It’s 10:30 in the morning in Manhattan Beach, California — a warm, hazy day —and from our parked rental van in a lot overlooking the endless strip of sand, we watch the surfers in the lineup, in wetsuits, bobbing like little black buoys. I’ve finally made it to the same beach my father surfed more than fifty-five years ago. I’ve come to find some connection to the man. He abandoned me when I was three years old.
“Look how the waves stand right up,” Robin says. “And so close to the shore.”
A middle-aged woman cruises past on a banana bike with a sparkly gold seat. We don’t see banana bikes on the Oregon coast. In Oregon, we have dilapidated, moss-encrusted crab shacks and coastal highways lined with tsunami zone warning signs.
“It’s like a giant playground around here,” Robin says.
“Just wait until the water dries up.” I search my pocket for loose change. “Then this place is going to be in trouble.”
Robin sets her hand on my forearm. “Hey, you okay?”
“Then why are you tensing your jaw like that?” she asks.
Outside the van, the sun presses against a long-developing bald spot on the crown of my head. My father was bald, and suddenly that fact irritates me. I ease a thirty-eight-pound balsa-wood signature Greg Noll Malibu-chip longboard from the back of the van. The board is beautiful, just glassed. It’s never been surfed. I carefully set it down on a patch of grass, unwrap a plug of cold-water wax, and begin drawing X’s across its surface, tail to nose, welcoming the wax’s pleasing coconut scent. It’s a pretty board, sure, but at ten feet long, it’s also as big as a door.
Outside the van, the sun presses against a long-developing bald spot on the crown of my head. My father was bald, and suddenly that fact irritates me.
Robin has a cold, but she’s here, and that matters. We’ve been together for more than a decade. She’s tough, and she wanted to come to California. The truth is, I needed her to come. She’s my best friend, my partner. She knows everything about my past.
We’re several streets north of Marine Avenue, my father’s true stomping grounds, but this is closer than I’ve ever been to his boyhood home.
Robert Stanley Waters was once known around these parts as Little Bobbie. As a young man, he surfed in Hermosa Beach, Malibu, and Santa Barbara. He hung out with some of the sport’s earliest innovators, including early surf film star Dewey Weber and another dude who went by the nickname “No Pants Lance.” My father also snuck under the railroad tracks near Camp Pendleton to ride Trestles, but Manhattan Beach was where his love for waves originated.
To the south stands the concrete pier where he once stored his own Greg Noll surfboard. It’s also where, in 1952, he passed his swimming test at age ten. I know a few things because of what he left behind. In my backpack is a paper-clipped copy of his unpublished autobiography, as well as a small plastic baggie of his ashes, which I intend to scatter in the water.
Manhattan Beach is a city of surfing origins. In 1949, Dale Velzy opened the world’s first surf shop here. It’s also where Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys first paddled into the water. This stretch of coastline is where the sport spread to the rest of the country after arriving from Hawaii.
Yesterday, after landing at John Wayne Airport, Robin and I went hunting for historical crumbs. At the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center in San Clemente, we found a small collection of his old surfing patches, surf club membership cards, and old black-and-white photographs. The director of the center was happy to help out. Written on the back of one photo, taken when my father was fourteen, it said in ink: “Bobbie Waters surfing Velzy balsa board; Velzy wanted his boards to get exposure by good surfers.” Then we stopped by a surf shop to pick up the surfboard, which was waiting for me.
After coating the board with wax, I change in the van, and we wait for Blake. Blake lives up north in Venice Beach. I contacted him a month ago because he surfs and because today, especially today, I want a friend in the water with me.
Blake arrives in his Honda with his board strapped to the roof. He’s in a grey hoodie and flashes his usual squinty smile. He gives Robin a hug, we stand around chatting, .
Blake sets a green thermos on the car’s roof and says, “Always bring along hot coffee for afterward. Gets cold out there.” I don’t have any coffee, and he makes a wise-ass remark about it. “Also, I checked the poo report,” he says. “No poo. So we’re okay to surf.”
Any man whose father leaves can understand the shame, confusion, and anger generated by such a primal loss.
Together we descend the stone steps, and the weight of the board strains my shoulder.
