Suggested listening while reading this story:
"Surfin' Bird" The Trashmen
"Miserlou" Dick Dale and his Del-Tones
"Surfin' U.S.A." The Beach Boys
"Surf City" Jan & Dean
"Wipeout" The Surfaris
"Pipeline" The Chantays
"Penetration" The Pyramids
"California Girls" The Beach Boys
"Surf Rider" The Lively Ones
May, 1965, St. Cloud, Minnesota
Before both his feet had stepped out of the lens of light and onto the gray pavement, the old man was looking around, giddy with excitement. Dumpster? Check. Hid him from view of the street. Parking lot of Blyden's Hardware? Check. Blue Schwinn chained by the In Door? Check, check. Cars? Cadillac, with fins like a single-stage rocketship. Ford Galaxie, just like Andy Griffith's. OK. OK. Time? 2:17, according to the bank across the way. Fine, fine.
The lens of light, which had the complexion of a pearlized pickguard, contracted in size from a porthole to a football to a clamshell to a pinpoint. Then it vanished with a playful wink.
Resetting his watch, the man mumbled into his chest, "I'm 'in situ' now." As he hustled into the little hardware store, he said, "Is the time marked? Good."
A cord ran from the front door to a toy beluga whale who opened his mouthed and greeted every customer: "Welcome to Blyden's!" The old man yanked the door so hard that the whale jerked from its stand.
Now the man moved quickly past the American flags, past the power drills, past the cold chisels--- Wait. Back. There. Yes. Garden hoses, Aisle Five. Stop. He rechecked his watch.
"Are you finding everything you need?"
The man spun on a heel and his eyes embraced those of a seventeen-year-old clerk, who looked pale and nervous. In that boy's eyes, the old man perceived larval dreams of going places beyond Minnesota, dreams of building things more sophisticated than a talking whale. The boy had a furnace for a mind, stoked with the pages of "Analog" and "Popular Mechanics".
"Can I help you?" the clerk asked.
Realizing that he had been staring and smiling, the old man shot his eyes down toward the garden hoses. He shook his head.
As the boy left, he glanced back and caught the old man staring at him again. The boy silently mouthed the word, "Pervert."
The man was in position now. He checked his watch again. Early! Still early! Restlessly he circled and recircled the store, always returning to the hoses. Idly he paused to squeeze a pistol-grip spray nozzle.
All the while, he spied on the boy.
Customers came in, greeted by the whale, and the boy helped them find wood rasps and ring terminals and light bulbs. Between sales, the boy would slink away to the paint section at the back of the store. He didn't read there or use the phone, but simply sat quietly. Occasionally his eyes would dart out toward Mr. Blyden at the checkout counter.
Mr. Blyden was a large man, but not imposing. He still retained his crew cut from his days at Iwo. The boy found him easy to talk to, for a grown-up. He even called the boy by his preferred nickname, Steamer, a name he'd picked up from the 'ride the Wild Surf" movie.
Still, there were some things difficult to tell even Mr. Blyden. Taking a few deep breaths, Steamer strode off toward the checkout counter. On his way, he knocked some wood dowels onto the floor and scrambled to replace them.
When the old man heard the dowels clatter, he moved quickly back to Aisle Five. From there, he could eavesdrop unseen.
"Mr. Blyden, c-can I talk to you about this summer?" Steamer asked.
"You got a raise two months ago. You're already overextended?"
"Oh no, Mr. Blyden!" Steamer said.
After a long pause, Steamer said, "You know I've worked here for the last two summers..."
Mr. Blyden said, "You're about to tell me you're not going to be here this summer..."
"How did you know?" Steamer asked.
"...and you found a better job."
"Oh no! I would never work anywhere but here!"
Unseen and without uttering a word, the man in Aisle Five made a fist to urge the boy on.
"The truth is, Mr. B-Blyden, is, is that I wanna go to California."
"California?" Mr. Blyden said. 'don't let those fantasies of pretty girls and palm trees fool you..."
"Oh, no. That's not why I'm going," Steamer said. "I want to learn to surf and play surf guitar."
