Roy’s Real Tales #6

The Magical Nightmare

A day I will always remember but try to forget!

One day my pops put us in the car and said he had a surprise. We drove to San Clemente and parked in the driveway of this beyond killer house, right on the cliff across the street from the beach. Pops just proudly said, “Well, what do you think of our new house?”  What?!?  How the hell did he pull this off?!?  We were not rich, but that day I became the richest kid in the world, with my own waves right in my front yard.  He said we all needed to tighten our belts to live there.  He swung it somehow, some way.  I told him I would eat old cold tortillas for a year and never complain!  I cased the house, knowing that growing up in a houseful of girls, I was the last on the totem pole. Parents upstairs with 1 bathroom, kids downstairs with 1 bathroom and 3 bedrooms – with 4 sisters??  I chose to live in the garage and pimped the place out,  turning it into a surf-club man-cave.  It was a dream come true, and just the fresh start our family needed. I will always be grateful and will always call San Clemente my true home.

I had finally gotten some hair on my chin and grew about half a foot, so I was getting more confident…and getting more respect in the water, sort of.  I was still unconventional, riding my fish the majority of the time on my knees and getting tubed, which was what I loved.  But kneeboarding was the bottom of the food chain in the surf hierarchy–it was still the mid -70’s and the boogie board was brand new, and had not yet taken over to be the last place form of riding waves.  I would be called gimp, cripple, half man, etc., no matter how well I rode.  My new friends gave me shit, but they liked my artwork—I was soon drawing on everyone’s boards and doing logos for the surf shops.  Even so, I knew I had to commit to stand-up surfing to really get respect with this crew.  These cats were pioneer waterman lineage.  Their goal as kids was not to go to college but to charge the North Shore of Hawaii and travel the world as pro surfers.  It was time for me to ditch the fish and fins, put on my big boy trunks, and start standing up again full time.

(L-R) Joe Conroy, Jim Dudley, Ian McGonagle, Roy

San Clemente was the toast of the coast, and I was in the thick of it.  It was “Animal House” on the beach and “Showtime” in the water, with the best surfers up and down the beach all pushing each other–what a cast of characters!  I was far from normal, so I fit right in.  I already knew many locals from spending so much time there, from being a little kid riding rafts at T-street and eating Abba Zabbas with the little monster crew, to surfing Trestles and all the beachbreaks growing up.  It was a good ‘ol boy, beer-drinking town with a surfing problem. As a little kid I used to watch the hippies, bikers and surfers from afar smoking weed and drinking beer on the beach…but now I was in the middle of it all.  Like Laguna, but different…acid wasn’t as prevalent here as there, but if you didn’t have a beer in your hand when you got out of the water in SC, the older locals looked at you like you were a kook.  Coors should have sponsored the whole town!  I was never big on drinking as a kid in San Clemente’s surfing scene, but back then, you really didn’t have a choice.  I developed a healthy taste for booze hanging in that crowd.

Summer was over and now it was time to put the beer down and pick up the books. It was my Junior year and this time, amazingly, for once I was happy to go to school with all my new friends.  Surfing was religion in San Clemente in those days, and then, this happened; the high school recruited the first surf team in the school’s history.  They even made a surfing class for P.E. and that was fine with me!  I knew I wasn’t good enough to make the surf team (though I wanted to so bad) but then another thing happened… the best surfers in our school approached me one day out in the water asking “where’s your kneeboard?”  I proudly said, “I don’t ride it anymore. I’m fully stand up surfing now.”  They just laughed and said  “Bullshit!  We need a kneeboarder for the surf team and you’re it.  We’re going to win the championship our first year!”  The same guys who made fun of me before now wanted and needed me.  I just laughed in my mind!  So now I could go back to my comfort zone, from my new training-wheel board taking beatings, to ripping again on my little fish and come out of tubes, and be hooted at instead of hated?  Put me in coach!  I’m ready to play today!  They knew I could compete because I had been winning WSA contests that year and made it to the finals that summer at San O for the United States Surfing Championship.  So I was all in!  So stoked to be wanted!  I was still having fun longboarding at San O when the waves were small but when the waves got big I was back to kneeboarding with a vengeance, and I was not going to let our town down! 

