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.

  

Ditching School on a Dare from Mark Metzger

The first time I went surfing with someone other than my own family, Phillip Harper’s mom, or (once) with Phillip’s sister’s boyfriend, Bucky Davis, involved my Mom dropping me and a board (and a towel, and probably a sack lunch) off at Mark Metzger’s house. Or Don McLean’s house. It was a house with a pool, at any rate, in the summer before my sophomore year; 1966.

These were my friends from Boy Scouts, though most had gone all through grade school with me. We had a history. My surf mate, Phillip Harper, was new in town, and had not been a Boy Scout. It took a bit of time, with Scouting being less a part of my life as surfing became more a part, before Phillip became a member of this group, aided by being a neighbor of Boy Scout and new surfer, Ray Hicks.

This rotating band of contemporaries, with some friends deciding surfing wasn’t their sport, new people wanting to give it a go, eventually became a fairly stable group of fairly unstable surfers.

Mark Metzger was possibly the least stable. He was one of those red-headed, hot-headed, usually barely under control kids, and, on my arrival at the house with the pool, he quizzed me. “Which way do you set a surfboard down?” “If it’s on grass, like here; top down so the wax doesn’t melt. Like I did.” “No, wax side up so you don’t take some of the kickup, or rocker, out of the board.” The other punks probably nodded along with Mark. I set my board with the others, on the lawn, under the tree, wax side down.

Then, the duty parent not ready yet, we took turns throwing our used boards, in various shades of yellow (no self-respecting parent would buy a new board for a kid until discovering if he or she was going to ‘stick with it’), into the pool, each of us then jumping on, riding across, trying to dismount still dry. I was not the best at this.

“Well, when we get to real waves, maybe Erwin’ll do better,” someone, maybe Gerry Moore, said. Definitely; I was a year ahead of these kooks.

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As Juniors, Mark and I ditched school one day, on his insistence. Between first and second period, Mark used the unassailable argument that a real surfer wouldn’t waste such a beautiful, Santa Ana day. Yeah, he dared me, and when I waffled, he used the “p-caw, p-caw” chicken imitation.

Wait. Is it “p-caw?” If it didn’t sound exactly like a chicken, the “What, you chicken?” got the point across.

And, it usually worked. For example, though I was happy enough riding Lupe’s Left Loopers, I was ‘p-cawed’ into being the guinea pig on a (theoretically) right in Mazatlan that showed outside but broke on a concrete slab-like shore. This was while Phillip and Ray watched, from the beach.   

Ditching being tougher once already at school, I told classmate (Eagle Scout but not a surfer) Wayne Raymond, that, if he was at all cool, he’d sign me into Chemistry class, just before lunch. No after-lunch teachers ever took attendance. Maybe he took it as a dare.  

In the school parking lot I switched my longboard onto Mark’s almost brand new (but his) 1968 VW Bug and we headed out (yes, this says something about his parents). On the straightaway on the far side of the largest hill between Fallbrook and Bonsall, Mark, who always told me he took his half of the road out of the middle, passed a car, yelling some rude remark they couldn’t hear comparing the speed old peoples drive with his estimation of their sexual, um, I guess, rate of speed.
Somewhere in the passing, the clamps on the Aloha racks that Mark’s Father had loosened to save the paint job loosened just enough. The boards took flight, wax side down, off, up, and, thankfully, over the just-passed car.

Maybe they did a flip. Don’t know. Just heard a ‘whissssssssssssss.’

The board/rack/weapon landed, still upright, boards still facing forward, on the side of the road.
I’m guessing the old couple, having not had simultaneous heart attacks, and maintaining their (safe) vehicle speed, probably exchanged a comment comparing a young man’s driving skills with, yeah, sexual competence.

Mark’s board had a new ding, mine had no new ones. Wordlessly, we each picked up a side, reattached the racks, tightened into the new paint, took off. Somewhere past the Bonsall Bridge and the Vista/Oceanside turn, we took a breath.

When we got to Oceanside, right at the bluff, we were confronted by one of those fifteen hundred foot high waves of fog that race in when the Santa Ana winds break down.

“Now what, Mark?” “I guess we go back to school.”

When I came into Chemistry class late, Wayne having done his part, proving his coolness, I got busted anyway, but not for truancy.  Not this time.

“Oh, and Mr. Dence,”  Mr. Douglas, the had-to-be-on-purpose stereotypical science teacher with the out of control eyebrows said, “I’ve become aware that, in addition to decorating the desks in my room with surfing pictures, the English teacher has discovered similar artwork.”

So, no surf, but no detention. I did get to clean all the desks every lunch time in both the English and Chemistry classrooms for a few weeks. Mark, as usual, had a clean getaway.

But, as a sort of bonus, I had several great conversations in the rotten egg-smelling classroom, the science nerds and me. If I hadn’t been a surfer… smart kids; they always laughed well before I got to the punchline.

Oh, and if you think they don’t make fun of the cool people…

“I’m just studying the ways of the self-proclaimed cool people,” I may have said. “I’m not really… Hey, that’s not the funny part.”

NOTE: Our mutual friend Ray Hicks, when Mark and some of his cronies didn’t show up for our fortieth class reunion, said the former idea man for many an unrecorded (here) event, may not want his family to realize he wasn’t always the calm citizen he tries to project himself as now. Well, good plan, Mark.