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Making Waves : Malibu Couple in Feud With Surfers Over Swim Hole

Summer In The City. One in an occasional series.

August 15, 1989|SCOTT HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

You have come to visit the Littlejohns--to sit out on the patio, sip coffee and chat about the good life inside Malibu's celebrated Colony, among the rich and famous. The Littlejohns live on the, well, less desirable side of the Colony--landward, near the lagoon, not on the private beach. Still, it's a fine back yard, gopher hole and all.

See the red brick path? Every morning Bill Littlejohn goes for a run and a swim, and he found those bricks, one by one, washed up on the beach, their edges nicely rounded by the surf.

See the trees towering around the tennis court? Last stand of Monterey cypress in the county, Bill's been told. The branches hang over the court, but they're great for the birds. Snowy white egret. Great blue heron. They nest up there, Bill says, "marvelous things with 7-foot wingspans. . . ."

The Littlejohns--Bill is 75, wife Fini 74--are happy in their back yard.

And then, suddenly, they are not happy at all. Out by the lagoon comes the rumble of a tractor. It is coming, they say, to ruin Fini's swimming hole.

The politics of paradise are never-ending.

Fini's swimming hole--she first took a dip there 51 years ago--is a calm pocket of water in a tiny cove on south-facing Surfrider Beach, on the public strand, no less, just east of the exclusive Colony. It's much better for swimming, Fini says, than the rugged Colony surf. On weekends, especially, it becomes a proletarian wonder: Working-class families pay $4 to park and then gather around Lifeguard Station No. 3, sitting cheek-to- chic , as it were, next to the Colony's sparsely peopled sand. A chain-link fence with a "No Trespassing" sign offers discouragement.

The crisis at hand, however, is not a typical class struggle. This is a long-running feud pitting the Littlejohns and other swimming hole devotees against the surfers. And at Surfrider, surfers rule.

The crisis is that tractor. For the last five years it has regularly cut a channel through the sand bar, thus releasing suspiciously warm, smelly lagoon water into the swimming hole. State park officials say the lagoon water is not necessarily polluted, but the lifeguards post "caution" signs every time.

The furor is not over whether to cut the sand bar, but where. The Littlejohns for years have crusaded for the channel to be cut to avoid the swimming hole.

"People say, 'You live in the Colony. Why don't you swim there?' " Bill says. "Well, the surf's too rough. And we're part of the public too."

But what makes Surfrider what it is, surfers argue, is the perfect waves. To move the channel, they say, would be to deform the ancient cobblestone reef and deform those breakers.

"Malibu Point is like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon in terms of its value as a natural resource," declares Tom Pratte, executive director of the 3,500-member Surfrider Foundation, a group that lobbies surf-related environmental issues throughout the state.

"It's one of the best surfing breaks in the whole world, bar none," Pratte says. "The way the south swells break along this point is just absolutely fantastic."

Bill Littlejohn looks out at scores of surfers bobbing up and down in the surf.

"These kids don't know," he grumbles. "They think the world has been surfing here forever."

Maybe not forever. But would you believe centuries? Many surfers do.

After all, they point out, long before there was the Colony, another colony occupied this spot. The Chumash Indians lived here, and some surfers like to romanticize about the Indians taking their canoes out into big breakers. A few years ago, a surfing magazine printed a short story suggesting that this was a way young Chumash men would impress young women.

In less ancient times, there is no doubting Surfrider's role in surfing history.

The great Hawaiian Duke Kahanomoku was among Malibu's early surfers. After winning gold for swimming at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Kahanomoku came to Hollywood to make movies. He brought along his 150-pound plus boards and helped popularize the sport.

Still, surfing remained a bohemian endeavor for decades. Then something extraordinary happened, and it happened at Malibu. As the story goes, one day in 1956 a pint-sized 15-year-old girl named Kathy Kohner began to socialize with the surfer boys, and the big guy everyone called the kahuna (Hawaiian for sorcerer) looked at her and declared: "It's a midget, a girl midget! It's a goddamned gidget!"

The Kohners lived near the Colony. Kathy's father was writer Frederick Kohner; soon he penned a novel about a surfer girl named Gidget and her kooky pals saying things like "cowabunga!" Soon after came surfer movies, surfer music, surfer fashions. The waves got crowded.

The irony is, the Littlejohns knew the Kohners. They were friends. In fact, the first time Fini took a dip in the swimming hole, she had come out from Santa Monica to visit the Kohners. That was three years before little Kathy was born. "We saw Gidget grow up," Fini points out.

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