Those college days, these college days

by John Pixley
“Old man” was printed in black block letters on the back of the lifeguard tower,  like it was done with a stencil. This was the wrong tower—it was not the last one, the next one down, Dog Patch, where the beach wheelchair was—but I knew about Old Man. My friend used to talk about it. He told me that the waves there are always easy to ride, a good place for an old man to go to surf.
Even before seeing the Old Man tower, I was thinking of my friend. Perhaps it was the strong stink that greeted my friends and me on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago when we drove down to the sand at San Onofre State Beach. It was an overpowering smell, one of salt and fish, and lots and lots of seaweed. It was almost nasty. It was the smell of a true, wild beach, a smell I get only a hint of when I go to my usual beach north of Santa Monica. This was no city beach.
My old friend would appreciate this. He did appreciate it. I don’t know if he liked the stink—he would probably say it was “stanky”—but I knew that he spent a good amount of time at San Onofre. It was one of the places where he liked to go surfing.
Surfing was a big part of his life. It may have been what it was about. He got a very good, stable job but he made sure that it was located in San Diego and that he was able to get off by 4 p.m. every day so that he could go hit the waves.
I knew that my friend was a good surfer, that he understood the waves. I knew that he felt at home on the shore, that he was easy with the waves crashing with the mix of sand and rocks unseen under his feet. I knew this when he would carry me, full-grown, into the cold, salty water and lift me high each time a wave came in.
The waves would keep coming, cold and biting, and I would scream and yell along with my friend.  And I would love it. Not only was it a blast—a terrific, fun, wild thrill—it was a wonderful feeling to be so safe in my friend’s hands. I was happy to get a glimpse, even just an inkling, of what it’s like to surf and why he loved it so. When I got tired, after not too long, my friend would take me back to my wheelchair and sit with me as I shivered, wrapped in towels, until I got warm, at last, in the bright sun. (At one point, he got me a small wetsuit.)
As I sat there on the beach at San Onofre a few weeks ago, classes were about to start at the Colleges here in Claremont. Perhaps this was another reason I was remembering my friend taking me into the ocean—something I hadn’t experienced since I was a small child and one of my parents could easily carry me and something I haven’t experienced since. It was when I was a student at UC Riverside in the early ‘80s, on my own and away from my home in Claremont for the first time, that I met my surfing friend.
Who knew I would meet a guy who loved surfing and would share it with me in such a gutsy, hands-on way? And who knew I would let him? Who knew I would end up being friends with this guy, with his right-wing politics and punk rock music? He probably taught me more, or at least opened my eyes more, than some of the classes I was taking. I certainly saw another world with him. I also learned that I could be friends with someone I didn’t always agree with.
I thought of this as I sat watching the waves crashing in, all white and frothy, that recent Sunday afternoon. As they got higher and higher on the shore, I thought of how this happens again and again in Claremont. With the college students coming into Claremont and settling in for the year, it is no doubt happening. It is pretty much inevitable.    
One of the greatest things about Claremont, as we should recall this month as the Colleges get into their full swing—even more than the acclaimed professors and all the remarkable lectures and performances—is that year after year, young people come here and meet others who are from different places and who like and believe different things. Year after year, these students, who are not like each other, discover that they are not that different and can end up being friends.
An article last week in the Los Angeles Times noted that incoming freshmen at Pomona College were invited to read and discuss Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during their orientation. The novel is about Nigerians who emigrate to the US and Britain and return home. According to Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum, the novel offers multiple perspectives on racial issues and American and Nigerian societies and emphasizes that assumptions about culture and history shouldn’t be made. The dean also suggested that it’s a good book for young people because it examines long friendships and life’s unexpected turns.
Life’s unexpected turns. I thought about them too as I sat on the beach that Sunday afternoon at San Onofre as the tide inevitably rose. I don’t know where my friend is, and I don’t know why we lost touch about 15 years ago. Perhaps he didn’t like my coming out as a gay man. Perhaps he was trying to find a new life after his beautiful wife committed suicide, leaving him with two little boys, and I was too much a part of his old life. Perhaps our different politics got to be too much, or we didn’t try hard enough.
Returning to Claremont the next day, I was sad that summer was almost over, even as I knew it wasn’t really—this is sunny So Cal, after all—and I was already planning another beach outing or three in the next few weeks, even though I couldn’t wait for the weather to cool down. I was also glad to be going home to a community where people have once again come to discover and develop their own lives or their new-found lives, full of rich, sometimes surprising and not easy, rewarding adventures.


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