Surf Punk
Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina
December 4, 2001

3am is a lonely time when you’re on the road. The loneliness is mitigated somewhat when you find yourself in a big old ocean front suite for less than it usually costs to get a tired room in a tired old travel lodge right on the interstate. One of those places where you can feel the big trucks driving through your head all night. Not tonight, baby. Tonight it’s plush accommodations with the steady rhythm of the surf singing me to sleep. Except that I can’t sleep. I think I miss the trucks.

Kill Devil Hills is one of the many little towns dotting the Outer Banks islands of North Carolina. Driving on the main drag through town it looks like any other highway town with the requisite strip malls and shiny new self service gas stations and accompanying mini-marts. But that’s on the main drag. Pop over one block east, closer to the open ocean and you discover salt faded and wind weathered stores and tiny locally owned restaurants. Most of them are closed for the winter. Kill Devil Hills depends on summer visitors to nearby Roanoke and Kitty Hawk for its economic existence. By late October the temperature drops, the fog rolls in, and the winter mist takes up residence until March.

That’s how one gets a cheap suite right on the beach for $35.

I have been hearing occasional bursts of laughter from somewhere outside since midnight. It seems slightly out of place given the generally barren nature of this stretch of beachfront. I amble out to my balcony to see if I can find the source. Below and to my left, on the wooden walkway that takes you from the road up and over the imposing line of sand dunes sheltering the island from the ocean are three young men, drinking beer, laughing, hanging out. I think they are talking rather loudly based on the animated way in which they move and laugh but the sound is carried away by the wind.

Having nothing better to do I figure I might as well toss on some shoes and mosey down to see what’s afoot.

They are making so much noise, and far enough into a case of Bud, that they don’t notice my approach. They have found a good spot. From above I had wondered how they could stay out in the cold and wind for so long. Upon stepping up the walkway I saw they were at a spot nestled snug against the dune such that the wind coming off the ocean was whipping off the top of the dune above their heads. It never really hit them at all. It felt 15 degrees warmer where they were standing than it did 20 feet in any direction.

Finally noticing that I was strolling their way they rapidly shifted from body language that broadcast “I don’t give a damn” to body language that broadcast “I don’t give a damn AND I can kick your ass”. Which they could. I never have a posse around when I need one..

It is easy enough to defuse such situations. The best option is to have a bottle of something, or a six pack of something exotic. Next, but riskier both in terms of acceptance and legal consequences is a controlled substance of some sort, preferably a big old hunk of de ganja (which seems to have an almost universal acceptance). I I don’t do drugs so that is not an option. don’t drink but could easily enough go buy a six pack or a bottle of something and invite these strangers to partake with me…a 21st century version of the ancient hunter/gatherer tradition of breaking bread around a campfire. I could easily enough do this if I did not find myself well past the hour after which no more alcohol is sold in Kill Devil Hills. Not that it would really matter that much. The stores, tired of ringing up overhead for what appears to be a total of six tourists in the town, closed well before midnight.

Still, I am not out of options. This is North Carolina…tobacco country. In Arizona and Montana, you show your contempt for the federal government, modern day culture and social mores by joining a militia. In North Carolina you smoke. I am among my people. Earlier, on my balcony, I heard one of the three whine, “Dude, you took my last smoke”…which let me know that I, with my recent purchase of four ridiculously cheap cartons, had a passport to enter their clan. I also was able to identify the alpha male of the group, which would be the guy who skanked the last smoke. Had he not been the alpha male, the other would not have whined. He would have hurled the accusation with force and venom. Stealin’ a man’s last smoke is an act of war in these parts…unless it is done by the pack’s alpha male. Then you just whine and take it like the little prison boy you are.

On my way out the door I shoved a couple of extra packs in my coat pocket. Which is why I did not fear them as I approached. Well…mostly I didn’t fear them. They were all in their early to mid 20’s and wiry and loud and drunk. So, maybe I feared them a little.

I made eye contact with the alpha male as I came up the steps toward them. One of the others gave me a hostile but mildly uncertain “hey”.

“Gotta a light,” I asked alpha.

“Gotta a smoke,” he replied.

I was in. I debated pulling out one of the extra packs and giving it to him, but then I would have no power. If I was holding the smokes, they would most likely put up with me for as long as I wanted. If I gave them away, I would be lunchmeat. Testosterone is a bitch.

I pulled out my open pack, held it out to him, and nodded at his compatriots to help themselves if they so desired. The last one handed the pack back and I took one out. The alpha male made a zippo appear from nowhere, flipped it open and sparked it with one hand (proof that he was the coolest among us), cupped it against the wind and offered it out to me first. Getting to light up first off some other guy’s lighter is the universal male posturing sign of thanks.

