CHILD OF THE STORM: HOW AN ANGRY YOUNG MAN FOUND A BOND WITH THE SEA AND CHANGED OUR LIVES FOREVER

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Child of The Storm, by Kirk Lee Aeder (Mutual Publishing, LLC, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2012, 306 pages).

Book Review by Dennis Moore

September 12, 2014 (San Diego's East County) - Kirk Lee Aeder, currently a resident of Hawaii, the acknowledged birthplace of surfing, has written an iconic book about how an angry young man formed a bond with the sea and changed our lives forever; Child of The Storm.It has been described as “One of the most compelling, tragic, yet inspiring stories in the history of surfing.” It is all that, and much more! Aeder’s book is the story of Chris O’Rourke, a shy young Irish boy from New Jersey who had an affinity for playing in the water. It chronicles O’Rourke’s family being unexpectedly forced to flee their East Coast home and lavish lifestyle, and journey as far west as possible, La Jolla and the shores of the Pacific Ocean. It is very possible from reading this heartfelt and well written book, that the presumed anger in this young man came about as a result of this sudden uprooting of his family.

This book by Aeder, also author of The Great Hawaii Sports Journal (Island Heritage Publishing), is a testament to his lifelong love and friendship for the now departed O’Rourke, and attempts to define and explain this complex individual. Aeder, who also grew up in La Jolla, California where he developed a strong passion for photojournalism, demonstrates it in his book about O’Rourke with a pictorial account of the surfing prowess of this child prodigy.

Child of The Storm is a true story that recounts the tumultuous life and incredible surfing of Chris O’Rourke, as described by his close friend Aeder. In the 1970’s Chris rapidly became one of the best surfers in the world, in spite of the dark cloud of family turmoil that swirled around him. This dark cloud was his father fleeing from coast to coast with family in tow, attempting to escape the claws of organized crime. Chris grew up in La Jolla, California where his expertise in surfing became synonymous at his favorite surf break known as Windansea. In 1975, at age sixteen, Chris was the number one rated surfer from the mainland United States. He had only one goal – to become a world champion. In 1977, around the world professional surfing began to gather momentum. A bold few made their move to take part. Chris found himself perched on the threshold of his dreams, poised to make history in the sport he loved, only to come face to face with his deadliest opponent ever. His life was about battling fate, while at the same time trying to find redemption. Wanting nothing more than to compete again in order to defeat mistakes of his past, his story is not about duration, but about brilliance.

As I have spent numerous days gazing at the rhythmic and poetic motions of surfers gliding through the waters off the Ocean Beach pier in San Diego, I would vicariously experience the coolness of the water and exhilaration that I am sure the surfers felt, but by reading Aeder’s book it gave me a greater appreciation of the joy that Chris O’Rourke and other surfers felt when they were in their element. Ocean Beach is actually in the general vicinity of the Windansea area that O’Rourke would make his surfing home.

The author states with seeming envy that Chris performed incredible maneuvers in the sea that defied the laws of gravity and inertia. The numerous photos that Aeder shares with the readers in this book gives testament to Chris’ prowess while surfing. Despite his abilities at surfing, Chris had to be convinced by others to humble his arrogance and speak with his skills – a potent combination that attracted many followers. But this book is not just about surfing, but the demons in this young man’s life that he had to overcome, some of them self imposed. Most notably, it is about an illness that few if any are able to overcome. This illness, inflicted on O’Rourke while he was in the prime of his life and surfing abilities would sap his energy and eventually his life.

Perhaps the most amazing passage and admission in this book to me is made in Chapter 23; Road to Recovery, as the author states: “Chris also continued his chemotherapy and radiation treatments in Hawaii. On a couple of occasions, Michael Ho and his good friend Hans Hedemann, whose smooth surfing style and deft tube-riding skills Chris admired, drove him across the island to Kaiser Hospital in Honolulu. They saw how taxing the procedures were on his body, and they had a suggestion. Chris was still smoking marijuana anyway. Why not smoke it before and after his treatments to help combat the nausea? The next time Chris went for his treatment, he didn’t become ill afterward. He was elated to have two good friends like Michael and Hans around, and Hans was amazed by Chris’s resilience.” Mind you, Chris would actually die from this dreadful illness Hodgkin’s disease, or cancer of the lymph glands, at the tender age of 22-years-old, so it might be a bit questionable for him to be given marijuana before and after his chemotherapy and radiation treatments or any other foreign substance by his friends. This, coming from a cancer survivor myself.

There are many sides to this story, which is at times emotional and heartwarming. And Aeder seems to tell them all. The author tells of the time when Chris’ mother Gloria comes to the hospital to visit him, and she happens to be drunk. Chris responds by stating: “Get out of this room!” Gloria responds by stating: “Chris, you don’t mean that. I’m your mom, slurring.” Of course, Chris responds by stating: “I do mean it, and no, you are not my mom. Because my mom doesn’t drink!” The author points out the strength of character it took for Chris to say all this was remarkable. Gloria would later call her own mother and her husband’s mother and state: “Please help me – I’m an alcoholic!” It is clear while reading this powerful story about a young man, as to how he became so dysfunctional, with a father running from organized crime and a mother a confessed alcoholic. It is also clear why Chris would seek solace and tranquility on the sea surfing. One would think and hope that this young man would find peace, but unfortunately he never did, outside of reluctantly embracing God near the end.   

It is notable to mention that O’Rourke did not embrace religion in his life, at least not until it got to the point that he seemed to have no other recourse while his life and body was wracked with the vestiges of the illness that would end his life. While in one of his many hospital stays, one of Chris’ friends, Brew Briggs, came to read and preach the Bible to him. Of course, Chris felt that Brew was pushing him too far with his religious rhetoric, and angrily stated: “I’ve tried it already, okay? I’ve prayed hundreds of times, and it hasn’t done me any good! So good that thing away from me, just take it with you and get out of here.” Clearly, that was the pain and despair talking. Nevertheless, as Brew was leaving with the Bible back on the table despite the fire burning in Chris’s eyes, he stated: “You’re not mad at me, and you’re not mad at the Lord. You’re mad at what’s happened to you. This will help you deal with all that, I promise.”

This is a very complex story, about a very complex young man, but what could you really expect from someone so young, and having been dealt the hand he had, along with the surrounding circumstances? Chris O’Rourke died at the age of 22, and the author tells the story of his friend’s life and death in a touching and melancholy way. It was painfully clear that Chris was loved, and in some instances revered, as evidenced by the throng of family and friends that attended and participated in the scattering of ashes in the wave lineup at Windansea, early June 1981. If it is true that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, the numerous photos displayed by the author in this book tells the whole story! See video here.

Dennis Moore is an Associate Editor with the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego that has partnered with the East County Magazine, as well as a freelance contributor to EURweb based out of Los Angeles. Mr. Moore can be contacted at contractsagency@gmail.com or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.