-Sometime in 1975, Swamis parking lot, Encinitas-
This was before our first child was born. We had finally achieved my longtime goal of living in Encinitas. We had arrived by way of our first and second apartments in Pacific Beach, P.B.: then a condo in University City; sold for a profit of $1,500.00 and a used VW; and now a two bedroom tract home east of I-5.
So, not the full dream. In real life, Trish was working thirty miles south in downtown San Diego, I was working thirty miles north, repainting the interiors of houses on Camp Pendleton, the trailer we worked out of just up the hill from, and with a million dollar view of… wait for it… Trestles.
And, though I wasn’t supposed to be able to, I did park on the beach, with immediate access to Lowers; an hour and a half a day on a half hour lunch break. Sometimes, after work, I’d get in an afternoon session, maybe at Church when the northwest winds blew.
Those ten months that job lasted were, this far removed, dreamlike, surf-wise; and sort of made up for rarely getting to surf Swamis. Still, Trish and I could go to the La Paloma, she could shop at local boutiques- we were, despite living east of I-5, locals. For a former inland cowboy, this was great.
Several times a week Trish and I would meet up after work, get some takeout food, go to the parking lot at Swamis to check the surf and the sunset. Even if the surf was marginal, there were always people hanging out; tourists, surfers, posers; something else to watch while eating.
On one such evening, a tall, thin, and already-wasted guy in Hollywood surf attire was chatting to people near the railing, leaning into car windows, talking surf stories. “Oh, and then there was the classic swell of December, 1969.”
“I know,” Trish said, “You were there.” After a bite. “Go tell him.”
“No. It’s just… yeah; I was (pointing at the water) there.”
At this time, with the second set of formal stairs in use, the cooler thing to do after surfing was to scale the bluff. I did it a few times. Sure, you’d be arrested or stoned (more like lectured) by a mob in the parking lot if you even tried it nowadays. Someone would surely sacrifice an environmentally friendly and reusable smoothy container to knock you back down.
On this evening, in the grainy light of dusk, Trish and I partway through some Mexican food, and directly in front of our partially-steamed windshield, two surfers popped up from the cliff and into sight.
John Amsterdam, wetsuit peeled down, was one of them. I can’t say for certain that he recognized me, but I’ll always swear he gave me the harshest look.
This was the last time, to my knowledge, that I saw Mr. Amsterdam.
I always feel that, maybe some day out at some semi-secret spot on the Straits of Juan de Fuca, I’ll see him again. Judging me; harshly; maybe almost as harshly as I judge myself.
John Amsterdam may always hate me.
CORKY CARROLL, BILLY HAMILTON, AND A RISING SWELL
“There was nothing showing at Trestles; Oceanside was flat, but now, look at this.” Corky Carroll to someone else, while perched on a railing at the top of the stairs at Swamis, 1969.
Though the comment was not meant for me, I did look around. The surf at my favorite point break was- reaching back for the proper phrasing from the time- ‘classic,’ ‘epic,’ just about as good as it gets- four to five foot, glassy, sunny skies putting sparkle on the breaking lips, proper shadowing on the faces.
I’d say it was ‘perfect,’ ‘magical,’ other than the now-growing crowd of locals, semi-locals, and the Orange/L.A. County surfers (we) North County surfers always complained about the most (maybe other than the Texans in the summer).
They came, car-pooling, drifting south like the smog that usually, but not always, stopped somewhere south of San Onofre. They drove away from their crowds, added to ours.
Ours. Not that I wasn’t still an inland cowboy, still living in Fallbrook. But now I was working in Oceanside. This meant something. Maybe not to a true local.
In fact, one of the first surfing-related near-fistfight I ever witnessed was at Swamis, 1966. The older surfer was almost pleading with the guy who’d snaked him, taken off fin-first in front of him on the inside peak.
“I’ve been surfing here for over fifteen years,” the Snake-ie said. “Well,” the member of the Northern Horde said, grinning toward his fellow riders (or raiders, perhaps), “you should have learned to surf it better.”
Paused at the top of the Swamis stairs, I must have had that can’t-wipe-it-off expression of satisfaction, mixed with a sort of righteous exhaustion. The surf hadn’t started this good. When I paddled out, three hours earlier, it was small, the high tide dropping just enough to allow the waves to break outside of the bigger rocks, just far enough out for two or three others and me to get some in-and-out quickies.
As the tide dropped, the swell increased. An hour into it, I was back-dooring the peak, sliding the wall, and, with maybe just a couple of aggressive looks, maybe (I’d prefer to think not- but probably) a couple of whistles or that one syllable war whoop, guaranteeing each wave was just mine.
Oh, I was dominating; for a while. Now, however, with more surfers, the two peaks working, the group at the top of the stairs, Corky and his crew, and I watched someone smoothly, seamlessly take off, bottom turn, top turn, rise and drop across the wall, and then pull the first one-eighty-plus cutback into a high-and-off-the-curl top-turn into another bottom turn. I’d ever seen. If not the first, definitely the best. I almost dropped my board.
The surfer had the solid, split-leg stance that, if you made a surfer action figure; this all-purpose, any-board, all-wave-size stance would be the one you’d build into the mold. Classic.
“Billy… Hamilton,” one of Corky’s cohorts said. Corky and another Northerner, having already identified the surfer, shook their heads. “We goin’ out?”
I’m sure I gave Corky the same questioning look his car-pool-buddies did. I’d seen Corky in the magazines. I’d seen him on “Wide World of Sports.” He was one of the first world champions. He was competitive; and this was another arena. Now he was perched on the railing, the highest available throne, surveying the surf.
He looked at me, still in awe at the Billy Hamilton move, still anticipating his answer. He looked at his crew, back at me, gave me a ‘keep moving, kid; you bother me’ look.
If I chose one session to mark the peak of my own surfing abilities; this would be it. The backside of the peak of wave knowledge/fitness/practice, practice practic- features a slow downhill with some just-as-memorable sessions. For this I’m grateful.
Still, watching the water as I walked to my car, I knew I was no Billy Hamilton. I knew I might never have the audacity to purposefully bounce off an oncoming curl. I also knew I would try.
But, on this day, I had other places to go, and I’d already seen what remains the most memorable single ride I have ever witnessed in person. I didn’t stay to watch Corky and his cohorts. No offense.