Destinations, May 1998
The wave surges right up to the tires of the Paskowitz Surf Camp van and then recedes with the sound of an ogre gargling a mouthful of human skulls. Spindrift blown from furious breakers mists the air. Outside the shore break, a Pacific Bell telephone pole bobs by in the rip. "In my professional opinion, I can't see how I can let you go out there," says Israel "Izzy" Paskowitz. "But I can sure see why you'd want to."
Wrong, my talented and cojonefied friend. What I want is the typical Paskowitz Surf Camp experience, the one I saw on the Disney Channel. I want the mellow summer rollers of San Onofre Beach's "Old Man's" surf, where the Paskowitz family has held its camp for the past 26 years. I want the cosmic aphorisms of camp founder and surfing pioneer Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, 78 years old and still ripping. I want a style lesson from Izzy, a former world longboard champ. I want to see the light of passion ignite as total beginners rise to their feet in the famous Paskowitz "baseball stance," a pedagogical tool that supposedly has never failed to get a camper up and triumphantly onto a wave. I want campfires and sing-alongs and bad surfing videos and heaping plates of potato salad at San Mateo Park, where summertime students communally pitch their tents. But no, I don't want no part of this stinking storm swell.
"What do you think?" Izzy asks me.
What do I think? Though I'm old enough to know better, I've fallen under the Paskowitz spell. This remarkable family of eight handsome brothers and a gorgeous sister is legendary as a living experiment in surf-stoke. Kung Fu meets Walton's Mountain on the beach. Children and adults flock to their camp to watch as a Paskowitz first demonstrates a backhand vertical snap and then critiques the Grasshopper's sloppy imitation. Teaching is hands-on, tactile, metaphoric: "Stand like a boxer, not like a guy about to be mugged." There's no formality, no rigid lesson plan, no competitive fervor. "When in doubt," a camp mantra goes, "just bail out."
Of course, the Paskowitzes don't bail; they rip, particularly Izzy, and after only a few hours in his company, I'm succumbing to the pull of our mentor-pupil relationship, however brief, however lethal.
"In the words of Gary Gilmore," I cry, "'Let's do it.'"
We join the foot traffic marching purposefully north to the point break. Tumbling seracs of whitewater roar like artillery fire as we quicken our pace, drawn by the drama of the heavy seas. "If you don't make it past the first wave," Izzy says, "just give up and come in and try again. Don't get sucked into that shore break." The one that gargles skulls.
At last a lull. We hit the water running and then windmill for the channel. Halfway to the takeoff zone, the horizon before us humps malevolently with a ten-wave set.
"I want you over here on my left!" Izzy shouts. "This is your wave!"
"Maybe it has a little sister behind it," I sputter.
"Go!" Izzy says.
And then I'm airborne, going down, down, down. Somewhere in the upper atmosphere the curl begins to pitch out, ready to snuff me. I go prone like the surrendering dog I am and hang on for a San Clemente sleigh-ride to shore. I don't stop until the fins scrape the sand. Izzy glides in soon after, diplomatically says nothing about my form, and gently offers to take me out again. I gently decline. The rest of my big-wave instruction comes via binoculars, as I watch him float smoothly atop and beneath the monstrous swells.
That evening at the Rib Trader, a popular San Clemente hangout, tankards clink as the town toasts the best surf of the year. A somewhat sodden local gazes admiringly at me out of bloodshot eyes. "I saw you surfing with Izzy today," he says. "You must really rip!" I nod. Yes, I rip. It's a case of overestimation by association. But, hey, it's not utterly untrue. When you've ridden a wave beside a Paskowitz, whether you've succeeded or bailed, the keys to Surf City are yours.
Bucky McMahon's story about cycling in Florida appeared in the March issue.
Photograph by Chris Wimpey