"Well, you see, Mr. Blyden, there's this band called the Trashmen. They do 'surfin' Bird." You know that song?" After an awkward pause, Steamer continued: "Anyway, um, they're from near the Twin Cities and they, and they all went to California to learn to surf and play surf guitar. Their song even made the Top Ten."
"And you want to do the same? By yourself?"
"Well, no, Mr. Blyden, I don't know anyone here that's in a band. Actually, I do. But they aren't very good. I figure there's got to be lots of..." Steamer trailed off. Mr. Blyden was silent.
The old man leaned in to listen.
"Steamer," Mr. Blyden said with a sigh. "I'm disappointed in you."
"I see you reading those science magazines, and I know you're bright. You're the best clerk I've ever had. Why don't you go to a university? Make something of yourself!"
"Oh no, Mr. Blyden! You think just 'cause I'm going to California I'm turning my back on science and all that. But I'm not. It's like... You see..." Steamer paused to collect himself. Then he said slowly and with more self-assurance, "science and technology are what make the whole surfing scene possible. Like surfboards! A couple years ago all they had were these big heavy boards made from redwood. Hard to control. But now they make 'em from polyurethane coated with fiberglass, so they're lighter and easy to control, and now anyone can surf!"
"Steamer, when I was..." Mr. Blyden started to say.
"And surf music? Couldn't exist without new technology."
"You mean, like the Beach Boys?"
"I guess they're "kinda" surf music, Mr. Blyden," Steamer said. "But they only sing about surfing. I mean, the real surf tunes are instrumentals. They recreate the physical sensation of surfing in the music."
"Steamer..." Mr. Blyden tried to speak, but Steamer wouldn't let him.
"Mr. Blyden, you gotta understand. Surf music, it all depends on new equipment. Like Dick Dale, king of the surf guitar! The wet sound he gets, it's all from new technology like Fender reverb and Lansing speakers with rubberized coatings and heavy winding and interference and phasing patterns and..."
"That's enough, Steamer! I get your point. Now you listen to me. When I got back from the war, I had opportunities that the guys we left behind didn't. I could have gone to college. I should have. Now it's too late for me. But not for you. Don't waste your time on this nonsense."
"It's not nonsense!" Steamer protested.
"Steamer, tell you what. Take the summer off. Surf, play music, do whatever you need to do. Then come back in the fall, and I'll give you another raise. I'll make you my assistant manager. I'll even help you get into a good school. How about that?"
Steamer didn't have to think about the offer. Without a pause, he said, "If you haven't lived your life the way that you really wanted to, how can you give advice to me? I've got big dreams, bigger than this crummy little hardware store. And California is my first step in making them come true!" With that, Steamer turned from the checkout counter and marched into the aisle, where he nearly collided with the old man, who smiled and stared.
He was 119 years old and very tired. It had been a good life and productive.
After he finished his degrees in civil and mechanical engineering, he had been offered an assistantship with the chief field engineer for the Commodore Barry Bridge, which would span the Delaware River. When completed, it would be longest cantilever bridge in the United States. Despite the prestige, he turned the job down. Instead, he signed on with a company building machines that bore tunnels "under" rivers. He thought that that job would bring him a little closer to his dream.
Over the years he mastered all aspects of Greathead-type boring machines, especially the laser guidance systems. In Hong Kong he built new subway and passenger car tunnels to Kowloon. He was sent to Japan as a consultant on the bullet train projects. Most of the first half of the twenty-first century he spent assisting China in her massive infrastructure build-up. He had accomplished more than most people during their lives, but over the years he slowly realized that he was no closer to realizing his dream than when he had started.
He dreamed of building underwater cities. A political and ecological utopia, Amurricans and Russkies, brown kelp and sea cucumbers, all living together in harmony under a sea of green. This was his secret ambition, but it remained undefined because he was too easily distracted.
For ninety-two years, he had been married to Iselde. They met in Hong Kong. She was the daughter of a tent-making missionary teaching English on the mainland. They went through passionate cycles of harmony and discord. She laser-etched lovenotes on bananas and left them in his drafting tool drawer; he bought BioLux stargazer lilies and dressed as a delivery boy to bring them to her at work. But they also had furious arguments about... nothing important.
