The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts looked out the window after takeoff and saw the spectacular Bahama Banks.
If they had been surfers, they would have squinted their eyes to see traces of whitewater along the reefs of
outer islands like Abaco, Eleuthera and Cat.
That’s exactly what I was doing now from the airplane window seat I grabbed ahead of my friends, Ed, Bill and Jerry.
We were fifteen years old and on our first surf adventure.
Two years earlier, the surfing bug bit me extra hard.
The instant the wave picked me up and the board rushed forward, I was hooked. From that moment I planned to spend everyday having this much fun.
The problem, however, was that I lived in South Florida a place where the ocean turned waveless every summer.
Summer surf travel was going to be a necessary part of this new life and so research began for a cheap adventure–one not to far from home, but with the chance of surfable summer waves.
A fishing chart showed our dilemma, the Bahama Islands stood between West Palm Beach and the eastern Atlantic.
But the same chart showed that those outermost Bahama Islands had reefs, bays and beaches facing and ocean that stretched all the way to Africa. I dream that each of these islands harbored a hidden gem of a surfing wave.
We made a lot of phone calls–there was no internet in 1970–and estimated the propeller plane flight and a week’s stay to cost about $150.
We wouldn’t think of asking our parents for the money.
We considered ourselves adults!
Ed worked in a clothing store. Gerry did bike deliveries.
Bill lifeguarded at the village pool.
I learned to
build surfboards and sell them to my friends.
The first boards were heavy from the 8 lb. cloth found
at the marine store. The next batch were better– made
from blanks, cloth, resin from the local board factory–Nomad Surfboards.
Mom drove me from school and waited in the lot of the industrial park, while I tentatively opened the door of Ron Heavyside’s shaping room. The scream of his power planer made knocking useless. I startled him and he gave me a death-stare while taking off his dust mask.
“Look kid, I don’t make any money, interrupting my work to pump resin into your plastic milk carton containers.”
I begged and begged until he agreed. “Ok that’s it! Two gallons of resin. Give me twenty dollars and beat it”
“Thank you so much… But, I ALSO just need 3 yards of six ounce cloth and a jar filled with that bright orange-yellow tint on your shelf by the Playboy poster.”
Thanks to Ron, he took my lawn cutting cash and put me in business.
On the ninety minute flight from Florida, I listened to music the old fashioned way.
When I get nervous, the last song I heard sticks in my mind and plays over and over again. The hippie anthem Signs was number one on the radio chart that week.
“Signs, signs, everywhere a sign. Blocking out the scenery, changing my mind. Do this, don’t do that! Can’t you read the signs!” Not us! We were free and unbound by parents, schools and rules. We were surf explorers!
An elbow shaped stretch of rock and sand appeared out the turboprop planes window.
“Look!” I shouted. “Whitewater!!”
We landed hard on a pot-holed runway in North Eleuthera.
The name Eleuthera meant freedom in the language of the
English loyalists that fled America during the revolutionary war.
The terminal was a shack.
An attendant in flip flops pushed a set of roll-up stairs. A uniformed officer with pistols asked us for $25 each for the entry fee, which we had budgeted for. The Bahamian welcome tax!
A rental car was now out of budget. Taxi drivers sensed our predicament and moved in for the kill. They grabbed our boards. And, then we grabbed them back. We spotted a fellow with a motor scooter and bargained for a weeks rental.
One scooter between the four of us.
It would have to work. We now had $80 each on us–but thankfully, a suitcase full of peanut butter and bread.
We drew straws to be dropped off first near the
beach. One road ran up the spine of the island. It rolled over hills and offered views of water on both sides. It was called the Queen’s Highway. We looked for the crumbling silos of a pineapple farm said to mark the shell trail to “Surfer’s Beach”.
We hiked through the fields and over a dune line and there it was: The summer swell that could
not reach us in South Florida. Wave after wave
appeared first in dark indigo water. Each stood tall as the water became aquamarine, and then capped and tossed with bright white spindrift. The shallow reef was orange with fire coral.
The sky was blindingly bright. The beach pristine. No surfers. No tourists. Just us, the waves, the dunes,
the coconut palms and the roadside silos.
I rushed into the lineup and paddled after every set wave–as greedily as if I were home, fighting for waves at the Pumphouse.
These waves were a lot different. They were long ground swells. The felt the the dome shaped reef rose up evenly and
offered an exhilarating left slide over the colorful coral heads and tropical fish.
After dozens of long and similar rides, I learned to feel the fast parts of the wave, to steer my board high to accelerate, and to drop downward to speed ahead of falling whitewater sections. Soon, all of us were starting rides north of the peak to angle into the very steepest and most powerful part of the swell beneath the falling crest. When I fell, I swam after my bright yellow board. I usually found it in a shoreward deep spot, waiting for me between the orange coral heads. I climbed back on and paddled out. Again and again. None of us had thought wear a T-shirt for
sun protection. I had painted my nose with white zinc oxide paste. The surf trunks of the day were made of brittle canvas, and quickly chaffed the legs.
In the cooler water of this broad ocean facing bay, we didn’t feel the sunburn until later that night. We were all dazed in a surfing trance.
Paddle. Ride. Paddle.Repeat. Mid-way through the day, I spun around and noticed my friends were gone.
After a long bit, ,Gerry paddled out. “Your missing the topless girls on the beach”
“Ha! I laughed, “Of course, I am! Should I paddle in and let you surf alone!”
“No, I’m not kidding Bambino. There are three of them. The leader’s name is Diana. She wants to ask you if they can stay with us in our cabins at Hatchet Bay. They came over from Nassau by mail boat. Stay out as long as you like by yourself!
I did just that until dehydration clouded my mind and the I began to see a ominous dark fish shapes in the corner of my eyes.
On the beach, my three friends were sitting in a circle under a giant umbrella with three hippie girls who looked way too worldly wise.
Telling the story now, I feel like a fool. Lets just say that teenage thoughts shut off the flow of common sense to my brain.
I said, “Sure, you can stay with us as long as you like!”
We shuttled them one by one on the back of the scooter, showed them our little rental cottage at the Hatchet Bay Yacht Club. We were feeling pretty important from their flattery, and didn’t think twice when they asked us to buy them food and beers. They found the most expensive menu items–many dollars more than the grill cheese sandwiches we purchased for ourselves.
Back at the room, I quietly grabbed my wallet and stuffed it under my pillow. Ed did the same. The girls slept on the floor.
The roosters woke us five hours later. The girls of course, were long gone.
Our fridge had been emptied. So had our backpacks of things like T-shirts, toothpaste and sandals. We looked at each other with stunned looks. Suddenly, we were a few years wiser than our fifteen birthdays.
Have you ever had a day, you wished you could forever erase? I did not know it yet, but for me, that day was today.
A hundred miles north of the Bahamas, the jet stream buckled and allowed a pocket of frigid Canadian Air to decend and collide with the tropical island morning. A line of spectacular thunderheads shot upward. But, this time instead of the warm air rising and condensing into rain and storm washing itself out, the cold air created an
engine of violence. It sucked moisture up into the troposphere. It spun it into deadly vortices and it generated enough electrical power to light a city for a week.
I drew the long straw for the first trip to the beach and thought I was the lucky one. Another day of great waves would wash away the humiliation of being ripped off by the older girls.
We hopped on the back of scooter and headed north. Halfway up the highway, the air chilled, and ahead us
Ed looked in horror at a sixty thousand foot high wave of blackness stretch tumbling across the horizon, touching the faces of both earth and outer space. This doesn’t look good he said over his shoulder as a chilled blast of fifty mile an hour wind nearly toppled us.
Golf ball sized hail, hit our heads and forced Ed to drop me on the side of the road shy of the trail. He quickly turned around and motored back for Hatchet Bay straining the 20 horsepower engine to a high whine. I ran like hell in the direction of the beach and the shelter of a cave in its ocean cliff but did not get far.
Lighting flashed in front of me and the instantaneous clap of thunder deafened my ears and threw me to the ground. The air tasted of and smelled metallic. The grass and Palm trees on either side of the path were engulfed in flames. Before I could crawl ahead, another flash/explosion pinned me down. I was paralyzed with fear. Bolt after bolt leaped between the brick silos and the random palms.
