New Jersey. Photo: DJ Struntz
“Does anybody have a parent who works in New York?” It seemed like a fair question. The city was only about 30 miles away [as the crow flies], and accessible via bus, train, ferry or, if you were some sort of exec with a hog that hung below the kneecap with ease, a few toll roads, a bridge and a Lexus. So the question itself felt fairly normal. The circumstance, however, was not so much. The inquiring voice belonged to a guidance councilor at my elementary school. She was the kind of woman who wore a bad sweater and a big smile, who knew of an astounding cheesecake recipe, who’s satisfied demeanor made you believe in happiness, who Mother’s Day might have actually been created for. She was terrific. But there she was, asking a room full of 11-year-olds that question with tear-stained cheeks and eyes drowning in genuine terror. A few of my classmates raised their hands, stood up and left the room. The rest of us stayed seated and confused.
An announcement came through the loudspeaker shortly thereafter.
“A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. Little is known about it right now. Some of your parents may be coming to pick you up and you may be dismissed early.”
At age 11, you think that it’s a good idea to throw pizza slices at moving cars. At age 11, you still value Halloween for the sake of candy. At age 11, you cannot comprehend that announcement. I remember having visions of a banner plane hitting a tower and thinking, wow, poor pilot while wondering what all the fuss was about. Then one of those bulky TVs strapped onto a plastic cart came wheeling into our classroom and we turned on the news, and the severity of the situation came wheeling in with it. We watched the second plane hit and the teacher started crying.
All of the students were picked up by their parents. Myself included.
The outside world was a strange place that day. The weather was beautiful — sunny, brisk, very autumnal — and everybody hung outside of their houses in a state of zombie-like hysteria. You could see the smoke very clearly from my neighborhood. Adults didn’t even try to explain anything; they knew they couldn’t. They were busy worrying about their friend or uncle or mother or son in the City and everybody just sort of merged together on porches and lawns in a collective haze of fear and confusion. Air Force jets circled up and down the coast, roaring like watchdogs while diligently waiting on the slim chance of a full-scale invasion. They provided a faint feeling of a security and at the same time terrified us all because somebody, somewhere thought that such an attack was a legitimate possibility. Nobody knew what the fuck was happening.
Then my dad got home from work. And he took me surfing. Mostly because we didn’t know what else to do.
Hurricane Erin was sending the East Coast a healthy dose of swell and an offshore wind made the waves ignorantly perfect, like an oblivious toddler laughing and spinning and playfully tugging at black fabric in the middle of a funeral procession. The whole world was crying but here, in the ocean, was this mindless sanctuary. I remember dodging sets as if my life depended on it and catching only one or two waves because I was 11 and a gigantic pussy. Clitoral tendencies aside, I remember the stillness, the calm, and the escape that surfing provided.
I learned a lot from that day. I learned that sometimes things happen that defy logic and reason. I learned about how people band together in the face of tragedy. I learned that horrible events can summon the absolute best in us, how a perfectly healthy and happy person will gamble with their life and sometimes lose in the name of helping others. And on a personal level, I learned how to cope.
I look back on what happened fourteen years later and those are the things that I remember — the resounding benevolence of human nature, and how surfing made me feel. I’ll never forget 9/11 and I’ll never forget the things it taught me. Since then, I’ve used surfing to cope with death, with breakups, with bad days, with bad anything. And it has always worked. There ain’t a drug on the pharmaceutical market that can claim a 100% success ratio, especially not in the psychiatric field. But surfing can. And it’s always there, waiting, three fins, a stub of wax and whatever the ocean feels like cooking that day.
More than John John’s new edit, more than the World Title, more than Pipe and Maverick’s and Teahupo’o combined and multiplied by Jaws (all of which both this publication and I adore), that’s what surfing is about.
I’d like to take a moment to think about the first responders who said fuck you to terrorism, and charged into smoke and flames and collapsing buildings to save lives. And a moment to think about all the families who lost a loved one that day. And a moment to be grateful for what surfing has offered us all. —Brendan Buckley