My Brief (Doomed) Surfing Days


First Person

LeRoy Grannis, Makaha, Hawaii (detail), 1966. © LeRoy Grannis Collection. Courtesy TASCHEN. From Surfing by Jim Heimann, published by TASCHEN.


I went to first grade in Fort Worth with Lee Harvey Oswald. I went to second grade in Shreveport, where my dad had a gig in some Dixie greaser lounge, but we were moving up. In third grade, we lived in nifty North Dallas. Every Thursday, in social studies class, we drew the name of a country out of a hat and wrote a report about it. We made our own folders for each report. Then we would vote for the best cover. First shot, I drew Italy—and how can you fuck up Italy? I had grapes, columns, and a version of Trajan’s Market that foreshadowed the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. My grapes foreshadowed late Sam Francis. They were especially praised, and I won. I got the Hershey bar that was the prize. Next time, I reached in and drew Bolivia. Right, Bolivia. I cut out a brown mountain and stuck it on a blue sky. My friend Cecily drew Egypt and she killed it. Perspectival pyramids with scaled triangles of ocher in different shades. These were major pyramids, but I won again.

I thought this was outrageous. Either North Dallas third graders had developed a prescient taste for minimalism or I won because I had won last time and now I was the guy who won. The insult festered and I gave my Hershey bar to Cecily because I am a critic and not an artist. I don’t care about winning. I care about being right. Meanwhile, at home, my mom and dad screamed at one another. They threw clocks and vases. My mother was late for an appointment one morning. She backed out of the garage in a hurry, spinning her wheels, and ran over my Jack Russell terrier, Milton. She reminded me that it was my damn dog—that she was in a hurry—and rushed off, gone before she was gone, leaving me to bury Milton in the backyard. I took the little brass plate off Milton’s collar, nailed it to the side of the garage, and buried Milton under it. No one ever spoke of Milton again. On Saturdays, my parents were in the house together all day, so I would set off on my bike at 10 A.M. and ride down to the Inwood theater on Lovers Lane, and then over to the Village Center on Preston Road, to watch movies a day long. Unlike other movie fugitives I have known, I came to hate movies. Also, eventually, somebody stole my bike. 

Then one morning, I woke up to silence. There was no yelling or crashing. My dad was gone. He just drove off. We didn’t know where he had gone and Mom didn’t say. Like Milton, he was just gone. So I worked on my social studies covers, played baseball, and read books. One Saturday, my friend Harvey Richman took me to Hebrew school, which was very cool. I wanted to learn English the way Harvey was learning Hebrew, and eventually I did. So we, the Hickey children, cracked and crumbled under Mom’s thumb, although I was not much concerned with my siblings’ distress. Mostly Mom sublimated her distaste for Dad onto me because I bore his name, and anything I loved she hated. Then, in late June, Dad walked in the front door and said, “Start packing. We’re moving to California.” More screaming, explosions, and slamming doors, but we started packing. I went out to say goodbye to Milton, whom I had named Milton because Jack Russells are notoriously rambunctious animals and I thought a scholarly name would calm him down. It didn’t. So bye-bye, Milton, you scamp.

In three weeks, we had moved into this great house between the Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica Beach. There were wisteria, hydrangeas, a willow, three black-plum trees, and a giant bougainvillea. It was heaven, in other words, and I knew the names of the flora because my grandmother ran a flower shop and also because, generally, I know the names of things. I walked through the side door of our new house, out the front door, and ran for the water. I learned the taste of salt-snot up my nose and started bodysurfing right off. I tried a boogie board but it seemed dorky.

As we settled into California, I was enrolled in Santa Monica Elementary, which was multicultural, to say the least. I liked it because I had never known any black people or Latinos who were my age. It was cool, but I was like a mouse who fell to earth. They didn’t know what to do with me, so I gravitated toward the beach. There was an actor named John Agar who lived two houses up from us on the strip, between the beach and the highway. (If you drove straight off Wilshire Boulevard, then off the palisades, you would land on our house if you cleared the Pacific Coast Highway.) I got a job shoveling and sweeping sand off John and Gloria’s driveway. (I always had to have a job because working felt like freedom.) Anyway, I was often in the Agars’ garage, where a beautiful red Billabong longboard hung on a rack, and I sort of worshiped it. I just stood there for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, staring and dreaming.

