IN MY MIND-VIDEO VERSION of the very brief encounter; looking past the front desk where the receptionist was still telling me that “John, John Severson, actually reads over all the submissions himself, so, so…” when John, John Severson; appeared through an open door, moving from the right to the center of the (my) frame, to the center of what must have been the visitor side of his desk. He stopped, looking at something, then turned toward the visitor side of the “Surfer” magazine office, maybe focused for a moment, and gave the almost-seventeen kid a nod.
I probably just froze.
A NOD is everything, really; an acknowledgement of co-membership, perhaps; a gesture that says, depending on who gives it, that things are all right between us.
YEAH, maybe that’s reading too much into a simple gesture. Or not. Maybe a nod is just so ancient, so basically human, we forget that each one of us learns more from studying expressions than we do from language. In a fight-or-flight world, a nod can and has stopped many a conflict.
OKAY, now I’m thinking of times I’ve paddled out into a lineup, seen a surfer I chatted with on another beach. Nod. Nod returned. AND NOW I’m thinking of my first venture out at Windansea, seeing two guys I’d surfed around in Pacific Beach. I nodded, they, sitting well on the shoulder, kept their gaze down. No eye contact. AND NOW I’m thinking of the times my nod, paddling toward the lineup, was returned with the STINKEYE.
SO, I had written a bunch of stuff, my best longhand on college-ruled notebook paper, and had sent it, along with a self-addressed, stamped return envelope, to “SURFER” magazine. I waited for fame and recognition, my writings in the preeminent surf publication, the magazine I studied, front to back; the basic visual images that popped up like a slide show in my dreams.
“They’ll probably have to put some in one edition, other stuff in the next one,” I, no doubt, thought. “My friends will be so… so stoked. Me, my writings…”
I did mention I waited, telling myself this sort of self-induced insanity (waiting for someone else to realize one’s stuff is great), is what a real writer endures.
THIS WAS ME in the summer of 1968, living in Fallbrook, twenty miles from Oceanside pier, about the same distance, straight west, across Camp Pendleton, to San Onofre. If I was riding with someone who had the proper ID card, we’d often surf there, park on the beach. Otherwise, it was go to Oceanside, north on 101 (pre- I-5 connection), deemed “Slaughter Alley.” The “Surfer” magazine headquarters was somewhere north of there. I’d find it.
A WORD on what I’d written: Mostly, I’ll have to guess, crap; the kind of overwrought drivel one might expect from a hormone-afflicted, surf-crazed, skateboarding-‘cause-I-fuckin’-live-in-the-hills dreamer, just starting to get competent at surfing might right. There were pages of the stuff.
WHAT I WROTE as a twelve verse (epic?) poem on those blocking access to surf beaches, became, in the fall of 1968, when I was back in school, shorter, better. I’m not sure if I ever got my original pages back, but I received a check for ten dollars and a copy of the magazine.
I WAS PUBLISHED. Oh, I mean, I WAS PUBLISHED! But, what John Severson had done is take the first verse, delete everything from the middle, add some of the lines from the last verse. It had changed enough from the original that, when asked to read it aloud in English class, I couldn’t quite get it right. “Didn’t you write this?” “Yeah, yeah, but…different.” Penny had to read it. She did a great job.
STILL, it was, probably, still a bit, um, overwrought.
IN 2001, the poem showed up again, in “The Perfect Day… 40 Years of Surfer Magazine.” I was, by this time, up in the Pacific Northwest, rarely surfing. Trisha’s nephew, Dylan Scott, surfing down in San Diego, saw the coffee table book, surprise, on a coffee table at his dentist’s office. “That’s my uncle,” he, according to him, said. “Whoa. Really? My poem?” Yes, we do own the book; it’s on a coffee table.
HERE’S the poem, written by me, edited by John Severson (he even shortened the title, though I forget what it was).
The promised sand, Forbidden land,
Restraining line With sharpened spine;
NO SURFING HERE: The warning sign.
Perfection waves, Reflecting mind;
Could be so blind.
HERE’S WHAT JOHN SEVERSON DID: He gave a nod to all the punks and kooks and kids who wanted to be surfers. He took a disparate group and made us a tribe. If we don’t always acknowledge this in the competitive, sometimes combative setting of the lineup; it’s hopefully different when surfers meet in some other setting, a grocery store or distant parking lot. A nod of acknowledgement.
I’m actually a bit amazed at how shocked and saddened I am at hearing of Severson’s passing.