The last argument was about driving. She was sick of the hired Chinese groundcar drivers (especially the one perpetually clearing his throat and spitting on the floor), and insisted on driving herself. He argued that her eyesight wasn't that good anymore, even with virtuRama vision enhancers. It went on for days. She drove. One overcast day in Tianjin, Iselde stopped at a newly installed traffic light, but the car behind her didn't. The prox alarms sounded and she saw the car coming, not that it helped. It wasn't her fault, not that it mattered. Now she was gone. And the last time they had been together, they had been arguing.
For months he experienced a different intense emotion every day. Some days he was immobilized by grief, his arms and ribs as heavy as rebar, his lungs feeling like they were filled with hardening cement. Hours would slip by, and he would go to bed unable to remember what he had done all day. Other days he would recall arguments when he had been right but unable to convince her of that fact. He would fill with rage at his dead wife. The next day, regret and shame. Why hadn't he just given in? Or said he was sorry more often?
After two years of struggle, he switched his monitor off for the last time and handed his plans for laser guidance systems to a younger associate. Iselde was gone, and he was very tired. His body was strong, his spinal column having recently been regirded with jointed ossiFlex and his Millipore renal filters upgraded.
But he was very tired.
It was his son Kenji who first suggested that the Golden Dividend was his best option.
California dreamin'! Land of sunshine, fast times, surfin' curls, big blonde girls! Suburbia and palm trees as far as the eye can see! The nearest faraway place, land-o-opportunity. It never rains here. In a week or two they'll make you a star. Your car will last forever. Come on, everyone's going! The Giants and the Dodgers, Lucy and Ricky! California, here we come!
Curiously, California was also the place where odd men smiled and stared at Steamer. They were helpful, though. One helped him trade in his Plymouth for a Woody, just like the one on every other surf music album cover. Another sold him a surfboard, just like the one used by Mike Doyle, winner of the "64 and "65 'surfer" magazine polls. Yet another sold him a '58 Fender Stratocaster, painted gold metalflake, just like the one played by Dick Dale.
California, of course, was not just the land of odd men. Ah! Maybe the Beach Boys were right, and California girls were the cutest in the world. It was so easy for Steamer to get distracted.
First the surfing, then the music. (The order was important, for how could his music recreate the physical sensation of surfing if he'd never surfed?)
Then... With his Mike Doyle surfboard, he slowly learned the purpose for each of the three zones of a board: the front for noseriding, the middle for general strategic positioning, the back for S-turns and radical cutbacks. He learned trimming, stalling and drop-knees. The words, at least. The first surfing term he truly understood was 'the Impact Zone." This was the frothy, shallow place where the waves broke and beginners spent most of their time. Yes, the Impact Zone became very familiar.
As he grew more confident, the song "Wipeout" by the Surfaris played in Steamer's head as he surfed. The song had a simple structure: an intro with a weird sound effect like celery breaking, an other-worldly laugh, and then two alternating parts: that famous drum solo punctuated by guitar chords every measure, and the repeating up-and-down guitar riff. Back in Minnesota, he thought that that song was just a standard rave-up party romp. Now that he was in California, he understood. The drum solo was the sound of waves beating the bottom of his board! The sound of the heart booming in his chest! The guitar chords every measure were the splashing of other surfers falling into the water on either side of him. The up-and-down guitar riff was the triumphant surfer's victory chant! Nyah-nyah-nyah nyah-nyah nyah-nyah nyah nyah, nyah-nyah nyah-nyah nyah nyah nyah!
As he shifted, a cat on a hot foam board, he became distracted by a vision. His guitar floated in the air, glittering and alluring, motionless above the rocking crests. "Is this a '58 gold metalflake Stratocaster which I see before me?" At that moment, Steamer misread the wave, drank a mouthful of water, and washed up in the impact zone.
Now he understood the sound effect intro to "Wipeout." It was the sound of boards breaking. And yes, people were laughing.
First the surfing, then the surf guitar.
