Taking the Waves
"What am I trying to say here?" said Gene Gore, as he stuffed in another French fry at the Purple Cow restaurant. "What is the deeper thought of longboarding?"
To begin, there are two very distinct kinds of surfers. There are longboarders, and there are shortboarders, and they are as different from each other as night from day, or as bliss from anger.
Shortboarders require speed, and live for the big waves. They cut and slash against them and fight the will of the water. Gene said they represent modern aggression. Longboarding is just the opposite. It is the art of graceful cruising. It is understanding the water and following it. Longboarding is dancing with the waves.
"You can relate it to life in general," said Gene, in summary. "You can choose, you know, either to fight it or flow with it."
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As for him, he is the devoted longboarder, choosing always to go with the flow, not to struggle but to accept. On the way back to his house, there was a sign that said, "Welcome to Surfside Beach." The sign showed a great, blue barrel of a wave, but the water here is closer to black, and in the summer, it can be as calm as a lake. Gene does his best surfing in the winter, or when a hurricane approaches.
Surfside is a village of trailer homes and shanties on sticks slumbering between the sea and Dow Chemical. Gene's house is the one with the Hawaiian flag. The house faces the sea, and Gene rarely looks behind him. Fearing the city's tap water will kill him, he is content to drink spring water from plastic bottles. When the beach is lined with dead fish, he carefully avoids the carcasses as he makes his way into the waves.
Inside his house -- they call it the Sunshine House -- there are maps of Hawaii pinned to the wall and a ukulele in the corner. Also, there is Rachel, tan and lean, her dark hair bleached by the sun, lying on the couch reading Surfer magazine. Gene never did go looking for a girl, but when he ran into Rachel, "a chick who surfed," he fell in love. They will be married in May -- in the surf, on surfboards.
He lay down beside her and enclosed her in his arms. It was the middle of a midweek afternoon, and the wind was blowing in through the open door, and the waves could be heard crashing, crashing, washing away all sense of time. Rachel said, "Surfing is awesome. All we want to do is surf together the rest of our lives."
And Gene, smiling his half-lidded surfer smile, said the waves, even such as these, are a gift from God for human pleasure. Yes, that's exactly it, he said.
"We weren't put here to be miserable all the time, though it does suck a lot."
Gene didn't begin riding waves, really chasing them anyway, until after his mother had a brain tumor and his father, a high school English teacher, left to marry one of his students.
In Missouri City, Gene grew up in the kind of ranch house with the kind of grass that begs everyone to believe the occupants are not unusual. His mother, Jeanne Law, still lives there. She keeps her television tuned to the Weather Channel, because by monitoring the waves, she knows where her son is.
Gene carries in his wallet a picture, about a quarter-century old, of his mother before the surgery, and his father before he left, and Gene's seven siblings when they were all smiling. Jeanne has the same picture in a frame on the wall, but it has been torn in half.
Sometimes, she thinks she and her husband might have endured if they'd had more money and fewer children. The children were each a heavenly gift, God bless them all, but together, they were a load. There was just so much ... pressure.
In trouble, Jeanne had always turned to God, but then God began complicating things. She and her husband were both devout Catholics, and in Wichita Falls after they married, they began a family, following Catholic tradition. The church taught that the use of birth control is a sin, and so Jeanne shunned it. She gave birth to child after child, and her husband eventually began supplementing his teaching income by moonlighting as a machinist. After four kids, Jeanne's doctor said her body could handle more, but her mind possibly could not. After six, even her priest suggested birth control. Jeanne agreed then, but suffered anxiety, which caused insomnia, which led to exhaustion and finally to a stay in the psychiatric ward.
She received electric shock treatment, but she didn't feel better until she emerged from the hospital and had thrown out her birth control. Jeanne felt wonderfully guiltless when she was pregnant again. Gene Michael, 32 years ago, was the happy result.
He was the seventh of eight children. The structure supporting his life did not begin crumbling until he was about nine years old. The family moved to Missouri City then, and his father took a job as an English teacher at Dulles High School. Within a year, Mrs. Gore was diagnosed with a large brain tumor, and the children were told to brace for her death. She survived the surgery but emerged permanently disfigured, looking nothing like the mother she had been.
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.
In the summer of 1987, Gene was a member of the Corpus Christi lifeguarding team that went to Hawaii to compete in the nationals. As the plane approached, Gene remembers pressing his face against the window. What he saw was the best surf in the world. The waves were all lined up, one after another, "and the ocean was just corduroy," said Gene, and he jumped up and began screaming at his buddies, and the flight attendant began shouting for him to sit down.
The waves were like none he had ever seen -- long and blue and taller than any three ranch houses. Gene won the footrace in the lifeguard tournament, but afterward, he thought mostly of the waves.
