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Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008 | Sit back and hold on tight. Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz is telling stories. The 86-year-old is weaving tales of Israeli belly dancers, broken hearts and bomb blasts over the Red Sea. But first, a bit about the doctor. He was born in Galveston, Texas, grew up at Mission Beach, lives in Dana Point and started the area’s first surf camp at San Onofre. He’s made several trips to promote surfing between Israelis and Palestinians, hoping to plant the seeds for a less violent Middle East. The movement he’s founded, called Surfing for Peace, has attracted the support of eight-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater, who has Syrian ancestry. He takes surfboards and Slater provides lessons, with one aim: Finding a way to bridge the gap between two warring peoples.
Paskowitz has self-published a book called “Surfing and Health,” and he’s been featured in a documentary film called “Surfwise.” When we chatted on the phone before sitting down for an interview, Paskowitz apologized for having to meet late in the afternoon. He had to catch up with Slater first. He made this promise to me about our interview: “We’ll start with my getting kicked out of Point Loma High School, and we’ll go from there.”
And that’s where we picked up. Now just sit back and enjoy Paskowitz’s stories.
I thought maybe the best place to start was where we left on the phone. You promised to tell me about the time you got kicked out of Point Loma High School.
I have asthma. And asthmatics very frequently in the early morning get asthma just from breathing in the cold air. I had the early morning gym class. And I got asthma every morning. I really suffered from it. So I got a gym excuse from a doctor. That all went well for about a month and a half. But I’d lied about my age to become a lifeguard. And so I was stationed, even before my graduation from Point Loma, at La Jolla Shores, where nobody swam and nobody was around.
A woman comes running down the beach the second day I was there, screaming: “Help me! Help me!” It was desolate. You can’t imagine what La Jolla was when I was 16, it was desolate, just sand dunes. She says: “My husband fell off the cliffs on the other side of the pier! He’s dying!” I had my paddle board. I paddled it around the pier, picked him up and paddled him back. When I got back, the ambulance was there, but so was a newspaper reporter. The next morning, in the paper — may I show you the kind of picture that was there? I wanted you to see this. [He pulls out a picture of him as a svelte young man.]
So the coach called me and said: “You dirty dog. How dare you! Here you are supposed to be a sick weakling! Look at that! And he kicked me out of school, three weeks before graduation.
You grew up along the Gulf coast of Texas.
Born and raised in Galveston, Texas. I stayed there until I was 13. And then a monumental thing happened in my life, something so striking it was incredulous. I learned to surf in the Gulf of Mexico with a contraption some guy made. By 13, I was a real surfer. It was April, I got bronchitis, I had terrible asthma. I just felt like it was the end of the world. One Sunday morning, I heard a thud on the porch. My mom brought in the paper, I opened it, and the centerfold fell out. It was a Sunday magazine called Parade, I think. And so I opened it up to its centerfold. And there was a picture of something I had never even dreamed of. A magnificent wave that stretched across two pages, glistening, sparkling with sunlight, with three guys on the wave. Glassy water, sunlight, these beautifully shaped guys on these beautifully shaped boards. I’m not exaggerating — in an instant, my life changed. I felt like a million dollars. I said, “Momma! Momma! Look at that! You take me to where that wave is, I’ll get well tomorrow.” She said: “You get well tomorrow, and I’ll take you the day after tomorrow.”
Before the month of April was up, my entire family, with everything we owned, like the Joads of the Grapes of Wrath, had piled into a 1934 Ford Model A, and we headed toward that wave. And I found that wave, and not only that wave, but those three guys, too.
Tell me what it is about surfing that’s so magnetizing.
There’s something in the wave. I said in my book, there’s a wisdom in the wave, high-born and beautiful, for those who would but paddle out. When you understand what a wave is, and you understand that you can connect with that, you ask yourself, how does man and his emotional firmament hook into that? When it’s winter in the Bering Straits, giant storms arise that push waves as high as 80 to 90 feet between crest and trough. The powerful cosmic forces of gravity, light, electromagnetism come to bear on the surface of the earth and create, in their conflicts, storms. And those storms create an energy that goes down into the water. It’ll come up 80, 90 feet, and by the time it gets to Hawaii it’s 10 feet. And by the time it gets to Mission Beach, it’ll be 6 feet. Here’s 6 feet of star power. Is there something special when you grab onto that power and try to manage it? Something happens that gets into your system that absolutely captivates you. I have learned the beauty of dancing on a wave. If you’ve ever surfed, you know that feeling. For that instant you’re on the wave, you’re totally, instinctively, connected to the stars.
Let’s fast forward a little bit. You went in 1956 to Israel to fight in the Suez Canal Crisis.
And they laughed at me.
How did that play out?
