Quick. Think of the most important lesson your dad taught you. Was it keeping your eye on the ball? Losing (or winning) graciously? Finding a balance between kindness and toughness? Keeping your promises? Finishing your veggies? Chances are, your father’s lessons --- the big ones and the small ones --- have remained in your memories and influenced your behavior and outlook even after you’ve outgrown childhood. Fathers’ spheres of influence tend to be larger than even they know.
Nowhere is this idea more dramatically portrayed than in Norman Ollestad’s moving memoir, CRAZY FOR THE STORM. The book is indeed a memoir of a young boy’s harrowing mountaintop quest for survival, but it’s also the story of the fundamental relationship between a father and a son, and how that relationship can be an essential source of strength.
Ollestad and his father created a bond based on seeking the next big thrill, pushing themselves to go higher, farther and faster. At the opening of the book, there’s a photograph of a one-year-old Little Norman strapped to his father’s back as his dad surfs off the coast of Malibu in 1968. This picture perfectly depicts the relationship between the two. Often, Little Norman felt like he was being dragged along on the latest early-morning surfing adventure, on the latest quest to find the perfect powder for backcountry skiing. Ollestad writes with humor and authenticity of his boyhood reluctance to follow in his dad’s footsteps, especially when it meant being tired, cold, or uncomfortable: “I pearled on my first wave, nose-diving and swallowing water, and he told me to keep trying because I’d be so happy once I got a good ride. I snapped back that I hated surfing.”
Ollestad’s father never took “no” for an answer, however, which meant that by the age of 11, Little Norman was an outstanding surfer and well on the way to being a championship ski racer. More importantly, he also had internalized many of his dad’s most important lessons, especially those about beauty and danger walking hand in hand: “Beautiful things were sometimes mixed up with treacherous things, they could even happen at the same time, or one could lead to the other, I thought.”
Beauty and treachery can certainly sum up California’s majestic mountains, as Ollestad discovered firsthand when, on the way to a ski championship ceremony, the small plane carrying Ollestad, his father, and his father’s girlfriend, Sandra, crashed into the side of a mountain. Ollestad’s father and the pilot were killed instantly. Sandra was injured, confused, and unable to help herself. Only Little Norman had the presence of mind to save himself --- and to try to save Sandra --- in the icy, treacherous mountainside environment where the plane crashed. As the boy developed a strategy to reach safety, he found himself turning again and again to the words of his father for strength, courage and common sense.
The terrifying events following the plane crash are told in alternating chapters with the stories of Ollestad’s relationship with his father, many of which illustrate the lessons that were to prove so sustaining on that mountainside. In particular, a road trip to Mexico the year before provided Ollestad with a new understanding of his father and of himself, one that he turned to in his quest for survival and one, as we learn later, that he continues to explore now that he’s a father himself. Throughout, Ollestad’s matter-of-fact prose fails to hide the profound emotion of his feelings for his father and his appreciation of the lessons he still draws on decades after his father’s death.
CRAZY FOR THE STORM is a great book to give to your dad for Father’s Day. Even better, it’s a great book for fathers and sons to read together, to open a conversation about lessons learned and taught, about how what fathers say and do can shape a young man’s character, courage and entire life.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 1, 2010