Near the water Robin drops my backpack on the sand and whips open a towel filched from the hotel. She spreads it out. I stand beside her, and we watch a blond teenager launch off a solid five-footer, somersaulting through the air.
“I feel off,” I tell her. “Really?”
Off isn’t how I usually feel at the beach. It’s my father. I haven’t thought about him this deeply or for such a sustained period of time ever. Throughout much of my life, I’ve avoided thinking about him or talking about him because thinking or talking about him only enhanced his absence. But recently, I have been thinking and talking about him a lot, and I’ve entered a weird jet stream of heightened anger and sadness. My chest feels tight all the time, and lately I’ve been walking around feeling as if I’m always on the verge of crying.
Surfing, I thought, would be an interesting way to face my father head-on, but now that I’m finally here, I feel as if I’m marinating in too complicated of feelings. I desperately want to feel something other than fury and sorrow whenever I think about him.
I lay the board down, slide down a low, sandy slope, and put my bare feet in the water. It’s almost a beautiful day, and there are waves, but I know it’s going to be cold, even with a wetsuit.
* * *
Early on, Mom often joked that she was Mom and Dad. I was her only kid, and she provided for me, she managed, but it never kept me from wondering, during those lean years when we shared a bunk in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in downtown Reno, Nevada, if our situation might have been different with a father around. Along the way she enlisted men from her clerical job at the sheriff’s department jail to dole out nuggets of paternal advice. I remember one evening, when I was around eleven, sitting down with a homicide detective who — badge on his belt, holstered gun between us on the dining room table — wanted to talk to me, man-to-man, about sex.
I never knew my father in any meaningful way. Even at thirty- seven, after a decade of therapy, I still find it painful to acknowledge this truth. Any man whose father leaves can understand the shame, confusion, and anger generated by such a primal loss.
I never knew anything about my father throughout my childhood or teenage years — his whereabouts, what he looked like, what he did for a living, nothing. Whenever someone asked about him, I felt ashamed, and I lied. He was faceless, a phantom. His absence grew inside me like an expanding void. The idea of him living in the world, somewhere out there, haunted me. Did my entrance into the world cause him to leave? Was I worth nothing? With him gone I still needed guidance, and I looked to my friends’ fathers for cues. I absorbed their attention as leaves did sunlight, and I quietly learned which ones to appoint as role models.
Why he left remains a mystery. Why he stayed away is another mystery. That part of my family history is full of holes and silence. The questions I’ve asked over the years yield bewildering answers. As unbelievable as it may seem, I’ve been unable to get any family member on either side to share more than a few scant details.
Whenever I ask Mom, which doesn’t happen often because she’s built a moat around the subject — adorned with decapitated heads on spikes — she’s likely to say, “Why do you dwell on it so much? You’re just like your grandmother.”
Her mother, my grandmother, never knew her father either. She was illegitimate, abandoned, and raised by nuns.
Over time the topic of my father slid from taboo to never discussed. I was left to unearth my own pieces of truth. Eventually, I decided to do a bit of research myself, going so far as to purchase copies of my parents’ divorce papers at the county courthouse in Reno. They cost nine dollars. Here’s what I discovered: I was conceived out of wedlock. When I counted backward through the months, I realized I was conceived during the month of February. I don’t know how my parents met, but they married in April 1974 in Virginia City, Nevada. It seemed to be a shotgun wedding. According to the documents I gathered, my father was no longer living with us at the time of the divorce three years later. By then he was working as a miner in Arizona. The stranger was free to visit, Mom sometimes told me, provided he contributed financially. That never occurred.
His absence grew inside me like an expanding void.
On my eighteenth birthday, he reentered my life via Hallmark card. Tucked inside the card was a check in the amount of fifty dollars. His signature was in cursive. The ink he used: blue.
Few people can recall the details of nearly every moment spent with their father. But I can. I met him five times as an adult, and each time our disconnection was obvious and massive. But those few times we did share are permanently etched in my memory.
The first remains as vivid as a just-seen film.
Lake Tahoe, summer, 1994 — we’re driving on the two-lane highway that cuddles the frigid, aquamarine lake. My father lowers his window, and the piney aroma of ponderosa fills the car. In Reno, after I knocked on his hotel room door, he quickly suggested a drive into the Sierras. He was eager to leave town. I stood stiff and silent in his hotel room. My throat was dry. My palms were sweaty.