Meanwhile, back at school, my attendance became an issue. They sent me to a counselor, and luckily she had been a surfer in her youth. We talked about whether the ninth wave was the best wave in a set. I argued that the best wave conformed to some irregularity in the bottom of the ocean and the direction of the wave. She looked at me funny, as if I had actually told her something. Then I started taking tests. I took this test and that test and one test with three people. One asked you questions, one watched, and one listened. I took tests where they stuck things on your head, eye tests and ear tests, brain scans, and strangely I never considered the idea that they might be a little bit afraid of me. Finally, my counselor told me I was counterphobic (whatever that might mean). She promoted me from the third to the sixth grade and told me not to worry much about attendance, so I didn’t. Sixth grade in Santa Monica Elementary was sort of a finishing school for gangbangers anyway—and however awful California schools might be, their testing was top level, which says something about California, I guess. Also, when I learned what “counterphobic” meant, that was me. I walked out of that office absolutely sure I would never attend a school where my kind of smart was worth shit. This would prove to be true.

I wasn’t a sissy but logic prevailed. It is less punishing to be knocked down in the sand than on the asphalt. I never started a fight, because fights are so intimate and sweaty. I did win some of the fights I never started, though. So here I was, six months after Ms. Blackburn’s third grade, social studies, and Cecily’s pyramids. I was an undersized sudden sixth grader in this beautiful jungle full of large, shiny Californians with Polynesian tattoos. Was it scary or was it a rush? I never figured this out. Mostly a rush, I think, since kids heal easy. They move on in a dazzle of forgetfulness and try to keep their heads up. Also, I had been well schooled by my narcissistic parents. I knew that it was always my fault, and I really don’t mean to put down my parents as much as it might seem here. Our relationship was not abusive; it was a fight, not a battle; it was a competition for the oxygen in the room. And even though I didn’t like them, I knew somehow that they were just like me: smart, well-educated, working-class people trying to keep their noses above the bubbles.

Then finally, fatally, I got lucky. I was standing in John’s garage one day, communing with his surfboard. He pulled up in his Oldsmobile convertible and watched me a minute. Then he said, “You want that board?” I looked at him like a demented forest creature.

“Really,” he said. “I broke my ankle when we were doing Tarantula. I can’t ride it anymore.”

“How much do you want for it?” I said.

“Nothing,” John said, with his great big Hollywood smile. “I’ll even throw in the rack.” I think I nearly swooned, whatever that is, but I nodded yes, yes, yes. It seemed to me that being divorced from Shirley Temple had freed John up a little. I also thought Gloria DeHaven, his current girlfriend, was a little less full of herself than Shirley. So this was one of the four times in my life, discounting spontaneous blowjobs, when someone just casually did something nice for me that changed my life.

So now I was a real surfer who couldn’t surf. I floated around out beyond the chop. In my head, I called my board Milton, with no sign or anything lest I initiate explosions at home. The board was like an aircraft carrier. I was like a lizard holding on. But I came to like the wobble of the water and the strong feeling of finding a steady groove. I would practice getting up and down; then, when I felt good standing up, I would climb up and lean to the beach. It took a month for me to get to the beach standing up. Then the local dudes started picking on me. They would zoom across behind me and throw me up in the air. I would be standing on the beach side by side with Red Dog, our boards under our arms. Red would turn away suddenly, and the back of his board would knock me in the face. “Sorry, dude,” he would grin. Eventually I learned that surfers don’t have friends until they’re about thirty. Until then, it’s a battle on the beach and in the foam, and thank God for my high pain threshold (that’s when you feel it) and higher pain tolerance (that’s how long you can stand it).

So I started traveling. It was easier than you think in those days. Every fifth car had a board rack, so I got rides up to Malibu and down to Ocean Beach and Huntington, where the sets were more orderly, the competition more fierce, and the fish tacos were great. I was not a good surfer. I had stupid feet, and in my memory, all my competitors looked like Laird Hamilton: genius feet, big jaws, horse teeth, blond hair, and no mercy. All I had was a genius brain, infinite patience, and a cozy familiarity with failing. So I did my surfing homework. I took the bus to the coast guard office and bought a bunch of cool rayon acetate maps that resist water, fold like paper, and wad like cloth. These maps traced the ocean bottom as it slid off the beaches. You were looking for underwater humps out on the ocean floor and fallaways near the beach, each of which pushed the ocean up quickly, promising good waves.

