Waves pounded up the beach and hissed around bunches of flowers, pulling them down the strand in a tumbling blur of color. Kenneth Eddins watched them go, staring out at the rolling water as the foam-soaked petals disappeared.
“It’s kind of apropos that the waves are the way they are,” he said. “When you’re doing a memorial, you don’t want it to be calm surf.”
Every year, the Old Guy Surf Reunion begins with a memorial tribute. Surfers laid their boards in the grass and scattered flowers across them as a reader listed the names of the dead. Some shed tears, but others whooped or clapped as a loved one’s name was called, celebrating the time they shared together. When the list was finished, the group moved as one to the beach, throwing their flowers into the air for the tide to catch. The ceremony is a bittersweet reminder of years past for people like Eddins, who knew many of the names.
“There’s just something that draws me to it every year,” Eddins said. “We’re surfers here. We came here since we were able to drive and then some.”
Though the reunion began solemnly, the day is mostly a joyful one. Former Surfside denizens returned from all across the region, bringing children and grandchildren to experience the beach that shaped their childhood. They spent the day in and out of the water, surfing, building sand castles, playing volleyball and catching up with old faces. Mark Muse shaped the original event in 2013 as something of a get-together picnic, mimicking the old impromptu gatherings where everyone showed up with a board and a basket of snacks. As interest grew, it became a structured day with surfing lessons, a sand castle contest and an after party.
“It’s grown and turned into a pretty amazing event. Everybody comes down here yearly and brings their kids and grandkids. It’s become a generational progression of our children to the beach we love,” Muse said.
He remembers days when thousands of cars lined the way to Surfside Beach. He described the surfers as a tribe, all arriving from different locations to become one people as they hit their favorite stomping grounds. The sense of camaraderie was strong at the reunion, as shouts of welcome rang up and down the beach. Huddles formed as people greeted long-lost friends, then broke only to reform a little ways away as they did it again.
“It’s great to these guys. A lot of these guys are (in their) late 70s, so I was a kid when they were teenagers,” Brian Dansby said. “A lot of them are who we looked up to when we were in the water.”
Dansby’s childhood heroes are now his surfing companions. Though he abstained this year because of an injured shoulder, he said he hits the waves as often as he can. For him, surfing has created a family, a fluid but unbreakable tie that lasts through the years.
“It keeps a lot of us still together, the water,” he said. “For us, it’s spiritual. It bonded us when we were kids and bonds us still as older guys.”
After a day of surfing, the reunion-goers gathered back on dry land to tell stories about their adventures. Dansby said some of the best stories on the Gulf Coast circulate there, where generations of travelers and watermen swap their best memories. Dawn Fowler has one of those stories.
“We got here in ’63 or ’64, and my parents rented a house and let a bunch of these surfers live in our green bus that had flowers on it,” she said. “They taught us how to surf when we were in our teens, so we’ve been part of this group for a long time.”
The ’60s are long gone, but the memory of that green bus rolls on. Down the beach, a child builds a sand castle just like the ones they used to make, and out on the water, a man teaches his grandchildren to surf. History repeats itself, and the cycle of surf goes on.