“I’m glad you finally agreed to meet,” he says, now turning to study me. “I guess I want to know you,” I say. “Is that wrong?”
“No, no,” he says. “Of course not. Why would it be wrong for you to want to know about me?”
Tahoe sparkles through the trees. The road traces the contours of the lake. We pass houses on rocky bluffs, the road curves again, and we emerge on another cliff with an incredible view.
He’s traveled to the Reno area for a work conference. So this is convenient, this meeting-his-son thing. At the hotel, I carried with me a thrown-together scrapbook — photos of places I’ve visited and photos of friends I’ve lied to about him. Photos of the lost years. He showed little interest. Instead, he suggested a drive around Tahoe in his Cadillac.
“There used to be a great Mexican restaurant around here,” he says, tapping the steering wheel. “Want to see if we can find it? Great salsa.”
I look at him out of the corners of my eyes. We’re about the same height, same wide billboard foreheads, but he’s a stranger. I’m trying to square how this man is my father. He’s balding — will I bald too? He has a gut. Will I have a paunch like that at his age? How old is he?
And he talks. About himself.
“I’ve been in Vegas for a while now,” he says. “But I spend most of my time out at the worksite. Lots of driving, but I don’t mind.”
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
He talks. About Yucca Mountain. About the importance of his work. He explains the intricate details about how to dig tunnels at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site.
“Even though a lot of Nevadans hate the notion of storing the country’s radioactive junk in their backyard, it’s the ideal solution. Yeah, yeah, people protest about it, and you’ve got these wackos trying to create a smear campaign, but the geology tells the story. It’s really the best location to store waste for ten thousand years.”
He talks. About women he’s known.
“The last woman I dated seriously was Austrian,” he says. “A real looker. Special. She posed for Playboy way back when.”
The highway follows a bend and then straightens out. “You look like her, you know,” he says.
“Your old girlfriend?”
“No, her. Your mother,” he says. “Same green eyes. Or is it hazel?”
“You remember how I used to take you on walks at the creek near the university?” he asks me.
I’m silent. No, I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything about him at all.
“Oh, of course you remember,” he says.
“What about the small house near the university? I used to play with you on the floor. Remember that?”
Slowly, I begin wondering why I bothered putting on a clean long-sleeve shirt to hide my forearm tattoo, why I removed my earrings, why I cobbled together a stupid scrapbook to show him. He talks, and as I listen, a light inside me dims. Another goes red. He wants me to like him, clearly. He wants to impress. He tells me about a cousin at Harvard, an aunt in Hawaii, grandparents in the Puget Sound, people I’ve never heard about or met.
I’m waiting to hear the word sorry. I’m waiting for long-winded explanations. My stomach is a fist, and the thoughts that float through my head terrify me. I imagine grabbing the steering wheel, yanking hard, and taking us over a cliff and into the lake. My feelings are too much; they could destroy both of us. So, I disconnect. I turn numb.
A year passes. I agree to see him again, during summer, hoping he’ll provide explanations this time.
I’m back from college, and the mountains around Reno have gone brown. Over the phone he says he feels like having a steak dinner. “How’s that sound, kid?” He knows a place inside the Eldorado casino. This time, I don’t remove my earrings. And now there’s a surgical steel hoop through my nose. I drive downtown and park in the casino’s garage.
Over time the topic of my father slid from taboo to never discussed.
And there he is, traipsing down a casino corridor lined with fake Roman columns. He’s still overweight, puffy, wearing slacks and a buttoned shirt.
“That hurt?” he asks, eyeballing my nose ring.
“Not really,” I say.
“Why’d you do that?” He does not sound pleased. “Because,” I say.
“I didn’t give it much thought. I did it with a friend.”
“Yeah, well. What about those hoops in your ears? People will get ideas about that sort of thing.”
“Plenty of guys wear them,” I say.
The restaurant hostess, who looks my age, shows us to a table with pleated, horseshoe bench seating. I can tell my father is uncomfortable sitting in a nice steak restaurant with someone with rings in his face. But I wonder, can the waitress tell how uncomfortable I am sitting beside a stranger who happens to be my father? Every so often, he cases me with his blue eyes, perhaps thinking, If I’d been there . . . He stares at me as if he knows me — but he doesn’t know me. We are ghosts to each other.
