Not Nearly Enough on Ray Hicks

Ray Hicks is my surfing contact with Southern California. He is, in fact, my oldest friend from there I still have regular (more like any) contact with. He has to be, in all the time since we first met in sixth grade, the coolest person I’ve known, in that I never saw him lose his cool, even when those around him totally lost ours.

He is also, and I’d love to have some sort of modifying disclaimer here, but, other than that I never thought I wasn’t a surfer, the main reason I got back into surfing at fifty years old plus.

Well, let’s say Ray getting back into surfing and my own petty jealousy.

I was always a better surfer than Ray (okay, there could be several disclaimers here, but I’m the one making the claim). After all, I’d stuck with surfing after high school, when he went to some inland junior college, moved to Barstow, then went into the Air Force (mostly stationed in Italy, cruising in a Porsche), then got out and managed the Radio Shack in Fallbrook (Radio Shack Ray).

But, in 2004, down for my father’s 80th birthday, Ray was a better surfer than me. Way better. It’s been about nine years of me trying to catch up, he and I exchanging e-mails on surf sessions, occasionally surfing together (never up here- yet), and I still haven’t caught up.

Not sure I will.

Image …………………………..

This is Ray and his Surfboards Hawaii Model A back in 1969 (or so).

Ray now lives and works in Carlsbad, pretty much surfs Pipes exclusively. The regulars there are mostly longboarders in our age category; some with boonie hats strapped on, sun screen (mostly too late) slathered on, forming a little pack at the main peak. It’s all very mellow and polite, but it’s not like everyone is invited to join the pack.

Even with the prevailing crowd/ghetto mentality of Southern California, longevity has some rewards. If Ray doesn’t know everyone’s names (or appropriate nicknames) and histories (as he would, say, on the Straits of Juan de Fuca), there is a mutual recognition.  And, sometimes,  consequences.

On one occasion, Ray wrote me, he paddled for an outside wave; someone farther in took off behind him. Because Ray felt he had priority, he didn’t give way. The other surfer took offense, may have bumped my friend on the inside.

So, the local peeksters held a little conference, a trial of sorts, and decided Ray was in the wrong.

“If I’d been there,” I wrote, “I’d have defended you. Next time, run over the inside guy.”

No, probably not. Still, in deference to his surf spot mates, the second time he and I surfed there in our current carnations, he allowed us to go to the main peak, as long as we sat to one side. Fine; always been an inside prowler.  But, somewhere in that session, shoulder-hopping and scrap-chasing, I saw a great wave, yelled “Outside!” and, when the pack responded, caught the wave.

It’s a trick you can get away with… once.

“Hopefully you didn’t hear about it” I wrote from the relative safety of the Northwest. “Oh, I think somebody said something. Don’t worry about it. It’s cool.”


John Amsterdam May Still Hate Me (continued)


Phillip and I were months ahead of our contemporaries in surfing experience when a revolving group of friends got into the sport, separately, at first, in the spring of 1966, and after. While many tried it a few times, a more hardcore-if-loosely connected group, some of them also friends of mine from Boy Scouts, was emerging.

Phillip and I had been surfing Grandview for a while. We had looked for the spot back in our freshman year, riding in the big wagon on an afternoon with the surf blown-out, impossible to see past the lines of breaking waves to open ocean.

“Grandview Street,” my Mom said, just coming into Leucadia on Highway 101; “you think it might be a clue?” The empty lot was just another viewpoint to unrideable chaos.

But now, some of our friends had drivers licenses, cars.  On this trip, hanging on the beach near a fire, Ray Hicks and maybe Mark Metzger added to our surf troop, we saw John Amsterdam coming down the water-and-feet-worn access between houses. This might have caused us to look down for a second, as if we had not earned the right- knowing, in John Amsterdam’s eyes, we hadn’t.

“New board,” someone in our group pointed out. “New board,” John Amsterdam told someone, close enough for us to hear. “Dewey Weber Performer. One hundred and seventy-five dollars.” “With the stripes.” “Yep.”

By this time I was riding a nine-nine Surfboards Hawaii noserider Wendy Brook’s father had found buried in the sand at Tamarack.  My neighbors, two doors down on Debby Street, had been there in the middle of the night for the running of the grunion. No one in their party evidently considered that someone was (stupidly) hiding it. Since no one claimed it before they left, Wendy’s Dad (Sergeant Brooks to me) strapped it onto their camper, figuring they could use it to float around over at the Salton Sea.

Wendy invited me over to check it out, she and her parents and her little sister all scattered around the back patio.

