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SURF COUNTY, USA : REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK : In Search of Surfing Nirvana and the True Meaning of Life


During the summer of 1963, Mike Butcher's mom drove us to Malibu a couple of times a week. We used to surf in our tennis shoes at low tide because the idea of tethering yourself to your board was unheard of, so a fall usually meant a painful rock dance to the beach chasing your board.

One morning, when sets of head-high waves lined up to the horizon and the rides spanned a hundred yards from the point to the pier, Mickey Dora slid up behind me on a wave and pushed me off. No fists were clenched. No harsh words exchanged. Of course, he was a man and I was 14, but that really had nothing to do with it. He was a surfing legend and I went home to West L.A. a hero for getting in his way.

My parents' decision to move to Huntington Beach two years later increased my status with my peers. Even then, Huntington was the center of the surfing universe and the handful of surfers at Palms Junior High School figured I had ascended to surfing utopia.

They were just about right, too.

We lived in a development near the intersection of Brookhurst Street and Pacific Coast Highway. You could climb over the chain-link fence along the side of my house, jump into the flood-control canal and paddle all the way out into the waves at the Newport River Jetty.

That first summer, there were about a dozen teen-agers from our tract who spent almost every day on the beach at the end of Brookhurst. The development was surrounded by bean fields that stretched all the way to Adams Avenue in the north and Beach Boulevard in the west and on most weekdays, there wasn't another soul in sight at the beach all day.

My mom used to make me a bacon and egg sandwich that I'd eat as I trailered my board down to the beach behind my bike every morning. About half of us had boards, but all the guys and some of the girls tried to surf. Degrees of proficiency varied, but everybody always had a good time playing in the waves.

I'll never forget one hot August morning when a big south swell was pumping huge walls of water toward the beach. For some reason, I took off on this wave the size of a house, flew down the face and suddenly found myself crouching in a green tunnel of water.

It was by far the best tube ride of my life and when I shot out of the final section and pulled out over the shoulder, I looked at the beach and realized no one had seen it. It was an odd feeling. Surfers don't often find themselves pining for a crowd.

It was a carefree summer of surfin' safaris. We'd sometimes slip past the Marine patrols and ride the storied waves at Trestles. Or we might test the outside break at Swami's in San Diego. And there was even an occasional foray into the foreign waters of Baja, where you could actually be the only group in the water at a spot like K-38.

In the winter, some of us would surf at the pier before classes at Huntington Beach High School. Plopping down in your seat at a first-period history class with your hair wet always made you feel sort of special.

Indeed, it was some kind of surfing nirvana. And--in Southern California, anyway--it's gone forever.

Nobody with a surfboard plays in the waves anymore. It's become an all-business recreation, survival of the fittest in one of its more rudimentary forms: The skilled and aggressive catch waves; the meek and those trying to get better get frustrated.

If I had known in 1965 what the sport would be like 25 years later, I would never have let any of those summer swells go unridden.

Last month, while on a camping trip at South Carlsbad State Beach, I was watching my girls--Jaime, 11, and Niki, 6--frolic in the surf and this wave of nostalgia washed over me.

Jaime ran up the beach with her Boogie board in tow. "Did you see that, Dad?" she asked, beaming with pride. "I was all the way out there right next to that surfer."

Then she turned and sprinted back into the surf, filled with the almost spiritual glee that comes from riding the ocean's free-form roller-coaster.

I probably should have waited until that surfer got out of the water and thanked him for not telling Jaime to get the hell out of his way. Because, for one morning, at least, she was allowed to experience a slice of the joy I lived with daily in that summer of '65.

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