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The Last Ride

As most of you know, I'm from the coast, the Outer Banks, and I really have bonded with my land, as well as the sea connected to it. I miss being there when I'm not. I miss my friends. I miss the relative strangers that I know, the acquaintances, the people that I have nothing in common with except an understanding of the idea of salt in the blood. And, yes, I miss what my beach was, before the houses were torn down and the open spots covered. The light from long ago is getting dim on a lot of those places and people.

We recently lost a surf icon, Delbert Melton, a giant of a man who really was from another time. He lived to surf, not to work, and found a way to make that his work. He loved his job. While I only knew him in passing, as he'd show up on my beach on occasion, long ago. He was an important icon, an avatar of what the best and sometimes worst of the Outer Banks had to offer.

Instead of a eulogy, I'm going to offer up a story that I wrote. This was the original premise for a short story I included in my book Haunting The Carolina Coast. The final draft is nothing like this. The original story offers up a lot more emotion, personal feelings, a different way of thought from back when I was a kid as I grew up. It's not a ghost story. But in a way, it is. There are a lot of ghosts on the island, all hidden, lost to the shadows, with fewer of us looking for them. That's the only way to see a ghost now, you have to go look.

Once We Were Just Surfers

I remember the first time I met Hunt Griffiths. He was that kind of person. He made you remember him.

I was sitting on the beach, cleaning the salt from my cameras, my surfboard nearby. This was back in the 1980s, when surf contests were simple events on the Outer Banks. Someone just said they were having one, and they got a couple chairs for a couple judges, and parents brought the little kids out and the occasional teenagers showed up, and that was it. I was there to try out some new, to me, camera equipment. I brought my surfboard because that’s what we did back then.

I was sitting on my towel, cleaning my lenses, when he comes over. He’s all long and tanned, with white blond hair and red cheeks and this big, huge smile of bright white teeth that would make a shark proud. “Hey, did you see an old piece of brick around here?” he asks me.

Most people would wonder why this surfer dude was looking for an old brick on the beach, but I knew that pieces of houses would wash up all the time. They were the remains of victims of storms and hurricanes. Little jigsaw pieces of destruction.

I didn’t know why he wanted it.

”No,” I answered quietly, looking up and squinting into the morning sun over my Wayfarers. I wore real Ray Bans, black on black. Hunt had these goofy metallic gray ones with big reflective lenses. I don’t know how, but he made them work. I would learn that he did that with a lot of things, and a lot of people.

“Oh, there it is,” he said happily, and sat down near me in the morning light, and started to scrape the old wax off his board with the sharp edge of a brick.

He just moved in and started talking to me, like we were friends. Well, we were, I guess, since Hunt decided right then and there that we were. I didn’t have much say so in it, but I was alright with the decision. “So, you taking pictures of the surfing contest?” he asked. “You work for them?” It was a vague comment toward whoever was in charge. I didn’t know who it was. I just assumed it was the mom from one of the surf shops, WRV, Whalebone, that came up with it.

”No, I just like shooting the ocean. I got this new camera and lens to try out,” I paused, “I don’t know if they are going to work or not.”

He stopped working on his board for only a moment, just a heartbeat, but I could see him taking what I said in. He reached over to this plastic bag he had, and got out a sticky pastry of some kind, wrapped in plastic. It was one of those cheap sweet things you see on a rack at the gas station. “Hey, I got this honey bun to eat, but I don’t want it You want to have it? Still sealed…” he offered it to me.

“Oh, no, no thanks,” I answered. “I don’t want to take your food from you.”

Somehow, I think that was the answer he was expecting me to make. He came over and introduced himself, and I told him my name. I thought he would go back to his board, but instead he told me about himself. It wasn’t a lot that he shared. He didn’t go into too much or hog all the attention. He just told me about how he and his family had moved to North Carolina recently, how he really liked surfing, and all the places he had been. He liked Cape Hatteras. He definitely didn’t like Florida. He really wanted to go places, to travel and see the ocean from other views. I was listening, enjoying his stories, when he just stopped and asked if I ever thought about photographing tropical beaches, or where I wanted to go. I sorta shrugged my shoulders, but he kept at it, and I told him some of my dreams and goals, as much as a seventeen year old could have at the time.