“Whoa! Surfboards Hawaii!” My covetousness of the coolest of the North County brands was quite obvious. “Salton Sea, huh?”  I purposefully tried to convince them using this valuable board for mere floating would be a shame.

No, not to them.

Some time later, Wendy’s Dad, a Marine ordinance man, came home from the hospital after an incident at Twenty-nine Palms, his arm sewn to his chest (so skin would grow back- or that’s what I was told). He was being retired and had decided to move back to wherever they had come from; maybe Texas (maybe worse). Sergeant Brooks offered me the board.

Wendy, remembering my assessment of its value, was not pleased.

I was. Phillip and I tried to disguise the board’s shady past by masking-off and applying a fancy pattern on the front fourth, officially designated as the nose, with *Slipcheck. Maybe we didn’t shake the can well enough or something; the result artistic but no-less-slippery.

THE LINEUP at Grandview must now be explained.

Even if there was an underlying rock reef, it remains my belief that the very gap between the houses that allowed access also allowed runoff, that helping to create a gap in the sandbars. If you took off on a right, you had varying length of shoulder before the inevitable closeout inside section. A not-as-good left lead into the same last section.

John Amsterdam took off on the first wave of a set. I took off on the second wave, probably made a few up-and-down moves, suddenly noticed someone swimming for his nearby brand new, pin-striped, one hundred and seventy-five dollar Dewey Weber Performer just inshore of the closeout section. I pushed hard to kickout, and, not have given the board quite enough push, left the board parallel to and hanging in the lip.


“Is that Erwin’s board?” John Amsterdam asked of Phillip and Ray.

Before either could explain that, yes, they had borrowed my board, undinged in the incident, and that I had to go to church on Saturdays and wasn’t, officially, supposed to engage in something as worldly and sensual as surfing, John asked, politely, if he could run over my Slip-checked Surfboards Hawaii noserider with his truck.

“Thanks for not letting him,” I said the next day, surfing somewhere else. “I tried to tell him I was sorry. I mean, I moved over to the lefts. What else could I do?”

*Aerosol invented by Morey-Pope.

John Amsterdam May Still Hate Me (part two)


I didn’t know exactly why I felt so alienated. Part of it was connected to my neighbor, Bobby Turner, moving away. I had become, since meeting him when we were both four years old, playing army and the occasional fist fight, his sidekick. Bobby seemed to need a sidekick more than I needed a leader, and on some level, if we hadn’t been neighbors, we probably wouldn’t have been friends.

Now I was my own man, but in a much bigger pond. At that time, the geographical area that fed into the high school district spread east to the base of Palomar Mountain; north to Rainbow and Temecula, south to Bonsall, and included many of the housing areas on the sprawling triangle-shaped mass of Camp Pendleton.

“The Base” was eighteen miles, straight across, to San Onofre, eighteen miles, by road, to Oceanside.

I was now, in my mind, a surfer.

All summer I’d borrowed the nine-four stock Hobie my sister Suellen had purchased from John Amsterdam for so long that, when I got out of the water, it was frequently time to go home.

But I had improved. Older surfers had stopped telling me to surf somewhere else. I could knee paddle. I swore I had the beginnings of surf bumps.

Then, maybe barely-fourteen year olds are just supposed to feel alienated.

During non-class time I hung out on one of the big cement planters adjacent to the Senior Area, near the trailers where they sold cold lunches and snacks. This would be my spot for the next four years, checking things out on campus.

SOMEWHERE IN MY FIRST FRESHMAN DAYS I met up with Phillip Harper, new, from Orange County. Phillip started going surfing on Sundays with my family; just another kid with seven of us Dence kids, all in the 1959 Chevy station wagon, winged back fenders, boards on top, Hawaiian print curtains all around (made by my sister, Suellen, me helping secure the wires) and a gigantic “Surfer Magazine” Murphy decal on the driver’s side back window.

Surf wagon, almost always with a board or more on top.

Phillip never seemed to be embarrassed by being part of this swarm; my Mom barely in control at best. We always seemed to stop off on the way home at Masters Automotive, right on Highway 101, in Oceanside, my Dad’s second job. My Mom would hit up Dad for some cash. Dad would do a loop around the wagon, check out his passed-out or whiny kids, take a breath, be gone for a while, hitting-up Mac for another advance.

On one trip, waiting in the car, Phillip and I comparing notes on rides and turns and kickouts in the far-back seat, my sister Suellen spotted Sonny and Cher in the alley, furry vests and all. They were obviously waiting for some quick repair to their car. It was Suellen, of course, who recognized them, jumped out to go bug them. If my siblings pressed against the glass, Phillip and I were (hopefully) slightly less obvious.

