Solo Flight

| posted on February 26, 2013

Where Mark Cunningham took flight across the Atlantic. Photo: Gilley

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

The recent, well-publicized run of huge North Atlantic surf reminded me of something. It reminded me of one of the greatest surfing performances I have ever witnessed—on par with Mark Richards at Waimea Bay, Dane Kealoha at Backdoor, Tom Curren at J-Bay, and Andy Irons in Mexico.

In the fall of 2000, I flew to Ireland with a crew of pro surfers and we stumbled into a seemingly unstoppable series of gigantic extra-tropical lows. These storms produced huge and sometimes perfect surf conditions, and we dodged and weaved our way through the Irish countryside for the next ten days, scoring some excellent days and hunkering down with a fireside Guinness during the rest.

On our scheduled departure day, the biggest swell of all was supposed to hit…but so were gale force winds and rain. So with big, clean surf already under our belts, we decided to forego the impending swell and leave on schedule. The boys were headed to Europe, and myself back to California.

The crew’s plane left early in the morning, but my flight wasn’t until late in the day, so I made plans to check, and possibly surf, a fickle left point on my way to the airport—one of the few spots on the coast that might handle such conditions.

Pulling up to the left, it was hard to believe—despite a prediction to the contrary, it was clean and roping: Overhead, sunny, and glassy. It was like a reverse Rincon/San Miguel hybrid…with about 8 guys out.

I suited up and paddled out as quickly as possible, and I think I caught one good wave before it happened: Just like turning a switch on, a hideous side-shore wind began to wail, ominous clouds approached, and it began to rain. Cursing our luck, the other guys and myself eventually paddled in, and soon the lineup was pumping and empty and rainy and windy.

It was after I had changed out of my suit and was sitting in my rent-a-car when I saw it. In between wiper blade sweeps, a small round object appeared in the surf. At first I thought it was a seal, but then it moved and I realized what it was: A bodysurfer.

And after one wave it became very clear who this bodysurfer was: Mark Cunningham.

What I witnessed over the course of the next hour will stay with me for the rest of my life. Mark repeatedly swam way up the point, stroked hard under the hook, and then trimmed his ruler-straight body into the pocket—as you might expect—but then something else occurred, something unusual. The up-the-face devil wind was now so strong that after take-off, Mark’s body was lifted up the face, providing him with a higher, gravity-defying trim line for the entire length of the wave. This allowed him to get tubed, come-out, and then make sections that would normally consume him. Mark was literally levitating and soaring down the entire length of the point, arms extended like some sort of elegant bird.

What I realized later was that bodysurfing was the perfect—and only—way to successfully ride these particular conditions: unlike a surfboard, a wetsuit-clad human body was just supple enough to absorb the wave face chatter, and just stiff enough to project down the line. With knowledge, skill, and fin power, a master bodysurfer like Mark was able to turn a negative into a positive, and actually use the conditions to his advantage.

For the rest of my life, I’ll never forget the day that I saw Mark Cunningham’s solo flight across the Atlantic.

  • Dr C. Magee

    Are you sure this dude was Mark Cunningham and not another adventurous body surfer, known as ‘the hand’, that frequents these shores and has this particular spot pretty dialled?

  • Jobseeker

    We do get great waves here in Ireland, but it is true that when a massive swell arrives, it usually is accompanied by high winds. Might consider taking up bodysurfing…

  • rob gilley

    While I’m sure ‘the hand’ is a legendary character, I happen to know it was Mark because I talked to him afterwards. The funny part is that when I approached him he immediately deferred my compliments, and then asked me to sign a book that he had in his car that I had some photos in. A truly humble, gracious man.

  • ron

    Great story Rob. Keep up the good work. Love this column, this being the best one yet.

  • mateo

    Finally, the answer to devil winds, if it weren’t for my poor, contact lens wearing eyes. Accursed myopia!

  • dr suess

    listening to ‘The Wall’ album reading this, makes it even more impressive

  • Gregg Praetorius

    This post is not really related to anything that anyone else has posted, but I used to be an avid surfer (back in the day – I just turned 55 the other day), but I’ve been out of work and writing and I figured all here might enjoy one particular piece. I’m hoping to get published, so if you enjoy it and would like to read more, please let me know at GDPRAETORIUS@GMAIL.COM. I’m not trying nto sell anything; I’m just trying to gather some reviews. So here goes, and I hope you enjoy it.

    7. Christmas Breaks, Cockfights & Cucarachas

    December 26, 1977: After finishing up the holiday festivities I found myself on a plane to begin the biggest adventure of my first nineteen years. Just $168 round trip, one of just four gringos on the 11:30 p.m. Eastern Airlines “cockroach flight” bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, each of us here for the same reason: to ride the winter waves at Rincon.

