Secret Spot

Secret Spot

Secret Spot
Your secret spot exists at the intersection of memory and imagination.
A certain amount of desire, somewhere on the scale between longing and all out obsession, should be included.
So, maybe it’s a confluence, a perfect merging of several streams.
You’ve had, like bubbles in an endless sky; a few moments that were only sheer, pure bliss;
Joy, as if you were in that bubble, in some separate reality, some secret Shangra-La;
And though you were, probably, in the midst of some curious blend of peripheral chaos and among others, the motionless, clueless others; those others who missed your moment,
Calmly looking toward some blank horizon,
Waiting for a repeat of their remembered moment of terror and weightlessness;
But you want to repeat your moment…
Another again;
And when you do, that moment will overlay, perfectly,
Merging with and among the collected previous moments you long to,
Really long to… repeat.
And then… you look toward that blank horizon. Waiting, waiting
Again, as another bubble floats by.

My Father Started the Aussie/Yank Watersports Rivalry


My father, Erwin Allen Dence (senior), turns ninety today, March 26, 2014. See the look on this photo from (actually, I think) the Korean War? This is the look my father handed down to me. When things turn serious, the look speaks of a focused intensity that might not include, “Excuse me, but…”
Otherwise, my father is a very friendly guy; self-deprecating, polite.
It is this intensity, a clue to an inner toughness, that, perhaps, allowed a seventeen year old son of a rock mason from West Monroe, New York to join the Marine Corps before World War II actually broke out (he wanted to join the Army Air Corps but was too young- walked down the hall); to survive Guadalcanal and other unspeakably horrific campaigns in the South Pacific; to survive Korea; to raise seven children by working (always) two, (sometimes) three jobs.
My dad has lived, for the past thirty years or so, three hours south of me, still near Surf Route 101, in Chinook, Washington, the closest town to the Astoria Bridge across the Columbia River. He was a fifty-five year old bait boy when he first arrived, cleaning fish while crossing the notorious Columbia Bar; then he was one of those Gun Dealers, the kind who take guns to the show to sell, comes home with more. When he thought someone might kill him for his guns, he switched to repairing clocks. Same deal on the clock shows. He has a house and storage areas full of clocks.
“What do you do when it’s anything o’clock, Dad?”
“Huh? What?”
Oh, it’s chaos.
“I set them for different times.” “Oh, so the chaos is, like, all the time.”
“Um. Yeah.”
In a sort of shout-out, I should mention that we seven were from my father’s second marriage. He has a daughter from a wartime marriage that didn’t (the marriage, Beverly’s fine) survive the war. “I did love her,” he said a couple of years ago. And he loved, I know, my mother, Joetta, and his third wife, Marian. All three have passed.
To give a bit more insight into my father’s mindset, here is what he said about those suffering with what those in the war business once called Shell Shock; now renamed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “There are some… horrible things. You have to… to just get over it.” Basically, those images and smells and remembered sounds you can’t forget, or store somewhere else, you just have to live with.
And keep living.
I must add that my father doesn’t tell war stories.


Caption: this is the card I sent to my dad. On the inside, there’s a clock face that’s set just after nine O’clock. Ninety? Get it? Of course; and it’s set just after nine in case the card gets there tomorrow instead of today. You know, after my sibling’s (probably store-bought) cards get there. Not that I’m competitive. I actually wanted to put some photo from the actual WWII Melbourne event in here; I did research, Google-wise; but I wasn’t ready, and I know how hard it is to add photos after the fact. Yeah, it’s an excuse. Imagine a parade.
One of my Dad’s younger siblings (one of six siblings), Calvin, had a big smile on his face when he told this story (I heard it at my Dad’s 80th), my father sort of taking it.
“Remember,” he’d start, “what happened in Australia?”
Of course my father’s children wanted to know.
A bit of background must include that my father was raised near a canal, and, when it was warm enough, he swam, mostly underwater. “I liked to swim underwater.”  Not only that, he and a brother or two would jump off poles, fifty feet high or so, into the water, careful not to hit other pilings.
“My Mom would practically have a heart attack,” he recently told me. “Every time.”
So, as a reward for surviving Guadacanal, the First Marine Division was sent to Melbourne, Australia, in 1943, for rest and recreation (R & R).
They were greeted with a big parade, reported locally with news headlines that included: “U.S. Marines; Over-paid, Over-sexed, and Over Here.”
This was followed by a sort of goodwill games at a cricket field. So:
“Your father (scanning the room) was known to be a great swimmer; so they had him put on a demonstration. And they said, ‘These Aussies are pretty good; so you better do your best.’ And, well…(dramatic pause) your father swam something like three laps under water and… well; they didn’t have anything to top it. They were embarrassed.”
So, taking this story farther; with a country where swimming and all things ocean (trade ‘marine’ for ocean) are a source of national pride; I have decided my father started the whole Aussie/Yank rivalry.
So, thinking for a while, about writing something for my father’s ninetieth birthday, and to tell him I had sent off a custom-drawn birthday call, and in an attempt to beat my other siblings to the punch, I called my father the other day. He wasn’t in. Busy. He called me back just as I was going to bed. I missed the call, but Trish didn’t. I got up. “Hello, Dad…”
Going over the swimming story, I said that, somewhere, I’d picked up a story about how, when he worked as a Civil Service cable splicer on Camp Pendleton, always with a Marine Corps boss, frequently with a crew of younger Marines, he would challenge them to a race on any obstacle course they happened to be passing; and he would win, well into his forties.
“Well,” he said, “maybe that came from your Mom.” “Probably.” With a certain amount of pride.
“You know, in Melbourne, I did come in second in the mile race.”
Now, this, to me, was shocking. We Dences are not built like runners; long legs and slender upper bodies. No, we’re built like swimmers, all shoulders and arms.
“So, second place.” “Yeah. I ran cross country in high school.” “Yeah?” “Yeah.”
He never told me who came in first, Yank or Aussie. Nor did he mention that, after the event, he and the other Marines went back to land and take other islands.

Happy birthday, Dad; thanks for passing down the strength to just… go… on.
Love, Erwin (Jr.), oh, as I did in the card, I guess I should pass on love from Trish and our extended modern family;  Son-James. daughter-in-law-Rachel, ex-daughter-in-law-Karrie, Karrie’s new husband-Shiloh, grandsons-Tristan and Nate; our daughter-Drucilla, and our younger son-Sean Erwin Matthew Dence

Jeff Officer and I Attempt Overhead La Jolla Cove

Some how, by the time I became a senior at Fallbrook Union High School, I had become the guy younger surfers would beg for a ride to the beach. Much to the annoyance of some of my contemporaries (Mark Metzger mentioned how uncool it was; I replied by asking when he’d last gone surfing), I gave in several times.

Actually, Scott Sutton and Jeff Officer became the only other members of the (unofficial) Fallbrook surf team in 1969, competing in the (radio station) KGB/WindanSea High School Surf Contest. In 1968 I was the entire (unofficial) team. Another story.

But, staying with this one, Scott and Jeff and my girlfriend, Trisha Scott, and our gear, all went about fifty miles down to Pacific Beach stuffed into my Morris Minor, boards on top. Forty-five miles an hour. Neither of my teammates advanced out of the first round, though I did, and, after dropping Jeff and Scott off in secluded hilltop locations, and dropping Trish off, the Morris Minor’s clutch burnt completely out at the bottom of Debby Street.

The next day, my Dad again disappointed by my latest car-damaging,  I got to take my mom’s new car down, without Scott and Jeff. I let Trish drive it just a bit in PB, and she smushed the right fender against a curb. “It’s okay; I’ll say I did it,” I said, nobly; “they’ll believe that.”  “Okay. Yeah.” “Really? You’ll let me take the blame?” “So sweet.”

I got second in my heat on Sunday, didn’t advance. I blamed it on the pink jersey looking white over my wetsuit, surfing too close to the pier, and, anyway…

Anyway, for some reason, Jeff and I decided one day to ditch school to go surfing. It seems like Jeff and Scott both had parents who were, maybe, a bit more ‘protective’ than mine. They were definitely older. On one occasion I had to drive Jeff to his house, way out of town (seems like it was almost Escondido), to get his stuff and see if he could go surfing with me. “It’s kind of late,” his Dad said, looking me over, then asking,“don’t you agree?” “Probably is, Sir.”

“It wouldn’t have been if we’d just gone,” I said, privately, to Jeff; irritated because it was now too late for me to go. I almost drove off his mountain on the way out, fishtailing around the corners on the dirt road.


Caption- Somewhere between 1969 and now; not a sin to just watch.

So, we ditched. We met in the parking lot before school. The problem was, when we got to the coast, the surf was huge, stormy, out of control. Even Swamis and Cardiff Reef were too big; though I’m still trying to remember how we checked them out and kept on driving south.  South wind, maybe.

