‘Crazy for the Storm’ author Norman Ollestad spent a lifetime crafting his own identity, but he’s still his daredevil surfer father’s son
By Joe Donnelly
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of Sunday Drive with Joe Donnelly, a series of experiential profiles accompanied by short video documentaries.
On a recent postcard-worthy Sunday afternoon, an unusually vigorous early spring swell is lighting up surf breaks from El Segundo to Point Dume. Usually on a day like this Norman Ollestad would be up and at them in the surf around the Venice breakwater.
“I try to get out there early and clear the mind for a day of writing,” says Ollestad, who lives just a few blocks away in a tree- and shrub-sheltered bungalow with an all-wood writing shack out back.
Today, though, Ollestad got waylaid tending to a wife with an urgent-care case of food poisoning. By midday, with the situation stabilized, Venice is blown out. On any other day, that might mean it’s time for a walk around the canals, where Ollestad says he solves many of his writing problems and still finds new things to look at even after 12 years in the ‘hood. Then, perhaps, he’d join a friend at Zinque for an afternoon beer.
The waves, though, are too good to pass up. So we repair to Topanga, where the shape is holding despite a light onshore wind, low tide and head-high sets.
When we get there, Ollestad, who has an athletic bearing, bright eyes and graying beard, is chomping at the bit to paddle out. There’s something refreshing about the fact that his second major book, “Gravity,” dropped just a couple of days ago (it’s already topping Amazon’s charts for memoir), and Ollestad would just as soon get wet than talk about it.
I can’t blame him. It’s good out there, and Ollestad knows this wave well. He grew up on it — literally.
An iconic picture of infant Ollestad strapped to the back of his father, who is riding a much smaller wave than the ones we’re seeing today, was taken right out here more than 40 years ago. The shot graces the cover of Ollestad’s breakthrough 2009 book “Crazy for the Storm, A Memoir of Survival” and the photo is kind of talismanic for Ollestad, emblematic of some of the greatest gifts and biggest losses in his life.
Many of those came wrapped in the singular package of Ollestad’s father (also named Norman Ollestad), a lawyer who joined the FBI after reading J. Edgar Hoover’s “Masters of Deceit” but quickly grew quickly disillusioned with Hoover’s little shop of horrors. He left abruptly to pen “Inside the FBI,” a whistle-blowing account of his experiences, before beating a retreat to the hippie refuge of Lower Topanga.
The senior Norman Ollestad was a charming hard-charger who relentlessly pushed his son to test his physical limits. He died in 1979 when a plane he chartered to ferry his son to a Big Bear skiing event crashed into a storm-shrouded peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. His girlfriend and the pilot also perished. Eleven-year-old Norman was the only survivor. “Crazy for the Storm” juxtaposes the crash and Ollestad’s remarkable survival against reminiscence of his formative years on Topanga Beach strapped to the back of a larger-than-life father.
As we walk along Topanga Creek toward the beach where his boyhood house once stood a sandal toss from wet sand, Ollestad, 47, recounts a childhood that was a sun-soaked, acid-washed California dream: Back then the Topanga sand welcomed hippies, biker gangs and libertines in equal measure.
He points to where a VW bug that had taken a very wrong turn off the Pacific Coast Highway remained stuck in the sludge near the creek’s mouth.
“When the tide was high and in the winter when there was a lot of water, we’d swim out and stand on it,” says Ollestad. “There was a path that ran along the edge of the creek that I always remember being overgrown with licorice. I loved it. I loved the taste and the smell … and I had my licorice and my golden retriever and we did whatever kids do. We built forts and hung out.”
A public bathroom now claims the spot on the sand once occupied by the house where Ollestad lived with his mother. His parents divorced when Ollestad was just 3 years old, and his father lived in a house behind where the Reel Inn now stands. Dad kept his surfboards at the beach, and the first thing Ollestad would hear every morning was his father’s footsteps padding along the wood planks that served as a walkway from canyon to beach.
As a child, Ollestad didn’t always want to surf at dawn. He says he’d lie in bed making up excuses — too tired, too sick. His dad would have none of it.
“He’d say, ‘Oh, the ocean’s good for that.’ No matter what it was, the ocean was good for it,” Ollestad says with a laugh.
Indeed, Ollestad was offered little or no respite from a father’s agenda that included competitive skiing, 5 a.m. hockey practices, surfing and outdoor adventuring from the time the boy could walk.
While “Crazy for the Storm” is both confrontation with and homage to the boyhood bestowed upon him, Ollestad’s new book, “Gravity,” details how, as a young man, the author escaped the long shadow cast by his father. The story takes place in the Austrian Alps resort of St. Anton, a place Ollestad’s father used to take him to prematurely confront expert, off-piste trails.
Ollestad ventured back as a 20 year old to exhume and embrace some of the spirits that had been haunting him, while burying others for good. In that sense, “Gravity” is a classic coming-of-age tale — by testing himself against the ghost of his father, Ollestad found himself.
“Part of this journey was putting myself, again, in sort of perilous situations, all in the pursuit of ecstasy and beauty and seeing how I reacted and measuring myself: Oh, this is how I thought I’d be. This is how my dad was … but this is really who I am,” says Ollestad.
“Gravity” will appeal to adrenaline junkies and romantics alike, and I don’t think I’ll be giving too much away to reveal that what Ollestad discovers during those lonely and dangerous days in St. Anton is that, despite sharing some of his dad’s daredevil genes, what he really is, is a writer.
“I didn’t have to be crazier than him. I didn’t have to be more charming or charismatic than him,” says Ollestad. “I could do what I wanted to do and that was all right. I still knew what I was made of.”
Here in Lower Topanga, a big set rolls in and the possibilities of getting tubed are too much for Ollestad, who paddles out at last.
He may be a writer, but he’s still his father’s son.