When Frances Cattermole-Tally was growing up in Playa del Rey, it was common for local surfers to "bark up a wave." One of the boys on the beach would paddle out in the surf and then bark like a dog, a practice that was said to cause the waves to swell.
Today Cattermole-Tally is a folklorist at UCLA, and that bit of surfing lore, circa 1940, is one of 50,000 items listed in the university's California Collection of Superstitions and Beliefs.
The California archive is unusual, Cattermole-Tally said, in that much of it deals with urban folklore, less commonly collected than the lore of rural or primitive societies. Many of the items in the collection were contributed by college students during the 1960s and 1970s.
Love, luck, good health and other global concerns are reflected in the collection, Cattermole-Tally said, but the items often have a uniquely California twist. She cites a regional variation on the universal theme of bowdlerized explanations of where babies come from. One contributor reported, "My parents told me I came down the Sacramento River on a crocodile."
Even when the beliefs and practices seem silly, they deserve serious examination, in the folklorist's view. "This isn't funny," she said. "We're talking about the way people think."
Sometimes the way people think is funny. Dozens of the items in the collection deal with automobiles, not surprising given the centrality of cars to both life in Southern California and the myths about it. From Bakersfield in 1959 comes the belief that if you make a wish as two Volkswagens are crossing an intersection, your wish will come true. And in 1965, at least one Angeleno believed that you could hit all the green lights during a drive if you put a cigarette in your mouth and said you would light it at the first red light.
According to Cattermole-Tally, superstitions typically deal with areas of human experience that cause anxiety. Superstitions and the rituals that reflect them allow people to think they have some control over their environment, she speculated.
Often the same superstition or legend will pop up in more than one place. California can't lay sole claim to the most famous car legend of all. That involves the bloody hook left on the car door when a frightened couple guns out of lovers' lane, warned by the car radio of a handless killer preying on the amatory young. But the California collection contains four variations of a car story that circulated throughout the state during the '60s. According to the tale, an automobile was sold at a ridiculously low price because a body had been stashed in it. The make of the bargain car varies from place to place: It was a Cadillac in Ojai, a Corvette in Montebello and a Porsche and a Lincoln Continental in Los Angeles. It should be noted, according to a superstition recorded in Santa Clara around 1970, that it is bad luck to buy a car whose owner is dead, let alone secreted in the trunk.
Some California superstitions apply to specific places. In the '60s, a Berkeley student reported that he had been told that if you fail to honk your horn at the cattle crossing on the way into Yosemite, the gremlins under the crossing will trail you around the park and cause bad luck. A few years later, a variation on the story was reported by another Berkeley student, who said you would have bad luck if, on driving into any national park, the passengers failed to raise their feet off the floor of the car. Fortunately, the driver was exempt from this ritual.
The collection contains one item that may explain why so many Californians buy gorgeous cars and subsequently have them detailed. In 1958, a UCLA student reported his belief that people look like their cars.
"I worry about some of the things people believe, especially cancer cures," Cattermole-Tally said. An example of a potentially dangerous superstition was reported by a Berkeley student in the 1970s: the belief that you won't have any trouble finding a parking space if you've picked up a hitchhiker.
Surfing, California's quintessential sport, also has a lore all its own, reflected in the collection. On Los Angeles-area beaches in the 1960s, it was believed that the person who could flip a bottle cap farthest was the best surfer. It was also believed that wearing a wet suit would kill the waves.
Several rituals were practiced to guarantee a gnarly surf. In Newport Beach in the 1960s, it was believed that the sacrifice of a pair of trunks would cause the waves to grow. A generation later, some surfers claimed to believe that throwing three handfuls of water over each shoulder (not alternately) would have a similar salutary effect.
According to collection informants, during the '60s and '70s, the annual surfing championship at Huntington Beach included a sacrifice: burning a surfboard to the Surf God. One observer cautioned, however, that the ritual may have been fueled by something other than quasi-religious impulse. The only times he had ever seen it carried out, he noted, was when the participants were "well-intoxicated."
And, again and again, surfers reported the magical belief that the third wave of a set was the best, and the ninth wave of the ninth set the very best of all.
Cattermole-Tally said she is not superstitious, but she does have some amorphous beliefs that may not be totally grounded in fact. For example, she said, "I believe that if you are nice to people on the freeway, eventually someone will be nice to you."