About 25 years ago I was stationed at the Cherry Point MCAS, on the coast of North Carolina. A few of us used to go down to the beach in Morehead City on a pretty regular basis, and it was there that I first got hooked on the beach culture lifestyle.

I had a friend named Ed who surfed. With the small exception of a barely legal Marine Corps haircut, he looked the part. (At least to me… I grew up in the Midwest and had never seen the ocean before, let alone a real life surfer.)

He did have the perfect surfer car, a 1962 Chevy II station wagon. It was painted primer red with massive Mickey Thompson tires and Centerline rims in back, skinny drag tires up front, a welded chain steering wheel, and a cassette deck in the dash that would make your ears bleed. (Yes kids, a cassette deck...) Everyone in Morehead city knew it when we rolled into town, and in our minds we were the coolest guys on the beach.

Ed agreed to teach me how to surf, and so we loaded up the car with a couple of boards and headed to the water every chance we got. For a while when we were both working the night shift on the flight lines, we’d get out of work, grab breakfast, and surf all day. If there were no waves we’d sleep on the beach or try to meet tourist girls.

It turned out that surfing was a lot harder than it looked. In my defense, some of that was probably Ed’s fault. He loaned me one of his old boards, and while it was perfect for him at 160lb, it wasn’t so good for me at 210lb. Then, while teaching me to stand up, Ed showed me how to do it goofy footed since he was left handed. I’m right handed. So if you want a good laugh, imagine a 210lb Midwestern farm boy trying to stand up backwards on a squirrelly surfboard that’s way too small for him. I’m glad it didn’t occur to me at the time how silly I must have looked.

While I was bobbing around in the surf not catching many waves, I noticed that there were some old guys down the beach. They were definitely not cool like Ed and I. Our boards were the style of the day, short with hard rails designed for aggressive quick shredding of the waves and bashing the lip. They also had really cool airbrushed designs and were used by the champion contest surfers.

The old guys down the beach were surfing with great big boards that looked like they came right out of a 1960s surf movie. They would grab even the tiny waves and just kind of cruise along, never shredding, never doing any cool maneuvers or tricks. They just swam out, caught whatever wave came along, and rode it. They weren’t very exciting to watch, and everyone on the beach pretty much ignored them.

We called them ‘Soul Surfers’.  They were guys who were just out there communing with nature and not really interested in the whole contest scene or in trying to impress the girls on the beach. At the time, it was a bit of a derogatory term. We recognized that they were some sort of distant surfer cousins, but they definitely weren’t approaching surfing the way we did.

Flash forward 25 years. I’m now so completely immersed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that it’s become a lifestyle. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve surfed but I started thinking about those old guys on the beach again recently. I’ve slowly realized that I’m one of them now. I’m a ‘Soul Roller’.

I’m just out there having fun, enjoying my time on the mat, and not really trying to rip it up or impress anyone. I’m just rolling for the fun of rolling. This must have been the way those old guys on the beach felt about surfing.

Someday I’d love to start surfing again, and if I do I know I’ll go out and find myself a great big old long board that looks like it’s from a 1960s surf movie. I’ll find a quiet area on the beach away from all the loud kids trying to impress the tourist girls, paddle out, and catch whatever comes my way.

-          Bill Thomas