Don Waters was 3 when his father, Robert Stanley Waters, abandoned the boy and his mother. But before Robert Waters died, he sent Don a short autobiography, hoping it would help him understand his father.
It took years before Don could bring himself to read it. When he did, he discovered an unsuspected past — and a shared passion for surfing. What he read prompted him to take a trip along the California coast, where his father played a part in establishing the surfer culture's first beachhead on the American mainland.
Don Waters wrote about his experience for Outside magazine, and talks with NPR's Neal Conan about the surprising things he learned, chasing down his father through surfing history.
On receiving the memoir from his estranged father
"After our third meeting, he was very excited to have me back in his life, and he knew I was a writer, and so he sat down, and he penned his memoir. And then he finally sent it to me, and I didn't know what to do with it. And so I shoved it into a drawer. ... I was terrified.
"And so I finally opened it after six years, after my father's father died. And I realized I was the last Waters man in line, and I wanted to know more about my past. It was something that I'd just not been thinking about. And so finally I read it. And I opened it, and I was completely mesmerized. ... It really just took me a long time simply because of anger and issues that I was having to deal with, with our relationship and our disconnect.
"And so one of the reasons I took on this journey was to, you know, get rid of some of that anger. I think my father had a lot of anger in his life, and he had some anger with my mother, and, you know, in the end, that's a terrible thing, and I just didn't want to hold onto that like he did. And so I took this journey, and I'm really glad that I did."
On Robert Waters' secret life on the California coast
"There are amazing tales of, you know, being at the forefront of the surfing movement and hanging around some of the icons of the day and surfing some of the most amazing breaks in California, and sailing aboard yachts in races all over the place, and to Hawaii and Mexico. And not only that, being a torpedo man on a submarine in the Navy.
"So I really connected with that, and I connected with his love of water. And we both love water and the sport of surfing, and it was something that was a bridge to make me sort of get to know him better. I could actually go and surf and hopefully find some connection to something he loved and by doing that, you know, create my own positive memories of the man."
On tracking down iconic big-wave surfer Greg Noll
"My father grew up a couple blocks away from Greg Noll. So my father knew Greg Noll, and Greg Noll gave my father his first balsa wood surfboard. ... And so I tracked down Greg and his son Jed, who are both lovely people, but it really took some convincing to allow me to go to their shop at Greg's house in Northern California and shape a surfboard with them. And it was really amazing, too, because I was able to see the interaction of Greg and his son Jed and their interaction with each other. ... It's really lovely to witness. ...
"I've always felt jealous about men who follow in their father's footsteps, and Jed, you know, really respects his father, and he's doing the same thing. He now has his own shop in San Clemente. But, so, what we did is we shaped the same board, it's called a Malibu chip, and made out of the same balsa wood, not the same balsa wood, but, you know, different sticks of balsa wood. ...
"And then I took the board, and I went to the beach, Manhattan Beach, where my father first surfed, and I paddled into the waves there. ... I was terrified, because these boards, really, they retail for a lot of money ... and they're works of art. And so then, you know, there I am out at the beach with all these other surfers, and I've got this really expensive board. ... But I did OK, and I caught some waves, and it was really wonderful."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Don Waters saw his father just a few times. Robert Stanley Waters abandoned him and his mother when he was three years old. And Don grew up with a lot of questions and a lot of anger.
The last time he saw his father was in a hospital, but before he died, Don's father sent him a short autobiography. It took years before he could bring himself to read it, but when he did, he discovered an unsuspected past and started off on a journey to the California coast, where his father played a part as the surfer culture first established a beachhead on the American mainland.
He's hardly the only child who went back to seek a parents' unknown or unsuspected past. You may remember Barack Obama's journey to learn about his father, a story of loss and discovery. If you found out something surprising about your parents after he or she died, if this is your story, give us a call, 800-989-8255 is the phone number, or email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the great director Mike Nichols, who's on Broadway with "Death of a Salesman," but first messages from a parent's past. Don Waters is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. His piece, "Damn Right Your Dad Surfed It," appeared in the June issue of Outside magazine, and he joins us now from a studio in Portland, Oregon. Nice to have you with us today.
