Malibu and “The Greatest Generation”

Prologue (Part 1 of 4)

“Surfing is the deceptively simple act of riding a breaking ocean wave on a surfboard. In reality, as a fundamental physical feat, surfing on a wave is a phenomenal conjunction of forces; the mathematics of it are profoundly complex. However, as an expression of the essential relationship between man and nature, surfing is unique in its clarity. And as a metaphor for life and just about anything life throws at us, it is unparalleled. Life is a wave.  Albert Einstein even said so.”

Drew Kampion in “Stoked – A History of Surf Culture”

It seems appropriate that I start this off with a brief review of how I got to Silicon Valley, and how surfing became a metaphor for work/life balance for me.  So here is a 4-part Prologue to get us started:

Part 1: Malibu and The Greatest Generation

Part 2: Corona del Mar and Growing Up

Part 3: San Onofre Surfing Club

Part 4: 25 years in the saddle in Silicon Valley

My very earliest memories of the beach date back to the late 1950s when our family would go to Incline Beach in Santa Monica. We lived just up the hill from the California Incline on 22nd Street until I was almost five years old. I don’t remember a whole lot around those early years, but the picture below of my sister Terry and I in the back of our 1947 Plymouth Woody enjoying a break for lunch captures a glimpse of those years hanging out at the beach. I remember looking forward to our trips at a very early age, and especially after I started surfing with my dad.

Lunch time at Santa Monica's Incline Beach circa 1958

Lunch time at Santa Monica’s Incline Beach circa 1958

For a boy growing up in Southern California during that time the beach was a place of complete freedom, open space, and recreation in the purest sense of the word. There were very few rules, mostly around water safety, and lots of ways to spend your time, unencumbered by the usual restrictions at home. It seemed to break life down into a very simple event, focused on either playing in the ocean, warming up and drying off in the sand, or eating and drinking whatever your parents happened to throw into the car before you left (which was not much if you were just traveling with dad!).

So here is a bit of background and history on how dad ended up on the beach himself.

The Greatest Generation

The Greatest Generation” is the title of a book written by Tom Brokaw about those who grew up in the United States during the Great Depression, and then went on to fight in World War II.  In the opening chapter, Brokaw exclaimed:
I think this is the greatest generation any society has ever produced,”

Both my father and father-in-law were a part of this generation – born into the false sense of prosperity of the 1920’s, raised during the depression of the 1930’s, and sent off to fight for global freedom in World War II in the early 1940’s. These were humble men, seriously proud of the country they were fighting for, and the last ones to ask for a pat on the back for what they had accomplished for us all.

A couple of years ago when my son Matthew turned 16, I looked long and hard at him to try and imagine the decisions and experiences my father, Jack B Mulkey, had at that age.

Imagine this –

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Dad’s letter to his mother telling her he was joining the U.S. Navy – just short of 16 yrs old (“I am in the best hands in the world”)

Growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930s was challenging for all, and dad’s household in Santa Monica was no different to the hardships it created.  Then at age 13, he lost his father to ALS (then known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”), which left him to grow up fast as the only man in the house.

So on September 7, 1942,  just two months shy of his 16th birthday, and following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, dad and his good friend Todd Bernarding went down to the Santa Monica recruitment office to enlist in the U.S. Navy. Both of them lied about their age by two years (they had to be 17 to enlist, but no ID was required), signed each other’s enlistment forms, and next thing dad knew, he was headed to the U.S. Naval Training Station in San Diego for two weeks of basic training.

From San Diego he was shipped to Naval Air Radio School in Alameda, California for one month to learn Morse code.  Then back again to San Diego (Naval Air Station North Island) for a week of skeet shooting under the command of  Lieutenant Robert Stack  (who later starred in the TV television series The Untouchables).   Once he had mastered the art of leading a target on the skeet range, he went back to San Francisco and left for war on the 488′ Dutch Freighter Bloemfontein (with over 2,000 others) to Noumea, New Caledonia, an island 900 miles off the east coast of Australia (and below deck seasick for the entire 2-week journey!). Somewhere along there he celebrated his 16th birthday.

