A bump on the head could kill Chris O'Rourke

But so could a life without waves.

Chris O'Rourke. He motions for me to touch his head, which I do, gently — three fingertips pressing the lightly yellowed skin above the ear. The skin gives, as though there's nothing behind it but pulp.
  • Chris O'Rourke. He motions for me to touch his head, which I do, gently — three fingertips pressing the lightly yellowed skin above the ear. The skin gives, as though there's nothing behind it but pulp.
  • Image by Jim Coit

Here at Windansea Beach in La Jolla, surfers prefer the Vespa motor scooter for solo transportation. This is a low, fat motorcycle that you'd be crazy to take for a long fast ride. Your Vespa in the parking lot makes silent claim that you have come a short distance to Windansea beach, and this implies that you live nearby, which is definitely the best place to live.

Local homeowners and their families know all about the prestige of living near the foot of Nautilus Street, one of San Diego’s richest neighborhoods; but surfers, more than anyone, feel the need to live in the neighborhood. This is because here is the spot where you catch the best waves — a spot out beyond the surf line that is hardly larger than a living room. Perhaps two dozen surfers, little more, can crowd together where a big wave peaks before it crumbles toward shore. And so the locals stick together, harassing the outsiders who drive in from other parts of the county, sometimes from Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, sometimes from other coastal states, to surf the reefs on this half-mile stretch of beach.

Lord knows I could never get a wave at Windansea. I'd no sooner paddle out in my long-outmoded surfboard than the locals would start collecting dog scat to toss in my car, or write "Goon go home" with was on my windshield. I keep, therefore, some distance from the water, sitting in the parking lot above the sandstone rocks, reading an article in Surfer Magazine on Chris O'Rourke, the 19-year-old La Jollan and longtime local, who is the best surfer to come from Windansea in years. He's with his wife and infant son at the moment — they've just moved to an apartment in La Jolla Village — but he is supposed to come down and show me his distinctive style of surfing.

Big waves were expected to arrive from the south, pushed by a storm off Baja, but the surf today is disappointingly small and intermittent. Every 20 minutes or so the ocean yawns and shows it claws: four waves strike the outer reef. The reset of the time there's little to watch and even less to do —  a perfect setting for the Caribbean proverb: "How beautiful to do nothing, and after nothing to rest." This morning, the ocean seems almost Caribbean: a deep green that changes to turquoise near the shore, then to a luminous pearl gray where the water seethes. The air has the heavy quietness of a Sunday, and I almost expect a supple ring of surfers to form on the beach, chanting, not in prayer for waves but in jubilation for the beauty of their scene. For here is paradise — Bali Hai with a 31 Flavors next door to an art cinema, and a natural foods grocery store only one block away from this parking lot, replete with fresh juices and whole jugs of Head Shampoo, Head Conditioner, and plastic tubs of hand-mixed granola. Here is the best of everything. And that includes Chris O'Rourke, who was the best competitor in the Western Surfing Association when he was 16, having placed forth or better in every 4A, or top-rated, contest of 1976.

O'Rourke would like to make an income from surfing, but can't. The professional contests in Hawaii and Australia pay so little that even a hands-down winner like Shaun Tomson of South Africa, who earned $20,000 in prize money last year, kept no profit after paying his own travel and living expenses, according to Surfer Magazine editor Steve Pezman. "Shaun Tompson broke even; the rest of them lost money (on the competiions)," he said. Two years ago, O'Rourke took first place in the Western Surfing Association's contest at Black's Beach. "i was supposed to get $400, but they never paid me." And so he takes most of his payment in recognition, and part of it in wet suits and fancy surfboards.

He arrives in a blue Mustang Ghia, driven by his friend, 19-year-old Jim Nori. "We're going up to Jim's house to get dressed," O'Rourke says, inviting me to climb into the car. Getting dressed means pulling on a wet suit and making other preparations for surfing.

O'Rourke, who comes from a family of athletes (his father was a boxing champion in the Navy), is tall and extremely fair-skinned. His complexion makes his eyes seem bluer than they are. His friend Jim Neri is heavier and tanner, and his face is reminiscent of Shirley Temple's — those high round cheeks and the curly hair. Unlike Neri, who wear only brown sunglasses and a swimsuit, O'Rourke is fully dressed in a hat, corduroy pants, and a long-sleeved t-shirt that advertises wet suits by O'Neill. He obtains the wet suits free, on condition that he wears one when he surfs; but it is O'Neill who is getting the bargain. Chris O'Rourke is quite a visible form of advertising when he rides a wave, and virtually nothing keeps him out of the water.

For example, somebody has just pointed out to O'Rourke that the surf is terrible.

"Then it can only get better," he says through the sunroof of Neri's car.

"Yeah. But still I'm not going in till later. I don't want to get surfed out."

"I do," says O'Rourke as Neri bumps out of the parking lot.

