Whatever happened had taken place close to sundown, Gabe apparently wanting to get in one last wave before heading back to college. Late in the day was sharky, for sure, a fact that gave credence to the gossip blooming the next morning in homeroom. Poor Gabe. Tan, towheaded, and a year older than me, he was just home for a weekend visit. Reports turned progressively bleak as the day wore on. It was all we could do to wait for the last bell, but when it rang, my friends and I knew where to go for the real story.
We headed to Bert’s Surf Shop, where a junior we knew worked the counter. We clustered in the parking lot, waiting for him to show up, anxiously crunching gravel beneath our Rainbow Sandals, the upscale flip-flops we all wore year-round. (Most kids in Atlantic Beach only owned closed-toe shoes for funerals.) When the guy arrived, we swarmed.
“I heard his foot was bitten all the way off,” he said, letting this grim fact sink in. “The stump looked like one of those hams my mom makes, you know, with a bone sticking out the middle?”
Sarah, a senior who’d just started working at Bert’s, said she’d heard that there were shark teeth embedded in Gabe’s board — a bite taken out of the side “just like out of an Oreo.”
I believed her, of course. How could I not? She was wearing the newest color of Birdwell Beach Britches, the ones Atlantic Beach girls like Sarah could get away with wearing, even though they were boys’ surf trunks. Nylon with a lace-up front and Velcro fly, they were actually too constricting to be good surf wear. But worn by a girl, they conveyed a certain status: cool. They had a special pocket, with an eyelet drain, specifically for surf wax. No one ever used it for that, but the symbolism was important.
My circle got their Birdwells from Bert’s, due, in no small part, to Sarah, who was a walking billboard for the latest colors. (Today, we might call her an influencer.) I wasn’t a Bert’s girl at heart. Marsh’s, owned by the eponymous local surf family, was more my style. Most of my good friends claimed Atlantic Beach Surf Shop — known as AB — as their favorite. Together, these three emporiums of beachwear composed the holy trinity of surf culture.
But even if you weren’t a surfer — and I never was — the social scene that sprang up inside and outside of these shops was your Facebook, your Twitter, and your Instagram combined. Your shop preference was a shortcut to understanding your personality: extrovert, introvert, or the chill ideal in between.
• • •
AB was only two blocks from Bert’s. We figured Bailey, one of the best surfers at our school, would be there with news. While Bert’s was full of every kind of beachy thing you might need or want, I wasn’t convinced that the kids behind the counter would know the details of a real-deal shark attack. AB was Gabe’s hometown haunt anyway, and the oldest surf shop in the state. It smelled like leather and shellac to Bert’s rubber and tanning oil. Ray-Bans, if you had that kind of cash, came from AB — for Oakleys, you went to Bert’s. Our coveted Rainbows came from AB. Even though Marsh’s and Bert’s carried them, too, AB was first, and to us, first usually meant best.
Right away, we spotted Bailey’s car in the parking lot: Unlike the other surfers, who had racks on their cars, Bailey had removed the passenger seat from his Gremlin and stuck his longboard out the window. He was sitting on the steps with a girl named Carly. She was still thought of as “the new girl,” but she’d been in Atlantic Beach long enough that we didn’t call her a dingbatter — beach slang for tourists and new people — anymore. I had been a dingbatter in my childhood, spending half the year in Atlantic Beach, the other half inland, but I lost my dingbatter status when my family moved to the beach full-time.
Now, the coded language of surf culture was my own. I asked Bailey if he’d heard about Gabe.
“Yeah, but I heard he wasn’t even out to the break at Triple S Pier. A shark that would bite you wouldn’t even fit where Gabe was,” he said. “One time, I saw a fat man snorkeling there, and he beached himself. That’s how shallow — ”
“But don’t most shark attacks happen in shallow water?” Carly asked.
About this time, one of the managers of AB came out to smoke. He knew full well what we were talking about, and told us that Gabe probably just scraped his leg against a sand shark. Skin like sandpaper, happens all the time, he said. But we had his number: Although AB catered to a serious surfer crowd, their customers also included many a dingbatter with spending money. And dingbatters didn’t love shark talk.
Bailey had heard enough. He stood up and declared, “Let’s go to Marsh’s.”
• • •
The first thing you saw as you drove over the drawbridge into Atlantic Beach was a huge mural painted on the side of a building facing the water: a surfer against a sea of deep green and white foam. Marsh’s Surf Shop was started by Bette Marsh, a legend in the Carolina surf world, and her sons. Bette pioneered the Eastern Surfing Association, and her son Mickey Marsh and, in turn, his son MJ made their marks as professionals who competed all over the world. Aside from stocking a decent chunk of the clothes worn at our high school, Marsh’s sponsored the daily surf report on the radio. You had a pretty good chance of having a conversation with a pro surfer at Marsh’s — if you knew to go around back, and your timing was right.
We found Brian around back, waxing a board. A tall 18-year-old with lean muscles and wavy copper hair, he was the only person any of us knew outside the military who had a tattoo: the Rip Curl logo, the brand of wet suit he favored. All the shops sold them, but Brian made a point of buying all his gear from Marsh’s.
He smiled and tossed the wax to me; blessedly, the universe allowed me to catch it. “All right, bookworm,” he said to me, “you’ve got the conch, catch me up.” This was an inside joke between us. I had helped him with his Lord of the Flies paper the year before, and I knew he meant bookworm in a nice way, even if Carly heard it as an insult.
