Scratching the Horizon

A Surfing Life

by Izzy Paskowitz and Dan Paisner

Scratching the Horizon

Hardcover, 289 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $24.99 | purchase

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NPR Summary

The founder of Surfers Healing, a foundation devoted to expanding the horizons of children with autism through surfing, recounts his unusual upbringing and shares the realities of adulthood.

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Excerpt: Scratching The Horizon

Scratching the Horizon

1

The Start of Something

My story begins in Texas, of all places.

That's where my father was born in 1921, in Galveston. His parents, Rose and Lewis, were also born in Texas, so it's not like they were just passing through. There was actually a small, close-knit Jewish community in and around Galveston, which was a popular port for Jews entering the country from Russia. My grandfather ran a dry-goods store, although from what I hear he didn't do such a good job of it. He ended up as a door-to-door salesman—shoes, mostly, but he sold a bunch of stuff. Basically, he hustled his way all through the Depression. Whatever he could buy on the cheap and flip for a quick profit, that's what he was into.

My father, Dorian, was the oldest of three. Behind him were his brother, Adrian, and his sister, Sonia—both characters, same as my dad. (Some quirk in our gene pool, I guess.) My dad and his sibs would all veer off in their own separate directions. Doing their own thing, their own way ... that's what they had in common. Uncle Adrian became a knockabout musician. He played the violin, here and there, off and on. Everyone always said how gifted he was, what an incredible teacher he was, what an incredible talent, but to us he was just crazy Uncle Adrian. Very creative, very artsy ... but, also, very crazy. When I was a kid, he lived for a time in a big house in Hollywood Hills, but other than that he never seemed to have a steady job or stay in a relationship for too, too long. He did have a couple kids—our cousins Nina and Yoab—and we got together with them from time to time, but there was a lot we never figured out about Uncle Adrian. All we knew was that he played the violin. As a gift, he offered to play for my wedding, which is getting ahead of the story, I know, but as long as I'm on it I'll hit these few notes. I happened to duck into the bathroom during the reception, and there was Uncle Adrian, completely naked. Surprised the crap out of me. He'd taken off all his clothes and was splashing water under his armpits, getting ready for his performance, and I remember thinking he was cut just like my dad. Whacky. Out there. Different. Yeah, he could play the violin like a dream, but he'd go at it his own way.

Aunt Sonia was on her own wavelength, too. As a young woman she was beautiful—stunning, really. After the family moved to California, she found her way to Hollywood and started working as an actress, during the last gasp of the old studio system. She's probably best known for her role as Agnes Lowzier in the 1946 Howard Hawks classic, The Big Sleep, opposite Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. She acted under the name Sonia Darrin, but she was never credited for her most famous role, even though her character's on-screen more than anyone other than Bogey or Bacall.

She bounced around Hollywood for a time, appeared in a bunch of pictures, but then the gigs stopped coming, which I guess is what happens to a lot of stunning young actresses, eventually. Everything is entirely and wildly possible ... until one day it isn't. By the time I was born, Aunt Sonia's acting career had come and gone; she'd married a set designer named Bill Reese and started adopting a bunch of kids—my first cousins Mason, Suky, Lanny, and Mark. (Yep, that's Mason Reese, of Underwood Deviled Ham fame, one of the first true child stars of the advertising age—and a good, good guy.) We saw a lot of them, too, back when we were kids, which I guess left us with the message that family was important. Also with the message that actually working for a living, in a traditional nine-to-five way, was for other families.

Here again I'm getting ahead of my story, or at least a little off to the side, so let me just head back to Texas for a bit. It was there, in the Gulf of Mexico, that my father rode his first wave. A lot of folks don't think of Galveston as any kind of surf spot, but these days there's a thriving surf community down there. Okay, so maybe it's not thriving in the same way surfing is thriving in California or Hawaii or Australia, but everything's relative, right? The waves along the Gulf coast in popular surf spots like Stewart Beach can be small and choppy, but if you time it right you can catch a good surf day. There wasn't a whole lot of surfing going on back in the late 1920s, though. Wasn't even called surfing, what there was of it, but my father saw a picture in the newspaper of a guy riding a wave off the coast of San Diego and thought this was something he'd like to try.

