Monday, December 26, 2011

The Last Time

When will the last time be? Often times it’s a foregone conclusion. Maybe it’s that last class before graduation, the one final look around the house or apartment you’re moving out of, or possibly watching a car you’ve just sold drive off with the hands of a new anxious owner wrapped around its worn leather steering wheel. On occasion though, a person doesn’t know when the last time will be.

I was lucky enough to attend and graduate from the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. Somewhere along the way somebody decided something that made some sense. The school needed a nickname. I think this was mainly to save students and faculty the trouble of rattling off a 20 syllable heavy name every time the question of where they attended or taught came up in conversation. Those sombodies determined Cal Poly or SLO were appropriate nicknames.

I’m still not certain how I managed to be accepted into Cal Poly. I studied engineering and Cal Poly had, and still has, a good engineering program that can be tough to get into. I suspect a few students were needed who could fill in the left side of the bell curve. That’s where I came in. After all, it’s not a bell curve without both the right AND left side.

Cal Poly is located on the central coast of California where cold means putting on a sweatshirt and hot means opening the windows. It also happened to be about ten miles from the Pacific Ocean. I took advantage of this and learned how to surf. Well, mostly body boarding but a little proper surfing here and there as well.

Surfing is as much about waiting as it is about anything. Waiting for a day with good surf. Waiting for a decent wave in the line up. Holding your breath and waiting for the pounding to stop when you’ve been caught inside after paddling out in the channel at Morro rock into conditions that were way over your head (pun intended).

As graduation grew closer it occurred to me there was going to be a last time. A last time riding waves with my friends, carefree, with our biggest worry being who was going to be at what party later that night. Sure, I would have the opportunity to surf again, I was even moving to Los Angeles after graduation, but I knew it would be different.

To complicate matters Mother Nature is fickle. If waves are to be ridden, there must be waves in the first place. This makes it quite difficult to know when the last time will be as there is no schedule with which to confer. Starting sometime in April (I think it was April, but the way I obsess it might have been February) every time we found decent waves to ride I would pause for a moment, while bobbing up and down in the murky Pacific, and think to myself “I wonder if this is it. I wonder if this is the last time.” I would then take a moment to look around at my friends, breathe in the salty air, and squint into the setting sun in an effort to burn it all into my memory.

I wonder if Dan Wheldon thought October 16th could be the last time. Eleven laps into the Indycar season finale Wheldon was caught up in the kind of accident eight year old boys create with matchbox cars and their imagination. Horrific. Terribly horrific. Dan Wheldon was killed as fifteen open wheel race cars, traveling at speeds greater than commercial jetliners at takeoff, came together creating what some who have been around the sport for decades called the worst accident they have ever seen.

I’m all but certain Ayrton Senna paused and gave serious thought to idea of a last time on May 1st, 1994. It had been an awful weekend for Formula 1. On Friday Rubens Barrichello was injured in a crash that saw his car leave the tarmac at 140 MPH. Saturday saw Roland Ratzenberger killed as his car impacted a concrete barrier almost head on. Senna, who some regard as the best racing driver of all time, as in ever, would meet his demise on Sunday when his car left the track at the Tamburello corner following a race restart. Sid Watkins, the head of the Formula 1 on-track medical team and good friend to Senna, tried to persuade the three time world champion to quit racing all together following Ratzenberger’s death on Saturday. Senna replied “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.” So he did. For one last time.

Now, let me make one thing clear. I am not one of those people who advocate living today like it’s your last as there might not be a tomorrow because you could get hit by a bus crossing the street at any moment. Firstly, I hate those type of people. Secondly, the chances of getting hit by a mass transit type vehicle while attempting to cross my street are about as likely as Martin Whitmarsh calling up Jacques Villeneuve and offering the aging World Champion a comeback drive at Mclaren Mercedes . As in not very. On the flip side, I don’t think a person should go through life ticking off the days the way a prisoner might from his cell. There exists a happy medium. Take some time and savor a few things. Lock them away in your memory.

For all my preparation and awareness I don’t recall much about the last day I surfed off the central coast of California. I have a vague memory, (afternoon, sunny, Shell Beach) but not the play by play type of memory I was planning for. I have the same type of vague memory of the first time as well (morning, foggy, Pismo Beach.) Then I have a whole bunch of memories of all the times in between. And I cherish them. Worrying about the last time doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially when it’s not definitive. I don’t think it’s really about the last time anyway. It’s about the first time. And the last time. And all the times in between.