Like our first meeting, he talks. And I listen.
He wants to fill me in on things he forgot to tell me last time. Dinner arrives — steak, potatoes.
He’s in town for another conference. Convenient, then. He doesn’t ask about Mom or college or much else, but I hear about his college years, and I’m still waiting for explanations.
After dinner we man-hug in the smoky casino corridor. It’s uncomfortable. Then we shake hands once more. On the way to the parking garage, I decide I don’t want to see him again. And I don’t, not for eight years, and then only twice more.
He talks, and as I listen, a light inside me dims.
During our final encounter, in 2009, my father lay in a mechanical hospital bed in a seaside city north of Seattle. The moment I walk into his room, I notice how extremely overweight he is and how bloated. His chin disappears into a pillow of fat that his head rests on. His skin is loose and speckled with purple bruises. An oxygen tube bisects his face.
I walk over and stand beside his bed, waiting for him to recognize me. I’ve brought along the day’s newspaper. I don’t know why. I wanted to bring him something, an offering, a gift.
He shifts and winces. A catheter limits his movements. Dangling from a bed rail is a baggie of bright urine. Before I entered the room, a nurse told me they were trying to drain fluids off him by administering a diuretic. He’s been battered by multiple illnesses. Wadded tissues litter his blue bedside tray table.
He sees me but doesn’t see me. His eyes close and open, and he says in a gravelly voice, “I’m a hostage here. This is a hostage situation.”
“You’re a hostage?” I ask.
He doesn’t recognize me. He needs water, he says, and will I fetch him a tall glass? Please, please, will I do it? Will I help a man in need? There’s a sign on his door that reads, FLUIDS RESTRICTED.
“You’re not supposed to have water,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
His eyes slide away. His lips are as split as a dry lake bed. He still doesn’t recognize me. I sit in a cold, plastic chair, attempting small talk, but he’s dazed, his brain too fogged by oxygen depletion to form intelligible sentences. As I did the first time we met, I scan for physical similarities and differences. Same broad forehead. Different colored eyes. Similar cheekbones. He’s not the dashing figure I sometimes conjured up during childhood. Seeing him now, crowded by pillows in a hospital bed, squeezes tears into my eyes. His illness dominates the room, as illness tends to do. Hospital rooms demand a sort of chilly reverence. What’s left in this antiseptic chamber is a dying, half-crazed man with greasy hair and apple-sized bruises across his arms and legs. Hanging on the wall is a medical chart that reads like some kind of scary encyclopedia, a possible blueprint of my future: diabetes, congestive heart failure, sleep apnea, kidney disease. I don’t understand half the acronyms. Other than our foreheads, I wonder what else we share. For a moment I try to imagine him as an athlete, as the once sporty person his relatives — our relatives — have told me about.
My original game plan was ruined the moment I saw electrodes running from his chest to a heart monitor. I wanted to confront him, to finally demand explanations. Now it’s impossible. I’m scared I might say something that could literally kill him, though that bitter thought does course through my mind: here’s the man who left; here’s the man who didn’t pay a dime or lift a telephone to place a call; here’s the man I want to love and be loved by. I imagine unleashing my pain on him, thirty years of accumulated outrage, and watching the lines on his heart monitor freak out, beeping, beeping, beeping . . .
I stand by the window. It’s a grey spring day walled by fog. I turn around. Talking with him is difficult.
I don’t know what to say. For an hour I sit with him and listen to his delusions. Nurses visit the doorway. We talk in low tones about his condition, which seems to elevate his suspicions.
I take my laptop from my backpack and set it on his tray table. I want to show him a slideshow of recent events from my life. A trip to Romania with Robin, my friends, my dog on a Pacific Ocean beach with a tennis ball in her mouth. I want to show him what his son has been doing. But he’s not interested. Why do I keep doing this to myself? Besides, he’s not really here. And he’s unaware that I’m floating. I’m half in the room, bewildered and unnerved to be near him, in his presence. Eventually, he falls asleep.
Another quiet hour passes.
When he wakes up, he turns his head and his eyes land on me, and suddenly his gaze feels alert and genuine. He tears up, and for a moment he’s here. He sees me. He says my name. He knows me. He knows who I am.
