If I had a penny for every time I read a comment on our website about staying out of politics and “sticking to surfing,” I’m not sure I’d be a millionaire, but I’d have a lot of pennies. Without getting into why politics often has an impact on our little corner of ocean and outdoor enthusiasts, even if at times not a perfectly obvious one, it’s moments when politics and our world clearly intersect that reinforce the notion surfing doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Surfers are complex people of different backgrounds, occupations, and walks of life. And perhaps no revelation puts this in starker relief than the fact that Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn (yes, former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn) is himself a surfer.
The fact emerged first in Nicholas Schmidle’s profile of General Flynn back in February in the New Yorker, though as Schmidle points out the signs are pretty clear if you just take a look at the General’s twitter feed – his background image is a shot of him surfing.
“Flynn skateboarded in drained swimming pools and surfed through hurricanes and winter storms,” writes Schmidle. He later includes a quote from Rhode Island surf patriarch, surf shop owner, and personal friend of Flynn Sid Abruzzi. “Mike was a charger,” said Sid.
Little Village Magazine picked up the story a few days later, diving further into the idea that surfing and skateboarding cultures are represented as anti-authoritarian, and that individuals fully ingratiated in the upper echelons of the military industrial establishment don’t jive with that identity. The piece heavily quotes Sid, and when I came across both it and Schidle’s profile initially, I figured I’d reach out.
I sent Sid a quick email unsure if I’d get a response. Later that day, he left me a voicemail. “I’ve got something for you on Michael, Michael Flynn,” he said. I immediately called him back.
We spoke for a while about Flynn’s background as a surfer, then Sid mentioned he wanted to broker a meeting. “Look, Michael’s going to be in California for a little, so let me reach out to his brother Joe who lives out there and see if we can work something out.”
I thought he was blowing smoke until the next day I got a voicemail from Joe about setting up a surf meet and greet and interview at Lowers – just south of Nixon’s Western White House. The opportunity ultimately fizzled – Joe said things were just too hot.
Depending on your news outlet of preference, the name Michael Flynn either evokes the image of an accomplished general made the victim of unfortunate circumstances or a House of Cards-esque plotter colluding with Russian officials. The truth, as with all things, probably lies somewhere in the middle, and will likely come to light as FBI investigation proceedings continue. Still, tweets proclaiming fear of Islam as perfectly rational, or the man’s fervor in the “lock her up” chants of presidential election season are difficult to ignore.
Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others: the truth fears no questions… https://t.co/NLIfKFD9lU
— General Flynn (@GenFlynn) February 27, 2016
To imagine such a controversial figure around Washington as a surfer defies conventional understanding of the American, and indeed global, surf community. And yet as Sid Abruzzi can attest, Flynn came up fully immersed in the core New England surf and skate scenes. “Michael grew up 200 yards from [my] shop, so he was at the store all the time,” he told The Inertia. Sid explained that Flynn and his siblings grew up surfing and skateboarding every day.
“Michael’s refuge has always been the ocean,” said Joe Flynn in a text message. “We were blessed to grow up in a house on the Atlantic Ocean in Newport [Rhode Island] where we had an abundance of great surf at our doorstep. Our folks were original ‘surf parents’ and fully encouraged us to surf back when it was pretty underground in southern New England.”
But how exactly does one go from surfing every day to the upper echelons of American government? “[Michael] had a couple things where he had to make a decision in life, I think, and he joined the, I guess, the ROTC,” Sid told Little Village. “He changed his life around, let’s say, and decided to go in the military.” Going into the military and rising to the rank of general, though, are two different things.
And Michael isn’t the only general in the family. “What’s crazy, and you should put this in your article, is General Charlie Flynn (Mike’s younger brother) is an accomplished general in his own right,” said Sid. “In fact, they’re the two youngest brother generals since the Civil War.”
I don’t know how many American generals are also surfers. I doubt there are statistics on such matters. But if I had to guess, I’d say probably very few. Still, if this interesting if not trivial fact about a very complex individual teaches us anything about surfing it’s this: the lineup is an extremely diverse place. Perhaps more diverse than many of us even realize.
“Michael is and always will be a soul surfer,” said his brother, Joe. “If you paddle out at second beach or Ruggles this summer very likely General Flynn will be in the lineup. Be careful, he might drop in on you!”