In 1976 America was just coming out of a protracted depression
called the Vietnam War, but back then I was still deep in the
middle of mine. I was twelve years old, and boy was I pissed.
It was early in May on that particular spring morning and I was
huddled with some other children on Seal Beach around 9th Street.
We were staring out through a predawn mist at the gray Pacific
Ocean while consulting Walter Dix’s old surf watch to time
the AWP— which is what Walt called the Average Wave Period
between the incoming swells. Walt called swells the steeps.
The beach we were on was about fifteen miles from the Huntington
House Group Home, which was in a run- down neighborhood in Harbor
City, a few minutes southeast of Carson. There were four of us
gathered around Walt, all wearing beavertail wet suits with the
sixties-style long flap that wrapped around under your crotch and
left your legs uncovered. We were his lifers. The yo-yos. The kids
who kept getting thrown back. All of us knew we would probably
never get another chance at a foster family or adoption because we
were too ugly or too fl awed or we had lousy county packages,
having already been placed too many times and then returned with
But there were other reasons we didn’t make it. We were an
angry group. I held the Huntington House catch- and- release
record, having just been sent back for the fifth time. My last
foster family had called me incorrigible, unmanageable, and a liar.
Probably all pretty accurate classifications.
The four of us had been specifically chosen for different
reasons by Walter “Pop” Dix for that morning’s
sunrise surf patrol. Of course we had all desperately wanted to be
picked, but it wasn’t lost on any of us that we’d
earned the privilege because of a variety of recent setbacks. Pop
understood that, even though we’d failed, it didn’t
mean we were failures. He also understood our anger, even if nobody
else did. Pop was the executive director of Huntington House and
was the closest thing to a father I’d ever known.
“Okay, cowabungas. Big rhinos out der. We gonna bus’
’em out big time,” he said, glancing up from the watch
to the incoming sets, speaking in that strange- sounding Hawaiian
pidgin that he sometimes used when we were surfing. “We pack
large dis morning. Catch us one big homaliah wave, stay out of de
tumbler and it be all tits and gravy, bruddah.”
He grinned, kneeling in the sand wearing his Katin trunks,
displaying the surfer knots on the tops of his feet and
knees— little calcium deposits caused by a lifetime of
paddling to catch up to what Pop called the wall of glass. Pop was
a tall, stringy, blue- eyed guy with long blond hair just beginning
to streak with gray. He was about forty then, but he seemed much
There was an Igloo cooler with juice and rolls in the sand
before us, packed by Walter’s wife, Elizabeth, for after
surfing. We’d take our clean- up set at around seven thirty,
come in and shower by the lifeguard station, eat, and change
clothes in the van. Then we would pack up and Walt would drop us at
school by eight thirty.
Pop had been born on the North Shore of Hawaii, which he said
made him “kamaaina to da max.” His parents had taught
school there and he’d ended up in L.A. after the army. That
was pretty much all I knew about him. I was too caught up with my
own problems to worry about much else.
Because he’d been raised on the North Shore and taught to
surf by the old- timers there, Pop was a throwback surfer, what the
Hawaiians called a logger. His stick was a nine-foot-long board
with no fins and a square tail— very old school. On the nose,
he had painted his own crescent symbol, an inch- high breaking curl
with the words “Tap the Source” in script underneath.
Pop said the source was that place in the center of the ocean where
Kahuna, the god of the waves, made “da big
poundahs”— double overhead haymakers with sphincter
Other than a couple of Hawaiians and one or two Aussies, Pop was
one of the few surfers left who rode a cigar- box surfboard, a
1930s Catalina Hollow made by Tom Blake. Once it had water inside
from too many rides, it got heavy in the nose and was a bitch to
stay up on. The rest of us had new polyurethane shorties with a
dolphin-fin skeg for speed. The boards and wet suits belonged to
the Huntington House Group Home and were only used for special
occasions like this.
