SAN ONOFRE TALES

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San Onofre is surfing history.

Early surfers parked on the beach, camped out there, built a few palapas, rode the rollers. It seems, to those of us reading the occasional story about this history in “The Surfer’s Journal,” checking the photos, a friendly sort of place frequented by people who saw themselves as rebellious and wild, but, by today’s standards, quaintly so.

Located (I know you know this) near the northwest point of the massive Camp Pendleton…wait. I should explain, just to be clear, that Camp Pendleton is roughly a triangle, with Oceanside at the lower point, San Clemente north, and, twenty miles inland (as the seagull flies) Fallbrook. That’s where I was raised, and, from my house, I always sort of believed, if I stood on the fence on the front edge of the property, and looked west, somewhere just over those coastal hills, that late afternoon glow was a reflection off the unseen water at San Onofre.

At some point the San Onofre Surfing Club made a deal with the Marine Corps allowing club members access past the guard shack, down a winding little road along a river (well, creek) bottom, and then past the railroad trestles (yeah, those Trestles), then near the Officers’ Club, the buildings a last remnant of a time when the entire area was part of a Spanish Land Grant. Nice location, in some trees in a usually sedate (wave-wise) cove right between Church and San Onofre.

Beach access was also granted to Marines, and dependents. In Fallbrook, most of my friends’ dads, or moms, or both, worked on the base or were Marines. Kids of Marines came and went, on some three year cycle. My family was in Fallbrook because, once there, my mom didn’t want to move the increasingly large family elsewhere. Though my father remains a Marine (of the Corps, to the core), he went to work splicing telephone cables all over the base for the rest of his career.

Children of Civil Service workers didn’t have (or weren’t supposed to have) beach parking privileges, and any other surfers granted access on the base had to park in a lot* separated by those whispy trees particular to windy parts of California. I think, of all the times I went to San Onofre, mostly between 1966 and 1969, whoever I was with got to park on the beach.

*On one of the only times I went with someone who didn’t have beach parking privileges, Bill Birt, whose father sold insurance in Fallbrook, Bill’s surf racks were stolen. That story, when this all gets organized, will follow this entry.

Old (and new) Friends, Acquaintances, Others, and More Magic

First, thanks to all those who have been supportive of realsurfers.net in its inaugural year. Thanks to those who have written back (like Corky Carroll, just to drop one name- and I plan on bugging him for any photo of James Arness at San Onofre for a future story), and those who have found my site, and, kindly, connected their network of friends. And thanks to anyone who, maybe surfing around the internet, came upon real surfers.

That some of my stories featuring wonderful characters (real people, actually) have touched others who knew these surfers better than I did in my brief encounters with them touches me.

I realize the whole site appears dis-organized. Maybe my memory is like several competing big ass storms at sea, a little too close. Each story leads to another, others, and there are sets of stories. I get interrupted by some rogue thing, some new adventure I just have to write about.

It has been a great joy for me to work on this; and I’m still in the drop-in, line-up phase, not free-falling, but hoping to catch an edge.

Thanks for dropping in.

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What I’ve picked up on is just how many wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure to share a few sessions with in my lifetime obsession with this splendid distraction. While I continue to find new adventures, meet new real surfers, I also miss so many of my early surf compatriots. We were lucky to surf and to come of age in a time that now seems magical.

Oh, it all seems magical to me; and the magic continues; out there, lines on the horizon, a first wave showing on the indicator, lining-up, raising, steepening. Swallow the lump in your throat, turn, partway, set, paddle like you mean it.

My we all have even more magic for the next years.

San Onofre Tales & Phillip Harper and the Sailfish

San Onofre is surfing history.

Particularly for the early surfers who parked on the beach, camped out there, built a few palapas, rode the rollers. It seems, to those of us reading about it, checking a few photos, a friendly sort of place frequented by people who saw themselves as rebellious and wild, but, by today’s standards, quaintly so. 

