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Are the Outsiders Now Insiders? : Novel: 25 years later, questions about Tom Wolfe's accuracy in "The Pump House Gang" remain. But some of the book has proved prophetic.

January 09, 1991|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA JOLLA — With a smile that slid into an easy laugh, Jackie Haddad Hellingson recalled that free-frolicking beach summer of '65 when her gang of bronze-skinned teen-agers waged war against The Outsiders.

Yeah, those were the crazy times when every day seemed to last a year and the surf-wompers, sun-lovers and rock 'n' roll kids staked out the Windansea Beach in La Jolla like it was their own back yard--because it was.

Back then, The Enemy drove huge gas-guzzlers with out-of-state plates. They were overweight mommy-hubbies who invaded the beach like an army of clammy white cadavers, carrying every piece of paraphernalia imaginable--tanning oil, folding chairs, portable grills and chicken sandwiches. And those umbrellas.

In the confounding months of early Vietnam and the Watts riots, 40 lean and tan native Southern California teens decided to draw the line against The Outside World.

So they invented The Hood Check. The Hang-Out. And The Stare.

A dozen at a time, they would lollygag on the concrete steps near the old pump house, their legs spraddled, setting up a Cadaver Obstacle Course to block older people from the beach. When Outsiders went for a swim, the teens would eat the lunches right off their beach blankets.

They would stop the big tourist cruisers in the middle of the street for phony oil checks. And then walk off laughing, leaving the hood up.

Or they would just fix strangers with a sort of Zombie Stare--cold enough to turn back almost any Outsider.

That's when the gang met The Ice Cream Man. Mr. Outsider Himself.

He wore a doubled-breasted seersucker suit and a white tie looped into this incredibly tiny knot. And he wore sneakers, along with this skyscraper top hat and walking cane--at the beach!

He was a New York writer named Tom Wolfe. And he wanted to do a story about The Kids. And about this new and youthful social rebellion he saw taking place on the shore at Windansea.

"Most of us thought he was a geek," Hellingson recalled. "Some people thought he was a narc because of the oddball way he dressed. Some of the surfers refused to cooperate with him. I mean, back then, nobody had ever heard of Tom Wolfe."

Twenty-five years later, both the writer and his story about the kids at Windansea Beach have achieved literary stature. "The Pump House Gang," written in the pyrotechnic prose of his "new journalism," helped establish Wolfe as one of the most prominent social critics of his generation.

As for the Pump House Gang . . . .

Some have responsible jobs and children of their own. Others are in jail. Or in drug rehab clinics. Or dead. Still others just disappeared.

Recently, a half-dozen members of the old gang discussed how their lives have turned since that summer of '65. Some expressed remaining doubts over the scope and accuracy of the story that came to represent an entire generation of Southern California youth.

And they talked about the new relationships each has forged with the beach, their old stomping grounds.

Even as members of the Older Generation, they insist they haven't turned into the very Outsiders they once sought to ban from their surfside paradise.

For Tom Wolfe, the Pump House Gang represented something new and different in the American culture of the mid-1960s--a youth society based on beer busts, the rolling ocean waves and a segregated beach where being old was definitely out.

Amazed at these goings-on, Wolfe produced a two-part article--"The New Life Out There"--that originally appeared in New York's Sunday Herald Tribune Magazine and later as "The Pump House Gang" in a book of his stories.

The way Wolfe saw it, the middle and upper-class kids who hung around the salmon-pink La Jolla water system pump house represented the earliest version of a rebellious surfer subculture that would grow to enormous proportions in the years to come.

But there was a darker side to the story. Wolfe wrote about teen-agers afraid to grow old. Like the young couple who decided to commit suicide at the pump house steps rather than face, as Wolfe wrote, "the horror age of 25, the horror dividing line."

And the author had a prediction for the rest of his Pump House Gang. One day, he wrote, they would become prisoners of their own society. They would become a graying generation of beach bums.

"Pretty soon," Wolfe concluded, "the California littoral will be littered with these guys, stroked out on the beach like beached white whales, and girls, too, who can't give up the mystique, Oh Mighty Hulking Sea, who can't conceive of living any other life."

When Wolfe's piece was first published, most of the Windansea surfers say they felt betrayed by the caricatured figures in the story. Soon afterward, someone scrawled a graffiti message on the pump house wall: "Tom Wolfe is a dork."

Even today, some harsh feelings remain.

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