Paul Edmunds: Subtropicalia

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/ Subtropicalia Paul Edmunds /

/ Subtropicalia A short story by Paul Edmunds /

In 1976 I was in my first year of primary school and my older brother was in his last both of us at a ’ government school on Johannesburg’s East Rand. Sometime during that year we moved house settling on a larger ’ property across the road from a golf course. Our school was just up the road. There boys in ’ standards four and five were required to take a subject called Basic Techniques where you learned rudimentary ’ technical drawing skills and undertook a few simple carpentry and craft projects. I remember clearly the day my brother brought home one of his projects – the first skateboard I had ever seen. He had fashioned the deck from solid meranti shaping it ’ and chamfering its edges finishing it off with a simple ’ design in red enamel paint. The trucks and wheels were from a roller skate. Later he added two strips of olive green grip tape apparently acquired from a Holiday Inn ’ bathroom.


With my brother holding my hand I slowly learned to ’ ride down the gently sloping concrete driveway which ’ was systematically covered in smooth brick pavers by my father in the years to come. When I grew brave enough I ’ took the board to the top of the short steep ramp which ’ led up to the garage and descended by myself. Later that year my brother’s Basic Techniques class ’ designed and made objects out of Perspex. I’m not sure whether he made it as a project submission or just produced it on the side but the small object made ’ from laminated red and yellow strips caught my eye. He had shaped an approximation of a surfboard and using ’ a heater to soften it bent a small rocker into the ’ object. He may even have glued a small skeg onto the bottom. Into a tiny hole drilled at one end he inserted a wire ring and threaded it onto a chain. My own Basic Techniques projects never amounted to much – a wonky pine and Masonite box some drab lion-shaped ’ bookends and a series of deadly Perspex letter knives were all I came up with. When I turned nine my parents bought me a board of my own – an orange plastic affair with a turned up nose and kicktail. Around the same time my brother acquired a better board from someone. This was definitely superior ’ a Super Shadow with a solid wooden deck wide trucks ’ ’ and wide hard wheels. Super Shadows we believed were ’ ’ ’ so fast they had actually been banned. An older kid in the neighbourhood had one with a razor-sharp fully ’ aluminium deck. My brother’s had a solid carved kicktail and a split at ’ the nose which he prevented from spreading with a small


woodscrew. With masking tape and white spray paint he made an arrow design on the deck. Skateboarding it seemed at the time was filled with ’ ’ pleasures I just wasn’t old or big enough to enjoy. A friend of a family friend we were told skated for his ’ ’ high-school team which was sponsored by Pepsi. Contests were held at ‘Solid Surf’ a skatepark in Honeydew ’ ’ a suburb I’d never visited. This was close to Cresta skatepark which I never visited either. My second cousin from Durban had hurt himself so badly in a fall that he’d had a lengthy stay in hospital. Stories of deathdefying descents of nearby Glendower hill abounded. I never made it the whole way starting instead some way ’ down and bailing into the soft kikuyu grass of the park near the bottom. I heard about another slope nearby ’ closed to cars and known only as Hyperama Hill. My friend Russell’s father took him there occasionally. If I wasn’t able to immerse myself fully in skateboarding its close relative surfing was even less ’ of an option. Surfing was something you did at the coast which to us pretty much meant Durban. We would ’ sometimes pretend to surf on our skateboards carving ’ sloped kerbs tucking under overhanging plants like ’ tubes fantasising about endless summers. ’ We did adopt its fashions though. I remember Hang Ten ringer T-shirts and posters in the outfitters where my mother bought our clothes. I recall the puka shell choker necklaces we wore. Mine a gift from my mother ’ ’ was made of mottled shells of varying sizes while an ’ older family friend (known as ‘Big Paul’ to distinguish him from me ‘Little Paul’) owned one that was pure ’ white with several black bands at its thickest point ’


tapering gradually to its clasp. At some point my mother gave me a small silver skateboard which I wore on a thong around my neck. I recall a poster Big Paul had in his bedroom. As I see it now it was of a surfing legend – Gerry Lopez ’ perhaps – making a bottom turn on a massive deep-blue ’ wave on a bright red board. His parents had allowed him the use of a small room off their double garage where he had a couch a carpet ’ ’ and an old turntable. A friend of his called Andrew ’ the same guy who had skated for his school team had ’ painted a mural of a stylised surfer hitting the lip. Later when Andrew returned from National Service ’ ’ apparently traumatised by some event of which we never knew the details he would become my sister’s ’ boyfriend. I recall many an afternoon and school holiday spent skating with friends neighbours and others we picked ’ up along the way. Occasionally Russell and I would do ‘catamaran’. At the top of a hill we sat on our decks ’ facing each other our outstretched legs resting on ’ each other’s boards hands joined in ‘sailor’s grip’. ’ With one of you leaning outward and the other in ’ you could make a pretty tight turn. Sometimes if we ’ could convince him we would load my younger next-door ’ neighbour onto our knees and descend three-up. Skateboarding lost popularity in the late 1970s but we kept at it learning to spin 540° to pull off Shu Fly ’ ’ Christies and doing the Coffin Run down the steepest ’ ’ smoothest driveways we could find. I repeatedly borrowed the two books on skateboarding owned by the


