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The Inertia

Doc Paskowitz died last night surrounded by his family, leaving a void that will never be filled. The world lost a great man when he slipped away.

While he would never tell you as much, Doc was one of the earliest creators of today’s surf culture. After leaving the hospital in Hawaii he worked at as a doctor, he packed up a van and drove away. That was the beginning of nearly twenty-five years on the road, raising nine children with his wife in a succession of different vehicles. Their life revolved around surfing, loving, and Doc’s general ideas about how life is supposed to be lived. “Going on the road was not a planned, contrived choreographed decision,” he told me. “It was in keeping with the lifestyle that I grew up with.” There are a million stories out there about the adventures he took his family on, and they tell a tale of a man driven to do exactly what he thought was right. For better or for worse, Doc was a supremely principled man.

I didn’t know Doc Paskowitz terribly well. I regret not trying to know him better than I did. I interviewed him a handful of times – once on the phone and once face-to-face. I met him in passing once in Hawaii, just a brief handshake in a parking lot with a warm breeze. Every time I spoke with him, it occurred to me that he was completely unaware of his standing in our little community of wave riders. He actually thanked me for wanting to interview him. This was something far beyond modesty. Doc genuinely felt lucky to be surrounded by people that he looked up to. What he didn’t understand was that those people all looked up to him.

The first time I talked to him, I was nervous. He’s a man who lived his life almost entirely on his own terms – something that is terrifying to nearly everyone else in our society. He was extraordinarily intelligent, full of life, love, humor and passion. I didn’t know what to call him. Not feeling comfortable calling him Doc, I asked him whether I should call him Mr. Paskowitz. He laughed at me as though we were long lost friends. Even the notion that I call him anything other than Doc was ridiculous to him.

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“I love to be called Doc,” he told me. I could hear him smiling through the phone. We spoke at length that afternoon, he in Hawaii and me in California; a long, rambling conversation, about everything from politics to religion, from surfing to evolution. At the time of our first interview, Doc was 92. I half expected the conversation to be difficult, filled with long, pregnant pauses as an elderly man tugged on his memory, trying to recall things that happened so many years ago. But Doc was different. While his body was beginning to fail, his mind was as clear as ever. He spoke eloquently about almost any subject I cared to bring up.

Generally when I interview someone, I plan on writing a story about them and using their words as quotes. After I spoke with Doc, I struggled with how I was going to put the story together. He simply said too many good things to leave out. There was no way I could weave all of them into one story, so we decided that we’d run it as an intro followed by a few of his best thoughts. It ran long, of course. You can read it here.

Since then, I’ve written quite a few pieces about the family. I’m proud to call his son Joshua my friend. What he’s done for his father in the last few weeks is incredible, and any father would be lucky to have a son like him. The second time I spoke with Doc, it was face to face for a Headspace interview. When we walked in, his wife Juliette welcomed us into her house with the most open arms, gave us cold drinks, and introduced us to Doc. He was asleep in a chair, his body withered from a lifetime of chasing his dreams. He looked like a frail old man, a shadow of the man that resided in my head. Then he woke up, and my perception of him completely changed. He looked me square in the face with the eyes of a young man. They glittered constantly; the corners of them crinkled from a life spent smiling. He looked happy.

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There was something about his eyes – bright blue and slightly clouded with age but with some strange shimmering vibrancy behind them. There was a force in them. He shook my hand with a firm grip and began interviewing me. “I’d like to know more about you,” he said, “before you get to know about me.” It was by far the best interview I’ve ever had, because it wasn’t an interview. It was just an interesting, funny conversation on a patio in Dana Point. It was a sunny afternoon, the wind rustling through palms as Doc spoke about his life. His wife and youngest son occasionally chimed in, laughing along with us.

When we left, we all hugged. I felt like part of their family. That was the thing about Doc – when he brought you into his life, he did it with everything he had. His life will be remembered by everyone who met him, and by countless who didn’t. And if there’s any consolation in all this, it can be summed up in something that Doc said during one of our conversations.

“All of my life,” he said through a smile, “I’ve been afraid of dying. I went to a party once, and a sooth-sayer said, ‘You will live a great life, but you will die very young.’ At that time, I was sixteen,” he continued. “I thought that at 18, I was going to die. When I didn’t die at 18, I thought it was 28. When I didn’t die at 28, I thought it was 38. Now, since I’m past 88…” he paused to chuckle to himself. “Would you believe it? I don’t give a shit. I’m ready to die.” But while Doc may have been ready, the rest of us weren’t.

Doc's smile in this photo is one of the most genuine things.

Doc’s smile in this photo is one of the most genuine things. Photo: Dan Lemaitre

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