Ocean Front Walk
By Michael E. Petrie, Published in Texas Bar Journal
Change is unavoidable, continuous and gradual over time. But, sometimes change must be intentional and abrupt. That's how the biggest change in my life occurred - with intent and abruptness.
I was an attorney - with reluctance I admit to still being one. Being an attorney has been the focus of my life for more than twenty years. But all that has changed. Clawing my way up the ladder of legal hierarchy within a large law firm is no longer my mainstay: untold hours churning out billable hours, hustling new business, combating constant stress associated with high stake litigation. The job made me unfit company for any decent caring woman.
So, my marriage of six years finally bit the dust. I hold no grudges, it was probably all my own doing. Wrapped up in my work and in myself, I was an emotionally absent husband. Thank God we never had children, the guilt of being an emotionally absent father might be too much to bear.
So, there I was - well into my forties and living alone - living for my job, my career. My six-figure salary something that might sound impressive to the uninitiated - until you calculate all the hours I gave the firm. Figured from that perspective, my hourly wage quickly loses any prestige one might attach to it.
Maybe I shouldn't complain - and for twenty-something years I did not complain. I went about my life in a tedious, almost antiseptic manner. Dark suit, white shirt, colorless neck tie; corporate law, real estate law, mergers, acquisitions, litigation; tasteless lunches consumed with clients or fellow attorneys while discussing cases. But now, that has all changed.
The detour from this path of mundane familiarity came with the death of my uncle, Jonathan Harding. To me, he was always good old Uncle Jack, my favorite relative.
Uncle Jack was, I suppose, the miscreant black sheep of the family. Standing out amongst all my uptight, conservative, hard-working, ambitious, God-fearing relatives, Uncle Jack shone brightly like some blighted beacon of bohemian unconventionality. Already well over thirty when the whole "hippie thing" was going on back in the late 1960s, Uncle Jack moved from our hometown in Illinois to a little strip of sand in Venice Beach, California called Ocean Front Walk, where he embraced that youth subculture anyway - in spite of the "don't trust anyone over thirty" Zeitgeist dogma - shunning the mainstream, growing long hair and beard and "going with the flow" of the counter-revolutionaries.
The family dismissed him as a crackpot, but I always admired him. Most assuredly, Uncle Jack is the reason why I chose to attend college and law school in California and have remained in the Golden State all these years - albeit laying down my own roots in the more staid Orange County, a place more in keeping with my Midwestern conventionality.
After graduating from high school, and much to my amazement, my parents consented to letting me spend the summer with Uncle Jack, for what I'm sure they presumed would be the last few idle months of my life before starting college and advancing into the work world.
That summer of 1971 was a summer right out of any teenage boy's fantasy. Two months of living on the beach in sunny Southern California! Uncle Jack taught me to surf the small but consistent wave breaks right in front of his house at Venice Beach. By then Uncle Jack would have been in his late forties, but you would never know it: he could surf with the best of them, bike ride along the beach bike path for several hours, and still manage to party long after we watched the sun sizzle into the Pacific right out our front window. He was more like an older brother than an uncle - certainly not at all like someone from my parents' generation.
We would sit on the front deck of the little beach cottage, day after sunshiny day, listening to rock music and flirting with bikini-clad beach bunnies as they cruised past our door on roller skates along the paved path that parallels the ocean for some twenty miles.
So many of the local colorful characters for which Venice Beach is known were among Uncle Jack's coterie of beach buddies and often stopped by to visit, each with their own unique tales to share. I can still recall Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson sitting at breakfast with us one morning after surfing with Uncle Jack and telling us about the frenetic "early days" with his famous band. Everything and everybody at the beach just seemed so damned exciting!
Sadly, Doors singer Jim Morrison died that very summer. Uncle Jack sat up all night embracing a whiskey bottle - something that was actually rather out of character for my uncle - mourning the passing of the Lizard King, a man he called friend.
"Jim lived just a bit down the beach, but often he'd crash right here," I vividly remember my uncle saying, pointing a finger in my direction for emphasis and speaking with slurred words from grief and whiskey. "He'd just wander in, grab a beer from the fridge and crap out on that very sofa you're sitting on, Ben. Jim often said 'no one gets out of this world alive,' guess he's proven himself correct."
I enrolled at Berkeley that fall and spent the next four summers with Uncle Jack, who was always there waiting for me to drive down from school. Suntanned and trim, he never seemed to age. I jokingly told him that one day I would be a stooped old man and he would still be surfing the ocean out front of his beach house. He told me that old is more a state of mind than a physical reality and I think he truly believed that.