The alpha male, who it turns out goes by the name of Dude, as do the other two, had to be cool to pull off his outfit. He looked ridiculous. He had donned one of those goofy looking Guatemalan knit caps, with rainbow colors and big ear flaps and knit ties hanging off them, a sweatshirt over a sweatshirt over a t-shirt, jeans that fell halfway down his ass, and big Doc Martens. It was like Pearl Jam and Linkin Park got together and produced a kid with the sister of the geek lead singer from the Spin Doctors. The other two Dudes didn’t look quite so silly, which somehow was a sign that they weren’t as cool as Dude #1.

All three were surfers. Being a surfer is like being an actor. To claim it as your primary vocation you do not actually have to make any money at it. You simply say that it is what you do and everyone accepts it. In these parts, at this time of year, it is also code for unemployed. During the summer they get work as lifeguards, or at the kayak and bike rental shops, as guides for hiking and sailing excursions. During the winter, they suck it up and work as little as possible in a restaurant somewhere until they can’t stand it anymore and get themselves fired. Dude #1 and Dude #3 were currently among the ranks of the unemployed. Dude #2 took a great deal of abuse because he had entered the management training program at Kmart. Apparently, no self-respecting surfer even pursues a career path gig, let alone accepts one.

We hang out and shoot the breeze a bit. They drink and smoke my cigarettes. I turn down their repeated offers to have a beer, which makes them quite suspicious at first. Eventually this state devolves down to guarded hostility. But I have the smokes so they have to shut up and take it. They lie loud and often about their sexual conquests, both frequency and duration. If Dude #2 (the sell out working at Kmart) had, in fact, had sex in the last week as many times as he claimed and could hold out for as long as he claimed, he is truly a medical marvel…or he has a valve that is stuck on the Open position and needs some sort of delicate and expensive surgery. Dude #3 was not far behind him.

Further proof that Dude #1 is the alpha-male…he never claimed any conquests and would not talk about any when asked about them by the other two. This led them to believe (despite their occasional accusations that he wasn’t getting any) that he had nailed every female in the town, each and every female tourist, the entire population of nearby Kitty Hawk, and a couple of chicks up in Elizabeth. They suspected this because he: a.) was way cooler than them; b.) would confirm or deny nothing; c.) was apparently the only one who actually ever did get laid; d.) had disappeared entirely for a number of weekends over the last couple of months, which meant he hadn’t been surfing on those weekends, and that could only be the result of time spent with a woman. Sex, as far as I could tell, was the only excused absence from surfing, particularly at this time of year. The water is cold, the air is cold, the whole experience is miserable except that the waves from November through February, fueled by winter storms, are as good as it gets in these parts.

Occasionally, I would attempt a topic that had nothing to do with surfing, women, or partying. These attempts were met with contempt. Dudes #2 & #3 would launch into soliloquies on the useless stupidity of school, politics, politicians, newspapers, national defense, and the war in Afghanistan. Dude #1, though he said very little, somehow seemed louder and filled with more braggadocio than the others even though his comments always came out as calm and rather terse. Usually they consisted of nothing more than, “Fuck school” and the like.

I was getting nowhere. We finished off the pack of smokes we had been working on (Dude #1 taking the last one) and they seemed relieved that they could get rid of me. When I pulled out another pack they were both annoyed and pleased. I’d be hanging around some more, which was bad. They would get to smoke some more, which was good.

Figuring I had nothing to lose at this point, since all attempts to subtly work my way toward their thoughts on 9/11 had failed, I went for the jugular.

“So, what do you dudes think about whole World Trade Center thing?”

Dudes 2-3 wasted no time not giving a damn with such aplomb that most of us would pay not to give a damn that well. They didn’t care about the attacks, the dead, the wounded, the orphaned, none of it. Fuck ‘em all.

Dude #1 didn’t say a thing. Dude #3, without knowing what to call it, was a committed nihilist. He had launched into a slurred monologue about shit happens and we all die and fuck it all, with Dude #2 nodding along in furious agreement.

Mercifully, Dude #1 cut this off with the observation that they were out of beer. This carried the implication that the other two Dudes needed to go back to the van and bring some more up to the landing. He handed them the keys to his van and they marched off to do his bidding.

I told him that I noticed he hadn’t said anything about the attacks. He shrugged. I asked him what he thought about the whole business. He grabbed up another smoke and lit it.

“That was some fucked up shit, dude.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, man. That was some seriously fucked up shit. All those people, dude. Just going to work, man…fucked up.”

I asked him if it scared him. It didn’t. “No one is going to decide that the Wright Brothers Museum is a strategic target. We got nothing to worry about here.”

The two subordinate Dudes were trudging up the last steps to the landing. Dude #1 looked at me and said, “It pissed me off. Made me sad. And really pissed.” His colleagues looked a little confused, not sure what we were talking about and not entirely sure what it was they were supposed to care enough about to get mad or upset.

“What are going to do about that?”

