Charlie’s Last Ride

by Lisa Martinovic

Surfers bearing Charlie Grimm's ashes out to sea, from left: John Kaplanis, Drew Barrington, Michael Martinovich, Dave Dyc and Joe Flahaven. Photo by Susan Reesink Black

Surfers bearing Charlie Grimm's ashes out to sea, from left: John Kaplanis, Drew Barrington, Michael Martinovich, Dave Dyc, and Joe Flahaven. Photo by Susan Reesink Black

 

An enduring presence and local legend at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, Charlie Grimm would have appreciated this day in his honor: a balmy winter’s morning after nearly a week of rain.  The surf was small, but perfect, with a gentle offshore breeze pulling spray off the lip of each wave as it peaked.  Charlie’s friends and relatives began to gather mid-morning, just south of the Cliff House, on the sidewalk abutting Kelly’s Cove.  The crowd would swell to more than a hundred before the event was over.  Two fire trucks parked along the adjacent stretch of Great Highway bore witness to Charlie’s 30 years of service as a San Francisco firefighter.  Members of the SFFD were on hand to send off one of their partners.  They joined together with—and in some cases were among—the men and women who surfed and beach-partied with Charlie, one of the daring few who pioneered the Northern California surf scene in the 1950’s.

I knew Charlie as the father of one of my best friends.  It seemed to me as if half my life was spent at beaches up and down the California coast with my family and hers.   Rolling in tarry sand and body-surfing at Kelly’s, the hypnotic beat of conga drummers in summer, topless women dancing around late-night bonfires.  All these memories churned me like kelp in storm surf as I surveyed the group of people who’d come to pay tribute to this mighty bull of a man who personified the surf-warrior for so many years.  Charlie brought the same passionate abandon to surfing as he did to all his appetites—from carousing in Chinatown to skin-diving for abalone. And nothing stood in the way of his passions.  Not even the frigid waters of winter, for his was the era before wetsuits.  If you’ve ever immersed yourself in the unforgiving Pacific at this latitude you can imagine what level of desire it took to punch through wave after wave in the quest for the perfect ride with nothing between you and the icy ocean but thin cotton trunks.

But on this morning all the surfers at Kelly’s Cove wore full-body wetsuits.  Despite the nod to modernity, their presence completed the perfect backdrop for Charlie’s memorial and, at 10 o’clock, those of us assembled at the wall began migrating onto the beach, converging at the shoreline.  We watched in silence as five surfers paddled out to sea, one with Charlie’s ashes in a plastic bag, strapped to his back.  Two were sons of Charlie’s contemporaries, men in their early forties who Charlie had known since they were first kicking from inside the bellies of bikini-clad surfer-gals.   Of the remaining three surfers, two have been immersed in this intimate communion with the sea for nearly half a century.  And so the multigenerational procession pushed out past the breakers and formed a circle, sitting upright on old-fashioned longboards.  Each said a few words, and together they placed a Hawaiian lei between them and poured Charlie’s powder-gray ashes through the ring of brightly colored flowers.  From the beach all eyes were fixed on the culmination of this Hawaiian funeral rite: five surfers, ten hands, slapping the water in unison as mortal ash surrendered to an endless sea. Floating calmly now between the shore and Seal Rock, one of the old timers gave the final benediction:  “Here’s your last ride, Charlie.” And then it was over.

The men returned to the beach where slips of paper on which we’d all written farewells were collected and ritually burned in a large brass bowl.  These ashes were swept up by the wind, blown north across the sands where Charlie waxed his boards and watched the sets come in.  We formed a circle and told Charlie stories while gazing at one another, dumbstruck –seeing in each other’s faces what the capricious passage of time had made of us all. 

Charlie was 69 years old when he died of a brain tumor. In life and in our memories, he was a character in the grand old tradition.  Everything about him was as loud and colorful as the Hawaiian print shirts he wore year round—whether or not the season or occasion warranted it. He made an indelible impression on so many lives, and we loved him for it.  Few others could inspire such a generous turnout.  As it was, many of these old time friends had not spoken in ten, twenty, thirty years.  Not by conscious choice, but rather by default, as the winds and tides of life scattered us at their whim.  I think we all realized that, for many of us here, this would be the last time we’d even see each other alive.

Towards the end of the ceremony, one of the firemen came to the center of the gathering with an old-fashioned bell, the signaling device used by firefighters before the age of computers.  He tapped it five times three—the code that told of something being put out of service, permanently. The ringing tones hung in the air for a moment and then they too drifted off in a current to join the ashes, stories and tears.  Offshore, a gray whale breached and spouted, submerged and breached again. The whale continued south, but here at Kelly’s Cove, Charlie Grimm will ride the waves forever.

 

This remembrance ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 11, 2000.

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