Thanksgiving Sessions

Thanksgiving Sessions

My answer to any question about what my family did on Thanksgiving, or Easter, or even Christmas- any holiday, was, “once I started surfing; we first went surfing.”
New Year’s Day, several memorable early morning (while partiers are still partying or passed out) sessions at Swamis.
Super Bowl Sunday; great time for an afternoon surf session.
It’s Thanksgiving Day and I have to get some work done; and, besides, the surf is not cooperating on the Straits. If I’d gone down to my Dad’s, it might be great conditions for Seaside. No; it’s (at least partially) the work thing.
However, I have had several memorable T-Day sessions. Two years ago, the morning low tide and a properly aligned west northwest swell. The few surfers out left the water before I had to; headed back to Seattle. So, just me, not quite surfed-out; saving a little energy for helping Trish out with the setting-up. Last year it was the day after Thanksgiving Day, me and a few surfing power couples, some others who camped out or just took a long weekend.
So, hopefully you’re having (or had) a surf session to be thankful for.
Already having worked this morning on a future piece on San Onofre sessions, I have to go. Now.
Now, Monday, swell moves more northerly. Always thankful for lined-up waves, I’m always scheming, looking forward to the next opportunity.

The Ghost of Bill Birt


We have a framed photo on our living room wall, a photo that survived a fire that destroyed our first home in the Northwest, near Dabob Bay in Quilcene, Washington. The photo features Trish, at our wedding, going down the aisle with her father. The image has definitely ‘ambered’ and darkened since November of 1971, but, there in the background, in profile, with his signature thick, black-framed glasses, is Bill Birt.

Actually, the pair of glasses would be truly Bill Birt-characteristic if they featured finger- dirtied medical tape at the bridge.

Now, and for years, though he was one of the first of my friends to pass on (and I’m not totally pleased with using a softer version of ‘to die,’ which he did, and tragically), somehow, Bill Birt hangs around, sort of a ghost.

Bill might laugh, too loudly, at that dumb little joke.

I have too many Bill Birt stories to tell here. There’s “The Bill Birt Shirt,” “Bill Birt and the Magic Lougie,” “Bill Birt and the Stream of Urine,” “Bill Birt’s Stolen Surf Racks,” “Bill Birt and the San Onofre Octopi,” “Bill Birt Talks to Girls,” “Bill Birt Tries Out (too many) Boards from the Surfboard’s Hawaii shop,” “Bill Birt Follows up the Psychedelicizing of the Senior Area with Vandalism,” “Not-Quite Ditching Bill Birt,” “Bill Birt Goes a Hundred mph,” “Bill Birt and the Three Fingers.”

WHAT I should mention is that William Birt, Jr. was one of my friends since first grade or so, and that most of the stories reveal him to be someone who so desperately wanted to be cool; at least cooler, at least as cool as the cooler among his classmates. This proved almost impossible for a guy who was bigger than his contemporaries, who had hair on his chest in the sixth grade; enough, as my comment at the time went, to seem to want to choke him. He always seemed to have a little wad of white spittle in one or both corners of his mouth. 

WHAT (and this was somewhat surprising to me) I became aware of as I started writing about Bill as another one of the guys who started surfing a year or so after I did, is that I was (and am) a (possibly) just-slightly-cooler version of Bill Birt; so desirous of the same things he wanted; to be part of some group. 

WHAT most of these stories have in common is that Bill Birt rarely filtered things that came into his mind before he spoke. And, in speaking, when most of us wanted to be present but sort of unnoticed (because each of us is aware that any grouping of teenagers reveals the often-cruel struggle to develop and maintain some sort of hierarchy), Bill spoke out.

This was brave, and, often, I was the beneficiary of some new insight. When Bill told a girl in the line at the snack trailer at school (really, ice cream and candy) when we were, probably, Juniors, that he had heard she and her boyfriend were now having sex, and she, sort of shyly, looking at both of our faces (my expression no doubt not containing the shock at the question and the anticipation of the answer), nodded.

“And how is it?”

“Billlllll.”  Long pause, during which her shocked expression turned to a (slightly wicked) smile.

WHAT our so-soon-after-high school and now long-broken circle of friends didn’t really grasp, is that, away from us, in other groupings, Bill found a wonderful girlfriend, got married, and achieved real success. Bill Birt was the youngest registered lobbyist in the State of California. And then, on some rain-slicked highway… this story isn’t at all clear, he went off the road.

But, he’s still in the photo on my wall.


                                                                   Bill Birt On Every Wave

Still angry about my ‘borrowing’ his wetsuit for Donn Franzich to use, Bill was talking about me at school. And I, of course, was defending myself.

“Yeah, well, his mom got on the phone after I admitted taking it…Bill said he wouldn’t get mad… and, you know, they were at church… besides… and his mom said, ‘Billy needed his wetsuit. He went surfing, and he got cold.’ So, Billy’s mom…”

“Yeah, well; next time, I’ll…besides, your mom… his mom got on the phone with my mom and said she was sorry her son is such a thieving dork.”

“I have to go.”

“So,” continuing the rant to Phillip and Ray, “next time we’re surfing, I’m going to take off in front of Erwin on every wave.”

“Every wave,” I heard from Phillip, and Ray, and probably Mark, Bill Buel, Billy McLain. “What’re YOU gonna do?”

