Marshall Dillon and ‘Fish’ Share a San Onofre Fire

 I WILL ALWAYS BELIEVE that James Arness seemed a little upset that I didn’t recognize him at the very moment that, looking way up, thinking about what deep wrinkles this man had, I did recognize him as Marshall Dillon, Mr. Gunsmoke.

Maybe it was because my expression changed from one of appreciation to one he recognized, one he came to San Onofre to get away from; the vapid fan-stare of image-induced bedazzlement.

“You can have the fire, kid,” he said, ducking to step into his 1967 model of a recreational vehicle; “hopefully your friends will be back soon.”

That’s the short version.

Yes, it’s another San Onofre story. But, first, I’d like to reiterate that I don’t believe my stories are better than yours. In fact, I think anyone who started surfing in his or her teens, begging someone for a ride to the beach; moving up to going with friends rather than parents, finding friends scatter after high school, finding new friends, surfing among strangers, all the while trying to figure out how to move from flailing to succeeding against and with waves, how to be a grownup. Sure, we all have stories.

These are just mine. You can’t help but compare them with yours.

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On this occasion I was riding with Mark Metzger and Billy McLean, younger brother to Don McLean, who is our age but didn’t stick with surfing for very long.  And Mark was trying to give me a new nickname. With a name like Erwin Dence, Jr., commonly called “Junior” at my house, it doesn’t take much. Erwinkle, Erweenie, Dense.

Oddly, none of my friends really had nicknames, not in the Windansea-gotta-have-one-to-be-cool sense.  We did call Ray Hicks ‘H-I-X’ for a while (another Mark Metzger idea), mostly because it bothered him, and Phillip Harper ‘Felipe,’ after noted big wave surfer Felipe Pomar, but, again, not for very long. Last names, as we were referred to by various high school coaches, that was about it.

There was older surfer Bucky Davis; I can’t be sure I ever heard his actual given name.

Still, Mark was determined that, since I seemed to stay in the water longer than anyone else, I should be renamed “Fish.” “No; don’t really like it.” “Fish doesn’t like his nickname, Billy. Too bad. Fish.”

I’m not sure I was actually asked if I wanted to get out of the water before my driver and shotgun rider took off onto Camp Pendleton proper, “The Base” in local offbase jargon. Billy and Don’s father was a civilian firefighter, a necessary workforce as brush fires have always been a sort of yearly event in the fall/Santana wind season.

Somewhere Fish got cold, hypothermic-short-john-wetsuit-in-winter-cold, and got out of the water. No friends, no car, no towel, no clothes.

I headed toward a small fire near the RV parked on the hard-packed dirt road.

Sharing of the beach fire was common. My sister Suellen was the firestarter/tender often in our Tamarack days, cold kids gathering there, talking surf and swearing occasionally, just learning to string several phrases together. Somewhat embarrassing to me, it was something Suellen seemed deaf to. Kids.

This fire seemed to be tended by a really big, really tall man. Not a talker, really; but I rattled off my situation. “Uh huh,” he said, moving things into his RV. And then he was gone, and I crouched down, shifting my focus between the fire, the waves, and the road.

Of course I acted as if I’d never been cold when Mark and Billy returned.

“Marshall f___ing Dillon of f____ing ‘Gunsmoke?’ Really, Fish?”

“Yeah; honest.”

About this time, my companions would have lit up, offered me a smoke. This was a common practice among any grouping of my surf friends; an offer I always declined until… okay, different story, though somewhat San Onofre-related; my first cigarette was, um, experienced in the backseat of a car headed up old 101 from an overnight stay on someone’s uncle’s boat in Oceanside Harbor (I think it was Dana Adler’s). Since I already had a splitting headache from the fumes (I had actually thought I would die in my sleep), a said, “Hell, yes.” “Really?”

Still, I couldn’t help but think my being offered a cigarette was yet another example of how sinners want to share in the sin. Thanks, buddies.

But, back at the beach on this trip, Mark couldn’t help but tell me how “You missed a great breakfast. Fish.” “And you missed Marshall f___ing Dillon, Metzger. Got a f____ing smoke?”

Oh, yeah; wild and sinful. “And don’t call me Fish; f___er.”

By this time I was warm enough to consider going back out.

  

Bill Birt and the San Onofre Octopi

Bill Birt and the San Onofre Octopi

Weekly (until I run out of them) Bill Birt Story
Before I posted it here I ran my story, “The Ghost of Bill Birt,” past the only friend from my Fallbrook surfing days I’m still in contact with, Ray Hicks, now living in Carlsbad, and still surfing.
“What a character,” Ray wrote, also mentioning in the e-mail the story he claims he’ll never forget; the one about Bill and the octopi at a minus tide 1967 San Onofre.*
With the rest of some subgroup of Fallbrook Sophomore surfers- Phillip Harper, Ray Hicks, probably Mark Metzger, Billy McLean, me, standing around a beach fire between sessions, standard practice in those days of short john wetsuits, Bill was down with the old beachcombers and the young kids examining the tide pools.
You should bear in mind that most of us were sixteen, Billy fourteen**, and we didn’t get all excited about sea urchins and starfish and the like. That is, we wouldn’t want someone else in our group to see us get excited about the perfect sand dollar. We were, no doubt, talking about whether we’d go out again, comparing rides; some talk, no doubt, about girls- so much more mysterious than waves.
So, here came Bill, glasses on but fogged by salty damp air, trudging up the fairly level beach- maybe more like marching- huge smile on his face, and, when he got close enough, we could see he had an octopus wrapped around one arm, another sort of cradled at stomach level.
There was a moment of…”Wait! What? Hey!”
Bill threw one of the live creatures onto into the fire. It just as well could have been a grenade. We all leapt backwards.
“Bill!”
There were, of course, other first verbal reactions, most one syllable; or an extended “Shhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiii…..” Someone may have shrieked.
No, not me.
And if I did; well; there was an octopus in the fire!
Bill looked at each of us, each of us equally horrified, and said, quite matter-of-factly, lifting the remaining octopus, obviously still alive, to eye level, moving it in a circle for each of us to appreciate. “This one’s smaller; we’ll eat it first.”***
*Because one story leads to another story, or even another group of stories, in writing this I discovered I have to tell more ‘San Onofre Tales.’ I’m working on it.
**Billy McLean is another character from my past. His slightly-crazed personality, his knack for getting otherwise-peaceful friends into trouble, no doubt aligns with some member of at least one subgroup of your own surfing contemporaries. I’m working on a few Billy McLean stories (physically wincing at the thought).
And, of course, I have a few more on Bill Birt.
***The second octopus went back in the tide pools, all of us marching down to make sure; someone apologizing to it for the murder of its friend.
No, not me. And if I did…