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TO PROTECT and to surf

In his day, Ray Kunze enforced the unwritten law of the waves. His life -- and his recent death -- leave many to wonder who will take his place.

June 07, 2005|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

It is the cusp of another summer, a bright morning with just enough breeze to carry the overripe scent of ocean, like food left on the table too long. The waves run small, which doesn't stop two dozen surfers from sharking around the lineup, dropping in on each other, riding shoulder to shoulder.

Mysto George stands by the wall at Surfrider Beach in Malibu and shrugs: "Kinda crowded."

This spot was always a zoo. Even back in the 1950s, when Mysto first arrived on the scene, surfers flocked here for perfect waves curling off the point and the gentle texture of a west wind. That will never change.

But like other veterans, the 74-year-old looks out on the water and sees a difference. And it's not just a case of old guys pining for the way things used to be.

Mysto starts to explain, then veers into a story -- he has a way of doing that -- talking about a phone call he got from his buddy Ray a few months back. They had started surfing as young men, grown old together, kept riding waves all these years.

In the middle of chatting about a south swell, Ray said, "I feel dizzy."

Try putting your head between your knees, Mysto told him.

Then Ray mentioned something, almost casually: "I might be having a stroke."

"Do you want me to call 911?"

Paramedics arrived at Ray's house to discover that the 68-year-old had suffered a massive stroke. For the next week, as he lay in a coma, old pals came through his hospital room. He had never been a surf star, never been featured in magazines or films, but when he died on a Friday afternoon in November, the Internet buzzed with tributes.

Ray had been a load of a man, a broad hull for a chest and fists like anvils. In the old days, the surfers who roamed the coast called him "Peter Proportion" and "the Malibu Enforcer." With his nose slightly bent and his front teeth busted out by a wayward board, everyone knew to stay on his good side.

The point is -- Mysto finally gets there -- Ray embodied a time when surfers from San Onofre to County Line lived in a world of their own, a renegade faction with unique ethics, an exclusive cast of characters. The life and times of Ray Kunze symbolize how things once were, and how different Southern California surf culture is now.

Surfing's childhood

A thousand memories sparkle like sunlight on the water, hard for George Carr to pick out and grab just one.

Carr got his first surfboard in the early 1950s, a tandem that had been cut down to size, 10 feet of balsa wood wrapped in fiberglass. He recalls that it cost $35, about $10 less than his used Plymouth.

His pal Ray came along for the ride, the two of them heading for Hermosa Beach. Mysto was in his early 20s, Ray about five years younger. They had met through sports, both fine athletes at their high school in South Gate, both eager to try this new thing.

Nowadays the water is littered with surfers. Back then, the two friends could stand on the pier and spot only a handful of die-hards, huddled together, chatting, waiting for the next set to come in.

Though Ray was big and strong, Mysto recalls telling him to be careful because that board weighed a ton. Sure enough, Ray paddled out and got himself in a bad spot, the board flipping up and catching him square across the face, breaking his nose.

"He never got it looked at," Mysto says. "He had a bent nose the rest of his life."

Surfing was rougher then. No one wore wetsuits to stay warm in chilly waters, and no one had a leash. If you lost your board, you had to swim to shore to get it.

Physical hardship was a litmus test, a filter, weeding out all but the most determined.

Another thing: No one had money, so they used to forage. Whenever Ray surfed at Laguna, he headed into town at sunset and made the rounds of the local pizza parlors, collecting uneaten slices off the tables, bringing them back to the car where he slept. The next morning, leftovers were laid across the dashboard, warming in the sun while he caught the day's first waves.

By the mid-1950s all the California surfers were giving each other nicknames, just like the original Hawaiian beach boys. Mysto already had his, short for "mystery man."

One day, at a hamburger joint in Hermosa, some kids were talking about a local vagrant who loitered around bus benches. They called him something odd, and Mysto went straight to his pal, saying, "I think I've got a nickname for you."

Ray liked the sound of "Peter Proportion." The other surfers figured it had something to do with the way he was built, and soon enough everyone took to calling him "Pete."

It wasn't until a few years ago that he found out he'd been named after a bum.

"He laughed," Mysto says. "He never knew."

Unwritten rules

Surfing is a pop culture phenomenon now -- fodder for movies and clothing lines, a backdrop for magazine ads. It might be hard to imagine that in the late 1950s, anyone who hung around the beach waiting for waves was considered a degenerate or worse.

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