Tom Decker and Jeff Parrish

                        TOM DECKER AND JEFF PARRISH

“You almost killed your buddy. You’re a kook and you shouldn’t be surfing here.”

Jeff Parrish is married to Ruth (formerly Hodgson) a schoolmate of my daughter, Dru, so, yeah, I’m about Jeff’s father’s age.

Jeff and I had a few (each memorable) sessions on the Straits, he coming from Seattle, a ferry and thirty miles before I had to leave home to rendezvous at Discorery Bay. Or, several times, usually around Christmas, he would be at his in-laws’ house.

Frustrated with trying to ride a thruster in typically small conditions, he purchased a long board on Craigslist. This day was probably his second or third time on that board.

Jeff was, he said, so desperate for surf that, when we met at McCleary, he agreed to do the driving. He wanted to try Point Grenville, one of the first places surfed in Washington, a place off limits to non-natives for years.

Because my son Sean had worked on his Masters in Public Administration degree at the Evergreen State College in Olympia along with those in a concurrent Tribal Program, I had checked out Point Grenville. Since nobody told me I couldn’t, while Sean was busy, I walked out onto the beach. I could see how it might be good, imagine hippie/surfers camping on the bluff.  

After Jeff and I made the hour drive from Aberdeen, we saw as much as we could from the bluff, then went to town to get a one day pass or something. With most of the folks on the Reservation busy with a funeral, the person on the other side of the glass at the police station said, “Just go. Just today, though. Huh?”

We drove across a couple of little creeks to the far end, a little hook of a bay. We could paddle across to a point with what looked like four footers breaking with some shape. I was for it. Instead, we drove an hour back to Aberdeen, twenty miles farther to Westport.

Days at Westhaven State Park can be divided into two categories: Days you can paddle out through the waves, and days when you must either paddle out along ‘the wall’ or jump off the jetty. This was a ‘wall’ day, six feet plus, with, maybe, five guys out. One of those guys, we would soon discover, was Tom Decker, long known as one of several local enforcers.

Another surfer was making the long walk from bluff to water at about the same time as Jeff and I. He was telling me about how he’d just ripped it up at the Groins on his new board; but now the tide was too high, and, oh, hadn’t he seen me before at Twin Rivers? Probably.

Paddling next to the jetty isn’t exactly easy, either. There’s still a version of the extra-deep Westport impact zone, bouncy chop, waves to duck under or crash through. Partway out I heard the unmistakable sound of a surfboard smacking full-on into a rock. The owner of the board was swimming. “My son’s out there. Tell him I’m going in.”

“Okay.” I never saw his son. Once I thought I’d made it out I was instantly confronted with an outside wave. I turned turtle, and, I swear, instead of being pushed back but clearing the wave, my big board me hanging onto the rails, was lifted, straight up, just like a submarine broaching way too fast. Or, think whale rider, upside down.

The waves offered two options: A quick left toward the jetty, or a longer right, followed by trying to fight back out. The longer the ride, the worse your chances. So, catch the soup in, battle the wall back out. And, seconds after getting back out again, there’s another outside wave. This is another Westport feature; a wave six inches higher can break fifty yards farther out.

On one particular outsider, the only other surfer who wasn’t Tom Decker, Jeff, the guy who ripped the Groins, or me, decides he should make a bottom turn as close to me as he can get without actually touching. And I get thrashed by the wave.

Three or four waves into the session, my ears already plugging up, I notice Jeff is hugging the jetty, the peak at least fifty yards away. I also notice Tom is sitting inside of me, I’m getting cleaned up, and he isn’t. I also notice Tom and the Groin Ripper are now engaged in some verbal fisticuffs.

Tom Decker was the first surfer I saw ripping across six foot lefts at Port Angeles Point, on the Lower Elwha Reservation. This was early 1979, before access there became restricted. Tom lived as close to the waves as he could, surfed as often as it broke. I borrowed a wetsuit from him a couple of times, negotiated for its purchase, didn’t end up buying it.

When I surfed in my second of the Ricky Young-run longboard contests in the late 80s, early 90’s, seeing Tom was to be in my heat, I told a local I’d heard Tom had moved to Bellingham or something, tried his hand at video production. “Maybe, but he’s been living here awhile.” Yeah, he won that heat, but didn’t win the next.

Still, it’s not like Tom would recognize me. I saw Tom on one of the trips I’d made to Westport with Sean while he was still attending Evergreen.  Each trip featured a late session, a stay at one of the several No-tell Motels, an early session the next morning, sand left in the shower. Mr. Decker was in a car at the pot-hole scarred parking lot overlooking Halfmoon Bay, inside the harbor. He had a dog and a short board inside.

One observation that is almost always true about a guy over fifty who rides a very short board is this: He knows how to surf.

I asked the guy if he knew Tom Decker. He looked me over for a moment before saying, “Yeah, I know him. (another moment) He’s an asshole.”

Back to the jetty session. Evidently the Groin Ripper had irritated Tom by trying for several waves and not catching them. Criminal. I told Jeff I was getting out. I could barely hear, and getting constantly caught inside was really pissing me off.

Jeff and I both went for the same peak, side by side. Jeff started to pearl, bailed to one side, his board jumping, sideways, toward me.

When I came up I was shouting. “Damn it! You do something like that in Hawaii, they’ll kill you.”

That’s what I’d heard, anyway. I caught the next wave. I beat the first section and was going so fast, busting over little choppy sections, farther and farther from the jetty. For some reason I was almost laughing. I caught some soup, proned into a reform, did a few turns. When I got to the beach, Groin Ripper was waiting, ready to report on the unwarranted verbal abuse an the walk back. “Who is that asshole, any way?” Well.

On the next wave, Jeff came in, practically sprinting past us.

By the time The Ripper and got to the bluff, Jeff was down the path and Tom Decker was the only guy out. I guess that would have made him happy.

Sometime after we’d changed out, loaded up, headed back, towards McCleary, after I apologized for snapping, Jeff asked if he’d almost killed me.

“No, not really.”

“Well, that’s what that guy said.”

“Oh.” It’s rude to take a nap if there are only two of you in a car. Somehow, and I’m pretty sure I told Jeff this, I felt kind of good. Tom Decker had pretty much called everyone around a kook. But, not me. Trying to clear my ears, I guess that made me kind of, I don’t know, happy.    

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4 thoughts on “Tom Decker and Jeff Parrish

  1. Erwin,

    If it’s of any value to the surfing community, I’d like to recite some first-hand oral history about Pt. Grenville.

    I surfed there from 1967 to -69, when I was in high school. We just showed up with surfboards and camped for the weekend, without any fuss from “authorities.”

    Then, in 1969, we showed up as usual, and a truck pulled up and a well-spoken, close-shaved Indian came over to us in an very authoritarian manner, and spoke to us ominously, “Where are you boys from?”

    “Bremerton,” we said.

    Then he looked at the rock cliffs covered in grafitti, and most of it was the names of various high schools painted in great big letters in a wide variety of colors.

    He paused and said, “If I looked up at these rocks and saw ‘West Bremerton,’ or ‘East Bremerton’ written here, I’d arrest you and put you in jail. But as it is, you can just leave.”

    So we got kicked out, and never went back. Good thing us Bremerton guys specialize more in thievery and violence, and “school spirit” was for “soces.” Besides, our writing skills were sketchy, anyway.

    In 1970 I heard that some friends tried to go there, and the Quinaults confiscated their boards and they had to pay fines. I left the state in 1970, and have not heard anything about it since, except for your piece on this web page.

    BTW, concerning Washington surfing at the time, I had the feeling that Pt. Grenville was the only place, because the waves were dependable. I wasn’t part of any big surfing “scene,” because there were so few of us, so I don’t know if there were many guys scouting all the coastline in the state, looking for a good break. In those days, I’d never heard of surfing at Westport. (What’s more, I lived the 1970s in San Francisco, and never heard of Mavericks, though no one else seemed to know about it, either.) People in Bremerton were always going there for more fishing. When we got out of high school, it seemed like everyone went to Hawaii, got jobs, and stayed for awhile.

    Aside: We didn’t use wet suits. When I was aged 6 to 9, I spent the summers living in a tent and a beach cabin at La Push, because my father was a commercial fisherman out of there & Neah Bay. My mom told me, “Just wait till you get numb, and you can play in the surf all day.” She was right. Last time I did it was 2010.

    Clint Burks

    • Clinton, give me a couple of days and I’ll post your comment as a contribution. You and I are contemporaries (’69, man!), surfing in high school about eleven hundred miles or so apart. I’ve run into a couple of people from the old Point Grenville days; Mark Longbreak being one whose name I remember. It looks like that wave on the actual point could really work on the right swell.

      • Erwin,

        Thanks for the note. Santa Barbara is about the distance you mentioned, from Seattle. In my experience, the water gets warm, when going south, just north of there, about San Luis Obispo, I used to think.