“Every wave?”

The next time turned out to be the day after Ray, and Bill Buel and I stayed up way too late (for me) at Phillip’s house, smoking cigarettes, listening to the Doors, Buel acting all scary and weird. I rode to the beach in the back of Ray’s Ranchero, maybe trying to sleep under some blankets and boards. When we got to Grandview, it was stormy and overhead. 

Bill showed up a bit later, alone. Someone must have told him about the night before. Bill Buel, probably. “And Erwin was, like, freaking out.” Buel, no doubt, went into the same Jesus-on-the-cross (in this case, with a cigarette) pose. “‘This is the end… my only friend, the end…’ He was all scared and shit.”

Later, up on the bluff, one of our mutual friends asked him about his threat, supposedly (the way I heard it) after the wave on which I got briefly covered up, came out sitting down. “So, every wave?”

“Well. You know…”

“But you never even made it out.”

“Well. You know; Erwin probably did think I was at church. I mean, I was.”

“Uh huh.”

WHAT I’d like to say is I rode back home with Bill Birt, shotgun, comfortable in his parents’ super big car with the super big trunk with the big cardboard box (for wetsuits, trunks, damp towels) with big block blue letters that spelled out, ‘KOTEX,’ all caps.  No, I’m sure I rode back in the back of the Ranchero, under a blanket, under some boards, knowing (or merely wanting to believe) I was somewhat cooler than Bill Birt.

WELL. You know…”

Of all my old surfing friends, I see Bill most often.

NOTE: Wanting an illustration for this piece, I actually considered removing the photo from the professionally-sealed oval frame. Checking it more closely, beyond Bill is the woman who would become his wife. Very attractive. She didn’t come from Fallbrook. She supposedly asked Bill why, when they would run into old friends of his, they always seemed surprised.

I’m imagining Bill just shrugged.

Remembrance of Something I May Not Have Seen

Surfing, really, has been the only sport in which I could be (take a quick pause here) competitive.

It was because I was an Adventist, one of very few at Fallbrook High, and because wrestling events did not take place on Friday nights (start of the Jewish and Adventist Sabbath), that I went out for the sport. This was right after I competed (take another breath) in Freshman Football, third string replacement lineman. Though I had running back size and short distance speed, I couldn’t catch for… couldn’t catch well. “Afraid of the ball” the coach said. “Only if it’s thrown at me” I said (to myself). 

Basketball had too much running, and I never had ‘a shot.’ Oh, I could pass, play defense; hip check to some tall guy’s knees, but shoot for the basket. No, pass.

Swimming might have been a good fit, and I did go out, but, evidently, my breast stroke was ‘unconventional.’  I finally dropped out when the coach said wearing the bunhuggers would be required. [I backspaced several attempts at further explanation here, including any parsing of the word ‘modesty.’]

Not that Fallbrook High’s wrestling outfits, evidently purchased in the mid-fifties and sewn from some wool/cotton blend, were less embarrassingly ridiculous; particularly for junior varsity athletes, but were preferable to wearing gym shorts, any ‘accident’ during lunchtime exhibition matches met with titters from any groups of girls in the bleachers.

I must add that, at my best, I was a technically proficient wrestler. What I didn’t have (then) was the competitive (let’s say ‘killer’) instinct.

On this afternoon the Fallbrook Union High School wrestling team, with those of us on the J.V. wearing the retro, crotch-snapped, long-sleeved tops with matching red tights, was the visiting team, going against San Dieguito High (Encinitas, Leucadia, Cardiff). And we were losing too many matches.

Their team members all seemed to have huge upper bodies. “That’s from the surfing,” the coach said, “They have the big lats.”

“I surf,” I said.

“Yeah, well…”

In what would be one of my best results, I achieved a desperate and last second takedown, having pushed myself with some real belief that I was only behaving in such an (over) aggressive manner ‘for the team.’ With those points I scrapped to a draw.

“Sorry” I said to my opponent.

I wasn’t. I was elated; still feeling some aftereffects of victory as I sat in the bus, going over the hill from the school toward Highway 101, toward the railroad tracks, toward…



…toward Swamis. It was dusk. I could see the golden dome gleaming, shimmering glassy water beyond and extending toward a horizon line hidden in the same glow; and, in the midst of that brightness, there was one person sitting outside, board angled upward as if preparing to turn with an approaching sunset line, that line a subtle shadow.

And then the bus turned right, parallel to the tracks, heading home. The image was gone.

Not from my memory. Ten years later, when I lived in Encinitas, a place I’ve always thought was washed in magic, I tried to reproduce the image. I drove up and down that very hill. I got out of the car. No, you just can’t see the lineup, even on some astronomically huge day; not from there.

Now, almost forty years beyond that, I’m more unclear about the results of my attempt to see again what I thought I saw than that I did see something on an evening in 1965.

The solitary outside surfer slowly turns as the waters swell, rise. He drops the back of his board, springs forward, paddles; one stroke to even out, one toward shore. The wave lifts him. At the top, one last stroke and…

Maybe you should check it for yourself.

So, my current illustration is temporary, something to show my sister Melissa what I’m going for, only more…more intense; prettier, better, something to match the clear 48 year old memory.