Us humans have endured some pretty terrible situations over the millennia: Wars, famine, plagues, storms, etc., and yet somehow the species always seems to overcome. Resilient little creatures we are. And, it looks like here we go again with this COVID-19 deal.
Although we haven’t been around long in the big picture, surfers themselves seem to have their own ways of dealing with disaster or crisis. There’s not a lot that truly knocks us off our pins, so to speak. Often even finding opportunity where may have recently been tragedy. Not in a malicious way but by simply seeing things in perhaps a more optimistic fashion. Hurricane threatening the Outer Banks, the boys are on the backside looking for the offshores. Military deployment overseas, “damn, there’s some surf here.”
That very subject came up recently which reminded us of how surfers can often find those positives when what around them seems truly bleak.
Ya see, our mailman at the office, Steve, is super cool. Late 60’s-ish, on the verge of a nice pension for retirement and apparently, a bit of a surfer back in his day. He often asks us about who the hot surfers are today and always welcomes a copy or two of our printed mag when offered.
We would usually only see him in his professional capacity as our mailman but we often invited him to swing by any afternoon on a day off to BS with the crew. A few months back, he took us up on that and unexpectedly pulled into the back parking lot on a warm fall afternoon. The roll-up back door was open and a couple of the younger crew were on the mini-ramp. Some suds in the fridge, it was a normal Friday afternoon at the shop. Steve happily accepted a cold beverage and settled into a chair to watch the boys session the ramp.
During a break in the action, we asked him how he was so interested in surfing. He told us of his upbringing in Hermosa Beach, California as a young boy and how he quickly found surfing and became “pretty good.” The South Bay, as the area is called, was a hot-bed of surfing at that time and Steve was right in amongst it.
Unfortunately, in 1970, the fateful letter that every 18-year-old was dreading at the time showed up at his parent’s home at which Steve was still residing. With mom in tears and Dad pacing with a double scotch in hand, Steve opened the letter and learned of his orders to report for a physical within a week. Holding down a few odd jobs but not attending college full time – which earned a 2-S draft deferment at the time – Steve was just who the US Marines were looking for to go fight communist aggression in Southeast Asia.
He said he doesn’t like to talk much about it these days, but after a beer or two he began to tell us about some of that experience. We quickly shooed away the groms on the ramp and pulled our chairs in closer.
As the story goes, before he knew what happened he was in basic training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and soon thereafter on a military transport plane heading to ‘Nam.
Shit got very real once Steve boarded a CH-47 transport heli and found himself headed deep into the jungle. Incoming rounds pinging off the bottom of the chopper most of the way out and the vets sitting on their helmets in hope of offering some protection.
Although trained as a typical Marine fighting solder, by a stroke of fate he was also trained as a forward radio operator. See his father was one of those amateur Ham radio guys with a little station set up in the garage and a 75’ antennae bolted to the side of the house. Steve had little interest as a child but Dad made sure his son would come out and spend a little time learning how it works. That basic understanding of radio function being what Steve mentions as a very big reason why he is probably still alive today.
Although very much on the front lines, the radio guy was usually shoulder-to-shoulder with the officers of the day and often in a command bunker or other such relatively safe position. We didn’t push it but Steve did lead on to the fact that he had fired his rifle while defending himself and others on numerous occasions. Apparently, Steve’s dad, and a few of his buddies, hunted game birds as well and often took their sons with them. Because of this both Steve and his older brother were well versed in the handling of firearms. Steve’s description of those interactions with the “VC” was very simply “I accurately discharged my weapon.” He left it at that and it was very clear exactly what he meant.
Over his first few months “in-country,” as it was called when deployed in the combat zones, he saw numerous casualties, many of which were people he had gotten to know. Steve had to look away for a moment to regain his composure while he told us of the incredible loss of life that he personally witnessed.
You could have heard a pin drop on the warehouse floor right then.
Sensing the moment needed something a little more uplifting to end the afternoon on, Steve asked for another beer and offered us one last story.
As was the norm, troops were scheduled to rotate out of combat from time to time for 5 days of rest and recuperation, or “R&R” as it was known. Most went out of the country to places like Bangkok, Singapore, and even Tokyo. For whatever reason, some stayed in-country and ended up in Da Nang at a place called My Khe, or “China Beach” as it had become known to its battle-hardened combat visitors.
Steve told us how he was just happy to get away from “being shot at” and didn’t really care where he ended up.
Flying in at night for safety, as it was still “pretty hot” in the surrounding area, Steve had no idea where he was but he distinctly remembers taking what he called “the longest hot shower I’ve ever taken.” Clean, fed and safe for the first time in months, he was soon fast asleep.
What happened the following morning was a moment Steve told us “he will never forget.”
Even before he had opened his eyes, a familiar sound was heard off in the distance, immediately followed by a very familiar smell: That salty, but oh so sweet aroma indicating that there was an ocean nearby. Putting it all together, Steve realized that the sound he was hearing was that of breaking waves off in the distance. He jumped out of his cot and hurried down the path following the crudely painted signs pointing to “China Beach.”
The path soon opened up to a beautiful white sand beach with 2-3’ glassy peaks in both directions. He had heard about some waves in the area but this was way more than he expected. Gazing out to sea dumfounded, he quickly jumped to attention when he heard a voice behind him. “At ease private, I’m just the lifeguard. Are you a surfer? We have a few boards in the shed” the soldier casually mentioned. Steve remembered two things distinctly from that moment: The first being “how the fuck did this guy get the job of lifeguard in ‘Nam,” and second, “how was it possible that there were actually surfboards in this godforsaken place?”
Not wanting to miss a golden opportunity, Steve told us how he quickly followed the lifeguard into the shed for a look. He expected a bunch of beat-up logs, so he was pleasantly surprised to see the almost brand new 9’6” Hobie D Fin, of which he as very familiar. He grabbed it enthusiastically and raced down towards the shoreline but quickly realizing he was still in his combat dungarees. Steve was faced with one of two options: Surf in his pants or strip down to his “skivvies.” A quick look up and down the beach revealing that he was alone, Steve decided to go with the skivvies option and was soon catching fun lefts and rights in the warm, lime green water. He still vividly remembers one right-hander that lined up a bit where he even found the nose for a few seconds. He still “had it!” he remembered thinking at the time as he shuffled his feet a little on the concrete to emulate the moment.
After a few more waves the lifeguard appeared on the sand whistling and gesturing for Steve to come in. He caught one more and rode it to the sand. The lifeguard apologetically told him there was a 45 minute time restriction imposed on surfing after another soldier had attempted to go AWOL (Absent without official leave) by paddling some two miles down the beach. Of course they caught him but apparently some new rules were put in place to discourage such behavior.
Steve had a few more surfs while in Da Nang before getting his orders to return. After his last session, while solemnly heading back to the barracks the lifeguard hollered out to him, “hey private, you surf pretty good.” Steve still smiles broadly when telling that part of his story
Finishing our last sips of beer as the sun was setting, Steve told us he will remember those days in Da Nang forever. He was eventually shipped back home no worse for the wear physically but forever scarred emotionally, as was the case with most combat veterans returning from combat tours in Vietnam.
As we closed up shop Steve thanked us for hanging out and sharing our beers.
No Steve, thank you, pal.
Editor note: To protect his privacy, “Steve” is a fictional name. Also, this story was written from memory. Please excuse any inaccuracies.