Surfing, Alcohol, and Stranger Danger
That feeling. You notice the swells behind you are changing. Are they less flat and becoming steeper? Is this the set? In the black water, I could hear a voice from my left, yelling, “get ready, this is it!”
It’s midnight, but the moon is full. The water is warm and foamy. Excitement and terror fight for control of my thoughts.. Sitting up on my surfboard and looking back at the full moon silhouetting the dark swells seemed to stop time. I could feel the heat of tears forming from an overwhelming sense of the importance of this moment.
Life In The Low Lands
My family lived in Bevil Oaks, Texas, within the boundary of the Big Thicket. This area of southeast Texas is bayou country with thick, dense Cyprus tree forests, alligators, water moccasins, and lots of mosquitos.
We called it paradise.
As kids, our horses and bikes were our main transportation. 4H rodeos, Fourth of July parades, swimming in the bayou, camping in the woods, and meeting at the community pool occupied our hot summer days.
After a year of pleading and bartering, my mom offered to take me skateboard shopping for my birthday. While there were a lot of skateboard options in those days, my mind was set. The Bonzai Skateboard was the only board I would consider.
It was a dream with its oversized polyurethane wheels and aluminum deck. It was fast and smooth and made skateboarding feel like freedom. I was a tiny, wiry kid, so I came to see gravity as more of a suggestion than a law. I gladly exploited that relationship with skateboard handstands (which I can still do to this day) and holding on to cars to test the Bonzai’s cushy wheels at speed on the rough asphalt roads.
Our tiny community pool was across the street from our house, and when the new tennis courts were built next to the pool, we finally had a smooth surface to skate. The tennis courts became our new skatepark.
I had developed the trick of jumping over objects while my skateboard rolled under.
The tricky part was landing back on the board and continuing skating. I was challenged by a friend to jump the tennis court net. We tied the bottom of the net so the skateboard could travel underneath. I should mention that we had no pads or helmets in those days and that one maneuver left scars still visible today.
I eventually made it over the net with a clean landing. We would practice this trick along with low slide-outs, obstacle skating, and any other trick we could imagine. We had a lot of time.
What’s Stranger Danger?
Within the line of sight of the lifeguard stand at the pool, our new lifeguard, Mike Reins, would watch us. We didn’t know much about him other than he was over eighteen and had a sweet Chevy van with surfboard racks. We were still kids, and to us, Mike seemed like a movie star. Tan, tall, lean, flowing brown-blond hair, and cooler than we would ever hope to be.
I was fourteen years old when Mike Reins stopped me at the pool and commented on my tennis court skateboarding. Time stopped when he said, ”You would be a natural at surfing. We’re going this weekend if you want to join us.”
“Did I hear that correctly?” was my first thought. “What do you mean?” I asked with what sounded in my head like a little boy’s voice. “My friend Phillip and I are leaving Friday at 10:00 PM to surf at midnight under the full moon and coming back on Sunday,” Mike replied.
Ok, Situational Factors
- 14 years old agreeing to go camp-surfing in a Chevy Van with two older men.
- What will my parents say?
- I don’t know how to surf
- Surfing at midnight…we’re surfing at midnight!
Without hesitation, I said, “Yes!”
If enthusiasm were physical, I would have been ripped apart. But I calmly thanked Mike and told him I would check with my mom. Slowly walking away from the pool, I continuously looked back over my shoulder until the pool building blocked my view of the lifeguard stand. From there, I’m sure I set a world sprinting record the rest of the way home.
A Different Time
We lived in a time and place outside of stranger danger or automatic suspicion – at least in my family. I burst through the door yelling, “Mom, Mom.” I found her in the garage about to change the oil in our station wagon. She invited me to help.
Under the car, the drain plug plopped into the oil catch pan. On our backs working together, I told her about the surfing opportunity with the lifeguard. Without a beat, she said, “Wow, Bill, that sounds like a great experience. I guess it’s ok but just be safe.”