He had got me talking, which was impressive. I usually just listened. It was hard for me to compete with everyone else, so I never tried. I found myself talking to Hunt.

After a few minutes, he leaned back and sighed. Then he told me something. “You’re a good listener. Aren’t you?” he didn’t give me a chance to argue. “Yeah, you are. People like me, we love people like you. You’re naturally easy to talk to. We like having someone to talk to and listen to us.

”But I’ll let you in on a secret. We desperately want to make people like you happy.”

I didn’t know what he meant at the time. He got up and got his honey bun.

“People like me love to talk and tell stories and have people listen to us. But it’s no good unless you like our stories. We really want you to like us. Like, genuinely. We need it.”

This was pretty enlightening stuff coming from a guy with zinc oxide on his nose.

“This honey bun I offered you? I really meant it when I offered it. I don’t need it. You like these things, right?”

I said, “Yes.”

“And you’d probably eat this if you got it yourself, right?”

Again, I said, “Yes.”

“So, take it.” He shoved it at me. “Now, we’re both happy.”

It was the first of many times that this guy would take me under his wing and boldly go forth into a world that I had only seen from the outside.

He and I would remain friends for years. He went to college at UNC while I started a year later at Wake Forest. We made a point to always go together to football games. He showed up in Winston-Salem with a bold black sweatshirt with Demon Deacons on it. And when I went to Chapel Hill the next year, he had me wear a powder blue shirt with their mascot on it. He thought that was fair, and we both fit in.

But most of the time, we saw each other in the summers. Everyone worked then. Some worked harder than others. We worked days or nights, depending on the job. Waits worked late and went to the beach during the day, while all the retail students worked days and spent the evenings on the beach or the party houses that were the scourge of parents and rental agencies.

Hunt worked days mostly, and the rest of us would see him coming to the beach when a lot of us were leaving. He liked the afternoon surf. The beaches emptied out by then back in those days, and there were no tourists in the way, so riding the waves was easy, even if they weren’t always going off. I tried to find time whenever I could to do some evening sessions with him. We’d ultimately end up just floating out beyond the waves, watching useless choppy breakers crash without rolling onto the shore. He told me that he had started to come out to some of our favorite breaks at night, just to have more time on the ocean. Just north of the Nags Head Fishing Pier was always a good break, as was Martin Street. Both would go off pretty well, and the light from the pier or the big ugly condos added a little light to nighttime surfing sessions. Plus there was no lineup. He had the waves to himself.

I remember one night he called me up, saying we had to go out. I didn’t even know if he meant out to go hang out at a party, or go out surfing. I only knew enough to say yes. He and his girlfriend showed up at my house and practically dragged me out to the car. I remember her shoving me into the front seat, with her leaning forward, one hand draped over the seat and my shoulder, as if to keep me pinned down. Hunt just looked at me and said, “You’re going to love this!”

We made it to the beach, out at the Kellogg’s access. The night was cloudy and dark, with the last bits of a storm that blew through the night before. When we walked out through the sand, all clunky and sticky from the past rain, we crested the dune, and I saw it.

The ocean had become alive with light and life. The waves still churned from the storm, which had brought up all sorts of phytoplankton from the warm depths. Every time a wave crashed, it glowed like green moonlight. The little creatures, invisible by themselves, lit up the water in glowing sparkles up and down the shore. It was as if every star had turned to dust and had fallen right on our beach.

”I’ve got to get out in this!” Hunt was insistent. The waves were like a washing machine, all churned and frothing with the foam from algal blooms. Even in the dim phosphorescent glow, I could see the bubbly lines and striations in the waves. In the dark, we’d lose him in a second.

But we didn’t.

He went out in that stuff and tore at the waves. He found the ones that would break into curving, foamy tubes before closing out. We watched him from the beach, this dark form, a tall thin black figure blotting out the green glow, his board, obsidian black, leaving a trail of light in its wake. Only three people saw this sight. A cloudy figure in black, attacking and controlling the waves, making them bend to his desires. Only one of us, Hunt, got to actually do it.

