Bill Irwin, Butch Van Artsdalen, and the ‘Call-Out’
“It was at practice. I was a defensive lineman; Butch came running at me. I didn’t really know how to tackle. I just picked him up and dropped him on his head. He didn’t like it much. Later, he said something to that effect in the locker room. I said, ‘You want to take it outside?’ He said, ‘sure;’ but then, I guess he thought the better of it. I was way bigger than him.”
Bill Irwin was a sophomore at La Jolla High School; Charles M. “Butch” Van Artsdalen was a senior. Butch, who would soon be dubbed the first “Mr. Pipeline,” already had a reputation as a talented surfer. Any description on his surfing included his willingness to get into a few more than his share of physical confrontations.
This isn’t about Butch. A surfer who could ride waves of consequence switchfoot, who could prevail in the lineups at Windansea or Pipeline, Van Artsdalen died of alcohol-related issues before he reached forty years old.
Bill was more interested in chasing girls, diving for lobster and abalone, and body surfing La Jolla spots like Boomer than board surfing. When I told Bill that, in early Bruce Brown movies, even surfers who had lasting reputations (my example- Dewey Weber) just didn’t surf all that well if compared to today’s longboarders.
“Maybe he just didn’t shoot them in good waves.” I added, not to seem too harsh.
“Well,” Bill, who admits to having owned a ‘really long’ board said, “Back then we weren’t so much surfing as plowing.”
Bill went on to play college football, to work various jobs, from drywall hanger to flower salesman; to crew on other people’s sailboats, to co-write two movie scripts that sold but were never produced (“We made money,” he told me, “that was the point.”). He lived in the San Francisco Bay area as the counter-culture was evolving, eventually moving to the Pacific Northwest, settling into a career designing and building custom homes.
I say settled. A General Contractor, by definition, is the person who makes sure the materials and, more importantly, the subcontractors, are on the job when scheduled. This requires that even the nicest General sometimes has to be, well, tough.
And I am one of those independent subcontractors with a schedule of my own. Though we could discuss surfing at length, Bill has no time to hear excuses. Bill has a sort of Honor-among-Tradesmen code. A person must abide by his word.
Now, this honor thing really only works with people who are also bound by some similar sense of ethics, those of us who feel compelled to respond to “You said you’d be here tomorrow” with “Okay, then I will.”
“SURF THE COYLE!”
One of my first jobs for Bill was a new house at the very end of the Coyle Peninsula, twenty miles into the Hood Canal. There was no running water available, and my brushes and rollers were all soaking in brownish water after hurrying from my last job. I thought it was perfectly appropriate to clean out the wienie roller I’d be using to pre-stain some boards by dipping it in the new finish, rolling the increasingly-correct color on some freshly-hung Tyvek (brand name) house-wrapping.
The Tyvek would all be covered by siding, so, in keeping with a surfing theme, and because I had a sign painting background…in a perfectly-professional one stroke lettering style… “Surf the Coyle.”
“Unprofessional,” Bill said, quite displeased. “Who’s going to see it?” I asked. “I saw it. And it’s tough, because I actually kind of like you.” “Well, you don’t have to like me, Bill.” “Oh, yes, I do; otherwise I won’t hire you.” “Oh.”
“YOU‘D BE AMAZED.”
I didn’t meet Bill until after he had a debilitating stroke, fifteen years ago. “Just bad luck,” he says.
His left leg remains stiff. Accounts vary as to whether he was more volatile before or after. He did have a reputation for being a very hard worker, very productive, and he was always nice to clients. Always. Almost always.
I wasn’t a client. Still, Bill has a certain formality, and really, the worst he really ever said to me is, a few descriptives deleted, is “I’m very disappointed.”
It was once Bill’s desire to retire to Hawaii. He spends a certain amount of time there each spring. Several of his employees (carpenters, not subcontractors) went with him and his wife, Mary, to Maui a few years ago.
This is almost an aside. Mary, Bill’s second wife, is another La Jollan, one of the girls he chased in high school. Unlike Bill, Mary did ride a flexi-flyer inside the storm drain, deposited on the sand at Windansea. He introduced me to her as, “Erwin, he came from Fallbrook.” “Oh,” she said, appearing properly snooty for more than just a few seconds.
“How does Bill do, you know, in the water?” I asked his lead carpenter, Jessie Justis.
“You’d be amazed. He does really well.”
No, I probably wouldn’t be amazed, even surprised. Bill’s a fighter. Or, sometimes, he doesn’t have to.