1. Malibu and “The Greatest Generation”

“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, Stoked! A History of Surf Culture

Lunch time at Santa Monica’s Incline Beach, circa 1958

My 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 on 22nd Street until I was almost five years old. I don’t remember much around those early years, but the picture below of my sister Terry and I in the back of our 1947 Plymouth Woody captures a glimpse. I do remember looking very forward to our trips to the beach to play in the ocean and sand.

The beach was a place of complete freedom—open space to roam 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. Life became a very simple event, focused on playing in the ocean, warming up and drying off in the sand, and then eating and drinking whatever Mom and Dad happened to throw into the car that day (which was not much if it was just Dad!).

The Greatest Generation, a book written by Tom Brokaw, is about those who grew up in the United States during the Great Depression, and then went on to win a global war that cost 60 million lives.  In the opening chapter, Brokaw declared:

I think this is the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”

Both my father, Jack Mulkey, and father-in-law, John D’Zurko, were a part of this fraternity, born into the false sense of prosperity of the 1920s, raised through the depression in the 1930s, and sent overseas to fight for global freedom in World War II in the 1940s. They were humble Americans who did not ask for a pat on the back for what they had accomplished for us all. Both were bound by common values of loyalty to their country, selfless service, and a desire to preserve world order.

When my son Matthew turned 16, I looked long and hard at him to try and conceptualize the decisions and experiences Dad had at that age. Imagine leaving this letter for your widowed mother about leaving home to fight in a world war [1]:

Dear Mom:

I have joined the navy with Todd. I just couldn’t turn down an opportunity like this to join with a good friend the same age as I am. We are leaving for San Diego this morning. I know you want me to make good and this is the only way I will ever do it, don’t worry about me I am in the best hands in the world. I will probably be home in about 21 days because I will be in quarantine for 3 weeks (looks like I’ll miss UCLA’s opening game with T.C.U.). I will write first chance I get don’t worry about me.

P.S. I am now 17, so any body that you talk to or asks you I am 17 and you signed for me, this will help very much.

P.S. You can get Sam to do the work around the house he’s a pretty good gardener and would be glad to work around the house.

[1] Unedited letter written by my father, Jack Mulkey.

Navy Days

Dad’s home life in the 1930s had its hardships beyond the Great Depression. At age 13, he lost his father to Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), leaving him to grow up fast as the only man in the house (older sister Sallye was a big help). Three years later after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Dad and his good friend Todd Bernarding enlisted in the U.S. Navy (a month shy of his sixteenth birthday).

Both lied about their age (you had to be seventeen to join), signed each other’s enlistment forms, and the next thing Dad knew, he was headed to the U.S. Naval Training Station in San Diego for two weeks of basic training. Amazingly, no ID was required through the entire process. As Dad would tell it, “At that point of the war, we were simply throwing bodies at the problem in the Pacific.”

After surviving basic training his life was dramatically altered in a mind-boggling way. He was first shipped to the Naval Air Radio School in Alameda, California for a month to get schooled in Morse code.  Then back to San Diego (Naval Air Station North Island) for a week of skeet shooting under the command of Lieutenant Robert Stack who starred in the television series The Untouchables.

Once he had mastered the art of hitting a moving clay target, he traveled back to San Francisco for his official ship assignment as an Aviation Radioman Petty Officer 3rd Class sailor. Suddenly, he was with 2,000 others on the 488’ Dutch Freighter Bloemfontein, cruising out of San Francisco Bay to Noumea, New Caledonia, an island 900 miles off the east coast of Australia. He was below deck seasick for the entire two-week journey! Somewhere in there his sixteenth birthday came and went.

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

From Noumea, Dad climbed aboard the monstrous aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, which had by chance been in San Diego harbor at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Before he knew what had hit him, he was flying off the Saratoga’s deck in a two-man Douglas SBD Dauntless aircraft on submarine patrol missions while manning the trigger of a twin 30-caliber machine gun. His initial flight at sea was the first time he had flown in a plane. Ever.

Here is an excerpt from a handwritten note [2] Dad sent me on part of this:

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 [note: also from shooting the machine gun on the aircraft]. When I finally got on the 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 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 [then] take off, hoping they would think we had more than one carrier available.  That was ok with me.

It is hard to comprehend what would be going through his head in all this. Surely it was a bit of a blur. He told me about shipmates whose aircraft never did find their way back to the Saratoga. At the battle of Rabaul in the Caroline Islands (covered by Times and Newsweek), their planes would have just enough gas to sputter back onto the carrier deck. Ironically, that area where those battles took place (Truk Lagoon) is now a major tourist attraction for scuba diving among the many shipwrecks left behind.

After somehow surviving 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 U.S. Navy planes in the air.  Dad was stationed at several locations on the west coast of the U.S., including San Nicolas Island (75 miles off the coast of Los Angeles).

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 was preparation for an invasion of Japan. They spent a month in Adak before returning to San Francisco to celebrate the end of the war.

He received his Honorable Discharge (C1766958) on November 18, 1945, three years following his enlistment, and just after turning nineteen. Like others so lucky to return home, 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 $20 per week compensation from the U.S. 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 era in Los Angeles.

