The skies outside are gray. There’s even a small, teasing whisper of a cool zephyr outside, as the local weather phenomenon commonly known as the Delta Breeze kicks in to bring down the seasonally hot Central Valley summertime heat. It is the sort of unusual, slightly atypical gentling of an otherwise harsher set of climatic cconditions (the unfailingly hot, sere dog days of a Sacramento summer) that inspires my own creative muse to step forward. A mood that usually rises within me whenever I’m on the coast and pleasingly immersed in the fondly recalled onshore freshets and foggy mists of my early life.
Quite recently, as a member of the generation that came to maturity in the post WW2 years, I happily (if completely accidentally) stumbled into William Finnegan’s insightful and recently released (2015) book about being a teenaged surfer in those formative years we both shared (the 60s/70s). His book, titled Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, deals with the actualising experiences whereby he grew to maturity, the narrative spun out upon a backstory involving our mutual youthful passion, surfing. Being only a few years younger than I, the adventures and sensations he describes, as a literate and bright young student caught up in the passionate lifestyle that is serious surfing, are simultaneously evocative and disturbing, for they remind me of my own failed promise to both live more fully than I ought to have, back in that era of personal growth & exploration, and to have maximized those magical times I now nostalgically recall as being among the best of my entire life.
To his credit, Finnegan is vastly more fortunate in having been born to and brought up within a family that encouraged his latent creative intelligence to develop. Although not directly stated, It’s fairly obvious that he had the advantage of being supported by both parents (I had only my mother), and especially by a father who set a fine example of how he should grow into the full bloom of actualised masculinity. It didn’t hurt that he also somehow managed to have very adequate financial help that enabled him to attend colleges that further fostered his creativity (among them UC Santa Cruz, today known more as a ‘party college’ than as a formidable center of acknowledged learning; in the 70s it was a cauldron of seething, creative Bohemianism, sited on one of the most beautiful sections of the Mid-California coast imaginable).
Be all that as it may, Finnegan sets forth a delicious menu of experiences in his book that revolve around his youthful preoccupation with finding the perfect wave, that elusive Holy Grail of every serious surfer dude of the 60s and 70s. Chapters of the book focus to a significant extent on travel he and a surfing buddy made to the outer reaches of Polynesia, wherein he discovered a tremendous number of yet-unknown ideal surfing venues. Moreover he benefitted immensely from his experiences back then so as to be able to meaningfully portray this important passage of his life for others (who have read his writings).
One of Finnegan’s major successes, as both a writer and as a fellow baby boomer, is to catalyse reflections and awarenesses in individuals such as myself, who may not otherwise have been prompted to look back upon those amazing days of puerile self-discovery with such intense focal scrutiny.
In particular, Finnegan manages with great success to paint a portrait of his intimate peers with whom he shared a number of adventures, superbly demonstrating his writer’s mastery of the skill to flesh out names and faces of those whose experiences he shared. But Finnegan, who has the cachet of being a highly regarded writer (for the New Yorker Magazine, principally) and award-winning media journalist (international investigative reporting) in his later years, has richly earned the street creds that enable it, unlike a great many mediocre writers such as myself. I suspect that Finnegan also has about 10 more IQ points than I do, as well…something that no amount of experience and learning may much change from the raw contents of one’s birth genome that one has inherited.
Not surprisingly, Finnegan’s background is somewhat congruent with my own to a small extent. He also was captivated by the writings of post-Beat era notables (such as Jack Kerouac and Gary Synder) of the 50s, who inspired in him a desire to write the great hip American novel. So too he benefitted from early work experience on the rail lines traversing the Salinas/Monterey Coastal section of the California Coast that inspired him much as had Kerouac’s own. He was further a devotee of the 60s/70s California surfing boom, but thanks to his parents’ lifestyle (his father was a television crewman and later producer who helped create ‘Hawaii 5-0’ and other programs with a distinctive pseudo-islands flavor), Finnegan was early-on exposed to the Hawaiian haole malihini lifestyle that paralleled local island surfing culture.
And although Finnegan pays attention to his various attractions to young women of his youth, necessarily one aspect of his introspective focus deals with his masculine peer relationships, since adolescence is nothing if not a wilding seething crucible of hormonal forces and impulses (tidal waves?) that have not yet sorted themselves out fully.