When I could read the bottom of the ocean from the top, it was like surfing on a clam, so I gained a little cred. Although I could pick the wave, I would nearly always fall off the wave. But I started falling off some very good waves, and when I actually made it, I was beautiful when I did my crucifix thing, arms outspread, like my friend Kenny Price, who lived on the same cliff we did when we moved to Pacific Palisades.

My frenemies were curious, since I was clearly no waterman. They called me Whoopsy, so one day I took my maps up to Malibu to show them. The minute I stepped on the beach, I knew I had set myself up. My friends might drown me, actually kill me, or they might call me a dork, steal my maps, or stick them down their baggies and dare me to take them back. Since that day, I have never approached a group of people without being en garde about the possibility of scorn—although nothing bad happened. My pals were amazed. They ran their fingers down the coastline on the maps and picked out the spots I had found, and some they had found, too. They liked the juju science of techno-surfing. We were out on the flat ocean leaning over our boards like a conference table discussing aquatics. After that, when I fell off a big one, they would yell, “Big Wave Dave!” as they shot past me. Just the jokey name made me feel better. I had outsmarted my stupid feet. I liked that, and if I paddled way out, they would sort of drift out with me. You positioned yourself in the ocean by triangulating with objects on shore, just like Captain Cook. This was a learned skill that made you feel good. You made a triangle like Cecily did. You triangulated with two points on shore—the palm in front of the green store, the back of a traffic sign. A triangle like that.

During this time, the family moved to Pacific Palisades and into one of those ultramodern houses that hung off the cliff, as if to remind us that Dad, left to his own devices, could make a lot of money. You entered the house on the third floor, into the living room, went downstairs to the bedrooms, and down again to the service rooms. Eventually that house on Posetano Road slid down the cliff onto the highway, leaving a gap that’s still on the map, but it was a fine house to live in. I hung Milton Rouge in my bedroom—a name I got from The Count of Monte Cristo. Mostly, I stood on the porch and looked off toward Tasmania. (I had lines drawn on the porch rail so I would know where I was looking.) Now I was in middle school and had to go to class on a bus, but I surfed in the morning and in the afternoon. After the last waves of the day, I could barely carry Milton up the stairs to the house. But there was real incentive. Esther Williams, the swimming-movie actress, lived in the house below us, so I would wait for her to come out for a dip.

Meanwhile, I was always looking for anything perfect, and then it happened. It was just before daybreak. I was way out beyond the notches that shiver the waves off Ocean Beach in San Diego. I was standing on my board, looking out to sea, and there it came, big and steady and hard out of the north and west, like a set at Waimea. I paddled over to my secret shallow place and climbed aboard. My wave kicked over the bump. It rose above the other waves. We were flying south and east so the approach was a problem. We were heading for the midsection of the Ocean Beach Pier, and I was not good enough to avoid it at that speed. I thought, “Jump,” and then I thought, “Fuck it,” tucked up, and shot the pier with amazed faces looking down at me.

Now I was heading straight toward Sunset Cliffs. Half my brain was shouting, “Jump, jump, jump.” Half my brain was shouting, “Hold and spin, hold and spin.” The holds won, so I tried to get as close as I could and spin out by shooting my board up in the air. I underestimated my momentum. It didn’t work. I flew off the board and hit the cliff sideways. Good for Milton, bad for me. My back crashed into the limestone and ruptured my lower body. This was a big oops but I was lucky to capture Milton as he spun away. I paddled out one-handed as hard as I could, well above my pain threshold, and one-handed my way back to Ocean Beach. Once on the sand, I just lay there. Finally, a cute little fat girl came up and asked me if I was hurt. I suggested 911 and took a little nap.