At home, I often boasted that my first year of Catholic High School had cured me of organized religion. Now, I prayed to be spared by the Catholic or any God.
Please, give me second chance for my first fourteen years of selfish living!
The continuous barrage of electric bolts targeted me for what seemed like an hour.
Back at the cabin, Gerry, Ed and Bill had found my secret stash of Peanut butter and cheese crackers. They happily chewed watch nature’s awesome show– blue and gold streams of ball lightning that twisted and snapped as it rolled right down the little main street between the cottages and the Hatchet Bay Club. Sometimes is danced between the masts of the sailing yachts in the harbor creating a horrific purple spider web that hung above the water.
I bolt of lightning rolled exploded so close that I was rolled a few meters down the hill. Pain shot from my eardrums.
And I sobbed like the child that I really was.
After the storm, a truck driver saw me huddled on the roadside and offered a ride on the open wood flatbed of his truck.
Ed laughed as I stepped up onto the balcony like a mud-covered zombie. When then realized I was in shock and making no sense, they tempered their laughter slightly, and offer me a few of my snacks.
I don’t remember the surf that afternoon or the day after. It took a long time for the pain in my ears to subside. I moved about slowly and flinched at any loud sounds.
I did remember calling my parents to thank them for feeding and raising me. I didn’t mention the storm.
Behind the rental cottage was a working chicken farm. No need for an alarm clock to awaken at dawn.
Turns out the chicken farm would be a highlight of the trip–one that would stamp itself into our memories for life.
Every late afternoon at about the same time we returned from the beach, we heard a tractor motor start within earshot of our porch.
We investigated: A driver towed an open wood trailer overfilled with slaughtered chicken remains.
He followed a jungle trail beneath a canopy of Palms.
We fell in behind the tractor and its trailer and walked briskly behind to keep up.
At the ocean, the jungle opened to a high rock cliff.
The cliff encircled a small bay, creating a kind of ampitheatre where one standing on the rocks could peer down deeply into a deep and broad pool of ocean.
While the driver backed the truck up to the edge, I surveyed this odd cove.
Water spilled in like swimming pool.
But, this was no swimming hole. Dark, torpedo-like shapes darted in and out of view.
Dorsal fins of all sizes and shapes sliced the surface.
The man with the tractor dumped his bloody load of
dead chickens over the side of the cliff. Small reef sharks tore at the surface, fighting for the white feathered bodies.
They competed for the larger pieces with thick gray hammerheads and yellow gold bull sharks.
From the deep, emerged an impossibly large fin–one the size of a sailboat dagger board. It looked like a fighter plane with wings on its side and tail. It chased away the small sharks, the medium sharks and the large sharks. It sluiced toward us, and we shuddered even from the safety of land.
The tractor man shouted “El Gato!”
A bloodly line of guts and half birds washed out with the waves.
He ran and grabbed a thick rope coiled beneath a tree. He placed an entire chicken on a steel meat hook and threw it out and yelled to the monster.
The massive shark inhaled the chicken and felt the steel hook.
Its rocket shaped head rose high out of the sea,
broad toothy jaws snapped at a machine like cadence. The rope went taut and the Palm Tree bent to the ground before the rope snapped in half. Out in the lagoon, an explosion of whitewater obscured this monster that looked to outweigh two or three tractor trailers.
I watched the creature disappear into the blue and my gaze turned northward a mile to where we surfed earlier in the week without a care in the world.
Along the trail back to the cabin, we spotted something high in the foliage. Suspended in the canopy of treetops a massive aluminum shroud the size of a building glistened in the sun. It was a portion of an Atlas
Rocket booster fallen from the sky after lifting a Mercury or Gemini astronaut into orbit. A white and black checkerboard pattern was painted across the riveted panels, and ten foot high letters spelled out The United States of America. I knew that island was the last view of Earth they enjoyed during a launch into the unknown.
The astronauts knew what it was like to be far from home. And, now, so did we.