La Jolla Cove, the protected swimming beach around the corner from the swell, was now the mid section of an extended left point break starting at Boomers and headed toward the usually flat end of La Jolla Shores. No one was out, or even watching. With the south(ish) wind blowing nearly offshore, it still looked insane.

Actually, the waves looked clean, rideable; makeable; just not by me. Though I’d never ‘haired-out’ because of wave size (by itself), I wasn’t in any way ready for this. This wasn’t a spot I’d surfed before. Maybe no one had. And, with no one out, it was difficult to even estimate the size. But BIG. Way overhead.

Jeff was more than ready; he was excited, ready to go for it. I wanted to check it out longer; figure out where to paddle out, where the rips might be, even where to park so we didn’t get caught by the possibly-just-rumored-to-exist Truency Officers.

Somewhere between the car and the Cove (almost to the Cove) two lifeguards in a jeep did stop us. “Are you saying we can’t surf?” Jeff asked. “Don’t argue, Jeff,” I said, allowing myself to breathe out.

Was I relieved? Oh, yeah. Was Jeff disappointed? Probably. In me? I may have cared at the time. Would his father be relieved if he knew? Not something I even considered (at the time).

Later in that same year, 1969, an even bigger swell hit Hawaii and the west coast. I surfed (with some success) at Swamis every day of the run, and Ricky Grigg got his photo in “Surfer” magazine riding a half mile on an eighteen foot wave that wrapped around and past La Jolla Cove.

So, um; Jeff; sorry.

I have seen video of more recent sessions at the Cove, a lot of surfers going for it. Jeff?

Woosh… A Couple of Days Working in Seattle and… Woosh

Sometimes my tendency to make more out of some experience than it deserves, to expand a moment to metaphor irritates me. Even me. Still, I think of all experiences as part of some story; meaning some puzzle piece we haven’t found a place for yet. Not yet.

I occasionally work on ‘the other side,’ in the city, Seattle.  In the Pacific Northwest, this is like a reverse surf trip. Still, there are more surf shops in Seattle than on the Olympic Peninsula, and more surfers as well. Cities are where the jobs are. It makes sense.

And maybe it’s been too long since I lived in a city. The overload of competing stimuli strikes me even before it’s my turn to get off the ferry. My Google Map directions not quite memorized, I have the printed version in one hand, ready to take on the crazy traffic, always with someone who knows where he or she is going moving up quickly in the lane I may have to switch to. Instantly. And of course, it’s raining. The storefronts are passing quickly, sideways vision blurred. There are red traffic lights on clutch-burning hills, pedestrians, and heights, and reflections, and curtainless windows shining; and signs I have to read among those I cannot.

All of it is too much.

And yet the houses in the neighborhoods can seem deserted if not for the rain-coated landscapers raking and cutting; if not for the dog-walkers, plastic bag held in a plastic glove, each of them blind to some worker leaning into the side door of his van (though the dogs haven’t learned the city-posture, the ghetto-mentality, and sniff between the coffee and the paint on passing); if not for the occasional children who chirp like stellar jays at a freshly-filled feeder; if not for the car alarms and the whoosh of passing cars, and the sound of some ambulance siren, moving, moving, blocks over; stopping, evidently, but with the siren still going.

That sound becomes something like seagulls on a rooftop; eventually.

And yet, with the city humming like redundant jazz, I’m listening for the sound of the ocean, maybe remembering the excitement of the stimuli overload from my years in San Diego; taking cross streets and alleys to check the surf between PB Point and Crystal Pier, or dropping down the winding roads out of Mission Hills, hoping to beat a couple of traffic lights en route to Sunset Cliffs. Yes, I have been that guy moving up in the right lane, knowing where I was headed, annoyed by those who are overwhelmed.

Woosh… pick up some masking stuff and some tools, remember to lock the door to the van… woosh. Count the seconds…



I will have to write something about localism as it has been redefined in the northwest. With Seattle a ferry ride and another two and a half hours of driving to get to pretty much anywhere on the Straits, and about two and a half hours of driving to get to Westport, depending on traffic… well, it’s like being a surfer who lives in Sacramento, maybe even Los Vegas. Okay, maybe Needles.

