San Onofre is surfing history.
Particularly for the early surfers who parked on the beach, camped out there, built a few palapas, rode the rollers. It seems, to those of us reading about it, checking a few photos, a friendly sort of place frequented by people who saw themselves as rebellious and wild, but, by today’s standards, quaintly so.
Located (I know you know this) near the northwest point of the massive Camp Pendleton…wait. I should explain, just to be clear, that Camp Pendleton is roughly a triangle, with Oceanside at the lower point, San Clemente north, and, twenty miles inland (as the seagull flies) Fallbrook. That’s where I was raised, and, from my house, I always sort of believed, if I stood on the fence on the front edge of the property, and looked west, somewhere just over those coastal hills, that late afternoon glow was a reflection off the unseen water, just below our horizon, at San Onofre.
At some point the San Onofre Surf Club made a deal with the Marine Corps allowing club members access past the guard shack, down a winding little road along a riverbottom, and then past the railroad trestles (yeah, those Trestles), then near the Officers’ Club, the buildings a last remnant of a time when the entire area was part of a Spanish Land Grant. Nice location, in some trees in a usually sedate (wave-wise) cove right between Church and San Onofre.
Beach access was also given to Marines, and dependents. In Fallbrook, most of my friends’ dads, or moms, or both, worked on the base or were Marines. Kids of Marines came and went, on some three year cycle. My family was in Fallbrook because, once there, my mom didn’t want to move the increasingly large family elsewhere. Though my father remains a Marine (of the Corps, to the core), he went to work splicing telephone cables all over the base for the rest of his career.
Children of Civil Service workers didn’t have beach parking privileges, and any other surfers granted access on the base had to park in a lot* separated by those whispy trees particular to windy parts of California. I think, of all the times I went to San Onofre, mostly between 1966 and 1969, whoever I was with got to park on the beach.
PHILLIP HARPER AND THE JUMPING SAILFISH- 1967
There were fishing boats offshore, seagulls circling them. The waves were glassing-off, decent sized, and it wasn’t even crowded for a Saturday afternoon. Phillip had talked my parents (my mom, mostly) into allowing me to go with him. My mom loved Phillip from all the times he went to the beach with her driving the big wagon, he almost like another one of her seven kids. She probably bought Phillip’s ‘otherwise I’ll have to surf alone’ argument.
“Just don’t go 101,” she, no doubt said. “Slaughter Alley? No, Mrs. Dence, we’ll go across the base.”
Phillip had a vehicle, probably the VW truck that he and I tried to sleep in on the cliff above Swamis. There’s a house there now, and, somewhere after midnight, we were rousted by the cops.
Wow; I got immediately off subject.
Okay, so we were 16. “We have our parents’ permission,” Phillip said, me backing him up with a “Yeah; we do.” “Well, kids; you don’t have ours.” “So, what do we do, Officers?”
We actually drove halfway home before Phillip pulled over, asked himself and me, “What would Bucky do?”**
“He wouldn’t go back home,” each of us said. “No way.”
Still, by the time we got back to Swamis, others were in the water. Three, five… others.
But, at San Onofre, that Saturday afternoon, between sets, a fish leapt out of the water. It was huge, with a spear-like nose, and mid-leap, mid arc, seemed frozen in the air. Both Phillip and I saw it, looked at each other. Maybe one or both of us screamed. Phillip broke (first) toward the beach. He paddled so fast he almost outran a wave, but didn’t (of course), and it broke right on his back and he had to swim.
I’d like to think I gave him a lift.
When Phillip and I got to the shallows we looked back out at the glassy afternoon waves, sparkles on the incoming lines, the fishing boats motoring back and forth offshore.
San Onofre, we told each other, and others (critics always mentioned ‘Old Man’s’), was a place where you could make the waves as difficult as you wanted. You could ride like an Old Man, or you could take off behind a peak. Indeed, there was at least one guy out, “Probably on the Hobie team” Phillip said, who was back-dooring the peaks, ripping across the faces.
“Why’d we paddle in?” One or both of us asked. I’m guessing we laughed, paddled back out, warily scanning the water around us, at least for a while.
*This will show up in a story of “Bill Birt, ‘Skip-rope,’ and the Stolen Racks.”
**Bucky Davis was a surfer, probably my second surfing hero, and dated Phillip’s sister Trish. He’ll show up again in a (not yet written) San Onofre story, “’Cowabunga!’ and ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned.’”
In fact, telling that story is the reason I started Real Surfers.
We’ll get there.
Thanks for coming along.