    Bart, Bruce, Danny and El Perro had always insisted that in spite of the quality of Montauk’s surf I needed to immerse myself in living the life in a locale that was conducive to taking my ability to the next level, and so they had regaled me with tales of Rincon’s tropical paradise, it’s sapphire blue bathtub and endless perfectly peeling tubes.
    They had each already made their own pilgrimage to this East Coast surf sanctuary at least once or twice themselves, but for me, foregoing my higher education for more fun in the sun was not an option, so I put my adventure on hold until the time was right. While studying I honed my skills closer to home, in the colder and sometimes frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

    For the uninitiated, surfing is not just a matter of picking up a board, picking a beach and jumping in. Good waves are hard to find, particularly on Long Island where the relatively straight coastline creates a shore break that does exactly that – it breaks directly on the shore, and attempts to ride this type of surf often result in a broken board and possibly a broken neck. No, good waves generally break “outside,” and are caused by a variety of natural and not-so-natural features. While weather conditions start a swell further out at sea (sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles away), the position of a beach, its bottom and tides must all align to make a specific spot work. Montauk’s Ditch Plains is one such break, the long and languorous quality of its waves being fairly consistent regardless of the size of the swell. Ditch is what is labeled a “left;” after paddling towards shore and making the drop, the wave breaks towards the west. If it’s natural for a surfer to face the wave on a left, he is said to be “goofy-foot.” Georgica in East Hampton is a big wave break. When a large swell comes to town it wraps around Georgica’s man-made jetty, heaves up high and peels off with a snap towards the east, making for hair raising drops down a steep face before the need to make a sharp turn into the wave’s sweet spot, or pocket. Georgica is a “right,” and if the surfer’s natural inclination is to face the wave of a right he is said to be “regular-foot.”

    West of East Hampton a small number of surf spots still considered East End offer their own mix of suitable conditions, but once in Nassau County surfers invariably are drawn to the West End of Jones Beach and a number of jetty-influenced breaks that mark the end of the streets that make up the grid of Long Beach, the urban beach community that bumps up to the Queens border. It’s here that I braved toxic pollution and parking tickets to keep my edge the nine months a year I wasn’t in East Hampton.

    While admittedly I haven’t surfed in years, its siren’s call is never far away. I still possess three boards, though they are all quite out of style, both aesthetically and in regards to the equipment’s endless evolution. On a crisp clear day with an offshore wind I still wake up wondering what the waves are like at the end of Lincoln and Monroe, two of the best breaks in LB. I never quite attained the skill level of my buddies on the beach in Montauk, but I did on occasion experience my own moments of nirvana, real life otherworldly thrills that are at the heart of the surfer mystique. I have found nothing to compare to the adrenaline high of facing a swelling wall of water two stories high, paddling feverishly to get out in front of its power, tempting its violence and harm… feeling its grip on your gravity as it thrusts you down its face…the sling-shot momentum of the bottom-turn and the rise back up to the lip…and finally the split second or few if and when you’re lucky enough for the lip to throw itself over you, creating a second or two of liquid silence and solitude. I know it sounds like transcendental surfer dude bullshit that might come out of the mouth of a Jeff Spicoli-styled stoner, but it really is that good. Unfortunately, the opportunities to experience surfing’s pleasures become fewer and further between with the limitations of increasing age and the distractions of responsibility. In your fifties it’s tough to just call in sick every time the surf’s up and not suffer any lasting financial consequences. If you’re working, that is.

    The Christmas vacation of my second year at college brought me my first opportunity to finally make a pilgrimage to Puerto Rico, to leave behind the snow covered sands and ice cream headaches of winter surfing on Long Island. Even though the plan had been to travel with a few friends my mom had a few reservations to say the least, and she pressured my dad to pressure me to call it all off. “Are you really sure that you’re up for this? It’s so far away, it’s not like you’re staying in a hotel, you really can’t call us…” and on and on he pled the case for me not to go. I respectfully let him make his pitch, but then pointed out to him that at my age he was in World War II France at the height of the action, a sergeant in charge of anti-aircraft artillery playing chicken with the Luftwaffe. That put the discussion to bed.

    As luck would have it all of my buddies bailed out just before the big day, but at that point there was no keeping me home. I had been in contact with El Perro, who was supposedly going to be in Rincon before me, and he assured me I’d have a place to stay. I kept the most recent developments to myself, though, with Mom and Dad none-the-wiser that I was now making the trip solo. I kept up that charade all through the trip, substituting “we” for “I” unfailingly with every report home.

    The flight was packed with natives returning to visit friends and family, no doubt taking advantage of the cheaper late night fares, as was I. Seated with one of the other three surfers on board, I settled in for a nap in order to be rested for my early morning arrival and my further trip across the island to Rincon. Not soon after takeoff, though, I noticed our comrades seated several rows ahead in heated discussion with the stewardess, nervously nodding towards the window with every other word. As the flight attendant hurried off towards the pilot’s cabin, I bounded up the aisle to ask the guys what was the source of the commotion. “Dude, the engine is on fire!” they shouted in a whisper and in unison we turned to the window to see flames leaping from the engine mid-wing.