DON WATERS: Thank you, Neal, thanks for having me.
CONAN: And why did it take you so long to read the memoir your father wrote for you?
WATERS: You know, it took me many years. It took me six years to finally read his memoir. I believe he gave it to me after our third meeting. We only met five times, and the fifth time I met him, he was actually in the hospital. And he was dying at that point. And so it wasn't a pleasant meeting.
So after our third meeting, he was very excited to have me back in his life, and he knew I was a writer, and so he sat down, and he penned his memoir. And then he finally sent it to me, and I didn't know what to do with it. And so I shoved it into a drawer. I was just - I was terrified.
And so I finally opened it after six years, after my father's father died. And I realized I was the last Waters man in line, and I wanted to know more about my past. It was something that I'd just not been thinking about. And so finally I read it. And I opened it, and I was completely mesmerized.
There are certain chapters that I read over and over, and I used one of the chapters as a guide for this article for Outside. And so, you know, it was - it really just took me a long time simply because of anger and issues that I was having to deal with, with our relationship and our disconnect.
And so one of the reasons I took on this journey was to, you know, get rid of some of that anger, and, you know, I think my father had a lot of anger in his life, and he had some anger with my mother, and, you know, in the end, that's a terrible thing, and I just didn't want to hold onto that like he did. And so I took this journey, and I'm really glad that I did.
CONAN: To the extent that you knew him, you knew him as a mining engineer in Southwestern states.
WATERS: That's right.
CONAN: And this memoir revealed an entire other side to his life.
WATERS: It revealed the California side of his life, which immediately I connected with. I knew that, you know, when we first met, it was all very much located in Nevada. He was living in Las Vegas at the time, and I was in Reno, and so it was all about mining. And I really didn't connect with him over mining.
And in the memoir, there are just tales, there are amazing tales of, you know, being at the forefront of the surfing movement and hanging around some of the icons of the day and surfing some of the most amazing breaks in California, and sailing aboard yachts in races all over the place, and to Hawaii and Mexico. And not only that, being a torpedo man on a submarine in the Navy.
So I really connected with that, and I connected with his love of water. And we both love water and the sport of surfing, and it was something that was a bridge to make me sort of get to know him better. I could actually go and surf and hopefully find some connection to something he loved and by doing that, you know, create my own positive memories of the man. And so I was really trying to, you know, re-create a way of knowing him anew.
CONAN: You open this story as you paddle out to try to catch a wave on a - well, on what I think is not too far a stretch, your dad's surfboard.
WATERS: That's right, that's right. What I did for the article is there's a surfer, his name is Greg Noll, and he is an icon of the surfing world, big-wave surfing. And he grew up, my father grew up a couple blocks away from Greg Noll. So my father knew Greg Noll, and Greg Noll gave my father his first balsa wood surfboard.
And so when I read this in the magazine, I was astonished. I had no idea that my father had hung around with these guys.
CONAN: Famous, famous person.
WATERS: Yeah, he's quite famous. And so I tracked down Greg and his son Jed, who are both lovely people, but it really took some convincing to allow me to go to their shop at Greg's house in Northern California and shape a surfboard with them. And it was really amazing, too, because I was able to see the interaction of Greg and his son Jed and their interaction with each other, and it's just - it's really lovely to witness.
CONAN: You sound a little jealous about when you wrote.
WATERS: I did, I did. You know, I've always felt jealous about men who follow in their father's footsteps, and Jed, you know, really respects his father, and he's doing the same thing. He now has his own shop in San Clemente. But so what we did is we shaped the same board, it's called a Malibu chip, and made out of the same balsa wood, not the same balsa wood, but, you know, different sticks of balsa wood.