Hunt and I stayed friends through college and even after it. We both had a love for the beach, and we both wanted to see our homes get better. He continued with his medical degree at UNC, going through the long intern and residency programs, while I came home and did graphic design. Finding time to surf, especially at the same time, was difficult now that we were grown up, and had responsibilities. Hunt finally came to the beach to stay. He started a sports medicine clinic at the beach. I was busy, too, but I could work my own hours at least. We used to run into him when we were coming back from a day at the beach. He would be getting off work just when we were done. I’d be exhausted, hungry, and salt rimed from a day in the water. But if Hunt was passing by, I’d always stay just a little longer. We’d talk business, talk about our lives and plans. We got to the point in our lives where everything was either tomorrow or six months from now. We couldn’t plan for two weeks away. Life found a way of getting in the way of living.

But none of that mattered when we found the time to surf. Time stopped, just for a moment. And we were best friends on the beach, just like when we were teenagers when we just met.

Hunt usually surfed in the evenings. Sometimes he would head out at night when the moon was bright and full, surfing the popular breaks into the night, before going home late. It was a rare evening when the storms churned the ocean to glow, maybe once a year or less. If the waves were right, and somehow they usually were, he would head out and surf the glowing sea. I would get a call from him telling me he was going out, and where he was going, in case I wanted to meet up. I remembered his words to me when I was just a teenager, and if I was on the island, I always went. It was a rare occurrence to see the sea light up with stars. To see him surf the waves was just magic.

Like I said, Hunt always wanted to help people. That’s why he became a doctor. He pushed me to be more than I was, by starting an art therapy class for kids and teens. He always reminded me that people liked me because I was a good listener. He showed me how I would listen to them through their art. He did the same thing with surfing classes. He trained kids to be surfers. He also worked with them on being healthy and safe. He showed them how to stretch and prepare for anything athletic. While people liked to talk to me, they loved to hear Hunt talk. He had a charm about him that was pretty infectious.

By the time he and I had reached our forties, we moved from finding time to live in between surfing to finding time to surf while living. He still tried to run to the beach most days. I went out to photograph the coast whenever I had the chance. Once back in 2011, Hunt was out on the beach during a particularly rough day, just walking, getting his exercise in, when farther up the beach a kid who had been with his grandparents out on vacation had been playing too close to the shore break. The little kid got washed into a very rough and fast moving sea. It took Hunt about a minute to run toward the shouting, and he didn’t even slow down to dive in to save the kid. He was like that.

Most people would think that after over a minute in the ocean, the poor kid didn’t have a chance, but Hunt always thought there was a chance. Some chance. He was still strong and fit, and he understood the ocean like only a person who grew up in the water could. He let the waves move him and swam with what current would push him. It took time, but he got the kid. Getting the boy back to the shore was much more difficult. The little kid panicked and fought to stay afloat, even pushing on Hunt to keep himself above water. We all heard not to let a drowning person grab you because they will pull you down with them. You’re supposed to push something toward them, or grab them and pull them. But a little kid, only four or so, terrified, panicked, and cold, well, there was no way Hunt was going to throw the kid back into a merciless sea.

He was able to get the boy only back to the breakers before the boy was ripped from his grip by a big wave. The boy washed to shore, alive. Hunt wasn’t so lucky. He was pulled back out. Already tired from the struggle, he tried to float just outside the waves, but they just kept pounding him, holding him under too many times for far too long.

We had to wait a week, the rest of the surfers, his students and patients, before the water was still enough for us to go out. I remember it well. The water was still cold in the late Spring. We wore our full suits, feet dangling into the water. It was a surprising blue that was reflected from the sky into a clear and still ocean. My wife and I straddled our boards, next to each other as part of a circle. There were so many people that Hunt had helped and touched over the years. We crammed in tight, letting the low rollers trickle beneath us before hitting the shallow shore as soft waves barely two feet in height. Even the ocean seemed sorry for what it did.