It may seem odd for a fully grown man, looking back upon the uncertain, unstable path of his adolescence, to comment on things like self-awareness of admirable or desirable traits he found in his companions when comparing himself to them (as we all do in that period of maturative uncertainty). Thoughts on ‘how do I stack up against my close friend X?’ are understandable, since while we are all the direct products of our genetic inheritance, barely conscious envy of our peers who may have been more fortunately endowed in some important way by nature is a perfectly natural, fully comprehensible aspect of growth for both boys & girls (& young men & young women).
Finnegan paints himself as a youth as being tall & thin, not much different than I was in fact, and pictures in his book do indeed emphasize that fact. His close peers he often described as being ‘tall, larger, more muscled and distinctive appearing’, a suggestion that he felt himself everything they were not. Although Finnegan stops short of any direct commentary on himself and the close buddies that he shared the book’s experiences with, there are one or two casual comparisons that indicate a wistful wish that he were a bit more physically formidable than he was.
All that gradually came together in my progress through his book to reflect my own recollective gaze back at certain of my own close companions, with whom I shared some sort of intangible but highly idealised link as a teenager.
One of them in particular…we shall call him ‘Steve’…had seemed to me, a 2nd year student in high school, to be all that I felt I should be. Steve was, like myself, thin and verging towards ‘tall’, but he also had certain physical assets I deeply wished for myself. Whereas my proportions were, I suppose, ‘normal’, it seemed to me that Steve had broader shoulders and narrower hips…features that even then I recognized as being masculine ideals. He also had naturally light blonde hair, most likely inherited from his fair-skinned Ukrainian forebears, and a certain set to his facial features that communicated relaxed, confident composure and self-possession, abetted by a coolly nonchalant demeanor. I had, by comparison, a slightly recessed chin with a narrow jaw and watermelon-shaped head (think: Heinrich Himmler, LoL), and was a notoriously gentle, mild mannered & polite kid who found being rebellious a somewhat unnatural and challenging role to comfortably assume. Steve also had a lean but muscularly wiry father who was someone that could be looked up to, and although very much preoccupied by his house painting business, still had the time to provide the sort of traditional masculine counsel all boys need to effectively model themselves after. By contrast, I had lost my father at the age of four and I suppose I have gone through my entire life looking on certain others I have encountered from time to time as the father I never had.
In short, Steve was my idealized image of all that I wished I were and part of my desire to hang out with him was a desire to bask in a shared sense of all those idealized individual assets I felt I could never hope to fully possess.
I wouldn’t say that I had an erotic attraction to Steve, since I had and always have maintained an inherently and strictly heterosexual orientation, but at that age, when gender roles and hormonal forces far transcend the understanding and reckoning ability of the mere children that we are at that age, these attractions often interweave themselves confusingly and uncertainly. Sometimes leading in unexpected directions.
Steve and I were both on the high school swim team, although neither of us was sufficiently determined nor particularly motivated to excel in the pool as competitive swimmers. At that time the first nylon Speedo swimsuits were coming into common use by swim-teams. Prior to that, we had worn these horribly awkward woven, gray wool racing suits that fitted like a worn-out gardening glove, hanging in folds and looking not unlike something a ‘bag lady’ would wear, albeit in a bit more abbreviated manner.
To be sure, the sight of those tight little tank suits on our more comely female members of the team was a sure-fire erotic stimulation to us hormonally hyper-charged boys (and several of them, even at that age, were equipped with quite extraordinarily bumps & curves in the right places). But still, I couldn’t quite shake the impression from my mind that Steve looked so ‘right’ in his own racing suit (I fancied myself, in comparison, to be about as ‘right appearing’ as a nude young Charles De Galle, with painfully feminine hips, narrow shoulders and unmuscular chest). I suppose it was about as close to an adolescent erotic same-sex attraction as I ever came, but I still recall that odd feeling today, looking back and picking randomly, here and there among my youthful memories. Consequently, although I was one year older than Steve, he was my secretly envied model for all things adolescent and manly.
