Partying Down with the Hipsters, Surfsters, and the Grumpsters

My friend Steve was giving me a hand finishing up the staining of a cabin in the woods. The temporary renter of the cabin was a young woman who works in the wide world of psychoanalyzing and psycho-advising and psycho-counseling. She had just revealed that her partner… surfs. Not around here. “Venice.” Oh. “California.” Oh. I didn’t think Venice is particularly known for surfing. “Well.” Okay, so, he’s a hodad? “What’s a hodad?” Steve explained the term. “So,” she said, “during the pandemic, a lot of people started surfing, or were able to surf more.” Oh, yeah; for sure. “So…”

It still didn’t answer the question about hodad-ness.

So, then I told her what the pandemic did for folks out here on the fringe. For folks who only need a signal from the cosmic cloud to work remotely, remoteness was, and still is, up for grabs. Or for sale. “So?” So, more surfers. “And does that, in some way, annoy you?”

Yes. You see, I said, I seem to differentiate between surfing, and surfers who have a certain… connection… and those who do it for the… social aspects. Surfing is cool and I, um… uh… I don’t really go for cool by association.

Somewhere in here the woman made, I believe, a psycho-judgment that I was, not a sociopath and narcissist that I claimed to be, and possibly took some pride in being, but a grumpy old surfer unable to realize and/or accept that surfing is really just another excuse for healthy social interaction in a beachside setting.

Man, I hope someone else shows up who appreciates my bitchin’ trailer and my state-of-the-art board. San Onofre, 1950.

Wait. I am just another grumpy old surfer unable to appreciate the reality or share the joy? Oh, the guilt I feel. I was being accused of being self-aware and in denial of being self-aware; no, not true.

Well, maybe. I don’t know. Allow me to self-examine. I have developed some appreciation of the cultural circus aspects of surfing. Some. You know, like going to Westport mid-summer, once every other year. Festive.

When I started, just after junior high, none of my contemporaries surfed. Surfing was cool, even then. If you lived twenty miles from the nearest breaking waves, but surfed, you had an automatic plus in the cool category. Many tried it, some stuck with it. No one dropped the surfer checkmark next to his name (not sexist, didn’t seem to have any female surfers at Fallbrook High- would have been fine with it, probably). I was part of some sort of informal crew, one that broke up almost immediately after high school.

Then I wasn’t. I was a lone surfer. Sounds cooler than it is. I worked in Oceanside, then moved to Pacific Beach, University City, Encinitas, Mission Hills. I occasionally went surfing with someone I worked with or for. I recognized surfers at spots I frequented, but surfing was something one did before or after (or during- Trestles period) school, or work; forty minutes or so in the water, on average. This is where and when I developed my ‘ghetto mentality.’ Keep your head down, don’t look other surfers in the eye. These are not your friends; these are your competition. This is my often-used excuse for poor wave etiquette. I should apologize. Probably. I may have changed. Possibly.

Wait, they had, like, cool surf rigs back in 1963? Wow! San Onofre is a happening! And scaffolding. Brilliant!

San Diego, Ocean Beach, 1978: We were moving to the Northwest. I was unaware of any surf possibilities on the Olympic Peninsula. I checked out from my job before lunch. Trish was still working. It was fall, but the day was hot, and the water was still warm. I was walking out toward the pier. There was a crowd sort of hanging on the wall and in the parking lot. I don’t really remember if the surf was good or not. What I remember is the gallery, hanging out, sharing and utterly convinced of their individual and group coolness. Believing I was giving up surfing, my thought was, “Yeah; I’m too old for this shit.”

It might actually be that the older surfers are always being pushed out of the way, accused of not getting it by another next generation of surfsters, if not hipsters. It might also be true that it is difficult to maintain a certain level of involvement in a place where the waves are fickle. I have difficulty imagining what it might be like in a place where the waves are more consistent, and, undoubtedly, more consistently crowded. When I sneak away and go to some possible surf location, I do, almost always, know someone, or many someones who are also there, looking for a few waves.

There are multiple identifiable-if-unofficial groups of surfers in the spread-out neighborhood of the Strait/Islands/Northwest Coast, each with revolving memberships, that one could, loosely, describe as ‘crews.’ Or, maybe, ‘pods.’ Some surfers are actually accepted in multiple informal groupings. Some surfers are not accepted in any. Sad.