    Within moments the captain’s good ol’ boy drawl broke the rumbling that had rapidly rolled through coach class as more and more passengers became aware that we had a problem. “Ladies and gentleman, it has come to my attention that one of our port side engines is failing, so we’ll need to be turning back to JFK. But before we do that, we’ll be circling over the Atlantic a bit in order to dump some of our fuel. We need a lighter load in order to land safely. Sorry for the inconvenience, and we’ll give y’all more information when we reach the ground.” There was surprisingly little reaction amongst the passengers. Then, after what I assume was the same announcement was delivered in Spanish by a bilingual attendant, panic instantly ensued and it took all the diplomacy the Eastern girls could muster to keep the crowd under control.

    Safely docked back at the terminal and after a seemingly interminable wait with no new news, our southern-fried Sky King finally gave us an update. “Sorry again for the inconvenience folks, but the ground crew’s gonna do a little maintenance on us and we’ll have ya’ll back in the air in just a few hours.” While he had delivered these apologies with the same carefree nonchalance of his first, I’m saying “No fucking way” rather loudly to both the long delay and to the prospect of risking my life flying in the same crippled plane. And I wasn’t alone. Once again, when the Spanish translation hit the intercom, the natives went nuts. Eastern had the good sense to soon scuttle that piece of equipment, shuttle us to a fresh one and before long we were once again flying the friendly skies, though now enough behind schedule to result in a sunrise arrival.

    Even at 6:30 in the morning, the Caribbean heat smacks you in the face like a Mack truck, especially when you’ve just come from sub-freezing New York. It woke me up to the fact that I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do now. I’d arrived safe and sound, though a little worse for wear, tear, fears and almost tears. But I had no rental car. I had no hotel reservations. I had no more than $175 in my pocket to last me until the end of January. And now I was alone, as my fellow winter water refugees departed via their own much more well laid plans. All I did know was that Rincon lay little more than 80 miles west, and if I could just figure out how to get there life would be good.

    “?Donde esta Rincon? My sorry high school Spanish with its decidedly Lonk Guyland accent amused the skycap. He grinned from ear to ear as his bright, welcoming eyes scanned my sorry-looking story, bewildered, bedraggled and bed-headed from the three-and-a half hours of contorted half-sleep I’d managed to get during the flight. He’d surely seen it all a thousand times before.

    “Where is Rincon? Where it always is!” He laughed heartily in appreciation of his own wellworn joke. “What you really want to know is how to get there, yes?”

    “Well, yeah, but I didn’t know how to say that.”

    “Es OK, I only kid you. But there is no plane, no train. You must go there by car, or bus. My cousin, Esteban, he drives a bus between the Old City and Mayaguez, with stops in Arecibo y Aguadilla. He is leaving today about noon. From Aguadilla you can find a publico to take you to Rincon. You have money?”

    Oh shit, I’m here five minutes and I’m going to get taken for a ride, figuratively or, worse yet, be set up to be relieved of what little cash I’m carrying. “Yeah, but not much. And what’s a publico?”

    “Es a private taxi. You’ll find plenty in Aguadilla. They are, as Americans say, ‘A dime a dozen.’ Though it will likely cost you much more.” The guy apparently thought he was the next Cheech Marin.

    I certainly didn’t have any better ideas, though, so I boarded a local bus at the airport that eventually dropped me off in the Old City, just four miles away but after a journey that seemed like an eternity due to a myriad of stops, maybe even every corner en route. Old City is quaint, very European, a nice place to come back and visit when you’re older and have more money. (I did.) I found the corner where I was supposed to meet the cross-island bus but it was only nine-thirty, and I was in no mood for exploring, considering I had a fifty pound duffle hanging off my shoulder and a 6’8″ Gorden & Smith under my arm. (I had bought the board from The Reverend – it was yellow and bruised like a big overripe banana – but it was a bargain at just fifty bucks and felt so right underneath my feet.) I settled in on the sidewalk with my back stiffened by a dirty stucco facade, and waited.

    As time went by a long line slowly formed behind me. The fare from Old San Juan to Mayaguez via Puerto Rico’s ring road was just $3.50, making the bus quite popular with the locals, so once we were boarded it was filled to standing room capacity. Dogs and pigs, roosters and hens accompanied many of my fellow travelers, and I got my fair share of stares being the only one among them sporting a lilly white complexion, not to mention because of my own strange cargo. With no air conditioning on a vehicle that’s little more than a school bus readying for retirement, our sweat, the animals, and the seemingly infinite variety of food that had been brought on board for the long trip formed a battleground of competing aromas, none particularly pleasant. Thankfully our bus soon rolled out, the wide-open windows letting the tropical winds whip through, replacing the smell of our human stew with the ever-present scent of burning debris that’s ubiquitous in the native neighborhoods of the Caribbean.