I told him about Gabe and what we’d learned so far: the ham, the Oreo, the shallow water theory, the shark skin. He listened, nodding. When we’d all put in our two cents, he hopped up on the wooden back of the bench and held up his hands: “OK, listen up, because here’s what happened. Gabe was sitting on his board, waiting to paddle back out, and swinging his feet, and there was a nurse shark right underneath him.”
I didn’t like where this was going: A nurse shark is basically the teddy bear of the shark world. Kids sometimes picked up small ones to play with in tidal pools. I once had a meltdown at Cape Lookout because I thought I was being attacked by a jellyfish (it was a bread bag), and even I would not be afraid of a nurse shark. If a nurse shark bit Gabe, it would be a first. And kind of an insult, actually.
“Do nurse sharks even have teeth?” Carly asked. We shook our heads. Still a dingbatter. Brian, being a surfer, and, therefore, unfailingly nice, didn’t laugh. “It’s more like rough places on their gums, but, technically, they are teeth,” he said. “I guess the shark had its mouth open. Gabe swung his foot …”
I’m sure my mouth fell open: So it was true?
“… and it went all the way into the shark’s mouth,” he continued. “And his foot got scratched when he pulled it out.”
“So it was a shark bite?” Carly asked.
“I guess you can call it that if you want,” Brian replied. “But Gabe didn’t even need a Band-Aid.”
• • •
I live in Morehead City now, across the high-rise bridge that replaced the slow, lumbering drawbridge that I used as my excuse for being late everywhere when I was a teenager. Marsh’s sits at the foot of the bridge, where the causeway starts, and still has its signature smell of cork and wax, the library quiet and soft lighting. The display of ukuleles is new, but the rest looks like old times. The shirts and shorts are carefully hung at perfect intervals, as though measured by a ruler. Wet suits hang on the wall like space suits, emitting their rubbery scent. If there can be a surf-shop feng shui, Marsh’s has mastered it.
The young man behind the counter, Calvin, shows me the boards. There’s nothing so blindingly shiny and clean-looking as a new board. Just running your hand along the gleaming surface makes you want to learn to surf. Racked on the ceiling are dozens of the Marsh family’s personal boards — boards that traveled the world with their owners, only to come back home.
Mickey Marsh, now 64, strolls in wearing his easy smile, and sees what I’m admiring. “I surfed that one in South Africa,” he says, pointing up. “That one is one of MJ’s boards. A prototype. See? That was shorter than anyone had ever seen at the time.”
Together, we quietly skim the framed newspaper clippings on the walls. The articles from my era have yellowed with age. There’s a picture of the old beachfront parking lot I remember well, with the overhead sign, “Marsh’s Surf and Sea.” Customer parking doubled as an entrance to the breakers — the big, open seaside lot was like gold. It’s what Mickey misses most from the old days, before the shop moved. “It’s always changing,” he says, meaning all of it — the shop, the sport. Life. Not that he’s wishing for anything different.
AB is quiet, too, when I stroll in — the summer heat is still a ways off, as are the tourists. My eyes go to the stacks of beautiful boards. The store was founded in 1964 by Tommy Morrow, an enthusiastic surfer who was encouraged by his father to make his passion into a business when he was still a teenager. Morrow took that idea and expanded it over the years. “It wasn’t long after we were in business before I started catering to the summer folk, and the locals, in terms of clothes,” he says from behind the counter. “I’ve always been proud of our clothes.” I mention the stairway to the surf loft. “I’m not a surfer,” I tell him, “but I still always went up there to see the boards.”
“I loved having that loft built for our boards,” he says. “But, you know, when longboards got big again in the ’90s, it was a problem, because when I built it, it was all about short boards.”
“What do you remember about the ’80s?” I ask. “The kids?” I want to believe he remembers us.
He thinks for a minute, then chuckles and says, “You all wanted to dress alike. If I found a bathing suit that I knew would sell, I would order a big quantity in different colors. You wanted to be different from each other — but you all wanted the same thing.”
I’m horrified. We were cool surf town kids. I shake my head: “I don’t remember it being that way.”
“It was that way,” he says, laughing. “You were fun kids, but you weren’t very brave.”
True. The AB stickers on every notebook spoke to that. I even used to have one on my salt-sprayed Chevette window, so I buy a new one for my Mazda on the way out. If only I still had my Wayfarers (bought at AB), I could hang them from the rearview mirror by my turquoise Croakies (bought at Bert’s, of course).
Bert’s: It’s pretty much the same — there’s just more of it. It looks like the old Bert’s exploded inside itself, and then an additional truck of merchandise was brought in and that, too, exploded. Phil, a manager who’s been at Bert’s since 1986 — two years after I graduated — leans on a counter in the surf section to talk about old times. It’s like we’re in a cocoon of gear.
“I got my Croakies here,” I tell him.
“We’ve still got ’em.”
I point out something I remember not even from my high school years, but way back from my childhood: a promotional teddy bear wearing a tiny blue Rip Curl wet suit. “I can’t believe he’s still there,” I say.
Phil’s probably heard that a thousand times. But still. He says kindly, “Oh, he’ll always be there.”
Atlantic Beach Surf Shop
515 West Fort Macon Road
Bert’s Surf Shop
304 West Fort Macon Road
Marsh’s Surf Shop
615 Atlantic Beach Causeway