        I feel like writing a little to you at the risk of being boring (so trash it if you want), but also for the possible gain of an eyewitness account about surfing last millennium.

        I always make sure not to embellish, because if you have even one “trophy” experience in life, no one will believe it if you exaggerate the others.

        First of all, I never was a hardcore surfer, like boys in California who can fit it into their schedule every day. I caught my first wave at Pt. Grenville when I was 14, and that’s the only place in Washington I surfed till the Quinaults kicked us out in 1969, or so. There seemed always to be an offshore breeze, and I think the fairly-reliable and classic curls were about 4 feet when things were right, and perhaps up to 6 feet.

        In hindsight, I think there is a chance that the main reason we did not try surfing anywhere else was that this was the one spot that had waves that looked like what we considered were the only kind for surfing, like the ones we had seen in pictures and movies. In other words, these waves were formed such that a non-surfer in the 1960s would think of surfing upon seeing them.

        My three top memories there are:

        1. The first wave that caught me: I stood up right away without trouble, because I was on a gun, about the size of the deck of the USS Enterprise, being overhauled in Bremerton at the time (the moth-balled Missouri was there, too). A lifetime background of waterskiing may have helped, which seemed really lame after that wave.

        2. The best wave I caught: I was the only one out there and had let a couple good ones go by out of incompetence, and the guys on the beach thought I really had blown it, but then came the best wave, and they cheered me and congratulated me on the beach afterward, thinking I waited for it on purpose.

        3. One calm night, we had lanterns, flashlights and surfboards and were partying and playing around in knee-deep water among those little rocks that stick up around the point — believe it or not, in whatever tide and weather that would allow that unlikely scenario. We actually could catch little 1- or 2-foot waves, and what’s more, the consensus hottest girls in West High were wading around out there with us. They didn’t make them like that in the 1970s.

        Come to think of it, of all the surfing innovations I have seen on film and video since then, night surfing isn’t one of them.

        I graduated from high school (1970) and left home for good, starting with a surfing expedition down the coast highway, beginning with northwest Oregon, just after the bridge to Astoria.

        Three of us, all 18 years old, were in a 1950s Jeep station wagon with 3 surfboards on top, and we scouted the entire coastline for waves and surfed at every beach we could find that had surf, all the way from the mouth of the Columbia River to Santa Cruz. One of the guys had been the junior year Foreign Exchange Student (AFS) to Durban, South Africa, and he picked up surfing there, not at Pt. Grenville, like the other two of us. If this sounds too much like a movie, factor in that although we all were blondes, we were not good surfers, by any world standards of the time.

        CONCESSIONARY NOTE: I don’t want to sound didactic and too sure of my dates. If you meet someone who insists it was 1970 that the Quinaults started their zero-tolerance policy towards surfers, then don’t take my word it was 1969. I remember surfing once at Pt. Grenville with the Durban-trained surfer. Since he got back from his junior year in South Africa in 1969, perhaps this surfing expedition in 1970 started with Pt. Grenville, before we drove to Oregon, and that’s when we got kicked off the Quinault beach.

        After Santa Cruz, we had had enough of it for awhile. It was just after the 4th of July, 1970. The other two guys went back to Bremerton, but I dropped off in San Francisco and stayed there, as a home base, because I spent the next few years mostly hitchhiking all over the US, with some Mexico, some Canada and some Caribbean. The only time I surfed was at Mazatlan in 1971 (I bought a very good short-haired man’s wig in San Francisco for the border, because the Mexicans wouldn’t let you across if you had long hair).

        BTW, Jack Kerouac was a wussy. He’d hitchhike for a few miles then call his press agent for self-conscious bragging rights, while he briefly was away from the sheltered lives of the artsy folk he could “dazzle” by his boldness. Whereas, the best thing about being on the road is not only does no one know where you are, but you don’t even know where you are going. It’s a feeling like flying, especially when you are broke and don’t know anyone for thousands of miles — like the thrill deep in your stomach when you feel that wave pick you up.

        I really had destroyed my knee in stupid West High basketball, was IV-F in the draft, and later couldn’t even surf without it swelling up on me and putting me on crutches for a week or two. Last time I went surfing was at Land’s End, England, in 1979. I still have a picture of me holding the surfboard, and you can see the swelling in my left knee.

        Thanks for your web page, and rekindling surf days for me.

        Clint
        cab@nyc.rr.com

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