The Ghost of Bill Birt


We have a framed photo on our living room wall, a photo that survived a fire that destroyed our first home in the Northwest, near Dabob Bay in Quilcene, Washington. The photo features Trish, at our wedding, going down the aisle with her father. The image has definitely ‘ambered’ and darkened since November of 1971, but, there in the background, in profile, with his signature thick, black-framed glasses, is Bill Birt.

Actually, the pair of glasses would be truly Bill Birt-characteristic if they featured finger- dirtied medical tape at the bridge.

Now, and for years, though he was one of the first of my friends to pass on (and I’m not totally pleased with using a softer version of ‘to die,’ which he did, and tragically), somehow, Bill Birt hangs around, sort of a ghost.

Bill might laugh, too loudly, at that dumb little joke.

I have too many Bill Birt stories to tell here. There’s “The Bill Birt Shirt,” “Bill Birt and the Magic Lougie,” “Bill Birt and the Stream of Urine,” “Bill Birt’s Stolen Surf Racks,” “Bill Birt and the San Onofre Octopi,” “Bill Birt Talks to Girls,” “Bill Birt Tries Out (too many) Boards from the Surfboard’s Hawaii shop,” “Bill Birt Follows up the Psychedelicizing of the Senior Area with Vandalism,” “Not-Quite Ditching Bill Birt,” “Bill Birt Goes a Hundred mph,” “Bill Birt and the Three Fingers.”

WHAT I should mention is that William Birt, Jr. was one of my friends since first grade or so, and that most of the stories reveal him to be someone who so desperately wanted to be cool; at least cooler, at least as cool as the cooler among his classmates. This proved almost impossible for a guy who was bigger than his contemporaries, who had hair on his chest in the sixth grade; enough, as my comment at the time went, to seem to want to choke him. He always seemed to have a little wad of white spittle in one or both corners of his mouth. 

WHAT (and this was somewhat surprising to me) I became aware of as I started writing about Bill as another one of the guys who started surfing a year or so after I did, is that I was (and am) a (possibly) just-slightly-cooler version of Bill Birt; so desirous of the same things he wanted; to be part of some group. 

WHAT most of these stories have in common is that Bill Birt rarely filtered things that came into his mind before he spoke. And, in speaking, when most of us wanted to be present but sort of unnoticed (because each of us is aware that any grouping of teenagers reveals the often-cruel struggle to develop and maintain some sort of hierarchy), Bill spoke out.

This was brave, and, often, I was the beneficiary of some new insight. When Bill told a girl in the line at the snack trailer at school (really, ice cream and candy) when we were, probably, Juniors, that he had heard she and her boyfriend were now having sex, and she, sort of shyly, looking at both of our faces (my expression no doubt not containing the shock at the question and the anticipation of the answer), nodded.

“And how is it?”

“Billlllll.”  Long pause, during which her shocked expression turned to a (slightly wicked) smile.

WHAT our so-soon-after-high school and now long-broken circle of friends didn’t really grasp, is that, away from us, in other groupings, Bill found a wonderful girlfriend, got married, and achieved real success. Bill Birt was the youngest registered lobbyist in the State of California. And then, on some rain-slicked highway… this story isn’t at all clear, he went off the road.

But, he’s still in the photo on my wall.


                                                                   Bill Birt On Every Wave

Still angry about my ‘borrowing’ his wetsuit for Donn Franzich to use, Bill was talking about me at school. And I, of course, was defending myself.

“Yeah, well, his mom got on the phone after I admitted taking it…Bill said he wouldn’t get mad… and, you know, they were at church… besides… and his mom said, ‘Billy needed his wetsuit. He went surfing, and he got cold.’ So, Billy’s mom…”

“Yeah, well; next time, I’ll…besides, your mom… his mom got on the phone with my mom and said she was sorry her son is such a thieving dork.”

“I have to go.”

“So,” continuing the rant to Phillip and Ray, “next time we’re surfing, I’m going to take off in front of Erwin on every wave.”

“Every wave,” I heard from Phillip, and Ray, and probably Mark, Bill Buel, Billy McLain. “What’re YOU gonna do?”

“Every wave?”

The next time turned out to be the day after Ray, and Bill Buel and I stayed up way too late (for me) at Phillip’s house, smoking cigarettes, listening to the Doors, Buel acting all scary and weird. I rode to the beach in the back of Ray’s Ranchero, maybe trying to sleep under some blankets and boards. When we got to Grandview, it was stormy and overhead. 