In Texas, he became known as one of the top longboarders in the state. His fellow surfers say he can do anything on a wave -- hang five toes over the nose of the board, hang ten. He can even stand on his head. You see him out there cruising along with a wave crashing behind him, just stoked, and you know, said Darrell Raska, his best friend, "That guy is just happy-go-lucky."
Gene became a man with skills, which he took on the road. He's won dozens of amateur tournaments, and even a few professional, though to retain amateur status, he declined the money. His best event is the paddling race, for which the choppy Texas water actually provides the best training. Gene is the kind of fellow who, having nothing else to do, will get on his surfboard and paddle 17 miles out to an oil rig, where he'll take a nap and paddle home by dinnertime. He's won five national paddling titles.
Surfers in surf meccas hate getting beat by a Texan. And Gene loves beating the Californians; they have such attitude. Making it to the finals there one year and not really giving a damn, Gene caught his last wave, dropped his trunks and mooned thousands of spectators all the way to shore.
He did it because he was kind of grumpy, not just with Californians. A one-legged, tattoo-artist surfer friend had just run over his favorite board, accidentally. And Gene had just lost another girlfriend, who had forced another choice between herself and surfing. Don't leave, she had said, or don't come back.
He left, of course. He returned home with "a broke board and no chick." And very bummed.
Many hundreds of miles away, in a suburb of Memphis, there was a beautiful young girl coming of age who had always believed her soul was at the beach.
Rachel Molasky grew up on a cul-de-sac in "a very preppy area of the country," according to her mother. Maxine Molasky was a homemaker, and Rachel's father, Bobby, owned a daycare center. They were the kind of parents who walk with each other in the evenings, holding hands.
Rachel's best friend in the whole world, Sarah Cohen, was a neighbor. Sarah said Rachel was "Miss Preppy -- we were the Limited and Gap children of Germantown, Tennessee."
And Rachel never seemed out of place. She was a cheerleader for the Germantown High School Devils. Her squad twice won a national championship. She was a gymnast, a sprinter, a softball player, a yearbook editor and a member of the National Honor Society. Sarah always thought Rachel "would be, like, a real professional, like dress up and be in an office, making lots of money." Rachel's mother thought so, too, but "Rachel has always been a freethinker."
Her family had a pool in the backyard. Everyone knew Rachel loved the water, but maybe they didn't understand the depth of her obsession. On top of everything else, she was also a lifeguard and a certified scuba diver. In her senior year, Rachel had begun windsurfing.
She was indifferent to science, but when it was time to think about college, she decided to major in marine biology. Rachel had always wanted to be a cheerleader at the University of Florida, but when she realized it wasn't on the beach, she crossed it off her list. She visited Florida Atlantic University: The beach was awesome, but Boca Raton was filled with rude old New Yorkers. So Rachel narrowed her choices to the University of South Florida in Tampa or Texas A&M at Galveston.
Maxine Molasky said the family was used to the "clean, beautiful, white sand, the gorgeous turquoise water" of their Florida vacations. Galveston did not measure up for Bobby Molasky. He hated it. But his daughter thought the people were nice. She saw porpoises jumping behind the ferry, and she found a sand dollar on the beach. "And I was like, wow," said Rachel. "This is, like, a landlubber's dream."
Gene was still searching for the right place, and he finally did move to Hawaii. Even there, he was one of the top longboarders. He worked as a lifeguard, and worked second jobs, too, which he lost with regularity when the surf was going off. The surf was going off nearly every day.
His native friends called him "The White Hawaiian," and as much as by the waves, Gene was captivated by the people. Surfers weren't considered strange there. Life centered around water and around family. The aloha spirit came naturally to Gene, but after three years, he began to understand that Hawaii wasn't home. He wasn't near his family. And he had begun to grow numb to the giant swells. He began to miss the little black waves of Texas that rise up on stormy days.
Gene came back in 1995, lonely and aimless, but content to surf in a place where "it's just real low-key -- a good vibe on the water." He was looking for peace, but coming home was painful.
His closest friend was a surfer, "hard core to the bone," who left one day to catch the hurricane surf in Florida. When he returned, the man found his wife had left him, and he hanged himself with the leash of his surfboard. The surfers gathered in Surfside to scatter his ashes over the water. Gene sang a song: Friend in my eyes, I'll take the next wave for you....
This was the same month that Gene's closest brother died of an epileptic seizure. In all his years of lifeguarding, Gene had never lost anyone, and when he awoke in his mother's house to find that his brother had died in the bed beside him, Gene let out a howl "like you hear in monster movies," said his mother, and began kicking chairs and punching the wall.
The waves, for once, were not sufficient, and Gene finally turned directly to God. Gene found Him not in the Catholic church, but in the Bible. The Bible consoled him. It directed him. Gene said the Bible became the father he never had. His faith is a personal matter that he keeps to himself now. He was baptized in Surfside, and the surf was a key part of the experience.
