As the first waves from Hurricane Ike hit the beach, the old timers are lining up at Suncoast Surf Shop. A local judge flies in under the radar looking for a fin for a surfboard that belongs in a museum. The owner of an upscale Italian restaurant stops in to buy yet another surfboard that he doesn't really need. Then an insurance executive, playing hooky from work, saunters in to compare notes with his fellow board riders. "I remember when you could count the surfers in this town on one hand," said Joe Nuzzo, the 65-year-old icon of the local board-riding scene. "Today, everybody surfs."
In 1963, a 20-year-old Nuzzo finished a hitch in the U.S. Navy and thought about returning home to Treasure Island.
"But I got a job in California instead and moved west," he said. "Luckily for me, that was when the surfing scene really started to explode in Hermosa Beach."
First chance he got, though, Nuzzo packed his '55 Ford with a boards and headed for Florida.
"I remember heading down to Upham Beach, which was a big make-out spot because there was nothing there but sand and trees, and started surfing," he recalled. "A few of the kids came up to me and asked what I was doing. I told them I was surfing."
Nuzzo rode the waves from a summer tropical storm. When the Gulf went flat, he went home to California.
"I knew I was on to something," he said.
The following year, Nuzzo returned to Treasure Island with a batch of boards to sell to kids.
"I got a job as a mechanic," he said. "But one day they told me not to come back unless I cut my hair."
Unemployed, but with a full head of sun-bleached hair, Nuzzo scraped together the money to buy a Volkswagen bus. "I figured I could keep my surfboards with me all the time," he said. "I'd surf whenever there were waves on either coast."
He got another job, this time delivering auto parts, but he soon lost that one as well. "I'd get sidetracked," Nuzzo said. "My boss always wondered why my hair was wet."
So with the last $50 he had, he rented some space in a strip mall for $50 a month.
The surf shop
The one-room storefront had a toilet and sink, but no shower. That didn't bother Nuzzo; there was a garden hose out back.
His inventory consisted of a half-dozen surfboards, a few T-shirts and a box of stickers.
"At night I would put the table in front of the window and roll out a sleeping bag," he said. "I really had it made."
By now it was 1965, and the kids came by for the heavy longboards that were popular then.
"I couldn't keep them in stock," he said. "I'd have to keep running over to Cocoa Beach and buy as many boards as I could fit in the VW."
There were lean years. "Many a time we got stranded and had to collect Coke bottles just to buy enough gas to get home," he said. But eventually, the surfing craze caught on in Florida.
Fast forward 40 years. Nuzzo buys boards by the truckload.
"In the old days our boards weighed 30 to 35 pounds," he said. "Today's boards weigh one-third of that."
Condos stand where the trees used to on Upham Beach. Sunset, Nuzzo's other old surf break, is now crammed with surfers.
While the boards have gotten lighter, Nuzzo has gotten heavier. This week, he signed up for Social Security.
"I'm feeling old," he sighed. "But not too old to stop surfing."
So Nuzzo grabbed a board and with his buddy, veteran fishing guide Paul Hawkins, they paddled into the gulf.
The next wave
As Hurricane Ike's waves pounded Pass-A-Grille Beach on Wednesday, hundreds of surfers turned out.
My 4-year-old daughter surfed with her 7-year-old brother on an old foam-top board.
"When I grow up, I am going to be a surfer girl, just like you," my daughter told one woman.
I called Nuzzo and told him the story. "That's what I like to hear," he said. "That is what I like to hear."