Bill showed up a bit later, alone. Someone must have told him about the night before. Bill Buel, probably. “And Erwin was, like, freaking out.” Buel, no doubt, went into the same Jesus-on-the-cross (in this case, with a cigarette) pose. “‘This is the end… my only friend, the end…’ He was all scared and shit.”

Later, up on the bluff, one of our mutual friends asked him about his threat, supposedly (the way I heard it) after the wave on which I got briefly covered up, came out sitting down. “So, every wave?”

“Well. You know…”

“But you never even made it out.”

“Well. You know; Erwin probably did think I was at church. I mean, I was.”

“Uh huh.”

WHAT I’d like to say is I rode back home with Bill Birt, shotgun, comfortable in his parents’ super big car with the super big trunk with the big cardboard box (for wetsuits, trunks, damp towels) with big block blue letters that spelled out, ‘KOTEX,’ all caps.  No, I’m sure I rode back in the back of the Ranchero, under a blanket, under some boards, knowing (or merely wanting to believe) I was somewhat cooler than Bill Birt.

WELL. You know…”

Of all my old surfing friends, I see Bill most often.

NOTE: Wanting an illustration for this piece, I actually considered removing the photo from the professionally-sealed oval frame. Checking it more closely, beyond Bill is the woman who would become his wife. Very attractive. She didn’t come from Fallbrook. She supposedly asked Bill why, when they would run into old friends of his, they always seemed surprised.

I’m imagining Bill just shrugged.

Speech 101 With Cheer Critchlow

                        SPEECH CLASS 101 WITH CHEER CRITCHLOW

There probably should be some time stamp here. Along with the peak of the Baby Boomer wave, I graduated from Fallbrook Union High School in 1969. “Sixty-nine, Man!”

Before I went to Palomar Junior College, the closest I’d come to hanging with anything that could be called “the North County Surf Community” was when I was on the Fallbrook wrestling team, going against San Dieguito. That school district included Leucadia, Encinitas, Cardiff, maybe even Del Mar; and excluded Carlsbad and Oceanside- separate tribes, separate Junior College. But Fallbrook was included in the Palomar district. Sure, Escondido and Vista were also included. But, what going to Palomar meant…

…it meant a lot to me. Now I knew other surfers ‘from school.’ I could nod to them, maybe, on campus, or, better, at the top of the Swamis stairs; maybe even hang for a while, comparing notes on the surf, they drinking homemade smoothies, some talking about Jesus; me with my chocolate milk, and, having already used a few swear words to describe the crowds, unable to testify, to say I also had a deep love for our living Savior from before it was cool.

I knew who Charles ‘Cheer’ Critchlow was before he showed up in Speech 101, one of the night classes I took to allow more time for work/surf/girlfriend/church, Speech. It was him image, tucked into a little tube, that was on the sign for Hansen Surfboards, A photograph had been in “Surfer” Magazine, tucked into another tube at a contest in Santa Cruz.  I’d seen Cheer and Margo Godfrey casually walking out to surf the outside peak at Swamis on a big choppy afternoon when Scotty Sutton and Jeff Officer and I kept to the inside peak.

Mr. Critchlow had actually, though he was also still in high school, been a judge at a North County high school surfing contest at Moonlight Beach. Jeff and Scott and I, though we’d ripped in the warm up, were harshly eliminated in our first round heats. We were gone so quickly that several girls from my school showed up after we’d taken off.  Maybe I’d lied about even being in it.

No, Jeff’s Dad took us to 15th Street in Del Mar, near where they had a beach house- and we ripped it up again. No points.

Cheer Critchlow was one of the surfers I viewed, from the shoulder, wailing from fifty yards deeper in the pit during the first day of the swell of 1969. “They (the surfers who were successful) must have some Hawaii experience,” I said at the time.

When I gave a speech on our trip to Mazatlan in my nervous-as-shit, rapid-fire delivery, Cheer Critchlow spoke clearly and calmly, and with some humor, about his first time surfing big Sunset Beach with Mike Doyle.

“So, Mike just told me, ‘If you don’t just go, you’ll never go.’ And I went.”

When I brought in a surfboard I’d shaped and painted as a visual aid, Cheer brought in templates he’d used with and borrowed from, again, Mike Doyle.

When I gave a speech on my future plans, writer, artist; Cheer’s speech revealed school was part of his backup plan. He’d tried very hard to be a professional surfer, and it wasn’t working. Maybe someday, he said, a surfer could make a living from surfing. Very convincing, moving, successful speech.

Still, he could have given me, maybe, a few more points at Moonlight.

Phillip and I Surf Grandview With Bucky Davis

…”Grandview,” I said, as if it was a magic word.


