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…

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.

Image

                                                                   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.

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.

Image

 

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.

 

John Amsterdam May Still Hate Me (Chapter 5)

-Spring, 1970- Grandview-

With no time to actually surf, I was just checking Grandview out late morning. This was just a little detour between my early (academic-rather than art-related) classes at Palomar Junior College in San Marcos and my job at Buddy’s Sign Service in Oceanside. Seeing Bucky Davis on the beach, I made my way down.

I was, by now, accustomed to surfing without a crew. Phillip Harper and Ray Hicks were going to some JC somewhere farther north. My other friends were also scattered by jobs, or real colleges, or, for some, military service. And I had a busy schedule.

Though I had the reputation, well earned, during high school, that I’d go surfing with anyone willing to drive, or go with me, Ray and Phillip had long been my closest friends and best surfing partners. I wasn’t reaching out to others. No time.

There was work, and school, and church on Saturdays, and a girlfriend. Steady girlfriend. I had become pretty much a regular at the Oceanside’s south jetty, hitting it seven-thirtyish to eight forty-five (give or take, depending on wave quality) most work day mornings. Still, being known, knowing some others in the lineup; these weren’t friends; we didn’t talk.

Still, I was grateful Buddy, Florida Prison-trained sign painter, of Buddy’s Sign Service, didn’t even think about working before nine. If I just couldn’t talk myself into getting out of the water I could make it up by staying later.

If the waves south of Oceanside Pier, the ocean one block and some railroad tracks away, were just too glassy, too irresistible, and there wasn’t a lot for an apprentice sign painter slash shop nub to do;  Buddy could usually be convinced to let me go.

“So, you can come in on Sunday to make up for it. Right?”

Because Buddy tried to maintain a persona that included some amount of ex-con toughness, and, with his real name being Lacy, he had earned it; the answer to making up for time lost to waves and school and church and a girlfriend was always, “Sure.”

Other mornings I’d hit whatever piece of sandbar seemed best in the neighborhood. Sometimes, with some inkling of a larger swell, I’d take off earlier from home, starting as far south as Swamis, racing up 101, hoping to hit a few favorable stoplights once I got to Oceanside.

WHEN THE NOW-LEGENDARY SWELL OF DECEMBER, 1969 smashed against the shores, closing out almost everywhere else, I managed to surf Swamis every day of the five day event by skipping school and not telling/lying-to Buddy.

On the first and biggest day; totally undergunned, offshore winds spraying would-be shoulder-hoppers back, most waves would have someone on them, from sixty yards up the reef, locked-in and wailing. The entire bluff was filled each day with onlookers, a few less as the swell dropped enough for Swamis to offer more manageable peaks and walls later in the week.

I had nobody to share the story with other than my girlfriend, my Trish, Trish Scott. A year behind me, she was still in high school and working Friday nights and Saturdays at the Post Exchange on Camp Pendleton. I still told her how, on the second day of the swell, I got thrashed by a section at the inside peak, figured that was enough, swam in, couldn’t find my board, saw the entire cheering section atop the bluff pointing and yelling “It’s in the rip!” So I jumped back in, swam out, and, by the time I reached the board, I was almost in the lineup. So, I looked for an empty shoulder on an inside wave…

“No, no; I’m listening. Go on.”

Trish was more interested in how I’d sometimes see her old friend from when she lived in Oceanside, Barbie Barron, while surfing at the Oceanside South Jetty. “We were in the Oceanside Girls’ Surfing Club,” Trish would say, always adding that she had started board surfing before I had.

“Yeah, but I surf now.”

I WANTED TO TALK TO BUCKY. I knew his relationship with his Trish, Phillip’s sister had ended; she had moved on. Their romance was one my circle of friends seemed to have discussed enough that we created our own fairytale/groupthink/consensus version of their reality. But, I hadn’t heard any of this from Bucky. Or from his Trish.

Bucky had shown up once when Phillip and Ray and I were surfing Swamis Beachbreak, our Summer/small wave default spot. I was filming my friends with my Super 8 camera, trying to convince them to film me. He dropped his cool a bit, got all competitive, told us the problem with boards was they weren’t yet short enough. We had some fun.