Located (I know you know this) near the northwest point of the massive Camp Pendleton…wait. I should explain, just to be clear, that Camp Pendleton is roughly a triangle, with Oceanside at the lower point, San Clemente north, and, twenty miles inland (as the seagull flies) Fallbrook. That’s where I was raised, and, from my house, I always sort of believed, if I stood on the fence on the front edge of the property, and looked west, somewhere just over those coastal hills, that late afternoon glow was a reflection off the unseen water, just below our horizon, at San Onofre.

At some point the San Onofre Surf Club made a deal with the Marine Corps allowing club members access past the guard shack, down a winding little road along a riverbottom, and then past the railroad trestles (yeah, those Trestles), then near the Officers’ Club, the buildings a last remnant of a time when the entire area was part of a Spanish Land Grant. Nice location, in some trees in a usually sedate (wave-wise) cove right between Church and San Onofre.

Beach access was also given to Marines, and dependents. In Fallbrook, most of my friends’ dads, or moms, or both, worked on the base or were Marines. Kids of Marines came and went, on some three year cycle. My family was in Fallbrook because, once there, my mom didn’t want to move the increasingly large family elsewhere. Though my father remains a Marine (of the Corps, to the core), he went to work splicing telephone cables all over the base for the rest of his career.

Children of Civil Service workers didn’t have beach parking privileges, and any other surfers granted access on the base had to park in a lot* separated by those whispy trees particular to windy parts of California. I think, of all the times I went to San Onofre, mostly between 1966 and 1969, whoever I was with got to park on the beach.

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PHILLIP HARPER AND THE JUMPING SAILFISH- 1967

There were fishing boats offshore, seagulls circling them. The waves were glassing-off, decent sized, and it wasn’t even crowded for a Saturday afternoon. Phillip had talked my parents (my mom, mostly) into allowing me to go with him. My mom loved Phillip from all the times he went to the beach with her driving the big wagon, he almost like another one of her seven kids. She probably bought Phillip’s ‘otherwise I’ll have to surf alone’ argument.

“Just don’t go 101,” she, no doubt said. “Slaughter Alley? No, Mrs. Dence, we’ll go across the base.”

Phillip had a vehicle, probably the VW truck that he and I tried to sleep in on the cliff above Swamis. There’s a house there now, and, somewhere after midnight, we were rousted by the cops.

Wow; I got immediately off subject.

Okay, so we were 16. “We have our parents’ permission,” Phillip said, me backing him up with a “Yeah; we do.” “Well, kids; you don’t have ours.” “So, what do we do, Officers?”

We actually drove halfway home before Phillip pulled over, asked himself and me, “What would Bucky do?”**

“He wouldn’t go back home,” each of us said. “No way.”

Still, by the time we got back to Swamis, others were in the water. Three, five… others.

But, at San Onofre, that Saturday afternoon, between sets, a fish leapt out of the water. It was huge, with a spear-like nose, and mid-leap, mid arc, seemed frozen in the air. Both Phillip and I saw it, looked at each other. Maybe one or both of us screamed. Phillip broke (first) toward the beach. He paddled so fast he almost outran a wave, but didn’t (of course), and it broke right on his back and he had to swim.

I’d like to think I gave him a lift.

When Phillip and I got to the shallows we looked back out at the glassy afternoon waves, sparkles on the incoming lines, the fishing boats motoring back and forth offshore.

San Onofre, we told each other, and others (critics always mentioned ‘Old Man’s’), was a place where you could make the waves as difficult as you wanted. You could ride like an Old Man, or you could take off behind a peak. Indeed, there was at least one guy out, “Probably on the Hobie team” Phillip said, who was back-dooring the peaks, ripping across the faces.

“Why’d we paddle in?” One or both of us asked. I’m guessing we laughed, paddled back out, warily scanning the water around us, at least for a while.

*This will show up in a story of “Bill Birt, ‘Skip-rope,’ and the Stolen Racks.”

**Bucky Davis was a surfer, probably my second surfing hero, and dated Phillip’s sister Trish. He’ll show up again in a (not yet written) San Onofre story, “’Cowabunga!’ and ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned.’”

In fact, telling that story is the reason I started Real Surfers.

We’ll get there.

Thanks for coming along.

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…