Reg Henry: The last wave for a surfer and a friend
March 8, 2017 12:00 AM
The assembled prepare to honor Ollie, a dearly departed fellow surfer.
By Reg Henry / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the midst of life, we are in death, or so the Book of Common Prayer says to cheer us up. Lately, that sobering thought has rested uneasily on my mind — and for once politics is not the cause.
You might not have guessed that today’s column would celebrate the life of a surfer friend. Just paddle out with me a bit further. I need company.
It appears I have reached the stage in my life where friends and relatives are making their final bows.
To use other euphemisms, some have shuffled off this mortal coil, snuffed out their candle, turned up their toes, fallen off the twig, gone into that good night, joined the saints (offer not applicable to all customers), taken their earthly leave or shaken hands with the Grim Reaper.
For my dearly departed surfer friend, another euphemism is better suited. He finally wiped out. It was the wave’s fault, not his. The great wave of life carries us all to the same distant shore. There’s nothing we can do but laugh bravely through our tears.
I sorely miss my old friends who have passed ahead — more than half a dozen in the past two years alone. It was my friend Ian’s death in December that gave me the biggest shudder of mortality. He was my age (69) and was among my oldest mates in Australia, the sharer of my happiest younger days.
He was first and last a surfer. I was never a surfer. I was 120 pounds when surfboards were 100 pounds and long. When I managed with great difficulty to lift one up, the sea breeze turned me around like the blade of a turbine and drilled a hole in the sand.
Ian’s family name was Oliver so friends called him Ollie. He was a journalist, which is how we met, and a good one. He worked for newspapers, a radio network and a wire service, and edited an Australian magazine for boating and fishing enthusiasts. It had lots of pictures of men in boats holding large fish, the fish not looking so happy.
Ollie and I shared an apartment in Brisbane, Australia. He was the coolest person I knew — loved by all, confident and creative. In other words, we had little in common except our overactive sense of humor.
This trait led us to make a short horror film — shot with a Super 8 camera — about a giant tarantula. It was titled “The Spider That Threatened the Earth and Got Killed in the End,” a fair synopsis of the plot. After a few beers, the critics raved.
Inspired, we made another film called “Suburbicon,” featuring an itinerant clown in adventures so pretentious that people are still baffled. (Just 45 years later, the Coen brothers have written a soon-to-be-released film also called “Suburbicon.”)
We never got to Hollywood and a good thing, too. With our luck, someone would have picked us from the wrong envelope at the Oscars. Instead, we went to Britain. In the end, Ollie returned to Australia and I came to America. At Christmas, Ollie would send a festive card of himself as a surfing Santa.
But life is a beach and then you die. Skin cancer, the occupational hazard of sun worshippers, did him in. He called it “the mongrel,” as if it were a mangy dog. For three years, he bravely struggled to avoid its jaws.
His memorial service was last month and I happened to be visiting Australia. When I say service, I mean a “paddle out.” The day was sunny, the surf respectfully small to honor its frequent master. His surfing buddies, from a club called the Table of Knowledge, veteran surfers at Rainbow Bay on the Gold Coast, took his ashes out through the breakers.
They were salty dudes, these unconventional pallbearers, as classic as their mostly long boards. Little was said. Ollie’s wife, Elaine, and children, Ben and Nell, welcomed the mourners gathered on the beach. The chief gnarly rider told us that to remember Ollie was to keep him alive.
They paddled out and formed a circle, a few more words were said, and they splashed the waves. I had no board and stayed on the shore, but my mate Doug, cast as the clown in “Suburbicon,” had borrowed a small board — actually, too small, because he and it promptly sank. If the dead can laugh, Ollie surely did. I laughed too, just in case he couldn’t.
I was sad, yes, but also glad of the truth revealed by this wave of love: In the midst of death, we are in life.
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