Ive been interested in surfing since I was in Lombard Junior High. Im not sure how I became acquainted with it. Probably through something in a movie newsreel. Galesburg is, after all, a long way from an ocean.
But I didnt let that stop me. A pal and I made our own surfboard which we tried to use one rainy day at Cedar Fork. Unfortunately, wed never seen a board out of the water so we didnt know about the fin on the underside which gives a board stability. Ours didnt have one and the result was calamity.
In rapid-running, thigh-deep water, we couldnt control the board and wound up with a lot of bumps and bruises. Surfing has never been for the weak in body or spirit. The weak of mind? Well, thats another matter.
Surfing was born in prehistoric times in the South Seas. When Christian missionaries encountered it, they were shocked. They banned it as immoral in 1821.
A hundred years later, it was revived by the great Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku. It soon joined the outrigger canoe as a symbol of Oahu.
Board surfing failed to become popular for 30 years, however, because the boards were made of redwood very big and very heavy. They averaged 14 to 18 feet and weighed about 150 pounds. In high surf, they could maim and kill.
I arrived in Southern California in 1959. There were boards for rent at the State beaches and in some stores nearby but they were all the heavy, redwood kind. It wore you out just to carry them to the water; and they proved to be not nearly as much fun as they looked in the newsreels. Some surfers were using newer boards made of polyurethane covered with a coating of fiber-glass reinforced plastic. These were under ten feet long, weighed only 15 pounds, and were highly maneuverable in any wave higher than three feet high. They were also expensive to buy and nearly impossible to rent. I became a body surfer.
As the name suggests, the surfer rides the face of the wave with his body, either with one arm thrust out or both arms at his sides. In this style, a wipeout could pile-drive the surfer into the bottom. Thus, as the polyurethane boards became cheaper, they began to dominate surfing.
Coincidentally, 1959 was also the year Hollywood made the rest of the world truly aware of this new sport. "Gidget" with Sandra Dee, James Darren and Cliff Robertson introduced young movie-goers to the Southern California beach scene. Two years later, "Gidget Goes Hawaiian" added impetus to a teen-age move into surfing; and new phrases like "catch the curl", "hang ten" and "cowabunga" entered the language.
In 1962, the Beach Boys began to provide music for the craze with songs like "Surfin Safari," "Surfin U.S.A." and "Surfer Girl."
In 1963, American-International Pictures, which specialized in exploitation movies for drive-ins (like "I Was a Teenage Werewolf"), started a series of beach movies which featured surfing. Singer Frankie Avalon and former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello appeared in most of them, supported by comedians like Harvey (Eric von Zipper) Lembeck, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, Paul Lynde and even Buster Keaton. The music was mostly mediocre, the jokes not very good, but the slapstick was often enjoyable and the surfing enticing. "Little Stevie Wonder" made his debut in the series. A total of seven movies were made between 1963 and 1966.
ABC tried to capture the beach spirit on television with the sit-com series "Gidget" from September 1965 to September 1966, but its major success was to jump-start the career of Sally Field.
Then, in 1966, Bruce Brown made "The Endless Summer" a 95-minute color documentary about surfing around the world. Its spectacular success ended Hollywoods tepid fictions and replaced them with the heart-stopping real action now possible on the newer model, less expensive surfboards.
When I moved to Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley in 1968, I was 150 miles from the nearest surf and stayed that way until the end of the 20th century.
Now I live within five minutes walk of some great sets, and Ive never even been in the water. The explanation is simple: Im old, the water temperature is 54-58, and the surf is so full of long boards, short boards, boogie boards and kayaks that theres no place to body surf anymore. Besides, in a wet suit Id look too much like a sea lion to the great white sharks which frequent our shores.
There are guys near my age on boards in the water, but theyre the rare exception and they didnt take 35 years away from the sport.
So I stand on the Pismo pier, watch the hot-dogging, and dream.
I wonder how much a kayak rents for?