When we discovered surfing, as a great many of my generation did in the early 60s, my friend Steve fitted perfectly, almost seamlessly, into the very paragon of the pseudo-surfer image. With his naturally blonde hair, bleached out even more by the summer sun & the pool’s high Chlorine content (my own hair, by contrast, was what has frequently been described as ‘dish-water blonde’, although it did get lighter , thanks again to the sun & the pool), made it appear as if he had just walked out of a Beach Boys concert promotion at Huntington Beach, an illusion further augmented to some sizeable extent by the way his ‘uniform’ (blue plaid Pendleton shirt, white jeans, Madras belt and blue boat shoes; all part of the heavily marketed ‘surfer look’ fad that was powerfully promoted by contemporary trendy youth media) all fitted him perfectly.
Curiously, although certainly the strikingly perfect icon of what a teenaged male surfer should look like (in my opinion), Steve had little more success than did I in attracting any attention from the hot chicks in our classroom set. I guess that may be partly due to the fact that in those days it was considered fashionable to affect the ‘lonely surfer’ look, an image that worked to cast us self-obsessed surf grommets as small virtual representations of Jack Nitzsche’s song of the same name. Part of that de rigeur image required us to be always somewhat distant, slightly removed from reality, perhaps fixed in another, more remote esoteric state as we went about our daily affairs. Since the trend then was that surfers were misunderstood ‘loners’, who rejected the conventional world because we were inherently somehow beyond it, we didn’t exactly encourage female attention. The posturing as ‘apart’ and ‘aloof’ naturally worked against natural boy-girl magnetisms, naturally enough. And of course we were so young and naïve that we couldn’t for the life of us understand how we were supposed to smoothly reconcile the simultaneous (yet polar) objectives of being ‘cool’ AND being a chick magnet (come to think of it, I still to this day can’t understand how to do this, even assuming that the two goals were compatible). I suppose we automatically assumed that any truly worthy, foxy chick with her priorities squared away would somehow AUTOMATICALLY be drawn to us. Naturally, that didn’t work, since almost all the young women were drawn to more conventional bad boy types (leather jacketed young thugs with plenty of attitude) and not to somewhat ethereal, hard to understand and vaguely distant guys who seemed to prefer lovely beaches and empty waves to the social congeniality of others.
At that time, we registered for the most part only two distinctive peer groups among us (aside from abject nerds and social retards): ‘surfers’ and ‘greasers’. Since there was a healthy local population of Hispanics (read: Chicanos) and since they all affected the highly pomaded ‘ducktail’ haircuts so popular among hip young men of the late 50s, they were automatically chuckled into the greaser identification bin. Surfers were natural, clean, windblown and tanned. Greasers wore pegged black pants, affected black leather jackets and had hair like a parody of Elvis’ exaggerated duckass pompadour. It wasn’t hard to imagine that they actually used animal grease to keep all that black hairy mass in place, hence greasers all earned our undying scorn, as we tanned & windswept children of the sea looked disdainfully down upon them.
Of course, as children of California’s car culture, we were also drawn to fast cars and motorcycles, another hot trend that drew near-universal adolescent attention in the 60s. With a well-known drag racing center near us (the Famoso Drag Strip), it didn’t take me long to acquire my very first car, a nicely preserved 1940 Chevy Deluxe Coupe, which I was able to wheedle my mother into getting for me at the hefty price of $50. The Chevy, although all there and with excellent, fully intact bodywork, needed a paint job (it was clad only in reddish brown primer). Since Steve was never able to coax his parents into agreeing to get him his own car, this remained the only thing I had that I fancied valued my stock slightly higher than Steve’s, but before that I had scored an even earlier success in my peer status competition with Steve. That took the form of a small Honda C-110 Super Sport motorcycle. I say ‘motorcycle’ despite the fact that with its tiny 50cc engine, it hardly qualified as anything other than a ‘motorbike’. Still, motorbikes were commonly agreed to have bicycle pedals, so that they could be driven either under their own power or entirely by pedal power, and the small Honda 50 bikes, at the time (early 60s) a startling and theretofore wholly unknown device on the American scene, entirely lacked pedals. The frame was also styled just like that of a conventional motorcycle…a radical departure from the step-through frame featured on what we called ‘sissy-bike’ Honda Cubs.