I woke up in the hospital with two hernias and three splintered ribs, annoyed that I had missed the ambulance ride, and honest to God, I was amazingly proud of myself. I had ridden a waterman ride, Jesus. They shot me up with pain drugs and spent six hours trying to reach my family. They finally reached my little brother, who got in touch with my mom at UCLA, where she was teaching. She gave them a bunch of numbers and told them to fix me. They did. Today, my mom would have had to drive down and sign something. If so, I would still be there, but those were easier times, and as I rolled out of the hospital late the next day, the doctor told me that I had just retired from surfing. I nodded and climbed into the limo I had ordered. The driver and I waited in front of the clinic for the woody that would take poor Milton home, battered, disheveled, and strapped to the top. I could hardly believe that the EMTs had thrown Milton into the ambulance. I guess it really was a brotherhood. I could hear the EMTs talking … “Shot the fucking pier … ”

As we headed back to the Palisades up the Pacific Coast Highway, I found myself dreaming about the high board at El Segundo. That bounce. Muscle memory. I was also happy I had done the ride alone and in secrecy. The wave was gnarly enough to lie about, and I knew right then that I was going to be okay. I was free, in some dreamy way. When we made it home, the limo guy helped me downstairs to bed. The woody guy brought Milton down and hung it on the wall. Clearly, they had done this sort of thing before. I tipped the guys everything I had. My little brother showed up. He brought me some Cheerios. After Cheerios, I took two of the pain pills that my doctor had recommended one of, and drifted off.

The next morning, a tap on the door awakened me. My dad came in and told me I was breaking my mother’s heart, and his, too, of course. Then he gave me a secret smile like we were in a Gulag and quickly retreated because my mother was coming. She stalked into my room. She told me I was breaking her heart, and would I just look at myself, wrapped up like a sore thumb. I feigned coma until she left. But I felt good. I was breaking their hearts. Damn right! That seemed real, like breaking their legs. There was a frisson of intimacy about it. Even if it was negative, they had noticed me. Since the day they discovered me gestating in my mother’s womb, they had been pissed off at me. My dad was a musician and I ruined that. My mom was a painter and I ruined that, too. Neither would abandon their dreams unless the other did. It was a Mexican standoff. They just stood there in the shiny glass living room, eye to eye, daring one another.

I lay there in bed for six or seven days gradually shedding bandages, watching Crusader Rabbit on my blond, round-screened television, and reading ocean books from the Santa Monica City Library. All these books had orange square-riggers stamped on the spine. I started with the little numbers: like I Sailed with Magellan and I Wish I’d Sailed with Captain Cook. Kids’ books, but I dreamed them. I could feel the slick quarterdeck and watch the mast tilt toward the rising waves. Finally I got to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and The Secret Sharer and I knew I had turned a corner. I could feel the sea in the spray and feel the grammar escalating like a tangle of salty sea rope. Then I read Lord Jim and I could feel him seeping into me, the panic, the uncertainty I knew so well. Lord Jim was a real fucking book, but it was hard to be fond of it, because, in my eyes, I was Jim. I felt that I should have been braver and started a revolution.

Finally, I was mobile enough for school again. I stumbled down the steps and caught the bus to Emerson with one of Esther’s kids. We always acted sullen on the bus because we were from the Palisades and fuck you. That evening I came home to an arid new world. I walked into my room and Milton Rouge was gone, the rack upon which Milton Rouge hung was gone, the screw holes that had held the rack were gone. They had been spackled, sanded, and repainted so no trace of Milton remained. And the board would never be mentioned again. I decided that my parents would have made a great success writing Soviet history. I felt as if something had been amputated. That was the board upon which I rode the ride, and there was nothing I could say. So I swore to have my revenge. Like the Count of Monte Cristo, I kept my own counsel. They had killed Milton the terrier, my alter ego. They had killed Milton Rouge, my oceangoing avatar. There would be an accounting soon enough, and today every word I write, I guess, is part of that revenge. Perfect.


Reprinted with permission from Perfect Wave: More Essays on Art and Democracy, by Dave Hickey, to be published in November by the University of Chicago Press. © 2017 by Dave Hickey. All rights reserved.

Dave Hickey is former executive editor of Art in America and the author of 25 Women: Essays on Their ArtThe Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, and Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy.