Late April 1972. Dad wasn’t talking, and neither was I. He snorted as he drove the two of us down through the hills of Encino. A snort from Dad was often a form of communication, a substitute for verbal expression. This snort had been abrupt and arid, voiding any likelihood that sinus issues were at the root of it. No, this snort was carrying a message, designed to reveal Dad’s meaning without his having to utter a word. The game for me was in the deciphering of it. Before grasping the intended meaning, I had to first consider conditions, such as time and place. As to time, it was eight-thirty on a Saturday morning. As to place, we were leaving Encino bound for Broad Beach. My finely tuned fifteen-year-old mind quickly determined the meaning of Dad’s snort: If you want to talk, go ahead. If you have questions, save them for another time. I knew he couldn’t yet have answers to any of the questions I might have wanted to ask him. I didn’t feel like talking anyway. And a snort would have been redundant. Besides, Dad was the only one of our family of five who could really get his point across by way of a single snort.
I left Dad to his cigarette and noticed the familiar package of Kent sitting on the console. It was milky white with subtle, steel-colored bands, and had the brand name just below the top of the package. I had seen it hundreds of times before. One of childhood’s icons, as it were. And always nearby. The image of that package sits alongside those of Campbell’s Soup, Kool-Aid, and the Superman logo in my childhood memory. Dad’s smoky exhalations were filling the car, creating an atmosphere not unlike the one we were driving through. It was hazy, or foggy, or cloudy. I never knew what to call that kind of sky in California.
In a month or two, Mom and I would be moving back to Texas where I had spent my first fourteen years. Dad would be staying on in California. He had moved into an apartment about a month earlier. Mercifully, I had been in Mexico during the event of the parental split. I suppose I had been out of school for spring break, because I was in Mexico for seven or eight days. I had been with Kelly and her family, whom I had met the previous summer at Broad Beach, where we became close friends….
After the Mexico trip, Kelly’s dad had driven us to their home, in Sherman Oaks, where I phoned Mom to come pick me up. Almost as soon as I got in the car, Mom announced, “I need to talk to you about something when we get home.” I didn’t ask why she was telling me that she was going to tell me something fifteen minutes later on. But I wanted to, if only to point out the absurdity of her announcement. I had been back on Californian soil for less than two hours, and Mom was already hinting, awkwardly, that a change in our lives was forthcoming.
Arriving home, we had no sooner walked through the front door than Mom said, “Let’s go sit at the kitchen table.” Oh, hell. Breakfast is the only good thing that ever happens at the kitchen table. I remember having the feeling that the news was going to be only bad, but not tragic.
“Your father and I are getting a divorce. It was his idea. I thought you and I should talk about moving back to Texas. You know, after school lets out. That’ll give me time to make a plan.”
Apparently, the idea of me living with Dad had not been considered. Even I could see the unlikelihood of that arrangement working out. Besides, I figured there might be some extra-marital activities at play, specifically where Dad was concerned. That possibility triggered an image of me, at age fifteen, and Dad, at fifty, along with his new girlfriend, my new Mom, who would probably be closer to my age than his, all living as a family. No, that wasn’t going to happen.
I wasn’t shocked about the divorce, even though I had never seen any outward signs of marital discontent in our home; no yelling and screaming, no accusations. Even my theory about Dad seeing another woman had no evidence to back it up. But I should have realized at the time that their relationship was on less than fertile ground. More like a barren landscape, accented only by the occasional tumbleweed. The news of their inevitable divorce had less effect on me than the plan to move back to Texas in a couple of months. The truth was that I felt unmoved by the separation and uneasy about the future.
Turning onto Sepulveda Blvd., my mood worsened as I noticed the used-car salesmen in their gaudy plaid sports-jackets, hawking their products. On weekdays, one could see these same clowns on local television channels, they always purchased cheap airtime to draw in customers. One ad even touted the notoriety of the car lot, boasting about how much fun it would be to buy a car and meet a real tv celebrity. Depressing.
It had been at this point of the two-and-a-half hour drive that Dad, acknowledging the car salesmen, would normally have said, I see the land sharks are out. Not today, though. I suppose the snort had covered that one, too. Not even a sniff was offered to commemorate the event.
After another couple of turns we entered the on-ramp to the Ventura Freeway. Rising above the streets below, we continued under an overcast sky, that foggy unknown I could not put a proper name to. After what seemed like an hour, we exited the freeway and turned onto a two-lane road, one we would travel upon for another forty-five minutes, winding down through a canyon or two before gaining access to Pacific Coast Highway — PCH for short. We were then just a few miles from Broad Beach, our destination.
Suddenly, Dad announced, “I thought we’d stop at the market and get a couple of sandwiches for when we get to the beach house. There’s no food left there”. I wasn’t hungry yet, but I nodded agreement, as I didn’t relish the thought of being without sustenance for the next few hours.
We entered the market, and I followed Dad to the deli aisle, where he chose a submarine-style sandwich with cold cuts and cheeses enclosed within the seeded bun. He then shot an optimistic glance my way and said, “These are pretty good. I tried one last week when I came here to get some of my stuff out of the house. They have onions and pickles and lettuce over there, and dressings if you want your sandwich wet”. Dad’s idea of a “wet” sandwich was one that dripped and shed bits of its ingredients into an ever-increasing pile as it was eaten. That pile was to be consumed caveman style, once the rest of the sandwich had perished. It wasn’t that Dad was a slob. No, quite the opposite. But he enjoyed an occasional act of rebellion in the form of non-compliance with table manners. While growing up, our summer barbeques had revealed in him an affinity for food eaten by hand, sans utensils. Oh, he enjoyed a good steak, but he seemed happier and more at ease with a hotdog, sparerib, or slice of watermelon. To eat it was to wear a portion of it, then to attack the resulting shrapnel.
We departed the market armed with a Coke for me and a Coors for Dad. I cradled the package that contained the makings for two wet sandwiches, his and mine.
Dad pulled onto Broad Beach Drive and then stopped at the entry gate to the small community of what were second homes to most of the owners, some of them visiting on weekends, others staying for the entire summer. Still others rented their beach houses out by the week.
The gate was a rickety affair; Dad had always expressed a dislike for it upon each entry and exit. Not so today, as he departed the car, heading straight for the offending padlock. My duty came after we were through the gate, when I would leave the car and re-secure “Old Hickory”, as Dad had taken to calling the gate. That done, we passed two of the neighbors’ private driveways before turning into our own. Making sure the food was secure in my arms, I followed Dad to the side entry door, where another key was produced.
“We have to deliver this key to Jack Richards when we leave here today,” Dad said matter-of-factly. I shrunk in stature, attempting to hide from what I knew to be coming, just as he informed me that my key to the back house would also be needed. I was to later mourn the loss of the “back house” far more than that of the beach house itself. It had probably been built as a caretaker’s quarters, or maybe the original owners had allowed their teenaged son or daughter to stay there, removed from the main house and situated at the end of a stone pathway thirty or forty feet in length. To refer to the little house, for that was what it was, as a “caretaker’s quarters” was awkward, and to call it the “servant’s quarters” seemed to be reaching a bit. So, we called it the back house.
The back house had its own bathroom with shower, a twin bed, and a radiant heater built into one wall, as it could get chilly at night at the beach. Food could be prepared in the main house, then consumed in the back house, an arrangement I liked. My sisters were not in the picture, the oldest having moved out to make her own way in the world, and the other attending college in Texas. I had the only key. Whenever Mom or Dad mentioned going to the beach, I pictured the back house, not the beach house.
Dad and I stood at the dining bar that stretched, as a peninsula, to divide the kitchen from the den, ending to allow walking space so that one could gain access to each room from the other. As we began to assemble our sandwiches, I noticed how dark it was at the bar, even though we faced floor-to-ceiling windows which allowed in light from the seaward side of the house. Power’s off, I remembered, grateful that I had not asked if we could turn some lights on. The dimness inside was proof of the gloominess of the sky that day, a sky that showed a silvery glare produced by the few sun rays that weren’t completely blocked by the murkiness; at the same time, the glare was not intense enough to reveal the sun’s location.
We attacked our sandwiches with interest as I then realized that the eating of that sandwich would probably be the highlight of the day for me. It was at that moment that I had finally begun to accept the fact that the days of Mom or Dad planning little diversions for my sake were gone. But, with that acceptance came a feeling of freedom.
I checked Dad’s look to see if conversation might be anticipated, but I saw that he was elbow-deep in his sandwich and having the time of his life. Finishing my sandwich and drink, I dropped the resulting mess into the brown paper bag that Dad and I had agreed would contain our final load of trash to be carried out with us when we left.
It became apparent to me that if Dad had brought me along so that he could talk to me about the divorce, the discussion was not going to take place while we were at Broad Beach. Maybe he was planning to bring it up during the ride home? I decided not to worry about it.
Having nothing else to do for the next couple of hours I went out to the back house to sit and let my meal settle for a few minutes before going in the water. I walked through the door and, surprisingly found my little raft leaning against the wall. I set the raft on the floor, sat myself upon it, and leaned back a little to rest my back against the wall.
I thought about our vacation, the previous summer, when I had met Kelly. Johnny Liddy, my best, well, pretty much my only friend outside of school, had come to Broad Beach with the folks and me. We were staying for two weeks, but Johnny’s stay was limited to the first week, as he had plans with his father after that. We didn’t see much of Mom or Dad. Things were loose, even at mealtimes.
As soon as we got to the beach house, I showed Johnny where the kitchen was to be found, and then we took our bags to the back house, along with his surfboard. This had been Johnny’s first visit to the beach house, and just my fifth or sixth. Johnny might have been my only real friend at that time, but he was a friend worth having. He had recently turned fifteen, and I was to celebrate my fifteenth birthday during the second week of my stay.
While we stepped along the stone pathway, I, in the lead, stopped five feet from the entrance to the back house, made a little show of producing the key, and opened the door. A few feet from my bed there was a twin Murphy-bed that was folded up into a tall, shallow wall-mounted cabinet. I showed Johnny how to lower the bed but skipped past the wall-heater, as it was deep summer and would not be cold inside, even at night. After seeing the bathroom and shower, Johnny blessed the back house: “Man, this place is righteous!”
We sat on the beds and made our plan for the next day. We would be up at six the next morning, just nine hours away. We would grab our boards and walk along the wooden deck around the side of the main house, to the front deck, and then straight down to the water. I had tried to lower Johnny’s expectations, hopes really, that the waves would be well-formed at Broad Beach. He and I had gone surfing in Santa Monica several times and I knew that he would be expecting similar conditions; four-to-six-foot swells, etc. It had been Johnny who had taught me how to surf. I enjoyed surfing, but lacked the experience needed to become a good surfer. For me, surfing was more recreation than sport.
Oh, there were waves at Broad Beach! But to say that they were good surfing waves was to misrepresent the case. My impression, if it could be relied upon, was that the coastline there was too straight and flat to facilitate well-formed waves. The surf tended to fall apart, rather than curl and break. I had eventually calmed Johnny down enough to agree to hit the water even if the waves were weak, which they were. We had the small inflatable Coleman canvas-covered raft upon which I now sat, and a fiberglass skim-board, on which one stood to ride on the thin wash of water over the sand that resulted as the tide went out. So, we left our surfboards on the deck and took turns on the skim-board, mostly.
It was after nine when we grew hungry and, leaving the water’s edge, I grabbed the raft and looked toward our house. Any plans Johnny and I had made were about to be blown sky-high in the form of the two girls I could see sitting on the steps leading up to the deck of the beach house next to ours. As it turned out, the girls, sisters as we learned, were about the same ages we were. Kelly was the oldest among us, having turned fifteen three months before. Diane was a year younger. We did not pair up with regards to each of our ages though. For it was Kelly and I that hit it off, a case of oldest girl and youngest guy. And Johnny and Diane had shown immediate interest in one another.
So, we were all set to spend the week with two attractive young ladies…. In fact, the girls, like I, would be staying for two weeks. Their family had rented the beach house just north of ours. Kelly and Diane were there with their parents and eight-year-old brother, Andy.
Andy was a blast. In the days ahead, he would often tell Johnny or me that he had prepared a prank on one or both of his sisters, and would warn us when to expect it. Whoopee cushions, hand-buzzers, and various substances of dubious origin had been employed. Much of the fun was in watching Andy’s satisfaction following each successful prank. The girls always responded in such a way as to please Andy’s never-ending quest for chaos. Johnny and I enjoyed it very much. It provided an occasional distraction away from the pressures of young love.
It became a daily routine that the four of us would meet after breakfast, gather our things, and walk the mile or so to Zuma beach. The surfing conditions were better there, but not enough to attract many surfers. The waves at Malibu were much better, but it was five or six miles away, too far for us to haul two surfboards and all our dunnage on foot. Among our belongings were towels, suntan lotions, and a picnic basket containing sandwiches and chips. The sandwiches were prepared by Kelly and Diane each morning and much appreciated by Johnny and me, as the act of paddling out to the waves and then catching the good ones made for strong appetites. The girls would play around in the shallow water for a while and then return to our spot on the beach to enjoy their favorite sport: tanning!
Johnny and I would surf for a couple of hours and then catch a wave together, riding our boards back to the beach after losing the battle, not to the ocean, but to our appetites. Kelly would break out the food just as soon as Johnny and I emerged from the water. She had noticed, on our first day at Zuma, that we would have short tempers and long appetites after two hours of surfing. It was easier to feed us than to deal with our contrary attitudes. It was Kelly’s way to make minor concessions for the good of the group.
After lunch each day, Kelly and I would take a walk together, leaving Diane and Johnny behind. It gave us a chance to enjoy each other’s company without the distraction of others.
It had been on our third day-trip to Zuma, during our post-lunch walk, that Kelly turned to me and said, “Diane wanted to come with us, but I told her she couldn’t. She said that Johnny was getting on her nerves.”
“Yeah, I heard him complaining about his ham sandwich having mayonnaise on it.”
“Tom, I think he just made that up to have something to complain about. I told him that we made the ham sandwiches the same way as the bologna sandwiches we ate yesterday; with mustard and mayonnaise. Then, Johnny claimed that mayonnaise was okay with bologna, but not with ham. That sounded pretty nit-picky to me.”
“Yeah, I wish he weren’t acting like that. I thought everything was going well until I heard him whining about his lunch. He’s acted that way around me a couple of times, but I just ignored it until his bad mood passed.”
“I think he hurt her feelings too much for her to just let it go. She’s been talking about how much fun she and Johnny have been having. I don’t think she’s going to forgive him after this, though.”
“You never can tell, Kelly. Maybe they will make up while we’re gone. Johnny will be embarrassed about his little tantrum. Maybe he’ll apologize to her and everything will be okay. Johnny can be very persuasive. I bet when we finish our walk, we’ll find them holding hands and laughing together.”
“I doubt that,” said Kelly in reply.
After our walk, Kelly and I returned to our spot on the beach, only to find the former lovebirds sitting on their respective beach towels, separated by a space of ten feet, each alone in his or her thoughts. This scene did not bode well for future harmony between Diane and Johnny. It soon became obvious that our fun-loving group of four had fallen victim to a lover’s spat. So, Kelly and I decided to pack up our belongings and return home. Walking back as a couple, ahead of the two of them, I held out hope that Johnny would apologize to Diane and that she would accept his apology. But Johnny had kept to himself, carrying only his surfboard, while Diane had grabbed their towels and the picnic basket that had earlier contained the offending sandwich. Kelly suggested to me that when we got back to the beach houses, she and her sister should go to theirs and Johnny and I should go to mine. That seemed like a sensible idea to me. She could try to soften Diane up while I tried to persuade Johnny to apologize in earnest. Either way, Kelly and I agreed to meet on the beach in front of her house after dinner; with or without the other two.
“Why did you make such a big thing of not liking your sandwich?”, I asked Johnny as we entered the back house.
“Because I told her yesterday that mayonnaise was okay on bologna, but that I didn’t like it on ham. She did it on purpose.”
“Johnny, listen to me. Kelly made the sandwiches today because Diane overslept. Kelly didn’t know. She would have made yours without mayonnaise if she had known”.
“Diane should have told her. If she overslept, she must not have even cared about me enough to get out of bed. I never thought this was going to work, taking girls with us to go surfing. Why don’t you and I hitch a ride to Malibu tomorrow? Or, maybe your mom could take us?”.
“Maybe we’ll talk about it, but first I want to tell you something you should know. I can’t stand mayonnaise on ham or bologna; only on tuna. But I kept quiet about it because it’s no big deal. They have made our lunches every day this week, just to be nice. Come on, Johnny! If you keep acting like this, you’re going to ruin the fun for all of us. I’m going to meet Kelly after dinner. She’s going to try to get Diane to come along. Why don’t you go with me? Maybe you can patch things up with her”.
Surprisingly, Johnny did go with me. And, Diane did show up with her sister. There is hope, thought I. But it was not to be. Johnny sulked while Diane waited for his apology, but it was not forthcoming. I had the feeling that he had decided that it was she who had to apologize.
Then, just as I decided that our mission was doomed, along came good old Andy. This should be interesting, I speculated, without saying a word. Approaching us carefully, Andy called out to Johnny, and the two of them moved far enough away from the rest of us to be out of earshot. Kelly figured her little brother was probably trying to persuade Johnny to become a co-conspirator in some prank aimed at her and Diane. That seemed likely at first, and Andy did look as though he was pleading with Johnny. However, the eight-year-old had a look on his face that spelled out something urgent. He lacked the proud smile that normally revealed his intention to annoy his sisters with trickery.
Kelly and I were waiting anxiously to see what might happen as a result of the boys’ discussion, while Diane acted as though she didn’t care. I decided to inch closer to the pair so that I might catch the tone, if not the content of the conversation. Fortunately, I was able to hear enough to realize that Andy was doing a fine job of stating his case to Johnny.
“Really, Johnny. As soon as they got back here this afternoon they went upstairs to Kelly’s room and closed the door. I knew something was up, so I snuck up and listened at the door. Diane was crying, and it sounded like it had something to do with you”.
“So, I guess she’s pretty mad at me, huh?”
“More like disappointed. No one is very happy with you right now. I even heard Kelly say that Tom wants you to apologize”.
“Thanks, Andy. I guess I needed to hear all of this. You’re pretty smart for a kid”.
“Yeah, I know”, quipped Andy.
I rejoined Kelly, thinking that Andy had played every card he had, and that Johnny’s attitude had just been adjusted by an eight-year-old kid, who was just as anxious as Kelly and I were to see the cloud of discontent lifted from what was supposed to be a vacation.
Suddenly, after a nod to Andy, Johnny began what I hoped would be a mission of peace. He walked up to Diane, but turned and stood next to her, addressing all of us as a group.
“I’ve been acting like a real jerk to all of you, especially you, Diane. I apologize to you and hope you can forgive me”.
“Johnny, I’m glad …”.
“Hang on, Diane. I’m not finished. I have more to say to you and I want all of you to hear this, even Andy.” I noticed Andy and feared that, proud as he was about having persuaded Johnny to apologize, he might choose this moment to gloat about it. But Andy stood mum.
“Maybe I’m not ready for a girlfriend, Diane. If I was ready for one, I would gladly choose you, though. For now, I just hope we can have fun together. I’m not ready to settle down yet, like old Tom over there.”
We all laughed at his last comment, which served as an indication that we would once again enjoy ourselves together. I then put forth to the group that we should all go to Zuma beach the next day and that we should invite Andy to join us. Johnny agreed, enthusiastically. The girls were less optimistic about their little brother coming along, so I pulled Kelly aside and explained to her how he had saved the day.
“Yes, I know all of that, Kelly insisted. Who do you think told him what to say?”
Shocked by this news, I blurted out, “You knew Andy was going to talk to Johnny?”
“Yes, but we can’t tell Diane. She was in the shower when Andy told me he wanted to talk to Johnny. I just told him what to say. And not to say that his words came from me. He says he didn’t, so that’s good”.
“Yeah, Johnny doesn’t need to know about this, that’s for sure. Hey, Kelly? Why don’t we let Andy come with us tomorrow? In return he must agree to keep quiet”.
“I don’t think Diane will mind if Andy comes along. She’s as happy as anyone now that the tension is gone”.
“Okay, but Johnny and I will bring the sandwiches this time”.
“Remember, though, Diane and I like mustard and mayonnaise,” she reminded me laughing.
“Okay, but I’ve never heard of anyone eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with mustard and mayonnaise on it!” Yes, we were enjoying ourselves again.
And so, we once again made the journey along the beach to Zuma, but with Andy in tow this time. Johnny and I decided to switch up our surf routine, so that one of us would stay with the girls and Andy, while the other surfed. My turn came second, and once I had made my way out to the breaking waves, I turned to spot Kelly and the rest of them wading in the surf near shore. Andy was lying on his stomach atop Johnny’s surfboard, with Johnny standing next to him, hip-deep in water. The girls were in shallower water but close enough to watch Johnny give Andy a surfing lesson. Johnny had indicated to me, the night before, that he intended to show his gratitude to the youngster in some way. And teaching Andy how to surf was a great way to show him that there were better things to do than to spend his days annoying his sisters.
Having once been taught by Johnny how to surf, I recognized the steps he was guiding Andy through. First, lie on the board in such a way as to achieve perfect balance. Next, shift to a kneeling position, paddling lightly with either hand to maintain that balance. Seeing Andy rise to that position with ease, I caught the first available wave and rode in to watch the lesson. I carried my board up to our spot on the beach and left it with the rest of our belongings. I then joined Kelly and Diane in the water. They seemed happy, watching their little brother progressing so quickly. We three cheered Andy on while Johnny encouraged him through each successive step until, finally, and beforelunch, Andy had managed to ride a small wave while standing on the board. The ride only lasted for two seconds, but that short ride enticed Andy to keep trying, doing better here and there, embarrassing himself once or twice in between. Johnny finally reclaimed his board so that Andy would come join us for lunch.
No complaints were made with respect to our lunch, consisting of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips, and lemonade, which Johnny and I had purchased at the snack bar. After lunch the four of us watched as Andy improved enough to show that he was comfortable riding the smaller waves.
“Thanks for teaching Andy how to surf, Johnny,” Diane said, as we gathered up our gear for the trip home.
Walking next to Kelly, I wondered whether I was the only one to realize that Johnny would be leaving the next day. His father was coming to pick him up at four o’clock in the afternoon. Johnny’s parents had divorced years before, with the understanding that Johnny would live with his mother during the school year, but would spend half of each summer, every other week, with his father.
After dinner that evening, Johnny and I walked across the empty lot to find Kelly and Diane sitting at a table on the wooden deck of their beach house. They informed us that Andy was taking a well-deserved nap after spending the day learning to surf and would not be joining us that evening. Johnny broke the news that he would be leaving the next day. Choosing the high road, which also happened to be the path of least resistance, Johnny suggested that we should enjoy ourselves as much as possible with the time that we had left. So, we spent our evening talking and laughing together about everything that had happened that week, and how we had met each other that first day. Missing from our conversation was the mentioning of Johnny’s unfortunate tantrum. He had been forgiven by all.
Near the end of the evening, Diane and Johnny went for a walk, while Kelly and I remained at the table. My already pleasant mood improved when Kelly pointed out the fact that Johnny’s looming departure would signify the beginning of an opportunity for the two of us to spend more time with each other, without the distraction of others. With that in mind, we decided that Johnny should determine our plan for the following day, it being his last.
As it turned out, Johnny had been discussing that very plan with Diane during their stroll on the beach. When the two returned to the table, Johnny suggested that we stay at Broad Beach the next day. He had even included Andy in his plan, as he had one last gift to bestow upon the youngster. That gift would be revealed the following morning, once we had all gathered on the beach.
That final reunion began with Johnny’s announcement that he had something for Andy; he would leave his surfboard behind so that Andy, with my supervision, could continue to surf every day for the next week. He ceremoniously handed the board over to Andy, with the understanding that I would take it to our house in Encino when our vacation ended. Johnny could retrieve it later. Andy gave a celebratory whoop, mounted the board, and paddled out a short distance in search of a small wave. Choosing the best wave, he enjoyed his longest ride yet.
It seemed that only moments had passed, when Johnny mentioned that it was three o’clock, the time he had chosen to prepare for his father’s arrival. Johnny said his goodbyes to Andy and Kelly, and spent a few moments alone with Diane. He and I walked to the back house, where I waited while Johnny showered. Afterwards, we chatted casually while he gathered his few belongings. As four o’clock approached, Johnny reminded me that he would be seeing me in a couple of weeks when he would come by to reclaim his surfboard.
And then, suddenly, he was gone. Johnny would be missed, I felt. I kept my promise to him that I would continue to encourage Andy to surf while the opportunity was ripe. Andy proved to be a worthy student, and wanted to know every little thing about the world of surfing. I gave him a few of my back-issues of surfing journals, which he studied during his time out of the water.
Kelly and I resumed our comfortable relationship, spending our days on the beach, enjoying each other’s company, and watching Andy conquer bigger waves as his confidence grew. Diane joined us, occasionally, but spent most of her time on the deck, producing paintings of the ocean and the surrounding landscapes. She was a talented artist, I learned from Kelly.
Kelly’s home was in Sherman Oaks, which was just fifteen minutes from our home in Encino. So, she and I got together several times during the fall and winter months that followed. It was during a visit to her house that her parents invited me to join them on their spring vacation to Guadalajara, Mexico. It was a very kind gesture and I eagerly accepted the invitation. It was upon my return from that delightful week with Kelly and her family that my mother told me the news about the divorce.
Near noon already, I released myself from thoughts of the previous summer’s vacation, changed into my shorts, and put my wetsuit on. I grabbed the canvas raft and headed for the water. The morning mist still hovered, and the water was cold and uninviting. I thought about returning to the back house, but quickly rejected the idea. I couldn’t waste my last visit to the ocean by sitting on the beach. Besides, it was time to start acting on my newfound independence.
I studied my little raft, just twenty-seven inches wide by forty-two long, and turned it blue-side-up — the other side was yellow; there were no raised sides; it was a heavy-duty air mattress, but in miniature; the brass air-valve was located on the yellow side, so I usually turned that side down to avoid the valve-stem. Throwing the raft ahead a few feet, I dove onto it and coasted until I ran up against the next wave. It was a small breaker, but I allowed it to roll me and the raft over so that I could suddenly get all wet. That was the best way, especially when it was cold.
I loved the salty water, the smell of it, even the way it made my hair feel thick and ropy after it had dried. That little raft, with ribbed air chambers running along its length, was easy to maneuver, and I could hand-paddle a fair distance in a short time. I wasn’t thinking about my surroundings, because they were very familiar to me. But I did scan the surface of the water for jellyfish, knowing from experience that physical contact with one would result in a stinging rash that would linger for a few hours. None of the purplish devils showed themselves, so the coast seemed clear, so to speak. I knew that I could turn around and look back to see our beach house at any time. And the other beach houses nearby. I took slight notice of the one-foot-high swells and paddled farther out in hopes of finding bigger ones. Spotting one, I saw that I needed to point the front of the raft to my left and paddle hard to get to the best part of the wave, the part most likely to break in such a way as to allow me to enjoy a good long ride. In truth, this wave was still too young to reveal its ultimate form and I was only hoping to be well-placed within it. But, the act of paddling had warmed me up some. I rolled over the top of that wave and let it pass beneath me.
I turned seaward, still looking for a larger swell. The limited visibility made me feel confined, vulnerable. I turned my head to look behind me and was shocked to find that, not only could I not see our beach house, I couldn’t even see the beach. It was disturbingly quiet, and I suddenly felt lost. Hell, I was lost. Mercifully, a swell appeared, its momentum driving it in the direction of what would have to be the beach. Shockingly, I saw what appeared to be a dorsal fin at the bottom of the swell.
Is that a shark? It can’t be a shark, because the water is too cold. Besides, I just wanted to ride a few waves. There are no sharks around here. Maybe out there, but not here. What? Where is here? How far out have I paddled?
The cold pewter shade of the angular fin made it stand out against the lighter color of the haze hanging over the sea. As it ascended the swell, I saw the dark form of its body just below the water’s surface, sudden and conclusive confirmation that there was at least one shark nearby. I wanted to hide in a faraway place, but I was forced by circumstances to attempt to hide in plain sight. I watched the angular fin slice thru the surface of the water, from right-to-left, its tip eight inches above it. And then the fin turned left, which meant that it pointed beachward, or at least in the direction where I expected the beach to be. It disappeared beneath the water’s surface. Had it seen me? I didn’t know. Was it following prey? I couldn’t know that either. I had heard more than once that sharks circled their prey before attacking it. If that were the case, had its sudden left turn signified the beginning of its first circle around me, to be followed by smaller and smaller circles, with me as the center-point, hence the chosen prey?
I remembered that sharks attacked surface prey from below, not by swimming toward it on the surface in plain sight. That thought shocked me to my very core, resulting in an uncontrollable shudder. Compose yourself. Don’t panic. And then, I yawned. Not just once, but three times in succession; abrupt and shallow. Not the deep, satisfying yawns of a person in the throes of sleepiness. Yawning in the face of danger was known to me to be one of the first signs of panic. I had read that soldiers often yawned during the moments before battle. At least I was still processing rational thoughts, though. To fall victim to shock would spell the end for me. I had to do something.
Stiff with fear, I summoned the courage to look around me, in every direction. That act triggered more yawns. The last time I had seen the shark, when its dorsal fin dropped under the surface, I estimated the distance between us to be sixty to eighty feet. My range of visibility was only one hundred feet, I thought. My estimations provided no help, but they kept my brain busy. I knew for certain that if I succumbed to panic or shock, I was dead, shark or no shark. But that certainty awakened in me the hope that the shark might be gone. It was not gone.
I heard the whoosh, first. Blasting through the surface, he spun around to where I could see the whiteness of his belly as his entire body came out of the water. And then I saw the bloody snout. And, something else. Ravaged meat.
His stark white rows of teeth held within his jaws a three-foot-long mass of bloody, shredded flesh. Did he hit me? Is that thing in his mouth a part of me? No, it can’t be.
It was not an arm or a leg. It was a tail. A fishtail. I saw it clearly, dangling from the mouth of the beast, just as his body slammed against the water. He dropped beneath the surface and disappeared from my view, leaving a faint blood-cloud in his wake.
Finally, seeing a large swell of water coming and sighting no dark shapes above or below it, I forced myself to turn my back to it, and paddled as hard as possible so that I could use its momentum to carry me toward the shore. When the wave finally broke apart, I still couldn’t see the beach. Disoriented, I scanned the surface and spotted a patch of white foam and moved closer to it. After paddling another twenty feet, I saw more white water and a wavelet or two. Those wavelets gave me a sense of direction. Follow them! They will lead the way to shallow water. Maybe I’m in shallow water now? Maybe I should get off the raft? I rejected the notion that I could roll off the raft and achieve salvation by strolling into the beach. Sharks were not deterred by shallow water. Besides, the raft had gotten me this far. I would stay glued to it. It then occurred to me that the rectangular shape of the raft may have been the reason the shark hadn’t attacked me. Instead, he had chosen a more familiar prey, thank God.
Earlier, when I had first seen the dorsal fin, I had bent my legs at the knees, so that my lower legs and feet would be up in the air, not trailing behind me in the water, attracting attention from below. I hadn’t changed my body’s position until the raft had hit the sandy bottom. I let the foamy wash of the water carry me to safety, at which time I forced myself to stand, still hugging the raft, with both arms now wrapped around it. I collapsed to my knees, in dry sand. I immediately coughed up the sandwich and retched until I finally gave out and fell over. All went dim.
“Tommy! Wake up, Sport!”, came from somewhere.
Who’s there? Who is calling me by those names, I thought. I haven’t been called those names in years. Am I dead? Maybe it’s my grandfather, calling to me from beyond. Yeah, that must be it. With that thought, I blacked out once more.
When I came to, I was shaking in an uncontrollable, full-body tremor. But I was cold, colder than I had ever been. My head throbbed with sharp stabs of pain, and I couldn’t see clearly. I sensed a human form bending over me.
“Where am I?”, I asked, no, begged of the form beside me.
I felt a slap against my face, then another one. Why was I being slapped? Someone jostled my shoulders.
“Tom, wake up, Tom”.
“Dad?”, I choked out, still shaking.
“Tom, why are you shaking so badly? Are you hurt?”
“Dad… I’m freezing, Dad. My head hurts, really bad”.
“But, you’re not cold. Your skin feels warm. Are you sure you aren’t injured? Did you hit your head on something?” Dad looked around as though expecting to find something hard that I might have struck my head on.
“I didn’t hit my head. Where are we?”
“We’re at the Wilders’”, Dad stated matter-of-factly.
“Oh. Who are they?”, I asked, frustrated at not knowing where I was.
“What neighbors, Dad? Where are we?”
Finally realizing my utter confusion, Dad explained things to me. We were at Broad Beach, and the Wilders were our neighbors, the couple with the beach house four houses north of ours.
“Why are we at their house?”, I begged to know.
“We are in front of their house because that’s where I found you. You were asleep here on the beach. I thought you were going in the water?”
“I did, but I had to get out”, I gasped, exhausted.
“I told you the water was too cold. Oh, I see. I think you have hypothermia. That’s the only thing that makes sense. You must have passed out for a while and your body warmed up here in the sand”.
It was then that I recalled where I was, and why I was there. And the shark. I still shook, my fear renewed. “Hypothermia, yeah, that must be it. Can we just go now, Dad?”
“Yes, we can leave, but not until I see you get up and walk on your own. Otherwise, I might need to take you to the emergency room. We should make sure you’re going to be alright”.
“Okay”, I replied, worried that I might not be able to stand, much less walk. I stalled for time, pushing aside a few tubular stalks of brown kelp that had washed up on the beach. I then tried to kill more time by brushing away every grain of sand stuck to the yellow side of my raft, but that act only revealed to Dad the fact that my hands were still shaking uncontrollably.
“Tom, let me carry the raft”.
“No! I mean, I can carry it”.
Now sitting up, I leaned the raft against me, clutching it in my right hand, unwilling to release my hold on it. I slowly rose to my knees, acting as though I had always taken an overly cautious approach to the simple act of standing. Finally rising to stand, and thrilled that I was able to do so, I took a step, and very nearly keeled over. My falter alerted Dad, and he reached to steady me. I shook away his attempt to help and declared that I would be fine. I was not fine; I was drained of emotion and energy, my psyche tormented by the relentless fear that I hoped was concealed.
I had my reasons for not telling Dad the details of my ordeal, not the least of which was my conviction that he would not believe me. It wasn’t that he thought me a liar. No, the problem with my father was that if he was told of some event that did not fit within his boundaries of likelihood, he would reject it and give it no further thought. The problem for me was the fact that Dad had almost always been proven correct in the end.
One relevant example of my father’s skepticism stood out in my memory of childhood experiences. At age six, I had seen an unusual creature in the creek behind our house in Dallas. Seeing the long and slender body slithering through the shallow water, I, at first impression, had thought it to be a snake. It was not a snake. This frightening creature appeared shiny, not unlike a fish. But it was not a fish. No, in all my adventures at the creek, I had never seen, or heard of, an animal such as this. It was about two feet long, several inches around, and had a six-inch-long snout which appeared to be packed full of tiny, razor sharp teeth. But its translucence was the quality that convinced me that it was an eel, an electric eel. I had seen one on television, probably while watching Wild Kingdom, or some such documentary highlighting the marvels of nature. To my way of thinking, it had to be an electric eel, even though I could not remember seeing a long, tooth-packed snout on the specimen shown on television.
Running to the back door of our house that day, I couldn’t wait to find Dad and tell him that I had seen an electric eel in the creek.
“An electric eel, huh? No way, Tommy. You did not see an electric eel down there”.
“Well, I don’t know what else it could have been”.
“I don’t know either, so let’s go down there and have a look. Maybe it will still be there”.
I knew that he was only walking to the creek with me to prove a point. He figured I had seen some shiny, inanimate object. And that I had imagined it to be an eel.
Arriving at the creek, Dad asked, “Okay, where was it?”
“Over there, where the creek gets wider and the water is calm”, I informed him.
I led him to the area and, happily, I instantly saw the ugly creature just beneath the surface of the water. “There it is!”, I announced, pointing out my discovery.
“Well, I’ll be damned”, my father exclaimed.
Oh, I felt mighty proud to have been proven correct. Dad would soon be begging my forgiveness, thought I.
“See, Dad? I told you I saw an electric eel”.
“I had no idea they were in this creek… The lake maybe, but not the creek. Tommy, what you found is not an eel”, Dad said with certainty.
“What is it then”, I demanded to know.
“It’s a garfish, probably an alligator gar. I’ve never seen one, up close. They are very nasty creatures. I wonder how he found his way to our creek, though”.
I was quite content to discover that, while it was not an electric eel, it was a nasty creature whose snout and teeth resembled those of an alligator. I immediately placed it at the pinnacle of our neighborhood’s strange wildlife, its standing to now replace that of the water moccasin and the horned toad.
“Oh! Remember that big rain we had a few days ago?”
“Yeah, Dad, I remember. The lake flooded”.
“That’s right. And this gar must have gotten washed away into our creek. Yes, I think that explains it. Come on, let’s go home. Your mother probably has our lunch ready by now”.
Dads final comment had come in the form of a dismissive snort. And that had put an end to the matter.
After our lunch with Mom, I had retired to my bedroom to ponder the events of the day. But I focused my thoughts, not on the eel, or, rather, the gar; no, I wanted to know how Dad had so skillfully ended our discussion of the mystery with his explanation. Why had I not questioned his reasoning? It had been then that I realized that Dad had not ended the conversation by way of an explanation.I could have questioned that. It had been the snort. Dad had concluded the discussion, not with his mouth, but with a seemingly insignificant nasal expression! Apparently, I thought, my father had been communicating with us for years through his nostrils. Then and there had begun my mission to analyze and decipher the true meaning behind his various snorts.
No, I could not tell Dad about the shark. Nor could I let him take me to the hospital. The doctor in the ER would surely be familiar with the symptoms associated with hypothermia. I wouldn’t be able to support that explanation for long; he would discover the fact that I had been terrified, not cold. I would then be compelled to tell the whole story. And to tell it to the doctor would be to tell it to the world. I could picture him talking on the phone, explaining to the local police, and maybe even to the Coast Guard, that a shark had been sighted at Broad Beach; and that the teenage boy now under his care had nearly been attacked by the predatory monster. There would then be no bounds to the story; the newspapers from every coastal town in the state would want in on it. What I knew to be a shark, and probably a mako, about seven feet in length, would be transformed in the press; it would become a tiger shark after having grown to ten-feet-long during the course of a single afternoon. It would then morph into a great white, and a rogue at that. A vicious predator of a size so great as to be indeterminate, and there would be a special edition of the local newspaper, featuring me, the teenaged surfer who had bested the beast in a race to the safety of the beach. In my state of fear, I sought solitude, not notoriety.
Standing next to my father on the beach, my challenge was to thoroughly convince him, through my actions alone, that I had fully recovered from my ordeal. So, I mustered the strength to walk with purpose, and did so. I loosened my death-grip on the raft, my perceived savior, and now treated it as an incidental companion to a day at the beach. Dad seemed to be more satisfied, too. I cobbled together my alternate version of what had really happened, a version that would support Dad’s suspicion. I unzipped my sleeveless wetsuit and pulled the upper portion back behind my shoulders so that it fell to my waist, hoping Dad would see my action as a sign of clear progress. Also, removing the layer of neoprene seemed to allow me to shed a small measure of my fear at the same time.
“I got lost in the fog out there, Dad. You know, lost my bearings. I got tired and really cold before I figured out which way it was to the beach. By the time I reached the beach I was shaking so much I threw up my sandwich. After that, I just wanted to warm up and rest for a few minutes. I guess I must have fallen asleep”. This simple tale passed for the truth as far as my father was concerned. After all, I had stuck to the truth. I had gotten lost out there and I had become mentally and physically exhausted and I had lost my lunch as a result of the convulsions. Even the fear I had shown would fit the scenario I was offering up as the truth, for being lost in the grey fog afloat was terrifying enough.
Arriving at the beach house, Dad and I went about our separate and final tasks there. He was to grab our trash bag and lock the house up while I walked around to my beloved back house, gathered my gear, and locked the door for the last time. Dad was waiting in the car for me. I threw my raft and wetsuit in the trunk, and off we went.
Jack’s office was in Malibu, less than ten minutes from Broad Beach by car. A small, freestanding structure situated across PCH from Malibu Beach, its existence there was justified by a small billboard displaying the words John Richards Realty, below which was painted the message Malibu Beachfront Properties for Sale. Dad had once told me of the millions the elder Richards had earned doing business in that office, and that he had retired at age fifty and turned the office over to Jack, his twenty-three-year old son. No wonder Jack smiles so much, I thought.
The truth was that Jack Richards was a
likable, happy-go-lucky realtor who also happened to be one of the best surfers
“Oh, I’ll need your key, so I can give it to Jack”, Dad said as he made the left turn onto the gravel parking lot fronting the realty office.
“Hey Dad, can I give him the key to the back house?”, I asked.
“Yeah, I suppose so. After all, you spent a lot more time out there than the rest of us did”.
“Thanks, Dad”, I replied, as I considered what Jack’s reaction might be, were I to tell him about the shark. Jack would believe me, I thought. He had grown up in Malibu and was certain to have experienced the delights, and the dangers, of the sea thereabouts.
Jack was seated behind a large mahogany desk, his head bent over a crossword puzzle. He looked up as we entered the office and showed his usual toothy smile topped by a thick Fu Manchu style moustache. Coarse and blond it was, not unlike the shoulder-length hair framing his tanned facial features. Branching out from the corners of his beaming blue eyes were the furrowed lines of a much older man, but in his case, they were not the marks of a long, or stressful life. No, Jack’s features were the result of a kid, now a grown man, who had spent his days exposed to sun and salt, the lines having been formed by the act of squinting his eyes in the presence of those elements. Surfers, like sailors, could not resist the constant temptation of gazing seaward, seeming to others as though they were searching the horizon for features telling of the future.
After necessarily expressing our shared pleasantries, Dad offered up the keys to the beach house, and then held out the key we had used to unlock, and then lock, Old Hickory one final time. He could not resist the following query, directed at Jack: “Why don’t they do something about that damned gate, Jack?”
“I have no idea, Tom. It would be up to the owners, and they have so far eschewed the notion of forming an official committee to deal with matters such as that gate. Since their main concern is to deny access to outsiders, I would think that they would eagerly invest in the shared cost of a more secure entry”. This was Jack’s business side talking, not that of the surf bum I knew. Having studied matters of business at UC Davis, he had earned his MBA, the lone qualifier to his inheritance of his father’s lucrative business.
“This young man has something for you, Jack. Although, I think he would rather hang on to it”.
“Oh, what’s that?” he asked, as I produced the key, my hands still shaking as a sign of earlier events. Dad had walked across the front room of the building to study the photographs, new and old, that decorated one wall. I think he enjoyed seeing the faces of the celebrities shown there, several of whom also owned properties along Broad Beach. For Dad, that meant that he shared a commonality with these famous and successful people. That lofty status, if true, would have been a far cry from the poverty of his youth.
“I have the key to the back house, Jack”, I offered, reluctantly.
“Follow me, then. I need to put all the keys in my safe in the back room. I have some cool pictures back there”, Jack confided to me as if he had guessed that I would view the celebrity pictures as being something less than cool. His guess was on the mark.
I was not disappointed in what he had to show me. The room was quite small, perhaps eight feet by twelve, but each of the four walls within it was covered with photographs of surfers riding the waves of Malibu. I heard Jack jostling the keys behind me, and took the time to study the photos one-by-one, this one of a guy crouching on his board within a six-foot tube of water, that one of two other surfers colliding into one another atop a massive wave, then another showing the resulting wipeout that had occurred.
“Hey, Tom”, Jack said abruptly, as if to capture my complete attention. “Did you go surfing earlier today?”
“Not exactly. I got out of the water about an hour ago. I just rode a few breakers on my canvas raft. I didn’t bring my board today. It’s at home. How did you know I went in the water?”
“I didn’t, it was just a guess. You’ve still got sand between your toes, though”.
“Oh, sorry I didn’t mean to …”.
“No, it’s not that. Sand gets tracked onto this floor every day. What I want to know is why you’re shaking”.
“The water is still pretty cold. I guess that’s why. I was out pretty far for a while”.
“Okay, but you said that you came out of the water an hour ago. It’s eighty degrees outside. No way you should still be cold. Did you know there are shark warning signs posted at Zuma right now? There were two mako sharks, big ones, spotted out there yesterday”.
“I was at Broad Beach, not Zuma. There were no signs posted”. I knew that there was no way I could lie to Jack about anything having to do with local waters, and Broad Beach was considered local in his world. Not that I had seen any signs, though. Had I seen shark warnings that day, I would have done my best to convince Dad that we should high tail it for home as soon as our sandwiches had been consumed.
“Tom, Broad Beach is private. They usually only post signs at public beaches, like Zuma”.
“Don’t tell my dad, please. He’d have a stroke if he knew”.
Jack stepped into the doorway to look out into the office, apparently satisfied that Dad was still busy looking at the pictures of celebrities. “What happened out there, Tom? Did you see something? And don’t tell me you just got cold. I know better than that”.
“I saw a dorsal fin, that’s all”. At that proclamation, Jack gave an expression that broke me. “Okay, I saw it twice. And I saw its body, just under the surface, you know, swimming through the back of a wave. Then, it jumped out of the water. It had a fish in its mouth. I thought it was a mako, from the pictures I’ve seen; six or seven feet long. You can’t tell my dad. Please!”.
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll have to report it, but I can wait till you guys leave. Tom, tell me what happened, the details”.
Not wanting my father to hear our discussion, I walked into the front room and asked, “Hey, Dad? Can we stay for a few more minutes? Jack has some great surfing photos back here”.
“Sure, I’m in no hurry. Sounds like you’re feeling better, huh?”
“I’m fine, Dad. I’ll be out there in a couple of minutes. I’m telling Jack about getting lost in the fog.” That much was true.
“Tell me now, Tom,” Jack demanded.
“Have you ever seen a shark while you were surfing?”, I asked. I could already tell that he had. The topic seemed familiar to him.
“Hell yes, and it scared the hell out of me. I literally had to change shorts when I made it to the beach. Is that what happened to you today?”
With that one confession, Jack Richards had delivered salvation to my psyche, along with the confidence I had previously lacked, to tell my tale, and tell it I did. Jack was the kind of guy I could spill my guts to; he had lived a nightmare similar to my own. So, I began the telling of it, comfortable knowing that I would be believed.
“Well, I didn’t have to change shorts, but I did lose control of just about every other part of my body”. I told Jack about losing my way in the fog, spotting the predator clamping down on its mangled prey, and then losing sight of it. And how I was frozen with fear at the thought that the shark might return, and would probably strike from below, without warning. Jack understood.
“You are lucky, he concluded. “You have lived through a terrifying experience, mostly unscathed. The shaking will stop. You need to learn from your experience, Tom. I did. I love to surf, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. But, that’s not really the point”.
“What is the point, then?”
“If we had more time, I would tell you about all the times I have looked back on the day when I saw a shark in the water, and how it has made a lot of other problems seem pretty small to me. The point is that once you have spent time in the water with a shark, and survived it, you should never again be afraid of the things you can’t control. Never forget the fact that what happened to you has meaning. And, in your case, the fact that you were able to hold the panic in for so long, well, that will serve you well in life. It’s not necessary to have anyone else believe your story. Even if they did, they would never really know the terror it caused.”
“Thanks, Jack. That helps a lot. I don’t know what else to say; I’m glad I told you.”
Laughing now, Jack said, “Well, you didn’t exactly volunteer it. I had to do a little coaxing, you know.”
Dad was walking toward the back room just as we emerged from it. His figurative journey through Hollywood now complete, he was ready to leave Malibu and the Pacific Ocean behind, and to steer us in the general direction of the San Fernando Valley, on the outskirts of which Encino was located.
“Well, young man, I suppose we should be leaving now; that is, if you’re sure you feel alright”. Looking Jack’s way, he added, “I found this one passed-out on the beach a while ago, on the verge of hypothermia, and scared to death. That is, once I was able to wake him up. I guess he got disoriented in all the ashy fog out there. I told him the water temperature would be too low, but he was dead set on going in the ocean”.
Studying Dad, Jack decided to stick to the current narrative by asking, “Were you wearing a wetsuit, Tom?” He knew very well that I was, but he was crafting the discussion for my father’s benefit, not mine. Well, were you?”
“Yeah, I wore my sleeveless; that’s all I have,”, I feigned to reveal. I clammed up after that, afraid that I might slip up.
Jack then admonished me, saying, “When the water temperature is still in the sixties, you need to cover yourself from neck-to-toe in black rubber; you should know that”.
“It’s not going to matter anymore, Jack. Young Tom and his mother will be moving back to Texas; soon, I’m told”. Dad said this as if he had played no part in the decision; as if he had no idea why Mom and I would be leaving California without him.
“Oh, I see”, Jack replied.
“She and I are divorcing, Jack. You understand,” he offered, lamely. He had just volunteered to Jack a piece of relevant information, one that he had so far neglected to mention to me. It was of little importance to me, though; I was ready to move on, in more ways than one. If Dad wanted to believe that the split would affect him and Mom, and no one else, I could gain nothing by claiming otherwise.
“Looks like it’s clearing up out there, guys,” Jack cheerfully announced, endeavoring to put a polite end to our visit. I was grateful, under the circumstances.
“Man, look how quickly the haze disappeared”, Dad pointed out, as he scanned the horizon of the ocean, his eyes peering across PCH. We got in the car and went on our way, after bidding farewell to Jack Richards, whose kindness I would not forget.
That was haze? It had been a full-blown fog, in my view. But then, I admitted to myself that I had never really known the difference between the two; not in California, anyway. I was to have mostly fond memories of sunny California, the occasional limited visibility notwithstanding, but I was presently craving the wide-open spaces of my beloved Texas plains. Not that we had ever really lived out on the plains, but the notion of West Texas appealed to me. I thought about a loose end or two that would need tidying up before I could leave California, and then shrunk at the thought that I must first endure a couple of hours in the car with Dad.
After three o’clock now, we followed the road through the same hilly terrain, somehow different now, that had earlier led us to PCH that Saturday morning. It was not the fact that we were now driving in the opposite direction that changed the appearance of the landscape. It was that I had changed.
Veering toward the entrance ramp to the Ventura Freeway I saw Dad fidgeting here and there, tapping the ashes from his cigarette too often, and almost snorting once or twice. I shook it off, thinking: Dad. Just say it.
“So, how do you feel about moving back to Texas?”, Dad blurted out, shocking me that he had asked. My alarm diminished quickly when it dawned on me that this was going to be his only question. I knew that it was intended to cover the entire subject of the divorce, including the matter of where I would be going, and with whom. My reply would end the discussion.
“Everything’s going to be fine, Dad”, I answered, satisfied with my choice of words. Things were going to be fine because I was going to be playing a much bigger role in their design, especially where my future was concerned. It was not that I had a plan, but rather the fact that I did not have one, that fed my soul.
Yes, it was the case that I would be dependent upon each of my parents, one way or the other, for housing, schooling, and feeding. But the events of the day, in my view, had earned for me the license to start making important decisions without parental input. Worries of the future had evaporated along with the mists. I don’t know if Dad felt good about my verbal prognosis, but I did. And, after all, it had put an end to the matter, at least as far as I was concerned. And Dad would have thanked me had he been willing to say the words, but instead he issued his innocuous sniff, as if sensing a change in the air. I proudly allowed myself to wonder, not worry, if Dad was going to be okay.