We were sad children whose dark records were clinically defined
in the terse cold files kept by Child Protective Ser vices. But our
nicknames were much crueler than our histories because we bestowed
them on each other.
Nine-year-old Theresa Rodriguez knelt beside me, holding her
short board. She had been set on fire by her mother shortly after
birth but had miraculously survived. Terry was damaged goods, with
an ugly, scarred face that looked like melted wax. Everyone knew
Theresa was a lifer from the time County Welfare had first put her
in Huntington House at the age of five. She was chosen for this
morning’s field trip because she had no friends and never got
much of anything, except from Pop. We called her Scary Terry.
Also kneeling in the sand that morning was Leroy Corlet. Black,
age eleven. Leroy’s dad was in prison, his mother was dead of
a heroin overdose. He had been sexually molested by the uncle
he’d been sent to live with until a neighbor called Child
Protective Services and they took him away. We called him Boy Toy
behind his back, but never to his face because Leroy wasn’t
right in the head anymore. He was a violent nutcase who held
grudges, and if you pissed him off, he’d sneak into your room
in the middle of the night while you slept and beat you in the face
with his shoe. He couldn’t stand to be touched.
Pop had picked him that morning because he had just failed a
special evaluation test at elementary school and was being held
back for the second time in four years. He’d been sulking in
his room for the last two days. No foster family wanted him
Next to Leroy was fifteen-year-old Khan Kashadarian.
Half-Armenian, half-Arab or Lebanese. He’d been abandoned at
age ten and was living in an alley in West Hollywood when he was
picked up and shoved into the welfare system. Khan was fat, and a
bully. We had given him two nicknames: Sand Nigger and Five Finger
Khan, because he stole anything you didn’t keep locked up. I
didn’t know why Pop picked him to be with us. As far as I was
concerned, we’d have all been better off if he was dead. Even
though he was three years older and a hundred pounds heavier,
I’d had six or seven violent fights with Khan. I lost them
I was small back then, but I didn’t take any shit. I was
willing to step off with anybody at the slightest hint of insult. I
got along with no one and had convinced myself that my five
ex– foster families were a bunch of welfare crooks who were
milking the system.
“No floatwalling,” Pop said, his blue eyes
twinkling. Floatwalling was paddling out beyond the surf but never
going for a wave, not to be confused with backwalling, which was
acceptable behavior because you were treading water, waiting for
the big one.
Then the sun peeked above the horizon, the sign that it was time
for us to paddle out.
“Let’s go rhino chasing, bruddahs!” Pop
We picked up our boards and started down toward the early
morning break. I was fuming inside. I couldn’t believe nobody
wanted me, even though I insisted I didn’t want or need
anybody. Before we got to the water, Pop put out a hand and turned
me toward him, as the others moved ahead. He lowered his voice and
dropped the Hawaiian pidgin.
“Get your chin up, guy. There’s a place for you,
Shane,” he said softly. “Sometimes we have to wait to
find out where we belong. Be patient.”
I nodded, but said nothing.
“Until you get picked again, you’ve always got a
place with me.” Then he flashed his big, warm grin and
switched back to pidgin, trying to get me to smile. “I always
want you, bruddah. What’s a matta you? Your face go all jam
up. You no laugh no more, haole boy?”
I glanced down at the sand, shuffled my feet. But I didn’t
smile. I was too miserable.
“Come on then.” Pop put a hand on my shoulder and
walked with me to the water.
I was Shane Scully, a name picked for me by strangers. No mom,
no dad. No chance. I had nobody, but nobody messed with me either.
My nickname around the group home was Duncan because I was the
All any of us had was Pop Dix. He was the only one who cared,
the only one who ever noticed what we were going through and tried
to make it better.
And yet we were all so self- involved and angry that, to the
best of my knowledge, none of us had ever bothered to say thank
Excerpted from THE PALLBEARERS: A Shane Scully Novel ©
Copyright 2011 by Stephen J. Cannell. Reprinted with permission by
St. Martin's Paperbacks. All rights reserved.