These Boys and Their Fathers: A Memoir

These Boys and Their Fathers: A Memoir

by Don Waters


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In 2010, Don Waters set out to write a magazine story about a surfing icon who had known his absentee father. It was an attempt to find a way of connecting to a man he never knew. He didn’t imagine that the story would become a years-long quest to understand a man who left behind almost nothing except for a self-absorbed autobiography for his abandoned son.

These Boys and Their Fathers touches on Waters’s early life with his single mother—and her string of dysfunctional men—and his later search for and encounters with his father, but it quickly expands into a gripping account of the life of a 1930s pulp writer, also named Don Waters, with whom Waters becomes obsessed. This wildly original book blends memoir, investigative reporting, and fiction to sort out difficult aspects of family, masculinity, and what it means to be a father.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609386795
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 10/01/2019
Edition description: 1
Pages: 230
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Don Waters won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his story collection, Desert Gothic. His fiction has been anthologized in the Pushcart Prize, Best of the West, and New Stories from the Southwest. His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Outside. Born and raised in Reno, Nevada, he currently lives in Portland, Oregon. Sunland is his first novel. 

Read an Excerpt



THE LATE NOVEMBER forecast predicted a decent swell, and already we're seeing six-foot walls of blue water. It's 10:30 in the morning in Manhattan Beach, California — a warm, hazy day — and from our parked rental van in a lot overlooking the endless strip of sand, we watch the surfers in the lineup, in wetsuits, bobbing like little black buoys. I've finally made it to the same beach my father surfed more than fifty-five years ago.

"Look how the waves stand right up," Robin says. "And so close to the shore."

"Blake said there'd be surf," I say.

"Well, better you than me," she says. She slides on large, bug-eyed sunglasses that make her look like a celebrity.

A middle-aged woman cruises past on a banana bike with a sparkly gold seat. We don't see banana bikes on the Oregon coast. In Oregon, we have dilapidated, moss-encrusted crab shacks and coastal highways lined with tsunami zone warning signs.

"It's like a giant playground around here," Robin says.

"Just wait until the water dries up." I search my pocket for loose change. "Then this place is going to be in trouble."

"Maybe," she says.

"Do we have enough quarters for the meter?" I ask.

"We'll be fine."

"You think Blake will find this lot?"

"You left a message."

"But now he's not answering."

"He's probably busy driving. Stop worrying," Robin says. She sets her hand on my forearm. "Hey, you okay?"

"Yeah, fine."

"Then why are you tensing your jaw like that?" she asks.

Outside the van, the sun presses against a long-developing bald spot on the crown of my head. My father was bald, and suddenly that fact irritates me. I ask Robin to hold my backpack. Then I ease a thirty-eight-pound balsa-wood surfboard from the back of the van. The board is beautiful, just glassed. It's never been surfed. I carry it to a patch of grass, carefully set it down, unwrap a plug of cold-water wax, and begin drawing X's across its surface, tail to nose, welcoming the wax's pleasing coconut scent. A young couple strolls by on the path and gawks at the pristine surfboard. It's a pretty board, sure, but at ten feet long, it's also as big as a door.

"Jeez, look at the size of that thing," Robin says.

"Believe me, I know."

She coughs. She dabs her nose with a crumpled tissue.

"How are you feeling?" I ask.

"You know. Like I survived a train wreck," she says. "But I made it. I'm here."

She is, and that matters. Over the past few years, Robin and I have gone through rough patches in our relationship, preceded by work disasters, punctuated by relocations, and we're still trying to catch our breaths and sort through the debris. We've been together for more than a decade, but now we're living in separate states. Since August, I've been commuting between Portland and Iowa, spending stupid amounts of money to fly west to see her. She didn't want to move again. She wanted to stay put. I couldn't blame her.

This time, when I returned to Oregon, Robin suddenly came down with kidney stones. An emergency room visit gave her a head cold. But she's tough, and she wanted to come to California. The truth is, I needed her to come. She's my best friend, my partner. She knows everything about my past.

We're several streets north of Marine Avenue, my father's true stomping grounds, but this is closer than I've ever been to his boyhood home. The idea of venturing into sixty-degree water with a signature Greg Noll Malibu-chip longboard isn't as daunting as my reason for being here. My father, whose ghost hangs over this pretty beach, abandoned me when I was three years old. Now I've come to his old surfing spot to try to find some connection to the man.

