Back before the accident we’d always go surfing on Sunday mornings. He called it going to church.
“Come on, let’s go to church,” he’d say. “I’ll call you in the morning. We don’t want to be late.”
Then he’d laugh and slap his knee like he hadn’t said that a thousand times before. He was big knee slapper.
I can still see him, riding along in the passenger seat of my old pickup, drinking a Red Stripe, the wind in his hair, the wrinkles in his face from years in the sun even more pronounced when he smiled and he was usually smiling. He always said Red Stripe was a breakfast beer.
“It’s a little fruity,” he explained. “You know what I mean?“
The thing is, I did know what he meant. It is a good breakfast beer.
To me the best part of our mornings together were those times in the truck. I would pick him up at his trailer, and he’d throw his board on the rack of my truck and climb in. I always brought the beer in a little styrofoam cooler. He always brought the coffee in one of those old aluminum thermoses, the ones that still had the glass liner, and he always spiked the coffee with a little bit of rum.
“For flavor,” he would say with a grin.
One morning not long before the accident, he’d called me the night before.
“Church tomorrow?” he said when I answered.
“It’s supposed to rain,” I said.
He didn’t say anything. He just waited.
“Sure,” I said. He said he’d see me in the morning and hung up.
The next morning I rose before dawn, grabbed my cooler and filled it with ice and beer., put my surfboard on top of my truck and drove to pick him up.
“Coffee,” he asked when he got in the truck and I held up my mug and let him pour some in. Then he slammed the door and we were off.
I drove through Court House in the twilight of the morning, turned at the diner, still quiet at that time of the morning and crossed the Parkway onto Stone Harbor Boulevard. The sky opened to us there, with no buildings or trees in the way and gave us our best clue as to what the weather was going to do that day. It was pretty well socked in but I’d been hoping that any rain would hold off until later in the day. I wasn’t so sure now.
The windows were down and the salt air filled the cab, drenching us with it’s perfume.
“I hope we got a swell,” he said. “Did you check the Google?”
He never did have much use for technology. Smart phones. Surf watches. They were all pretty lost on him. He was an analog guy living in a digital world. But not with surfing. You didn’t get any more basic than a guy on a log on a wave.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t check the Google.”
“It’s all bullshit anyway,” he said looking out the window. “You gotta check for yourself, right?”
He was right of course. The websites and computer models were often wrong, and there would be waves where they weren’t supposed to and none where they were supposed to be. Sometimes you just had to get up and go see for yourself.
“Dawn patrol!” he cried and slapped his knee and took a swig of the beer I hadn’t even seen him grab from the cooler.
As we pulled into the sleepy little town of Stone Harbor it began to drizzle. This being the off season, the lights were all blinking yellow and we barely saw another soul on the road.
We pulled into the parking lot at Nun’s Beach, our local surf spot. It was called Nuns because there was a convent there called Villa Maria, an enormous retreat for nuns of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a catholic order out of Philadelphia. The church owned a whole block of ocean front property and the nuns had been spending their summer their vacations there since 1937. So it became known as Nun’s Beach.
The surfers and the nuns got along well, and each year together they held a surf contest to benefit the convent. The nuns sold t-shirts and sweatshirts picturing nuns in full habits surfing; also coffee and donuts, pizza and hot dogs. The surfers volunteered and took turns judging the event. It was always a nice family affair, run by locals for locals.
From the parking lot, you had to walk up over the dune in order to see the water and when we crested the top of the dune, it didn’t look like much. It was glassy but the swell was small and it was beginning to rain. I was standing underneath the wheelchair access ramp to get out of the rain but he was just standing there looking at the water.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get wet.”
“Ugh,” I said. I was nursing a little hangover and would have been happy to go to breakfast instead and call it a wash.
“Come on,” he said again and started walking back to the truck.
I followed him grudgingly. We got to the truck and he started putting his wetsuit on, so I relented and started putting mine on. The water was still pretty warm so we were only wearing lightweight suits, still they take a bit to wrestle yourself into. He was already waxing his board by the time I got my suit on and he threw me half a bar of wax. I gave it few quick swipes across the board and tossed it into the back of the truck. He was already headed up the dune and when I caught up to him at the top we saw what we’d come for. At first I all I was saw was the rain, which was coming down pretty steady now.
“Is it me, or did it get a lot better?” he asked. “I mean a whole lot better.”
The rain had arrived, but so had the swell.
“You’re not wrong,” I said. “This definitely wasn’t here a few minutes ago.”
“See?” he said. He smiled and smacked me. “I told you so. Let’s go get wet.”
“I’m already wet,” I said looking up at the rain.
“Ha! Hee hee,” he yelled and ran down.
We paddled out near the jetty and before I could even get past the breakers, he was riding a wave in and hollering like a kid on Christmas.
A wave approached and I turned and began to paddle, I could feel it catch my board and I leapt to my feet and turned down the wave, gliding down the glassy wave with increasing speed. I pulled out of the wave and he was hooting and hollering once again, just for the sheer joy of it all.
My god, but that man loved to surf. Another friend used to say he was just in it for the glide, but it was more than that. He was effortless.
We paddled back out and sat on our boards, just as the hard rain began to fall. Just then a pod of dolphins swam by and began to play in the waves in and around us. We sat in the water on boards of styrofoam and glass and just laughed at each other.
Finally he looked behind us and called, “Wave” and began paddling to his left and I followed.
“Party wave!” he yelled.
He got up first, but I followed and dropped in on him, normally a no-no, but today it was just me and him. He pushed me forward and we both rode the wave down the line, nearly to the beach laughing the whole way.
An hour later the rain, the swell, and the dolphins disappeared just as quickly as they had appeared. We hung out a little longer, just paddling around and talking. I don’t remember about what. But I remember thinking we had it pretty good.
I think of him often. Drinking a beer. The wind in his hair. His laugh that was too loud. The slap of his knee. But mostly I think about going to church with him and I say a prayer.
We did go to breakfast that morning, but not before we’d had a few beers in the parking lot and chatted up a few surfers who’d woken up late and had come to check the surf, only to find a flat ocean.
“You should have been here an hour ago,” he said finally and laughed. He didn’t mention the dolphins. He finished his beer and put the bottle in the back of my truck. “Come on. Let’s go get some breakfast. We don’t want to be late.”
Then he winked at me like he knew something no one else did. Who knows, maybe he did.
Three weeks later he was gone. They said it was an accident. That’s what they said; an accident.
I don’t go to church anymore.