Thirty years old, Gene had traveled this far in his life when he heard about "this chick who surfed all night." He said, "Nah, no chick can be more into surfing than me." And on a spring night in 1996, he went to check it out.
He pushed his skateboard to the end of the Flagship pier in Galveston. Everything he'd heard was true. Gene gazed at Rachel in the midnight water, and she seemed to him bliss embodied. "Wow!" he thought. "There's someone who really loves to surf."
Rachel by then was scarcely recognizable to her family and friends. On a visit home, she sported a pierced belly button and a porpoise tattoo on her ankle. Her friend Sarah said she was "so shocked that Rachel got a tattoo. I thought for sure she was over the edge."
There were odd phone calls, too. Rachel had developed a new vocabulary, and her parents couldn't understand. Neither could Sarah. Rachel would call and say she had caught a pipe and eaten shit. And Sarah would say, "Excuse me? Rachel, what does that mean?"
No one knew what to think. Rachel went to her classes and surfed during the day, and when everyone went dancing at night, she went surfing again. Surfing was awesome. "It just blows everything else away," she said. "You take off on a wave, and you just walk up and fly."
She was never bothered by the brown sand or water, or by the pollution or fish kills. If the surf's going off, what's in the surf doesn't matter, she said. You go to it. And she lost a job at the Limited by doing just that.
Gene followed her from afar. He knew she was a Galveston lifeguard when he became a lifeguard too. One day that May, they were assigned the same patrol tower. Gene took a break and began showing off with his surfboard. The waves were only knee high, but he was just "ripping," said Rachel, and she thought he was the best surfer she had ever seen. During her break, she couldn't catch a wave, but when she came back, Gene had emptied his backpack and had made them a fruit salad, using cantaloupe halves as bowls. Rachel, a vegetarian, was already "totally stoked on him."
They began doing the usual silly things. They took a surfing trip to Matagorda, where they sat around writing their names in the sand. They went to a silly costume party. They went to the Beavis and Butt-head movie and walked away, repeating the lines. A stranger overheard them, and Rachel said, "Oh my god, we are so busted!"
In the summer, on nights when the moon was full, they went into the water together, the phosphorous sparkling with every movement, a glimmering wake behind their surfboards. Rachel came to think of Gene not simply as a surfer of amazing grace, but as a protector, someone with whom she could always feel safe. And Gene's attraction was that "she surfed. She surfed good."
They went to Hawaii, where they lived a month aboard a sailboat, and after that Gene wrote Bobby Molasky a letter. He told him about the weather, the surf conditions and their surfing. Then he signed off with, "Oh, by the way, can I marry your daughter?"
The answer, as Gene recalls it, was, "Sure, whatever."
He proposed on a surfboard, and their engagement was announced in Surfer magazine.
The surf seemed the perfect place for a wedding. Maxine Molasky took her daughter shopping not long ago for a wedding bathing suit. Gene will be in his wedding trunks, and to present a good appearance, he's been doing 300 pushups a day.
All their surfer friends will be there, and the aisle will be two rows of longboards, leading to the sea. Gene and Rachel will paddle out on separate boards. The pastor, in a kayak, will say the holy words, the couple will make their promises, and then Rachel will climb onto Gene's extra long longboard, and they will ride tandem to shore.
Gene asks that you pray for surf. A luau will immediately follow the ceremony.
It is scheduled for May 17, the day after Rachel finishes school. She'll graduate with a degree in marine administration, which she thought would be more marketable than marine biology. But that was before she met Gene, when she thought she would need a job.
Gene has finally given up lifeguarding. Downstairs, in the workshop of the Sunshine House, he has begun making surfboards. He and Rachel plan to open a surf shop together. They hope to make a lot of money with it, but of course, they'll close it when the surf's going off. Gene and Rachel are happy on their diet of ramen noodles, and they expect their children to live as cheaply as they do. And why should anything ever change, Rachel wonders. All you need is the determination to enjoy yourself, "and not get stuck."
Mrs. Molasky believes Rachel is still "a responsible, mature, conservative-type person," and she and her husband plan to help the newlyweds in any way they can.
Everyone is looking forward to the wedding. Gene's sister, Claire, sees it as a time for the family to come together and heal. Gene's mother, Surf Mama, will have her hair dyed purple to match the muumuu Gene brought her from Hawaii. Gene thought his father should be there, too, and so he will, with his other family.
Retired now, near Austin, his father said he's made his peace with the Lord. He loves his children, but he won't discuss with them what none will understand. He wanted Gene to know that every marriage has its peaks and valleys, and if you stick with God, He'll see you through.
In other words, ride the wave.
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