I've heard so many different versions of this story over the years, it's tough keeping them straight. Every time my father tells it, he sprinkles in a couple new details and tosses out some old ones. Here are the nuts and bolts of it: When my father was seven or eight years old, he found some old strips of rubber tire and crimped and bound them together like a raft. Then he covered the whole deal in canvas and set off to do his thing. Guess you'd say he was a resourceful kid, the way he made something out of nothing, the way he'd seen a picture of something that captured his imagination and went out and grabbed at it for himself. Damn near amazing, when you think about it—only it wasn't a very satisfying experience, he says, in almost every version of the story. Says it was more like white-water rafting than actually standing up on a hard surface and riding a wave into shore. But it was something. A germ, a seed, a kernel. A place to start.

And it wasn't just a one-off with him, surfing. Once he tasted it, he wanted more. And more.

Soon, my father got to reading whatever he could about the legendary wave riders out in California or on the beaches of Hawaii. He'd cut surfing pictures from newspapers and magazines and tack them to his wall. He became almost fanatical about it, maybe even a little evangelical. Got it in his head that the only place he could be happy, truly happy, was out in San Diego, so he put it out there that the California sea air would help his asthma. Almost forgot that part: my father suffered from a serious case of childhood asthma; at least, he claims he was asthmatic, although I never once heard the man wheeze or cough. Not once, not ever. But somehow he convinced his parents the flats of Texas were debilitating to a young boy in his condition, and eventually they packed up their house and moved the whole family out to San Diego in the early 1930s.

Now, I've got no real idea if this is how things truly went down. All I know is that this is the story my father has told, for years and years. If I had to bet, I'd say there's probably a grain of truth in it. I'd say there probably was a diagnosis of asthma, at some point, and a suggestion that my father might do better in a different climate. But there was also the pull of the ocean, the romance of surfing, so I'm sure he went all out to make his case to his parents. He could be very persuasive, my old man—even as a young man. When he sets his mind to a thing, he's all over it, and he won't back off until he gets his way. And he's charming about it, make no mistake. He can be completely full of shit, but he'll make such a strong case for whatever it is he wants or needs you'll never know he's completely full of shit until much, much later. And you won't really mind when you finally figure out that he's been jerking your chain to get his way. That's probably how it happened back in Texas, when he was pushing for that move to California. Truth was, San Diego at the time was all mudflats, so I can't imagine it was a healthy environment for a young asthma sufferer. It couldn't have been good for him to breathe all that sulfur percolating through that mud. But that didn't keep my father from pushing hard for what he wanted.

Story of his life—and, soon enough, it would be the story of mine.

* * *

As a young teenager, my father hit the beach. Wasn't much more of a surfing community in San Diego than there'd been in Texas, but in California at least you could find a good few like-minded souls. The other kids on the beach started calling my father Tex, which I guess must be the default nickname for every transplanted Texan in recorded history, and he was quick to make friends. That's another key trait of my dad's that would play a big part in our family history. He was an accomplished social animal, and a real pro at getting other folks to throw in with him on whatever it was he had in mind. All through high school, he tells, most afternoons he'd find his way to the beach and ride as many waves as the sun would allow. Weekends, more of the same. He'd meet up with his new friends on the beach and together they'd work those waves for all they were worth, and after a while he was as good as anyone else.

The deal back then was you had to make your own board. Weren't enough surfers to support any kind of commercially made boards, so you had to have a do-it-yourself mentality. There was no other option—even if you had money, you couldn't buy a board. Had to just figure it out, you know, and if you weren't handy or clever in this way you found a way to trade for someone else's board.

Early on, my father got a job as a lifeguard on Mission Beach, where he worked with a one-eyed lifeguard captain, Emil Sigler. This guy had made a bunch of heroic saves, so everyone on the beach knew him. Everyone in town knew him. All the other surfers, all the other lifeguards, they wanted to be just like Emil; if Emil rode a really giant board, that's what everyone else decided to ride.

The Mission Beach lifeguards got the wood for their surfboards from Pacific Homes, a local building supply outfit. The boards weren't shaped, curved, or beveled. They were just big planks of choice wood, which Tex and his pals would cut down into a basic surfboard shape and laminate. Their boards were long—about ten to eleven feet. And heavy—well over one hundred pounds. At night, they'd just leave their boards on the beach, because they were too big, too heavy to steal. No one else had any use for them, really, although I suspect a few of them ended up as firewood.

All through high school, surfing was my dad's main interest. His only interest, really. He did well enough in school, but he did as much riding as he could. For years, he'd tell us his parents never minded if he ditched school when the surf was up. Don't know if that's entirely true, but that's how he remembers it. True or not, surfing was his priority; same went for his friends; it filled their days. And when my father finally graduated from Point Loma High School he joined the navy—I guess under the thinking that he'd be on, around, or near enough to the water to continue with his surfing. Didn't exactly work out to the good, in terms of surfing. All of a sudden, my father's time was no longer his own. He didn't have his fellow lifeguards to keep him company. He'd built up all these great friendships on the beach, and then he'd had to leave those friendships behind, and I don't think he found too many surfers among his new navy buddies. He was assigned to a medical ship that operated in the Pacific; after the war, he went to Stanford University Medical School, on the G.I. Bill, earning his degree in 1946.

Up until this time, even with the way he'd skipped out on school when the surf was up, my father was very much a by-the-book kind of guy. By that I mean he always did what was expected of him—or he did just enough of it so he could go through the same motions as everyone else. His parents wanted him to at least make the effort to finish school, so he made the effort. His friends were all enlisting, so he enlisted. And then the thing to do was go back to school and pursue some sort of profession, so he did that, too. But I don't think his heart was ever in it. High school, the navy, medical school ... these grand institutions seemed to suck the life out of him. His heart was on the beach, in the water.

Once he got his medical degree, he took a job in Hawaii. The waves were calling to him, he said. It would be a chance to live in paradise. He worked in a hospital, in the state medical office, wherever there was a need or an opportunity. He wasn't much interested in private practice, because he didn't want to be tied down. He resented the idea of taking money from people in exchange for his services; he preferred working in a clinic or hospital or agency setting. Whenever he had to charge a patient some kind of fee, he tried to barter instead; he was forever coming home with crap he didn't need, crap he didn't even want, because he took it in trade for some medical service or other. A plate of home-cooked food. An old bicycle. A rusted-out car that had seen way better days. A lot of times, he took whatever his patients had to offer, just because they'd taken the time to think what the young doctor from the mainland might need or enjoy. It's not that he didn't appreciate the value of a dollar, or that he rejected the idea of material possessions; it's just that he wasn't sure he saw the need for either; he helped people because they needed his help, not because they paid him for it.

For the first time in his life he found himself thinking like a free spirit—not just in his professional life, but in his personal life as well. He actually got married during this period, to a nice Jewish girl he met in Hawaii; he even had two daughters, but underneath his day-to-day he started to realize he wasn't happy. To his friends, he seemed to have it all; to his parents and siblings back home, he appeared to be living like a prince in paradise; but deep down he believed there was something missing in his life. More and more, he was feeling tied down—by work, but also by the demands of raising a young family. More and more, he was becoming conventional. And, also more and more, hehated that he was becoming conventional.

Dad never really talked about this time in his life except to suggest that he and his first wife wanted different things and seemed to drift apart. In the end, they got a divorce. As I understand it, the divorce was amicable, but my father wasn't really a part of his daughters' lives after that. Growing up, we never knew them. We knew of them, but that was it, and even this was a little weird. I mean, by the time I was old enough to know what was going on, I had four or five brothers, and it was strange to think there were two sisters (or half sisters) out there in the world I'd never even met, but we never really talked about it. Whenever the subject came up, Dad found a way to paddle past it, although I imagine it must have been painful for him, to make such a clean break with his young family. But something wasn't working in that relationship, something wasn't right, so he set it aside and moved on. That was his way, we'd all learn. He'd push past a difficulty or set it aside and after a while it was like there'd never been any trouble at all. He even got married a second time, but that didn't work out, either, and here again he was reluctant to share too many details. It's like he wanted us all to believe his life didn't really begin until he met our mother.

