It is a strange thing — very strange indeed — having imagined a moment as often as I’ve imagined this moment, having told numerous stories and lies about this moment, having talked about this moment in the past tense as if everything that I will do today has already happened — and yet having very nearly lost faith that this moment would ever arrive.
Few things in my life have ever felt as surreal as this moment — staring out at the ocean with a surfboard under my arm — because I’m about to step across a threshold that separates dream from reality. I’m about to step across a threshold and thereby step into the story I’ve been telling for 25 years and by stepping across the threshold at last turn that crazy story into a reality, and make the lie a truth.
Yes, there it is! Not that wave. And not the wave behind it. But not very far beyond these waves is the wave. Thee wave. The very dear, practically mythical wave I’ve been dreaming about for 25 years. I’m going to paddle out to that wave, meet it in the surf zone and surf it back to shore. It’s out there, the wave, just beyond the horizon — and how very apropos is that! My, what a beautiful wave you will be. Oh, I can’t see you quite yet, but I know just what you look like, for I’ve been picturing you for the last quarter century!
But certainly a moment — no, an event!—– so long in the making deserves a moment before the moment, to pause, reflect and appreciate the long, long journey (no, pilgrimage is the more appropriate word) with all its plot twists, and sacrifices, to have at last arrived at this momentous moment; literally toeing the very threshold that will culminate this long, long pilgrimage.
My friend Ice, who stands beside me, his surfboard also tucked beneath his arm, turns to me and begins to say something, but he holds his tongue. Ice is 27 years old. I was Ice once, long ago and I so I know what he is thinking, and I know what he is about to say, which is something along the lines of, “Dude, let’s do this already!” But, to his credit he sees the reverent expression on my face as I gaze out across the endlessly arriving waves, and he checks his comment. He could see that I’m not merely looking at the arriving waves, I’m not merely looking at the horizon, but I’m looking far, far beyond that: to 25 years into the past. I’m looking at August 1988.
The waves that are crashing on the beach today were formed several days ago, hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles out to sea, when wind blowing across the ocean transferred its energy to the water. And my surfing journey is not so different as theirs. It was set in motion 25 years ago when I, and a group of my surfer-wannabe friends, made a pact that we would move to California and become surfers. It should have been easy enough to accomplish but, as we all know, life often has other plans.
If you want to make fate laugh make a pact.
In the course of 25 years, a man will cross a third of the thresholds that he will cross in his lifetime, and the thresholds he crosses between the age of 18 to 43 will be the most significant, impactful, defining thresholds of his life. College. Career. Marriage. First house. Kids.
The thresholds a man crosses between the age of 18 to 43 are particularly big and consequential ones. And crossing the crucial thresholds of early manhood will greatly affect the course of his future, and in many ways pre-determines the outcome of future decisions.
Thus a man must be particularly mindful of decisions and actions. He must be extra careful navigating his way through the thresholds during this early and starkly influential period of his life. Because some thresholds are tire ripper thresholds: once crossed he can go forward but he can’t go back. And crossing other thresholds only leads to dead ends.
Even when I was a kid, I knew that I wanted to live a life of grand adventures and broad explorations. When I was a kid, I didn’t yet know that I couldn’t have it all: wife, kids, house, and jungle excursions, ocean navigations and deep desert wanderings.
But by the time I was 16 — and getting ready to start crossing my first significant, consequential thresholds — I knew better. I knew that if I had a wife, kids and mortgage payments I would no longer be free to light out for the territory, at least for any significant, meaningful amount of time.
So as I entered manhood, I was particularly wary of certain thresholds and purposely avoided them, though sometimes they were very temptingly baited. Which included marriage, kids and treading-water-till-I-drown careers.
But I, and my little pack of surfer-wannabe friends, were about to cross a threshold that most men will never cross. We were all Mormons and very soon we’d be leaving for our missions. And we knew that going on our missions was very likely to be the threshold that would doom our future grand plans of being surf bums. Once the light hits the prism, it’s hard to gather it back together. And that’s why — on an August night in 1988 — we made the surf pact.
Max, Rob and I would be the first ones to depart for our missions. We already had our mission calls and we’d be reporting to the MTC in November. The other members in our little group of future surf bums would first put in some time at college while waiting to turn 19. And several of them would be departing for college in less than a week. So on a Saturday night, the last night that we’d all be together, we gathered in an empty parking lot and there made our surf pact.
And we also made our plan. There were eight of us. It was August 1988. The last person in our group would leave for his mission in June 1989. So we’d rendezvous in June 1991, right there in Mesa, Ariz. We’d pool our money together and buy a couple VW buses, drive to a reputable surf town in southern California, rent a four-room house close to the beach and cram in there together. We’d get meaningless part-time jobs as waiters or grocery baggers; and we’d surf.
But we also discussed the impracticality of being surf bums forever. And we agreed that yes, we eventually wanted to get married, and have careers and start families. Yes, that was going to happen. As unfair as it is to everyone else, we were white males in America. If we wanted to be successful, it was practically unavoidable. And we wanted it. So we were going to get swept into adulthood and all its responsibilities, very early. And for that very reason we agreed that we needed at least one summer to be as happy and carefree as surf bums. So there it was: the summer of 1991 was going to be our brief, but illustrious window of pure freedom. Three brief, shining months wedged between May and September like an iron bracket.
And, as we talked into the night that I’d forever after refer to as “surf-pact night,” we all agreed that there was really only one threat to our glorious plan: women.
All eight of us were handsome, witty and athletic, with promising college-educated, influentially-referenced futures. Women simply wouldn’t be able to keep their hands off us.
So that night in the empty parking lot one of us (25 years later I don’t remember who it was or what his name was), with renewed determination, gathered into a wicker basket all the letters, stuffed animals and other keepsakes his girlfriend-since-forever had given him, and burned them. That took some foresight, to bring all that crap to surf-pact night. I guess he was planning on doing that all along.
But in the end, the women got us and ended our big plans for Surf Summer 1991. It’s really not surprising. In case you’ve forgotten what it feels like to meet a smart, attractive, witty 18-24 year old woman, who thinks you’re handsome, and smart and laughs at your stupid jokes, well, they’re hard to say no to.
So we had surf-pact night, then said our goodbyes while we promised to rendezvous two and half years later. From there, we disbanded and went on our missions.
I was the first one to go with Max and Rob leaving only four weeks behind me. Being the first one to leave, I was thus the first one to come back. Max and Rob returned only two weeks after I did. I called up Max. He was still committed to the surf-pact. “I can’t wait for June!” he told me. “Me too!” I said. Then I called Rob. He was still committed “even more than before,” he told me.
Max and Rob both returned home from their missions the day before Thanksgiving, 1990. Max was married, to some girl he’d had a crush on in high school, before the next March. Rob did the same about a month later. I never even stayed in touch with the others.
And so it is with a very conscious awareness, a very present reverence, a very mindful gratitude that I step across the sacred threshold, from dry beach into the ocean.
After staring at the ocean for 10 minutes in disbelief, awe and reverence, watching the incoming waves that were curled like the corners of the pages of the surf magazines I’ve been reading since I was 14, I waded out into the waves until I could wade no farther and then I laid my surfboard on the water, jumped on it and started paddling out to the break zone — that magical spot where the waves break into surfable peaks.
But after telling so many stories about my great, though fictional, surfing adventures surely the actual experience, the actual doing of the thing can’t possibly live up to the fictional version.
But it did!
Yes, the water was chilly but that’s not what sent the shivers crackling up my spine.