Or at least that's the angle I manufactured when I pitched the idea to Outside magazine. I'm on assignment. The plan is to write about early surfing history and confront my feelings for my father on a deadline.

Robert Stanley Waters was once known around these parts as Little Bobbie. As a young man, he surfed in Hermosa Beach, Malibu, and Santa Barbara. He hung out with some of the sport's earliest innovators, including early surf film star Dewey Weber and another dude who went by the nickname "No Pants Lance." My father also snuck under the railroad tracks near Camp Pendleton to ride Trestles, but Manhattan Beach was where his love for waves originated.

To the south stands the concrete pier where he once stored his own Greg Noll surfboard. It's also where, in 1952, he passed his swimming test at age ten. I know a few things because of what he left behind. In my backpack is a paper-clipped copy of his unpublished autobiography, as well as a small plastic baggie of his ashes, which I intend to scatter in the water.

Manhattan Beach is a city of surfing origins. In 1949, Dale Velzy opened the world's first surf shop here. It's also where Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys first paddled into the water. This stretch of coastline is where the sport spread to the rest of the country after arriving from Hawaii.

Yesterday, after landing at John Wayne Airport, Robin and I went hunting for historical crumbs. At the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center in San Clemente, we found a small collection of his old surfing patches, surf-club membership cards, and old black-and-white photographs. The director of the center was a nice guy, and he was happy to help out. Written on the back of one photo, taken when my father was fourteen, it said in ink: "Bobbie Waters surfing Velzy balsa board; Velzy wanted his boards to get exposure by good surfers."

We left the center with a promise from the director that he'd email digital photos of my father's memorabilia. Then we stopped by a surf shop to pick up the surfboard, which was waiting for me.

Later, at our hotel, I sat on the edge of the king bed, squeezing my hands and contemplating the size of the surfboard on the floor. I wondered how those old-timers did it without wrecking themselves. The board was massive. I'd seen plenty of scratchy films featuring barrel-chested, barefoot men glassing across waves on similar boards. But staring at it, rubbing my big toe against its smooth rail, it seemed utterly intimidating. Even the curved, stained, glassed fin was the size of a boat propeller.

A northern breeze whips Robin's bangs against her glam sunglasses. She brushes hair from her face and surveys the biking path, the manicured shrubs, and the mansions with terracotta roofs, and she says, "I don't know if I could ever live here. Everything's too neat."

Whenever we travel Robin declares whether she could live in a place.

"Oh, come on," I say. "I kind of like it. It's growing on me."

"Not me," she says.

"Imagine waking up every morning with this view, putting on flip-flops, and taking the dog on a walk to a café. You'd have a movie director's life."

She shrugs.

After coating the board with wax, I change in the van. My wetsuit is like second skin. Suiting up requires concentrated, bendy, Herculean effort.

Then we wait for Blake. Blake lives up north in Venice Beach. I contacted him a month ago because he surfs and because today, especially today, I want a friend in the water with me.

Blake arrives in his Honda with his board strapped to the roof. He's in a grey hoodie and flashes his usual squinty smile. He gives Robin a hug, and we stand around chatting about writing and books. Blake asks what we've been working on. Robin recently visited New York, schmoozing with editors and her agent, and she just finished another review for the Times. And me? I tell him I'm writing about this, about today, about surfing, about my father, for a magazine.

"Sounds cool," he says.

If there's such a thing as an old soul, then Blake is a new soul. Even though he's ten years older than me, he's as animated as an eighteen-year-old. He's an accomplished writer, but he loves romantic gossip, trying new things, and he's a great dinner party guest.

Blake sets a green thermos on the car's roof and says, "Always bring along hot coffee for afterward. Gets cold out there." I don't have any coffee, and he makes a wise-ass remark about it. "Also, I checked the poo report," he says. "No poo. So we're okay to surf."

I retrieve the huge Malibu-chip from the grass, and together we descend the stone steps. Up and down the beach the lifeguard towers are shuttered for the season, but fresh tire tracks in the sand indicate a recent patrol. The weight of the board strains my shoulder.

