by Mark Redwine
In the summer of my youth, my kid brother, Allen, and I would hitchhike to Newport Beach from our home in Orange, California. We hung out with our friends at the south side of the pier long before the lifeguard station was built, 15th Street before the showers were there; and 17th Street near the lifeguard tower.
There was this little place, a hole in the wall, near the pier where the little shops were. They sold the best-ever-in-the-history-of-the-world French fries. They were hand cut. Thick. Served in a brown paper bag, fresh from the fryer and smothered in catsup. Maybe it was the salt air and sunshine, or just the thrill of freedom and youth, but the trip to the beach alone was worth a bag of those fries.
My beach name was “Mark the Mooch.” I could talk anybody out of anything. My little brother and I looked a lot alike. He was more handsome than I. At beach parties when the bonfire turned to embers, the loud music turned to whispers, and fuzzy memories were made, he told the girls his name was “Dirty Mark.” Sometimes, I had a lot of explaining to do.
We did all of the stuff the other kids did—like make fun of the tourists. We dressed the same, looked the same, we had our own culture and our own language. Do you know there are about fifty different names used to identify and describe the differences in waves?
Our favorite beach was the Wedge. It was south of Newport, next to the jetty. It has the largest swells in Southern California. The waves were brutal. They were dangerous and at times fatal. One of the beach names for the Wedge was the Meat Grinder.
Sometimes, a wave broke the wrong way, and locked someone in, then dragged them over to the jetty and smashed them on the rocks. Sometimes, a wave would take you for a trip over the falls. You lose control of your body to the power of the wave as it drags you up its face and treats you like a rag doll doing cartwheels on the way back down. After it is done tossing you around, it rolls over you and spits you out on the shore. Sometimes, a wave will eject you vertically into empty air. It is kind of like being shot out of a cannon. Sometimes, a wave will slap you down on the sand like a TV wrestler then grind you along for several feet, usually face down. That is how the Wedge earned the name of the Meat Grinder. I remember pulling sand out of places I didn’t even know I had. Some waves would bury you in three feet of sudsy foam until your lungs screamed for air.
Then, there were the combination waves. For example; once you were ejected, the wave dragged the water out from under you and left you hanging twelve feet up in the air. It seemed like there was plenty of time to contemplate the errors of the ways of your short, miss-spent life while awaiting your fate. Then the wave dropped you on to the sand, and ground you toward the shore where it smothered you with foam.
There was no lifeguard tower, and the waves were too gnarly to ride with the surf boards that existed then. After a steep and painful learning curve, we figured out how to surf the Wedge. We were able to see which waves to take, which ones to let pass, and where the sweet spot was for the best ride. We body surfed, or rode belly boards. We were pioneers of the Wedge. There weren’t many who could ride those waves. A heavy day at the Wedge would see about six people body surfing.
Allen and I were in the original version of Bruce Brown’s legendary documentary surfing film, Endless Summer. We were body surfing the Wedge the day Bruce was filming. I had the longest ride of the day. Allen had a pose that was his trademark body surfing style. He flexed a bicep while riding the wave.
After a day at the Wedge, all we could do was lay on the beach. Sun beating down on our backs, totally spent. Totally satisfied and fulfilled after conquering the Meat Grinder one more time.
Time goes by and things change. Now, the Wedge has a lifeguard tower. There must be a hundred people with cameras on the beach every day. Surfboards are capable of riding the Wedge. And, there are about forty people out trying to catch a wave on a crowded day.
I look back on my youth and compare it with my life now. I am a grandfather, fatter, slower, my suntan no longer exists, and my hair, what little I have left, is disappearing rapidly. If I went to the beach today, the kids would make fun of me, just like Allen and I made fun of the tourists those many years ago.
The culture of my youth and the culture I am now in are completely different.
Every culture and sub-culture has its own set of unwritten rules, customs, traditions, beliefs, and behaviors that generate a common identity and pride in that identity. This identity can also generate fear and mistrust of people who are not “like us.”
As beach kids, our heroes were the guys who dared to ride the largest, most dangerous waves, and lifeguards. When someone was in distress in the surf, or being carried out to sea in a riptide, or just unable to stay above water, the lifeguard jumped off of the tower and rushed into the surf to save them. At that moment, there was a space built in time where none of our cultural differences mattered. We were just humans, united in the hope that the lifeguard would save another swimmer, especially if the swimmer was a child. Lifeguards are heroes.
There seems to be something about protecting children that is far above our cultural differences, something that brings humanity together. Protecting children is in our genes, placed there by God, and linked to our primordial instinct for species survival.
Recently, something changed. There is a wedge driven into the heart of America. That wedge is the passion that surrounds immigration issues, especially along our Southern border. It is splitting our country apart. And, the children are the ones suffering the most and are in the most danger.
I still live about a half an hour from the beach, on the Gulf Coast in Brownsville, Texas, which borders Matamoros, Mexico. In Matamoros, there is a refugee camp of roughly 2700 people from Central America and Mexico seeking asylum in the USA. It is a tent city, much like the ones in California. The camp developed about half a year ago as a result of Migrant Protection Protocols (Return to Mexico).
Asylum seekers under MPP have to wait in the camp in Matamoros to apply for asylum. If they are allowed to pursue asylum, they must go back to the camp where they prepare for all four trials. The process may take up to two years. Under MPP, less than one percent of asylum requests are granted. The families know that. So, many families are sending their children to the American guards at the bridge over the Rio Grande to ask to be allowed to enter America under the Unaccompanied Minor Program. All are accepted. They are then taken into custody and placed in a Federal Detention facility. From there they are entered into the Foster Care system where they are placed. America, knowing the entire time they will never see their family again.
But, this choice is better than the realities of the camp.
There are lifeguards here. American volunteers see that the refugees in the camp are fed, have water to drink, and provide tents to keep them dry in the rain, provide blankets and warm clothing for when it gets cold. They bring shoes and medical care when needed and provide spiritual care. Heroes, every one.
If you would like to know more about Mark and Marilyn’s work on the border, or how you can help, like their Facebook page or email Mark for more information at mtmasai@aol[dot]com. You can also check out Mark’s previous articles that share more about the camp in our Tales of Diversity section.