I think it all began about 1948 or 1949. My brother bought a huge truck inner tube at a war surplus store. We would drive from Pasadena down to Huntington Beach, stop at a gas station to inflate the inner tube and then spend hours riding the waves. Cascading down the face of a breaker while hanging on to the tube was great fun. It was during this period I saw my first body surfer, and my life changed forever.
Instead of riding a wave on an inner tube, he held his body rigid and used it like a surfboard as he slid across the face. I was absolutely fascinated — it was a magical sight. I soon became addicted to body surfing waves, wearing swim fins. That was 60 years ago.
While I was stationed in Arkansas for nearly two years during my military obligation, I kept postcards and photos of surfing in my wall locker. Each day in the Ozarks whetted my desire to again feel the rush of water on my body. I moved to Newport Beach 10 months after I was discharged from the Army.
For the first couple of years after joining the Newport Beach fire department in 1958, I was in the water every day I wasn’t on duty. My typical routine was to enter the water around 8 in the morning, surf until noon, take a 30-minute break to rest and drink a protein drink, and then surf for another three hours. Except for the break around noon, I was in the water the entire time.
Ask any board or body surfer to describe what surfing is like and you will hear words like exciting, fun, like being at play with the sea, and spiritual. In a way, it is hard to explain “spiritual.” Somehow you make a connection with nature and feel a part of something very basic, almost primitive. At the end of the day, both your body and spirit have been nourished.
All these memories and sensations came back to me a few weeks ago while listening to a program on National Public Radio (NPR). A segment was devoted to the subject of rehabilitating veterans from the wars in the Middle East. In particular, those young men and women who have suffered terrible injuries (including the loss of limbs) or are victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is estimated that 20 percent of veterans are diagnosed with this invisible wound.
The risk of suicide among male U.S. veterans is more than double that of the general population over time. But the true rate might be off by 25 percent, given that suicide has long been shrouded in stigma.
From his own surfing experiences, Dana Cummings wanted to unleash the healing power of the ocean to help damaged veterans. He co-founded The Association of Amputee Surfers (Ampsurf) in 2003 to teach adaptive surfing. This past August, Ampsurf hosted the organization’s fourth annual event for challenged veterans.
Cummings said, “One of my goals is that the veterans come away feeling they’ve accomplished something they never thought they could do and hope this will inspire them to feel empowered when it comes to trying other seemingly impossible activities.
“I honestly think the volunteers who come out and instruct get as much from the experience as do the participants. It feels good because you are sharing your passion of surfing.”
For more information, go to the group’s Web site at ampsurf.org, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
As exciting, fun and spiritual surfing was for me, I can’t begin to imagine the emotions experienced by the challenged surfers. My eyes grow warm thinking about it.
E-mail John Brannon at email@example.com