Being raised at Mission Beach, there was only one other Jewish family. Our raising was never a traditional Jewish raising. So life went on. I went to school, I decided I wanted to be a doctor, I became a doctor, I fell in love with a crazy woman, she began [expletive] my friends in Hawaii, I lost my mind, much of my hair, then I got married again to another woman. With one woman I lost one child, with the other I lost two children. And by 1955 I was a sad sack. I really felt that I had failed at perhaps some of the most important things in the world: Being a man, being a lover, being a husband, being a father. Because when you get kicked in the ass by a woman who’s [expletive] your friends, there’s hardly another blow — whether it’s to your ass or twixt the eyes — that hurts more. … I went to a gathering of Jews, a retreat. And I met the Jewish consul general of Israel. He told me that Israel was in trouble, and why didn’t I come to Israel. He said, “I can see you have some problems. But when you come to Israel, and you go home, you’ll take the problems back with you.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. I lost every [expletive] problem I had.
I went to Israel. I thought I’d become a paratrooper and get killed. So I took a surfboard with me. When the war broke out, I was teaching a surfing lesson in the ancient city of Ashkelon. I rushed back to Tel Aviv to volunteer. [The army didn’t want him.] I didn’t become a soldier of fortune. By the time I came back to America, I was a mensch. A man.
What about that experience gave you such clarity?
Good question. When I left, I was a rather well-recovering psycho with panic spells, taking phenobarbitol when I had to. Living in my car. I was a resident doctor at a Jewish hospital, helping out. Then I got to Israel, and I began to meet people who were menschen, men. Great personalities, great warriors, great statesmen, great [expletive].
I lived in the desert like a Bedouin. I got my fish from the sea. I ate properly, exercised, because I did nothing but walk miles and miles. Rest at night, right in the sand, in the open desert, with bombs falling between Aqaba and the Red Sea. The recreation, the re-creation of my body every day. In the desert, I learned a great phenomenal revelation. That you cannot fragment health. That diet, exercise, rest, recreation and attitudes of mind are all part of an amalgam you call health. And you can no more change that than you can take the steering wheel off a Cadillac (and expect it to work).
And then, I came home an entirely new man. The consul general was wrong.
Can I tell you one little story?
I had a friend, who was so modest and so mild that he changed the destiny of the world in shorts, barefooted and without a shirt. And nobody knows his name. He was the inventor of the double-hulled canoe that became a catamaran. His name was Alfred Kumalae. He had the most marvelous disposition of peacefulness and humanity. One day, we were working on a new boat, and I said, “Alfred, let’s go get a drink.” We put down our tools, walked across the sand to the yacht harbor. On the way, I looked down, and there in the sand, bright as a star, was a 50-cent piece. We were going to spend a nickel apiece to get soda. I said: “Alfred, look! Look! My God, we’re going to get pancakes.” I showed it to him, and his face turned melancholy. I thought, he thinks I’m being selfish. I could see his whole demeanor had changed. I said, “Tell me, what’s wrong.” He said, “Uncle Dorian” — he called me “Uncle Dorian” — “I know you’re happy about finding that 50-cent piece, and I am too, but have you given any thought to the person who lost it?”
(He chokes up.)
Whew. It was no morality, no religion, no philosophy, it was just an expression of the human spirit that can become so powerful and so majestic as to think those thoughts. And I said, “No, Alfred, I haven’t thought about that. But if I live to be 1,000, I’ll never forget it.” He was a great human being. That’s the kind of man I met.
One of the ironies in your life is that you went to the Middle East to fight, and now you go back for the opposite reason, to plant the seeds for peace.
Sometimes we talk about things that we imagine, that we dream of, that are still just tiny thoughts. And then they become empires. We started with the idea that these two Hamas Arabs in Gaza we’d seen featured in the Los Angeles Times, these two lifeguards with one [beat-up] surfboard between them needed new boards. We just took [new surfboards] to the Arabs, not making any big fuss over it. But when we came back from the Arab-Israeli border, waiting for us was every major news outlet in the world. From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to Al Jazeera. A billion people saw us do that.
Somebody asked me about the peace, and I realized that it was ridiculous. Everything that Bush is doing, Olmert, Abbas, it’s bullshit. Plain bullshit. Condoleezza Rice has come to steer the bullshit. There is no peace in the conflict. There’s no peace between hot and cold, slow and fast, husband and wife. It’s all one big fight. But there is one human condition called peacefulness. You don’t say, “These bastards have been fighting for 6,000 years, let’s get them together.” Peacefulness is not tranquility of spirit, it’s streets that are not muddy, it’s enough to eat on, it’s enough clothing to wear or covers at night. It’s a little clinic to take your kids to. It’s the mechanics of survival we all want. That’s peacefulness. And surfing is peacefulness. When you go out in the water with your enemies, they are peaceful.
When you guide your commitment, your resources and your skills to peacefulness, the seeds of peace are there. When you start the other way around, it’s bullshit. You cannot have the Arabs walking around like poverty-stricken bag ladies and Israelis driving around in a Porsche. You can’t have that. Because there’s no peacefulness in that. It showed me that that’s what we have to offer in our surfing. The merest snippet of peacefulness.