True of everywhere, no doubt.

I am actually very happy that I do have friends who surf. I’m actually fine with chatting it up on the beach. For a while. Party? Party wave?

Hmmm. Best things I can say about my therapy session is that it confirms what the self aware me already realizes, and that didn’t have to pay for it.

Is Seaweed Actually Magical? And…

…and another “SWAMIS” cutback. FIRST, here on the Olympic Peninsula, buoys, designed to help ships not sink or crash, somewhat helpful for surfers trying to determine if some portion of some swell might find its way into the Strait, have been ripped from their anchors, set adrift, lost, found, or, we don’t really know, put out of service. Putin? One theory. None of the downed or drowned bouys have been put back into service.

SO, surfers in, say, Seattle, have been relying on surf forecast sites before making a decision as to whether to invest the increasing amount of gas money, wait in line at ferries, face traffic slowdowns if ‘driving around.’ NOW, it must be mentioned that there are always waves of some sort or shape or size on the actual PACIFIC COAST. Almost always. AND the most characteristic condition on the Strait is flat. Flat with east wind, flat with north wind, flat with south wind, flat and somehow blown out with west wind.

STILL, surfers get desperate. So, trying my best to glean something positive from whatever sources I could, I went up Surf Route 101, looking. I wasn’t alone. More to not get skunked than to satisfy my surf lust, I ventured into calf-high curlers, my fin popping across rocks. PERHAPS BECAUSE I had paddled out, three more adventurers joined me. PERHAPS BECAUSE they had believed some forecast site, I passed many surf rigs on my way back down Surf Route 101. NOT ONLY THAT, but a friend of mine texted me, asking if I had scored bombs. AFTER ALL, Magic Seaweed was saying…

NOW, maybe it got awesome. Somewhere, for some brief period. MAYBE. YES, I did look at various forecasts. Not looking good for the Strait. Depressing. I must now upgrade my most recent session to “Pretty good. Didn’t break a fin.” Again, there are always waves on the actual ocean.

The rocks at Swamis, someone dropping in on someone. Taken from some hotel brochure.

MEANWHILE, I am trying to find some time to continue cutting my manuscript for “Swamis” down to a reasonable and, hopefully, saleable length. Tightening it up. I am up to the days after Chulo is beaten and set alight next to the wall of the SRF compound. This is a (copyrighted) version from the second completed draft. I might mention that, if you have any experience surfing on the west coast, you know (a snippet of a quote from Miki Dora about Malibu) “The south wind blows no good.”


Three full days after Chulo’s murder, the burn-scarred section of the wall was back to white, visibly white even in the minimal pre-dawn light. I wasn’t sure if I had actually slept. I got out of bed at four, got to Swamis early enough to park the Falcon in the choicest location; front row, ten spots from the stairs; the optimal view of the lineup.

The Falcon was the same car in which my dad had taught my mom to drive, the station wagon, three-speed manual transmission. This was the car she used to drive her two boys to swimming lessons, and church, and to my appointments with a string of different doctors; and to the beach; surf mats and Styrofoam surfies and whining Freddy, maybe an annoying friend of his. The factory installed (optional upgrade) roof racks were now pretty much rusted in place.

The difference was the Falcon was now my car. A surfer’s surf wagon. Hawaiian print curtains hung on wires, a “Surfer Magazine” decal on the back driver’s side window, a persistent smell of mildew. Beach smell. With my boards now shorter, I usually kept them inside, non-hodad-like, but, for several of the reasons a hodad would do it, I kept the nine-six pintail on the roof for a while longer. “Just in case the waves are really small,” might have been one excuse.   

A predicted swell, this gleaned from other surfers and pressure charts in the Marine Weather section of the newspaper, hadn’t materialized, and a south wind was blowing. Cars with surfboards were passing each other up and down 101. Surfers were hanging out in parking lots and on bluffs and beaches, talking surf, watching the few surfers out at any spot bobbing in the side chop. Maybe it would clean up, maybe it would actually get bigger. And better.

I would wait. Waiting is as important a part of surfing as trying to be the first one out or paddling out before the best conditions hit.  Just before. My shift at my weekend-only, for-now, job didn’t start until ten-thirty; about the time the onshores typically get going. Different with a south wind. Sometimes it would clean up as some weak front moved inland or simply fizzled. Sometimes.

If I went out at nine, I could get a good forty-five minutes of surfing; maybe ten waves or more. I had my notebook, college-ruled; I had the four and eight track tape player under the passenger’s side of the seat; a collection of bargain tapes purchased at the Fallbrook Buy and Save; and I could do what I always did, study. My father’s billy clubs sized flashlight, four new d batteries, provided the lighting.

Read, recite, memorize, reread. That was my system. Less important details fall off with each attempt to memorize. The facts and details best remembered, by my logic, would most likely be the ones on the tests. Any quirky anecdotes, something that amused me; yes, I remembered those, too.  I had another system for multiple choice tests and standardized tests. Two of the four choices were obviously incorrect, fifty-fifty chance on the others. Best guest. The system worked surprisingly well, well enough that California’s supposed Ivy League university accepted me.

My father hadn’t understood why I couldn’t go there.

I was a faker, kid with a system; it never would have worked; not in that bigger pond, every student top of some class somewhere. 

No studying on this morning. I had to sneak over to the crime scene, the wall that surrounds the Self-Realization Fellowship compound. There was (and is) a wrought-iron gate in the higher, arched (former) entrance, around the corner, facing 101. As with the other breakpoints in the wall, that section is topped with the huge gold sculptures, each one representing a blooming flower. Lotus blossom. They could as easily represent a flame, not dissimilar to the one on the statue of liberty, not dissimilar to the burn marks on the wall my friends had described.  

The SRF compound is a place where people, on their own, go seeking enlightenment, a realization of the true self.  Seekers, seeking.

At about seven-fifteen I did walk over. Had to. I expected more. I expected some instant and obvious explanation.  There was a man by the wall, wheel-barrowing soil from a pile near the highway to the wall, raking it in. I had seen him before. Dark skinned. East Indian, I presumed. He was dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, white, with faded blue workman’s pants, rubber boots, and heavy leather gloves. Most of his face (and I knew he had a beard) was covered in what appeared to be an overlarge (plain cloth) bandana, a standard bandana (red) around his nose and mouth, and a tropical straw hat (quite different from the cowboy style Mexican farmers and landscape workers preferred). He dropped the new soil around newly planted but full-sized plants.

There was no evidence that something horrific had occurred. The new paint blended perfectly.  The plants looked… it all looked exactly the same as it always had; as it did even in the late 1950s, before I surfed, when my father took us there just so my mother could see the gardens.

If I blinked, I thought, it might be like taking a picture. I might remember details. I might remember better. Image. Catalog. File.


“Swamis,” Portia Backstory

My novel, “Swamis,” would be complete and possibly readable by now if I wasn’t so (I have to say) involved in the backstory for each of the main characters (and, I guess, if there weren’t so damn many of them). I wouldn’t have been so involved in the details if it wasn’t so important to me to know and show how distinctive each character is. And realistic, authentic.

It hasn’t aided my task that character development and the crashing of characters against each other is so much fun for me. Writer fun, not like reader fun.

A reader wants FOCUS. I am trying. My third page one rewrite has narrowed the timeline, tightened the storyline, dropped out a few characters.

Here is an exchange that won’t be in the novel. I have already eliminated this scene at the San Diego Sheriff’s Office Vista Substation:

We’d been in the office too long. We were all a bit more… relaxed.

Dickson closed the door with a kick of the knee when he reentered the office with two more cups of coffee. He handed one to Jumper, said he put a little coffee in with the sugar. Wendall took the other cup, said Frederick Thompson had not been drunk or under the influence of drugs as far as the medical examiners could tell. “Just crazy.”

“Helicopter pilot,” Jumper said, as if this explained something.  It seemed to. Maybe not enough. “He flew evac in Korea, got out, surfed, went back in for Vietnam. Gunships. Different thing. Fucked him up.” Jumper paused. “So, yeah; crazy.” 

Wendall lit up another cigarette.  “And… all of this… craziness, Langdon is claiming, and he has the ear of the politicians, is because of the Sheriff’s Office laissez-faire” (he pronounced it la-zy-fair) “policy toward pot growers and dealers in our county.”

