and chew Lance, what’s the rush?”
“I’m kind of in a hurry.”
“What, are the waves going somewhere?”
“I’m meeting somebody. I’m gonna surf the Pier today.”
She put the top on the percolator and placed it on the stove. “I thought you said you couldn’t surf there.”
“Not alone, that’s why I’m meeting somebody.”
“Who’s somebody? Did you make a friend?”
“I don’t know, maybe.”
His dad came in the kitchen. “Boy, what a beautiful day. We should go out for breakfast, get some huevos rancheros.”
“Lance is meeting a friend to go surfing at the Pier.”
“He is?” He turned to Lance. “I thought you didn’t care about friends.”
“I don’t.” Lance slurped the last of the milk in his bowl. “It’s no big deal, just a guy I met at school. His name’s Sandcrab.”
His dad laughed. “Sandwho?”
“It’s probably just a nickname Jim,” his mom said.
Lance stood up. “He used to be called Pee wee, but the guys at the Pier call him Sandcrab now.”
His mom opened the refrigerator. “Do you want me to make you a sandwich to take?”
“Sure, thanks mom. Do you think I could have a little money too? There’s a snack bar there.”
“Jim, get my purse on the dining room table, I have some change.” She got out the baloney and mayonnaise. “You’re not going to try and shoot the Pier are you Lance?”
Lance looked at her. “How do you know what that is?”
“I grew up between the Santa Monica and Venice Piers, I know what surfing through the pilings is called.” She put the sandwich into a bag with a cookie and some carrots. “Be careful riding your bike on Harbor Boulevard.”
His dad added, “Be sure and tell your friend Sandpebbles I said hello.”
* * * *
Lance arrived at the Surf Shop first. He cruised up to the wooden stairs and put his foot on the bottom step. The shop was dark, but he heard a rumbling inside and watched as a snarling mass of teeth and fur slammed into the glass. Lance leapt from his bike as the German shepherd inside went berserk trying to get him.
“Ha, ha,” Sandcrab said riding up. “Diablo’s pretty scary, huh?”
“That dog’s insane.”
“Yeah, it’s weird, as soon as Dennis locks the door he turns into a psycho.”
Lance picked up his bike and he and Sandcrab rode over the pedestrian bridge to the Pier. The beach was mostly empty. There were two guys in the water and three boards standing in the sand by the trashcan. They pedaled onto the Pier and locked their bikes to the railing.
The bait shop was open, but the snack bar was closed. Lance put his free hand on the snack bar window to see the menu. “Do you ever get a hamburger after surfing?”
“I have, but they’re kind of expensive. The best place to eat is The Galley, you can get ten corn burritos for a buck, normally they’re fifteen cents each.”
“Cool, where’s The Galley?”
“A block up from the shop. You have any money?”
“Me too, we can go there later.”
They went down the stairs to the sand and walked toward the three surfers on the beach. “You know these guys?”
“Yeah, looks like Stoody, Q and one of the twins. Dugo and the goofy footed twin are in the water. It’s mostly a left break, so the goofy-footers have an advantage.”
“Are these guys cool?”
“They think so. Just ignore ‘em and act like you belong. We’ll get our wetsuits on and go straight out.”
Sandcrab stabbed the tail of his board into the sand. “Watch where you plant your board, there’s a lotta rocks around.”
Lance planted his board and faced the bottom the same direction as everybody else’s. He whispered, “How come everybody faces their board this way?”
“So the sun doesn’t melt the wax.”
Lance nodded. He liked the idea that throughout the day the surfboards would turn with the sun.
He took off his backpack and dropped it onto the sand. He shook out his wetsuit. There was a thud and Lance saw his surfboard lying on the sand. The three guys looked over. Lance picked up his board and replanted it.
A guy sitting on the sand drinking a Coke said, “Hey Crab, you bringing kooks down here, or what?” He looked about fifteen.
“He’s no more of a kook than you are Stoody.”
“Watch it little man if you want to get any waves when I’m in the water.”
“Yeah, right.” Sandcrab stepped closer to Lance. “He’s actually a pretty cool guy.”
They paddled out and stuck to the south side of the peak letting the other two guys take the lefts and they took the rights. They alternated waves and Lance got a good feel for the break.
