I always get it when I speak of surfing. Well, no, not always. I get it in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Yes, and upstate New York, too. "The Look" is part smirk, part bemusement, part surprise, and part alarm. Since most people associate surfing with thin, blond, young, perpetually stoned Californians who grok and groove to the Beach Boys, and not with upper-middle aged, stocky, bespectacled preacher/schoolmasters from the Midwest who are fond of Wagnerian opera, they can't help but react.
The two places where I don't receive The Look are, firstly, California, where surfers are of all ages, body types, and backgrounds [I've shared the waves with a Marine Corps general and a sitting U.S. congressman, for example, and they were real shredders], and, secondly, the location that serves as the primordial source of all East Coast surfing: Ocean City, New Jersey, which has also been through the years my occasional second home. So much so, that my burial instructions include having my ashes scattered off of OC's southernmost beach.
Since my family has been going to the shore since before my birth, and since I spent a portion of my very first summer of life eating the sand of the OC beach, I have many happy associations with the place. It was here that I learned to sail, snorkel, operate a powerboat, reef and jibe, and catch offshore kings and blues. I also learned how to ride waves in Ocean City. It was here that I first heard the term "waterman" and decided that, whatever course my life took, I would do all I could to attain that title.
Waterman is not a gender specific term. A waterman is a person who can surf, swim, fish, dive, handle a tiller and a sheet-line, and, essentially, be proficient at any of the sports and activities that involve the sea. While I knew proficient surfers, had a buddy whose dad owned a boat, and came from a family of anglers, I didn't know anyone who fit the total definition, least of all me.
Well, except for The Waterman.
The thing is, I didn't really know The Waterman. I was thirteen when my buddies and I first noticed him and would have guessed he was somewhere between 25 and 40. In other words, according to my early adolescent sensibility, he was old. We didn't know his last name, whether or not he had a job and, if so, what it might be. We didn't even know where he was from.
We did, however, know where The Waterman lived. That was in the water.
Along with the rest of the east coast of the USA, I discovered surfing the summer before when I saw the documentary Endless Summer at a boardwalk theater on a rainy afternoon. By the next year, for better or for worse, my shore friends and I were using rented boards on, and mostly under, the waves.
The Waterman was always there. He was in the water in the morning and still there at sundown. On the nights with a full moon, he was on the waves in the lunar light. We would observe him in awe, as many of our contemporaries would do if in the company of Tom Seaver or Roman Gabriel. Speaking directly to him would have been impossible to consider. It would have been like a common Greek swineherd trying strike up a casual conversation with Poseidon.
So we watched him on the waves and, when possible, while on the same wave. We watched his style, his paddle out, his turns, his timing as to when to stand, his use of rip tides to carry him back to the surf with dispatch and efficiency. We learned more from watching The Waterman than we did from the chubby guy who ran the surf school on the boardwalk.
One day we saw him on a beach further south, armed with a surfcasting rod, reeling in a fat and feisty kingfish. Another time he was at a bayside marina renting a small sailboat which he piloted with dispatch from the east side of the Great Egg to the west and back again. He would always end his surf sessions by swimming from one side of the beach to the other, using long, reaching strokes. Needless to say, we tried to copy him in everything that he did, usually to worse effect.
But there was one time I remember particularly well. We were on the beach on a day that was not particularly inviting, as we were the only people there, when The Waterman walked by us, nodded, and said, “Mornin’, watermen”. Thus, even though it was not yet a deserved title, the holy and singular status was laid on us. I think our collective response was one of stunned silence. When such an event happens at an impressionable age, it lingers.
[Many, many years later I was working with a collection of wounded veterans, the eldest of whom was twenty-five years my junior. As they were leaving the meeting, and I was holding the door for one of them, he said “Thank you, Marine”. I hadn't been called that in thirty-five years and it gave me a moment’s pause and a similar impulse of pride.]
When I think of The Waterman and how we respected his technique on the waves and his obvious love of the water, I think of others whom I've known who have indirectly taught me, merely through my simple observation of them working their craft, how to do things with greater ability and, sometimes, sheer joy.
There was Barbara, who showed me how to preach by owning the pulpit and one’s own story; Daniel, who served the sacrament with grace and style. There was Donald, a bishop who displayed serenity in the face of unearned anger; Alva, who managed a classroom so that all of the students learned something regardless of their aptitude or interest; Richard, who saw literature not as a liberal arts subject but as an appreciation of the soul in all of its weakness and glory; Lew, who could shape wood as if it were an extension of himself; Harry, who challenged all previous philosophical notions, especially those that were calcified in curricula; Rod, who could re-build a V8 while blindfolded, and James, who had made his life into an art form; or, perhaps, his art into a life.
That list goes on and on, of course, as I hope it would for any normal person. I think of them in the stimulating moments standing before a congregation, the quiet moments in a workshop shaping a guitar body, and those serene moments when the wave has been timed just right and the rider, the rhythm of the surf, and the pull of the tides all combine in a God-given one-ness.
If the abiding essence of watermen, in or out of the water, is to manifest so complete a love for something that the enthusiasm, the passion, and the care in accomplishment becomes accessible and compelling to others, then in their own fields they were watermen all.