“Miss Ransom and the ‘Free Press’ assholes got that part right,” Dickson said. “La-zy-fair for sure.”

Wendall leaned over the desk as far as he could. “It wasn’t your father, Jody; Gunny thought he had it under control. It’s just… grown… too fast, too many new, um, participants. We knew about Chulo; that he was collecting money from the hippie dealers. Chulo and…?”

Jumper and I both said “Portia” at the same time.

Oceanside 1974. The proximity to Camp Pendleton
and a steady stream of vulnerable Marines had made the downtown a pretty tough place in the Vietnam era. I worked at Buddy’s Sign Service in this area June, 1969 to September, 1971. Yeah, too much exposition.

“Oh yeah,” Wendall said, “Portia. She’s actually Patricia Sue Langley. Patty Langley, runaway from, um, Many Wives, Utah; busted for petty theft…ha ha… back in ’65.  No, um, end of ’64.  She was a minor, so… So… and… oh, then she got… sexual. Oceanside. Marines, mostly; easy pickin’s.”

Dickson interjected. “Not our, as you know, jurisdiction.”

“Oh, but then Patty got herself down to Leucadia…” Wendall said, “across 101 and down from where you live now, Jody; one of those motels.”

Dickson pointed toward Jumper. “Second one past your place.”

“When I was a kid,” Jumper said, “Chulo and I’d go around, pick up coke bottles at the Log Cabin Inn, other motels; turn them in for the, the deposit. Good money for a kid.”

I felt compelled to join in. I spoke quickly to make up for the obvious lack of interest by the others. “A neighbor kid, Roger; he and I went to this ball game down by Live Oak Park. Fallbrook. Roger’s brother was playing. We picked up bottles; took them to the guy at the little… the stand. The guy said they were his bottles, wouldn’t give us the deposit money.”

“You tell him who your dad was?”

“No.” I looked at Wendall, Dickson, Jumper. They were waiting. “Roger did.”

Wendall cleared his throat. Loudly. “So. Jody’s dad… Gunny… Joe; he always liked to point out how most all the motels were on the south-bound side; like that showed nobody’s coming up from San Diego looking for a place; it’s all from the north.  L.A.”

“Anyway,” Dickson said, “guess she… Patty, um, slash Portia, got tired of… servicing… Jarheads; fresh-outa-boot-camp Ji-rines; they’d probably want to go two or three times.” He did a subtle hip thrust motion, adding, “First time ought to be free. Ha! Probably wouldn’t even make it out of his skivvies.”

Wendall took over. “It was my call. Disturbance. The proprietor actually called it in; but Gunny and…” Wendall pointed over his shoulder. “Gunny and Big Imagination here show up. I’m standing outside a room with some fat business type from Covina… West Covina. So… fat. He claimed he hadn’t gotten his money’s worth.”

It was a brief pause, but Dickson took the story. “So, Joe goes, ‘money’s worth of what?’ The guy… hey; it’s your story, Wendall. Did you take a bribe on that one?”

“Well.” Wendall looked around to make sure everyone was watching. “Sort of. Gunny, he goes up to the guy, looks down at his…you know, package. The guy was in… he’d put on his business jacket. Seersucker; some sort of sales guy green. Sears or Pennys; one of those. No shirt, and, you know, tidy whities; size, um, enormous. For his butt. No big bulge; not that I would notice. Black socks, the kind you hold up with garters. Garters. This Chipper, Mortenson, shows up and the… West Covina guy is acting like we’re supposed to be… like we’re on his side. Mortenson, you remember him, huh; tough bastard, loved to pull over kids.”

“And beaners,” Dickson said, looking directly at Jumper before giving Wendall a sweeping ‘take-it-away’ gesture.

Wendall was leaning forward, both elbows on my dad’s old desk. “So, Gunny, he’s got Mr. West Covina’s wallet in his hand and, I guess, repeats, ‘Money’s worth of what, Mr. um, Redwick?’ Red… wick.” 

We all may have chuckled. Wendall continued. 

