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A single wave reverbs across the landscape of time and space.
By Mike Jennings
Light / Dark
They didn’t film The Last Picture Show in Fort Stockton, but they damn sure could have. One stoplight. One hotel, The Palace. One drive-in. The True Value Hardware store. One bar, the Poco Loco, located exactly 100 feet outside the city limits. Just a dying little Texas town.
Charlie Randall and I were both born in that little Texas town in 1928. Charlie’s father was a rancher. Mine was an insurance agent. The difference didn’t matter. Growing up together, we rode rodeo, hunted, fished, and, of course, raised a ruckus whenever we could. We played football and baseball in high school. Charlie was double-tough under center as a quarterback. I was a pitcher with a nasty curveball.
After high school, we both went off to college. Charlie headed to Texas A&M to be an Aggie. I ended up at the University of Texas and the honky-tonks in Austin as a Longhorn. Charlie finished up with a degree in “ranchology,” as he liked to call it. After a detour or two, I finally graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.
Charlie went straight back home, where he partnered up with his father to run their spread. I was pulled right from the campus by Hughes Aircraft, which moved me to Venice, California, to work on airplanes.
Over the next several decades, I returned to Fort Stockton only a handful of times. The first was to stand next to Charlie as the best man at his wedding. The second was to bury my father. The third was to bury my mother. On my last night in town after her funeral, Charlie and I got together and closed down the bar.
By the end of that night, we both realized we had very little in common anymore. We no longer wondered when we would see each other again. It was a question, both of us innately understood, of if we even wanted to. Charlie had his life on the ranch and I had my own in Southern California, a family and a job and a house, to which I returned the next morning.
This probably would have been the end of our story, if not for a flyer that landed in my mailbox more than a few years later announcing the 40-year reunion of our high school class, centered on honoring the school’s 1946 football team on which we’d both played. Coming off my second divorce, I figured a little change in scenery might do me some good. So I went back to Texas for the first time in a long time.
The town looked pretty much the same as when I’d last left it, the same as when I’d first left it—just a dying little Texas town.
I checked into the hotel and gave Charlie a call to say I’d swing by the next day after lunch. I figured seeing that old bowlegged cowboy and his wife, Margie, might do me even more good.
County Route 12 took me right to Charlie’s ranch. The old wooden gate had been replaced by a metal one. As I rumbled over the cattle guard, teeth chattering, I could see both Randalls sitting on their porch, which extended the full length of the front of the house. To the right, I saw a newly built barn. Beyond it were the corrals. As I pulled my car to a stop, Margie was the first to get up and give me a big Texas welcome. Then Charlie, with a little limp in his giddyup, came around.
Charlie went straight for it, asking how it’d been living with all them “fruits and nuts” in California. I took the jab and countered with some stories about my kids, their mothers, my profession, and surfing. I told him that most mornings before work I’d meet up with some pals to look for waves and then ride a few when we found them. As I spoke, I sensed Charlie becoming intrigued about the lifestyle in Los Angeles. As I went on about my surfing life, he brightened up even more.
Charlie then asked if I’d like to take a ride around his ranch, and motioned toward the stable. Since I hadn’t been on a horse in 40 years, I told him I’d rather walk. On the way out of the house, he opened the fridge and flipped me a beer. I chided him, “Hey, where’s the Lone Star?” He mumbled something about having a fondness for San Miguel.
As we stomped around in the dirt, Charlie and I relived a few of our Friday night football memories, as well as a couple of our infamous post-game activities. Pretty soon we found ourselves sitting on a split-rail fence out by his corrals. I started talking about surf trips and my favorite spots, and tried to explain the concept of “stoked.” Suddenly Charlie turned and looked at me, then past me, with reflection in his eyes.
“I had me one of them surfs,” he whispered.
It was then that he resurrected the memory of a fateful afternoon in Puerto Rico.
Charlie had been part of a USDA humanitarian mission sent to the island in the mid 1950s. On his last afternoon before flying back to Texas, he bought a couple of San Miguels and headed to the beach for a swim. As he rounded a bend, he spotted a boy in the water sitting on a plank of wood. He watched as a wave pushed the boy to shore. From there the boy beckoned Charlie over. Soon the boy had Charlie sitting on the plank out in the water. Then the boy pushed Charlie out a ways, past the breaking waves.
He described the session as starting with what he called “spin-arounds,” or catching the foam and wheeling around in circles. The next ones were “push-offs,” which was jumping off the sandy bottom into breaking waves. Then there were a couple of “buck-offs” and “snoot-fulls,” meaning pearling and face-plants.
Finally, as Charlie paddled out beyond the whitewater once more, a quiet prevailed around him. As he sat resting on the plank, a wave came rolling in without warning. The plank rose up. Charlie instinctively jumped to his feet, his natural athletic ability taking over.
“It was like standing on top of the world,” he said.
He raced sideways and squatted down, and the plank straightened and headed toward the beach. Charlie stretched his arms out for balance and rode the wave all the way to the shore.
“I rode ’er hard and put ’er away wet,” Charlie muttered. “You know, I might be the only guy in Texas who can say in a single afternoon I got my first and last surfs.”
As his thoughts and words returned to the present, I noticed a sadness begin to grip him. I asked him why he’d never been able to tell me, or anyone else, about his experience out in the ocean, riding waves. He just looked back at me, perplexed. He didn’t have an answer.
Back at the hotel that night, I marveled at the clarity of his narrative, his recollection of that single afternoon. He’d really lived it. And I began to understand why he couldn’t explain holding onto it for so long. The picture he’d portrayed to me was so real, it was too real. His family and friends would never understand. Charlie Randall, who had never seen an ocean before, had ridden waves in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It became just another forlorn experience that happened long ago. His sadness, it seemed, came from the suddenly realized resignation and prolonged tragedy of living out his days in West Texas.
At the homecoming game the following afternoon, Charlie and I were together on the football field again. At halftime, the surviving members of the 1946 team were called out to midfield and introduced. Charlie was presented his MVP award for that season.
During the ceremony, as the candles and lighters came alive and the crowd began to sing our alma mater song, I glanced above the bleachers at the fading sun. There, I witnessed something otherworldly.
High up in the pink and red and orange and purple sky, in some sort of vision or maybe even some type of hallucination, I saw Charlie sitting on the plank in an empty lineup. The waves were waist-high, the wind a light offshore, the tide incoming, the air and water both 82 degrees. Like a lucid dream, there was Charlie, in the clouds over the field, as a wave came rolling in and picked him up before dropping him into a perfectly formed trough. Neither goofy nor regular, he crouched low with each foot on a rail and his arms outstretched as the plank took him down the line and shot him toward the beach. I witnessed the greatest thrill of Charlie’s life replayed in my mind and through my eyes in the red Texas dusk.
Standing next to him on the field, I nudged Charlie and pointed to the scene overhead. But he only shrugged. I was the only one to see his ride in the fading sunset.
The candles and the lighters soon went out, and the apparition above the stands dissolved. Charlie’s surfing secret was safe. But it had come alive for me twice, in his words at the ranch and in that moment in the vanishing twilight.
I did notice, though, that Charlie had raised both arms, just as he had done riding that wave. Was he paying tribute to the applause of the crowd? Or to the boy who gave him his first “surfs”?
Charlie and I would remain close for the rest of our days. He and Margie would vacation often in Southern California. He would regularly join me at the beach, sitting on the sand while I caught a few. He never got in the water himself on those crystal-clear mornings, and I never asked him why.
I already knew.
[Illustration by Hokyoung Kim for The Surfer’s Journal]