As Steamer tuned in every morning to surf reports on KWFB in LA, finding the tastiest waves at Malibu or Rincon or La Jolla, an old man sat alone on a beach blanket. He watched, tensing up as Steamer paddled out to the lineup, cringing as Steamer wiped out, resisting the urge to shout out instructions.
Then he cheered as Steamer learned to master the cranking waves, gingerly edging his toes over the front of the board, and hanging five for the first time.
The man was signaled. Did he wanted this time marked? "No, not yet," the old man mumbled into his chest.
People like the past, especially old people. Snapshots, scrapbooks, mementos, diaries. Nostalgia for shows from back when TV was still 2D, still non-odo, still mono, or still B&W. The brochures, holomercials and blipverts described the Golden Dividend as more than an alternative to nursing homes or shuffleboard with whining Shriners. More than a release for those tired of struggling or an escape for those trapped in time-ravaged bodies. It was reward for a life well spent, a last parting gift from your family.
As he read the brochure his son Kenji had given him, he remembered that critics called the Golden Dividend a regurgitation of the past. If you want a picture of the future, they said, imagine a cow rechewing the same cud--- forever.
He found the brochure specious and simplistic. It compared time to a tape recording. Not a mention of time paradoxes, parallel or infinitely branched timelines, and certainly not Kingsbury's entropy theorem. Had he been younger and more analytical, he would have researched the details of quantum mechanics and general relativity pertinent to the "closed time-like curve" of the Golden Dividend. Sigh. He wasn't young or analytical anymore. He read on.
A 'translation" process, the brochure explained, catapulted the retiree's spirit to any chosen point in the past. The summer at Philmont. The party when we put cigarette ash in other people's drinks. The week in the Caribbean, spent hitching rides on garbage scows. The years when we in love. Start and stop times were 'marked", and the period in between was made into something compared to an old-style tape loop, the retiree experiencing the same happy time over and over.
The Golden Dividend wasn't designed to cheat death or grant immortality. Before translation, the retiree's life expectancy was calculated. When the marked segment of time had been replayed the designated number of times, the retiree's spirit was simply 'released" to the after life.
No, it wasn't a way to cheat death, though critics contended that it cheated life.
In the Golden Dividend process, the retiree was an observer, taking the forms of various minor characters throughout the time marked. He might be the man under the question mark at the info desk, the mechanic who fixes your flat tire, or the customer in the hardware store.
How curious that so many of the critical moments of our lives occur in public. We discuss our hopes and fears, break up with former best friends, resolve the intricacies of our faith--- all while walking through malls, sitting in crowded restaurants, standing in line, surrounded by mumbling strangers whom we assume can't hear or don't care.
Steamer never realized that so many of the people he met briefly were the same man, himself, revisiting the past.
The bassist, Steamer, and the sax player each crouched down on a surfboard bolted to the stage. Steamer's Stratocaster hung down around his knees, the guitar's neck parallel to his surfboard.
As the drummer pounded out the beat for "Wipeout," Steamer dropped a knee and struck a chord and, simultaneously, the bassist pretended to fall off his board into make-believe water. Exactly one measure later, Steamer struck another chord and the saxophonist fell down, too.
The audience loved it, especially the old man, who stood watching and smiling proudly.
Bold black letters on the bass drum spelled out the band's name: The Impact Zones.
As the band slid into the groove of the Chantays' "Pipeline," the man closed his eyes and imagined the famous tube curl on the north shore of Oahu. He had never been there, had never experienced the green cathedral of water shimmering around him, but his friends had described it and he had seen it in surfing flicks. With echo and reverb, Steamer's guitar sounded wet, although the drums and piano weren't rigged with effects. The man listening, imagining that his head was half-submerged, the sound of the back-up band members coming to him through the air, but the guitar slithering into his ear through the water.
The moment was golden; the man had almost forgotten how wonderful SoCal had been.
The old man was again signaled and again asked if he wanted this time marked.
"No, he said into his chest, almost shouting over the noise of the crowd. "There is still more I want to see."
Now that he had mastered surfing and surf guitar, Steamer looked out on the crowd of bushy, bushy blonde hair-dos and knew he was ready for the next step.
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