Now…when I asked this it never occurred to me that the Dude intended to do anything about it. It certainly never crossed my mind that maybe he already had done something. These were not men of action who would spring to the aid of their countrymen. Or so I had concluded.

“I do stuff.”

Dudes 2-3 were now absolutely baffled. Dude #1 showed no signs of elucidating on this last statement. I probed a bit and got nowhere. He had resorted to shrugging or shaking his head in something like disgust and waving me off. I figured I had nothing to lose by pissing him off.

“You haven’t done shit, have you…other than think about it once or twice you haven’t done shit.”

He didn’t get mad. He stared at me, but not the challenging stare I had seen most of the night. More sad than anything else.

“I’ve been up there.”

Dudes 2-3 could not have been more shocked if he had told them he was gay. They were a flurry of when’ and where’s and why’s and what the fuck’s.

“Right after. That weekend. I drove up there. Went the next weekend, too.”

“Dude,” one of the others chimed in, “that’s why you got shit canned from the Brewery?”

It was both a question and an allegation of betrayal. Dude #1 had a job bussing tables at a local restaurant/microbrewery. The first weekend after the attacks, he got in his old piece of crap van on Friday afternoon and drove non-stop to New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan. He found a train over to the island, and walked down to the World Trade Center. Following good surf punk etiquette he had not asked for any time off from work or even told his employer he was not going to be there. He just split.

Having subsequently made that drive I know, assuming traffic doesn’t get hairy, that it takes 9-10 hours to make it from Kill Devil Hills to Manhattan. I also know that the drive takes you through Norfolk, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Newark…so traffic always gets hairy.

He got back early Monday morning. He told his boss why he had been gone and apologized (much shock and consternation from the other Dudes) and asked for time off that coming weekend so he could go up again. The time off was not granted. Dude went anyway, thus getting fired.

I asked him why he went.

“The first time, just to see it. I don’t why. Just wanted to see it. It was…fucked. I was really pissed off at first but…you can’t stay that way. Too much to do. Too many people to help…”

What happened was this: he got as close as he could to the site, which at that time (September 15th) was not terribly close. The stench, the dust which still hadn’t settled, the smoke from the fires of the Trade Center…they overwhelmed him. He had to take a t-shirt and tie it behind his neck and use it as an impromptu filter. All the way down as he walked to the site the first time the thing that was the hardest were all the people with pictures and fliers of people missing.

“Dude, it was like wall to wall people on the sidewalks for miles all holding out these pictures and handing you pieces of paper and putting posters up in windows and crying and screaming.”

Eventually, after soaking it all up he found himself at one of the Red Cross centers, giving blood. As he was leaving there was a middle aged woman losing the crowd control battle.

“People weren’t being dicks or anything like that. But there were so many of them and they all wanted to do something and they were kind of desperate.”

The Dude jumped in and helped her get people organized in a line. All the while, other folks were coming up with boxes and trash bags filled with blankets and pillows and canned food and flashlights and candles. The temporary center was overwhelmed. He started taking boxes from folks and stacking them up, organizing the chaos of goods already received as he went.

“I kinda accidentally became a volunteer. Nobody got around to asking me who I was and what I was doing there until Sunday.”

He worked all day Saturday and well into the night. Then he walked back to find a working train station, went back to Jersey and crashed in his car for a few hours. Sunday morning he trekked back down to the Red Cross center and went back to work. About midnight he got back to his car and drove home.

He did the same thing the next weekend, but on that trip he brought with him all the emergency supplies he could rustle up. Some of it was his, some from his mother and grandmother. They knew what he was doing but he didn’t tell anyone else…other than the boss who fired him.

“I don’t think he believed me. I don’t know if I woulda believed me. Don’t really seem the type.”

He is still unemployed. He found a couple of weeks of work here and there helping put boats away for the winter at one of the local marinas. He hasn’t worked too hard finding a more permanent gig. This past weekend he made his sixth trip (in 10 weeks) to the World Trade Center. He has managed to work his way deep enough into the ranks of the volunteers that he spends those weekends now at St. Paul’s Church…Ground Zero for the relief efforts at Ground Zero.

I pumped him with questions. He didn’t answer much, finally saying “Dude, it isn’t the kind of thing you can describe. You just gotta go there and you’ll get it.”

His friends didn’t know what to make of all this. They were trying to figure out if they should make fun of him or admire him or leave the whole thing alone. In the end I think they decided to pretend they hadn’t heard it.

I took out the unopened pack of smokes in my coat pocket at handed them to Dude #1. He nodded. I told him I was going to call it a night. I was working my way up the coast to New York to go see the WTC. The other two were quietly slugging away on some fresh Budweiser’s.

“If you make it up there this weekend I’ll probably catch you there. Come up to St. Paul’s and ask for Surfer Scott. They’ll know who you’re talking about.”

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