The Burden of Home
July 13, 2011 | by Aaron Gilbreath
If you haven’t seen the 1987 movie North Shore, take that as evidence of your refined palate. The movie came out when I was in sixth grade, and it was so corny that I refused to acknowledge how profoundly I connected with it. It’s the story of Rick Kane, an eighteen-year-old surfer from Tempe, Arizona, who wants to earn the big, pro-circuit money that his idol, and the movie’s antihero, Lance Burkhart, earns. When Rick wins a surf contest at a local artificial wave pool, he skips college and uses the five-hundred-dollar prize to move to Hawaii and tackle the epic waves of the legendary North Shore.
Once in Hawaii, Rick rides the waves alongside the locals. He falls for a native beauty named Kiani and clashes with a tough surf crew called the Hui. Nearly everyone discourages him: “This is our wave.” “Leave local girls alone.” But the line that always stayed with me came during a scene in which Rick is eating lunch with Kiani and her family. Kiani’s three brothers corner him at the table. They mock his surfing and call him JOJ—short for “just off the jet.” Then the oldest brother stares into Rick’s eyes and says, “Go back to Arizona, haole.” It was as if he were speaking directly to me, a teenage kid desperate to leave Arizona.
Like Rick, I lived in metro Phoenix, was obsessed with the beach, and wanted out of the desert. I envied the lifestyle that coastal California afforded: the temperate weather, the scant clothing, the year-round range of outdoor activities. While southern Californians spent their summers riding bikes and hanging out on the boardwalk, we Phoenicians endured an average of a hundred or more days of one-hundred-degree heat. Touch a car door in July, and you’d burn your fingers. But that wasn’t all. Arizona was completely uncool. It’s associated with lame Hollywood westerns, retirees, and golf courses. To coastal denizens, we were hicks.
Sometime in fifth grade, just before North Shore came out, I bought a bodyboard and learned to ride waves pretty well. At home, I covered my bedroom walls with images clipped from surf magazines: black sand and palm groves; bronze women in bikinis splashing through azure water. I stuck surf stickers on my door, corny ones that said Body Glove and Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax in blinding pink and yellow fonts. When I lay in bed at night, I pictured myself sleeping in a thatched hut and drinking from coconuts. I taped a quotation from an ad on my door: “Summer is an attitude not a season.” And I wore only shorts, even in winters that reached the low forties. When my parents dropped me off at middle school, I gathered with my friends on the playground before class. Condensation frosted the tetherball pole. Crystallized dew coated the brown winter grass. And I’d stand there shivering with my arms crossed, wearing shorts and a flannel and a hooded Vans sweater, watching my breath. At one point, I asked my parents if we could replace my bedroom’s brown carpet with beach sand. They asked where the bed would go. “We’ll build wooden boardwalks around the edges,” I explained, “with one plank diagonally across the middle for the bed.” And how would I avoid dragging sand into the rest of the house? “I’ll wipe my feet every time I leave my room.” The brown carpet stayed.
When I first saw North Shore I was shocked. The posters, the neon gear—my room was decorated just like Rick’s. Rick was a dorky aspirant, and, clearly, so was I. Worse, we were wannabes playing dress up, we had no credibility next to real surfers. What was more embarrassing for a would-be surfer than never to have trained in the ocean? No matter how we dressed, how politely we acted or how hard we tried to fit in, Rick and I would always be what we were: the guys from the desert wave pool.
Still, as much as I related to him, I knew I wasn’t entirely like Rick. Not because I didn’t surf. And not because I wasn’t old enough to leave home like he was. It was because after all his struggles—being ostracized by locals, punched in the face, slammed into reefs—he successfully assimilated, went from outsider to insider, while I did not and never would. By the movie’s end, the Hui let him ride their waves, Kiani falls in love with him, and Turtle, his one true friend, quits calling him barney. Although Rick doesn’t win the professional surfing paycheck he initially hoped for, he does earn acceptance and respect, which, in the emotional formulations of ham-fisted screenplays, and in the hearts of angsty teenagers, is the real prize. I didn’t fare as well.
Whenever my friends and I went to California, it was our clothes, our diction, and our license plates that betrayed us. Locals called us Zonies, their version of haole for Arizonan tourists. Zonies fed the local economy, but we also clogged the narrow streets, took the parking spots, made the wait at restaurants longer, and, worse, got in the way in the water.
During the beginning of North Shore, whenever people ask Rick where he’s from, he searches for an honest yet sufficiently vague reply: “Oh, the mainland,” he tells them, or, “Um, like, kinda outside L.A.—sorta.” When faced with a similar situation in California, one of my close friends used to stammer, “Oh, well, uh,” and eventually spit out, “San Diego.” He hated driving around the beach with that maroon albatross of a license plate on our car, the word Arizona broadcast in bright white letters beside a saguaro cactus emblem.
One night, when I was sixteen, my friends and I were walking down a side street in Newport, California—a surfing town—when we came upon a party at a beach house. People filled the tiny yard. A keg sat in one corner near a stack of beach cruisers. Attractive girls in tiny shirts stood beside guys with sun-bleached hair and muscular forearms. As we walked past one guy called out, “Nice haircuts. What’d, you all get them cut at the same place?” A couple of dudes laughed, a girl sniggered. I tried to keep my head up, trying to maintain a modicum of dignity in the face of harassment, but when my eyes met this guy’s, I couldn’t scowl like I wanted to. I could only look away. The Rick I saw in me wasn’t there. As we skulked by he yelled, “Go home.”