In 1962 when I began surfing, surf lessons consisted of being shown how to apply paraffin wax (either melted and dripped onto the deck or melted and brushed onto the deck) and which end of the board to use. Other than that, I was basically on my own.
And so I, like most everyone who came before me was battered, bruised and nearly drowned by the waves until I learned to knee paddle, catch a greenwater wave and ride it to shore.
This process could take anywhere from a few days to a few months. After that you learned to shift your weight to the right or to the left and turn.
Then came cutbacks, kickouts, head dips, no-paddle takeoffs, noserides and variations on the theme. Without decent wetsuits or none at all, it was cold in the winter and blistering hot (in a time before rash guards) in the summer.
Boards weighed as much as 30 pounds. Surf leashes had yet to be invented and so a lost board meant swimming and maybe dings that you had to patch yourself.
The law was not necessarily on your side, and that meant older surfers were free to threaten or pound you if you mouthed off to them.
We got to the beach anyway possible — family, friends, hitchhike. It didn’t matter.
There were no surf reports and so you paddled out regardless of conditions. Unless our families took us, we rarely had enough to eat and so found ourselves relishing pork n’ beans over Wonder Bread and maybe Kool-Aid if the budget allowed.
Whenever we needed money we approached tourists to say that our dad had run out of gas and wondered if they could give us a dime to help out. This usually yielded 50 cents or a buck, which everyone shared. Some of my more criminally inclined friends would rob girl’s purses when they went to the water.
Sometimes the girls were liberated of both cash and cigarettes that were shared with us. Gosh, I miss those days.
Learning to surf now is far easier. Boards weigh a fraction of what they did a half-century ago, and beginner’s boards are made of soft materials that attach to you at the ankle.
There are wetsuits for all seasons, accurate surf reports, lunch is served hot and surf instructors hoot you on after pushing you into whitewater waves. With all that, surfing is still not easy, and those who teach it are not to be envied — they take a beating so you won’t have to.
Two weeks ago, my wife’s family rolled in from Texas where the kids in unison expressed one desire — to learn to surf.
They are all athletically inclined and so were standing after the first few tries, the stoke lingering on their senses like morning fog long after they were dry and on their way back home. I, on the other hand, had a sunburned neck and sinuses that drained through the night.
The experience of teaching friends and family to surf is not without its pains, but the pains are well worth the efforts as you pass on the stoke that only a surfer knows.
In a way, the pain of teaching surfing is like the pains endured when learning it. Pain. Gain. Suffering. Stoke.
All these feelings are logged into my memory until they are one thing, a thing I will never forget. All I ask of my students is that once they learn, they freely pass the gift on to the next lucky kid in line.