“Son,” he says in a dry whisper. “Hello.”
I feel my heartbeat in my head. I stand. I need to speak with his doctor immediately. I need to know what to expect. I need to know what the final countdown will look like. I head to the nurse’s station.
The head nurse is a bosomy, long-fingernailed, bright-lipsticked woman who talks fast and seems extremely competent. But I don’t care. I ask to speak to his doctor.
She’s flipping through a medical chart on the other side of the counter and doesn’t seem to hear me. I state my request again.
“The doctor is at lunch,” she says, and she reiterates, she can answer any questions. I meet her eyes. I’m not fucking around. I raise my voice. I want his doctor on the phone right now. I stalk around the nursing desk, and she stands and takes a step back.
There’s still time, I want to say. There’s still time. She has the doctor on the phone within minutes. But the doctor can’t tell me anything either, other than to say my father is only using 23 percent of his heart. “He could die within the week,” the doctor states matter-of-factly. “Or he could live six more months. People surprise us all the time.”
No one has answers.
When I return to his room, he’s sitting upright. Foggy light reaches through the window and accentuates the stubble on his chin. He looks worn. Another nurse walks in and adjusts his pillows. She glances at an electric razor on a shelf above the bed. Then she looks at me, and unaware of our history, she casually asks if I wouldn’t mind.
“He hasn’t shaved in a few days,” she says. “Want to help out?”
I want to show him, just once, what it means to have a son.
I feel tremendous sorrow for him, and I also feel he’s gotten what he deserves. He looks at me with puffy, bloodshot eyes. His breathing is labored. I walk over and grab the razor off the shelf, on which also sits a personal Bible with gold-gilded pages.
“Thank you for visiting me,” he says.
He smells ripe, some combination of body oil and dead, dry skin. God, I hate him. God, I love him — but I have no idea if that’s the truth. I know I’ll probably always carry around anger and resentment, but I know, as we look at each other, I want to show him, just once, what it means to have a son.
I locate an outlet behind the bed and plug in the razor’s cord.
Later that night, his mother — my grandmother — drops me off at a blue-trimmed mobile home in a 55-and-over community called Wheel Estates. His place is across Puget Sound on Whidbey Island, a short ferry ride from the hospital. His parents and his sister relocated from California and live on the island too.
Before I get out, she reaches over and squeezes my forearm. I feel drained, exhausted. “I really think not seeing you for all those years broke his heart,” she tells me. “We talked about it numerous times. After his first heart attack, and after the second. We think not seeing you broke his heart. Not having you in his life.”
It occurs to me that I’ve been selfish with my grief. She’s watching her son slowly die. I can’t imagine her sadness in the face of it. What a sorrowful, incredible phenomenon to bookend your child’s life, from birth to death, and to be the living witness to all the joys and complications. I squeeze her hand and thank her. I met my grandmother for the first time when I was twenty-eight, and I’ve only recently begun to know the rest of his family, but during these rare occasions, I often feel like an intruder.
“Remember,” she says, before I shut the car door. “Put Post-it notes on any items you want.”
It’s clear his home is a stranger’s home. Everything is foreign.
A pink Post-it note pad sits on the kitchen counter. Anything I want? The nautical paintings, the tackle boxes, the fishing poles? I don’t want any of it. Get rid of it all. Burn it. Even though this is a stranger’s house, I snoop around, but I don’t cross any serious boundaries because I’m too afraid I’ll uncover something unseemly — extreme pornography, a dead body. I leave the medicine cabinet and drawers alone.
Everything is scarily immaculate, with cream walls and faux wood doors and, lit up behind the TV, a Thomas Kinkade landscape painting. A Thomas Kinkade! Supreme hack painter of all time! For some reason there’s a diagram in the hallway closet, torn from a Family Circle, on how to perform the Heimlich maneuver. That my father keeps instructions on how to save someone from choking strikes me as supremely odd.