Near the water Robin drops my backpack on the sand and whips open a towel filched from the hotel. She spreads it out. I stand beside her, and we watch a blond teenager launch off a solid five-footer, somersaulting through the air.

"I feel off," I tell her.


Off isn't how I usually feel at the beach. It's my father. I haven't thought about him this deeply or for such a sustained period of time ever. Throughout much of my life, I've avoided thinking about him or talking about him because thinking or talking about him only enhanced his absence. But recently, I have been thinking about him a lot and talking about him a lot, and I've entered a weird jet stream of heightened anger and sadness. My chest feels tight all the time, and lately I've been walking around feeling as if I'm always on the verge of crying.

A magazine assignment, I thought, would be an interesting way to face my father head-on. Not to mention, the assignment would pad my resume, but now that I'm finally here, I feel as if I'm marinating in feelings far too complicated to unpack in a magazine story. I want to feel something other than fury and sorrow whenever I think about him. I'm desperate to feel anything else.

I lay the board down, slide down a low, sandy slope, and put my bare feet in the water. It's almost a beautiful day, and there are waves, but I know it's going to be cold, even with a wetsuit.

* * *

I NEVER KNEW MY FATHER in any meaningful way. Even at thirty-seven, after a decade of therapy, I still find it painful to acknowledge this truth. Any man whose father leaves can understand the shame, confusion, and anger generated by such a primal loss.

Early on, Mom often joked that she was Mom and Dad. I was her only kid, and she provided for me, she managed, but it never kept me from wondering, during those lean years when we shared a bunk in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in downtown Reno, Nevada, if our situation might have been different with a father around. Along the way she enlisted men from her clerical job at the sheriff's department jail to dole out nuggets of paternal advice. I remember one evening, when I was around eleven, sitting down with a homicide detective who — badge on his belt, holstered gun between us on the dining room table — wanted to talk to me, man-to-man, about sex.

I never knew anything about my father throughout my childhood or teenage years — his whereabouts, what he looked like, what he did for a living, nothing. Whenever someone asked about him, I felt ashamed, and I lied. He was faceless, a phantom. His absence grew inside me like an expanding void. The idea of him living in the world, somewhere out there, haunted me. Did my entrance into the world cause him to leave? Was I worth nothing? With him gone I still needed guidance, and I looked to my friends' fathers for cues. I absorbed their attention as leaves did sunlight, and I quietly learned which ones to appoint as role models.

Why he left remains a mystery. Why he stayed away is another mystery. That part of my family history is full of holes and silence. The questions I've asked over the years yield bewildering answers. As unbelievable as it may seem, I've been unable to get any family member on either side to share more than a few scant details.

Whenever I ask Mom, which doesn't happen often because she's built a moat around the subject — adorned with decapitated heads on spikes — she's likely to say, "Why do you dwell on it so much? You're just like your grandmother."

Her mother, my grandmother, never knew her father either. She was illegitimate, abandoned, and raised by nuns.

Over time the topic of my father slid from taboo to never discussed. I was left to unearth my own pieces of truth. Years ago, Mom offered a brief whisper of insight, a quick peek at a long-ago drama before her curtain crashed down. The information spilled out during a fight. It's like that with her: information leaks out slowly, like flammable gas, threatening to ignite if I demand too much too fast. I learned early on to curb my curiosity, bottle it. There have been low murmurs about violence and betrayal, but no one has ever given me a complete or satisfactory story. And stories are important to understanding a life.

Eventually, I decided to do a bit of research myself, going so far as to purchase copies of my parents' divorce papers at the county courthouse in Reno. They cost nine dollars. Here's what I discovered: I was conceived out of wedlock. When I counted backward through the months, I realized I was conceived during the month of February. I don't know how my parents met, but they married in April 1974 in Virginia City, Nevada. It seemed to be a shotgun wedding. According to the documents I gathered, my father was no longer living with us at the time of the divorce three years later. By then he was working as a miner in Arizona. The stranger was free to visit, Mom sometimes told me, provided he contributed financially. That never occurred.

On my eighteenth birthday, he reentered my life via Hallmark card. Tucked inside the card was a check in the amount of fifty dollars. His signature was in cursive. The ink he used: blue.

Few people can recall the details of nearly every moment spent with their father. But I can. I met him five times as an adult, and each time our disconnection was obvious and massive. But those few times we did share are permanently etched in my memory.

