When I Stole a Helicopter

So there I was, watching football on TV while an early fall rain pelted the windows. The national anthem was competing for attention with the horses in their stalls beneath my barn apartment. I think they were doing some sort of Native American interpretive rain dance down there, and the stomping reverberated up through the floor and into the couch. Free butt-massage. All was good, and I was grateful.

About midway through the national anthem, as the flag was being unfurled across the field and shaken to life by members of the military, the camera panned to a backup quarterback down on one knee.

In protest.

Two hundred and fifty years ago we were united in protest, a bedraggled gang of colonists tired of royal oppression, and we rebelled. And a nation was born, an imperfect nation to be sure, but a great one. A nation that reflects the dark and light of humanity, the best and the worst our species has to offer.

There’s no place I’d rather be.

And our history has been graced with leaders who have used protest to affect real change, with ultimate goals often not realized in their time. But real change nonetheless, sparked by their courage to stand up.

Not kneel down.

I wanted to look past my gut reaction and hear this backup quarterback out. Maybe he had something to say. So they interviewed him after the game and he was like the deer in headlights I almost hit last night. It was late, I was hauling, and this doe jumped out onto the pavement and just froze.

I didn’t hit her. But this athlete did get hit, with the cold night air of accountability before his people could craft a response for him.

A group of reporters were gathered around him and somebody asked him why he was on one knee.

The broad answer to the first question was easy for him.

The next question was what specifically he’d like to see happen, what change he’d like to see.

He answered that question with his first broad answer.

The reporter asked again, saying she was interested in the specific steps forward he’d like to see taken.

He had no answer, stumbled, and repeated his first answer.

And it was rough to watch. I wanted to jump into the TV and take him by the wrist and pull him into the bathroom like my mom did to me when I shoplifted a toy helicopter from JC Penney when I was 3, before I even knew that you couldn’t just take stuff.

So I closed my eyes and took him by the wrist.

This is how our conversation went. It was more a monologue, truth be told.

So you’re going to kneel for the national anthem? That’s lazy, man. Lazier than slapping the colors of the French flag on your Facebook profile photograph after a terrorist attack and thinking you’re helping somebody.

Before you chose to protest, were you already been doing something in your community to advance your cause? So you’d know what you’re talking about? Are you fighting these injustices with your hands, on the corners and in the alleys of the neighborhoods affected by what you’re protesting against?

Or are you watching some videos on your phone and deciding to take a knee?

And during the national anthem? Really? How about instead of being down on one knee during the national anthem, you get down on both of them and thank whatever you believe in that somebody fought for your freedom to be this ignorant? And then find a better place to protest, where you’re not disrespecting the millions of military people who have saluted our flag?

But only after you figure out what you’re talking about.

And then I opened my eyes, came back to reality, and realized that he’d never hear me.

Only I could hear him.

I just wished he’d actually had something more to say, some idea of a way forward, some thoughtful solution that went past just stating a problem.

Better yet, I hoped that he chooses to actually do something.

Besides take a knee.

What Used To Be


I used to go there. So much so that deep, deep memories have been etched into me from my time framed by those walls.

I’d meet friends in the tiny room for big bowls of soup with thick noodles after watching the sun go down on our boards out in the water. Sometimes my dad and I would convince my mom she needed a beer and walk her past the mobile-home park to the small white building next to the used car lot. Sometimes I went by myself.

I celebrated life there.

When I first moved to town, I lived a block away in an apartment complex bordering a vacant lot, which was home to a community garden. Million dollar loft apartments now cover the ground where the garden used to be, sitting on top of retail stores that the locals can’t afford.

But the little restaurant somehow had resisted what we all saw coming.

There were only a handful of tables, with comfort food served by a couple of women who knew my name. They knew everyone’s name, back then. And they didn’t serve comfort food in a Cracker Barrel kind of way. More in a your-soul-needs-this kind of way. The place was a mirror to the town: a little run-down on the outside, but magic on the inside.

Things really started changing a few years ago, as moneyed fingers slowly spread through the sand. I suppose the beginning of the end was when the old arts colony was bulldozed to make way for retail spaces featuring six-dollar coffees and clothes called ‘outfits,’ crowned by more loft apartments locals couldn’t afford.

