I can still picture that wall clock hanging like a noose above Sister Mary Kathleen’s head. We had already been counting down two weeks, since late May, and now the second hand turned toward freedom. Five, four, three, two, one. Summer was upon us!
The summer of eighth grade was unlike any I had ever had before. Some friends had begun surfing by then, and everything about them had changed. Each day they taught me new words like “stoked,” which was something like excited only more so, or “hanging five,” which was putting five toes over the end of a surfboard. Among my friends, only Chicky was known to hang five and, we heard, sometimes 10.
I washed the grease out of my hair and wondered if I would ever be able to hang five as I pretended to walk the nose of a board on our front room carpet, or on the roller skates nailed to the two-by-four we called skateboards.
We lived inland and when our parents couldn’t drive us to the beach we would hitchhike, getting rides with kind-hearted individuals or sickos who made propositions to us we did not yet understand.
By July our skin had become dark, our cheeks were peeled raw and the sun streaked our hair. The predominant smells were those of suntan oil and the paraffin wax used on surfboards.
We struggled to learn the joy of surfing, not yet hanging five, but getting to our feet each time and doing a few awkward turns on occasion.
Once in a while a surf movie came to the Santa Monica or Pasadena Civic Auditoriums. There, we stood in line, grubby in Army jackets, worn Levi’s and Converse, a uniform adapted by many surfers along with surf T-shirts sporting labels like Bing, Jacobs, Gordon & Smith or Hansen.
The movie showed everything we dreamed of, from hot, glassy knee-high surf to crushing Waimea Bay in Hawaii. There was no way to control our stoke or the need to hitch to Huntington Pier the next morning, where I would borrow a surfboard and once again fail at hanging five.
Nobody had any money, but I did have a little brother whom we sent out as a sacrifice and ordered to tell tourists that, “My father’s car ran out of gas and we need a nickel or a dime to get home.”
The least he ever got was a quarter from each person he hit up. That always gave us enough for pancakes across the street at the Buzz Inn. One time he got five bucks, most of which he kept and spent on various treats for himself.
Our lives were filled daily with magic and joy and unseen perils. By that September we were all real surfers — tougher and more independent. The best among us had learned to hang five.
Sadly September also meant school, and we drifted off to class with visions of summer still in our heads as we drew waves on our school folders.
For nine months the weekends and holidays would have to do as the clock crept toward the hour of our release and the school bell signaled that summer had once again arrived and set us free.