Edenvale public library religiously learning what were ’ no doubt very outdated tricks and terms. I could only dream of pulling off a handstand on my deck. Our romance with surfing continued all this while. My brother and I devoured rare snatches of the Gunston 500 and later the Spur Surfabout and Billabong Pro on TV. We would record these on video and watch them time and again. Tom Curren Tom Carroll Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew and ’ ’ ’ of course Shaun Tomson were all names that rolled off ’ our tongues. Brad Gerlach Mark Occhilupo and Barton ’ Lynch were some of the pros who risked ostracisation by touring here in the 1980s. We could tell Pipeline ’ Cave Rock and Jeffrey’s Bay by the shape of their waves ’ as we had come to know them from the pages of Surfer magazine which we surreptitiously read in the CNA. Later the local Zig Zag which we could afford to buy ’ occasionally came out. ’ When my brother was in standard seven or eight he and ’ several of his friends made a bicycle trip to Durban. They accomplished this in about a week riding on the ’ shoulder of the freeway and camping where they stopped. Our mother was very uneasy about this trip especially ’ when one of the party was struck by lightning and another was nearly run down by an 18-wheeler. They stayed a short while in Durban at the end of their trip. On the ‘phone my brother told us about ‘boogie boards’ – short flexible foam boards on which you lay ’ down or kneeled while riding waves. This was obviously much easier than surfing and because the boards were ’ less lethal it could be done in bathing areas under ’ ’


the watchful eye of the lifeguards. I could hardly wait for our next visit to the coast to see this for myself. By the time I reached high school my brother had gone off to study law in Stellenbosch. His Super Shadow was left behind and I moved its trucks and wheels onto my plastic deck which I preferred to his as I found it ’ ’ hard and unsympathetic to the bare feet I favoured. Over the years my enthusiasm for skating waxed and waned but I mostly kept it a secret from my high-school friends whom I regarded as a bit soft. They weren’t ’ into skating no one rode bicycles and when we all ’ ’ turned 16 no one even rode a 50cc motorbike. ’ While desperate not to attract attention to my enthusiasm for surfing and skating at school where it would have invited mockery I really needed to ’ relieve the tedium and stake out my turf in some way. I plastered my battered old tin pencil case with pictures of surfers and stickers when I could find them. On my ’ white canvas school bag I painted the iconic graphic from Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer the movie that ’ became the template for every subsequent surf film – the search for the perfect wave. Meanwhile my brother got on with the real business of ’ surfing in the Cape. His letters home and the stories he told me when he returned during vacations were of surf trips of the infamous ‘Peanut Butter Rock’ in Mossel ’ Bay of the time he surfed Super Tubes in Jeffrey’s Bay ’ when it was really working. Once reading a magazine ’ from his university residence I saw him described by ’ a fellow student as someone who believed that ‘time expanded in the tube’.


He first owned a Tich Paul board made in Cape Town ’ ’ and later a Skil. This was also made in Cape Town with ’ a wooden stringer down its centre and the shaper’s name – Marc Spowart – in pencil next to it. He sent us a photograph of this board – white with a fluorescent ribbon zig-zagging across it – with his reading glasses perched on its deck. I treasured this picture and pinned it up in my room between the photo of my buddy Justin ’ and one of another friend’s cousin Caroline who was disappointingly uninterested in me. Particularly as I grew older it felt like my year ’ hinged around our annual family holiday normally two ’ weeks spent at Ballito then a quiet seaside town an ’ hour north of Durban often sharing a beach cottage with ’ close friends. Here I was able to re-stoke my enthusiasm for surfing and skating although the possibility of ’ actually surfing remained distant. Days were spent swimming fishing and walking on the ’ beach. We would often watch the surfers at one of two places which we later learned were called ‘Surfer’s’ and ‘Bog’. By the end of the holiday my eyes would be ’ permanently bloodshot my shoulders dark and freckled ’ ’ and my peeling nose permanently dripping salt water. On those holidays we became familiar with a one-legged guy who would come to the beach. He would remove his prosthesis and wade out with his surfboard his good ’ foot in a flipper accompanied some way in by his dog. ’ The dog would return to the beach and guard the false leg while his master surfed on his knees. He had lost his leg we believed in a shark attack. When the ’ ’ surf was really pumping we would occasionally see Mike Burness a goofy-footer known for his powerful backhand ’