I also knew Bucky’s brother had been killed, murdered in some stupid/tragic event. The sort of whispered and incomplete version I heard included some implication that his brother had stepped into some confrontation in defense of the intended target, Bucky.

It may have also been that I wanted to talk surfing.

My conversation with Bucky, him in trunks, me in my school/work outfit, looking sideways at the waves, was low key; what we were up to, how much life was slowing down our surfing, where we were in the draft, Bucky was, somehow, out. I was, with my birth date having received a ‘36’ in the first lottery, and the war predicted to go on forever, and those whose deferments ran out definitely going to Vietnam, considering dropping my student deferment and taking a chance on the next lottery.

“No, I’m really just a nub. Buddy won’t even let me wash out his sign brushes.”  I was waiting for a moment to tell him how sorry I was that…

John Amsterdam. Without either of us acknowledging the other, the previously unnoticed John came up from behind Bucky, put his arm over his friend’s shoulder, did, finally, acknowledge me with a dirty look. Actually, it was more like the same harshly judgmental expression.

“Hey, Bucky; let’s go on down the beach, get our heads on.”

And they did. I wasn’t invited. I watched them go around the curve of the bluff. Bucky looked back once, gave me a slight nod.  It was all right. I watched the surfers for a few more moments, checked my watch. I had sign boards to paint, and maybe, when it glasses off…

John Amsterdam May Still Hate Me (Part Four)

Spring 1968- Another Saturday- Grandview-

The surf was small and choppy. The rights weren’t working at all. I was the only one out on the lefts when John Amsterdam waded halfway out, staring at me as I surfed.

Staring, judging for himself.

Donn Franzich, on the beach, had already told John that I, the entire unofficial surf team from Fallbrook Union High School, had won my first heat at what may have been the first annual (San Diego radio station) KGB/Windansea Surf Club San Diego County High School Surfing Contest.

Yeah, it was a Saturday, but nobody from my local church would have gone down to La Jolla Shores to watch such sinfulness. I had talked Donn into driving me. He was a Fallbrook resident because his father worked in the bigger (than San Diego) city, L.A., and believed his kids should be raised in the country; avocado trees and a horse or two on a mini-ranch. Donn’s, and some other Dads, were home on weekends.

Two girls rounded out our group: Bill Buell’s sister, Margaret Brown (maybe half-sister, technically) and this blonde Officer’s daughter (name long forgotten- sorry) had talked their way into going along; not really like dates, not really girlfriends, but, sure, girls.

My heat had started at the very moment the city and nearby homeowners had allowed the contest organizers to crank up the public address system. The contestants were listed, including: “The pride of Ocean Beach, and a member of the Windansea Surf Club…” And others. And then, “From Fallbrook… I didn’t know they had surf in Fallbrook.”

The actual fifteen minutes was a blur; paddling, surfing, caught inside. I had taken a couple of lefts, ended up out, I’d feared, of the contest zone. Fifteen minutes after the end of the heat my parents showed up, grownups, in shopping/sinning/going-to-a-grownup movie clothes, lumbering across the sand.

I say ‘lumbering’ because, at that moment, I was a little embarrassed by the inland parents of the inland cowboy surfer.

“I don’t know,” I told them, standing, my contemporaries still seated on towels; “one guy in my heat was…they said… probably not good.”

Ten seconds into my parents’ walk back to the car my heat’s results were announced. They both stopped, then turned toward me. “And, in first, from Fallbrook…” It was probably the only time I ever saw my mother leap into the air.

No, I was no longer embarrassed.  My parents, who had taken me on several ‘practice’ trips, who had sat in the car in the almost empty parking lot at 15th Street in Del Mar near dark, were there and the coolest parents on the beach.

What I had won was the opportunity to compete again the next day. My parents would let me borrow the good car.

But now, at Grandview, it was sunny and small, and with Donn and the Officer’s daughter making out against the bluff, Bill’s sister asleep and adding to her sunburn, John Amsterdam was judging me. Harshly. Again.

-August 1968, Lupe’s Left Loopers- Mazatlan, Mexico-

It was never my idea. I never would have thought of it.

Phillip must have heard some discussion of surfing summer waves in Mexico in conversations between his sister’s boyfriend, Bucky, and his friends, friends like John Amsterdam. I was fine with the North County’s beaches.

The increased crowds of summer weren’t such a bother. Oh, maybe kooks and those rich guys from Texas who rented places on 101 by the month, who thought four foot was kind of big, and who went after all the local girls with a certain gusto; and a high rate of success.

Phillip’s stepfather, Vince Ross, was for the plan all the way. “A real learning experience,” he said.  My parents and Ray Hick’s mom had to be talked into the plan. With Ray’s father in Vietnam, Phillip and I went over to try to convince his mother that her son wouldn’t be hauled off by bandits or Federalies. Somewhere after we had changed her mind, I was told (not too subtly) to shut up before I talked her into not even allowing him to hang out with us.

Phil’s younger brother, Max, would even out the crew. We’d be taking Vince’s fairly-new Mustang. Each of us sported fresh haircuts (so we wouldn’t be mistaken for hippies). We had visas granted us, with Vince’s help, on our second trip to San Diego to get them.

Evidently, the first time the people at the Mexican Consulate thought I had been, somehow, sarcastic or disrespectful (really, they were closing and said we’d have to come back and I said we live fifty miles away and, wow, I did enjoy that elevator ride, and…). This time I smiled politely and kept my mouth shut.

My portion of the expenses was (and I forgot this for years) contributed mostly (if not totally) from my sister Suellen’s baby sitting money, borrowed by my parents, probably never paid back (in kind).

My Dad, reluctantly, and at my Mother’s urging, when Phillip came over to convince my parents, gave us some ‘manly’ advice. In the backyard, away from my Mom and annoying siblings, he told Phillip and me that we should avoid any people trying to sell their daughters to us for, “you know… you know.”

Oh, yeah; we knew. We giggled anyway.

“Just wait until you meet a nice girl,” he said, “have sex with her.”

Shocking. Phillip and I would laugh about it later.

So, two and a half days and twelve hundred miles from Fallbrook, there we were, watching choppy six foot waves peel off a jetty. Mexicans on old surfboards Gringos had left behind or sold cheap were out.  One of them fell, got caught in the rip, swimming hard but not moving. Eventually, another surfer gave him a rest on his board, let him off in the surf zone. Seconds later, he was back in the rip.

“Did we come all this way to watch someone drown?” Ray asked. About the time the boardless surfer made it into the shorebreak and onto the beach, we applauding, I turned. Several other surfers were a ways down the little brick wall we were draped over.

John Amsterdam.

He didn’t look happy; even with Phillip. He and the two guys he was with got into their vehicle and moved on, maybe toward some newly discovered Mexican Malibu. Or maybe to discover one.

John Amsterdam May Still Hate Me (continued)


-SOME TIME IN 1967, (THE ORIGINAL) GRANDVIEW, LEUCADIA-

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.

-THE NEXT SATURDAY- GRANDVIEW-

“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.

Phillip and I Surf Grandview With Bucky Davis

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

-FIRST SESSION AT GRANDVIEW (1966) WITH BUCKY DAVIS-

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.

John Amsterdam May Still Hate Me (part two)

-SEPTEMBER, 1965, FALLBROOK UNION HIGH SCHOOL-

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.

Hippie, Blueballs, Glueballs, and Me (AKA- Asshole)

  HIPPIE, BLUEBALLS, GLUEBALLS, AND ME (AKA- ASSHOLE)

The first person I identified as being the dominant surfer at a particular spot was nicknamed “Hippie.” This was before Hippie Hippies. The story was he got the name early because of the relative size of his butt.  I did once know his real name. What I knew was he wasn’t someone to take off in front of. Undoubtedly influenced by the wave positioning and smooth transitions between a regular (pivot foot back) to a parallel stance of surfers like Phil Edwards and Miki Dora, Hippie would takeoff on an angle, use an in-line bottom turn to move high on the wave and forward of the middle of the board. His right hand acted as a baton as he rhythmically dropped and moved higher across a wave face, smoothly backpedalling to pullout on the shoulder.

Tamarack was a perfect spot for Hippie’s style of surfing. There was, back in 1965 (and I assume is), a peak that forms straight out from the bathrooms on the bluff. The left varies in shape and makeability, but the right, though not offering a long ride, is almost always makeable; even bigger waves have an out.

The problem with this is there’s really a small takeoff zone, and it can seem crowded without much of a crowd.  Still, when I was learning, I headed for the main peak, and, head down, blind to the wave behind me, stroked like I meant it.

We hung out at Tamarack enough to start getting familiar with some of the others who surfed there on this or other Sundays. Suellen would make a fire while I was using her board. Cold surfers, strangers or not, would stand around it.

There was the guy with striped blue and white trunks who someone called, my sister thought, “Glueballs,” though it may have been “Blueballs.” So we called him that. Not to his face. Others were identified by their boards, “Yellow Nose,” “Popout,” or whatever vehicle they arrived in. If I said, “Woody,” you’d know I’m making some of these up. I am, though Glueballs is real.

Because I abused the borrowing of my sister’s board, and seemed so serious about being a surfer, my parents, without my being there, or my input, visited the old Hanson Surf Shop across the street from Cardiff Reef. I’m sure budget was a factor, but I would never have approved the board they bought for me.

But, there I was, paddling out to the main peak on a Velzy/Jacobs balsa surfboard from, probably, 1957- too narrow, no real rocker. I did know enough to be embarrassed. Since I had been making advances in my knee paddling on Suellen’s 9’4” Hobie, I tried it on this board. Quite shaky. Fall. Try again.

Now, there was another guy who always seemed to be out when we were there. I never really got a name to go with him, but his nickname for me seemed to be “Asshole,” such as, “Hey, Asshole; my wave!”  This time it was, “Hey, look; asshole got himself a really screwed up old balsa board. Where’d you find that, Asshole?”

Actually, the main peak at Tamarack might have been a friendlier place for groms and kooks if real surfers just surfed somewhere else. We groms and kooks would actually hoot each other into waves, watch, root for other groms and kooks. “Haul A!” I remember one kid saying as we all watched as the kid hauled A into the shorebreak.

This was not my tormentor’s method. “Hey, Asshole; maybe you should practice knee paddling over in the slough, come back when you know how,” he’d say, perfectly balanced on his knees and motionless. Then I’d fall. Then I’d get back on the board, back on my knees, shakily.

Maybe to practice, I paddled farther out, taking a break from the peak and the ridicule. Of course an outside peak formed. I spun around, head down, paddling; moved to my knees, stroke. The entire rest of the group was inside, eyes on me, each surfer scratching to get over the wave I was about to… stroke… I felt the lift, I was on it, dropping, straight… straight down. My Velzy/Jacobs pearled, totally, I went ‘over the handlebars.’ Everyone paddling out turned-turtle or bailed. The balsa wood weapon popped straight back up, tail first.

No one had to call me Asshole. I paddled in, prone, banished to the crappy waves in front of the lower parking lot.

A year or so later, I was now riding a popout my Dad had purchased ‘on base’ from an auction of boards taken by Marine Military Police from surfers attempting to surf Trestles. One attempting such a beach assault would not take his best board. This particular bargain popout also featured a huge delaminated spot on the nose.

Okay, I’d fix that. Phillip and I made a cut, ripped off the de-lam and some surrounding glass, reglassed it. Then, coming in from surfing Swamis, waiting for my turn to stack my board on the roof of the car, I dropped it mere inches onto the grass. Snap!

Okay, so now we got some dowels, stuck it back together, put a fiberglass bandage around it. As a bonus, it now it had even more kick up, more rocker.

This was the board I was riding, my surf bumps now visible (even to others), on one after school afternoon at Tamarack; an afternoon a little crowded with kooks and grems and groms and Hippie. It was, perhaps, out of frustration that I did not give way, paddled stroke for stroke, took off even with but in front of Hippie. I gave him room, drove across the peak, kicked my board out hard.

My board was spinning, straight up, next to me. Beside and just behind it was Hippie’s board, twins in the spinning.

“I’m sorry” I said, the first words I’d ever spoken to Hippie.

“No you’re not,” he said; both of us climbing onto our boards.

“Okay then, I’m not.”

Perhaps I saw this as a rite of passage. Perhaps it was. No, still not sorry.