And we basically re-created the same board. And then I took the board, and I went to the beach, Manhattan Beach, where my father first surfed, and I paddled into the waves there.
CONAN: How'd you do?
WATERS: You know, I did OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WATERS: I did OK, but I do better with different boards. This board was - I wasn't used to it. It was a very heavy board. I didn't have a leash. And, you know, I was terrified because these boards, really they retail for a lot of money, and people, you know, (unintelligible)...
CONAN: A Greg Noll original, yeah, yeah.
WATERS: Yeah, you know, they're works of art. And so then, you know, there I am out at the beach with all these other surfers, and I've got this really expensive board. And so I was, you know, afraid of this thing coming loose and hitting somebody else, and, you know, but I did OK, and I caught some waves, and it was really wonderful.
CONAN: Did Greg Noll remember your dad?
WATERS: He did, he did. You know, what's striking is, you know, he remembered him as one of the Gremmies, quote-unquote "Gremmies," you know, the kids who hung around the surf shops and swept up and, you know, were just really following the bigger guys of the day. So he remembered him, and he remembered him as a part of the Marine Street Gang in Manhattan Beach. And that's just a sort of neighborhood term.
And, you know, but there were so many people that were orbiting around Greg Noll at that time, he was becoming a very famous person at that time, that I think he made a bigger impression on my dad than my dad did on him. But, you know, eventually my dad did open up his own shop, his own surfboard shop in Santa Barbara, and Greg supplied him with his boards and that sort of thing.
But, you know, I think that Greg was - you know, he had his eye on Hawaii. He was probably going back and forth. There were all these things that were - you know, people always wanted things from him, I'm sure. And so he remembered him but, you know, not as much as I probably would have wanted.
CONAN: And it's interesting that both Greg Noll and your dad sort of left surfing for basically the same reason.
WATERS: You know, it's - I don't really know why - you know, Greg, in my father's memoirautobiography, my father mentions that he had a conversation with Greg, and he remembers Greg telling him that - you know, Greg is known for catching this massive wave in - at a break called Makaha in Hawaii. And so it was just a feat that's cemented in many surfers' minds.
And my father remembers Greg saying, well, that was it. I don't really have anything more to do. I've proved everything. And, you know, at the same time, I think that surf culture was going in a direction that was different from what it once was. It was post-the "Gidget" movies, and I think the beaches were just overrun with people who wanted to be surfers.
The Beach Boys had broken out, and so there were just so many people. And I think that Greg probably grew disillusioned, and I know my father, you know, he grew disillusioned with it, and he didn't like - something he says in his memoir, is he didn't like how drug culture was starting to become part of the surfing scene.
He was one of the original sort of surfer dudes, straight-laced but, you know, kind of goofy surfer dudes. And so I think the whole counter-culture aspect of the '60s, he didn't know what to do with that.
CONAN: And found himself, as you put it, literally escaping underground.
WATERS: Yeah, that's right, that's right. That's one of the most amazing things about his memoir to me is how many places he did move. He moved - you know, there's this whole life that he had in California, which is, sort of, you know, I've built it up in a sort of fantasy in my mind. And then he just kept moving after that.
He moved to Reno, that's where he met my mother. Then he moved to, I believe it was Arizona and South Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, and he was a mining engineer. He was just always, you know, on these mining sites. And I don't know what he was searching for. And he was just, kind of, in some ways, running.
And, you know, it's something I'm really trying to still figure out, but yeah, he was. You know, and the very last - his very last job was with the Department of Energy, and he worked at the Yucca Mountain project and literally bored holes into the mountain there. So he was working and living underground a lot.
CONAN: We're talking with Don Waters. We have this email from Susan(ph): I found out just a few years ago that my grandfather, who died before I born, my mother always just said he died of a gunshot wound, and I figured it was a hunting accident. Well, it turns out my grandmother shot and killed him over a girlfriend. Wow, what a story. Grandma got off on insanity, seriously.