“So, Patty’s standing there, wrapped up in a blanket. Not because it’s cold… and the motel owner, older woman who thought she’d be renting places for artists; like, you know, like Leucadia’s Newport Beach or something; she’s got an arm around Patty, and Patty’s got a bottle of orange soda up against one eye, and Gunny’s just waiting for Humpty Redwick to answer. And I say, ‘Maybe he was getting some, um, advice on, um, clothing choices.’ Morty… Mortenson, this cracks him up. But Gunny’s all business; serious. I mean, Morty’s seen some shit. He’s a vet, too. Korea, at least. Army. Chosin Reservoir. Bad shit. And he’d been cruising up and down 101, ‘Slaughter Alley’ for years. He was still, those days, still on a motorcycle. So, yeah; blood… tough guy, and he’s just… laughing.”

Wendall put a cigarette in his mouth, pulled out his Sheriff’s Office Zippo from his shirt pocket, snapped the lighter open with a jerk of the wrist, hit the wheel with a snap of the finger. More theatrics. “So, now Morty sees your dad’s serious. I mean, Morty was big, but Gunny was looking… you know how he could… that look; fierce, fierce-like; and Gunny he… he opens up Redwick’s wallet, then holds every photo of the guy’s wife and kids up to his face; whole, you know, string of them; and then shows them to me. And the owner. And Patty. Gunny takes out all the cash. He asks the proprietor if the motel fee has been paid. She says, ‘Diner’s Club,’ and Gunny holds a twenty and a couple of singles up in Redwick’s face, puts that cash back in the wallet, sticks the rest out toward Patty, sticks the wallet back into Humpty’s inside coat pocket. 

“Gunny’s still holding, probably, two hundred bucks. She, Patty, she shakes her head. And I say, ‘Oh, the advice,’ and she, no one would take her for dumb; Patty says, ‘Maybe Mr. Redwick should switch to some, um, boxers… maybe some, uh, dark color; that might be a choice.’ She takes the money. Now Gunny’s smiling. We’re, all of us, laughing. Not Redwick. He does look a little relieved, maybe.”

Wendall stopped, inhaled, blew the smoke out kind of forcefully. We all watched the cloud get sucked into the fan, some of it actually going out the window.

“Wait. Wait. So, Morty gets a call; three car pile-up by the Carlsbad Slough. He gets on his bike, starts it up, peels out. Lights and sirens.”

Jumper filled in with, “Not your jurisdiction.”

“Right. Then, two doors down, this other guy tries slipping out of a room. Gunny’s watching Patty. She must of looked over. The motel owner, she seems, um, concerned. Gunny gives me a look. The other guy, he tries to duck back into the room. I run down… yeah; I can run… I push open the door, grab this guy. He must have thought it was all over when Morty left.”

Wendall did a sort of relaxed pose, casually inhaled, slowly blew out smoke.

“And?” Jumper and I both asked.  

“And…” Wendall looked pleased. “And there’s another, definitely underaged girl inside; not beat up, but… I mean, it was obvious. So, short story long, it all went official. Other than the money.”  

Any excerpts from “Swamis” are protected under copyright laws, Erwin A. Dence, Junior, author.

Tim Nolan- Part X-60, Episode 2

Obviously, I just made up some numbers for episodes is Tim Nolan’s surfing life. We each have our stories of searches and epic sessions and terrible wipeouts and friends and crowds and empty perfect waves, of being caught inside, or outside, of gliding as part of a seamless band of energy and being pitched by a chunky section- Tim, perhaps, has more of these stories. If I am repeating myself, I must state that, in talking to Tim Nolan about the ocean, one cannot miss the connection he has.

It is a connection any real surfer has or wants. Sometimes a playground, sometimes a church.


“Four more photos. Three at Alpert’s Reef on my balsa 8’6” and one at Abalone Cove’s “Far Beach” on my first foam board, a pintail with a 3/4″ redwood stringer, built by Jim Lyman, who was a friend of Jeff Hackman’s dad. I ended up making a couple dozen laminated ash and mahogany wood fins for him. When I delivered the last seven, he didn’t have any money, so I told him to pay me when he can. He still owes me $21.00.”

This is one of the four photos, all from the Palos Verdes area, circa 1960. Not sure if it’s Abalone Cove or not.