(L-R) Boo Stubs, Roy, Coach Conroy, Jeff Leishman, Larry Mear

We had a surf team and did just what we said: we went undefeated, and smoked every school up and down the coast.  Now we were in the finals against our rival Newport Beach…we had just defeated Huntington Beach, the reigning champs for years (when Bud Lamas was the team captain and the most respected and most explosive surfer on the coast). If we could beat them, then we could beat anyone.  Next up– Newport for the title!  Huntington was hard core and cool but we considered Newport to be a rich yuppie town.  Their head surfer was Danny Kwock, and like Bud, he was already famous.  Along with Preston Murray and the Echo beach crew, who ripped as well, they were the focus of a lot of attention from the surf magazines and were sponsored by the biggest surf companies.  That only gave us more incentive to kick their ass and bring home the gold.  Our reputation as crazy- country surf bumpkins preceded us when it came time to travel up and down the coast. We had been the unconventional “Bad News Bears” all season and we sure were not going to stop–the big Championship was here! 

Our coach was an ex-marine, old-school San Onofre Surf Club character named Sam Conroy, and our team vehicle was a converted L.A. County jail bus with the bars still on the windows, suped up on the inside with kitchen and bar.  We arrived in our usual badass style, Sam wearing his fishing hat and aloha pants with half the team hiding somewhere getting stoned before their heat.  The waves were beyond huge that day (funny how that happens)! That was great for us, so we rose up to match them and handed those Newport surf stars a whipping they’d never forget.  I think we won every heat!  We stole their celebration boxes of donuts and hot chocolate, which was now rightfully ours to mix our whiskey with.  Then we gave them B.A.s and middle fingers and bombed them with their own donuts as we burned out of the parking lot on our happy drunk stoned victorious ride home well before noon.  We didn’t do everything politically correct, but that banner is still hanging in the gym as one of the proudest there.  There was no love lost between our towns so we figured they got every jelly donut fastball they deserved.

On the ride home our bus was exploding with joy, and looking out the window, so were the waves.  It was getting even bigger and my crew knew there’d be no school today.  5 of us slipped out the back and headed to Cotton’s Point, the only place we figured could hold this massive swell.  We had the almighty call-in through the gate, the surfing royalty gate key to the beach that very few had and highly treasured.  It meant you didn’t need to walk the TrestlesTrail, and you were footsteps away from the break with a twist of the lock.  There it was, breaking in all of its Majestic California Glory!  Perfectly glassy, slight off-shore winds, Third Reef Cottons point lined up and firing through, all the way to shore, with just us in the line up!  It was the most magical day that I will never forget — but in an instant it turned into a nightmare that I hate to recall.

We had been trading perfect waves together for hours…on my way paddling back to the peak an older guy was now out there, and he was dropping into a big wave right in front of me.  The code of honor was he has the right of way so I stopped and sat up on my board and let him pass and take my beatings if need be.  Well, he kooked big time, but not as bad as he would seconds later.  He pearled up to his neck with his board flying up in the air like a rocket. I scratched frantically to get out of that situation, to get over the wave to safety.  However, what goes up must come down, and my leg was the landing point for the point of his board!  It exploded like a bomb and my brain exploded the same in excruciating pain!  My board was gone but I saw his board so I swam to it and grabbed it for a lifesaver, then lifted my leg to see the damage.  It turned out to be worse than I could ever imagined.  Though my tears and pain I saw the horrific sight of my leg severed in half with my tendons floating out like worms.  Before I could even digest the magnitude of my situation the board was ripped out of my hands and the kook was on it and started paddling away!  I screamed at the top of my lungs not to leave me but he just panicked and paddled away faster leaving me out there to drown.  I was losing buckets of blood by the seconds.  There was no time for me to panic.  This was live or die time and I knew I had minutes to get to shore before I bled to death.  Head down, elbow in, I swam like an Olympic swimmer to save my life. I made it to shore and just needed to get up the sand bank to safety.  I would make it to the bank screaming for help, just to get taken back down into the sea by the next wave, again and again.  I was getting lightheaded, trying to not lose consciousness…but I took what I thought was my last breath and slowly slipped down to my watery grave.  All I remember was seeing sparkles and going to sleep underwater on my way to Davy Jones locker.  That was it, I was gone, the beach was deserted, my friends were out surfing, and had no idea I was floating face down.