It wasn’t long before Whole Foods took the open space where we used to play free shows on summer nights and watch movies broadcast on the back of a building, with picnics spread out on blankets and beers in coolers. And when those jilted images bouncing off the peeling stucco wall faded into Neverland, most of the old guard quietly bowed their heads.

The old guard had built the town. Literally. With their hands. And spent their lives on the sand, surfing the gentle breaks and warming their families around bonfires as the sun went down. They’d run their dogs on the beach and even rode their horses along the water’s edge. But small people with loud voices had made this kind of life subject to fines, and now the old guard’s world was fading away.

I lasted there a while longer. Trent lived across the street from me and was everything the neighborhood used to be. And what that little restaurant still was.

A little run-down on the outside, but magic on the inside.

The photo above is of Trent modeling some fashion wear. He would take everyone’s trash cans out the night before trash day, collect tennis balls for my dogs, and yell from his upstairs window at whatever he thought needed yelling at on that particular day. If there was ever a thread running through what used to be, it was Trent’s voice playfully judging me as he sat there in his T-shirt and underwear, advising me from the security of his second-floor kitchen table.

Yooouuuu betttterrr wattttcchhh iiitttt budddddyyy.

He lived there with his mom and died unexpectedly on New Year’s Day a few years ago. She passed away not long after.

And the flood gates opened.

Levi’s gave way to Lulu Lemon. Rusted Toyota pickups from before the Jimmy Carter era gave way to Range Rovers. Surfers walking in front of my house with their coffee mugs gave way to wives with giant diamonds and disposable Starbucks cups. Most of those diamonds were on the outside, not on the inside. I know, because I packed up and sold the dream house I built to one of those wives.

And I left.

A couple of weeks ago I heard that the little restaurant was closing. I made a trip back there to revisit those memories born over 15 years ago and honor the scenes in that small room that book-ended life-changing chapters for me. I hoped to sit with the ghosts of my past for one more bowl of soup. I wanted to say goodbye.

I drove there straight from the airport and the little room was already full. They didn’t take reservations and there was a grip of well-coiffed bearded hipsters waiting outside with some well-put-together women.

Nobody needs a beard here. It doesn’t get that cold.

I squeezed my way through the crowd and tried to talk to my friend behind the bar, but the only thing I heard her say was Everything has changed.

I came back early the next night before my flight, and 15 minutes before opening there was an even bigger throng of people out front. People who had not been in the ocean 15 minutes before, judging by the Benz congregation in the small parking lot. And yes, that’s what I was doing… judging.

They fought over each other to get in the room as soon as the door opened. They bitched, they accused, they yelled, they told each other to fuck off as perceived entitlements were pierced.

My friend caught my eye from behind the bar as I peered through the crowd. She shook her head. Then raised her hand.

And I raised mine.

I turned and left what used to be.

And what will never be again.


140 Degrees Fahrenheit

The Veteran

The photo is grainy. But it is the moment, and it is enough.

The For The Sender-sponsored surf camp for veterans was this weekend in Huntington Beach. I spoke to the whole group at the beginning, with policemen and firemen standing in a line behind me in remembrance of 9/11. I talked about service and how their sacrifice afforded me the freedom to be ignorant of war’s true costs, but that I didn’t want to be ignorant anymore. I talked about my family, my beliefs, my gratitude. And how surfing can bring a lot of things. Peace. Humility. Power.


And then we got in the water.

We got humbled by the current and the swell. We took a lot of waves on the head, me and that veteran. I showed him how to push through waves on his own and how to sit on the board so he could spin around quickly and paddle. I suggested that he not think about getting up, instead he should take his mind completely out of the equation and just get up.

Which he did. And we got close on a couple of smaller, inside waves. He was so full of stoke, so happy to be out there, even if ‘out there’ meant the inside section.

And then we had to take a break.

But he told me that he wanted to get all the way out there, past the inside section, and do this on his own. So I borrowed a board and paddled out with him, all the way out there, and told him I was there for support, but this was all up to him.

And we waited.

And then it happened.

I didn’t even stand up as I rode along next to him. I was on my belly, looking up at his triumph.

I didn’t have to stand up.

Because he’d already stood up for me on the battlefield, in brutal, oppressive heat approaching 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

He was a long ways from 140 degrees Fahrenheit now.

But he was doing it again.

RIP, Roany

The birthday candle wouldn’t stop singing.

