Surfing For the First Time

By James Fulbright

I remember the first time I went surfing like it took place yesterday, even though it happened 43 years ago. Talk about a lasting impression! I can’t say that about any other experience and let me tell you…I have had a LOT of experiences in my 53 years, mostly all due to me being a surfer. The travels, the people, the waves and the wipeouts are just a few memories I will someday chronicle in a book. I will start the book with the story about the “Midget of Petacalco”, but this is neither the time nor the venue to share that one! Surfing has had the most profound effect and influence on my life since that first and fateful day my Mom took me to the beach. As a result of sliding into my first wave on Galveston’s West Beach in the fall of ’67, I have been hooked on a feeling and still remain on some kind of eternal, cosmic quest. Only a surfer knows the feeling…once a surfer, always a surfer…surfing is life and the rest is details… the catch phrases are limitless, but most attempts to put the act of surfing into words or recreate it on a Hollywood set pale in comparison to the act and only taint the reality of the experience.

Non surfers will never get it. In fact, from a non surfer’s perspective from the outside looking in, surfing has little meaning. It appears to be nothing more than basic beach recreation and a pastime for arrogant slackers, addicts actually. We have been labeled as non productive members of society who constantly skirt responsibility for the self serving pursuit of riding a few waves. In a sense they would be right. Surfing is nothing more than the act of riding a wave on a surfboard, right? Why then have we sacrificed good paying jobs because of a rare swell? Most likely because we just didn’t like that job anyway–a schedule conflict so to speak. Why have we compromised our personal relationships just for a few tasty waves? Probably because we are Gulf Coast surfers. Around these parts surfable waves are few and far between. We get it when we can and to hell with the honey-do list! Why would anyone in their right mind travel to a disease infested third world country ravaged with poverty and war unless they were either on the lamb, very well armed or on a mercy mission with Red Cross? Well, to ride a perfect, isolated right hand point break for one and smokin’ deals on accommodations for another!

Some claim that surfing is a religious experience. Praise the Lord! Surfing is said to give one the ultimate connection with nature. That holds water until your arm brushes against that Portuguese Man-o-war, or worse, when that big dark shadow you thought you saw just brushed your leg and it felt like 35 grit sandpaper– hello landlord! Surfing allegedly builds character! Maybe so, but after your brush with “the landlord” I just mentioned I know for a fact you can suddenly walk on water! Another popular belief is that surfing keeps you young. That is true, with the notable exception of your once soft, supple fair skin turning into rawhide from years of sun exposure . The claims go on and on. Oh, surfing is said to be the ultimate extreme sport and, according to folklore, the sport of kings! Some of the oldest cave drawings supposedly depict human figures holding what appear to be surfboards. Even Jimi Hendrix, who is possibly the greatest guitar rocker of all time, but not a surfer, had a deep fascination with surfing, as did Timothy Leary. “Soon enough, time will tell, about the surfers and the wishing well”, wrote Hendrix. All of these descriptions and proclamations do have merit. I subscribe to them all. It doesn’t change the reality though that surfing is…well…just surfing. Or is it? I’ll share my first experience with you and then we will revisit that statement.

In 1967 surfing had just experienced popularity, growth and visibility on not only both coasts of the U.S. and along the Gulf Coast, but also worldwide. It was nothing short of a world-wide craze, especially after the film The Endless Summer premiered in theaters everywhere. That film singlehandedly introducing the sport to the masses. As a 10 year old kid growing up in Houston, I knew absolutely nothing about any of that. In fact, I had never been to the beach and the only time I ever even saw a surfboard was at my grandparents San Jacinto River house. My uncle owned a 1966 Dewey Weber Performer and kept it at the river house. I once witnessed my grandfather pulling my uncle on his board behind their small fishing boat. That was the extent of my knowledge of surfing at the time. I wasn’t interested. Why my mother decided one summer day to take me to Galveston specifically to surf, I’ll never know for sure. My destiny lay before me and I didn’t have a clue. Maybe she did. “James, I’m going to take you to the beach to go surfing”, said Mom. “OK” was my profound response. We proceeded to speed down I-45 on a hot, weekend summer day. All I remember about that leg of the journey was seeing the bay waters for the first time as we approached what appeared to be a megalith of a bridge that looked like it ended at the top, and we would fall off, into the water below. “Is this where I surf”, I asked? “No son, this is the bay. There is no surf in the bay”, Mom replied with a smirk.
We arrive on the island and began driving along the Seawall, going toward West Beach. My first glimpse of breaking waves, the Seawall teaming with people and activity, along with my excitement made me suddenly realize that I was squirming around like a worm. I needed to go! Uh oh. I asked in all seriousness, “Mom, are we there yet”? No sooner had I spoken those words, when I suddenly realized that all four car tires had left the ground and we were fully airborne, flying thru the air. Back then, when the Seawall ended, you could still drive down a ramp and directly onto West Beach. My mother had evidently forgotten about all that…or maybe not. We never touched the ramp but made final touchdown on the sand, spun sideways and came to a stop. Just ahead sat a rusty trailer with old rental surfboards propped up all around it and more stacked inside. Mom just casually exited the car while all these beach goers were cussing and yelling at her and said, “ we’re here now honey bunny, so go pick out whatever surfboard you want”. She then turned back to the lynch mob and gave ‘em a double hand sign and began using words that I didn’t understand. They must have gotten the point.

Surfboards were strange and a new thing for me. I had no idea what I was looking at or for but I picked out a old looking suntanned single fin about 9’ long that looked like some the nose had been cut off of her, then reshaped with a dull pocket knife. It also had number spray painted on the nose. None of that mattered because I was going surfing! Almost. Upon exiting the rusty trailer with my awesome stick, there was Mom. NO! In her hand was a bottle of Coppertone Suntan Lotion. Any 12 year old will attest to the humiliation, discomfort, embarrassment and hate, yes hate, that they must endure when their mother rubs lotion all over their face and body in front of God and country. “Now you have to wait for 15 minutes after I apply this before you can go in the water James”, she said. What seemed like a month later, Mom shook me out of my day dream about running away from home to get back at her for making me sit on the beach for 15 minutes and said the words that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. “OK, you can go now”.
I won’t bore you with every detail about what happened over the next 4 hours surfing, like the sand between my toes, wind in my face, bonding with nature, saltwater on my skin kind of crap. I went surfing and caught my first wave! The feeling I experienced is literally indescribable anyway, but it was so powerful and profound, my life was changed forever after a ten second ride. My mom tried to wave me in several times over the course of the afternoon but I rebelled. Of course I got into a lot of trouble and I nursed a third degree sunburn for several days due to my rebellion. On the drive back to Houston things were pretty quiet until Mom looked at me in the back seat and says, “you did really good honey bunny. You’re a natural”.
Is surfing just…..surfing? Hell no. Surfing changed my life. Surfing gave me purpose. Surfing continues to build my character. Surfing is my connection to God. Surfing gave me a trade. Surfing keeps me young, and you know what? On that first day, I felt like a king. Surfing is the sport of kings. Mom knew it all along.

James Fulbright is a local surfer who owns Strictly Hardcore Surf Shop on 37th Street and Avenue R. He can be reached at shaper@surfspecialties.com

Please view our “Surf Picture Blog” below containing photographs of our Galvestons Best in action!!

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