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Flight crews ready to launch off the USS Saratoga (dad is 2nd from right in 2nd row)

Dad was soon to be deployed on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, which just happened to be entering San Diego harbor at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Before long, he was flying off the deck of the USS Saratoga in the South Pacific on submarine patrol missions over their fleet in a Douglas SBD Dauntless aircraft behind the trigger of a twin 30-caliber machine gun. If that was not enough, his initial flight at sea was the first time he had flown in a plane – EVER.

Are you kidding me!!?

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3 generations in front of the plane dad flew (gunner position) in WWII

Luckily, before dad’s passing I was able to get him to write down some of what happened while he was on the USS Saratoga, as his Navy discharge papers don’t provide any of the detail on what exactly he did.  So here is a part of that, which he hand-wrote to me in a letter:

Mike — as I remember I went to radio school for about 1 month, mainly to learn Morse code.  Then went to gunnery school for a week on North Island [San Diego] where I shot 1,000 rounds of skeet.  Really sore shoulder!  That’s where my deafness started [he became totally deaf, partly also from the machine gun on the SBD — wearing no ear covers].  When I finally got on the [USS] Saratoga & started flying there was a radio silence & no contact was allowed between plane & ship.  So much for radio school.

I think I flew about every other day.  This was for submarine patrol to guard the fleet (at like 4 hours a flight).  You just hoped you had a good navigator for a pilot.  With no ship to plane contact, and the fact that you were well out of sight of the fleet most of the time, if you missed the fleet on return that was all she wrote.

When I first got on the [USS] Saratoga we were the only main line carrier afloat.  The rest were all in dry dock being repaired.  So we would try to let the Japanese see us and take off, hoping they would think we had more than one carrier available.  That was ok with me.

Before we were to return to S.F. we got orders to attack a build-up of enemy ships @ Rabaul Harbor [battle of Rabaul] on the Isle of Truk in the Caroline Islands.  They were planning on attacking our invasion forces on Tarawa.  It was risky business and our planes would just have enough gas left to get back to the fleet.  It was a raid made two days in a row.  Several ships were sunk and some planes were lost.  It was written up by Time & Newsweek [magazines].  I understand it is now a major tourist attraction for underwater skin divers who dive among the ships we sunk!

Following his service on the USS Saratoga, dad was assigned to a Carrier Aircraft Service Unit (CASU), by his request.  These ships were highly strategic to the turning of the tide against Japan in the Pacific, by providing a mobile organization to keep our Navy planes in the air.  As part of a CASU organization, dad was stationed at various locations on the west coast of the U.S., including Twentynine Palms naval auxiliary air station (San Bernadino County); Naval Air Station Seattle at Sand Point (Washington); Air base in Forks, Washington (Clallam County); Point Mugu Naval Air Station (Ventura county); and San Nicolas Island (75 miles off the coast of Los Angeles).

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CASU Unit on San Nicholas Island circa 1944 (dad on far right)

At the time the war ended (VJ-Day on August 15, 1945) dad’s CASU was in transit to Adak Island in Alaska, which he suspected at the time was preparation for an invasion of Japan should the war continue along its current path.  They spent about a month in Adak before returning to San Francisco to celebrate the end of the war.

His discharge papers state that he came home on November 18, 1945, just over two weeks after his 19th birthday, and three years and two months after his enlistment with Todd Bernarding at the ripe age of 15. I imagine he was a new man and felt he had the world at his fingertips to survive all that. Like so many who came out the other end of World War II, dad took advantage of the G.I. Bill to test out of high school and enroll in college while living “high off the hog” as he described it, on the $20 per week compensation from the US Government.  The G.I. Bill covered him for two years at Santa Monica City College and two years at UCLA.

Below is a picture of dad taken at Ciros Night Club on Sunset Boulevard (circa 1944), which was THE place to be seen during that time in Los Angeles.

Looks like a scene right out of a Humphrey Bogart movie!

Looks like a scene right out of a Humphrey Bogart movie!

With that experience now behind him, dad moved back to Santa Monica, California following the war.  And from there, he became part of a select few individuals in the late 1940’s who pioneered the sport of surfing at Malibu beach in Southern California.

