Uncle Manny Takes the Wave
My Uncle Manny once told me over a wickedly scrumptious Bear Claw and coffee at a country restaurant run by a religious cult that his secret goal was to be able to stand in front of his own mirror and point to his mat of white chest hair and say, “I’m the surfer. I’m the surfer. I’m the real thing.” He was already sixty, so I was careful to keep my reaction to a supportive nod that would hide any trace of doubt.
When Uncle Manny got to the beach, he found his former student Holly with three of her friends pulling on their wet wetsuits. It was February, eight o’clock in the morning, gray and cold and a light sprinkle falling and little hope of any sunlight that day.
Holly was glad to see him. He was her former professor in a section of the War & Peace Lecture Series, where he had also been a lecturer and had given talks on genocide Guatemala, Mexico, and Chechnya.
She wanted to know what he was doing there.
“Jogging, getting some air,” he said. “And you? Surfing? So early in the morning and in weather like this?” The truth was, he knew she often surfed there weekend mornings and had hoped to run into her.
“We had a sleep-over,” she said, “and we’re going to do a little surfing now and let the water wake us up.”
She was pulling on the top of her suit. She wore a sweatshirt but had extracted her arms from its sleeves and was working herself into the top of the wetsuit without revealing anything. Once suited, she hopped around on the balls of her bare feet, getting her board out of the car, waxing the top and cracking the windows on the old Toyota Four Runner for her dogs
“Want to come?”
I could, he thought. He had the new wet suit in the back of his truck. He had his stately ten-foot longboard, which he had never tried to use, and he found Holly attractive.
“I’ve actually been thinking of taking lessons.”
“You got a wet suit with you?”
“Well, then, come on out with us!” she said, gathering her ankle leash in one hand and the board in the other.
“I’d be embarrassed,” he said, making a clever joke out of the truth.
“Have you used it yet?” she asked, smiling and with no trace of mockery.
He hadn’t. He’d only tried it on in the shop’s dressing room. It still had the tags on it. And that had been three weeks ago.
“I’m backing into it slowly.”
Holly’s smile was friendly, maybe even a bit more than friendly. Or was it also partly puzzlement over his phrasing “backing into it,” one more bit of irony she half expected from him and never quite got? Was she pondering these things, he wondered, or was it just him?
It was darker overhead and raining a little stronger.
“Come on with us!” she said, in a voice that was clearly an invitation, possibly on more than one level.
He knew he was too old. On more than one level.
Then she introduced him to her friends as one of her favorite professors. Her friends were Heather, Annie and Willow. Names like that. Friendly, warm, interested faces. No judgment. In their minds, perhaps a few unformed questions about the matter of his age.
“We just go out and have fun,” Holly said, over her shoulder. “See you!” and he watched them trotting over the gray beach, like otters approaching a stream. Holly skipping sometimes, her little frame, her neoprene-covered bow sprit, maidenhead breasts heading seaward, her rounded aboriginal bottom moving above her strong, youthful legs. A delightful sisterhood of young working women, carrying their hand-me-down boards that they’d inherited from their boyfriends present and past. He watched as they trotted then, full of confidence, bent over to wrap their leashes around their tanned ankles. Then he watched as they walked deeper into the waves. toward the spot where the lagoon emptied into the surf as a tidal river and where, he knew, Great White shark were known to feed.
The next time he looked, Holly was up on a three-foot wave, turning and twisting like the very best of them. They were, he decided in that moment, the real thing, and he was not.
He watched them for a while, standing in his black rain-proof running pants, his windbreaker, in his Gortex running shoes. He recalled a story his priest had told him. How the priest had an assistant for a while, a big Irishman with a mop of red hair, big workingman’s hands, a broad smile and a kind heart. And how for some reason everyone began referring to the likeable assistant as “The Priest.” And how he, the smaller man, the real priest, would go home at night, look at himself in the mirror and say, “I’m the priest, damn it– I’m the one who’s the priest!” That is what Manny wanted to say one someday. “Damnit, I’m the one who’s the surfer.”
