The one and only time my pop took me out surfing, I was six years old. He had me use the long board, said it was a slower ride. Long boards are gigantic compared to six-year-olds. I can still picture him jumping over the boulders from our lawn onto the beach with the long board under his arm.
I was thrilled and a little scared to hang out with him, hoping he wouldn’t find out my secret. I’d never been able to navigate the feel of a wave—when it was going to peak, crash, tube, or whatever the hell else it does. I hadn’t a clue. Shit, I was six. I was a theater person even then, and if I’d learned anything from my fear of getting out in front of people, it was that “The only way through it, is to do it.” I’d watched my older siblings surf all my life. It was my turn now. I threw caution to the wind and followed him, high-stepping into the whitewater. Clumps of seaweed slid by my legs in the tide.
“There’s an outside swell,” he said, which meant a big set was brewing. I looked out and just saw an expanse of undulating water. I dove through a smaller wave. It was calm and quiet on the other side. He gave the long board a good shove. It glided right to me. I knew I was going to take to it like everyone else in the family. It was in the blood. I crawled on the board and paddled toward my Dad, heart pounding with excitement.
“All right, kiddo,” he said. “Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to … Oh, wait. Hold on. Here comes one. Don’t panic, just paddle. You’ll be all right. All you have to do is paddle.”
So, six-year-old me lay my forehead down on the surfboard, took a big whiff of the coconut surf wax, arched my back, and giggled. The clouds had separated. Sunlight beamed down on me. The water was glassy and sparkled jewels out by the oil derricks. A few pelicans dive-bombed for fish. I paddled over to Dad. He grabbed the tip of the board and pulled me around until I faced the shore. I sat up and swirled my feet in the water just like I’d seen him do. “All right, Katza,” he said. “I’m going to push you out. Stand up as soon as you start to glide.” I snapped to attention. He grabbed the tail, pulling it back against the flow until the perfect time. “You got this,” he said, and shoved the board. I glided along, picking up speed. “There ya go! Stand up, baby. You can do it!”
I got on one knee, steady, focused, stuck my right foot out front, and raised myself up to a standing position. Surfers refer to anyone who puts their right foot out front as a “goofy foot.” That was me. Ol’ Goofy-Foot Wilhoite, six years old, gliding along with the flow of the wave. I was doing it. I was surfing like a badass. “Dad!” I called out. “I’m like you! Whoo-hoo!” I rode that wave for five whole seconds, an eternity in wave-riding time, then jumped off. The board drifted onto the beach. I had a giggle fit in celebration, pumping my fists in the air, shaking my own hand over my head in victory.
“All right. Let’s do it again. Get the board,” he said.
I grabbed the skeg and pulled it back out. A wave had just rolled in, so there was a long, safe stretch for me to get in position and start paddling. A noticeable wave formed in front of me, but I wasn’t deterred. All I had to do was point the board straight into the wave, and I’d drift over to the waiting arms of my Surfer’s-Hall-of-Fame dad. The wave was harmless enough, a smooth wall of water that sounded like air being sucked in through someone’s teeth.
“Come on, kid. Paddle!” he said.
“Paddle, baby! Paddle!” I was unnerved by the increasing agitation in his tone.
What was once a benign wave now loomed over me. I paddled as hard as I could, but the board didn’t seem to move up the face. The undertow pulled back against me. The ocean sucked up more water to form a thick wall. My arms felt like rubber. The wave crested. White water dripped off the peak onto my back. Saltwater stung the rash that had formed under my arms. The tip of the board rose with the wave. I breathed a sigh of relief. In a matter of seconds, I was going to cut through the top and glide over to the other side where my dad would grab the nose, and turn me around again, positioning me for my next surf opportunity. This was a cinch, but the wave was bigger than I’d thought, and it lifted the board up until it was vertical, then cracked. The whoosh flooded my ears. My dad called out for me to paddle but his voice quickly faded into the sound of the wave crashing. I was fucked.