We follow the shore along Neptune Place, a sand-white concrete road, and I'm tempted to ask O'Rourke to remove his hat to give me a better view. But I don't. First because I've been forewarned of his fearsome temper, which he usually vents on unwelcome surfers — outsiders — who slow him down on the waves. And secondly, I remember that he wears this hat to protect his fragile skull.

Last May, he had just returned from a surfing trip to Australia, having lost in the second heat of the Bells Beach Championships, when he discovered that the was gravely ill. "All the time in Australia I was waking up at night with sweats, and I was itching really bad, especially on my legs, and I was always feeling sick, but I didn't know what it was. Then one morning when i got back I was at my girlfriend's house, having breakfast, and I was reading this Family Circle magazine article about a woman who was telling about Hodgkin's disease. She was describing the symptoms, and I said, 'My God!'"

A few days later Jill Strong, his future wife, took him to Scripps Clinic for an examination that speeded him to the operating room. The lymph glands in his neck were found to be swollen with cancerous cells. "When I woke up," O'Rourke told Surfer Magazine, "I heard them talking about cancer, and I thought, Oh, my God, I think that's me. They said I had like a five percent chance to live, or something like that, and I was really blown away. i just couldn't accept that. I loved everything I was doing. I want to go on."

The prescribed cure is radiation treatment, followed by chemotherapy, which is an injection of drugs that attack cancerous and healthy cells alike, permitting the healthy ones to grow afresh. One in three persons survives Hodgkin's disease, but O'Rourke's chances appear not to be that good, because his case was discovered in its advanced stages. he's in chemotherapy now. Eradicating growths of cancer required five operations, the last of which took a section of his skull. Hence the hat, which covers the soft skin and the scar. O'Rourke wears a skateboard helmet while he surfs.

"If I were 50 or 60, I'd say what the heck. But I'm only 19. I've got a whole life ahead of me. I'm going to do what I can to fight it."

The ride is over sooner than I expected. Jim Neri turns his car into a driveway on Kolmar Street, by a Spanish-style house which is painted lush pink, the color of strawberry ice cream. by the time he has led us to the back door I sense the return of that atmosphere at Windansea, that feeling of tropical grace. there's the flash of a white BMW in the garage, and the coolness of the tattered garden. in the patio, odd succulents grow not yards away from a trellis shading Boston ferns and a number of delicate staghorn ferns. Neri says his stepfather tore out 24 marijuana plants he found growing in this cool and rundown garden of delights. A marine biologist at Scripps, He looked the plants up in a reference book before destroying them, just to be certain of their type, laughs Neri. He leads us into the kitchen where the preparations for the day's surfing begin.

Neri goes straight to his room for a moment and puts "Miss You" by the Rolling Stones on his phonograph, then turns the volume up. I take a seat at the breakfast bar. O'Rourke, daubing something on his nose, comes around the bar and hands me a bottle of Johnson & Johnson Sunbrown. "Check this out," he says. "It's the best."

"The best" is a phrase I'm going to hear often today. These surfers seem versed in the ultimate of everything, constantly reminding one another of how good this is, how good that works. And it's odd: when they reach a climax in their descriptions, these surfers, and especially O'Rourke, assume a tone of pained astonishment. As though "the best" is so good that it hurts to describe it.

O'Rourke takes back the bottle of lotion and says, "This stuff is so good. I mean, it's clear. not that white stuff that people put on their nose or face. You seen that stuff? We used to wear it like warpaint — stipres all over our faces. But this stuff — I took it to Australia and everywhere, wore it all the time in the sun...." He shakes his head and utters, "Never got burned."

Then, announcing to no one in particular that he's going to make an "outrageous" milkshake of ice cream, milk, banana, and an egg. O'Rourke returns to the kitchen and sets about making his breakfast. Neri, meanwhile has returned with a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches from which he withdraws a bug of thai. I've never smoked this form of marijuana, but I can tell it's going to be potent when Neri began rolling a joint that no longer than a paper match. A couple of days before, I'd asked O'Rourke if he often got high before he surfed.

"All the time," he said.

"Does it affect your concentration, your performance?"

"No. Sometimes it helps me — like when it makes me more aware of the water and how it feels. Or it helps me to go out when I'm not feeling good." His anticancer treatments make him nauseous, he explained. "But other surfers like Michael Ho (rated number two on the international circuit), who's a good friend of mine and who I consider the best tube rider in the world — he smokes more pot than I do. When we were traveling around Australia he smoked like three, four (thai) sticks a day, and then he'd go out and surf like — well, the best."

O'Rourke himself smokes marijuana less often now, and had not smoked at all for months before a recent session of chemotherapy. Then, at the suggestion of Dr. Paul Brenner of La Jolla, he smoked some pot before his treatment. The marijuana was to help him relax and thereby control the nausea that follows when the chemicals attack his cells.

