You can post the photo, Erwin. Keith
JOE ROPER SURFED CRYSTAL PIER LIKE PIPELINE
Joe Roper was the standout surfer among a group of kids who hung around and mostly surfed the Pacific Beach (PB) side of Crystal Pier. By kids, I mean younger than I was when Trish and I got married in November of 1971, moved to a one bedroom apartment within easy walking distance. I was twenty, Trish barely nineteen. Two months later we moved to a two bedroom up Mission Boulevard, easy biking or skateboarding distance.
The stretch of beach from PB Point and Tourmaline Canyon to the pier was my new locale, I was a local; sometimes venturing to the reefs of Sunset Cliffs, sometimes the breaks of La Jolla.
A Local. It didn’t mean a lot to Trish; meant a whole lot to me.
Joe and his cronies were in the early years of high school. Rather small in stature, driving across or tucking into the lefts off the pier, Joe made it look like getting barreled at the Bonsai Pipeline. And Joe got consistently barreled.
My two years plus tenure in PB seemed to line up with the “Dogtown” resurgence of skateboarding, and, while I was lettering new prices on the menu board for the little sandwich shop that shared space with the P.B. Surf Shop, close to the pier, trading some graphics for a wetsuit vest, trying to sell some original surf art at the Select Surf Shop on Mission, Joe and his buddies were doing low Larry Bertlemann spins on skateboards on the street, one gloved hand centering the turn, scraping across the pavement.
Just to further time stamp this tale, “Maggie Mae” and “American Pie” were hits on the radio, and surf leashes were still called kook straps.
I had yet to purchase one.
To someone who learned to fall on his board if he fell, how to swim in if he couldn’t, it was quite annoying when some grom dropped in, and, when it got hairy, simply bailed.
ROPER STORY ONE:
One afternoon, sitting just a little farther outside, I witnessed Joe, on a left, ride it into the shorebreak. He could have avoided contact with the equally-young surfer approaching on the right. Nope. Rather than kick out, he kicked into a full board-to-body board slam, followed not with an apology but a version of the classic, “Get fucked and go back to the valley.”
I actually asked Joe why he had behaved so violently. It seems the recipient of the slam was guilty of being from Clairemont, just on the other side of I-5, the real setting for fictional “Ridgemont High,” as in “Fast Times At…”
What this meant is the territorially-attacked inland cowboy lived within five miles, ten max, of the beach being so vigorously defended.
I started surfing in Western Surfing Association (Ray Allen, to drop another name, was local head at the time) sanctioned contests, beginning with the first one held early in the 1972 season. Because I did well enough in that contest, I was seeded into the second round of the next event. This, and the contests to follow, featured more contestants, but, being seeded, I could avoid the first round.
Though I never won an event, somehow my surfing was adequate to maintain a somewhere-between-seventh-and-third-place performance level. Oh, yes, I was moving up. 2A, amassing points toward 3A.
Each contest provided another lesson in hurrying-up-and-waiting. On a particular Saturday, the contest was to be held at Crystal Pier. My heat was scheduled for about 10:30, which meant sometime later, I cruised down in Trisha’s VW bug to check it out.
There was Joe Roper, signed up to compete, and two or three of his buddies, standing around, and no contest. “It’s been moved to La Jolla Shores,” one of the kids said. A few minutes later, their boards on the rack, mine secured with my surf leash (yeah, I’d joined the kook strap set), it holding my almost new, custom painted (by me) surfboard.
This particular board was shaped and glassed by the local surf shop, the design pirated/copied/stolen from a photo accompanying an ad in “Surfer” announcing the Tom Morey-designed, Gordon & Smith-built model, the “Waterskate.” Just like the original, mine featured a concave deck that rose up, side to side, from the stringer, to some thick downrails. It was probably about six-two..
So, going down that last swooping hill from La Jolla proper to La Jolla Shores, the part of the leash holding the nose of my board popped off, the board sliding down the passenger side, the rail of the nose bouncing on the pavement, once- slow down- twice, three times- “Somebody grab it!”- steady scraping- pull over- Stop. Wince. Re-tie.
“Sorry, man,” Joe said in the parking lot, running off to join his friends.
After moving into a condo in University City (north of Clairemont and East of I-5- inland cowboy territory) the south end of my surfing grounds was probably Windansea. It was probably sometime after we moved to Encinitas in 1975 that I picked up a copy of “Surfer,” saw a photo of Joe Roper in a Gordon and Smith ad, tucked into a wailing wave at Pipeline that could have been, a bit smaller, one of those lefts off Crystal Pier.
Joe is and has been the owner of a surfboard repair shop in, I think, Mission Beach (other side of the pier). No, he didn’t repair the ripped up rail on my ripped-off/fake Waterskate, but… well, maybe there’s no ironic connection here.
However, in the karma-will-get-you department, the first or second time I waxed the board, climbing over the rocks to go out at Tourmaline, Skip Frye, test rider and surfboard designer and shaper at Gordon & Smith, was heading the other way.
Skip Frye was already a legend who could find a wave between waves in a crowd, who quietly ruled the range between PB Point and Crystal Pier; I was just another after-work-and-weekends surfer, but, this time, I was the weekend warrior with a pirate’s board, trying to hold it so Mr. Frye didn’t see the top. Unsuccessfully, though he didn’t say anything.
Once the board developed dangerous cracks along the spines on the deck, I ripped the glass off (my painting was mostly on the bottom), shaped it down to a saner, flatter shape, reglassed. Along with a board I got back in my Oceanside days, one that had a sort of bad-surgery-technique removal of the mid-section popular in the rush to move into the short board revolution, it was one of my favorite boards of all time.
As, maybe, more irony than karma, and not because I was tying it down with a surf leash, the former fake-waterskate blew off on I-5, nowhere to be found by the time I got back to the area.
It was between the onramp from Grand/Garnett in PB and the first exit to Mission Bay- 1973ish- just in case, maybe…
JOE ROPER SIDEBAR
There’s a guy who I’ve seen many times at my favorite break on the Straits. Big guy, rides, without a paddle, the same SUP model I own. We’ve spoken several times in the water. On this occasion, he was out at my, and his, backup spot.
Just about to get out, the break suddenly crowded (northwest version- 7 or 8 others) with also-skunked-elsewhere-surfers, I must have said something about San Diego. “Where?”
It turns out Dave (that’s all the name I’ve gotten so far) was part of that Pacific Beach brat pack. Dave’s father was a chef at Maynard’s, a restaurant near the pier, and, while I was just over 20, Dave, in 1972, was in middle school.
Yes, he knew Joe Roper. Yes, Joe was the best of his contemporaries. No, they didn’t like anyone from east of I-5. Dave filled me in on a few P.B. details. He said Phil (Italian last name- Dave knows it), the owner of the Select Surf Shop, had died.
“Oh. I tried to sell some art work there. You punks didn’t buy any, just pawed through them.”
“We didn’t have money for artwork,” Dave said.
“That’s what Phil told me. Oh, and he tried to pick up on my wife.”
“Well.” Dave smiled and nodded. “Great place to be raised.”
I smiled and nodded. “Great place to be twenty years old.”
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.