Taking the Waves

A tale of love, life and longboarding

Before the surgery, Jeanne and her husband had fallen into the habit of shouting at each other. Shortly afterward, he announced he was moving out. He left; he returned. He left again. He was gone for good by 1979. About a year later, he married a student who had recently graduated. She was younger than five of his children.

The house of so many was left empty by the departure of one. The Catholic Church granted an annulment of the Gore marriage. When Mrs. Gore asked on what grounds, she was told it was her husband's business, and none of her own. From the surgery, the grief and the rage, she lay in recovery for a long time. Assuming her maiden name, Jeanne Law began supplementing the child support by working clerical jobs during the day. At night, the church having failed her, she began numbing herself with cheap wine.

Gene developed asthma about this time. He and his siblings grew close to one another, and they grew up. They all preferred being outside -- shooting birds with BB guns, peeping on the neighbors with telescopes. Gene's sister, Claire, said he was always the mellow one. He got along and followed along and did what anyone older asked him.

When he arrived in high school, his father was teaching there, but was not there for him. Gene says he needed someone to guide him. Serious thoughts of goals and the future had not occurred to him, and perhaps they should have, naturally, he said. But there was so much about his life that he had to accept, it was hard to find the part he could control.

He always followed the path of least resistance, but when he made a choice, Gene committed himself completely. When he discovered music as a way to express himself, he joined the marching band, the concert band, the jazz band and the stage band. Every other class, he simply declined to attend.

Within a year of his father's departure, his grades dropped to Fs. Neither of his parents was aware of his problems at school, or of his drinking. Weighing about 130 pounds, Gene could toss down a 12-pack with little effect. He was 16 years old and in the ninth grade for the third time when he dropped out of school. His binging by then had begun to seem more the problem than the answer, and when a friend passed him a syringe, he decided to find another escape. Gene quit drinking and smoking marijuana altogether. It was an easy matter of replacing one obsession with another: Gene had discovered surfing.

When his mother finally saw what he was doing, she thought he was squandering his life. But then his asthma disappeared, and Jeanne Law recognized the fervor of his devotion and realized again that you must believe in something. Having never surfed, she began to see the water as his salvation, and Gene began calling her Surf Mama.

"The waves and nature, they're proofs of God," said Jeanne Law. "I mean, can you make the sun come up? Can you make the waves? And then to ride those waves and feel that power -- you feel you are a part of that power and that force on earth. That's what I think it is: You feel you're a part of life."

The best compliment you can pay a longboarder is to say he is "casual," that he doesn't jerk around for balance but cruises like a king at ease. Gene became famously at ease. He was seriously casual, and casually serious.

His first job was painting signs. His best memories of that job are of the trees and clouds he studied, looking for signs of the surf condition. If the weather boded well, as likely as not, his boss wouldn't see him that day.

He traveled in an old blue pickup, packing the beautiful blue-and-yellow surfboard that had cost him so much: two consecutive summers of mowing his neighbor's grass every week. Gene rushed to the beach; the state troopers rushed after him. His driver's license was revoked twice, and insurance became so costly he could no longer afford a vehicle.

"I don't know," he tried to explain, "it's like my heart beats faster than everyone else's. I just can't slow down."

The sign company hired and fired him several times over, and then Gene found a job in Corpus Christi making surfboards. It was satisfying work; he saw it not as a trade but as an art, something one is born to do. And then, surfing one day, Gene took a close look at a lifeguard, and he said, "Man, that's the job for me."

There was something about rescuing people that appealed to him. He understood what it meant to be helpless, and he was already trained as a volunteer fireman and paramedic. But lifeguarding was the job he always took seriously. He always showed up, in part because the workplace was the beach, where he wanted to be anyway. Over a decade, Gene saved more than a hundred lives. When he's feeling unaccomplished, he thinks about that. His greatest thrill was not a wave but walking into a hospital room and speaking with a man he had pulled from the water showing no signs of life.

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