It was late one night in September and I was just getting ready to shut down my computer when an article caught my eye. There was a missing kitesurfer off the coast of Hatteras Island. His age and his last sighting were the only details offered. I re-posted the article and reached out to the local kitesurfing community asking if anyone knew who it was. I already knew it had to be someone we all knew because at that time Hatteras Island was still recovering from the last hurricane and the only way onto the island was a ferry that was jammed packed everyday. I knew he was a local. I remember that my post read “I don’t like seeing stuff like this.” At the time I had no idea exactly how much that news would hurt me and everyone in our circle of friends.
My husband and I first met Charles Jackson, AJ, at the Salt Lick in Dripping Springs, TX. We were meeting him and his wife Chris for dinner that night and it was the first time I would ever lay eyes on a diehard Texan like AJ. He had that smooth, slow talking Texas accent and a laid back posture that said he could handle just about anything.
The one thing that stuck in my mind from that evening over anything else was his description of a scorpion sting to my husband Chris and I. We had just moved to Texas and scorpions were new to us. “Well Katy, imagine stepping on a nail and then stomping your foot down on it over and over again really hard! That’s what a scorpion sting feels like.” and he smiled. To my credit I avoided being stung by a scorpion the entire 7 years we lived in Texas. I never forgot that vivid picture.
The next time I saw AJ, and every time since that night, was on the beach. He was a sand baby. If the wind wasn’t blowing and he couldn’t kite, you could always find him sleeping in the front seat of his pickup truck with his dog Caddo. You knew not to get too close to the truck though because asleep underneath the truck was the devil’s spawn, Cerveza. Cervesa was a massive Great Pyrenees mix dog and he was a beast. He hated everybody, except AJ, and he had no qualms showing you just how much he hated you. AJ’s best and longtime companion was Caddo, a registered chocolate Labrador Retriever and he loved everybody, but he loved AJ best of all.
AJ’s wife Chris would always show up on Friday afternoon after she left work. She headed down to the beach and spent every weekend with him. If there was anything he loved more than kiting, it was his wife Chris. You could see his face light up whenever she was around. She was a petite, blonde with blue eyes that sparkled like the sun hitting the Caribbean. They were the perfect couple, both of them so open, warm and friendly and we took to them right away and became fast friends. Chris was a sweetie, just like AJ.
On their first date he took her to Enchanted Rock to explore a cave there. They climbed all the way through to the other side and when they exited he told me Chris inspected her manicure and exclaimed “Hey! I didn’t even break a nail!” He said he knew right then that he wanted to marry her.
For reasons, known only to the two of them, their marriage eventually ran it’s course and they parted. The whole gang that kited together at San Luis Pass, TX mourned their breakup, but no one grieved as much as AJ did. To his dying day I don’t think he ever understood what happened and I know he never stopped loving her to distraction. He asked me about her all the time, if I had any news, if I knew how she was doing. He told the best stories about how they met, their dating escapades, their vacations together on the coast of Mexico and their life in the wild hills of Texas. They truly had a romance. The last time we talked about her was the year before he died and he smiled and told me that he hoped her life was happy because she deserved the best that life had to offer.
After his divorce AJ decided to be alone for a while. He bought a sailboat, moved out of his hill country home, left Cerveza in the care of the cooks at the Salt Lick and he and Caddo became full fledged salty dogs.
He and Caddo lived happily on that sailboat for a good long while. AJ was working in Houston and doing quite well with his new job and getting all of the kiting time he needed to satisfy his addiction to the wind.
AJ was quite a character. He suffered two of the most horrific kiting accidents and spent endless hours in the hospital and in rehab recovering and he always went right back out to the beach and launched another kite as soon as he could. One accident had him recovering at his brother’s house. His brother was a nonsmoker, but AJ smoked like a chimney. Unable to walk without a walker and weak as a kitten, he had no choice but to abide by his brother’s rules for smoking outside. He told me it would take him forever to make it down the hall to the front steps, but once he got there he’d puff like crazy and have a head rush when he stood up. He said he’d have to sit there a minute to gather his wits and it almost seemed a shame because he knew that as soon as he made it back down the hall…he’d want another cigarette.
One day he ran out of cigarettes. I’m guessing his brother thought this might be a great time for AJ to kick the habit, so there would be no refills on the smokes from him. AJ was pissed and he wanted a cigarette. He waited for everyone to go to work and school the next morning and then maneuvered his walker down the hall and out the front door with Caddo at his heels. He made it to the truck after a long and arduous struggle across the lawn and he and Caddo hopped in the truck and slammed the door. That sent the walker reeling far away from his reach. Oops. He was counting on using that to make his way into the store. Not being someone that gave up too easily he slowly drove to the closest convenience market, parked right in front and then started blowing the horn.
His new plan was to blow the horn until someone came out to see what his problem was. Then he’d give them his money, tell them his plight and get those long awaited treasures…a pack of Marlboros. It worked! I don’t remember how he got back into the house, but if memory serves me, I think he just stayed in the truck until someone came home.
He was the only kitesurfer I know that would do a downwinder, all alone, get out of the water, find a payphone and call a cab to take him back to where he started. Whenever we saw a cab zooming across the beach towards our camp, we knew AJ was back. It was a sight to see him get out of the backseat in his full wetsuit with his huge kite and his board under his arm, but the cabdrivers in Galveston had become used to him and didn’t mind.
I spent 6 Thanksgivings altogether on the beach at San Luis Pass with Caddo while AJ and my husband kite buggied. Caddo and I shared a turkey dinner, complete with all the fixings, every year. He would run behind AJ’s buggy as he kited until he was tired. Then AJ would tell him to “Go find Katy!” and he would trot back to camp and come right to my chair. AJ had taught me how to get him to drink from a water bottle and I knew what he liked from the Thanksgiving spread the guys laid out every year. After dinner he would wind himself around and around underneath the arms of my deck chair scratching his back, then he would settle down beside me, but where he could keep an eye on AJ out on the beach.