Malibu

Malibu was the place to be for surfers in the post-WWII era of Southern California, especially when summertime south swells swept up the coast and warmth of the So Cal sun was ample for a long day in the water.  It had to seem like paradise after all they had been through.

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Charley French and dad staying warm around a winter tire fire at Palos Verdes

There are many names that dad mentioned over the years that were part of that Malibu experience, many of whom he went to Santa Monica High School with.    To name just a few:

* Bob Simmons – who pioneered lightweight surfboard design, was a Cal Tech graduate who worked as a mathematician at Douglas Aircraft. Ironically, he passed away in September of 1954 while surfing a good-sized swell at Windnsea in San Diego. Here’s a picture of Bob Simmons which was framed in our house for many years:

Bob Simmons headed toward the pier on a BIG day at Malibu in 1948

Bob Simmons headed toward the pier on a BIG day at Malibu circa 1948

* Joe Quigg – one of the more prominent surfers to graduate from Santa Monica High School who became a well-known manufacturer of surfboards in the 60’s and 70’s.
* Matt Kivlin – who many viewed as the best wave rider of the late 1940’s and early ‘50s and who dad spoke very highly of.
* Peter Lawford – of Hollywood actor fame, was a Malibu regular.
* Dave Sweet – who made my first surfboard, which I received on Christmas day sometime around 1963. It was a beauty, and I remember the resin was still a little sticky on Christmas morning.
* Charley French — who settled in Sun Valley, Idaho working for Scott USA, was one of dad’s best buddies for surfing and skiing.  Charley became quite the legend in triathlon circles when he set the age group record at the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii at age 60 (his 1st Ironman distance race), and continued to race consistently well into his 80’s.  I am still in touch with Charley and he has provided me some valuable information for this blog.
* Gidget – not Sandra Dee who played Gidget in the 1959 Columbia Pictures movie “Gidget”, but Kathy Kohner, who’s father Frederick Kohner wrote the 1957 novel about his daughter’s real-life adventures on the beach at Malibu.
* Pete Peterson and Lorrin Harrison, who were both featured in the film “Riding Giants”, and who were some of the first to become regulars surfing at San Onofre in the 1940s.
* Buzzy Trent, was one of the early big wave riders in Hawaii in the early 1950s.
* Peter Cole (and brother Corney).  Peter became a swimming star at Stanford and got into big wave surfing after his experiences at Steamers Lane.

Simmons_concave

Charley French and dad logging two Simmons concave’s up from the beach at Palos Verdes

As Charley French told me the story of this photo above (after dad’s passing), they went to General Veneer Manufacturing in L.A. and bought the balsa wood for these two boards, then glued them into planks and took them over to Simmons’ house and watched him shape them into concave surfboards. Charley and dad then took the finished boards home and glassed them in the back yard. I saw an article awhile back about a Simmons concave that sold at an auction for $40,000.

These early pioneers of surfing at Malibu had an ideal setting for the birth of a craze that would eventually sweep across the country. Malibu had the ideal weather, a near-perfect beach, and waves as clean and consistently breaking as one could find along the Southern California coast. A spirit and camaraderie developed amongst these early surfers, which boiled life down to its most simple elements. Some call this the birth of the surf culture; a new way of life, which was outside the usual societal boundaries in Southern California at that time.

As progress would have it, this unique subculture at Malibu did not last long. With the popularity of the Hollywood movie production Gidget (along with several others that followed), thousands were soon flocking to Surfrider Beach at Malibu to test their skills at the new emerging sport. In 1959 our family moved 55 miles south on Pacific Coast Highway to a sleepy beach-side community called Corona del Mar (CdM). We moved into a small but very quaint beach house just four blocks from Big Corona State Beach. It even had a shower in the garage to wash the sand off when you came home from the beach.

The beach soon became my place of solace. It was where my friends and I always seemed to end up when we had free time.  It was ground zero for the path my life took for the next fourteen years until graduating from High School.

**Resources**

A favorite book of mine covering the early days of surfing is The History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw.  Matt is a former professional surfer who later became the editor of Surfer Magazine.  This book is the most comprehensive, well written journal on surfing history I have seen, and includes a remarkable collection of photographs.  This picture on the cover pretty much captures it all in one shot.  Well done Matt!

History_of_Surfing