By Bill Gifford
Sunday, June 14, 2009
CRAZY FOR THE STORM
A Memoir of Survival
By Norman Ollestad
Ecco. 272 pp. $25.99
Were he alive and parenting today, Norman Ollestad, Sr. would almost certainly be arrested -- or worse, collared and forced to appear on Dr. Phil. He would be pilloried by the Alpha Mommy Brigade and lose any hope of ever visiting his beloved only son, Norman Jr.
Consider this list of offenses, compiled by "Little Norm" in this breathtaking "memoir of survival": An avid surfer, the elder Ollestad takes his stripling son out in waves that are literally breaking over his head. They go skiing out-of-bounds in deep powder, and the kid flounders; Dad comes to his aid only when Little Norm finds himself trapped head-down in a tree well, a potentially fatal situation. Driving home from their ski trips, Papa Ollestad would sometimes "rest one eye," as he put it, letting Little Norm steer while he dozed behind the wheel. At one point, he takes the kid on a 1,000-mile Mexican road trip that reads like an outtake from "Easy Rider."
Contemplating that looming journey to Mexico, one that would certainly involve surfing, Junior felt nothing but dread: "He would be focused on the surf and I would be left to fend for myself," he moans. He vastly preferred birthday parties and chocolate cake to his dad's taxing adventures. "I yearned to live the life of my peers," he writes, "riding bikes together after school, playing ball in a cul-de-sac." But this is not a memoir of complaint, nor a saga of childhood oppression. The "survival" part comes later, after their chartered Cessna slammed into the side of 8,693-foot Ontario Peak in the middle of a raging winter storm. Ollestad, his father and his father's girlfriend had been flying to pick up the kid's championship ski trophy when the pilot became lost and hit the peak. His father and the pilot were killed instantly, and the author and his father's girlfriend were left to fight for their lives. There, in wilderness barely an hour from downtown Los Angeles, Ollestad realized that everything his father had taught him, every painful ordeal to which he had subjected the boy, had a purpose.
Even by the standards of Southern California in the 1960s, Norman Ollestad's parents were a quirky pair. His father had been a child actor, appearing in the movie "Cheaper by the Dozen." Later he joined the FBI, but soon grew disillusioned with J. Edgar Hoover's petty diktats and wrote a book exposing them, which did not endear him to his former employers. He retreated to the hippie enclave of Topanga Beach, at the south end of Malibu, where he surfed and earned a desultory living as a lawyer.
Ollestad sketches life at Topanga as nearly idyllic: Surfing just outside the front door, naked people on the beach, a cluster of simple houses on the sand (now long gone, bulldozed to make way for movie-star mansions). The book opens with a photo of his father taking Norman surfing, in a baby carrier. But the '60s were expiring, yielding to the bleak hangover of the '70s. His mother was an incurable romantic, and when she fell in love with a visiting Frenchman, his parents' marriage was over. Like so many of us who belonged to that first generation of children of divorce, Ollestad was forced to navigate by himself a complicated world that he hadn't made.
It is his father who towers over the story, with his hunger for life and new experiences of all kinds, good and bad -- pushing Norman, whom he dubs "Boy Wonder," into all sorts of situations that seem reckless now. He's about the furthest thing possible from today's "helicopter parents," hovering over their children and monitoring their every move, shielding them from the unpleasantness and conflict that make up so much of life. Norman Senior wanted his son to experience the brilliance and the danger of life, to learn that you can't know the bliss of a perfect powder run if you're not also a little bit scared.
When their plane hit the mountain, Little Norm had just won the Southern California ski championship, thanks in part to the skills he'd acquired by following his father down various terrifying avalanche gullies. Now he was lost and freezing, struggling with the realization that his father was dead, trying to stay conscious and get himself and his father's girlfriend, Sandra, to safety. Not long afterward, the dazed Sandra plummeted to her death down the icy mountainside. The boy realized he had to make it down alone. As his initial panic yielded to his rational mind, he summoned the strength and self-reliance that he had unwittingly learned from his father over the years, in spite of his whining and complaining. "I knew then that what he had put me through saved my life," he writes. The tragedy is that it took his father's death for him to realize that. One wonders how well today's over-coddled kids might have fared in similar circumstances; at least they could have texted for help.
This book is not perfect: Some of the descriptive passages are difficult to follow, and perhaps less precise than they could be, so that we get lost in the fog on the mountain, just as we sometimes flounder in the author's own inchoate emotions around this traumatic and defining moment of his life. But these are minor complaints. A portrait of a father's consuming love for his son, "Crazy for the Storm" will keep you up late into the night. --
Bill Gifford is the author of "Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer" and editor at large of Men's Journal.