Through it all, he surfed. Whenever he could, he surfed. He hung with all these pioneers of Hawaiian surfing, guys like Duke Kahanamoku, Rabbit Kekai, Blue Makua, Wally Froiseth, George Downing, Chubby Mitchell, Buffalo Keaulana—legends, even then. Duke Kahanomoku was the granddaddy of them all; he was like the Hawaiian Jim Thorpe, a world-class athlete who excelled in every sport. He was an Olympic swimmer, a champion beach volleyball player, a decorated lifeguard ... but mostly he was a surfer. He had more than twenty years on my father, but for some reason they hit it off—and once you were in with the Duke, you were in with that whole crowd.

Hawaiian surf culture was a whole lot different from California surf culture: it was all about being serious watermen, rather than just surfers; it was about being at home in, on, and around the water, which was very much in keeping with the spirit of the islands. Back home in California, even the best surfers were mere mortals: they had plain, workaday jobs; they scrambled to pay their rent. In Hawaii, it's like the great watermen were immortal, like they operated on some higher plane, removed from the day-to-day concerns that moved the rest of the world. Surfing was all. My father was part of that scene, fit himself right in. By this time, they all knew him as Doc, another default nickname—this one probably got tagged on anyone who'd gone to medical school and hung around with folks who'd done no such thing. They found something to like about this eccentric doctor. To the locals, my father was a haolethe Hawaiian word for an outsider, a newcomer, a pale-white mainland American—but they made him feel welcome. At first he was dividing his time between work and the beach, but after a while the split began to bother him. In his own mind, at least, he stood apart from the local surfing gods, who were in truth just a bunch of pals from the beach. To Doc, though, there was a key distinction. His buddies lived to surf—but Doc, he only worked to surf.

Oh, there was a real difference. You could even see it in the way he moved on a board. There's some 16mm footage that's survived from that period, and you can see that my father then was more of a weekend warrior. These other guys, they were real surfers; my father, he wasn't a real surfer, not yet. Now, I don't know exactly what it takes to be areal surfer. That's tough to pin down, but basically you have to have talent, to start. That part's a given, and to my father's great credit, he was talented ... to a degree. By Texas standards, he was more than talented; by California standards, he was talented enough; by Hawaii standards, he was only getting there.

But it goes deeper than talent. You've got to live and breathe the sport; you've got to take it all in, all at once; you've got to give yourself over to it, and let it wash over you, and here young Doc was falling short. He couldn't help it, and he hated that he couldn't help it; he wanted to change things up, but he couldn't think how. With his responsibilities as a doctor, he'd boxed himself out ofreally developing as a surfer. The one didn't fit with the other. In that old film footage, you could see he looked kind of pasty compared with all the other riders. Kind of soft. You could see his balance was a littleoff. It was subtle, almost imperceptible, but after a lifetime spent watching this man surf, I almost can't recognize him in these shots. In one shot in particular, he's riding a wave and he seems to be leaning the wrong way, his body tense and maybe a little off-balance, like he's waiting for the wave to tell him what to do, instead of the other way around. Like I say, it's a subtle distinction, but I could see it whenever we looked at those old films; my brothers could see it. And my father, I'm sure he could see it, too. He could feel it, absolutely. At the time, he knew better than anyone that he wasn't keeping up with these other guys.

Finally, he went and did something about it. You see, my father's not the sort of guy who can go at something in a half-assed way. He's all or nothing—and as a young doctor in Hawaii, onlyplaying at surfing, he must have felt like nothing, especially if he dared to measure himself against the Duke or those other great watermen. And so, basically on a whim, he quit whatever job he was working at the time and decided to go to Israel. Just like that. Wasn't so easy, to just drop everything and go. Wasn't so easy to leave a well-paying job on a whim, without giving any notice, and expect to be able to return to another one like it. Wasn't so easy to scrabble together enough money for a plane ticket, but he found a way; he was determined; he got rid of his few things and moved out of his apartment and made a clean, swift break. He didn't have any kind of timetable in mind, any kind of plan. He just up and went. When he tells the story now, he makes it seem like he was on some kind of mission—and I guess he was.

He got it in his head that he was going to bring the sport of surfing to Israel, and in the end he did just that, but what he also did was find himself. Don't know what it was that got him thinking like some sort of surfing messiah, but this was his plan, and at the other end, once he got to Israel, halfway around the world, I believe he found the balance he didn't fully know he was seeking. He went to Israel in the middle 1950s, around the time of the Kadesh operation, a period of intense fighting around the Sinai Peninsula. It was a difficult, uncertain time. What the hell my father was thinking, bringing a quiver of ten-foot balsa Hobie longboards to Israel, into the middle of such conflict, I'll never know. Every time he tells the story, he offers a different explanation, but in every version he has his four or five or six boards, all decorated with the Star of David or the Israeli flag. Traveling with all those boards fell somewhere between a bitch and a hassle, he says. Israeli authorities had never seen such things; they had no idea what to make of them. It took a while for the boards to get through customs; my father claims they were quarantined for weeks and weeks, but knowing my dad it was more likely days and days. (Hey, it's tough to tell a good story withouta little exaggeration!) Custom officials ended up drilling holes in the boards, thinking my father was trying to smuggle weapons. When they were finally satisfied that the boards weren't a threat, they released them to my father's custody, and he plugged the holes and made the best of it.

Anyway, my father found his way to the beach. Soon, he had a network of Israeli friends—lifeguards, mostly. He dedicated himself to a natural, vigorous lifestyle: he learned to spearfish, and he slept on the beach, as often as not. He ate healthy, and tried to clear his head of unhealthy thoughts, which in his mind had mostly to do with money. He started hanging around with a guy named Shamai "Topsi" Kanzapolski, on Frishman Beach outside Tel Aviv, and they struck up a great friendship. Actually, it was Topsi's wife, Naomi, who was the first Israeli to get up on a board. She was the most curious, the most enthusiastic, so my father took her out past the break and showed her what to do. Topsi learned next, and then the two of them, together with my father, started teaching all the other lifeguards and Israeli beach bums how to surf.

At that time, the Tel Aviv beaches were wide open. There were no piers or jetties to break the surf, so the waves could be extremely high. They'd break right on the beach, which forced all these rookie surfers to get it going double-quick. Waves like that, they can be difficult to navigate, but after a while the first-timers got the hang of it, and soon after that the sport seemed to catch on. Today, you can walk up and down the beaches of Tel Aviv and see a vibrant, thriving surf culture. There are popular breaks and surf spots. There are shops and cafés, catering to surfers. There are even a bunch of surf rental shacks and schools—including one run by Topsi's kids. But back in the 1950s the scene was just coming into focus, as Topsi and his lifeguard pals soaked up Doc's stories of life in Hawaii and California like manna from heaven. They'd lived by the sea their entire lives, made their livings by the sea, but they'd never dared to dance across those waters the way Doc would dance across those waters.

At night, over bonfires—Doc taught them how to make those, too!—my father dreamed of forming an Israeli surfing team, to compete in the world championships.

I've seen pictures of my father from this period, and he looks more like himself, more like the young man I remember from growing up. He was tan and fit. He carried himself like an Adonis. He was no longer the weekend warrior surfer he'd been back in Hawaii. He was at home in Tel Aviv, more like himself than he'd ever been before, transformed.

After living in Israel for about a year, he volunteered for the Israeli Army during the Suez Crisis, hoping to defend his adopted country against Egypt, but he was turned down. At first he couldn't believe the Army didn't want him, but then he took the rejection as a sign that he should perhaps return to the United States, only this time he would do so on his own terms. He would not be bound by convention. He would live by the sea, by his wits. His days would spread out before him like an endless possibility.

* * *

The thing about Israel, my father always said, was that it was mostly a place to refresh, recharge, and replenish his energy, more than it was a place to live. As much as he loved the place, and the people, he couldn't see himself living there in any kind of open-ended way. For one thing, the surfing wasn't nearly what it was on the beaches of the Pacific. For another, he couldn't really practice medicine, even though he wasn't much interested in practicing medicine in the states, either. The part about helping people when they were sick, that part he liked, but he came to believe that the American medical model was more about making a profit than keeping people healthy, and he didn't want to be a part of a system where the rich got a certain level of care and the poor got a lesser level of care. He wasn't foolish enough to walk away from his medical training entirely, however; he knew there'd be times when the fact that he was a doctor would come in handy; he likedbeing a doctor, but he didn't really like the responsibilities that came with actuallyworking as a doctor, if that makes any sense.

First job he took when he got back to the United States was at a small hospital in Catalina. He hated the job, he said, same way he'd hate every job we knew him to have, because it was all tied up in getting and spending. Because it kept him from the water. But the job did come with one enormous fringe benefit: it set it up so that he could meet my mother.

Juliette Paez was a tall Mexican beauty who'd been born and raised in Long Beach, California, and she just happened to be at a bar in Catalina on the same night as my father. Dad used to tell us that the place where he met our mother was a godforsaken watering hole on a godforsaken rock, but it wasn't so bad. I actually like Catalina. I've met a lot of good people who've made a good life there. And the bar wasn't so bad, either. I've been there myself a couple times, and I always have a good time there. But my father remembers it as a wretched place, probably because he'd just come from this idyllic existence in Israel and had to take a job he didn't want in order to buy himself the freedom he now desperately craved. His wants and his needs didn't exactly fit, not just yet.

My mother was sitting with a girlfriend, having drinks. At the time, she was working as a switchboard operator, although her passion was the opera. She sang opera in high school, and after graduating she sang with an opera company in Long Beach. Opera, to her, was like surfing to my father; it was the sweet engine that moved her days. There was no good way to make a living from it—same as surfing—but her idea was to work during the week and sing in the evenings and on weekends. Her job was just a job; herthing was opera. And she had a lovely voice. Really. One of the first memories I have as a little kid is of my mother singing. She used to teach us all these different arias, from all these different operas.La Bohème. Rigoletto. Aida. Sometimes, she'd be off by herself, just singing, singing, singing, and her voice would reach us and fill our campsite with joy and wonder. We'd hear little bits and snatches from these classic operas all day long, without really realizing what they were, and to this day I can hear a piece of music from one of the great nineteenth-century operas and seem to know it by heart. And it wasn't just opera; she had us listening to all the great classics. (She loved Bach, and played us his concertos over and over.) The style of music didn't exactly fit with the California surf scene we inhabited, but none of us really noticed or cared. We were big into doing our own thing—and I think we got this from my mother, who was every bit the free spirit my father was. They were an unlikely but perfect match, and the combination only added to the odd picture we must have made as we tooled around in our ratty old camper. A surf-mad Jewish doctor from Texas. An opera-loving Mexican beauty. And, soon enough, a passel of sun-drenched Mex-ish kids, running around the beach, making noise, making trouble, making waves.

I can close my eyes and see the scene: me and my older brothers and possibly a younger brother or two, playing in the sand, watching my father ride one of Hawaii's big waves while my mother's sweet music fills the air.

My mother had eight brothers and sisters—she was one of the youngest. Some had been born in Durango, Mexico, where her parents had been born; the youngest, like my mom, were born in Long Beach. Her father, Salvador, was a heavy smoker and died young, from a heart attack, in his middle forties. Her mother, Amelia, managed to find enough work to keep a roof over her family's head; the older kids were able to pitch in with jobs of their own, while my mom and some of the younger kids helped out by being independent and learning to take care of themselves. The thing about my mother's family is that they didn't look like most Mexicans. They were tall and skinny; they looked more Aztec than Mexican. And my mother ... well, she was stunning and graceful and unlike any woman my father had ever seen. And her voice! My father always told us she had the most beautiful contralto voice he'd ever heard, and none of us kids had any idea what the word "contralto" meant. She used to sing to him, when they first got together. Not on that first night, in Catalina—but soon, and ever after.