"It worked fantastic," he reported a few days after the treatment this month. "The doctors couldn't find anything — they tried all kind of drugs to stop me from throwing up. They have Compazine and other drugs, but they don't do anything compared to pot. I mean, I was going crazy getting sick. You go in there for your treatment, and you know you're going to get sick because this stuff they put inside you just totally mangles everything. It's no joke. Sometimes just thinking about it makes you sick before you get the shot. This time I went in there and I was relaxed. That's never happened before."

Jim Neri finishes rolling the joint and keeps it on the bartop, making no move to light it up, at the same time that O'Rourke finishes his milkshake and pours it into a tumbler. He politely offers me a taste, then declares that the day is half wasted and they haven't been surfing yet. Neri laughs. He tells his friend to relax, and then collects his equipment — wet suit, matches, joint — while O'Rourke and I step into the garage where he keeps his board. Before I realize what's happening, Chris picks up a skateboard helmet and removes his hat, revealing, in the semidarkness, a scar like a question mark on the left side of his head. To take my eyes off it, I examine the helmet he's holding — bright red plastic, lined with strips of gray foam rubber.

"What's it like to wear that thing?"

"Shitty," he says. "You can't swim with it on. It's really a hassle."

"Does it hurt?"

"Sometimes when it presses. Here, feel this."

He motions for me to touch his head, which I do, gently — three fingertips pressing the lightly yellowed skin above the ear. The skin gives, as though there's nothing behind it but pulp. I press a little and he doesn't move, doesn't wince, but holds up his hand when he wants me to take my fingers away. A blow to this spot, even so much as a poke, could simply kill him. No one has ever before seemed so vulnerable to me, so open.

I have wondered what terrible thing might have happened if I'd let myself go to the urge that welled in me, to press hard against the skin to see what he would do. I say it was curiosity, but I knew the animal cruelty was there in that urge. To think he'd let a stranger probe so delicate a place.

"I can't believe you're going to let me write all this stuff about you, with your illness," I had said to him when we were first introduced at his apartment.

"I am what I am," he said then. "Everybody knows about me. There's no use hiding anything."

I asked him if he ever hid fear.

"Sure. but I'm doing exactly what I want to do. I get scared sometimes when i surf, but surfing is such a rush that it takes you over."

"What do you mean — 'a rush'? A rush of excitement? A thrill?"

"I mean it's fun," he said impatiently. "And it's what I want to do!"

"Have you ever wanted to do something else?"

"Not since I was eight, I guess."

"That seems early enough."

"Well, I always loved the ocean. When I was about five we lived in Sarasota, Florida at this resort-marina that my dad designed and helped to build. Our house had a private beach, and just going out there is what got me stoked. I started collecting shells and learned all about them. This" — he picked up a conch from his chrome-and-glass coffee table — "this is a pink-mouth murex. I had a giant collection before we moved."

"When did you move to San Diego?"

"I was about six. I was born in New Jersey, where we had a 100-acre farm, near Flemington, I think. My dad was a lawyer in new York, and so was my grandfather, Bart J. O'Rourke, who was famous. He defended the Mad Bomber (a Connecticut man who planted 32 bombs in the New York area because he had a grudge against Con Edison, the New York power utility). Then my dad quite his practice and we moved to Sarasota.

"Where did you live in La Jolla?"

"Everywhere. We lived on Neptune, Nautilys, Playa del Norte, Playa del Sur, Bonair, and Belvedere."

"Why did you move so much?"

"Oh, just ... my parents were going through hassles. So I was living at all different places. I moved out when I was 16."

"Then where did you live?"

"With friends: a guy named Oscar (Bayetto) and Jim Neri. I didn't dig the thing that was going on in my house, and then my parents moved to Cardiff (where his father now teaches tennis), and I didn't want to go there. I wanted to stay in La Jolla, which is exactly what I did."

Jim Neri's house seems the ideal place for a surfer. Only three blocks from the beach — an easy distance to carry a surfboard. The three of us stroll from Neri's house to Windansea in five minutes flat. It is noon, a breeze has come up, and the day seems even fresher than the morning. O'Rourke's spirits have risen, too. He walks ahead of us making wistful noises about waves and tube rides, but bad news greets him when he crosses Neptune Place, near the pumphouse.

"There hasn't been one good wave since you guys left," calls Kirck Aedar, a photographer and friend of O'Rourke's.

"So?" says O'Rourke. It's just the low-tide lull. It's going to get unreal in a little while."

Neri says he doubts it, but doesn't press the point. In truth, the ocean today resembles Lake Elsinore, but Neri doesn't want to detract from his friend's pleasure: "It might get better later. It probably will."