After a while the twin and Dugo were gone and the three guys from the beach and another guy came out. As the tide came in the peak got tighter forcing everyone to sit closer together. The guys kidded and joked around. Sandcrab sat with them and joked too, they seemed to like him. Lance stayed to the inside, out of the way. Every now and then someone would give him a once over. Lance would nod and they would look away.
The atmosphere in the water was aggressive, yet more relaxed than at Schoolhouse. Here the guys teased each other and hung out. At Schoolhouse everyone was serious, caught their waves and went home.
More guys came out and Lance wasn’t getting any waves. He decided to go in and warm up on the beach.
There were five guys by the trashcan now and they watched him approach. Lance avoided eye contact. He wished his towel and backpack weren’t so close. He’d just do like Sandcrab said and act like he belonged. He stabbed his board into the sand, picked up his towel and looked out at the water. He could feel them staring.
“Hey man, you know somebody here?”
Lance looked over not sure who spoke. “I came with Sandcrab.”
“Really?” said a guy with dark brown hair streaked blonde. He had fuzz on his upper lip. “Well, just because Sandcrab brings you down here doesn’t make you cool with us, you need to move.”
Lance wished he’d waited for Sandcrab by the water. It’s okay, he thought, I expected this. I’ll respect the guy. He took a breath. “Okay.”
“Pick up your stuff and start walking, I’ll tell you when you can stop.”
Lance picked up his backpack and grabbed his board.
A guy with blonde ringlets said, “Oooh, do those flames make your board go faster?” They all laughed.
Lance started walking.
When he’d taken about fifteen steps the fuzzy lip guy said, “That’s good, I can’t smell you from there.”
Lance dropped his backpack and towel and planted his board in the sand. He stood and watched the waves. He could hear the guys bickering and laughing, then one of them called out, “Hey!”
Lance looked over. It was Ringlets with his chest out and his hands on his hips, “You’re still too close, move one more step.” Lance tensed up and looked back at the water. He’s got to be kidding.
“What are you waiting for, are you deaf? I said one more step.”
If he took another step he’d look like a fool.
“Hey, dumb shit, I said move…do I need to come over there and kick your ass another step?”
Lance burned inside.
Somebody said, “Just leave him alone, Scott.”
“I’m only asking the butthead to move one more step. Screw you guys, I’ll make him move myself.” Ringlets started towards him.
Lance’s mind raced. He picked up a lemon-sized rock.
Ringlets stopped and grinned. “Ooh, tough guy. You gonna throw the rock tough guy?” He took another step and Lance pump faked causing him to flinch and his curls to bounced. The guys laughed. He pointed at Lance, “You little shit, you’re gonna die.”
Lance cocked his arm back.
“Throw the rock kid, c’mon, I dare ya, throw it. C’mon pussy, do it.”
Lance looked at his jeering face and wanted to smash it. He swallowed. Ringlets took a step and Lance threw the rock just over his head. Ringlets yelped and fell back on the sand. The rock sailed passed and struck a surfboard by the trash can. Everyone watched as the surfboard slowly fell over.
Lance’s throat swelled.
Ringlets sat up. “Ha! That’s Roach’s board, you’re dead now.”
Lance watched the brown haired guy with the fuzzy lip walk over and look at the damage, then glare his way.
“You stupid asshole.” Angry and red, Roach came toward him.
Lance prepared for a beating, but Roach stopped at Ringlets sitting on the sand and slapped him on the head. “You’re an idiot, you’re always taking shit too far.”
“Hey, why you hitting me?”
“You couldn’t leave the kid alone. You had to be the tough guy. You’re fixin’ my board and I’m riding yours ‘til you do.” Roach looked at Lance. “Watch where you’re throwing rocks kid.”
Lance sat down in the sand and hugged his knees and stared out at the ocean.
A while later Sandcrab came running up from the water. “Why are you sittin’ over here?”
Lance squinted in the sun’s glare. “That guy Roach told me to move.”
“I hit his board with a rock.”
“How about we go get those corn burritos?”
“Why were you throwing rocks?”
“It’s a long story, I’ll tell you on the way.”
“Geez, I can’t wait to hear this.”