When Caddo got older AJ added a tandem buggy to his rig and Caddo rode behind him in style from then on.
I loved that dog.
It was the night before I was to travel out to the desert to meet my husband Chris at Burning Man that I received the call that Caddo had tragically died. AJ’s sailboat had caught fire while he was at work. Caddo always stayed on board in the cabin during the day. It was cool there and he had everything he needed until AJ came home in the afternoons. An electrical fire started and took the boat over quickly. People in the marina knew Caddo was inside and they valiantly tried to find him to get him out, but he was no where to be found. When AJ arrived they were hopeful that Caddo had not been on the boat, but knowing his dog well, AJ knew right where to find him. When Caddo was scared he hid under the bed and that’s right where he was. He had died from smoke inhalation and AJ said when he carried him down the dock to his truck Caddo’s paw twitched and he had a glimmer of hope that he was still alive. But that was probably Caddo saying goodbye to him.
Caddo was laid to rest in the place he loved best, where all the people he loved best gather every year, at San Luis Pass, TX.
When AJ came to us in the Outer Banks in 2010 he was completely lost. He was homeless, jobless, and broke and his few belongings were packed so tightly in his truck I thought the windows would explode.
At the time it was only supposed to be a temporary living situation and I admit that I was annoyed with picking up after two guys as the weeks rolled by and just a little jealous of their bromance. I am thankful now that I was able to spend those 4 and half months with my friend AJ.
My husband had just started kitesurfing and I was too afraid to go out to the beach and watch him. It scared me to see him struggle with this behemoth kite in an angry ocean, so I wouldn’t go. AJ knew about my apprehension so one morning he volunteered me to be their kite taxi for a downwinder. I glared at him and with his easy, ever present smile he told me not to worry “I’ll be right there with him the whole time and I won’t let anything happen to him.” I went out on the beach with them that day and watched as Chris floundered and aborted his launch time after time. AJ was already in the water and would tach up and down the beach watching him, just like he told me he would. Finally the kite took off and Chris surfed away after his friend and they owned that beach for the rest of the afternoon. It was good for me to see him fly. I haven’t worried about him being out there since. It was almost like AJ could sense that once I saw Chris out there that I’d be okay, and I was.
On AJ’s second day in the Outer Banks I loaded him into my VW Bug and told him I was going to show him the part of the islands he would love the most. Chris was out of town working, so AJ and I spent the whole day exploring the islands all the way across on the ferry to Ocracoke Island, the official bottom of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. On the ride home I remember looking at his face and I just knew “You know what AJ. You think you’re only going to be here for one summer, but I can already tell. You’re the kind of person that falls in love with this place. I’ll just bet you spend the rest of your life here.” He laughed, but I think he knew even then, that he was home.
The last time I saw AJ was in July. I almost didn’t go on that trip to Rodanthe. I wanted to stay home, but I found out our friend Annie, who was visiting us from Australia, was nervous about driving in America. She wanted to see some sights while the boys were kitesurfing, and I knew it would be fun to show her the island.
When we arrived at the kitesurf spot in Rodanthe we saw AJ in the launch area. He turned to me and opened his arms for a hug. We had been squabbling over something stupid and he whispered in my ear that he was sorry about it. I smiled and told him I was sorry too and that it was nothing because we were family. I didn’t know this would be the last time I got to see him, or hear him or laugh with him. But we got to do all of that on that day and for those moments I am eternally grateful.
AJ and I spent many days and afternoons sitting on the screened deck at the little beach cottage where my husband and I live. He cried a lot when he first got there and I listened. He always knew who he was and what he wanted, he just needed a way to get there and he was frustrated. He finally found his life journey on those sandy shores, so full of history, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Chris had called him at the beginning of high season this past year to ask him what his plans were. He told Chris that I had been right, this was his home and he wanted to stay. He was a local now.
His dreams happened for him on the Outer Banks. It was all starting to come together. He had a dream job as an Assistant Manager for the largest kite retailer in the USA, he lived right on one of the hottest surf spots in the world and he finally had a home and a vehicle that could navigate the deep, soft sand of Hatteras Island.
AJ lost his life to the Atlantic Ocean on September 22, 2011. He was kitesurfing in his favorite spot at the point in Cape Hatteras. The ocean had 8 to 10 foot swells due to a Nor’easter, but AJ was a strong kiter. Something happened, we’ll never know exactly what and the details are not important. His body was recovered on Portsmouth Island after a heroic search by community members, our own US Coast Guard and National Park Rangers.
It took me some time to be able to sit down and write about AJ. Even now I read what I’ve written and it just doesn’t seem like it’s enough. His life was large and I have chosen to write about the part that meant the most to me. My heart, like so many of us, still aches when I think about him being gone. On the second day he was missing both my husband and I were out of town working and I was racing to get back home and making phone calls in the car while driving. I heard that the search had been called off and I phoned Chris and begged that they keep looking. None of us will ever have to stop looking for him now because he will be here with us for as long as we walk these shores and sail these waters. He is a part of our history here and his life is honored.
They say that every person that comes into our lives is sent to us as a teacher. What AJ taught me was that life is large and it can also be fleeting, so I should live and love as much as I can because in the end that is what makes us who we are and that is all we truly have. I know how much AJ loved all of us. He loved us all in a large and glorious way and his life was rich from it.
Every life he touched has been left with an indelible signature that was uniquely his own to give and he gave us everything he had and so much more.
We miss you AJ.