    As the hours rolled by my cross-island bus ride via Road PR-2 became a tutorial on tropical landscapes, a slide show alternating scenes of lush beauty and abject poverty. We passed endless sugar cane plantations and the sprawling ranches of the northern coastal lowlands, each punctuated by the makeshift shanties of corrugated steel and plywood that housed their laborers and families. Occasionally we passed close to the sea, and in each instance we would all breathe deep the sensuous salt air’s invigorating effervescence, momentarily relieving our communal discomfort.

    Finally arriving in Aguadilla, I departed the bus to find myself a publico for the half hour ride to Rincon and my final destination, though not knowing where that may actually be. It took just a moment for one of the gypsy cabs to pull up unsolicited, already knowing where I was headed and counting his fare.

    Before long the mostly flat plains surrounding Aguadilla were replaced with densely foliated, unpopulated peaks spearing upward, each displaying a stunning palette splashed with an infinite variety of greens. Brilliant swaths of sunshine-soaked landscape plunged into the dark shadow of the deep gorges below. And behind it all, the saturated cerulean blue of the Caribbean abutted the paler blue sky. As the sun began to descend towards the horizon, it was easy to imagine that heaven was indeed meeting earth.

    Sensing my anxiousness as well as my awe, the publico driver announced “Welcome to Rincon, my friend!” and, with a flourish of both hand and voice, questioned “A donde ahora?” or, “Where now?” Good question. While Steven had assured me I could meet him when I arrived, he had given me no further details. Stupidly I had never pressed him; perhaps just as I had at first neglected to master the necessary skills to pass first aid portion of my lifesaving exam, maybe I just never thought I’d actually get this far. Now finding myself in the waning hours of daylight, fifteen hundred miles from home with no further plan, for the first time I began to think that maybe Dad was right, that maybe this hadn’t been such a great idea after all.

    Then suddenly we spied a young man along the roadside, cradling his board under his arm, sauntering home from the late afternoon surf session. His blond hair bleached just shy of white and his deep dark tan indicated that he’d probably been here in Rincon for quite some time. While California boys remain bronzed all year long, pilgrims to Rincon are almost always fleeing from the cold winters of the Mid or North Atlantic, and their summer tan has faded long before January. I asked whether he knew El Perro, hoping that this community of expat surf rats was small enough for everybody’s personal business to be public knowledge.

    “Steve? Yeah, sure, I know Steve. He actually lives with us. But he just left.”

    “Left? Whaddya mean, ‘Left?’ I was incredulous, and quickly began to become overcome with the thought that my worst fears were now coming true. In the back of my mind I all along had reservations about depending on Steven. After all, this is the same guy who thought nothing of tripping on mescaline while he was supposed to be protecting toddlers and teens as they frolicked in the Montauk surf.

    “Left, dude, as in he went home, to New York. He headed back yesterday.”

    “You gotta be kidding me, man! Steve told me he was gonna be here and he’d set me up with a place to stay. Shit!” I was about to be engulfed by complete panic, and I’m sure it was showing.

    “Don’t sweat it, man, you can stay at our house tonight and figure it all out in the morning. C’mon!”

    For the thirty-minute ride I paid the publico about four times my bus fare, just as the skycap had warned me, but that didn’t dampen my relief. My new friend took me just down the rode to an old hacienda nestled under a canopy of kapok trees and coconut palms, the lights inside glowing through the now quickly deepening darkness. Though well worn it was a larger home with a bit more character and care than I had seen so far on this part of the island, stucco-sided and capped with terracotta barrel tiles, built into a hillside softly sloping away from the road. We descended a stone stairway that led us to the lower level, and as he pushed in the door we entered a great room with little furnishing other than a broad wood dining table, surrounded by a half-dozen guys like me. The group had obviously been partying for some time, and the table bore a wealth of burns and bottle rings, no doubt the scars of countless similar scenes of post-swell celebration.

    “Guys, heads up, I’ve got a friend of Steve’s here. Dude just got in from New York and Steve’s left him high and dry. I told him he could crash with us for the night.” Turning to me, “Sorry, man, I don’t even know your name.”

    “It’s Gregg, and I can’t thank you guys enough. I promise I’ll be out of here in the morning, but if anyone’s got any bright ideas about where I can find a bed for the next month I’ll appreciate that even more!”

    One of the boys offered me a hit of a spliff worthy of Marley, offering a “No problem” in the midst of a hearty exhale. Exhausted but wanting to fit in, I took a toke and offered my own muffled “Thanks, man” in return. As I sucked in the smoke I realized that a quick hit was actually a great idea. It took the edge off of my anxiety and soon helped me doze after the crew headed off to Brisas Del Mar, the local watering hole that doubled as social center for Americans and locals alike.

