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A plank slate for an oral surfing history

The Surfing Heritage Foundation is undertaking an effort to collect the oral histories of wave riders from California and elsewhere. 'We're running out of the old-timers,' says a surfing writer.

July 02, 2010|Hector Tobar

If you owned a surfboard 20, 40 or even 60 years ago, and used it often, there's a group of people in San Clemente who would really like to hear from you.

Maybe you surfed a stretch of coastline when the waves were taller than they are today — because a certain harbor and breakwater didn't exist back then.

Maybe you surfed in a time and place where few others did. Like Dick Huffman, now 98, who would go out to the beaches of Corona del Mar in the 1920s with a bathing suit, some lumber and an ax, and make his own board before heading into the water.

Or maybe you knew someone like Gordon "Mike" Howes, who in the 1930s was among the first to ride the waves in New Jersey — using his mother's ironing board. "It was just about the length and size and shape to ride the waves with," Howes said.

Howes spoke those words last year, not long before he died. His story was saved thanks to the Surfing Heritage Foundation, which is undertaking a big effort to collect the oral histories of surfers from California and elsewhere.

"We're running out of the old-timers," said Craig Lockwood, a veteran surfing writer and Laguna Beach native who is a bit of an old-timer himself. He's 72 and stopped surfing only last year. "The World War II generation is in their late 80s and 90s now," he told me. "They were the pioneers. They made surfing happen."

I met Lockwood last week at the Surfing Heritage Foundation's headquarters in San Clemente, amid a stunning collection of vintage surfboards, the oldest of which are massive planks of redwood and pine. I was there to discover things I didn't know about a rich and colorful culture created right here in California.

But I also learned something else: about the kind of work and dedication it takes to keep memories alive.

The Surfing Heritage Foundation is reaching out across the surfing world with a loud call: Send us your oral histories, your tales of beach campfires and "board shaping." They've even created an oral history manual, with some how-to tips on conducting interviews for posterity.

"It's the people we don't know that we're looking for," said Paul Holmes, a former editor of Surfer magazine and one of the leaders of the effort.

In four years of work, they've interviewed more than 100 men and women and have some great finds. Last year, their volunteer historians sat down with Tulie Clark and Fenton Scholes, who told them how the Palos Verdes Surfing Club was founded in the 1930s.

Back then, the boards were 11-foot-long behemoths that were 4 inches thick. Surfing culture was so new it seemed all the surfers in town knew one another.

"When we surfed, everyone who went for the wave got it," Scholes said. "There wasn't any 'This is my wave' stuff. Everybody rode together, four or five guys on a wave. If some guy was next to you, you pulled his board in. You didn't pull him out."

Surfing's roots are in Polynesia, but the sport and lifestyle of modern surfing were born right here in Southern California, during an especially affluent and hopeful time in our history. In the 1950s and '60s, good waves combined with local technology — the advent of plastic foam, especially — and the attention of the movie industry to make surfing a global phenomenon.

From the beginning, surfing attracted a certain kind of rebel unique to California.

Exhibit A could be the late Dale Velzy, who in his final days told his story to Holmes. "He was a surfer, a biker, a hot-rodder, a cowboy and a surf industry pioneer — all at once," said Holmes, the author of the biography "Dale Velzy is Hawk."

Because they tend to be outsiders, a lot of surfers never thought of what they were doing as history. The surfing media didn't get started until 1960, and everything we know about surfing before then begins with a spoken tale.

E.J. Oshier, who pioneered surfing in San Onofre and a beachside music scene called "The Bamboo Room Philharmonic," shared some of those stories with the oral history project in 2007.

He remembered throwing a sleeping bag into his old Plymouth in 1941 and heading for the waves in Santa Cruz.

"It was a bright, sunny Sunday morning," Oshier told an interviewer about a week before he died. "Heaven was close by." And then some "rotten" guy standing by the cliffs yelled out something about the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. Oshier paddled back in and went off to war. "I never surfed Santa Cruz again."

The Surfing Heritage Foundation is sending letters and its oral history guide to surfing clubs across the U.S. and beyond. They're dreaming of the day when their mailbox fills with surfing stories recorded by aficionados near and far.

It's an effort that should be emulated by many other groups in Southern California. This metropolis by the sea is, after all, a place where many different subcultures have first appeared and thrived. Immigrants, artists and entrepreneurs have written epic California tales with their ambition and their hunger for the new.

As someone who interviews people for a living, I can tell you with certainty: You never know what you'll learn when you sit down with someone and start asking questions.

Jed Justeson, a filmmaker and non-surfer, has interviewed about 20 people for the Surfing Heritage project. He's learned that "most of surfing is waiting in the water" and that "a lot of the camaraderie comes from that waiting." He's come to appreciate the great patience and love of nature most surfers share.

"They all have something to teach you if you take the time to listen," he said.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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