All of this guaranteed that the Honda C-110 Super Sport would garner substantial attention from the high school crowd, and I am proud to say that I was the first in town to get one. This all came about as a result of a deal I had made with my mother, who at the time was getting increasingly exasperated with having to deal with a typically rebellious older child (me, although at a far lower order of magnitude than some of the REAL rebels in my crowd). In an effort to buy into some sort of cooperation from me, I was offered the choice of either 1) prep school at the exclusive Shattuck Military School in Minnesota (attended by all my cousins), or 2) a Honda C-110 Super Sport. It doesn’t require much imagination to figure out which option I chose, but not long after that Steve was able to persuade his parents to allow him to have one also, although a car was still off limits by their reckoning.
Interestingly, since the Hondas had to be ordered in advance (and took a while to arrive at the showrooms), one of our less well-liked local peers, the son of a school teacher and bus-driver father, got wind of our plan to buy these neat toys and was able to beat us to the punch by persuading his father to get for him a cheap motorbike made in Japan that had the horrific name of ‘Runpet Sport’ (a typical Japanese name, characteristic of the immediate post-war days before Japan acquired the cultural marketing savvy required to capture the entire American consumer market). The ‘Runpet Sport’ was a wretchedly flimsy, poorly designed and badly constructed, motorized two-wheeler; but worse yet, it featured an objectionably noisy, dirty & smoky 2-cycle engine (vice the smooth, quiet & virtually smokeless 4-cycle engine that made the small Honda counterparts so instantly successful). It was so noisy that you could hear it coming blocks away, whereas our neat little Hondas were almost whisper quiet by comparison. Consequently, our friend’s attempt to steal our youthful thunder fell flat on its face, a failure which it seemed we could never enjoy enough at his expense.
At this point, I felt (looking back on things in retrospect) that I was almost as successful as my buddy Steve in terms of being about equitable in the status department. By this time we were in our junior & senior years respectively, and the profound effects of our respective class status had some unforeseen effect on our interactions & attractions. Steve had another friend named Ron, who, although I felt he was a complete dork otherwise, owned an exotic (to us, at least) Italian Ducatti motorcycle and I could begin to feel Steve and I pulling apart, as the gravitational pull between Ron & Steve grew.
We had a few more adventures together, mostly consisting of surfing trips on the Central California Coast (Pismo, Avila Beach, Shell Beach, etc.), but all too soon graduation from high school imposed a further filter between us. I went off to college, while Steve spent a last year in high school before joining the Air Force.
For my part, I studied for two years (freshman & sophomore) in a most desultory, half-hearted manner at the junior college I was enrolled in, such that at the point where the intensifying Vietnam War fiasco found student deferments for all GPAs below ‘C’ level suddenly being yanked, I feared for my own academic posterior. Next stop appeared to be a rice paddy, where I was convinced a VC bullet with my name on it waited for me in the jungle. Regardless of the increased urgency to get better grades, I was very lackluster in my desire to excel.
Despite being what my high school counselor had defined as a ‘gifted underachiever’ (i.e. intelligent, but unmotivated to study with any enthusiasm), I just couldn’t decide what future lay ahead for me, specifically with respect to possible interest in an occupational calling, and continued to pull down a rather unspectacular GPA. Clearly, given the political and military situation at that time, my options were running out.
Meanwhile, as I continued to muddle about academically in my half-hearted manner, Steve had traded in his old Honda 50 C-110 Super Sport for a new Honda 305 Super Hawk, a really beautiful and archetypal predecessor of what was to become a whole new generation of large displacement Japanese motorcycles. It was a beautiful bike and one with enough power to go just about anywhere effortlessly. I, for my part, still remaining loosely connected to Steve in several ways, was stung enough to go out and buy one of the big black Honda 305 Dreams, a bike configured with a huge and heavy pressed steel frame that contrasted radically to Steve’s contemporaneous, lighter and far flashier 305 Super Hawk.
And so it went, until nearing the end of my second college year I was made anxious enough by the prospect of being drafted into the Army to voluntarily enlist in the US Air Force. It had been the lesser of two equally adverse options, the other being driving north to the US/Canadian border and seeking amnesty among the Canucks as a war protestor. To this day I still look back and wonder about what a profoundly different life I may have had, were I to have taken the Canadian option, but my decision to join the Air Force at least promised me a good chance of being spared the inglorious end of a grunt infantry pointman, shot between the eyes while leading his squad through the humid hell of the paddies.
