On February 19, 1979, broadcaster Walter Cronkite announced to his nightly news audience that a private plane had crashed in California. Of the four people onboard, only one had lived. His name was Norman Ollestad and he was 11-years-old.
Ollestad had come-to after the crash on top of Mount Baldy amidst a snowstorm to find his father nearby, dead. How the boy escaped a harrowing trip down the mountain and how his father led him to that moment is the subject of Ollestad's memoir Crazy for the Storm.
The writer spent his childhood on Topanga beach in the 1970s, but far from an oversized sandbox, the decadence, drugs and broken marriages of the era made it an uneasy place for a child. L.A. Weekly recently sat down with Ollestad to talk about survival in all its variations–not only the physical, but the mental.
You'd think that living on the beach in Topanga would have been idyllic, but in your book it actually was a scary place for a kid to be. Your dream was to live in the Pacific Palisades.
It's ironic. It was an idyllic place and it was scary. Even if you were a grown-up, I think, because it was raw, you weren't really sheltered down there. It was adults living an adolescent life. So for a kid that was pretty scary. There was nobody my age that I could share it with and that I could create a little insulation with. But it was also beautiful and free. It was a lost time; people don't live free like that anymore.
Adults are dangerous figures in the book. Your dad first surfed with you when you were an infant and coaxed you down black diamond slopes when you were four. What was it about that time and place that adults weren't functioning as parents?
I think my father was a father but he also just took me right into his “adult” world. He dragged me along because he knew what was on the other side of fear and a blizzard. Things that seemed indomitable and scary really weren't, if you just walked through them. They weren't a big a deal compared to the payoff. That was the message that he did tell me, that he showed me.
One of the dichotomies of it is, in the book, you're always scared…
…except when you're coming down that mountain.
That's what's so interesting to me about it, for me that's why I wrote about it–otherwise I wouldn't have put the airplane crash into it. It was unexpected; the experience didn't unfold the way you would think it's supposed to.
Do you think it's a survival mode, you're concentrating so hard that you can't think of the consequences?
I think it's that, but I had an advantage, which is–for eight years of my life with my father I had to push through the fear and focus to survive the adventures that he took me on. I had practice at that. So yeah, the shock helps; the absolute absence of any alternatives but to just focus and survive. And then with my father's, sort of, exercises that he put me through–it was more available to me.
Did losing your dad and surviving that mountain change your priorities in life.
Though [my childhood] was full of fear compared to the humdrum of life, it was like being on this amazing beautiful adventure. So I found myself, later in life, in my teens and early 20s, kind of frustrated, not turned on–knowing that there was something else, because I'd lived it.
I was like, “Why am I living like this? What am I doing–going through the motions?” It was that “Less-Than-Zero '80s-experience” where everyone was on drugs and into going to clubs. It seemed boring because I had lived this whole life when I was young. It was like, “What do you do now?!” [Laughs]
So, in your early 20s you traveled.
When I went to Europe I thought, “I just need wide open space, and no fucking boundaries, and no rules, and that's the problem.” I go there and it's just total freedom and I realized I can't just stay out in the ocean, I've got to come in, I've got to come down from the mountain–then what am I going to do? I have to find a way to express myself and I discovered writing, that expression, that outlet. It had all the power of the other stuff but I didn't need to chase it so much.
You went through this trauma when you were a child that a lot of adults might not emotionally recover from, or re-adjust back. But you did.
My theory is that, [as children we're] closer to birth, which is the same as death in the sense in that it's an impossible phenomenon. It's violent. And then, as we get older, we start to build fantasies and little contrivances to ward off death. And we have attachments to these things–houses and responsibilities and all these all other things that are obviously are just denying death. And we move further and further away from birth/death. But when you're young, you're close enough to it so that it's horrible but it's just not that far to go. You're closer to your primal human self, so you react more like an animal–you move on.