There’s an open box of Diabeteze candy bars on the kitchen counter. Here and there, I notice framed photos of me as a chubby infant, from a time when he actually knew me. I notice a copy of Robin’s book of short stories on his shelf. I don’t see mine. There’s a typed note on his coffee table listing the magazine subscriptions that will need to be canceled after he dies. I peel off a single Post-it note and set it on a small shelf with various, interesting-looking rocks. They’re only rocks, but somehow they seem real and more important than anything else. Then I imagine a father standing in front of me and placing a Post-it note on him. But there’s no father here. Instead, on the dresser in the spare bedroom, where I plan to sleep, there’s a small, plastic Christmas tree, lights attached, which he must bring out during holidays.
I spread a blanket across the hard futon, undress, and try to sleep but can’t. Instead, I break down in sobs, crying so hard my lungs feel like they’re on fire. I force myself to swallow breaths of air. His home is one of the loneliest I’ve ever been inside. It’s too clean, too quiet. After divorcing my mother, he never remarried.
Months later, I’m in the car with Robin when my cell phone vibrates in my pocket. I wrestle it out. It’s the phone call. My father is dead. It’s a beautiful July day in Oregon, and my father, a man I never really knew, is dead. I ease my foot off the accelerator and pull into a gas station and park.
“He’s dead,” I say. I don’t feel anything. I don’t feel anything at all. “What? What? Who?” Robin asks.
“Oh, sweetheart,” Robin says.
I feel numb. Numb, again. Robin offers to drive up to Whidbey Island to be near his family, but I don’t want that. Instead, I ask her to drive to a nearby river, where I get out of the car, strip off my T-shirt, walk to the edge, and leap in. I need to feel something other than numb, and water always brings me solace.
* * *
Years before he died, at sixty-seven, my father wrote a slim autobiography and mailed it to me. He knew I was a writer, and as a final effort to bond, he typed out sixty-eight single-spaced pages separated into nine chapters. Titled “The Story of My Life,” it was his attempt “to help my son understand who his father was and help him heal.”
Six years passed before I read it. The disappointments from the past were too insurmountable. I internalized the blame for his leaving early in my life. I was still trying to extract that shame through therapy, and though I knew his leaving wasn’t my fault, abstract feelings of worthlessness remained with me, buried in my skin like fallout from a bygone war.
I was still angry with him, and I knew I wanted and needed to move past the feeling.
His autobiography sat untouched and unread in a cardboard box. It became one of those un-throw-away-able burden items that traveled with me whenever I moved. I was frightened by what the pages might say about him or about me, or what they might reveal about Mom. I couldn’t imagine how his clumsy attempt at autobiography might blot out nearly twenty years of total silence.
Then he died. And when his father died a year later, I realized I was the last Waters man in the family line. After my father’s death I expected to feel different — better, unburdened, released, or perhaps the way a victim might feel after the perpetrator gets sent to prison. But I didn’t feel better. Instead, I felt heavier. I was still angry with him, and I knew I wanted and needed to move past the feeling.
One night, after a few glasses of wine, I rummaged through the cardboard boxes in the closet until I located his autobiography. What I read brought the gauzy contours of his life into better focus.
My father loved the water. As a young man, he was a navy submariner. Later, he crewed aboard yachts in sailing races throughout Southern California. Each chapter signified a different phase in his life. Much of it was on the water. I didn’t read the whole document. But I found myself returning to chapter 3. The chapter ran seven single-spaced pages. That night, as I sat on the floor, handling each page as though inspecting the Dead Sea Scrolls, I found myself absorbed by his “Surfing” chapter.
He grew up surfing. I loved water too, but because I was raised in the desert, I never had much access to the ocean as a kid. Despite that, I fell for surfing in my twenties, when a friend in Southern California introduced me to the sport.
Discovering that my father was a surfer amazed me. According to the “Surfing” chapter, he was raised in Manhattan Beach. He lived several blocks from a young guy named Greg Noll, a “Los Angeles County Life Guard at the time, and a freelance surfboard maker.” That my father referred to Noll as his “good friend.”
My father’s beachside youth — and his friendship with Noll — captivated me. I was familiar with the big-wave-surfing pioneer. I’d seen the film Riding Giants countless times. Hell, I owned it. In his black-and-white jailhouse trunks, Greg “Da Bull” Noll was legendary for bombing down a massive thirty-five-foot wave in 1969 at a break called Makaha in Oahu. At the time it was the biggest wave ever surfed. Many surfers knew the exact date of Noll’s feat.