If that's your story, get in touch with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about the surprising discoveries we can make about our parents after they die. For Don Waters, the discovery came in the form of a memoir his dad sent him that started him on a journey to reconnect with his father and his own history.
If you found out something surprising about your parents after he or she died, if this is your story, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Don Waters wrote about his experience in Outside magazine. We've posted a link to his piece at that website, at npr.org. Now let's get a caller on the line, and we'll start with Suzanne(ph), Suzanne with us from Jacksonville.
SUZANNE: Hi, thank you for taking the call.
SUZANNE: Yes, when my dad died in 2003 - my father was a retired Army colonel and of the World War II age and very definitely a very straight-laced man. But upon his death I was calling the local Army base, which for me was Fort Stewart in Georgia, called to make arrangements for his funeral, expected to get a call back, as the first gentleman said, you'll get a call maybe in two or three days, we'll set it up, blah, blah.
Within 45 minutes I had a call from a senior officer at Fort Stewart who said to me - you know, identified me and said - and I said yes, I was this individual's daughter. And he said - the first words out of his mouth were: I do not think you know who your father was. I found that pretty shocking.
CONAN: Did he tell you?
SUZANNE: He went on to say that my dad, and I believe it was four people, I think there were five young officers, at the end of World War II, all of them had served in the Pacific Front, there was talk of the Rangers, that division of the - elite division of the Army simply dying after World War II.
And apparently these five individuals got together, were so eloquent in their defense and obviously very much on the data at that point, that it turns out that in my father's record, until his death when it was, you know, said to me, was the fact that he and four other individuals had indeed saved the Rangers as an entity within the Army.
So my request, of course, was just for a military funeral. He'd been long - you know, he retired in '69. And indeed from Fort Stewart we not only got the military funeral, we got one of the few 21-gun salutes that are permitted each year in the country.
CONAN: I can hear the emotion in your voice, and I think our friend General Mike Davidson(ph) would require me to say at this point, hoo-ah.
SUZANNE: It was amazing. But then again, in several different small ways, he was an amazing, horribly strict man, but that's what I discovered, and I discovered it not from him but from someone who literally greeted me with: I don't think you knew who your dad was. Anyway, thank you so much for taking the call.
WATERS: Thanks for sharing your story.
CONAN: Thank you, Suzanne. Interesting, Don Waters, one part of your father's life you also didn't know about, you said, as a torpedo-man in the Navy.
WATERS: That's right, that's right. He was originally enlisted - or he was drafted into the Army, and he did a little question-and-answer with some of his friends and found out that the Navy might have better food.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WATERS: So he enlisted into the Navy.
CONAN: These are important things, yes.
WATERS: Yeah, and then he was stationed on a submarine, and he was a torpedo-man, which, you know, is so foreign to me. I really don't know what that means. He slept near the torpedoes, and I think he may have slept, you know, underneath them or something. I have a picture.
But, you know, it's one of these other things I sort of want to do. These submarines are still around, a couple of them, actually, and I'd love to go and, you know, sleep aboard one of these submarines and see, you know, what that was about.
There's several things in his memoir that I actually want to go see and do. And I find that, you know, it would be helpful for me to know about him in these ways. And I think that, you know, as human beings we're just - we're storytelling creatures and we need the stories of how we got from there to here.
And there's for me something missing in that because I don't have that link to my father's stories. So I in some way have to re-create some of these stories and, you know, sort of imagine them in his memoir and also hopefully do some of them.
CONAN: Let's go next to Nick, and Nick's on the line with us from Castro Valley in California.
NICK: Hi. My dad was a chemist for the USDA in the '60s, and he somewhere in that time, he had a philosophical epiphany and quit his job and opened up a spiritual center called the Institute for the Realization of Personal Potential and threw his life into exploring Eastern philosophy and founding a church and gathered this huge following of students that he taught.
