November reminds me of living back east. The brightly colored trees would drop their brilliant leaves and cover the cool sidewalks and browning lawns. We would actually be happy to rake the yard, because we knew as soon as we finished raking a huge pile, we would drop the rakes, take about one hundred steps backwards and run as fast as we could to jump into the freshly piled leaves. We would wait to see who was the last person to pop their head up from the pile, and then we would start the whole process all over again. On occasion, it would take all afternoon. We would arrive home, our flannel shirts and pants embedded with leaves, twigs, and an occasional bird’s nest. I can shut my eyes and smell the musky, damp yet fresh aroma of all those differently scented leaves.
Our kids here at the beach got a watered down version of fall, often going from glorious warm October days with mild water temps and sunset surf sessions, to rainy November, with intermittent fog and cold nights. So we would “go” to fall and travel to Mt. San Jacinto or Arrowhead to play in the chilly and damp leaves before the early snow arrived. But it was not the same. I am happy that Jimmy had a chance to experience fall when we lived in Maryland, before moving to Manhattan Beach. We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac on a tree lined street. Maples, Birch, Oak and dozens of other species loomed over our house from the woods in back that bordered a small stream. The sidewalks were lined with evenly planted trees, according to our “planned community” by-laws. But even a planned community couldn’t contain a gang of kids, determined to make the biggest leaf pile in the world and then level it in a matter of seconds. Jimmy loved those leaf fights and the game of staying under the pile the longest. The picture above of Jimmy in a flannel shirt always reminds me that as much as he was a child of the beach, he loved the family traditions of fall leaf fights. It’s those little things that creep into my mind whenever I sit down to share with you.
Speaking of sharing, we had our last Ocean Therapy session of the year at Camp Pendleton with our amazing band of Wounded Warriors. They have truly formed a surf tribe, a subset of their Wounded, Ill and Injured status at the Battalion. Every group of young men and women we have had the privilege of working with has been unique and distinct, with a different vibe and learning curve. This season has seen a severely injured and depressed participant go from sitting on a beach chair, hundreds of feet away from the water and swearing he would not put a foot in the ocean, to standing up on the outside, arms raised in a V and a smile of joy, as he rode his last wave of the session to the shore! Not only did he put his foot in the water, he earned some cred from the beach crew as he came out the ocean with a good size cut on said foot, (perhaps a sting ray or a sharp shell) but all he could do was laugh and say it was part of one of the best days of his life. And then there was another participant, who thought she would never be able to stand up, but kept trying and trying. Each session, with the help of some fantastic surf instructors, she gained more and more confidence. She began to choose her own waves and took the board out herself. Everyone cheered as she rode her last wave in and fell to her knees in joy and exhaustion from being in the water for the whole session! Ahhhh, that’s why we do what we do…to witness the stoke that Jimmy always had at Every. Single. Session. At the ending talking circle, the Marines told us that even though they had never met Jimmy, they felt his spirit on every wave. Me too.
And last, but not least, since it is Veterans Day on November 11, I must share a Veteran story with you. On our last session with the Vets from Greater Los Angeles Veterans Hospital, we met “Sonny ” He was a gregarious man, who through a series of life circumstances had ended up at living at the “Dom” (group home for those homeless vets who participate in a live-in program). He hadn’t been to the beach in years and was more excited about trying to surf than any of the younger vets. After a wonderful and exhilarating session, where this vet had been able to stand up a few times, before becoming winded and needing to rest, we all gathered to break bread (eat El Gringo for lunch) and tell story about the day went. When it was “Sonny’s ” turn, he told us that this was one of the best days of his life and explained why. A few months prior to coming to the GLAVA program, he had decided to end his life. Addiction, homelessness and lack of connection had completely depleted his resources. He found himself standing on the rails of a freeway overpass, and took a step off to end his pain. Imagine his surprise, when he fell into a truck, transporting mattresses and landed safely, much to the surprise of the driver and passenger of the truck! He knew he had been saved for something special, and indeed…on that Ocean Therapy Day in El Porto, he found it. Surfing could be a key to a new life. Before he left, he asked Pam if he could come back and volunteer with JMMF, even if he wasn’t a great surfer…..yet!
You just don’t know how a small act can change the course of your life. We will keep our fingers crossed for “Sonny,” and all our vets, Marines, at-promise youth, and first responders who have surfed with us this year and in the past. We thank them for their service, honor their memories, and look forward to helping so many more people in the coming years. Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for your continued support as we close out this 17th year since Jimmy left us with the legacy of JMMF.