The Short, Happy Life of Harold T. Sweeney: A Surf Story
The Beachside Resident - December 2009
For all the surfing Harold T. Sweeney did in his life, he probably should have been happier. It was just that he had too many problems on dry land to be very happy for any stretch of time.
His wife died giving birth to their second son, Melvin, which was about as serious a problem as you could run into, when you think about it. Her death hung like a sick, black cloud over Harold’s life for many years. But Harold was resilient; he watched for glimpses of sunlight through the darkness, and he did his best to be a good father to his boys.
They lived in Orlando, which was, of course, a problem. Orlando is a lovely city to visit, for a day or two. Ten years can positively wear on a man’s soul. After his wife died, Harold went upside-down on his mortgage, and so he couldn't justify selling his house and moving away. So he stayed. The city was especially hard on his sons, who, like their father, were surfers. They loathed the hour-long drive to the beach across the dull, uninspiring marshlands.
Harold’s job allowed him the luxury of being able to pack up and head off to the beach with the boys at least three times a week, on whichever day suited him best. As soon as they would turn onto I-4, though, the fighting would begin, and it wouldn’t stop until they arrived at the beach… or until one of the boys was unconscious. Harold’s sons did not get along — another problem.
Harold had arthritis in his knees (another problem) and so he became a “sweeper” — that is, a stand-up paddleboarder. Being a sweeper was not one of Harold’s problems, as he was very good at it, he surfed mostly uncrowded breaks, and thus he avoided the scorn of the masses.
Harold’s oldest son, Nick, was a longboarder. Like most teenagers, Nick both despised and exalted his father. He would silently curse Harold every time he dropped into the unbreaking face of a set wave before Nick had the chance to paddle in.
“Go ahead!” Harold would call out to his son. “Take it!”
Not wanting to drop in, Nick would let the wave pass him by.
One day, on the van ride home, Nick made a sullen remark which cut Harold to the quick. He said, “You’re just accommodating for your little pecker and thinning hair with that long-ass board.”
Melvin, the shortboarder of the family, laughed out loud, and he repeated Nick’s line ad nauseam until he earned himself a punch in the jaw.
Nick was too rough with Melvin. Once, after Melvin had dropped in on Nick in the shorepound (the inside was barreling, and when Nick ditched his board, its nose snapped off), Nick dragged Melvin to the beach, threw him down on the hard-packed sand, and fractured his right arm.
For many years, Nick insisted that his brother refer to him only as “Smooth,” “Your Smoothness,” or, “Your Royal Longboard Highness.” Any deviation from these titles would earn Melvin a thrashing. After which, Nick would sit on top of his brother’s head and munch on potato chips, repeating the words, “Gnar, gnar, potato chip head,” over and over again.
One day, after dinner, when Melvin had finally got up enough “sack,” he took off his shirt, stood on the couch, pulled out an eyedropper, and put on a show of tilting his head back and putting the drops into his eyes.
“What the hell are you doing?” Nick said. “You been smoking weed or what?”
“Nope, not for me, Smooth. Just call me 'The Eyedropper'."
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, you’ll see, your Smoothieness. We’re going surfing tomorrow, right Dad? The 120 buoy’s pinging.”
“Dawn patrol,” Harold said from his chair in the corner. He turned the page in his book. He had learned to ignore the boys’ constant squabbling; it was just their way of showing their love for their dead mother, he figured.
The next day, on Nick’s very first wave, Melvin intentionally dropped in and blindsided his brother. When they surfaced from the wipeout, Nick paddled over to Melvin and took a few swings at his head. Melvin deflected them and swam away. Nick was left to swim in to the beach for his board. On Nick’s next wave, Melvin dropped in again. This time Nick kicked his board at Melvin’s head and missed by inches. Melvin ducked low into a steep face, carved up to the top, sent spray high over the lip, then finished out the ride. Harold watched the display from the outside, and was happy for his youngest son, who had finally stood up to his older brother.
Eventually, both of Harold’s boys went off to college. Life turned dull for him, played out in shades of gray. One lonely, introspective November evening, Harold stayed out too long in the frigid water and caught a cold which weakened his immune system. A few days later, he contracted the H1N1 virus while waiting in line at the Publix deli.
Sweating, delirious, and certain he was on his deathbed, Harold vowed that if he could miraculously pull out of this illness he would follow his childhood dream and move to California.
Harold did recover, and in a matter of weeks he packed up his things and relocated to Santa Cruz. The icy waters of the Pacific actually helped his knees, and he found himself able to spend full days out in the glorious California seascape, surfing long, glassy point breaks. Eventually, Harold became so proficient on his stand-up paddleboard that he began to ride in jeans and a T-shirt in the summer. In the winter months, he decked himself out in a fleece, scarf, gloves, wool hat, and a pair of rubber galoshes.
Harold entered his fifties a strange, new person — a sort of wild-eyed wizard. Santa Cruz was a renaissance period for him, and it was not long before he met a fresh, beautiful hippie girl named Penelope, who became infatuated with this free-spirited paddleboarder.
Harold fell in love again, for the second and last time in his life.
Harold and Penelope rented a well-kept cottage by the beach where, for two years, they lived life as if each day were a new, dazzling dream. When Melvin came to visit, he was shocked at the change in his father, and absolutely floored by Penelope’s beauty. He tried to explain the situation to Nick over the phone. Nick just laughed and said, “Dad’s always been a strange bird.”
One summer day, while Harold T. Sweeney was cruising down a steep face at Half-Moon Bay, a great white shark leaped from the wave and gobbled him up, plucking the man clean off the paddleboard. As the beast re-entered the frothing sea on the other side, Harold’s 11-foot board completed its ride, cruising through section after pitching section until it washed up on the beach.
Harold didn’t know it, but Penelope was pregnant with his third son — Harold, Jr.
Like his father, Harold, Jr. would be burdened by problems. For one thing, he would never meet his father. Then, at ten years old, he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. In time, though, Harold, Jr. would come to be a four-time world champion boogie boarder.