In an instant, that smooth, sweet wave had stood up on its haunches and thrown me onto my back in a back-flop, chucking the giant long board at my face like a smack with a bat. The wall of water crashed down on me, forcing me to roil in the surf. Seaweed, rocks, the unforgiving fiberglass board, the sharp skeg tumbled along with me as my knee and chin scraped the ocean floor. When I was able to lift my head up and take a deep breath, but another wave, bigger than the last, plowed into me, jamming a mouth full of saltwater down my throat. I tried to catch a second breath, but the weight and volume of water was too much. I tumbled into the shallows and skidded, road-rashing the shit out of my knees until, finally, I believed I wasn’t going to drown after all, and I could stand. I took a few defeated steps, clenched my teeth, and refused to cry, but man, my whole body ached. My knees were bleeding. My bikini top had twisted sideways, exposing my flat chest.
Dad bodysurfed in, right arm held straight above his head steering the way. I panted, grateful for every breath, as I watched him zip across the wave slicing a line of white water in his wake. He knew how to wrestle that ocean down. It was never going to get one up on him. The wave dropped him off like a gentle giant hand, 20 feet in front of me. He laughed as he stood up and trudged over to me. “Atta girl,” he said. “Your first wipeout. I’m proud of ya, kid.”
I tasted something salty dripping down the back of my throat. I felt a tickle above my upper lip. I swiped my arm across my face. A red stripe of blood painted a swath from my elbow to my wrist. I had a bloody nose. I wanted him to take a few more steps so he could hug me and tell me how brave I was, but he bent over laughing instead. “You’re all right, kid. You just …” He offered as consolation, “Ya almost made it,” then did a Maxwell Smart impression and held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “You just missed it by, uh, that much.”
Six-year-old me laughed just as I’d been laughing with him my entire life—I laughed because I knew he wanted me to.
I remembered hearing the thump-thump-thump of footsteps in the hard sand behind me before I turned around and saw my mother in her bikini running toward us. “Good Lord, Kathy,” she said, breathless from her sprint. “Are you all right, baby? Oh, honey. You’re bleeding. Let’s get you cleaned up.” She folded me up in her arms. My nose and forehead hurt. I ran my tongue over the swelling in my upper lip.
Dad flipped his hair into a perfect ducktail swirl. The peach-fuzz hair on his skin glowed in the sun. He covered his face with his elbow and said he was sorry a bunch of times, waiting until he could stop smiling before he looked at us. Finally, he raised his head. “Ah, Ginger, she wiped out. It happens. She’s got to get back up on that board now.”
“No, she doesn’t.”
He looked at me, trying to make eye contact, but I wouldn’t look back at him, until I couldn’t help it. I had to admit, it must have looked pretty funny from his perspective.
“I thought you were going to make it over, baby-girl,” he said. “I really did, but then …” and he doubled over laughing again.
“I’m fine, Ma,” I said, then did my impression of Maxwell Smart. “I just ‘missed it by, uh, that much.’”
Dad smiled. We were co-conspirators.
“Dang it, Jim,” Mom said. “She’s too little to be on that great big board.”
“No, she’s not. She’s a natural.”
“She’s a mess.”
I kissed her goose-pimply belly and burst into tears. I think she knew how disappointed I was as she walked me back to the house.
Dad called after us. “Ginger! She needs to get back on that board.”
My mother waved him off, and we never turned back. I had wanted to impress my dad that day so much, and I wiped out. Not only that, but at some point while tumbling in the surf, I was convinced I was going to die—it was too much. Ma walked me up the concrete steps that led over the boulders onto the crab grass and sprayed my knees and elbows with the hose, then dried me off and put Bactine on my scrapes. “Some people,” she said, “are meant to ‘tread the boards,’ not surf them. I think that might be you.” So, I chose acting over surfing, and my dad was right. I never got back on a surfboard again.