We finished the oil change and not another word was spoken about it.
It was a different time.
Beer and Surfing
Friday night arrived with me standing in the driveway. In my hands, a towel, swim trunks, blanket, and five bucks in cash tucked into the back pocket of my cutoff shorts. I was ready to go. The van pulled up in the driveway, I hopped in the back, and off we drove into the night.
In the front passenger seat was Mike’s friend, Phillip Hussey. He was some sort of surfing legend at the time. After introductions, Phillip didn’t say much. We headed out down the thickly forested hwy 105 toward Beaumont, where we stopped at a 7-11. I stayed in the van while they went inside.
They emerged with snacks and a case of Schlitz Malt Liquor. A case of beer. We hit the road and they both popped tops and clicked cans to midnight at Meacom’s Pier, our destination.
The van was dark in the back: no seats, only extra surfboards, wet suits, and various supplies. I could hear a slight, whispered argument ensuing. A few moments passed when Phillip turned around to offer me a beer.
Red or Blue Pill?
There are moments that define us. My choice was binary: pass or accept. Pass and everything remains the same. Accept, and everything changes. My 14-year-old brain chose the Red Pill.
I popped the top and took a sip. The Red Pill sucked. Warm beer is an acquired taste for even hard-core beer drinkers. It smelled like warm urine and tasted worse. I was in a predicament. While I had gained “cool guy” points for accepting the beer I clearly would not be able to drink this disgusting “gift.”
We were still about 45 minutes to the beach, and my dilemma with what to do with this “urine in a can” was interrupted by a weird road noise. It came from under the wet suit I was using for padding against the cold steel surface. I lifted my neoprene cushion to find a small, rusted hole in the floor about the size of a quarter. I could see the road whizzing by beneath me.
I slowly and carefully poured my Schlitz through the hole.
About ten minutes later, I heard a can being crushed, and another pop-fizz from the front seat as both Mike and Phillip reached for seconds. With a mocking laugh, Phillip looked back at me and asked in a sarcastic tone, “Hey Bill, ready for another?” I crushed my can, handed it to him, and said, “thank you…absolutely!”
They both seemed stunned. I could hear Mike whispering, “Should we?” And Phillip said, “Here you go, little buddy.” They both laughed in disbelief.
In that 45-minute van ride to the beach, I poured three more beers through my Portal To Coolness.
We arrived at the beach in stunning, full moonlight. Both Mike and Phillip were tipsy and anxious to get into the water. Mike gave me a smaller custom board that he made. They showed me the leash system and Mike said, “It’s time to go water-skateboarding!”
I paddled out with them and watched. Phillip was shooting the pier and Mike was whooping and carving. I couldn’t seem to get into position. I was either late on timing or just couldn’t paddle fast enough. Mike saw me struggling and paddled over. He offered to call out the set and the best wave to take and then disappeared. Waiting and looking back at the dark swells against the bright moonlight, I heard, “This is the one, start paddling as fast as you can!”
That feeling. That lift. That push. That drop. “This feels familiar,” I thought. I stood, crouched, and joined the secret society of night surfers.
We surfed for hours. Exhausted, we left the water, came back to the van, and dried off. Mike and Phillip had another beer while I rummaged for my blanket and some water. I carved a bed and pillow out of the sand, wrapped up, sipped water, and watched the moon against dark swells in the distance. I drifted into a deepness of sleep I’d never experienced.
The morning light created the illusion of being away from life in Bevel Oaks for weeks. We got up and reminisced about the night over a breakfast of honey buns and warm, soft drinks. Delicious. After a morning of surfing, we headed to get burgers at High Island. Phillip decided he needed to cut the trip short, so we headed back to Beaumont early.
Over that magical summer, Mike invited me to surf many times and gifted me that custom surfboard. With every trip to the beach, I offered to ride in the back of the van, where I poured beer after beer all summer long through my Portal to Coolness.