We know this little secret this from Uncle Manny’s diary, from a passage that Aunt Stella had forgotten to purge with her black magic marker—the last entry before he finally left for Hawaii to take surfing lessons.
God only knows how his mind was working. We learned from his short, barrel-chested instructor Brent McNab—the Hawaiian great-great-grandson of Episcopalian autocrats who had ruled Hawaii and suppressed Hawaiian culture and independence—whom we were later able to track down at Waikiki Beach, that Uncle Manny had done extremely well for a man his age. He had learned to leap into a surfer’s crouch almost immediately, had figured out the timing required to catch and take a wave, to stand up, balance and choose a path right or left away from the part that that was beginning to break. More astonishing was his seemingly instinctual ability to slant down across a wave’s face and then shoot up again and escape over the crest just before then wave broke. Casual observers, as well as Manny himself, agreed that he was well on his way to being the real thing.
But we also learned that on his sixth day as a surfer, he entered a Z.A. – a zone of arrogance, as Brent Macnab put it. Brent had told him not to surf in waves so large that he would not be able to hold his breath for the time they broke and held him down. On this occasion, he had also overlooked the lesson about applying only certain kinds of wax on the top of the board and only in certain amounts. It appeared in hindsight Manny’s talent for quick learning had not extended to attentive listening, for he had not internalized Bret’s two warnings.
On the day my Uncle Manny actually did become the real thing, Shinsaku Umahashi, a Japanese camera man for The Japan Times with a new extra-powerful telescopic lens had set up his tripod on Diamond Head, a volcanic formation a good mile and a half from Waikiki Beach and happened to focus on one particular wave because of its size. He could make out the man sitting on his longboard in front of the rogue wave. He noticed the shock of gray hair and concluded it indicated he was observing a surfer of much experience who would put on a worthy display before the might of the enormous wave. Then he noticed the dark shadow in the water between the wave and the surfer and how it approacing with about the same speed as the wave. Both the wave and the shadow had almost arrived when he started filming.
In the water, Uncle Manny lept up as the wave lifted him, then found himself sloping along the face of something that was simply too big. Some said it had been easily twenty feet high from trough to crest, and poorly shaped, as they say in the parlance. Too steep and too unstable—impatient, as it were, to avalanche forward and unfurl all its tons of water not in sequence but all at once, in a thundering, frothing, churning, downward explosion.
Well, the long and the short of it was—according to Brent Macnab, who was watching him through binoculars—that Uncle Manny saw the problem and, for all his inexperience, realized that he had to leave his board and get in the water right then and there and disengage from the wave. But because of the matt of white hair on his chest, McNab thought, he found himself wedded to the over-waxed top of his rented Waikiki long board and therefore had to hurtle forward with it, until he was airborne, tumbling end over end through the air in front of the monster wave before he disappeared beneath it and the board came up broken in half, still overly waxed, with much of Uncle Manny’s white chest hair. But without Uncle Manny.
Instructor Macnab, the Honolulu Metropolitan Police Department, and the US Army, whose park-base the Fort DeRussy Military Reservation all this had happened in front of, all had their different theories, but in the end settled on the version that a large shark must have been in the wave with Uncle Manny and had taken him out to sea for a snack and then dropped him somewhere farther out beyond any ZA, where what was left of him – whatever part of him that had escaped sharp teeth, must have been nibbled into extinction by lesser fish and crabs as it drifted away and eventually sank, without Uncle Manny ever wearing his wet suit, the one he’d left in Northern California, and without ever returning to the frigid waters where he could have frolicked with Holly and her young feminist working class otter sisters, or even stand in front of his own mirror and point to his matt of white chest hair and say, “I’m the surfer. I’m the surfer. I’m the real thing.” That is, until editors at The Japan Times shared a film clip of the Waikiki incident where “an older experienced surfer” had met with a double nemesis, an event they gave the ghoulish title 本物だった The Real Thing. With most of the emphasis laid on the size of the wave, the age of the surfer and the fact that he was most likely eaten by the very large shark that had been in the wave with him. When the clip played on American channels, Holly and her friends discussed it in solemn voices, while Holly wept.