Or, thinking from another angle, it’s like (checking the Google Map) living in Fallbrook, California, where I was raised as a suburban non-cowboy, and surfing 1), Oceanside Pier- 25 minutes, 2), Huntington Pier, one hour and twenty minutes, or 3), Malibu Point, two hours and a half; all depending on traffic (jams).

So, this relates to me, now; as: 1), Port Townsend, 2) My favorite Straits spot, and 3) either the real coast near Neah Bay, La Push, or, in the other direction, Westport.

There are other spots, kind of like Fallbrook to Swamis, or La Jolla, or, no, Tijuana Sloughs is probably Huntington-ish. Ish.

Still, even if you live in Port Angeles, it’s over fifty miles to the real coast.

This isn’t that story. And yet, I purchased my latest wetsuit at a Seattle surf shop, cruised through another one over by Gasworks Park. “Don’t touch that,” the guy working there said as I leaned in too close to one of their boards.

“I live on the Peninsula,” I said. “Local-er,” I’m thinking. If I’d needed to, I would have added that I own land and live ON Surf Route 101. Not the local-ist, and I did once own a cowboy hat. Didn’t seem right.

Oh, I’m still going here. So, I did see some legitimate locals late one winter day, on beyond Joyce. I got out of the water because it was getting too dark when two pickups pulled in, logging gear and surfboards in the back. “Doofy has to go out because he missed it this morning,” the guy in the first truck said.

As Doofy (might have had a different nickname) suited up and paddled out, I talked to the local logger/surfers. “Well, there are so many spots,” he said.

“Really? Where?” He looked at me. Owning a house on Surf Route 101 wouldn’t have helped at all. “Nevermind,” I said as Doofy cruised across a dusky left.

You Knew You Couldn’t Capture the Magic or the Madness


The thing about color, as opposed to black and white scratching, is that, once you start, you’re going to have to figure out where you want to go. The problem with black and white scratching is, well, once you take a wrong line, it’s so hard to pull back.

So, I made a few copies of the black and white, thinking I could just forget the ones where I screwed up; look for that balance; still driving down the line. Lines.



Mark, From the Market

I’m really bad at remembering names, so, having asked for it twice, I tried to bookmark Mark’s name by connecting him with where we met; at the checkout line at the QFC market in Port Townsend.

Evidently we had passed each other before. You know how things all seem to happen at once? I meant that more as a statement. Nothing is happening, you’re going through some mental checklist, droning through, and then a sort of overload of information is hurled at you from several directions at once.

Rogue wave.

So, I’m checking out, punching-in my phone number, and I sort of casually look back at the next person in line, a guy in his early twenties with blond hair a bit out of control; and he’s looking at me as if I’m supposed to, maybe, recognize him. I don’t, really, but then he says something. I don’t really hear it, so I step closer to him.

He repeats, “Are you getting in the water much?”

“Do I, um, know you?”

“No; but I’ve seen you, like, every time I go to Wild (not the real name) Rivers.”

Oh, so now I’m thinking, running tape (this is a mixed metaphor-sorry) through my brain’s old school computer.


“Erwin Dence,” I say. “Actually, I started out the year surfing…”

I have to do something with my bank card. Swipe. “Pin?” No. “Credit.”

So, I’m through, stuff in a paper bag, but I’m still talking to Mark. Or trying to. “Do you know any local surfers?” “Not really.” He names a name. “Works at _____” I forget where, but, “Yeah; I talked to that guy over at Noodles (not the real name) Beach.” “I mostly go to the Straits.” “Yeah. I’ve been doing some surfing in town; not a good winter, so far, for…”

Evidently the checker at the counter next door doesn’t have anyone in line, so he interjects with something about “Surfing,” in kind of a fake-excited tone, then, for the enlightenment of the other checker, “Spicoli (the character from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”) This throws me off. Am I Spicoli? Is Mark Spicoli? Why would either of us be Spicoli?


Caption: The real fake Spicoli; slightly more interesting because he’s at a market.

“You know,” I say, mostly to the other checker; “Ridgemont was really based on Clairmont High, and I used to…” “Dude,” my checker says.

“Hey,” I say, to Mark (not to either checker), “have you checked out my website? It’ and I…” “I don’t do the internet.” “What?”

“I’m with you, brother,” says my checker. “Oh, I ‘surf’… the internet,” the other checker says. “Yeah, but,” I say, “you should drop into my site because…”

It doesn’t matter. The conversation is over; though, both of us headed for the parking lot, Mark says he saw me in line and thought, “Hey, I know that guy.” I tried to get a glimpse of his vehicle, hoping that might jog my memory. Maybe. Was he out, sitting on the inside on a short board while I was totally wave-hogging the rights? Did he nod at me from the back of a Chevy Suburban (impractical because of the mileage) on a crowded day with the rights working? Was I my usual self, pushy in the water, political on the beach? Probably.