Tim Nolan (part x-60)

Tim Nolan is, unquestionably, a legendary boat designer. Architect might be the correct term. He is also one of the first people I met out on the Strait, when I got back into surfing, at somewhere over fifty, after a complete absence from the water for somewhere between eight and ten years. And I sucked. I should say he was one of the first people I met who was older than me.

“Hey,” I said, “isn’t there an age limit on this sport?” Tim said something like… I don’t really remember, not nearly as snarky or as profane as I might have. Nice, actually; but I was still, mostly because I did still suck, kind of polite. “Is there a life for a surfer, like, my age?” “You will find that your best years are still ahead.”

Tim was pretty much right. Sort of. There is nothing I would trade for my time learning to surf, switching from a mat to a board (1965), going on surf adventures, alone and with friends in my teens, surfing comparatively uncrowded Southern California spots in the 70s, coping with the San Diego surf ghetto mentality up until I moved here at the end of 1978. I didn’t expect to have any kind of surfing life in the northwest. I have. In fact, even if I don’t include my early years of surfing less and less frequently, I have now been surfing longer up here than I did in California. Not as often, to be sure.

There is some unknown number of people who call themselves surfers. It is remarkable how the origin stories can be similar. Tim and I both started young, stuck with it for years; surfed less and less as career and family responsibilities or other distractions took control of our surfing time; and then we tried to get back into it when those forces lessened (somewhat).

Okay, I can’t really relate to those who learned to surf at a camp or a wave pool or tried to learn in their forties or something like that. Great. I guess. It’s fun, huh? Surfing, surfing well, takes a certain level of persistence, commitment. If I make a distinction between real surfers and surf enthusiasts, and I do, Tim Nolan is a real surfer.

He will always be older than me; three or four years; and as long as he stays with it, I have hope.

One of the photos, not that Tim isn’t ripping in each of them

Hi Erwin,
Here are some historic images grabbed from an 8 mm movie my father took of me surfing below our house at Abalone Cove in the summer of 1960. My board is balsa, a gift from my brother who bought it from his friend Dave Gregerson for $3.50 after it had been stripped of glass and surfed finless at Haggerty’s and thrown off the cliff as a sacrifice. The board was waterlogged and ends were split and embedded with rocks and pebbles. I dug  out the rocks and trimmed and bondo-ed the nose, but the tail was toast. I cut out the last 12” in a V shape with my Dad’s saw and glued up some pieces of balsa salvaged from life jackets that had failed the rip test used by the Coast Guard in those days to see if the canvas was rotten. My employers at that time, operators of the Marineland of the Pacific excursion boats noticed that the Coast Guard inspector was gentler during the lifejacket tests if they drank a coffee cup of whisky first.
So, I sawed the rubber off the salvaged life vest  sections, glued them together and made a new tail. I got resin, catalyst, fiberglass and pigment from the Maritime Supply store in San Pedro and went to town. I forgot to add catalyst while I was doing a yellow and green abstract pigment job on the deck, so I put in twice the amount for the gloss coat, which sort of worked. The deck got waxed and was supposed to be sticky anyway. The board was heavy, especially for a 12-year-old to carry down a cliff and then another half mile walking on rocks. But the board surfed well. It caught waves, coasted through sections, and was unstoppable once I got it to the water. In the movie, I am catching the most and best waves and getting the longest rides, same as I try to do now. (forgivable at the time because my Dad was watching, less so now because I’m not sure he still is..) The  quality is pretty fuzzy, having been copied from aged 8mm celluloid movie reel to VHS, then to DVD, and then to JPEG via Screen Capture, but it captures, for me, the moment and thrills of my first summer surfing as if it were yesterday.
We had consistent 1 to 3 ft waves at “Alpert’s Reef” (named by my neighbor, friend, and surfing mentor Jeff Alpert) all that summer, and then it never broke again for the remaining 5 years I lived there.

It only takes a few moments of talking with Tim Nolan to realize his love for the ocean is real, it is deep, deeper than merely sliding a boat or a board across the water. He is a waterman. I can’t do justice to his or anyone else’s feelings about, really, anything. I will give Tim a chance to share his relationship with surfing in the future. I already have a few more photos. Thanks, Tim.

Meanwhile, there are a few other real surfers I would like to feature in the future. We’ll see.