Some people will say that time heals all wounds. That, given time, we’ll get over it. That’s not true. Maybe the ache goes away after a while. Maybe you get used to an absence or seeing an empty spot where someone should be there, but, no, I didn’t really get over it. He’s still there, to me.

I went out on the anniversary of his death to leave some flowers by the shore, so that they would be taken by waves. It was a completely different day than the one when he was taken. The ocean was cold, green, but glassy, with long crashing three foot waves that folded over upon themselves before washing ashore with a soft whoosh, like they were trying hard, but giving out.

Then, that summer, we were fortunate to have this wonderful offshore storms that throws everything into a ruckus and messes with the tourists. We got no rain, but the waves came ashore in large crashing sets. They were tall and dirty, filled with the foamy green and white lines of life that got churned in the washing machine out past the Gulf Stream. The waves were warm and dynamic. It was no longer a day for the tourists or the kids on their foamy rental boards. Red flags snapped in the wind and lifeguards blew everyone out of the water. Only surfers with their leashed boards were allowed in. It was harvest time, and we came to reap.

For two days it blew in, and we made the best of it. I surfed all the haunts. Martin Street was big, but wild and unpredictable with sets that looked like they rolled in all the way from France. The Nags Head Fishing Pier went off gracefully with big clean waves that were easy to catch and ride. Jennette’s had its own break to the north which was fun and shallow, but crowded. We covered them all. We even did our pilgrimage to Hatteras for good measure. By the end of the second day, most of the surfers were beat, except the younger ones. They could go on forever. Us old guys needed a break, and the ocean finally gave us one. The waves settled into smooth rolling hills. They were still too big for the tourists to enjoy, and they came too quickly. But they just weren’t the big waves we had. So we got to rest.

That night, the ocean lit up. The storm had sent all the little creatures to come to shore and put on their show for us. The phytoplankton nearly burned in the water, their strange alien green glow sparkled with every agitation. All along the shore, the little mole crabs that buried in the mud were like tiny light bulbs, radiated from within by all the plankton they had eaten.

I decided I would go out to photograph it, since this was a rare event. I went over to the old pier in Nags Head. It lit up the shore just underneath it, and pitched everything else into blackness, so that looking north, I saw nothing but the green glow of bioluminescence. I sat down next to my camera on a tripod and just watched. I could trail my feet in the sand and make comet tails with the plankton that had washed up. It was everywhere. The waves were perfect as they came in at regular intervals of three, with a long pause, then three more. It would be like that all night. The light from the plankton grew so bright that I was able to get used to the dark.

At first, the waves were identical in both the sets and the color. It took me a few moments to notice the trail that formed on every few waves, like something was making a wake in the curling wave. Then I noticed that there was a black form that glided over the waves. Once a set I could see a form that gained more and more shape with each ride. I made out the shape of a human body in the form of a tall and thin man, catching a wave with a graceful turn. Every ride he would cut down then up, lifting his arms as he cut across the the face of the wave.

This figure appeared regularly that night. Once every set, he appeared. He always picked the best wave of the set. The rides were different, but each one was long and graceful, with this glowing trailing fishtail of light behind the figure. At the end of each ride, the figure would slow and start to sink, before disappearing into the glowing foam. He just disappeared. There wasn’t even a mist or a twinkle of starlight. He just was gone.

Then, with the next set, he reappeared.

Through most of this I sat mesmerized, just watching. I knew exactly who it was. There was no doubt. Of course he wouldn’t appear on the anniversary of his passing. He would only show up on a good day. In this case, a good night. I took a few pictures. I wondered if I would get anything in the darkness. When I looked at them, I saw nothing but waves and starlight. It didn’t matter. I knew he was there.

Now, on those rare nights when the ocean lights up the night and the stars fill the sea, a dark figure can be seen cutting through the water as he leaves a trail of luminescent moonlight on the waves. Few have ever seen him. He may go years without appearing. But when the water turns to sky, the ghostly surfer shows up for one more session.

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