And during that time, from the '60s until his death in 1980, he was pretty much an absentee dad, and I grew up with a lot of hostility and resentment that he had kind of abandoned his four kids to help the rest of the world. And it wasn't until at his funeral that I met dozens of his former students, and a lot of them spent the days and weeks after kind of relaying stories of what he meant to them and their lives and helping them through crises that I kind of came to terms with this hostility and felt like, well, maybe the four of didn't see him that much, but apparently hundreds of people's lives were substantially better for the price.
And it kind of helped me reconcile some of that anger and frustration.
CONAN: Did you ever find out why he could find so much time for those people and not for you?
NICK: You know, it was always kind of a sore spot in our family dynamics, and my older brother and I kind of agree that we raised ourselves. But he taught classes in yoga during the day and taught classes in metaphysics at night, so working day and night, and on weekends did retreats out in the country.
So I got occasional philosophical guidance. That was the extent of my fathering. But it ended up not being so bad in retrospect, once I was an adult, and I kind of looked back on the past and digested it. So we also shared an interesting kind of bonding moment at the end of his life, when I heard about his relationship with his father, and I found three letters written by Catherine the Great that his father had brought over from Russia when he fled the Bolshevik Revolution.
And his father died without ever saying that they existed, and I found them when I was cleaning out his house and getting it ready for sale, and luckily I was taking Russian in high school and I could read Russian. And we ended up being interviewed by the New York Times and all these - Library of Congress. And I found out about these Russian roots my family had from my father almost on his deathbed that I had no knowledge of, that we never really spoke of.
CONAN: So it sounds like a family tradition to hide important parts of your past from your children.
NICK: It must be, and now that I have two children, I'm trying my best to stop that tradition.
WATERS: Good for you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Nick.
NICK: All right, thank you.
CONAN: And Don Waters, he says he got occasional philosophical advice from his dad. You got - and this was just one of those details that just really centered me in your piece - you got, on your 18th birthday, a Hallmark card and a check for 50 bucks.
WATERS: That's correct. I had not heard from my father since I was three years old. And on my 18th birthday, lo and behold, here comes a Hallmark card, and inside there was a check. And what's interesting about that is I felt that it was going to be some sort of new beginning and that everything was going to be OK from that moment forward.
And I didn't cash the check for a while because it was evidence of this man. There was actual physical evidence that he was out there. And so I didn't cash the check, I kept the card. You know, eventually I actually did cash that check, but we didn't meet until a year later.
I was very scared. I didn't know how to approach this man. This was a stranger to me, and so finally we met and we met under very strange circumstances. He came to Reno and he was staying in a hotel casino, and so - I remember this very distinctly in my mind, going to the casino with a scrapbook that I had put together of all of my - basically my childhood - and going up the elevator, you know, walking through the gaming floor of a casino and then going up to his room and him opening the door. And I can remember all of that distinctly.
And there are so many distinct memories I have of him like that because of the fact that I only met him five times. It's really quite remarkable that I can picture these scenes of our interactions, even though they were pretty tense at times.
CONAN: Here's an email from Shirley: My mother succumbed to cancer on the morning of December 15, 1994. I'd always known my mother grew up in Nazi Germany. She was 18 years old when World War II ended. But I never knew that as a 12-year-old girl with striking green eyes and long brown hair, she had stood linked arm in arm with other girls in a circle surrounding Adolf Hitler as he addressed the teachers and students of my mother's school. As my aunt told me the story, I could see my mother as my aunt, then only 5 years old, saw her. My mother struggled throughout her life with her identity. Though she never became a U.S. citizen, she never discussed much of her experience growing up as a teenager in Nazi Germany during World War II. My brothers and I knew we could and could - what we could and couldn't ask. I always felt she understood and, in some ways, internalized much of the powerlessness many peoples have in the face of brutal or extraordinary circumstances. Rather than claim the power an identity offers, she protected herself by trying to forget or at least not share the difficult parts of her past.
