Friday, October 9, 2015

Edge of the Fire [1969]

It isn't permitted in Ocean City anymore, but when I was about 13 or 14 we could still go down the boardwalk steps to the beach at night. A lot of the high school and college kids did so and built fires and brought guitars, smoked cigarettes and sometimes pulled from a bagged bottle of Miller High Life. I was a straight-arrow kind of kid who didn’t smoke or drink, and I was conspicuously younger than most of them, but they let me enjoy the music, company and laughter, as long as I kept an appropriate distance. One evening a collection of Hare Krishna members, complete in saffron robes and with shaved heads, joined the evening beach set with their drums and other percussion instruments, handing out some delicious vegetarian dish that my friend, Jerry, refused to eat because he was afraid that it might have LSD in it. It was all a rather typical scene in the late 1960’s. The particular thing that united us was that we were beach people, with the royalty of the set being the surfers.

One of the surfers was a young man in his early 20’s who had recently returned from Vietnam. These days we would say that he had post-traumatic stress disorder; in 1969 it was still called “battle fatigue” or “shell shock”. It was not something that was treated in any real manner back then. He was pale and gaunt, despite spending most of his days on the 7th Street beach, the one that was marked for surfing only, and most of that time in the water. He was never in the center of any activity; he hovered in the outer orbit of the people around the beach fire, slightly visible in the orange glow. Mostly, he would stare at the waves and the phosphorescent lines that they made at night. He looked like he had gazed into some terrible abyss, had seen some ghastly truth, and was still trying to figure it out while knowing that he never could or would. He was known only by his ironic nickname, which was “Baby”.

One night Baby started a conversation with me. I don’t know why, except that I tended to the outside orbit of the beach fire, too. He just started talking, without looking at me, about how much he enjoyed the music, how much he had missed it over the past two years. That, and the caramel corn on the boardwalk and the cheeseburgers from a shack that stayed open late into the night. Baby then told me some lurid tales of Vietnam; so lurid that I wasn’t sure if they were true and wondered if he did so just to see my reaction.

He then asked me if I had seen that morning’s newspaper. It had been filled with stories about the horrific murder of a houseful of celebrities in Los Angeles. My mundane response was something like, “Yeah. Pretty bad.” Then he looked right at me; it was so startling that I think I stopped breathing for a moment. He said, “That’s why I ride the waves. They’re wild and they’re mad. Master the wave; master the madness.” He was silent for awhile afterwards; then he walked off into the darkness. I didn't move until my friend Jerry came over to ask me if I thought Baby was on LSD.

I never saw Baby again at night, and only occasionally in the daylight, on his board out on the waves of 7th Street, waiting for the best one, the largest and the maddest; waiting for just the right wave to master.

[Excerpt from Reading Water, all rights reserved© 2011]