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Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad

Matthew Price
Newsday (MCT)

The line was often blurred for Ollestad, as he struggled to earn his father's respect, all the while trying not to break his neck.


Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 288 pages
Author: Norman Ollestad
Price: $25.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-06
Amazon

Little boys like to play at adventure and dream of danger in faraway places. But what 11-year-old Norman Ollestad endured atop a California mountain in 1979 was a nightmare.

A wiz on the slopes, the young Ollestad, his father and his father's girlfriend, Sandra, were flying to a ski championship ceremony that February when their small Cessna charter slammed into a peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. As a blizzard raged, Ollestad, banged up and sporting little more than Vans sneakers and a light sweater, faced almost certain death.

But Ollestad survived, and the story he tells in Crazy for the Storm is an incredible one. Many grown-ups would have perished under such circumstances; that a preteen boy persevered is simply remarkable.

Things could not have been worse after the crash -- the senior Ollestad and the plane's pilot lay dead; the son was freezing and had to tend to a gravely injured Sandra. How did he manage?

Crazy for the Storm is not just an account of a terrible event. It's also a memoir of boyhood and growing up in the Southern California of the '70s. Ollestad, a contributor to Men's Journal and other magazines, cuts between a gripping account of the crash and his portrait of a youth spent surfing and skiing.

Ollestad's dad looms large in his recollections. We've all heard stories about parents who push their children on the playing field, but the elder Ollestad was a daredevil who went to a further extreme, goading his son to take on big waves in summer and barrel down steep slopes in the winter. After one particularly harrowing turn in some treacherous powder, young Norman complains to his father, "That's why we shouldn't have come here. It's too deep." But dad isn't having it: "It's never too deep, Ollestad."

That metaphor extends throughout Crazy for the Storm. Where does risk become recklessness? The line was often blurred for Ollestad, as he struggled to earn his father's respect, all the while trying not to break his neck.

Ollestad's observations about his father are sharply drawn. Recalling a moment from a surfing trip, when he was roughed up by a wave, Ollestad perfectly captures the rhythms of his father's booming invocations: "My dad had previously spoken about fighting through things to get to the good stuff or some such concept, and as he shook the salt water out of his curly brown hair, he talked more about people giving up and missing out on fantastic moments."

Such goading prepared Ollestad for a trial greater than any wave he ever surfed, and here is the root of the grit and determination Ollestad would have to muster as he faced down calamity. The crash left Ollestad stunned: "My head was light, eyes blurry. I had no idea where I was. Eyes began to close and I surrendered." But over the nine hours he was on the mountain, his resourcefulness never deserted him.

The wreckage was perched delicately on a steep, icy incline. Gathering his wits, he took stock of the situation. Ollestad's spare, delicately modulated prose -- "the rocks hemmed us in and trees grew out of the rocks with snow filling in the nooks and crannies like mortar" -- gives his recollections an understated grace and power.

Forcing himself to stay alert, he looked for a way out as Sandra slowly succumbed to the cold. Using a stick as a makeshift ice pick, Ollestad maneuvered his way to a cabin he spotted near a distant meadow. But snow and ice impeded his progress; his pace agonizingly slow, Ollestad, thinking of his father, knew he had to "squash the doubt curdling inside of me."

The obstacles that confronted Ollestad boggle the mind; at nearly every turn, there was extreme danger. One feels relief when he emerges from his ordeal -- he stumbles on a teenage boy who takes him to refuge. He is saved.

Ollestad's final reckoning is poignant. The realization that his father is dead washes over him with a terrible force: "He will never again wake me for hockey practice, never again lure me into a wave, never again point out the beauty in some storm."

And there is gratitude for the man whose prodding could leave his son frustrated and angry: "Every misadventure, every struggle, everything that had ... made me curse Dad sometimes, rippled together ... I glared at the storm as it feasted on the mountain, hammering on my dad still trapped in there. It did not get me. And I knew -- I knew that what he had put me through saved my life."

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