About Noll, my father wrote: “He was also one of the best surfers in the South Bay and paddled in the Catalina to Manhattan Beach race each summer . . . He lived at home with his parents, and their house was on my way home from school . . . One day he was out in the side yard shaping a balsa-wood surfboard. So, being a kid, I decided to stop by to see what he was doing. As time passed, I stopped by more often.”
Noll gave my father his first board in the early fifties. As the decade wore on, my father bought other boards — from some of the same guys whose creations hang in Noll’s workshop — and loaded them into his 1940 Ford station wagon, the archetypal woody surf car he bought from a lifeguard for two hundred fifty dollars. My father embraced the lifestyle before the Gidget movies turned everything into a cliché. It was a golden time to come of age in Southern California. In Manhattan Beach kids went barefoot on streets without sidewalks. Teenagers packed into auditoriums to watch surfing films with jazz soundtracks.
By 1960, my father had gone from a young “gremmie,” odd-jobbing around surf shops, to opening his own on Stearn’s Wharf in Santa Barbara. Noll, by then a major figure, supplied him with his inventory of boards. My father even called his shop “Surf Boards by Greg.” He and his friends liked to toss their boards off the pier and then leap into the water. Though by his own admission, he was just having fun, my father was at the forefront of the surfing movement. He shared waves with icons Renny Yater and George Greenough, the surf photographer who invented the modern surfboard fin. My father was one of the earliest members of the exclusive Santa Barbara County Surf Club, which formed to gain access to the Hollister cattle ranch — now famously known as the Ranch. At Hollister, he and his friends hung out in shabby beach shacks, surfing “some of the most perfect waves anywhere in the world.”
Nearly always in trouble for ditching school to surf, my father failed to graduate high school with his class.
“I didn’t care,” he wrote. “I had my friends, surfing, and could care less about school.”
Reality soon caught up. The army came calling with a draft notice. He chose to enlist in the navy instead because a friend told him the food was better. On shore leave he surfed in Hawaii and San Diego, where he was stationed, but by the end of the sixties he began turning away from the ocean. According to later chapters in his autobiography, he became interested in geology, in mining, in bedrock and stone. He spent the rest of his years pinballing around Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, South Carolina, Ohio, and Nevada as a mining engineer. He last surfed in 1970. He was twenty-eight.
It strikes me as odd how, around the time I entered the world, my father trained his eyes on excavation. It’s as though he leaped onto a different set of tracks the moment I was born. The man went from living in California, riding waves, and sailing the Pacific to fathering a son, leaving the son, and then hiding out, literally, underground.
Surfing felt like some kind of bridge.
He moved state to state, mine to mine, propelled by “this constant thought in the back of my head that I needed to explore . . . I needed to push myself and confront the unknown.” Scattered among his many adventures in his book, he apologized numerous times, but his apologies don’t compensate for how, in the span of sixty-eight pages, he barely mentioned having a son.
But there was a time when my father was young — a waterman. I feel a tinge of pride when I reread his “Surfing” chapter, but it’s like having pride in an apparition. He was a terrible father, but before I was even a wispy notion in his mind, he fell in love with the ocean, which is the only part of him I understand.
For the first time in my life, as I reread the “Surfing” chapter, I actually wanted to know more about him — or at least more about that part of his life. Surfing felt like some kind of bridge.
Days passed. I couldn’t stop thinking about the “Surfing” chapter. I wondered what Noll might know. Did he have stories about my father, memories? Maybe Noll was a waypoint that could lead to something deeper, something important, and something curative. Even though I knew it was a long shot, I needed to track down. Soon I began fantasizing about riding a balsa-wood board like my father had.
I wanted to breathe deep and exhale my lingering resentments, my fury. In the past, anger had helped keep me focused. Anger was useful. Anger provided protective walls. Anger served as an anchor, but that anchor also dragged me into trenches of depression. It took me well into my thirties before I gathered the courage to open my father’s autobiography. It could take me thirty more years, I knew, to even begin to understand him.
Don Waters is the author of the novel Sunland, and the two story collections, The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain and Desert Gothic. He teaches at Lewis & Clark College, and lives in Portland, Oregon.
Excerpted from These Boys and Their Fathers: A Memoir, by Don Waters. Published by University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2019 by Don Waters. All rights reserved.
Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath