“Next to love, balance is the most important thing.” — Coach John Wooden
Anyone who has known me throughout my professional career would back my claim that balance in life has been modus operandi. It is in my DNA. As I came into Silicon Valley aspiring to achieve success and to support our family, I was constantly battling equilibrium between my work, family, and personal life. I can’t exactly explain the drive; it has been my calling.
This balance mantra appeared to me in a Golden Gate University classroom in Los Angeles one night. It was an epiphany that stuck. I was in a master’s degree program (Telecommunications Management) to further my education in my job at Siemens (who purchased ROLM in 1989). Sipping a hot chocolate to wake up after a long day at work, I was contemplating what this class might entail when the instructor walked in. I’ve forgotten his name, but I remember he started the class by handing out what I thought was a class syllabus. Upon inspection, I noticed that it was titled the Circle of Life.
I put my hot chocolate aside. He had my full attention.
He opened with a statement about life beyond telecommunications. He wanted us to review our direction in life and consider whether that was where we wanted to go:
“If we don’t change the direction we are going, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”
I could see that he was quite serious about this. He made perfect sense in what he was saying:
“If you can keep your life in balance, you will inevitably be a much happier and healthier person.”
His words were simple, yet true! The Circle of Life document included a self-analysis quiz to help us understand how our life was going today. He wanted to help us improve our lives at work, at home (family life), and attend to our personal needs (self). After we completed the quiz, he stressed the importance of setting goals.
“A man without goals has been compared to a ship without a rudder. Both are subject to the winds of fate.”
At once I realized that I was sailing on that ship! I had a general idea of what I wanted to do, but could see there was no way to balance those desires against the other vital areas of my life. I was excited to put my rudder into the water.
It was brilliant!
I want to say that my life changed that very moment in class as I reviewed the results of my Circle of Life quiz. Not so. While it prompted me about the areas I wanted to achieve better balance, it was a busy time with family, work, night school, and more. His handout went into my class binder along with the rest of my materials. I did not retrieve it for several years.
A marriage, two kids, and two jobs later.
I was working for Sun Microsystems in 1999 when the Circle of Life resurfaced. My telecommunications expertise helped earn me a job with their new and emerging “Netra” division. Sun was riding high on the dot-com bubble caused by internet-related companies’ explosive growth in Silicon Valley. The Sun Netra division was selling servers like In-N-Out sells burgers. We couldn’t build them fast enough!
Sun’s CEO Scott McNealy had extended a $1 billion credit line to Senior VP Neil Knox to build a family of telecommunications-grade servers (the “Netra”) to sell to large telecom providers worldwide. The time was ripe; Scott wanted them now. Working for Neil and his Netra product team in Menlo Park was like being part of the Apollo 13 moon launch team. Between beer bashes, we were pouring cement for the foundation to the internet! A go-to-market plan was quickly developed, and soon, we were pedaling Sun’s new Netra servers around the globe.
Amid the chaos, Marla was learning to manage our home with two active toddlers as I was jet-setting around the world to get our Sun sales teams onboard about the opportunity with Netra servers. All appeared to be going according to plan when a letter arrived with the opening line of, “Congratulations!”
I won the lottery!
Well, kind of. The highly coveted letter from the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii had arrived, announcing they had picked my name to compete in the 1999 event.
It was a fairy tale come true. Dad lived in Kona right on the course, and we had watched the race several times. I had dreamed about going by him while competing in the race for years. And yet, my first thought was how I could find time to do all the necessary training without losing my job, family, or both! A 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile marathon was not going to happen purely by desire. Pulling this off would require a Ph.D. in balance.
Fast-forward four months later, and things seemed to be falling into place. I was feeling good. I learned how to sneak in my runs and rides on business trips and made up the swimming in my time back home. It did wonders for the jet lag and helped me sleep when my clock was off in another time zone.
Then Marla said something which changed my paradigm. We were discussing making family time a priority on weekends when she blurted out:
“If you put as much time into your family as you do into training for this triathlon, we would have no issues!”
Gulp. It stuck, as I knew it was true.
I was speechless.
My life had been revolving around my job and triathlon training. There was no time for much else besides the necessary sleeping and eating to keep it all going. The family had taken a back seat. I immediately rummaged through my Golden Gate University class binder and pulled out the Circle of Life. As I mapped it out, it was clear as the light of day. I had been in a cloud of denial and had lost perspective in all I had been accomplishing.
Thank God Marla brought me to my senses. Here are a couple of questions in the Circle of Life quiz which convicted me:
– Do you spend “quality” time with your family and children each week? – Do you make time for regular “date nights” to have quality time with your spouse/partner/children? – Do you eat dinner as a family at the dinner table 3 times a week? – How often do you check email after hours and on weekends without taking the corresponding time off work?
This discussion was much larger than a triathlon for me, but it helps make the point. Like the three events (swim, bike, run), I needed to find equilibrium in my time and energy for each area of my life (work, family, self). It was as if I was planning to have a stellar swim and bike time while ignoring preparation for the run. My overall performance (my life) would suffer as a result. Or worse, I might not finish the race! I have seen that happen more than once in the triathlon circles, especially in the ironman distance race. Just like a job, the training can be all-consuming, discarding family members along the way.
Keeping my family a priority would be vital for the rest of my life, and something I would model for my children going forward. I had to (and did) make changes.
If things go well with the family, life is worth living; when the family falters, life falls apart. This is truer today than ever before and underscored for me the importance of maintaining balance.
“If we are enjoying so much progress, why is everyone so worn out? “ -Dr. Richard A. Swenson, M.D.
Age with wisdom can be a wonderful thing. I look back now on some of the hardest experiences in my life and realize how they helped me grow. My leap into tennis club management embodies this dynamic.
I left Utah with degree in hand and landed at the Rusty Pelican Restaurant in Newport Beach to ease my transition into responsible living. Ha! Waiting tables almost became my career. I was stuffing my safe deposit box with gold Krugerrands to manage all the cash from tips, surfing (or playing tennis) all day, and arriving at work just in time to eat. It could easily have become a lifestyle …
Somehow, I got back on plan when I was hired as general manager of the Covina Hills Racquet Club (CH) in southern California. CH was the full package club, with thirteen tennis courts, two racquetball courts, weights/aerobics room, pro shop, snack bar, jacuzzi/sauna, and an outdoor pool. I would be directing the “leisure society” with members who were spending their free time (and disposable income) at our club. Dr. Rockwood would have been proud; it was textbook.
Or so I thought.
I was immediately overwhelmed. Work/life balance went out the window, even though I was wearing tennis clothes and working on my sunta. I had a staff of twenty employees and two tenants (pro shop and snack bar) who needed constant attention. The owners (Granada Royale Hometels) expected a tennis club to be as clean and orderly as a newly arrived hotel room; inspections from the hotel staff were constant.
I soon realized CH was in a negative cash flow position with memberships declining. Then we had a pink eye outbreak in the pool. Upon inspecting the pump room, I found my maintenance man smoking pot (“Are those two connected?”).
This part was not in the textbook!
My workdays were some of the longest I have ever worked; I quickly realized that peak hours at the club were when all my friends were off work (weeknights, weekends, and holidays). I dropped off social calendars and watched my tennis game disappear. It was as if I had been thrown onto the court against Bjorn Borg and wished “good luck,” even though everyone knew it was going to be a massacre.
The tide began to turn when I hired our head tennis pro, Barry Friedman. CH immediately took to his style and personality as he rallied (pun intended) members into activities that raised morale and got everyone out to play. A community was awakened.
Looking back, I see two big lessons from CH:
Members (people) are generally happy if they have a tennis pro (leader) who they like and who can improve their game. Barry taught me a lot in that area.
Relationships matter; never overlook any one of them. It took just one letter from a disgruntled member at CH to nearly cost me my job. I survived, but vowed not to ever allow that to happen again.
When Granada Royale Hometels announced their shocking decision to close CH two years later, I took a leap of faith to join a new telecommunications company called ROLM in 1984 (where my sister Terry was working). I was hired as a customer support advisor and was responsible for driving maintenance contract revenue for ROLM’s telecommunications systems. I was like a deer in headlights. Overnight I transitioned from counting tennis balls in the pro shop to counting ports on a printed circuit board (and having to learn what a port was!).
AT&T had a monopoly of analog telephone service in the U.S., over what would soon become the digital transmission network of the internet. As the U.S. government mandated the breakup of this monopoly in 1982, companies like ROLM emerged to computerize the telephone and long-distance service for businesses. ROLM was investing heavily in technical training of their workforce to get a jump on this new opportunity. It was as if I was going back to college, but getting paid to do it!
Best of all, I met the love of my life Marla. She was also in a customer support role when we first met at ROLM’s Irvine, California office. An office friendship immediately developed. Marla was smart as a whip (USC graduate), beautiful, fun, easy to talk to, and liked to laugh. When I first announced my interest in her, my co-worker Al Walker snapped back, “Mulkey, she’s got legs as long as you are!”
I won the jackpot when Marla agreed to marry me in Newport Beach in 1991. We moved north to ROLM’s headquarters in Santa Clara where we planted our roots, raised two children (Marisa and Matthew), and began to call Mountain View home, leaving behind the warm beaches of southern California.
Selling a ROLM Computerized Branch Exchange (CBX) required technical sales support. I was in the right place at the right time, and after twelve months of training classes, I was a fully seasoned ROLM systems engineer. It was an exciting time to be on the leading edge of a Silicon Valley company like ROLM.
I immediately took to ROLM’s CEO, Ken Oshman, and his philosophy of “GPW” (Great Place To Work). In-between training classes and field sales calls, I was back on the tennis courts or taking time out for a jacuzzi or steam bath at work. The ROLM campus included recreation facilities that rivaled CH; they were even featured on CBS 60 Minutes. It really was a great place to work!
Marla and I were both enjoying the excitement of our jobs at ROLM, but realized there was not much free time to go hang out at the beach. Silicon Valley was emerging as the global center of innovation for computer technology, so it seemed reasonable that work became the priority. The computer was entering our lives in ways we never could have anticipated in the 1970s. Dr. Rockwood’s leisure society was in jeopardy.
The information revolution explosion which soon followed happened so quickly that nobody had time to study the potential dangers that came with it. Alvin Toffler wrote about this in his book Future Shock (1970), arguing that that the information overload to come would overwhelm society and result in a “future shock” because of our inability to handle it all. The more I saw of Silicon Valley, the more I believed he was on to something. There was a wave coming and it was big.
The Wave In the midst of all this, it took me five years to brave the cold water in Santa Cruz and go surfing. It was a long dry spell! Some blame was due to the work culture in Silicon Valley, but mostly it was my fear of the frigid northern California currents. New wetsuit technology from O’Neill finally got me to break the ice at Steamer Lane (“the lane”) in 1996. I quickly realized I had found an escape valve from the Silicon Valley pace, less than an hour from my doorstep in Mountain View.
The lane on a big winter swell is not for the faint of heart. Both the leash and wetsuit were spawned there for good reason. The rock cliffs are gnarly, and the water is numbing. It is a world-class reef/point break that is thick and powerful and can rip for several hundred yards into Cowell’s beach (on a low tide). It rivals any break I have surfed in California.
Paddling out can challenge even the best surfers, as the currents are strong, the waves often too humongous to duck under, and there are four different breaks to navigate (indicators, middle-peak, the slot, the point). I like to sit at middle-peak on big days when it can top triple overhead further outside at the point; however, waiting for a wave can get spooky. Middle-peak can jack up to double overhead out of nowhere and get you diving for abalone faster than a boat anchor if you can’t get over it. The longer your board, the more difficult that can be. Middle-peak waves often move sideways as fast (or faster) than they are moving in, so positioning for the take-off can be quite tricky and involve a bit of luck.
I caught the biggest wave of my life on a winter storm-swell day at middle-peak. The sensation was completely alien. The wave unexpectedly appeared and came at me like a freight train out of a dark tunnel, whistle howling. As I paddled for it the ocean picked me up like a tsunami and began moving with me. It was as if all of Monterey Bay was caught up in this wave. I was instantly moving with the wave and rapidly dropping in, whether I wanted to or not! The wave had caught me.
I quickly got to my feet in a crouched position as I raced down the face, noticing a couple of surfers diving for the bottom off to my side. The drop was sensational, akin to jumping off a cliff. As I started a sweeping right turn, the enormity of the wave and the amount of water moving with me was exhilarating! I felt like Franz Klammer at the 1976 Olympics, racing with abandon to stay ahead of the crashing lip, ignoring all sense of form. I had never gone so fast.
Over my shoulder, I could see the wave breaking behind me in apparent slow motion. Surfers sneaking over the lip looked back down at me as I excitedly banked off the face with water spraying high into the crisp Santa Cruz air like a snowboarder coming off a half-pipe lip. My Doug Haut surfboard tracked onto the face of the wave as if it were the Santa Cruz boardwalk roller coaster, dropping and climbing as the face continued to build in front of me without any sign of letting up. The force of it allowed me to sweep further out of the section without any danger of losing momentum back into the wave. I was flying!
This went on continuously until I finally kicked out at Cowell’s beach on the inside as the wave broke in front of me. Cresting over the lip I fell off the back of my board and floated on my back to soak in the memory of what had just happened. I released a light laugh and then slowly climbed on my board and paddled back out, reliving every part of that wave. Like one good shot on a round of golf, it carried me for many, many waves after. It had been a gift from God.
“A single rose can be my garden; a single friend, my world.” ― Leo Buscaglia
The only time in my life I lived away from the ocean was my four years in college at the University of Utah (the U) in Salt Lake City. Despite not getting wet, those years proved to be pivotal to my future. It all happened quite unexpectedly when I received a Basic Educational Opportunity Grant from the U.S. government for four years of tuition and expenses at the U. It was a gift from God.
I will admit to having a bit of sand between my ears when I arrived at the U to tackle my freshman classes in 1973. I boldly decided to live alone in an apartment off-campus. It was as if I went scuba diving without a mask. The entire year was a disaster of loneliness and confusion. It was another “Mexican miracle” that I survived and came back.
I learned from that unexpected but necessary time of growth and moved on campus my sophomore year. I was starting to right the ship when a revelation struck me in class that would lead me to my first career as a tennis club manager. Dr. Linn Rockwood of the Recreation and Leisure Studies Department had put up a chart that got my full attention. The projected growth of the computer (which had not yet fully arrived) was shown in parallel with the projected growth of leisure time among the baby boomer generation. They were both pointing sky high!
“Hey, I’m one of those baby boomers,” I voiced to myself.
The computer was going replace hours on the job with an abundance of free time. Dr. Rockwood’s instruction was clear: “Plan a career in the recreation and leisure industry and your future will be bright.”
Community Looking back at my time outside of class, those four years at the U can be summarized with one word: community.
Without it, my freshman year was one of the hardest years of my life. I then experienced three years with community as a Resident Advisor (RA) in the dorms on campus (landing the job soon after moving on campus). The fraternity of residence hall life combined with the RA leadership development training I received had an enormous impact on me. Developing community among 50 new freshman students each school year during one of the most tumultuous times in their life was an invaluable learning experience. It shaped me as a person.
With room and board covered as an RA, I had spare funds for my annual ski pass to Snowbird ($5 per day for U students). I could not have written a better script. I would get out of class at noon and be on the GAD 1 chairlift at Snowbird by 1:00 p.m. Without owning a car! My search for the perfect wave was replaced by a search for powder snow. Little Cottonwood Canyon became my San Onofre.
My one rose in the community garden at the U was Reid Miller. I met Reid in my first RA staff meeting in Bailiff Hall. We were reviewing new resident policies when a shaggy-bearded short guy (like me!) with Sonny Bono glasses boisterously interrupted to complain about the toilet paper.
He proceeded to compare the toilet paper we had in Bailiff Hall to a piece of wax paper.
“It does nothing but smear things around!”
Are you kidding me!? Who was this guy, bringing up a subject like that in front of the entire RA staff (male and female)?
We were soon fast friends and backcountry ski partners. Reid was a University of Utah “mining engineering student of the year” who instantly won me over with his complete honesty and warm affability. I was soon drinking deeply from his vast wisdom of the great outdoors as we adventured into the Wasatch Mountains together. Whether it was tying a hook onto a fishing line or cranking (and banking) a turn in cross country skis on a deep powder descent, Reid opened new doors that took me far beyond the tides and jetties of Corona del Mar.
The Mormons I believe in angels. I had Mormon relatives from my Mom’s side living in Salt Lake City who played the part of angels with brilliance over my four years at the U. We were not involved in the Latter-Day Saints (L.D.S.) church growing up. However, I was very much influenced by my time with them during our annual trips to Salt Lake. We always stayed with grandma Oa and grandpa Paul (Mom’s side) on Skyline Drive where our cousins all seemed to magically appear while Mom and Dad skied the powder at Alta and came home to one of Grandma’s glorious dinners.
Going to the U was not exactly the popular pick among my surfing crowd in those days. “The beer tastes like water (3.2% alcohol) and the Mormons are everywhere,” I was told. I would agree on both counts. We used to joke at our kegger parties that you’d get just as drunk if you drank that much water!
While I kidded along with my friends about “the Mormons,” I quickly found them to be my saving grace while at the U, especially that first year. The many invitations I received meant everything to me living alone. The care packages of homemade bread, soup, cookies, and more that Grandma Oa left on my doorstep on Friday nights could bring me to tears. Anyone experiencing an Oa Cannon meal quickly discovered that she could cook like Michelangelo could carve marble. Her meals sent you to heaven and back.
Grandma Oa also prayed incessantly for me; I know that because she told me. She would even send me letters of her prayers. I believe I will see in heaven that it was her prayers that led me to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ later in my life. What a joyous reunion that will be.
Leisure Society Moving back to the classroom, Dr. Rockwood continued his explanation about the transition to computers creating a leisure society with reduced working hours, extended holidays, and more disposable income to be spent on non-essentials. Dr. Rockwood predicted a four-day workweek would soon result. As leisure time exceeded working time, leisure would become a source of values that infiltrate our lives. A leisure ethic would eventually supersede the work ethic of industrialism.
It was sounding a bit like the Roman Empire, but that was OK with me. I was in the right place at the right time!
My next move was to declare myself a “Commercial Recreation” major as I dreamed of running a tennis club in southern California where I could wear tennis clothes to work, play with the tennis pro on lunch breaks, and hang out at the pool to keep my suntan going.
“Heaven is full of answers to prayer for which no one ever bothered to ask.” -Billy Graham
To an aspiring grom (young surfer) who was growing up at the beach in the 1960s, Bruce Brown’s epic movie The Endless Summer had a deep-rooted effect on me. Brown poetically documented every surfer’s ultimate dream on film in an around-the-world quest to find the perfect wave. And find it, they did!
I was eleven years old in 1966 when the movie played at the Newport Harbor High School auditorium. I sat in stunned silence as those around me howled and whistled at the seemingly endless rides at Cape St. Francis in South Africa. Those waves were beyond my wildest dreams. By the time I entered high school in 1969, we were developing our own obsession with finding perfect waves in Baja, California. Our many trips south of the border provided wonderful surfing on a wholesome diet of Mexican Panderia pastries ($1 a bag!), free camping, and 35-cents-a-gallon gasoline. Our mastery of Spanish boiled down to three simple phrases:
Dónde está la playa? (“Where is the beach?”)
Dónde está el baño? (“Where is the bathroom?”)
Uno más, por favor. (“One more, please.”)
It didn’t get much better than that.
In 1970 I was fifteen years old and heading into summer vacation when surfing bros John Park, Craig Barrett, and Danny Moore came up with a new proposal that was a bit of a twist to our Baja adventures.
“Let’s go to Mazatlan!”
The hypothesis was that the further we drive, the more likely we were to find those perfect waves we’d been searching for. Our Baja trips were full of adventure and good surfing, taking us 200 or so miles south. Driving 1,300 miles to Mazatlán surely would up our odds, right?
As far as our parents knew, it was “just another trip to Mexico”. Baja and Mazatlán are both in Mexico, so we didn’t see a need for further clarification. We were just going to stay a little longer . . .
“Packing for the journey was important. Six pairs of trunks, two boxes of wax, some modern sounds, and in case of injury, one band aid.” -The Endless Summer 
Soon we were stuffing Craig’s 1964 orange Chevy van with supplies fit for a wagon train. We had enough canned food for a month, 8-track tapes for music, two beach chairs (doubling as back seats in the van), tool chest, duct tape (most valuable asset!), water, Paraffin wax, camp stove, and a first aid kit (Band-Aids and Tincture Benzoin, in case it was serious). To top it off, Johnny was able to sneak two large wooden speakers (for the van) and an 8mm movie camera from his house. Four surfboards on top completed the puzzle. This expedition could be summed up in two words: totally bitchen.
Next stop, Mazatlán! Or, so we thought.
I was a bit over my head on this one. Comparisons to my dad joining the U.S. Navy at fifteen were surely in order. Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer had somehow become my Pearl Harbor. It was like blasting off for a moon launch as I nestled tightly into the beach chair in the back of the van as Craig drove us south from CdM. Whatever we lacked in experience, we surely made up in our zeal to find those waves in Mazatlán. Without cell phones, the internet, or any other means of staying in touch, we were on a real surfing safari!
“Each wave was perfect.” –The Endless Summer
We had not even reached the border before Craig’s van started hitting rough water. What!? We pulled over to a gas station and waited for a diagnosis.
“You’re two and a half quarts low on oil,” a fellow Petroleum Exchange Engineer informed us, as if we should have known.
Back on the road with fresh oil and our home speakers booming “Almost Cut My Hair” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Déjà vu album), a second hazard awaited us at the border crossing in Tecate. As we approached the armed guard at the gate, there was a sign we could not miss: “No Long Hairs Allowed”
I will never forget that sign.
“Welcome to Mexico,” we groaned to each other.
“Vete a casa, mi amigo!” (Go home, my friend!) the guard called out to us as he surveyed our shaggy heads. Our dreams sunk; we turned around and parked to brainstorm ideas. We considered various options, including me (with no driver’s license) driving us through the gate since I had the shortest hair. Fortunately, we came up with the ingenious option of trying a different border crossing in Mexicali, a 2-hour drive away.
Taking a more strategic approach in Mexicali, we parked the van at a gas station just short of the gate to doctor up our hair with bobby pins, water, and a lot of finesse. Paranoia was pervasive as we approached the guard this time, trying to look confident that we could get by. Amazingly, we sailed right through with our clean-cut all-American look.
“Dónde está la playa!?” we called out as we barreled into the Mexican desert with the sun setting and Carlos Santana singing “Black Magic Woman” (Santana album). It was as if we had just won a date with Rachel Welch on The Dating Game. We were giddy in anticipation of the road ahead.
‘It’s the kind of wave that makes you talk to yourself.” -The Endless Summer
Just as we were starting to mellow out from our great escape at the border, a third stop was forced upon us. A Mexican Federale suddenly appeared out of nowhere, as if beaming down from the Starship Enterprise. Feeling as though we might be snake bit, Craig heeded his orders to pull over, taking note of the gun hanging on his waist.
Checkpoints were something we were used to in Baja; they often stopped you with some kind of machine gun in hand to ask a couple of questions and check your glove compartment for marijuana. This guy was different.
“Vete a casa.” He left off the “friend” part, as he was not kidding! We needed a Turista sticker on our car to travel into mainland Mexico from the U.S. News to us! In an instant, our Mexican endless summer was coming to an abrupt and painful end. This guy was pulling the plug on the wave machine. We were going home.
The Mexican Miracle Regrouping in Craig’s van, I can remember a few tears being shed over this indignant Federale who was enjoying sending four long-haired gringos back to mamá. Johnny suddenly blurted out that we should say a prayer. I remember thinking that was the craziest idea ever. I didn’t go to church, so I couldn’t understand how that would help. Our trip was over. There was no way this guy was going to back down. I was already starting to think about what we could do with all the canned food and whether we could stop at a Panderia before crossing back over the border.
We were desperate and willing to try anything, so the next thing I knew, the four of us were bowing our heads and praying to God for a miracle to happen. I don’t think we prayed that the Federale would die or anything. I believe it was something respectable and short, like:
“God, please help us, we want to surf the perfect waves in Mazatlán.”
I do remember the outcome quite clearly. Out of the blue, an idea suddenly spawned: “Maybe we can bribe this guy!?”
We seemed to overlook the fact that he was the one wearing the badge and gun. After quite a debate on how much it would take, we decided to go for the jackpot and use a twenty-dollar bill. Craig was elected to carry out the assignment, since he was the elder statesman (by a month or two). I was exceedingly uneasy as we all walked back to his office for our attempt at buying him off. Craig started nervously scratching his face with the twenty-dollar bill showing in his hand as he began talking. My first thought was how utterly stupid this idea this was. What were we thinking!?
Suddenly the Federale lit up with a smile like a Times Square Christmas tree. Immediately we knew it had worked; it was a Mexican miracle!
Twenty dollars bought a lot of pesos back then. This guy snapped up the bait in a New York second and slapped the Turista decal on our car, waving us on our way like we were family.
The drums from “Soul Sacrifice” (Santana Album) started rolling as we plunged into the darkening desert sky on bumpy Mexican asphalt. I leaned back in my beach chair, marveling at what a trip this was going to be.
We camped in the desert that night and filmed the opening scene of our Mexican endless summer movie by holding wrestling matches in a cactus patch after our pork and beans dinner.
That prayer had a lasting effect on me. Whether or not God had anything to do with answering it (I think He did), it stuck that in a moment of complete despair we could call on God for help. Even when impossible odds weighed against us. It was unforgettable.
“The waves look like they had been made by some kind of machine.” -The Endless Summer
The Power of Prayer Prayer has played a pivotal role in my Christian walk. The answered prayers, of course, are wonderful! Mostly though, it’s been my daily dialog with God, helping me steer through the many challenges life throws at me. Becoming a Christian did not so much change who I am as it changed who I wanted to be. Prayer has become the avenue for having that daily conversation with God as to how I get there.
My challenge has been seeing God at work through my prayers. I started writing them in my Bible years ago to try and keep track of what God was doing. It has been amazing to see! One example of this involves a group of twelve men I was meeting with weekly to study the Bible over two years. Each week we devoted time to praying for each other. With all of us having new families and challenging careers, there was not a shortage of things to pray for.
Fast forward eight years and we had all reunited in the home of one of our leaders to pray for a serious injury he had incurred. We went around the group to catch up on the eight years since we had been together. As each one provided an update, it became clear that God had been at work. Many of our prayers had been answered! I had the prayers written in my Bible to prove it. It was an emotional moment as we realized how faithful God had been. It had happened so gradually, and often in ways we had not expected, that we hadn’t connected the dots to all that time in prayer together. We finished that night with praise for God’s amazing faithfulness.
Prayer has also frustrated me at certain times of my life. The inability to see how God is working in difficult situations that I am praying for has been quite perplexing. Sometimes we don’t see how God is hearing our prayers over many (many!) years. Perhaps He does and it takes our whole life to understand. I feel certain that when I get to heaven, it will all make sense. Yet, I am still challenged to keep my focus on God as I pray, and not on the mountain I am asking Him to move. I’d be lying to say that’s been easy.
I am working on making my prayers a two-way conversation. Often, I am just pouring out my needs to God and forgetting to stop and listen to what He might be trying to tell me through the Holy Spirit. This time of listening to God has been very precious, and is key to seeing how God might be working in my life, especially when I don’t see a direct response to my earnest prayers.
A surfing analogy to this could be how I learned over the years to listen to the elements of tide, wind, water, and currents to gain a sense of when the surf might be at its best. Paying close attention to subtle changes in each can tell you a lot!
Epilogue to the Mazatlán trip: At my 40th Corona del Mar High School reunion a few years back, a woman (Paula Schneider) approached me who claimed to remember our trip to Mazatlán in 1970. I was astonished! Her family had been in Mazatlán on vacation at the time our orange van rolled into town with surfboards on top. Incredibly, she bumped into John Park to hear the story of our long trek. After talking to John, her dad pulled her aside to say: “I can’t believe their parents allowed them to drive down here!?”
And of course, she replied: “Dad, their parents didn’t know.”
“With enough time and enough money, you could spend the rest of your life following the summer around the world.” -The Endless Summer
We didn’t find the perfect wave, but we had loads of fun and created many good stories searching. The drive included a few wrong turns, even bumping into the Sea of Cortez at one point and thinking we were at the Pacific Ocean. We thought the trip really was over when we had a complete mechanical breakdown of the van deep in the Mexican jungle. A Mexican mechanic was working on it when Danny Moore (the tow truck driver at Ken’s Mobile) put water in the battery and got it to go. Ha! Another Mexican miracle.
We encountered carpets of remarkably dense locust swarms covering the highway and innumerable “Desviación” (detour) signs that sent us onto never-ending dirt roads better suited for motocross than an automobile. It was so bumpy that at one point the entire tool chest came crashing down on us in the back of the van. It took us three days to finally arrive at the main beach in Mazatlán for our first surf session. The water was so warm (over 80 degrees!) that the Paraffin wax for our surfboards melted, making foot traction on the board a challenge.
We found a campground in town that accommodated us as we explored around Mazatlán and the surrounding area for waves, to no avail. I think we shot more video of a girl (Betty) riding her horse on the beach than of the four of us surfing. At one point we found a secluded beach with wave potential and decided to paddle out and set up for filming. It was a bit eerie paddling out at a spot you knew nothing about. I was far offshore by myself scanning the horizon for a wave when without warning a giant bat ray launched into the air and landed with a loud splash just a few feet away. It scared the crap out of me! I paddled into shore as if I were the anchor leg in the SanO paddling race. That kind of stuff did not happen back home. I told the guys I’d be glad to film the rest of the day (keeping an eye out for Betty).
Being the seasoned travelers that we were, we knew to avoid the local drinking water for fear of the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge. We had heard plenty from our friends about the disaster that could spell on a surf trip. However, after a couple of tasty popsicles from the street vendors in town, I soon was clobbered by it. As perfect storms go, a hurricane was making its way up the coast of Mexico just as I was discovering I could not stray far from the nearest toilet, which was not easy to find! “Dónde está el baño?”
My final but vivid memory of Mazatlán was getting up at night in the campground in complete darkness to pay my respects to Montezuma in a torrential downpour with the wind howling at gale speed. I stepped on some kind of giant prehistoric spider with my bare foot and heard it crack like a twig, and then crawl off into the black night in the direction of our camp.
Adios mi amigo, I am out of here! We left for home the next day.
I only have two memories of the trip from that point on. First was the absolute bliss of finding a McDonald’s immediately after crossing the border into the U.S. A Big Mac and fries have never tasted better and at no other time made me feel more at home. The second was when Johnny told me that the film in the 8mm video camera got ruined when we opened the camera. We didn’t read the instructions about that part… Our Mexican endless summer movie was gone, and none of us had a single photograph from the experience to remember it by. But the adventure left an indelible impression on me. It was a trip for the ages.
It taught me that miracles are possible through the power of prayer.