    I found a corner of the floor out of everyone’s way, unrolled my sleeping bag on the hard ceramic and settled in for a good rest, enlisting my half emptied duffle to do double duty as a pillow. My exhaustion allowed me to drift off quickly, despite the cacophony of tropical birds and the caterwauls of feral cats outside. In what seemed to be just moments but was really a good hour later, I was shocked awake by the explosive sounds of gunfire – “POW POW, POW POW POW, POW…” followed by the arguing of Spanish voices and the wails of a hysterical woman, soon segueing into abrupt silence. My earlier doubts reared their ugly heads once again. “What the hell did I get myself into?” I mumbled as I lay back down to retreat to the safety of my sleeping bag. What was going on out there I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to get some fucking sleep, so I buried my head to drown out the unsettling voices now in my brain telling me what a fool I was.

    Before long the boys returned, not surprisingly more hammered than when they left, but flush with excitement caused by the scene at the bar. “Dude, you really missed it!” Apparently passions were running hot that night amongst some locals who had shown up at Brisas. Alesandro started hitting on Carmelita, Benicio’s novia, or girlfriend. (No one’s real name, but it doesn’t matter.) Benicio was obviously not pleased, so he and some buddies held Alesandro to the floor and sadistically branded the offender’s arms with their lit Winstons and Marlboros. Alesandro eventually broke free and bolted the bar, only to return shortly thereafter brandishing a gun and firing at random, though ultimately more for effect than for revenge. No damage was done except to the ceiling and to the evening’s cash register, the patrons and their pesos fleeing the premises as the policia rolled up to calm down and cart off the crazed gunman.

    The good news, though, was that before all the commotion started the boys had learned that a guy named Dana was looking for a roommate. Just about a mile up the road, Dana lived in a two-bedroom apartment overlooking Punta Higuero, Rincon’s lighthouse, and some of the area’s most consistent surf spots. His buddy Paul had just left to make a few bucks captaining a sailboat up the coast to San Juan, so there was now a vacancy and a need to come up with the second half of the rent. The opportunity sounded too good to be true, but just maybe…so I set out the next morning full of confidence that this was all going to work out after all.

    My board and bag seemed to double in weight as I made my way along the broken asphalt in the early morning heat, but nothing was going to deter me from getting settled and from finally tasting the water and waves. Except, maybe, the pastor.

    I found my way to the modest two-story home behind a head-high concrete wall down an unnamed dead end, a dirt-paved tentacle off PR 413, Camino Carretas, itself no more than a country road named for the oxcarts that were once its only traffic. An imposing iron gate stood guarding the driveway, a smaller version guarded the walk to the front door, and a sad-eyed mutt lounged in the sun at the base of the wall between, sprawled amongst the sporadic weeds that poked through the cracks in the base. Brown and black and maimed by a missing leg, I took an instant liking to him, even before I became aware of his unfailing loyalty to his post.

    “Que Pasa, man?”

    As I looked up for the source of the greeting I saw a Christ-like face, a real life ringer for The Shroud of Turin. With gangling arms dangling over the railing of the second floor above, his long straight auburn hair was streaked with gold, his thin mustache capped a pointed goatee. Like everyone else I’d met so far his skin was browned to the cusp of black, and he was as lanky as an NBA point guard.

    “Hey, you must be Dana?”

    “That would be me. And you must be the guy they told me about at Brisas’ last night. Shit, that was a strange scene!”

    “Yeah, yeah, that would be me and I bet it was. The guys told me that your roommate just moved out. I’m here for January. I’d love to see the place.” I figured that even though I had no options I shouldn’t appear too desperate.

    “Yeah, right, cool. Only problem is I got kicked out this morning. I got lucky with a chicquita from the bar last night. Brought her home, had some fun. Didn’t sit well with the Pastor.”

    “The Pastor?”

    “Yeah, my landlord. He’s actually the town’s postmaster, but he also fancies himself a servant of the Lord, set up a little church of his own. Apparently hurts his credibility with the congregation if his gringo tenant’s banging the local girls, especially under his roof. Sorry they got your hopes up, man.”

    “So what are you going to do?”

    “Fuck if I know.”

    I’d come too far and been through too much shit for it to come down to this. And hell, I’m from New York, right? New Yorkers can get out of anything, right? Patience gone and adrenaline pumping, without a thought I dumped my gear next to my new three-legged friend, unlatched the gate and marched up to the front door. My aggressive knock brought a startled response that my meager mastering of the language couldn’t comprehend, so my silence was eventually greeted with guarded skepticism by what I assumed to be the Postmaster Pastor. “Hola?”

    “Good morning, sir, my name is Gregg. I just got here from New York and I need a place to stay. I heard there was room upstairs, with Dana.”

    Wearing his ribbed tank tee and no doubt annoyed for the interruption of his morning routine, he scowled at the mere mention of Dana’s name. “No, there is no room. And Dana is leaving. The apartment is no longer for rent.”

    Suppressing my now daily panic I hung tough by turning on the charm, determined not to accept ‘No’ for an answer.

    “Listen sir, I’ve come a long way and I’m tired. I understand that Dana has upset you, but I promise that it won’t happen again. I’m a good Catholic boy, went to Catholic school all my life, and my mom wouldn’t be happy about that kind of thing either. I promise you that I’ll keep Dana in line – no girls, no guests at all if you’d like – but please let me rent the apartment and please let Dana stay. How much is the rent?”

    Either taken aback by my boldness or just finally calculating the potential cost of his lost income, in short course he relented. “One hundred twenty-five a month, and it’s due now. You pay, he pay, your mother pay, I don’t care. One hundred twenty-five a month.”

    I peeled off sixty-five dollars from my thin wad of cash – my share. He accepted it somewhat begrudgingly, but as I held my breath he didn’t seem to have second thoughts, only a warning. “And no more muchachas, comprende? No mas!”

    “You have my word on it, sir, no mas!” I retreated from the door, gathered my things and trudged up the steep steps that led to the roof of my new home away from home.

    Two tiny Pergament-paneled bedrooms were attached to a small kitchen and bathroom to form what amounted to a shack erected upon the cemented roof of Mr. Postmaster-Pastor’s modest home. He had provided worn mattresses upon plywood platforms, they and two creaky folding chairs being the sole furnishings. I checked out the bath for a quick pee and a wash, and as I turned the creaky faucet on the stained porcelain sink a little white frog, locally known as a coqui, plopped into my cupped hands along with the rust-tinged water, and I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. For $62.50 a month what did I expect? But it didn’t matter, because the view was worth a million bucks.

    Literally translated as “the corner,” Rincon’s earliest claim to surfer fame was as the site of the 1968 World Surfing Championships, less than ten short years before I would land there. The beaches and their beautiful breaks have been here millennia, though they remained virtually undiscovered by the outside world until that one high profile event. Sweeping from north to south from atop the Postmaster-Pastor’s home we could survey the entire peninsula and what are some of the sweetest surf spots in the Caribbean. While not often ranking with the biggest waves in the world, “the corner” offers some of the most consistent and well-formed rights, making the place a regular-foot’s wet dream. The jungle below which flows to the shore first leads to Domes on the north, with its decommissioned and decomposing nuclear power plant and its long, slow rolling swells breaking almost every day all winter long. Next in line is the Punta Higuro light and Indicators, an extremely sharp, snappy shallow-bottomed right that I learn only is able to be ridden when a particularly large swell appears. Further down is Maria’s and its sister breaks, Steps and Tres Palmas. Maria’s is named for the senorita that had been the original occupant of the beachfront home at its shoreline. Steps is simply named so because at low tide a hunk of concrete rises from the surf not far offshore, likely the entry to some long forgotten casa washed away by a category-three-or-four hurricane. Tres Palmas’ tag is even more obvious, the spot marked by a trio of almost identical palms arching in unison towards the sea. Behind it all lies the uninhabited Desecheo Island, sitting lonely yet imposing several miles offshore, a tropical Alcatraz inhabited solely by wildlife.

    Dana, I learned, is from Ohio. Yes, Ohio. I never thought of Ohio to be any sort of breeding ground for wave riders, but Dana insisted that he regularly surfed Lake Erie. Though prone to throwing caution to the wind and risking all for a cheap thrill, as I had already learned, Dana proved an easy-going roommate and a welcome compadre with whom to spend the next month. He’d been in Rincon some months already, and was now eager to show me the lay of the land – the conditions under which each break broke best, jungle shortcuts that proved to be enlightening eco experiences if not really shortcuts, where to eat and what gastrointestinal consequences to expect, who was a dick and who wasn’t, and how to remove the spines of the ubiquitous sea urchins that carpeted the bottom at Domes.

    After such a foreboding beginning to my island adventure, life quickly settled into a groove of an early rise followed by a morning surf session at Domes where the light offshore winds rippled the wave faces and lifted the lips for fast, tight rides and the occasional tube. Once the winds turned onshore and the conditions became less than desirable, we’d retreat to recuperate with an afternoon siesta, either under the palms or tented by the lifesaving mosquito netting of our ramshackle beds on our rooftop. Late afternoon would bring us back to the beach, gliding on the glassy calm of windless Maria’s, the water mirroring the golden glow of the waning day.

    Lucky for me Dana also proved to know his way around the kitchen, so while many of our fellows resorted to sixteen ounces of Chef Boy-R-Dee’s best, I was often treated to creative concoctions of local produce and fish, Dana preferring to keep his diet free of red meat and fowl. We capped the day with our own happy hour, soaking in the last rays setting over our idyllic setting, Ron Rico on the rocks in Dixie cups, with Ann and Nancy Wilson cooing How Deep It Goes. Dana had a cassette player but only three records, Heart’s debut album being one. I fell in love with those girls and that song forever after.

    Today I’m told Rincon has moved beyond being a winter haven solely for surfers and has attracted a wider array of tourists, many who prefer its still somewhat rural feel to the glitter and bustle of San Juan’s commoditized casinos. But in the seventies it was still basically a third world economy with its local culture intact, and the spirit of the ’60s was not so long past that the peace and love of that era was alive and well within our small surfer community. We were glad to be enjoying the pleasures of Rincon, and the locals seemed genuinely happy to have us there.

    Dana and I became quick friends with our neighbor, Juan, who never shied from sharing with us his homemade rum, cooked up in his bathtub from the sugarcane and molasses produced by neighboring fields. I think he wasn’t much older than either of us, but he was already married and with a kid on the way. I think our presence became a convenient excuse for Juan to escape the house, and he seemed happy to sneak away at every chance he got. One day he drove us up to Arecibo on the north shore, to check out the break that wrapped around the jetty that jutted into the city’s bay. Another he insisted that we accompany him for an outing to experience that most loved of Puerto Rican entertainments, the cockfights.

    Following a long, bumpy ride, Juan, Dana and I pulled into the dusty parking lot of the small wooden arena, already filled to capacity with the battered pickup trucks and vintage Chevys and Fords that were prevalent on this wild western side of the island. With plenty of time to spare before the first birds would do battle, we sidled up to the bar next door to indulge in an afternoon cerveza or dos. A few guys were engaged in a serious game of billiards, and I couldn’t help myself from getting in on the action. I’m not bad by stateside standards, having honed my skill both on dad’s short-lived table in the den of our East Meadow home and via daily contests at my the Hofstra student center with art professor Stanley Twardawicz, then unbeknownst to me an acclaimed abstract expressionist and regular drinking buddy of Jack Kerouac.

    When I took my turn I proved myself considerably better than the locals, immediately sinking more than a few balls in succession and in short order clearing the table, much to their displeasure. Juan admonished me with a look that said “You shouldn’t have done that,” which I acknowledged by declining to cash in on the prize pot I had rightly won. Sensing that my gesture may not have been enough to soothe the loser’s wounded pride, Juan hustled us out despite of our still half full cans of Corona.

    The arena was a makeshift coliseum of wooden bleachers overlooking a ring of packed dirt, the stands populated exclusively by men, laughing, arguing and placing bets in boisterous voices, the brims of their woven straw cowboy hats bobbing up and down with their manic negotiation. We settled on seats relatively high up, safely out of the fray, and waited for the first match to begin. Before long two handlers entered the ring, each with a tight hold on their rooster as the birds are naturally inclined to tear each other apart, their spurs glinting in the afternoon sunshine that streamed through gaps in the rafters. Puerto Rico is one of the few slices of American soil where this bloodsport is still legal.

    “The one on the left, my bet is on him. He’s a tough one – lost an eye in his last fight, but he won. I made good money.”

    “Juan, are you kidding man? Bet you this time the fuckin’ bird runs in circles!”

    “No bro, you’ll see. He’s a good one.”

    This was one of those times I hated to be right. Within minutes Juan’s bird got ripped to shreds. The enemy again and again furiously flapped his wings to float above his victim before slashing him with razor sharp spikes. The vision-impaired rooster soon lay motionless beneath his tormentor, instinctual aggression not allowing the victor to realize he had already won. The trainers rushed into the ring to carry off the dead cock, limp as a melting Dali clock, disappearing from sight to do whatever one does with the carved up contenders. About a quarter of an hour later the bird re-emerged shrouded in a brown paper bag, gripped by his now featherless legs and presumably en route to the oven.

    Back home on the point, Mr. Postmaster-Pastor and his family turned out to be pretty good eggs, too, developing a fondness for us that rivaled Juan’s. While they never quite gathered the courage to invite us into their home, more than once the good preacher’s wife sent up to us a taste of her evening’s work, which was greatly appreciated by the two young men who were far from their own moms’ home cooking. I guess a mother is a mother, and I imagine that she would hope for the same hospitality were her son off in an equally foreign land. Our dinners would be delivered via their youngest daughter, a raven-haired, doe-eyed cutie-pie all of eight or nine years old. We couldn’t communicate – her English being no better than our meager grasp of her native language – but nonetheless we developed a rapport that evolved without words.

    We found that the family’s kindness extended to our three-legged guard at the gate as well. Though he was never allowed on the family’s side of the wall, our waitress would bring him scraps every evening, and I imagine during the day as well, which is why he had become such a permanent fixture. We also came to discover that the little lady had a budding romance going on with a young boy from down the road. Several days a week he would appear at the gate just before the mutt’s feeding time. Though they never touched, you could sense their childish excitement in the intensity of their whispers, and, voyeurs that we were, Dana and I followed their every move from above, just waiting for them to pull the trigger on an illicit kiss across the wrought iron. But their restraint never wavered, both seeming to accept that consummating that kiss would cross a line that would have really gotten the Pastor crazy.