Swearing vehemently that it will, O'Rourke leads our way to a sheltered cleft between two rocks. These are sandstone, toffee-colored, and so soft you can nick them with your finger. I step into the cleft and turn as O'Rourke hands me down his board. It is one of 60 surfboards that Bill Caster, the local manufacturer, has loaned or given to Chris for testing. Other surfers who "ride for Caster" pay $110 (wholesale) for their boards. But not Chris O'Rourke. He has the boards for free, partly because he can't work and relies on his relatives for money (Medicare pays for his treatments), and partly because Caster has taken the surfer to his heart, since he himself left home as a teenager. And partly, too, because O'Rourke is "the best," and he deserves what surfers casually refer to as "good equipment."

His surfboard looks as though it could win Best of Show at a custom car rally, so opulent is the paint job. "Airbrushed," O'Rourke says, indicating the underside of the board and its speckled fuchsia pigment. but the paint means little compared to the hydroplaning qualities of his six-foot-five-inch surfboard, with its unusual "G-wing" foils that protrude like the corners of napkins some nine inches up from the swallowtail stern.

As advanced as this design may be, it occupies no more than a sliver on the spectrum of surfboard design and experiment. In my day, ten years ago, a "short board" was nine feet long and weighed about 15 pounds. The introduction of superbuoyant foam put surfers on shorter boards that maneuver in ways I never thought possible. Sliding down the face of a five-foot wave, O'Rourke can snap a turn at the bottom and shoot to the right or left, depending on which way the wave crashes behind him. The amazing thing about Chris O'Rourke (and all the best short-board riders) is that he turns so deftly. Switching up and down the wave like a drum major on a parade field, he can tuck himself in the barrel of a wave almost at will. And this, the ultimate sensation of surfing, has now become the no-big-deal maneuver of the next generation in surfing design: the flexible four-foot Boogie board.

I ask O'Rourke if he expects to get many tube rides today, and he says probably not, as the waves are too small, the swell not large enough to form waves that break top-to-bottom when they bump over the outer reef. Waves that re-form over the inner reef look more promising, but O'Rourke isn't giving them much thought. Nor is anybody else. We're going through a round of long, shut-eyed draws on the joint that Neri has lit, the final preparation for the day's sport.

"Last hit," says a surfer who joins us. This is Mark McCoy, a small, strong-looking teenager with black sunglasses and a busted lip.

"Too late," says Neri.

"Aw, wow," McCoy yawns, and draws his arms into a shoulder-level flex.

"Hey," says O'Rourke, "what happened to your lip?"

"Twenty-two stitches," he replies, still in yawn position, tilting his head for us to see the damage. He says it happened a couple of nights before in the parking lot above the beach, as he was climbing out of a friend's car. "He doesn't know I'm behind him, and he's getting out like he's going to fight somebody in the parking lot — you know how guys play-fight sometimes — and he does this power slam right in my face."

"Did you go to the hospital?" asks Neri.

"Plastic surgeon, my lips was all mangled but he pieced it back together like a jigsaw puzzle. Worked on me for about an hour."

There were nods of approval. Then McCoy says, "But it's weird. This lip makes me wonder what I was doing wrong. like, why'd this happen to me? I was thinking about it, and I swear I didn't rip anybody off. I didn't lie, I didn't do anything...."

O'Rourke, his red helmet on, is nodding.

McCoy goes on. "This makes me think about my karma. Like, what did I do?"

"Hey, nothing!" says O'Rourke, shaking his head, blinking rapidly. "That's just the way it happened. You didn't do anything. Really."

"Hah?"

Their eyes meet and hold for a second.

Neri says, "Well, whatever."

"Yeah, whatever," says McCoy. He shuffles his feet.

O'Rourke tells him not to worry about having to stay out of the water for a couple of days, because watching waves and how other people surf them helps you to analyze your style. "Just think of what you'd do on the wave," he says, and then adjusts his helmet strap and the noose that slips around his ankle, attaching him to his surfboard by a thin, elastic leash. McCoy stands next to me, and we watch O'Rourke walk away on the dark mirror sand toward the surf.

"Jesus," says McCoy. "When I think I stay out of the water because of this" — he gestures to his lip — "and I think of all the stuff that's happened to Chris...."

He falls silent, and for that I'm glad. The moment of sincerity has already passed, and his last words miss like a cymbal crashing two beats after the music is over.

McCoy stays a moment to talk with another teenager about guitar riffs and then ambles up the beach with his hands in his pockets, not bothering to stay and watch. For what's there to see? "The surf is not going to get any better," says Kirk Aedar.

About an hour later, O'Rourke comes up to the beach and leans his board against a rock. He's unhappy that the surf isn't better, and he knows it won't improve today. He's lost a chance to "do exactly what I want to do," as he so often says.

"I'm going to go back in," he announces. "I don't care if it's shitty."

He's standing with his hands on his hips and his back to the houses on Neptune Place. "I mean, there's nothing else to do," he says, "except surf."

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