We’ve arrived at a point in the John Amsterdam (may still hate me) story where it makes perfect sense to include a brief mention of the first time Phillip Harper and I got the opportunity to surf Grandview with my second surfing hero (after Hippie, overlord of Tamarack), Bucky Davis.

Phillip’s sister, Trish, a junior, was dating another upper classmen at Fallbrook Union High School; one who surfed. Because he surfed and was dating Phillip’s sister, Phillip and I begged him several times to take us surfing after school.

“There’s time,” I said. “It doesn’t get dark until six or so. We can have our boards at Phillip’s; it’s on the way, and, and we run out after class, jump in your…” By this point Bucky had walked away or Phillip, not wanting to make a scene, had pulled me away.

But, Trish was taking some after-school modeling classes in Encinitas. Yes, she was model pretty; tall, thin, blonde.  If she couldn’t be a model, Phillip told me, she could be an airline stewardess.

“Oh, sure,” I said; “that’d be something.”

It’s pretty apparent that Trish used her influence to allow Phillip and I to ride along in the VW station wagon, our boards on top, two freshmen in the back; me, at least, probably over-stoked and out of control.

I’m not apologizing.

If Phillip wanted to act cool, and if Bucky just was cool; my over-excitement was really the part that spilled out while trying to act as cool as I could.

So, Trish dropped off over by the A&W, Phillip moved up to shotgun, we arrived at the empty lot at the top of Grandview Street, the sandstone cliff eroded in the middle by water and beachgoers tromping up and back. We checked out the small and still-choppy afternoon surf, a few other surfers out.

“You going out, Bucky? Huh? Huh? I’m going out. Phil; you going out? Bucky? Oh; that wave… I’d be taking off; bottom turn; oh; I’d move up to the nose.” This is all illustrated with moves on the leading edge of the bluff, me walking, foot-over-foot, to the nose on some imaginary board.

When I looked around, several mind-surf rides later, Bucky is squatted down, looking over the edge into the access path, fully eight feet to the bottom. So Phillip squatted down, as if they would soon discuss some further secret of how to surf this heretofore mystical spot.

I squatted down. Bucky looked at Phillip, on one side, then back at me, on his other side.

I rolled when I hit the bottom, jumped to my feet, looked up at Phillip and Bucky.

Both were now standing, Bucky with a grip on my friend, Phillip pulling back. “I skateboard!” I yelled.

“Do you skateboard?” Bucky asked his girlfriend’s brother, releasing his grip.

Despite Bucky saying the waves weren’t good enough; as the afternoon glassoff continued, he did join us in the water.

Something about surfing with friends in fun waves brings out the competitive nature in many of us. And, as such, the perfect ‘watch this’ situation is when you’re taking off, your friend/competitor paddling out. If you can do a little head dip or jump up to the nose, anything special… even better.

Bucky couldn’t help but show up his lower classmen tagalongs. And he was, of course, better than we were; smoother, with better wave selection skills. He even, accidently, got excited, smiled, acted like a seventeen year old. “Yeah, watch this.”

 “How’d my brother do?”

It was fully dark when we picked up Trish. She took over driving. I observed the couple, looking for any overshow of affection. Maybe they touched hands when they passed in front of the car. Maybe there was a look.

“Oh, he did okay; but I was running up to the nose, think I even hung five on one…”

Bucky pushed me back into the seat. Phillip put an arm across me to keep me there.

“Phil did… good. Erwin (looking to Phillip for confirmation)… he kind of ‘jumped’ up to the nose. A real surfer goes foot-over-foot.”

After we got back to Phillip and Trisha’s place, Bucky had to give me a ride the rest of the way to my house. One might imagine he’d loosened up, acted a little friendlier. Not really. “This your house?” “Yeah. Debby Street. I skateboard down the driveways, do a few turns down here.”

“Uh huh,” he said. I took my board off his racks, restrapped his board.

We weren’t friends. I was his girlfriend’s brother’s friend. What he did say is that I should try not to brag it up at school that he’d taken us to Grandview. “I mean, like, my friends wouldn’t…”

“No, no; I get it. I’m cool.”

“Yeah, sure. Foot-over foot; huh?” I did a little on my board as he started up his engine, backed away.

Cool? No; never was. Still, when you’re around someone who is so caught up in being cool, so, in some ways, trapped in the coolness; there’s something about seeing that person forget his self image and other people’s perceptions for a moment, smile his ass off dropping into a glassy peak near dark.

Still, and again, for my lack of coolness; I’m not apologizing.