As things worked out, I became an Air Force medic, an assignment that found me rather comfortably ensconced in the ZI (Zone of the Interior), assigned to SAC and ADC as an aeromedical specialist (flight medicine).
After serving just over two years, various motivations related to my political stance on the war prompted me to opt out of the service and shortly after being discharged (honorably, with a perfectly clean record except one instance of deliberate AWOL, made to underscore the seriousness of my request for separation) I relocated back in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I began to work for what is now the Summit Medical Center (at that time, three separate hospitals that included Providence Hospital (Catholic), Merritt Hospital (private), and another nearby facility).
My buddy Steve also joined the Air Force just after he graduated from high school, but unlike me, Steve stayed in for a full career, retiring after neary 25 years as a Master Sergeant, principally working in the flight simulation career field (AFSC). From that point on I lost track of Steve entirely, until, prompted by the knowledge that he was still on active duty, I decided to look him up. Tracking him to his last duty station (Davis-Monthan AFB, in Arizona) through the Air Force Association we both belonged to, I sent off a couple of letters asking him how things were, but failed to get any response (strangely).
It wasn’t until much more recently (about 5 years ago) that I finally caught up with my old friend Steve, who by that time had retired and returned to his home-town where we had attended high school together. Renewing our correspondence thanks to the marvels of the internet & email, I was slightly shocked to learn that Steve, my ideal as a youthful high school role model, had gained weight to the point where I infer he was almost morbidly obese. He had also married (a Filipina from the town nearby Clark AB, where he had once been stationed), kept a full-dress Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the garage (I can’t stand Harley-Davidsons), and a rather full gun cabinet in the house (my own relationship to guns is quite conditional). Steve also had had the misfortune of suffering significant coronary artery disease somewhere along the way, a condition undoubtedly complicated by a heavy drinking tendency. In other words, Steve now was the merest vestige of that handsome, lean and ‘cool’ kid I had so much emulated in my tender youth. To say it was a total shock is considerably understating things, of course, but such is so often the way in life as our youthful hopes, dreams, perceptions and valuations fall off by the wayside with increasing age, like the petals of a flower…once glorious and blazing brightly, now wizened away into impotent nothingness.
Steve, the representation of all that I envied when I was just starting out in life, passed on this past year and his is one of the few funerals I have ever allowed myself to attend (although it was actually a posthumous memorial service in the current fashion that purports to ‘celebrate life’ rather than an actual funeral service).
The service was an unexpected embarrassment in that although brought up in a strongly Evangelical Pentecostal Christian church (Ukrainian), he had never been a particularly devote or practicing Christian. Consequently, when asked to officiate at the service, the local minister, who had hardly any glimmer of who exactly Steve was, ended up what was supposed to be an inspiring homily on Steve’s life with a barely restrained, bible-thumping exhortation to sinners to step forward and receive Christ the Savior! For those of us in the audience, it was most painfully awkward, a pathetically failed effort to honor Steve and a very sad and grossly misdirected way of positively highlighting Steve's achievements in life. Steve had attained in his life. For my part, it further underscored the natural anathematic antagonism I have long maintained towards organized religion…especially those religions of the radically Evangelical Pentecostal fringe. And the result for me is that it likely will be the very last time I attend any further such commemorative memorial ‘gatherings’…for anyone.
What lasting impression is there to be gained from all of this melancholy post-mortum introspection? I suppose that in the absolute end, every life is a journey full of unexpected twists and turns and that for all the preening vanity that motivates our personal interpretations of reality in the erstwhile human ‘human life experience’, nothing ever really matters once we leave our present form and merge into that black unknown vastness that lies beyond all human understanding.
Another way of putting it might be this: enjoy your personal journey of life fully and unreservedly, and don't be too quick to berate yourself for any self-perceived failings along the way, for ultimately everything dissolves quickly enough into the black void of abject emptiness. In this, the ancient Buddhist scholars were and are absolutely correct...
How odd. How infinitely sad. But how inalterably...human?