1-Legged Surfer With a Dream Defies the Odds : Life's Purpose Summed Up in a Wave

Times Staff Writer

After the highway accident, after his left leg had been removed, as he lay unconscious in a hospital for 30 days, Joe Jappe had a recurring dream of surfing in Hawaii.

Jappe hasn't yet made it to Hawaii, but surf's up most days for the indomitable Inglewood resident, who once used surfing as a tonic and now sees it as his purpose in life.

"When they woke me up I was in pain," Jappe recalled recently after a surfing session at the Manhattan Beach Pier where he is a familiar figure. "It took me two days after I woke up to notice my leg was gone.

"It wasn't even that big a deal--I had all these tubes going into me and I knew if anything went wrong with any of those machines . . . all I could think about was 'I don't want to die like this.' I wanted to get my health back and do something constructive."

And by surfing, Jappe seems to motivate viewers who offer encouragement as he slings his handmade surfboard guitar-style over his shoulder with a leather strap and makes his way to the surf on crutches.

Jappe, 38, lost his leg nine years ago on a rolling highway east of Indio when his van slammed into a slow truck as he came over a rise.

"I was going water-skiing with friends at the Colorado River," he said. "I thought I had life made. I was making turquoise jewelry, doing pretty good. Maybe I was living too fast. I wasn't thinking about doing good for anybody else. I wasn't concerned about setting a good example. Maybe this accident was supposed to happen."

Jappe puts his crutches in the sand and takes the leather strap off his board. He hops the last 30 feet into the surf, awkwardly carrying the board. "This is the part I don't like, but it's worth it when I get into the water."

A surfer since boyhood, Jappe (pronounced Jappay) mended his numerous injuries for two years before he tried surfing again.

"I was smashed, totally. I looked like Frankenstein," said Jappe, who now bears a rugged resemblance to actor Nick Nolte. "I went through 330 pints of blood in the 30 days I was unconscious. I had weak blood, no muscles, all this scar tissue. Then I started surfing.

"I decided surfing was the only way I could exercise. The first time I went out I was panicking. I was in three feet of water and I thought I was going to drown. It probably wasn't deep enough to drown but I was scared.

"But when I got that first wave I had that great feeling. It brought back my childhood."

Jappe paddles out to the waves and catches a fast one. He rides it standing on his one leg and and balancing on one arm. Unless you look at him closely he doesn't stand out. He surfs for about 15 minutes, then hops back up the beach to his crutches. "God, that was great. That was really fun," he says with a smile, slinging his board back over his shoulder.

Disability Pay

Jappe's life isn't one long beach party. He lives with his family in Inglewood and receives disability through Social Security. Money is tight. He hasn't gone back to working with turquoise since the accident ("It reminds me too much of my leg.") He doesn't have a job.

The body still aches and the lone ankle, also injured in the crash, is painful.

But surfing transcends it all. Jappe, who says he once tried to play football at Morningside High but had to quit because he weighed less than 110 pounds, sports muscular shoulders and chest. He credits those to surfing. In the last three years, he says, he has felt the equal of any surfer at any beach.

'More Confidence'

"I feel a lot more confidence in myself. Surfing has done it. Surfing has worked wonders for me."

As Jappe closes his van and prepares to hit the beach, another surfer asks to borrow his board wax. They discuss the waves. In the water Jappe appears to be just one of the guys.

County lifeguard John Stahl, who has been watching Jappe since his comeback from the accident, said, "A lot of surfers look up to him for just going out there. He's very knowledgeable about the ocean, familiar with the riptides. He knows what it takes to go out there. I'm comfortable with him coming here. He doesn't want any help. I'm sure there are other people who see him and figure, 'If he can go out there, so can I.' "

Jappe likes being an inspiration: "That helps me a lot, when people approach me and say something like 'It's amazing.' I feel like I have a purpose, even though it is small. It's heading in the right direction."

No Luck in Career

Jappe makes his fiberglass boards and is trying to patent a racing-style nose that he hopes could result in a career. So far he has had no luck and says there's barely enough room at his house in which to work. Jappe's dream is to gain recognition as a surfboard maker--"Then I could go anywhere and get a job--Mexico, Australia."

And Hawaii? "I've heard the surfers are kind of rough over there . . . but I would like to go to Hawaii."

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