Above and beyond the storm
There’s a photo on the back jacket of Norman Ollestad’s memoir, “Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival,” that could make a parent weep.
In it, a man is surfing in the ocean. On his back in a canvas papoose is a baby, blond, happy, oblivious to the danger of a stray wave or sudden paternal miscalculation.
The baby is Ollestad, and the man is his father, also named Norman, a one-time FBI agent turned lawyer who devoted himself to training his only son in extreme sports.
The younger Ollestad skied at 3, whipped down difficult black-diamond slopes at 4 and surfed mammoth tube waves in elementary school. No physical fear -- or mental fear -- was left unchallenged.
Good thing. When he was 11, Ollestad was flying to Big Bear with his dad and two others when their tiny Cessna crashed in the mountains, 8,500 feet up. Ollestad’s father and the pilot died on impact. His father’s girlfriend, Sandra, survived the accident, with a gash in the middle of her forehead and a dislocated arm.
Determined to stay alive, young Norman half-carried, half-prodded her down the mountain until she fell into an icy chute and tumbled thousands of feet to her death, leaving a bloody smear.
Afterward, he climbed the rest of way down an almost vertical stone gulch by his fingertips and later slalomed on his Vans sneakers using tree branches as poles.
“I was very focused. I was aware that I could be afraid, that I could be freaked, but it was just so third person,” Ollestad recalls 30 years later. It was as if he were levitating over his own body, he says, as if he were watching the whole thing from outside.
“There we were,” he remembers of himself and Sandra, “huddled under the wing of the plane.” At some point instinct kicked in. “I moved around the mountain like an animal. It was wolfish.”
Now 41, Ollestad is deceptively small, with the massive torso of a much larger man. He has penetrating blue eyes and a deep, commanding voice. He’s having lunch at the Reel Inn on the Pacific Coast Highway, across the street from the Topanga beach where he grew up.
There used to be two rows of shacks and bungalows here, a community of hippies and surf nuts, until the city exerted eminent domain and demolished the neighborhood. A lifeguard station stands exactly where Ollestad used to live with his mom, a teacher, and her then-boozy, sometimes-cruel boyfriend.
“Crazy for the Storm” has only officially been out a week, but even before publication it was named the latest selection in Starbucks’ book program and sold to Warner Bros. for adaptation into a feature film. The book alternates between a detailed account of the plane crash and Ollestad’s story of his parents’ busted marriage.
Of particular interest is his charismatic, adrenaline-junkie father, whom the author describes as a somewhat methodical, somewhat reckless “enchanter,” devotedly driving his son to early-morning hockey practices and faraway ski tournaments but also dragging him along to Mexico, where they wound up stranded in the jungle without food or money after fleeing bribe-seeking federales wielding guns.
Saying no wasn’t really an option for young Norman.
“I was scared a lot of the time,” he says of childhood with his dad. “That’s the whole point. He showed me that being afraid is OK. You can either dance with it, or you can run from it. In life it’s better to dance with it because even if you live a sheltered life, it’s going to find you. I’m still scared when a big wave pops up, but immediately it turns into ‘Oh man, if I make that drop in, I’m going to feel so good.’ It goes right into the pleasure I could have, the thrill. It gets converted.”
Ollestad attended UCLA and UCLA film school, then spent much of his 20s ski-bumming, surfing and traveling solo around the world. He finally settled back in Los Angeles when he was in his 30s.
Here, he worked on scripts, directed industrial films and wrote a self-published novel. He’d never given much thought to a memoir until one day he was driving his own son, now 8, up to Mammoth to ski, and Noah began asking about the plane crash. “Now I was a father,” Ollestad says, “I had a lot better understanding of what my dad’s point of view was.”
He had memories, crisp memories, but they were colliding snapshots. He talked extensively to his therapist about the crash, began reading newspaper accounts and watched the footage of his 11-year-old self being interviewed by Walter Cronkite after his miraculous journey.
Eventually he hiked back up the mountain -- twice. “I have a very geographical memory,” he says. “It was amazing how the trees and some of the terrain brought back another level of stuff.”
The smooth rock funnel down which Sandra fell was still there. He flew the doomed plane’s route again, with a friend, and combed the transcripts of conversations between the pilot and air traffic control.
In the year after the crash, Ollestad was afraid of the dark, shut down, allergic to any negativity that might creep into his life. Although that passed, the pain lingered for a long time.
“Even though my dad didn’t purposely leave me or abandon me, the practicality is that he did,” Ollestad says. “Life can change on a dime -- that’s in my consciousness in a way that it might not be in other people’s.”
Even now, he has a hard time reading his own book, although he recently did so to record the audio version. “It was like running into a semi truck,” he recalls. “All of a sudden I’m in this room, and I start crying. It was four days of holding it together to read this book.”
Only one thing, Ollestad continues, kept him going: his son. “Thirty years from now, Noah is going to have the CD. It will be great for him.”