'Kook': Life's Lessons Learned On A Surfboard

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Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave
By Peter Heller
Hardcover, 336pages
Free Press
List price: $15

Travel writer Peter Heller has sailed the Antarctic Sea with eco-pirates in pursuit of an illegal Japanese whaling fleet, and traversed the deepest Tibetan gorge with kayakers bent on conquering the Tsangpo River.

But it was as a "kook," or beginner surfer, in Huntington Beach, Calif. that he caught a glimpse of his next great adventure: a trip down the West Coast in search of the perfect wave.

Despite an inauspicious start with surfing — Heller paddled his egg, or beginner board, directly into the path of a veteran surfer, who showered him with invectives — Heller soon took to surfing. In mere months, he grew from a complete novice to a capable surfer who didn't embarrass himself in front of the pros.

Kook is his story of his surfing and soul-searching journey — and what he learned along the way.

Excerpt: 'Kook'

Cover of 'Kook'
Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, And Catching The Perfect Wave
By Peter Heller
Paperback, 336 pages
Free Press
List price: $15.00
Note: There is language in this excerpt that some readers may find offensive.

Boys

The call came from a friend's wife. Andy had been one of my closest buddies since college. He had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in Camden, South Carolina. His father died very young and his mother did all the mechanic work on their old station wagon. In college, he took law school entrance exams and scored so high that he ended up with a full scholarship to Columbia. He didn't really want to be a lawyer, but the offer was too good to refuse, so off he went. He aced school, despite not studying much, and went through a series of jobs at private law firms where he didn't fit in. Finally he landed at the legal department of a giant manufacturing company, where he began to thrive. He moved with his family into an old house on a tree-lined street in a midwestern city, got as comfortable as he'd ever been, and promptly got transferred to Orange County, California.

When his wife called me, she sounded desperate. She said that Andy was having a tough year. He'd been brought in to clean up the legal department of a subsidiary, and he was emphatically not a disciplinarian. When he had to call some cowboy lawyer on the carpet, his natural inclination was to tell him a long parable about bass fishing. He hated the constant conflict of the job and he wasn't sleeping. He had a vacation coming up, he had wanted to learn to surf, would I come out and learn with him?

Definitely, yes. I'd seen the Gidget movies and The Endless Summer. I booked a ticket and in early April I flew into John Wayne Airport, Orange County, California.

Andy picked me up wearing a Hawaiian shirt with surfboards all over it. We drove with the windows down. I was excited, he was excited. We were going to be boys, have an adventure. The first thing we needed to do was get me a board.

My first surfboard was an egg; that's the name of a classic design. They are ideal for beginners because they are usually forgiving. This one was not prepossessing. Neither longboard nor shortboard, it was eight feet long and as oval as a platter. It did not edge a straight line or turn particularly fast. It was not nimble and not stable. The shaper who made it must have been a genius, as it is almost impossible to make a surfboard that is not every desirable quality. It didn't do anything well, really, except hatch my career as a surfer.

It was an old board, pre-owned, covered in tiny vines — a hand-painted tangle of no plant that ever lived on earth. Most graphics on surfboards are laid down under the fiberglass so that the board is smooth to the touch: no matter how exuberant or violent the picture or color, close your eyes and your hand passes over the deck of the board like it was polished bone. Not the Egg. This was paint dabbed atop the gel coat — the first owner paying tribute to her most modest egg, or maybe an attempt to gussy it up after it surfed like a brick.

I guess Skip at Board 'n Bean would have felt bad charging me for a week with the board. He ran the last true surf shack in Huntington Beach, part board shop, part cafe, part betting parlor (I think), part other stuff. It sat on the Pacific Coast Highway beside a cluster of trashy palms, and it caught my eye as Andy and I drove past. There was a rack of brightly colored old boards out front with a sign that said BIG SALE.

"Nah, just take it," Skip said, handing me the egg. "Put me in an article. Hey, what size are you? You're gonna need this."

He threw me an orange full-length wetsuit. He was wearing a sleeveless T and his arms were like anvils.

"Got a leash?"

I shook my head. There was a muffled roar from the two TVs in the shop. Skip glanced up at the one mounted above the doorway to his new board room. "Fucking Dodgers. If I wanted to watch The Simpsons — know what I mean, Domino?"

Domino? No one had ever called me that. I liked it.

"Here." He unhooked a leash from a peg. I took it. Something in the way I looked at it as he handed it to me made him laugh and wince up his bloodshot blue eyes. He lifted his trucker's cap and his bleached blond hair spilled to his shoulders. The cap had a pair of the naked mud-flap girls on the brim.

"You don't know how to put it on, do you? Dude, you are a kook. Here."

He shook out the eight feet of plastic cable, ripped apart the Velcro tab, and attached it to the little loop of cord at the tail of the board.

"Hey, you need some wax. Got wax?" He tossed me two little bricks.

"Use the board for a week. When you decide you want to get your own, I've got one for you. No plastic, though, Domino, cash only. Cool?" He was hoping I would; there were some

Lakers games later in the week he wanted to cover.

There's a feeling I will always remember: walking out of the shop with my first surfboard under my arm. This was cool. I bet the people in the cars passing on the Pacific Coast Highway thought I was a real surfer. I felt like a real surfer. I had a board, wax, a wetsuit. The whole Pacific Ocean in front of me.

Excerpted from Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, And Catching The Perfect Wave by Peter Heller. Copyright 2010 by Peter Heller. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave

by Peter Heller

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