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COVER STORY : Vals go Home : From the beginning, Valley surfers found a niche in Southern California surf lore --as the bad guys.

July 15, 1994|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kirk Putnam was a skinny kid from Burbank, sneaking across Topanga Beach with his surfboard under one arm, trying to slip unnoticed into the waves.

"If the local guys spotted you, they'd point you out," Putnam says. "Then the guys on the beach would start chucking rocks."

It was the early 1960s, the early days of the surfing boom. Locals didn't want their waves cluttered with San Fernando Valley kooks. Young surfers who flocked to the coast from Burbank and Van Nuys and Granada Hills suffered taunts, sometimes playful and sometimes worse. They laid low at certain beaches, removing license-plate frames and other identifying marks from their cars, hoping to escape attention.

"The flattening of tires, the breaking of car windows--it could get vicious," says Mark Richards, who grew up in North Hollywood. "If you showed up at a surf spot with an attitude, sure, you were asking for trouble. It's just that Valley surfers were automatically tagged for having an attitude whether we had one or not."

So the Valley, landlocked, denied even the scent of ocean breezes by surrounding mountains, assumed a role in the emerging Southern California surf culture. "Valley cowboys" were cast as the bad guys, the marauding hordes.

This image had little to do with young men such as Putnam and Richards, who paddled out against south swells. They counted themselves among a breed drawn to the sea, willing to learn a difficult skill, willing to endure the interminable waits between good conditions. They never thought of themselves in terms of geography. They merely wanted to ride waves.

But they encountered a larger prejudice, a notion of the Valley as Los Angeles' hick cousin. This caricature, the same one that eventually spawned "Valley girl" jokes, was made clear to 1960s surfers by the graffiti scrawled across the famed Malibu wall:

"Vals Go Home."

Each morning in the summer, Steve Krajewski and his buddies would tie their surfboards atop the family Corvair and squeeze into the back seat. His stepfather, Ron, would drive them west from Canoga Park, through winding canyon roads, and drop them off at the beach on his way to work.

"He'd make a point of telling us to meet him at 5:15," recalls Krajewski, who is now 44 years old. "But when he came back, we'd still be in the water. He'd start honking his horn. Then he'd drive home at 80 miles an hour and scare the hell out of us."

These were first-generation Valley surfers, the children of a postwar migration that had transformed acres of farmland into a vast suburban grid. These teen-agers listened to the Ventures. They jeered Frankie-and-Annette movies. They caught the same bug that had infected beach kids years before, when visiting Hawaiians such as Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth first surfed the Southern California coast.

But as Krajewski and others like him felt the tug of the ocean, most were too young to drive. The intricacies of surfing, the necessary strength and balance, paled in comparison to a more daunting challenge--getting to the beach.

Not everyone had a parent who would offer a ride. Glen Kennedy hitchhiked from Canoga Park. Putnam waited at a hamburger stand near his house, careful to hide his board from the "hard guys" who cruised by in their hot rods. He waited until older surfers came along.

"The older guys would say to us younger guys, 'All right, I'll take you,' " Putnam says. "But we ended up paying for gas and paying for their lunch."

When beach surfers realized that carloads of awkward newcomers were streaming over the hill, the rivalry began. The locals acted as if they could claim some ownership to the sea, as if they could trace their blood ancestry back to ancient Polynesians who rode heavy wooden planks across the breakers. They began painting "Vals Die" on the sidewalks.

"The beach surfers always felt they had more right to the water because they lived closer," Richards says. "Sometimes there were fights in the water."

More often, the animosity took the form of trash talk.

"You saw a lot of guys getting vibed," says Michael Marcellino, a Sherman Oaks surfer. "There was a lot of talk to psych guys out."

And there were antics. Legend has it that locals once tried to block the canyon roads during a large swell so that Valley surfers could not reach the coast. They also waxed car windshields and stole lunches from the younger, visiting surfers. Some Vals, in turn, developed a technique called "buttching," by which they would sabotage their sandwiches and fruit by rubbing this food against various parts of their bodies.

Malibu proved a hotbed for such give-and-take. An angry veteran punched dozens of dents in a Valley surfer's stray board. Young Vals "buttched" their lunches daily. And Putnam made the mistake of cutting off the legendary Mickey Dora.

"You," Dora muttered. "Out."

Putnam dutifully paddled to shore and spent the rest of the afternoon watching from the sand.

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