My father caught sight of my mother across the crowded cantina. He was drawn to her, he always said. Certainly, she stood out. She was tall, dark, lovely. She looked nothing at all like the California beach blondes he was used to seeing, but it wasn't just her looks that caught my father's attention. It was the way she carried herself, he always said. It reminded him of the way he carried himself, the way he looked out at the world. At this point in his life, he moved with great confidence. His time in Israel left him feeling like he could accomplish anything. That's what surfing had done for him, he said. It wasn't joining the navy or going to medical school; it was surfing, to where all he needed to do was picture a situation and will it so—and here he willed himself across the room to a meeting with my mother. He introduced himself, said he was a doctor working in the local hospital. Said he was a surfer, too. Said he was just back from a year in Israel.

None of these things seemed to make an impression on my mother, but there was something about this assertive young doctor that caught her interest. At some point, my mother's girlfriend disappeared into the crowd, and my father sat talking with my mother for the longest time. When he learned she was from a big family, he turned to her and said, "Someday, you will be the mother of my eight sons."

It was a bold prediction, a killer come-on line, but that was the kind of confidence my father had started to carry; that was his way; and it must have struck something in my young mother. Maybe it was the way he'd just come out with it, plain as day. Maybe she admired his brass. That's what they called it back then, brass. These days, it'd be "balls." He said whatever popped into his head. There was no filter.

They looked into each other's eyes and saw something of themselves. (Sounds kind of cornpone, I know, but that's how they always told the story.) Physically, they could not have looked more unalike—a tall, Mexican opera singer and a chiseled Jewish surfer. But it turned out they were more alike on the inside than different on the outside. Soon, they were spending all of their time together—talking, planning, dreaming. After just a couple weeks, before they had time to think things through, they quit their jobs and piled into my mother's shit-box of a car, an old Studebaker, and drove to Mexico—towards the Gulf coast, at first. My father taught my mother to surf. They fished, spent what little savings they had, and dreamed of a life without responsibility to anyone or anything but each other. For months, they managed to get by. They lived out of my mother's car, just parked it right on the beach, where they caught lobsters and crabs and whatever fish came in close to shore. My father was happier than he'd ever been, and my mother was happier than she thought she'd had any right to expect; she'd never once imagined that a man would come along and lift her from the sameness of her life and collect her in such a great adventure. It felt to her like the kind of epic love stories they wrote operas about.

It was while they were down in Mexico living out of that old Studebaker that my father proposed to my mother. This was the woman of his dreams, he thought. A woman who shared his ideals and his idealism. A woman who wouldn't throw back any crazy notion he'd throw at her. At that point, his only crazy notion was fathering seven sons—he wanted to do his part to repopulate the Jewish state of Israel, he said—but that was crazy enough for the time being. As far as my mother was concerned, I don't know that my father was the man of her dreams. A nice Jewish surfer (who happened to also be a nice Jewish doctor) wasn't exactly high on the fantasy list for most young Mexican women. But he was smart and handsome and strong and confident. He made her smile, she said.

And, it was down in Mexico that my oldest brother, David, was probably conceived. My parents didn't get married until they moved back to California, but by that point their adventure had already begunand my father's big, bold come-on line had already started to come true. My mother would deliver many, many children—many, many sons. (She would end up going his prediction one better, giving him eight sons and my baby sister, Navah.) My parents would live a life of purpose and meaning. No one day would look like another. They would not be tied to routine or to anyone's expectations but their own.

What this might mean, what their lives might look like ... they had no idea. But they would see.

From Scratching the Horizon, by Izzy Paskowitz and Daniel Paisner. Copyright 2012 by Israel Paskowitz. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.

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