Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival

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9780007322510: Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival

Dad Said

Ollestad, we can do it all. . . .

Why do you make me do this?

Because it's beautiful when it all comes together.

I don't think it's ever beautiful.

One day.

Never.

We'll see, my father said. Vamanos.

From the age of three, Norman Ollestad was thrust into the world of surfing and competitive downhill skiing by the intense, charismatic father he both idolized and resented. While his friends were riding bikes, playing ball, and going to birthday parties, young Norman was whisked away in pursuit of wild and demanding adventures. Yet it were these exhilarating tests of skill that prepared "Boy Wonder," as his father called him, to become a fearless champion--and ultimately saved his life.

Flying to a ski championship ceremony in February 1979, the chartered Cessna carrying Norman, his father, his father's girlfriend, and the pilot crashed into the San Gabriel Mountains and was suspended at 8,200 feet, engulfed in a blizzard. "Dad and I were a team, and he was Superman," Ollestad writes. But now Norman's father was dead, and the devastated eleven-year-old had to descend the treacherous, icy mountain alone.

Set amid the spontaneous, uninhibited surf culture of Malibu and Mexico in the late 1970s, this riveting memoir, written in crisp Hemingwayesque prose, recalls Ollestad's childhood and the magnetic man whose determination and love infuriated and inspired him--and also taught him to overcome the indomitable. As it illuminates the complicated bond between an extraordinary father and his son, Ollestad's powerful and unforgettable true story offers remarkable insight for us all.

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Review:

Amazon Best of the Month, June 2009: The story itself could take your breath away: an 11-year-old boy, the only survivor of a small-plane crash in the San Gabriel Mountains in 1979, makes his way to safety down an icy mountain face in a blizzard, using the skills and determination he learned from his father. But it's the way that Norman Ollestad tells his tale that makes Crazy for the Storm a memoir that will last. He almost has too much to tell: a way-larger-than-life father--former child actor, FBI man (who took on Hoover in a controversial book), and surfer who drove his son to test his limits in the surf and on the slopes; a youth spent in the short-lived counterculture paradise of Topanga Canyon; a stepfather who could give Tobias Wolff's a run for his money; and of course the crash. But writing 30 years later, Ollestad is wise and talented enough to focus his story on the essentials, cutting elegantly back and forth between a moment-by-moment account of the crash and his memories of the difficult but often idyllic year leading up to it. More than a story of survival, it's a time-tempered reckoning with what it means to be a father and a son. --Tom Nissley

Amazon Exclusive Essay: It Starts With a Good Story by Norman Ollestad

It was time for my eight-year old son, Noah, to read before bed. "Eh," he groaned. "Reading is so boring. It sucks." He’d been reciting this same mantra for months. I was resting beside him in his bed and I saw his whole life crumble--a slew of poor report cards and father-son arguments, ending in long term unemployment. "What about Dr. Seuss?" I reasoned. He glared at me with his brown eyes. "It's okay," he mumbled. I opened the book he was reading for his class and handed it to him. He stared at it, mute. "Noah," I said from my lowest register. He proceeded to read at a snail's pace and I pointed out that it would take him twice as long as usual to get through the required five pages. So he ran the words together, not even stopping at periods. I grabbed the book and told him we'd be reading all weekend to make up for his lack of cooperation. For months I coerced him like that, urging him past his lazy monotone, trying to get him to connect with the story. It was a long few months.

When I was Noah's age I also disliked reading. I just wanted to hear the story without having to work for it. I had wished my dad could work the same kind of magic he did with surfing: he'd push me into the waves so that I could simply enjoy the ride, eliminating the most arduous, frustrating part of surfing--paddling for the wave.

My father was always asking my mother, who was a grade-school teacher, why I wasn't a better reader. She advocated patience, and encouraged me by tirelessly pointing out things in each story that I might relate to. My father was killed when I was eleven, so he never got to witness my eventual love of reading.

In order to help Noah find that love, I searched for a seminal moment in my past that had transformed me. There was no single thing. But during my reminiscences I flashed on Dad reading aloud my grandparents' monthly letters from Mexico. They had retired to Puerto Vallarta and their letters were filled with stories. Stories about an inland village where Grandpa went twice a week to buy ice for their fridge, to keep their food cold. Stories about helping a Mexican family after a hurricane hit Puerto Vallarta. Stories of secret waterfalls and secluded isthmuses that Grandpa and Grandma had discovered around Vallarta. And that’s when it hit me--it was very simple: the essence of my love for reading really emanates from my love for stories.

"How about I tell you a story tonight," I whispered with great zeal to Noah. His eyes lit up and he smiled. "What kind of story?"

"Any kind," I said.

"A story about a magic skateboard would be cool," he suggested. As I spun the impromptu tale, he rolled onto his side and stared at me, totally focused. The following night I made a bargain with him: "First read five pages, then I'll work up a story about whatever you want." Before I got myself nestled beside him, he was halfway through the first page. Progressively, Noah's topics became more elaborate, and soon he was giving me outlines for stories. Somewhere along the line his reading voice changed--he was gobbling up the sentences, his voice alive with inflection. He'd broken through. Noah was hooked on stories, like I got hooked on riding waves. Once he'd experienced the pleasure of going on that narrative ride, reading became second nature, like paddling for a wave. It all starts with a good story.

Photographs from Crazy For the Storm

(Click to Enlarge)

My first surfboard, Topanga Beach, 1968 Mom, Dad, and Me, Topanga Beach, 1968 Dad in St. Anton, Austria, Early 1970's St. Anton with Dad

Me, Ski racing Skiing with Dad Puerto Vallarta, 1975 Three generations of Normans, 1977

About the Author:

Norman Ollestad studied creative writing at UCLA and attended UCLA Film School. He grew up on Topanga Beach in Malibu and now lives in Venice, California. He is the father of a nine-year-old son.

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