It’s worth noting that, when we see other surfers in non-surf settings, we’re all in the same tribe; one slightly removed from the cashiers and the other shoppers.

Driving home, I suddenly thought I should have said, “Getting in the water? Not nearly enough.”

  BONUS: While googling ‘surfing port townsend’ images I came across this photo of an old friend, Joel Levy. Joel was a chef, a small businessman, and a cornet player and singer who performed around Port Townsend with various incarnations of his Cafe Combo. He sang in a big band-big voice type of style, preferring the standards. I did some painting at his house, graphics and custom stuff. “You know what I want,” he’d say. “No, not that; more, um, whimsical.” To keep the market theme going, following at a respectable distance behind Trish (my usual position when I’m not shopping via Blutooth- so rude, so fun), I ran into Joel one evening. “Some enchanted ev-en-ing” I sort of belted out. Trish increased her speed; Joel tried to act like he didn’t know me. Later, he said, if I’m going to try to sing, don’t try to go big; don’t emulate him. Good advice, but I mostly sing in moving vehicles, alone, backing myself up on harmonica.

It was a sad day when Joel passed on, partially because his life was sort of unraveling around him. He wasn’t a surfer, but he was real.



My family, usually with my friend Phillip Harper along, explored several surf spots other than Tamarack in my first years of surfing (1965- ?). I paddled, head-down, ruining unknown numbers of rides for real surfers at Swamis, quickly discerned Moonlight Beach was really not a surfing beach, decided Oceanside Pier was just too rough, and had too many Marines, many new to ocean swimming, getting in the way. Or I was actually afraid I’d get in their way.
Several times we moved on down 101, past Swamis, to where the future San Elijo State Park was under construction. Pipes was named for the then-new (now considerably shorter, rusted) drainage pipes hanging out of the side of the cliff. There were several sets of stairs, and we seemed to start at about the middle of the stretch that ends, to the south, at Cardiff Reef. It all seemed about the same, wave-wise, to me, at that time.
What I do remember is how clear the water seemed to be, protected by offshore kelp, onshore winds reduced by the cliffs, and with a mostly stable rock-infused bottom contour. I swear that, wading out, floating my board beside me, I was once hit by a wave that was just so thin and transparent that…
No, okay; you don’t have to believe me.
So, here’s another memory: My mom built a fire on the beach, sort of standard surf stuff, from the plentiful supply of driftwood. Out in the water; Phillip points to the uniformed ranger sort of marching down the beach.
So, you have the image of the Smokey Bear-hat wearing ranger; add in the sort-of-chunky mother of seven, undoubtedly wearing a dress, and there’s the face-to-face, then the Ranger kicking sand on the fire meant to warm her children… and my mom’s back in his face;  and we’re imagining that she’s saying “The park’s not even open yet,” and “this is what we’ve always done,” and the Ranger’s threatening some sort of action, and…
…And he left, eventually; and my mom restarted the fire, we got warm, and she didn’t bring us back there.
But I did go back. I went back after the park opened, but day-surfers had to rotate onto a small ledge and sneak around the fence to get to the most consistent peak, Pipes Proper, or to what my high school surfing friends and I referred to as Swamis beachbreak.

When Trish and I lived in Encinitas in the mid-70s, Pipes was the main place I surfed in the area, always with an eye toward Swamis; occasionally braving the crowd there.
For the past twelve years or so, Pipes Proper has been the designated ‘home break’ for my friend Ray Hicks. He parks on the highway, passing the crew of surfers, most around our age, who, possibly retired (Ray’s still working), have purchased the yearly park pass, and watch the surf from the parking lot inside the fence, at the bluff.  Ray, already in trunks or wetsuit, cruises down the ramp/access, drops off his sandals at the rip-rack rocks, paddles out, usually to the main peak.

It all seems kind of casual to me, sort of friendly.  Sure, Ray has had two pairs of sandals stolen, replaced with cheaper models, and now he just wears the cheaper models himself; and, yes, it does get crowded when it’s good, even when it’s not, but once in a while Ray writes me about memorable rides and memorable sessions, the water so clean, the waves so thin and transparent that…