Tom & Huck Hit The Beach

by Steve Heilig, March 16, 2016

“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” — Thornton Wilder

* * *

Early sunny morning, probably a school day; we are about 15 years old. You walk a few doors down and knock on my bedroom window, wearing just swim trunks, t-shirt, flip-flops, carrying swim fins. "C'mon, there's a good south swell and nobody's around and we can go get some waves." Well why not, I say, and join you with exact same attire and my fins. We walk a few blocks down towards the beach, me figuring we're just going to hit the nearby Coves, our semi-private paradise, but at the coast highway you stick out your thumb, heading south.

"We're going to Laguna" you say. Again, why not. It's only 4 miles down the road. Soon we get a ride (this perhaps after some passing Orange County redneck yells at us, "Go to Laguna, you beatniks!", thus giving us a joke slogan for years — Laguna Beach had recently had it's own sort of "summer of love" full of hippies, including the biggest LSD ring in American history, Timmy Leary, rock festivals, camels walking down the beach, Hare Krishnas, a radical bookshop, and much more, until a backlash came and most were harassed away out of right-wing "OC"). Our driver is heading even further south to Dana Point and we take a ride deep into South Laguna, as you say you know a good spot there.

And you indeed did; in a little cove, down some stairs, the waves were overhead, peeling off a little point with nobody else there. Your face lit up in that huge grin and you said "Yee-haw!" and into the warm water we were, trading waves for at least an hour. Bodysurfing is so pure; just fins to help one launch into a wave, and become one with it, flying down the face, diving under just as it breaks. Bliss. At some point you said, "Next stop?" and we got out, got our shirts and flipflops and walked up the stairs and headed north, checking stairways and coves along the way. By the time we got into Laguna proper we'd bodysurfed at least five spots, getting great rides at all. I seem to recall a spot named Hobo Cove and we laughed at that, calling ourselves surf hobos.

Heading into town on the highway, we stopped at Sound Spectrum, the hip record store (still there!) where our gang would buy bootleg live Stones or Tull or Traffic LPs for $2.99, just to say hi to the hippie owner, who always smelled faintly of pot. Then back down to the beach to Brooks Street, where there were surfers as always but plenty enough waves for us to get a few; then back up to Thalia street, where the hippie sandwich joint was (I think it still is). I realized I was quite hungry — no breakfast, even, and thirsty, but we had not a cent between us. But of course somehow, after you went up and schmoozed the cute blonde girl at the counter, soon we were sitting with two big avocado sandwiches and big glasses of much-needed water. You just shrugged and smiled.

Back down at the beach we hit Cleo Street for one wave each and then walked up the main beach, gulping more from the water fountain and strolling past downtown and the movie theater where we'd sometimes see the hot local band Honk at midnite, and up to more coves and cliffs, taking Cliff Drive where my mom would soon live after the divorce. We hit a couple more spots, one of them fairly gnarly as the wave broke right over a reef. At Crescent Bay we had to head up to get past the private gated Emerald Bay, walking on the highway until we were above El Morro, already probably my favorite spot and now breaking very nicely. We hopped the fence above the trailer park (now long gone) and scrambled down, cut back to the cliff, and were into the water, with only a couple other guys. That wave when it is big is a fast steep left and a good long ride, so very fun. Seals can pop in and out, enjoying a ride with you.

Some of the best memories of my life reside there, especially a few years later when I had a beautiful girlfriend with me. But this afternoon was plenty good enough, and we stayed out for a long time, catching wave after wave, until I felt like my arms and legs might fall off from fatigue and went in to lie on the sand in the hot sun.

We'd now been in the sun or water for at least eight hours and it was getting late in the afternoon, so when you came in we walked north on the sand, up to Scotchman's Cove, where of course you insisted we go in for at least one wave each. I already had a scar on my lower back from landing on the reef there once (still do) but this time it was just fine.

We walked further up, cutting up through Crystal Cove, where there once was a guard who carried a gun, where I delivered groceries and booze to Ozzie and Harriett Nelson, and which is now an expensive resort, to the highway. A bit further up was the Orange Inn, home of famed date shakes and more (now a mini-mall with Starbucks and expensive clothing boutiques). Again, we had no money at all, but you worked your magic and there we sat out front, sipping the delicious shakes and watching the sun sink over the horse stables (now a parking lot) towards the ocean. We were thoroughly sun-fried and coated in salt and exhausted, or at least I was, and had probably walked at least ten miles since morning as well.

Downing the end of your shake, you said, "I guess we have to hit the Coves now, surf the point and Right Rock," referring to our local spots, closest to home.

I looked at you like you were nuts and said, "Hell no, I'm beat, I'm going home and jumping in the pool and eating and passing out!" You laughed and nodded and we walked the last last half-mile to my house, jumped in the warm pool, and sat down to dry off in the still-warm dusk. I seem to recall somebody came out and saw us and said "Where you guys been all day?" and we just replied, "Bodysurfing!" It had never really occurred to me that it was a school day, or maybe my excuse was I really figured we were just going for an early morning hour or so (perhaps this was why our academic attendance was not so hot then; temptations were great and frequent and I recall Coach Blair sometimes driving up and down the Big Corona beach lot on south swell school days, looking for all the truants… "Don't look back!" we'd warn each other, and paddle a bit further out).

So Tom, in the week since you just failed to wake up there has been a huge outpouring of grief and love, so much so that you'd likely be embarrassed by it all. I'll never know now if you recalled that day — I only thought of it this week. But I do know, all these decades later, one thing — that day was one of the very best of my life, thanks to you. And that, as we split to go see if school had called and if we needed to explain anything, you flashed that big winning evil grin and said, "Same time tomorrow?"

Yours always, SH

(For Tomas Delorenzo, RIP.)

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