The first remains as vivid as a just-seen film.

Lake Tahoe, summer, 1994 — we're driving on the two-lane highway that cuddles the frigid, aquamarine lake. My father lowers his window, and the piney aroma of ponderosa fills the car. In Reno, after I knocked on his hotel room door, he quickly suggested a drive into the Sierras. He was eager to leave town. I stood stiff and silent in his hotel room. My throat was dry. My palms were sweaty.

"I'm glad you finally agreed to meet," he says, now turning to study me.

"I guess I want to know you," I say. "Is that wrong?"

"No, no," he says. "Of course not. Why would it be wrong for you to want to know about me?"

Tahoe sparkles through the trees. The road traces the contours of the lake. We pass houses on rocky bluffs, the road curves again, and we emerge on another cliff with an incredible view.

He's traveled to the Reno area for a work conference. So this is convenient, this meeting-his-son thing. At the hotel, I carried with me a thrown-together scrapbook — photos of places I've visited and photos of friends I've lied to about him. Photos of the lost years. He showed little interest. Instead, he suggested a drive around Tahoe in his Cadillac.

"There used to be a great Mexican restaurant around here," he says, tapping the steering wheel. "Want to see if we can find it? Great salsa."

I look at him out of the corners of my eyes. We're about the same height, same wide billboard foreheads, but he's a stranger. I'm trying to square how this man is my father. He's balding — will I bald too? He has a gut. Will I have a paunch like that at his age? How old is he?

And he talks. About himself.

"I've been in Vegas for a while now," he says. "But I spend most of my time out at the worksite. Lots of driving, but I don't mind."

He talks. About Yucca Mountain. About the importance of his work. He explains the intricate details about how to dig tunnels at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site.

"Even though a lot of Nevadans hate the notion of storing the country's radioactive junk in their backyard, it's the ideal solution. Yeah, yeah, people protest about it, and you've got these wackos trying to create a smear campaign, but the geology tells the story. It's really the best location to store waste for ten thousand years."

He talks. About women he's known.

"The last woman I dated seriously was Austrian," he says. "A real looker. Special. She posed for Playboy way back when."

The highway follows a bend and then straightens out.

"You look like her, you know," he says.

"Your old girlfriend?"

"No, her. Your mother," he says. "Same green eyes. Or is it hazel?"


"You remember how I used to take you on walks at the creek near the university?" he asks me.

I'm silent. No, I don't remember. I don't remember anything about him at all.

"Oh, of course you remember," he says.

"I don't."

"What about the small house near the university? I used to play with you on the floor. Remember that?"

Slowly, I begin wondering why I bothered putting on a clean long-sleeve shirt to hide my forearm tattoo, why I removed my earrings, why I cobbled together a stupid scrapbook to show him. He talks, and as I listen, a light inside me dims. Another goes red. He wants me to like him, clearly. He wants to impress. He tells me about a cousin at Harvard, an aunt in Hawaii, grandparents in the Puget Sound, people I've never heard about or met.


Excerpted from "These Boys And Their Fathers"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Don Waters.
Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Nov. 3, 1992,
Devils Hole,
And in the Beginning,

What People are Saying About This

Andrew Sean Greer

“There is an empty space on the bookshelf where a search for a father belongs, and Don Waters has written it. As with most
fathers, it is a story of filling in the gaps, reliving memories and imagined memories, and heading to the edge of experience and
truth. Heartbreaking, ambiguous, funny, and wise, These Boys and Their Fathers is the book so many of us have been waiting
for.”—Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Less

Ben Fountain

“Generous, scrupulously honest, and gorgeously original in its telling, Don Waters’s These Boys and Their Fathers is an absolute knockout of a memoir. Waters shape-shifts among genres, voices, and eras to get at the heart of the matter, which happens to be the hardest human matter of all: how to live at peace with ourselves and our family, both the family we’re born into and the family we make for ourselves. This book is one of the wisest, most searching explorations of an individual life I have ever encountered, one whose humanity and heart offer universal appeal.”—Ben Fountain, author, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

David Shields

“An extraordinarily powerful, moving, and urgent exploration of the crossroads between masculinity, paternity, fantasy, ‘truth,’ and howling sadness.”—David Shields, author, Reality Hunger

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