It started innocently enough, with a giant plastic pink stake driven down into a huge pan of brownies. The flame touched the wick and everyone sitting at the campfire table under the stars murmured as the stake opened into a flower with each petal lit by its own tiny candle. And that’s when the candle started singing, not words but tinny notes emerging from a tiny imaginary accordion ringing through the clear mountain sky.

We were late to the table because as we pulled into the ranch we’d seen my friend who’d made the brownies, and driven that pink plastic stake into them, leading her limping horse across the driveway. The birthday girl and I stopped to help her wrap the horse’s hoof, which had been punctured by a nail, and then waited as she led him to a stall. She ran back to the truck, we stopped by the ranch house to pull the brownies from the oven, and made our way to the river.

And we were all here now, telling stories and laughing and wondering when the candle would stop singing that birthday song.

It didn’t.

Not then, at least.

I threw it in the bed of my truck when we drove home so we wouldn’t have to listen to what had already become a mildly annoying repetitive drone. The next morning as I walked past the truck to feed the horses, the song was still going strong and I thought to myself, Amazing. Whatever keeps that thing going, I hope I have some of it.

Later that day I checked in with my friend to see how her horse was doing, and he was still limping around but she didn’t sound too worried. The vet was coming the next day to check him out and maybe put him on antibiotics, and in the meantime he was happy just eating grass and hanging out.

Over the next few days, every time I drove somewhere, or even played with the dogs in the driveway, I’d hear that candle still singing from the back of my truck. The song seemed to be getting a little fainter, and maybe a little slower too, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw the candle away. I had to honor and respect its fight.

Because I knew.

The space between the tinny notes got longer and longer as the week passed and the fading melody nudged me to check in with my friend again. She told me that her horse wasn’t doing any better; the hoof had become infected, he might need surgery, and she was probably canceling a trip to California so she could stay with him. I said a silent prayer that his recovery would be quick, with an image painted in my mind from just a couple of weeks ago, when we’d ridden up the steep draw behind my house.

We’d stopped to let the horses rest, and he’d pushed his muzzle gently against my mare’s neck, holding it there in an embrace. I was surprised, because I’d never seen him do that kind of thing. I was more surprised that my mare was allowing it.

But he got even closer, with his whole face up against her, and she leaned into him. I took a photograph of the moment, because it was like he was telling her something.

He was.

Yesterday I got a phone call as I was walking past my truck, barely able to still hear the music coming from the candle in the back. I ran upstairs to find better reception and the voice on the other end told me that early that morning, before sunrise, my friend had brought her horse out to eat some pasture grass. And she was so happy, because his fever had broken and he was finally putting weight on his hoof. All seemed right with the world and it looked like maybe the surgery planned for later that day could be called off.

And she knew he was better when he dropped to the ground to roll, because he wanted to move around and play.

He never got back up.

I got off the phone and felt my friend’s heart breaking. This was her heart horse, the one that some of us get once in a lifetime.

If we’re lucky.

She was.

I dropped the phone on the couch with my eyes glistening and went downstairs to put my hands on my mares and tell them that he was gone. I walked past my truck, which felt far away and different somehow, and was heading into the barn when I stopped just past the heavy wooden door.

I stopped because of what I heard.


And because I knew.

Every time I’d hear that candle singing, I’d think of my friend’s horse. And as the melody started to slow down and fade…

Happy Birthday to you, Happy… Birthday… to…

I knew.

Just yesterday, I stared at the ball on my truck’s tow-hitch, listening to the waning music, and thought When his heart stops, this candle stops.

I knew.

And now, here in the doorway of the barn, I could hear nothing.

My back was to my truck and I slowly turned around and made my way to the tailgate, which I lowered with both hands. I squinted into the darkest corner of the bed and there was the candle, still open in all its pink plastic glory.


The candle knew, too.

We leave very little space for the mystery these days. For what can’t be explained.

But that’s where the beauty of life is, in the mystery.

Where the mystery used to live is now a house full of small screens and text messages and perpetual information cycles. We want to, or rather think we’re entitled to, exploit everything about everything, right now, at the swipe of a fingertip. We believe everything worth knowing is explainable.

But when everything is explainable, there is no room for the mystery.

So the mystery has had to move out, to the fringes of town, to the dark spaces between the trees.

But she is there waiting for you, if you’re like me: tired of the lie and ready to embrace the beauty found in what can’t be explained.

She is there, with that candle and horse.

RIP, Roany.