I loved Uncle Jack and I loved the summers spent with him in that little beach shack more than anything. But, in the summer of 1976 Uncle Jack took off to sail around the world on a sailboat with some friends - a voyage that would take several years - so he rented-out the house to strangers. For me, the fun times were over. Stanford Law School, studying for the Bar Exam and grueling hours spent practicing law consumed my life. Several offers arrived in the mail over the years from Uncle Jack, asking me to join him on his sailing voyages - but I was far too busy. I had become too grown-up to play with Uncle Jack anymore.
In the blink of an eye, twenty years had come and gone. Uncle Jack completed his circumnavigation, finally settling in with a woman he met somewhere in the Mediterranean. They eventually married, but never had children, and neither I nor any member of my family attended the wedding ceremony, if there was one. After that, there wasn't much further communication.
Still, when news reached me of his passing, I was deeply saddened. My knees caved, suddenly lacking ability to support my frame. Collapsing into the leather chair, seated behind my big solid desk, this tough lawyer had tears rolling down his cheeks.
And then I was contacted by a fellow attorney, someone with whom I was not at all familiar. Uncle Jack had left a will.
I never imagined Uncle Jack would leave anything to me. Indeed, I never considered my freewheeling uncle to have accrued much of an estate. But there was the old beach house on Ocean Front Walk. And now this funky old house from my youth was mine. Thank you Uncle Jack, wherever you may now be. What a kind and generous gesture.
Scarcely more than a shack, even back when I used to spend my summers there, the house is very old - built in 1929 - and, after years of occupation by renters, in considerable disrepair. Still, located right on the sand overlooking the Pacific, certainly it must have some value.
Indeed it did. A local realtor estimated its value at considerably more than two million dollars! Thank you, thank you - two million thank yous - Uncle Jack!
I took the afternoon off and drove up the coast to Venice Beach. Only sixty or so miles along Pacific Coast Highway, but a universe away in tenor and spirit. Venice Beach is a place removed from many of the realities of the world, where one can ponder and reexamine one's life.
My initial instinct upon learning of the house's value was to sell it and pocket that cool couple-mill. But once I saw the shack again, I knew I could never sell it. This fine old building rising up out of the sand with its weathered front facing the Pacific Ocean seemed to me a monument in tribute to my beloved Uncle Jack - although, a monument in dire need of some TLC.
Entering the now vacant dwelling, thick cobwebs began flittering in the breeze from the open door. Walking its interior, time breathed in and out as a flood of memories came rushing at me - filling my senses with melancholic feelings I'd not held in decades.
I walked out onto the front deck, looking toward the beach, drawing into my lungs the viscous, damp air that hugs the coast. Two girls packed nicely into bikinis glided past on roller blades. One waved and smiled as she continued on her way. Skates have been replaced by blades, but the scenery had not really changed much over the years.
Back inside, the place needed some work, but its soul was still intact. It was warm and stuffy in the house from being boarded up, so I opened a few windows and removed my shirt for comfort. Passing a mirror in the bathroom, I caught a glimpse of myself shirtless. My reflection was that of a pasty-skinned, middle-aged man with protruding paunch acquired from too many years sitting behind a desk. I'm about the same age Uncle Jack was when we hung out together, but Uncle Jack never looked so old.
Clearly, I was not aging well. It suddenly occurred to me that time can be your enemy or your friend. Working as a lawyer with myriad time constraints, statutes of limitation, filing deadlines . . . I was always battling with time. Now I wanted to change all that, to make peace with Father Time: make time my friend. I decided right there and then that a change - an abrupt and intentional change - was in order.
I sat down on the sand, surveying my newly acquired beachfront real estate, and did some quick calculations in my head. The beach house had no encumbrances, title was free and clear. If I sold my home in Orange County, I could pocket a real chunk of change from the equity that had built up over the years. That, combined with the savings I had squirreled away and my 401K plan at work, and . . . Voila! Suddenly I was worth a few million bucks! I had enough money to buy my freedom, to pick up the baton from my dearly departed uncle and to run with it. Uncle Jack had the right idea all along and I intended to follow in his footsteps.
I slept that night on the hardwood floors with the ocean breeze wafting over me and the sound of crashing surf just outside my door. Morning sea gulls woke me with their laughter. Barefoot, with suit pants rolled above my ankles, I sauntered sleepily onto the sand and breathed deeply the ocean air. The time had come. I jumped into my car and cruised back down the coast to O.C.
Looking disheveled from sleeping on the floor in my suit and with beard stubble erupting over my face, I walked into the office, dictated a resignation letter to my secretary, handed my caseload to the senior partner . . . and quit!
I, Benjamin Harding - at age forty-eight - was reinventing myself. As good old Uncle Jack might have said, today was, indeed, the first day of the rest of my life.