Suddenly, I was awake and throwing up water, not knowing where I was or what had happened.  I remember being laid on the beach and someone yelling at me to keep my leg closed and he’d be back.  I was totally oblivious to my critical situation until I looked back to check my leg. I was in excruciating pain beyond belief, it was like somebody had opened my leg up with a hot poker and shoved an electric eel in there, and the slightest move sent lightning bolts up my leg to my brain.  Everything instantly came back to me in jolts of pain, from the initial injury, to the swim in, to my last cat scratch on the sand before I went floating into the abyss.  I laid there like a beached whale in the hot sun, in agony with shooting pain, trying to comprehend it all, wondering who was the angel who had just saved my life.  He finally returned with a water bottle and blanket after making a 911 call from a house in the gated community that was impossible to get in.  I was still foggy but realized my savior was my good friend and surf teammate Brad Crow.  He had gone to school after our win but knew where we went and was going to meet up with us later after he went to one class.  This was divine intervention–somebody up there had bigger plans for me. The odds were a billion to one that Bradley would have the call in and gate key to find me minutes before I was fish food.  Thank you brother Bradley–without a doubt, I would not be writing this had you not saved my life.

I woke up outside the hospital on an emergency gurney, atop a salt-water and saliva-soaked mat,with my leg frozen and locked from being set (thanks to Brad’s quick thinking). When I became somewhat coherent, I couldn’t talk from all the salt water I had swallowed but definitely needed to retort from the orders this big nurse was barking out!  She was ordering that my leg needed to be pulled back to see the wound.  I begged her  not to touch my leg. That fell on deaf ears!  Two scrubs grabbed my arms and she ripped it back!  That was the most excruciating pain any human could imagine!  I screamed at the top of my lungs with barely a sound, and then everything went black. 

When I next woke,  there were my parents and my little sister at the foot of my bed,  speaking with a doctor.  There were hugs and tears. It hurt to talk but I needed to ask questions about what the fuck has happened to me!  I finally had just checked back in to see what my  condition was, and I wanted answers.  First question: how was my leg?  Everything went quiet and my sister and mom started tearing up so I knew they all knew something I didn’t know, and the answer was not going to be a good one.  The doctor was cold and brutally honest, he said I was lucky to be alive, the injury had severed my nerves, tendons and muscles in half.  He said matter-of-factly that my leg was paralyzed and there was nothing they or any doctor in the world could do.  They took two cups of sand and seaweed out of my leg and had cleaned it out as best they could… now I was on a 24-hour watch in case of a bacterial infection, and if I got staph or encephalitis then they may need to amputate. I had just had the longest day of my young life.  The first half glorious, and the last half something you would not wish on your worst enemy. This was not the ending I was ready to hear upon waking.  I was  physically and mentally drained.  There was nothing left in my 130 lb frame but tears, and then hearing the news that I would never walk again without a brace and cane, well, it was too much.  

My Pops came to me to give me comfort, and instinctively, in a loving way, patted my injured leg.  His touch on my leg sent me through the roof—I could barely speak but I let out a banshee blood-curdling scream of pain that must have echoed through their hospital halls (not good for business). My little sister Donna, who was very emotional, couldn’t handle it and she fainted, hitting her head on the table and falling under my bed. I freaked out looking for my sister and twisted my leg, letting out another scream of pain. The “Mr. Smooth” doctor guy (handing out paralyzed papers like candy) went into a panic, screaming for paramedics. They arrived to rush my little sister to the ER for X-rays, then whisked my parents out of there, saying that I needed rest.  All this, after pretty much waking up from the dead!  I had been to the mountain in the morning to almost the bottom of the sea by noon.  Yeah, I definitely needed some rest.

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