CONAN: That's powerful. The question I had that I don't think you totally addressed in your piece, Don Waters...
CONAN: ...is there's a good source for a lot about your father, and that's your mother. And she...
WATERS: That's right.
CONAN: ...you say in the piece, she doesn't really want to talk about it.
WATERS: Well, I think that she - you know, she's, first of all, she's very supportive of my journey to go into the past and figure some of these things out. And, you know, I understand that - it's clear to me that my parents had a difficult relationship. And there was, you know, something, some sort of rupture that made them incredibly angry at each other, and, you know, unfortunately, there was a child involved.
And so, you know, I've asked my mom certain things, and she's been completely honest with me. And, you know - but there are still things that I feel, you know, are unclear. And it's - I think it's information that I can't actually get only from my mother.
WATERS: And that's why, you know, I went to the courthouse and I got the court papers, the divorce papers and that sort of thing. And so for me, it's bit of this Rashomon experience where I'm having to piece together some sort of narrative truth out of all these different perspectives. And, you know, I also understand that I probably will never know the truth. And, you know - but my mom is completely supportive over this, and she's very close with her father, and so she knows the importance of a father.
CONAN: We're talking with Don Waters, a freelance journalist, a fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His piece, "Damn Right Your Dad Surfed It," appeared in the June 2012 edition of Outside magazine. There's link to it at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Mike's on the line from Ogden, Utah. Hi, Mike.
MIKE: Yeah. Hi. Thank you for taking my call. Don, I appreciate your work on the subject. I'm coming at this from the other end. I am a father of two very young girls, 3 and 6, and have cancer. I'm going to be not with us very much longer. And I'm wondering - and I also have this circumstance that - much like you. I don't think I can rely on their mother to be very reliable as a witness and maybe as a storyteller.
I'm just wondering what might be good to leave them. A narrative - like you said, your father left you - is something that I have started. But is there anything, in addition to that, that might be helpful to help them understand what - and knew their father left?
WATERS: You know, there was something recently. I forget where I read this, but somebody was not going to be there. And he enlisted men, different men that would promise to look after his family. And so, you know, I think the best thing that you could do for your children is to make sure that there's going to be a community for them, a community that can relate the stories of who their father was, a community that would tell, you know - that knows how you - what your values are and also a community to help them grieve. But, yeah, I really appreciate that you're starting to think about this. And that's a really touching story, and good luck to you.
CONAN: Just thinking about that check, though, Don Waters, might some object be of value, something that is a physical connection?
MIKE: Something like photographs of the (unintelligible) perhaps?
WATERS: You know what, you know, why not write out the story of your life? You know, why not do...
MIKE: That's exactly what I've started.
WATERS: Yeah. Why not? Why not just say this is who I am? These are my values. These are stories. There are some anecdotes. I think that's really a wonderful thing. And it was - it's really - you know, my father didn't give me much in terms of being a father, but he gave me an incredible gift when he left me and wrote this - his memoir because, in some ways, it's - I wouldn't have anything. I really wouldn't have anything to connect to him other than, you know, some items. I have three boxes, I think, of items and his watch, which I'm wearing right now.
CONAN: Well, Mike, maybe you want to throw in a baseball glove or a diploma or something.
MIKE: Consider them in.
CONAN: Good luck, Mike. I'm so sorry to hear about your condition.
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: Don Waters, thanks very much for your time today.
WATERS: Thank you so much, Neal.
CONAN: Don Waters joined us from a studio in Portland, Oregon. And again, there's a link to his piece "Damn Right Your Dad Surfed It" from the June 2012 edition of Outside magazine at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Coming up, Mike Nichols has won just about every major award in Hollywood and Broadway. Now, the director of "The Graduate," "Angels in America" and many others is back on the Great White Way. He'll join us from our studious in New York. Mike Nichols comes up next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.