attack pulling off massive re-entries. ’ Later my father bought me a boogie board orange on ’ ’ top and blue underneath branded with the legend ‘Morey ’ Boogie’. This became my most treasured possession. Again and again I studied the paper insert which came with the board showing Jack ‘da Rippa’ Lindholm riding a huge ’ and stormy Pipeline. I read how Tom Morey had shaped the first boards from a closed-cell plastic foam with his wife’s iron in the early 1970s. There wasn’t much opportunity to use the board in Johannesburg although occasionally I would haul it out ’ and place it in the pool near the edge. A short run and ’ jump and I would plane for a split second before sinking ’ while the board shot out from under me. There was also the thwarted attempt my brother and I made to take our boards into the wave pool at an East Rand water park. Once when he was home for a university vacation we ’ loaded our boards up in his old yellow Passat and drove down to the coast where we camped for a few days. He was ’ able to convince my mother to let me bunk a day of school so we could stay longer. We moved house again in 1985. Skateboarding was slowly regaining popularity and I was overjoyed to find out that my new next-door neighbours were as into it as I was. They rode Alpha boards that they’d bought in Durban made ’ from thick plywood with gently upturned kicktails and soft fluorescent-coloured polyurethane wheels. ’ The boards we were beginning to glimpse in surf magazines were much wider and longer than the 1970s relics we skated. They were made of thin maple ply laminated into ’


steep kicktails and compound curves. Trucks were wider ’ wheels were narrower and made of harder compounds. Pools half-pipes and banks were the terrain of a new ’ generation of pros – Kevin Staab Mark Gonzales and ’ Christian Hosoi among them. My neighbours’ cousin from Durban Graeme was ’ ’ ’ according to them a hot surfer. Visits from him were ’ rare and much anticipated. Once he pitched up with his car boot full of plywood skateboard decks he’d made at his father’s factory. Some were wide some long one ’ ’ had footstraps made of garden hose. I chose a wide one with a pointed nose rounded tail and cutaways for the ’ wheels. I installed my cherished Super Shadow parts onto it. My first run down a local hill met with disaster when I hit a speed wobble probably because the wide ’ deck applied too much leverage on the trucks. I tried to step off the board but couldn’t keep pace. As I hit the road my feet whipped out from under me and I slid spectacularly into a curb skinning my shoulder chin ’ ’ and hands drawing the traffic to a halt. ’ We fervently watched any videos we could get hold of – amongst them the totally lame Thrashin’ and what would ’ become my favourites Wheels of Fire and its follow-up ’ ’ Streets on Fire. In the former the scene of Rob Roskopp ’ cruising down the gentle slope of a bike trail at UC Santa Cruz coolly popping Ollies Shove-its and endless ’ ’ wheelies provided inspiration for many a trip down the ’ paved path next to the main road in my neighbourhood. Over these years I spent a few holidays with my nextdoor neighbours at their beach house a short distance from Durban. We thrashed around in the shorebreak with our bodyboards (‘boogie board’ had become an uncool


term) on sunny days or took a bus to North Beach when the southwester blew clouding the skies and lining the ’ waves up neatly. In the afternoons we skated on the banked brick driveways of the complex where their house was situated. Ever eager for a distraction from my studies I made my ’ first laminated skateboard deck during my matric exams. I worked out that I could create a curve in a piece of wood by arranging thin wooden plies together and holding them in position while the glue set. I cut the ply into an approximation of a deck with rudimentary tools and glued the layers one by one holding them in place with ’ bricks our set of encyclopedias and all the clamps I ’ could lay my hands on. I finished the board with pink spray paint and sandpaper I fixed to the top with cold glue. On it I mounted my old faithful Super Shadow trucks. I took the board for its maiden voyage on the afternoon following my last exam. Clearly neither my craftsmanship nor the materials were up to the job and I managed to snap the board in an hour. Fortuitously I was already on my way home when a Highveld thunderstorm broke dropping hailstones ’ the size of golf balls only the second time I’d ’ experienced such a downpour. This coupled with a life ’ free of school stretching out before me sweetened the ’ disappointment of breaking my board. My parents had planned a beach holiday for the family during the end-of-year break which followed. My sister’s boyfriend Jake from Cape Town would join us. As my ’ ’ mother was slightly ill all of us kids left first my ’ ’ brother’s and Jake’s surfboards held onto the car roof with a soft rack my bodyboard in the boot. Each morning ’


we woke early and checked for waves occasionally ’ hitting the water at sunrise. My parents kept delaying their departure as my mother ’ was still unwell. Eventually as she had to undergo some ’ tests the following week they decided not to come at ’ all. I was awaiting my matric results which weren’t ’ expected to be great and I didn’t really have too much ’ of an idea what I would be doing in the coming year. I guess the stress of all this the pressure from my ’ family and maybe some of the post-exams partying added up and I fell ill too. A throat infection soon spread ’ and I broke out in several large abscesses. This didn’t keep me out the water and I used to wake early and swallow painkillers so my throat could handle breakfast. There was some great surf particularly on the last day ’ when my brother woke me up whispering hoarsely ‘Get ’ ’ up it’s working’. Outside the swells were perfectly ’ lined up maybe five or six feet high peeling off the ’ ’ point at Surfer’s. A month later our mother would be dead her nagging ’ illness turning out to be cancer of the lungs. She lasted until the day before I was to leave for university in Pietermaritzburg when she died during the ’ night while I slept two rooms away.


Š 2009 Paul Edmunds Published by Michael Stevenson


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