Lifeguard Tracy Geller and his eighth-grade surfing students had been riding waves off Manhattan Beach for about half an hour when his gut told him something wasn't right.
All morning, Geller's eye had been drawn to a glimmer in the water near a buoy about 150 yards offshore. At first, he thought the flashes of light were coming from a pod of dolphins. Then he wasn't so sure. It looked more like a bodyboard that had drifted out to sea.
His curiosity verging on concern, Geller paddled out to investigate. There was indeed a bodyboard bobbing on the waves. But that wasn't all: There was a man, face up, in the water. And the man wasn't moving.
Paddling closer, Geller could see the man's face. He was stunned: It was Dr. 360.
Everybody knew Joe Wolfson had cancer and figured that's what would kill him. But this chapter of Dr. 360's life had an ending that nobody could foresee.
Wolfson had moved to Manhattan Beach during summer break from UCLA in 1968 and never left. A bodysurfer, he was at the beach every day, the Pacific hurling his body toward shore like a human torpedo.
That changed three summers later when a neighbor whizzed past Wolfson, riding a wave on what looked like a chunk of Styrofoam. She called it a bodyboard.
Wolfson took it for a spin. On his first ride the surf pounded him face-first into the sand, eliciting howls from his friends on the beach, where he was seen as something of a ham. But he kept the borrowed board for hours, and realized a new passion.
Over the next two decades, Wolfson would emerge as a pioneer and premier figure in the bodyboarding world, winning numerous national and international competitions. Photos of Wolfson riding the big waves hang on the walls of Mac's Liquors and Uncle Bill's Pancake House, a Hall of Fame honor in this upscale South Bay town.
Wolfson became best known for creating the move that yielded his nickname. While riding atop a wave, he was the first to spin his board in a full circle--a 360.
Out of the water, Wolfson became just as well known in Manhattan Beach, where he served as the first chairman of the city's Cultural Arts Commission and once ran for City Council. To most people, he was just that gregarious guy with the really long beard who seemed to be in the middle of everything.
Well known as he was, it was no secret that Wolfson, at 49, was dying of cancer.
He first noticed the cough last February, after spending a month at Casa 360, his Mexican beach house in Puerto Escondido. It seemed to come from deep within his lungs and it troubled him immensely. A nonsmoker and nondrinker, he was so fit he could bodyboard for 10 hours at a time.
Doctors treated him for asthma and operated on his sinuses, but the cough persisted. Chest X-rays revealed nothing. Finally, after Wolfson awoke in the middle of the night and coughed up enough blood to fill a bar glass, a CAT scan was ordered.
There, hidden between his lung and his esophagus, grew the tumor. A biopsy proved it was cancer. Because of its precarious position, it was inoperable.
Wolfson went on medical leave last October from his job of 30 years as a recreation official with the city of Carson. Determined to fight, he began to diet on the advice of a Chinese herbalist.
But the plan backfired. Wolfson, already thin, lost 12 pounds in three weeks, leaving just 122 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame. For the first time in his life, he had no energy.
Then, on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, while having dinner with friends, he coughed up blood.
How Dr. 360's Plan to Die Took an Unexpected Turn
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