SURFING ONCE A WEEK JUST WASN’T ENOUGH. There were older surfers in the school, with cars, and Phillip’s sister, Trish, was dating one of them; Bucky Davis. Bucky was friends with John Amsterdam. Though John Amsterdam could easily believe Phillip was becoming a surfer, he couldn’t seem to fathom that I, one of two freshmen (Wendy Wetzel the other) allowed to take Biology, a guy who sat in the front row and paid attention while he and his junior class jock cronies lounged in the back, chuckling off the seriousness of it all; no, I couldn’t really be a surfer.

Even if I now wore a cheaper version of the surfer uniform, the prescribed (by the one-day Dr. Harper) outfit of Levis, J.C. Penny’s t-shirt, colorful windbreaker (Phillip’s, he being incredibly skinny, was fleece-lined. Mine, me being not skinny and this being Southern California, unlined), several choices of footwear, I could not pass muster with John Amsterdam. Because his judgment seemed the harshest, and he therefore, the coolest, his opinion mattered. No amount of talking, begging, or cajoling, even with Phillip doing the talking/begging/cajoling, would convince any of the older surfers to let us ride with them to the beach after school.

And besides, I had to talk. I was way too chatty, too excited when talking about surfing Swamis or waves down by the new State Park, too animated in defending Tamarack as a surf spot. “Tamarack?” “Oh, then where do you surf?” No answer.

“Grandview,” Phillip whispered, after they walked away, another secret revealed.

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

John Amsterdam May Still Hate Me- PART I


            The ADD version of this story is that John Amsterdam seemed to hate me even before I dinged his brand new, hundred and seventy-five dollar Dewey Weber Performer.


It was the night of the party for graduation from Potter Junior High School. I was standing in a long and squirmy line outside the bowling alley (Duke Snider’s daughter, Pam, was in my class) with some of my friends, most also friends from Boy Scouts. A line of cars slowly passed to our immediate left; anxious and excited parents dropping off their little darlings, each darling instantly changing from someone’s child to someone acting as if this wasn’t the most Hollywood thing that had happened to any of us.

Those of us already on the concrete carpet hid our embarrassment for the kids whose parents dallied, visibly fussed, took pictures, said things like, “Oh, you’re all so grown up;” and, “Oh, look at YOU.”

That is, we hid our embarrassment by laughing and pointing, whispering little immaturities to each other. “Boobs. Did you know?” “Oh, yeah.” And now we all knew.

I was in my new still-room-for-growing “Church Coat” from Montgomery Ward, and my almost-a-match permanent press pants, the pockets of which were considerably shallower than jeans. It wouldn’t be a huge admission to reveal that I seemed to have spent much of eighth grade with hands in my pockets. Not for fun; camouflage was often necessary.

This seemingly growing lack of control was bad enough at school, but, on this night, the girls, many of whom I’d known since kindergarten, were dressed in what amounted to evening wear for 13-14 year old girls, designed and selected because these dresses featured those changes in my school mates we’d already noticed.

I might have preferred a little longer coat, too.

Bill Birt, tallest guy in our class, hair on his chest since sixth grade, a bit of spittle always on one or both corners of his mouth, not always because of the braces, turned, said, “I’m gonna dance. You gonna dance?”

“Don’t know how. You know, my religion, I don’t think we’re supposed to.”

“Well, then; do you know how to bowl? No? Well, I’m gonna bowl, too. And dance.”

Ray Hicks stuck his head in, “Can’t dance; might as well sing.”

“What? There’s singing?”

“Well, I’m gonna slow dance,” Bill Birt said, quieter, a bit too close to my face. “You just, um, move your feet a little. You rub against them; whatever they put your way.” At that point, me considering what, exactly I might be rubbing against, Bill broke into his standard sort of ‘ha ha yack ha’ laugh.

“Do you have a sister named Suellen?”


It was Joanne Amsterdam, quite a cute girl, fairly new in Fallbrook. She had spun around, breaking from her little group of girls, and was now, in the moving line, quite close enough that she and I could be dancing. “Sue-Ellen? I only ask because I think she bought a surfboard from my brother, John, today. She and your Dad… do you… surf?”

“Surfmat.” I was nodding, like a fool, three or four other boys with heads tipped at this or another odd angle, leaning around and toward us, Joanne and me, my feet shuffling left, then right. Then left.

Kind of like dancing.

 -Next Friday, Part II- board surfing

Bill Irwin Called-Out Butch Van Artsdalen

                        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.”


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.”


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.