    Friend to all was the dapper Don who lived in the casa of the long disappeared or more likely deceased Maria. A man in his late sixties or seventies, the Don was snappily dressed at all hours of the day, a rarity in this rural region where a suit was seldom seen. No one had any idea regarding the source of his apparent wealth, but fact was that he was indeed flush enough to periodically host pig roasts for the stateside contingent, treating us to a suckling skewered on the rusty steering shaft of a junked bus or truck, one of the neighborhood boys driving the wheel with unwavering concentration on the rotation of the rotisserie to deliver a perfect roast. At the Don’s, meat was always in abundance – enjoyed like manna by the protein-deprived surf crews – though usually never of higher quality than USDA Grade C, which seemed to be the best Rincon’s few small markets could offer.

    Whether the Don was truly magnanimous, sought the celebrity that his generosity bought him, or that he just loved the company was up for debate, but no one really cared. I, though, pegged him instantly: he was in love with Malena, and if he threw a party there was always a good chance that Malena would be there. At what must have been the ripe age of just twenty-six or seven, Malena was the doyenne of “the corner.” Though her beauty was unconventional, her mystery conjured up an undeniable attraction from every dreamer and schemer in Rincon, including the aging Don. Tall and thin, she moved cat-like, her bronzed skin taut against her limber muscles. Just like Dana’s flowing locks, Malena’s were was streaked from the tropical sun, but hers was closely cropped much as singer Pat Benatar would make popular a few years later. Her dark, wide deep-set eyes and pallid face suggested that she hadn’t slept in days, her strung-out fashion model look just adding to her allure. It was said that her husband was a merchant marine, eternally at sea – in fact no one had ever seen him – and it may well have been true as she seemed to carry with her a stoic sadness in that Brandy kind of way. “Malena, you’re a fine girl, what a good wife you would be…”

    Going home proved to be as eventful as arriving. A blizzard back in New York managed to black out JFK, which left me stranded in San Juan with little more than thirty dollars in my pocket to last me three days. Pleading and cajoling with the airline got me a room on the strip, and had I been more flush with cash and less of a good boy I may have been tempted to take advantage of the endless parade of working girls that passed through the lobby from sunset on. But eventually the snow relented and I returned home in the nick of time to resume my spring classes, happy to once again have clean sheets, a hot shower, and be back with my own Brandy.

    The following year I returned to Rincon, and while the waves once again delivered the whole experience did not hold the same magic; it turned, in fact, a bit tragic. I once again set off on my own, but this time the family was in the loop and, since I was now a veteran on my second tour of duty, less ridden with anxiety.

    My accommodations had downgraded to the cellblock known as Carmen’s Guest House, which doubled as the area’s general store, functioning sort of like a 7-11 in the middle of this tropical retreat. My tiny, whitewashed room once again offered nothing but a bed of plywood, though now minus a mattress. Luckily there was always room at the inn, so my cell remained a single, to be shared only with the cockroaches that crept from the corners the minute the lights went out. Canned goods and baguettes replaced the feasts that had been cooked up by Dana and the treats sent our way by Mrs. Postmaster-Pastor. And the relative quiet of life on the hill was a distant memory; here, the constant activity of the store, the nightly revelry of my fellow guests, and the craziness of our host family incessantly disturbed the peace.

    While Carmen was no doubt more than merely matriarch – after all it was her name on the place – the mister, George, was the life of the party and an ardent and vocal lover of his fleshy wife. We could only wonder what tricks George performed with that second thumb he was blessed with on his left hand. Topping off the clan was their insane rum-infused son. Crazed on Don Q, Coronas or the hallucinogenic mushrooms that were harvested from the cow paddies at each day’s first light, Junior would climb atop the roof and hurl cinderblocks at passing cars, their fear evident as they swerved to steer clear of his fusillade of concrete.

    While Junior’s antics ultimately proved harmless, this tour wasn’t to be without fatalities. A newbie made friends with some of my fellow Carmenites on the way home from an afternoon at Maria’s, the crew indulging their empty stomachs in an early happy hour upon their return. Declining an offer to share in of some of our finest ravioli rations he trudged off in a drunken stupor to his own rented shanty somewhere on the north side of the point. After dinner the boys and I set out on a hike in the same direction, only to encounter the poor sod laid out in the road, a red tide running downhill from his battered brains. Apparently he had strayed into the middle of the road as he approached a blind turn, flattened by a carload of surfers returning from their own final session of the day. He was the first dead guy I ever saw outside of a coffin, and I’m happy to say he’s still the last.

    I venture to guess that we all have defining moments that launch us from the relative safety and security of adolescence into the unexpected and unexplainable real world, and these equatorial adventures in pursuit of surf and a suntan were mine. And while sleeping with cockroaches and dodging ass-ripping coral heads are certainly no match for the traumas of war that christened my father and the countless kids that followed him into service of their country, I encountered plenty of new challenges in pretty short order. Some I met with ease, some scared the living shit out of me, but with nothing to fall back on except my young wits I managed to keep myself out of trouble, and to surf another day.