Dad (left) in a scene right out of a Humphrey Bogart movie

Malibu

Following the war, Dad became part of a select few individuals who were pioneering the sport of surfing in Southern California. Malibu was the place to be for post-WWII era surfers when summertime south swells swept up the coast for a long day in the water while the heat of the white sand beach awaited to warm you back up.  It had to seem too good to be true after all he had been through.

There are many names that dad mentioned over the years that were part of his Malibu experience—several he went to Santa Monica High School with [3]:

  • Bob Simmons – a Cal Tech graduate who worked as a mathematician at Douglas Aircraft; he was the “mad scientist” who pioneered lightweight surfboard design at that time.
  • Buzzy Trent – one of the early big wave riders in Hawaii in the 1950s.
  • Charley French – Dad’s best friend for surfing and skiing, he became a legend in triathlon circles, setting the age group record at the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon at 60 years old.
  • Dave Sweet – made my first surfboard, which I received on Christmas day at eight years old. It was a beauty, and I remember the resin still being sticky that morning when I found it.
  • Joe Quigg – one of the more prominent surfers to graduate from Santa Monica High School; he became a well-known manufacturer of surfboards in the 60s and 70s.
  • Kathy Kohner – her father, Frederick Kohner, wrote the 1957 novel Gidget about his daughter’s real-life adventures on the beach at Malibu.
  • Matt Kivlin – Dad was very fond of Matt, who many viewed as the best wave rider of his day at Malibu. It is said that Micky Dora fashioned his style after Matt.
  • Peter and Corney Cole -– Peter was a swimming star at Stanford who got into big wave surfing. Brother Corney studied at Chouinard Art Institute and made a career in film animation.
  • Peter Lawford – of Hollywood actor fame; he would periodically show up in the lineup.
  • Pete Peterson and Lorrin Harrison – who were both featured in the film Riding Giants and were some of the first regulars surfing at San Onofre in the 1940s. I got to surf with both!
Charley French and Dad lugging two Simmons concave’s up from the beach at Palos Verdes

As Charley French told me the story of making these two boards, he and dad went to General Veneer Manufacturing in L.A. to purchase the balsa wood which they then glued together into large planks. They hauled them over to Bob Simmons’ house and watched as he shaped them into the concave surfboards. Dad and Charley then took the finished boards home to be glassed and sanded in the backyard, ready for the trip to Palos Verdes (above).

As the world recovered from the ravages of WWII, these early trailblazers of surfing at Malibu had an ideal setting for the birth of a craze that would quickly sweep across the globe. Surfrider Beach at Malibu had the ideal weather, a long stretch of fine white sand, and waves as clean and perfectly breaking as one could find along the Southern California coast.

A spirit and camaraderie developed among these early surfers which boiled life down to its most simple elements. Many called 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. Dad never spoke of it that way. They just survived a world war, many of them in a direct line of fire. It was the freedom they had fought for, and they were going to make damn sure they enjoyed it.

As progress would have it, this unique setting 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 joined the migration south and moved 55 miles down Pacific Coast Highway to a sleepy beach-side community, Corona del Mar (CdM). Mom and Dad found a quaint beach house just four blocks from Big Corona State Beach. It even had a shower in the garage to wash the sand off. For all of us, it was a dream come true!

The beach soon became my home base. 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 until graduating from Corona del Mar High School in 1973.

Three generations in front of the plane Dad flew off the deck of the USS Saratoga.

_________________

Footnotes:

  1. “Dear Mom” letter:

2. This handwritten note was unedited.

3. The picture on the cover of surfingforbalance.com is the only picture I have of my dad, Jack B Mulkey, surfing. It was taken at Malibu circa 1949 by Doc Ball. Doc was an early pioneer in surfing photography and was was one of the leaders in establishing surfing on the west coast. He helped organize the Palos Verdes Surf Club, where dad often surfed in the late 40s and early 50s. Here is the original photo:

JackMulkey_malibu1948_600x288

Dad is riding a 10’9″ Bob Simmons Plywood Foam surfboard (called a “Foam Sandwich”). This surfboard was a major breakthrough from the Redwood Planks they had been riding, which could weigh in over 100 pounds.  An exact replica of this surfboard sold for $40,000 at the Hawaiian Islands Vintage Surf Auction in 2009.  Dad did not even know this picture was taken but ran across it in a photo album at a party at Doc Ball’s house. As he told me the story, a friend yelled out to him, “Hey Mulkey, check this out, your picture is in here!”.

Mark Brown Digital Arts did the wonderful recoloring work.

5 thoughts on “1. Malibu and “The Greatest Generation”

  1. This is excellent Mike! There’s so much in here I had forgotten or didn’t know. It’s a great memorial to dad and the history of surfing, as well as a glimpse into WWII.
    Terry

    Like

  2. What, no Bible verses? Actually, your war stories about your dad remind me of my dad who was somewhere out there as well. Where, I don’t know because he never talked about it. I think the only reason I knew he was in the army was because there was a picture of him in his uniform. Really nice description of how you were brought up in the surfing life and culture.

    Like

  3. Nicely written, Mike! A couple of things.

    Is it possible to sharpen any of the old photos?
    Ii paragraph below photo of your dad and Charley French, might it read better if left “As” and put a period after “making these two boards”.

    Placement of photo of your dad’s letter to his mom might be better below paragraph you wrote about it

    I know I’m nitpicking, but trying to help.

    Nice story!

    Like

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