“Special thanks to King Neptune for providing the waves in this film.” -The Endless Summer
“I’ve learned that simple walks with my father around the block on summernights when I was a child did wonders for me as an adult.” Andy Rooney
While Corona del Mar provided an ideal beach community for growing up, it was my time with Dad at San Onofre that most influenced my views on balancing work and life later in my career. Just mention the words “San Onofre Surfing Club (SOSC)” and it brings on a rush of heart-felt memories of living an unencumbered life on the beach doing what I enjoyed most, surfing. San Onofre (“SanO” or “Nofre” as the locals called it) was a slice of heaven.
The story of how the San Onofre Surfing Club was formed and later impacted by the 37th President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, is one of the more colorful stories of surfing history. Looking back on it today, it seems inconceivable that a group of surfers could arrange to lease a pristine and secluded surfing beach in Southern California from the U.S. Marine Corps for $1 a year!
San Onofre History As the crowds converged on Malibu, a unique surfing beach emerged 90 miles south near the San Onofre railroad station. Originally known as a fishing camp, it was soon discovered that this beach had a unique environment for surfing. The collection of bottom rocks mixed with sand on the seabed produced strikingly consistent waves with a long peeling and gently sloping nature, like those at famed Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. Word quickly spread among the surfing crowd of this gem of a surfing beach called San Onofre.
Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison and Pete Peterson were two of the first regulars at San Onofre in the mid-1930s, after the new jetties in CdM had destroyed the surf there. Both had traveled to Hawaii and brought back that aloha spirit to San Onofre. It was a perfect fit for this secluded stretch of beach, over a half-mile long and backed by dirt cliffs to maintain a sense of exclusivity. There was even a palm thatch shack on the sand left behind by a film shoot from a Hollywood movie company.
By the late 1930s, San Onofre had become the place to go to enjoy the surfer’s lifestyle with an unbeatable combination of good fishing, excellent surfing, and a community atmosphere. World War II was soon to disrupt all that, changing everyone’s lives.
In 1942 the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) announced that San Onofre beach would become part of Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine Corps base in the country. It was officially dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt later that year to train U.S. Marines for service in World War II.
During those years Dad described how they would tape paper over their headlights when driving PCH between San Clemente and Oceanside for fear the Japanese were going to attack. For those lucky enough to return home from the war in late 1945, the USMC began to allow access to the beach again for surfing. The Marines in charge of Camp Pendleton were willing to work out an agreement with these surfers, understanding the sacrifices they had made for our country. 
In a startling story of cooperation between civilians and the U.S. military, the SOSC was loosely formed in 1951 to provide a group of surfers exclusive access to the beach. The SOSC gained responsibility to maintain membership, keep the beach clean and orderly, and pay a $1-a-year annual lease. Dr. A.H. “Barney” Wilkes (a San Clemente dentist), and Andre “Frenchy” Jahan (SOSC’s first president) are two heroes who finessed the USMC into the agreement.
In the end, it was brilliant, but it did not come without some turbulent times between the two.  Club bylaws, membership cards, auto decals, and rules of conduct were established at the first formal SOSC meeting on the beach on April 24, 1952. Dad was fortunate enough to be a part of that early membership crowd.
This was the beginning of an era at SanO that had roots firmly planted in a simple lifestyle of a surfing society which soon became a way of life for raising your kids at the beach in SoCal. There were no lifeguards, no running water, no paved roads, and no way to take a phone call; just an idyllic world of sun and surf in a serene setting, free of life’s challenges with plenty of time for rest. These traditions would be passed on for generations to come.
Waiting I waited all week with great anticipation for the trip to SanO with Dad on weekends. Getting that official military salute at the gate to Camp Pendleton was like gaining entrance to Main Street at Disneyland. Those windshield decals that got us by the USMC guard became a source of great pride to signify our status as a member of the San Onofre Surfing Club.
However, getting to San Onofre was another matter. What should have been a 45-minute drive took forever! We left CdM onto PCH in mid-morning with our two Dave Sweet boards bungee corded on top of our ’64 Chevy Nova Wagon. Our first stop was the Laguna Beach Arts Festival, where Dad would play a couple sets of tennis with his good friend Jack Upton. I would try and pass the time digging holes, killing bugs, and throwing rocks, constantly hoping it was match point, no matter who was winning. After what seemed like half the day, I knew they were finally done when the Tab came out over ice in the metal tennis cans. I sprinted to the car.
“Aahhhh!” Dad would belt out with each sip while working the three-speed column shift through the maze of Laguna Beach traffic and hills while juggling the tennis can of Tab.
We were on our way! My first marker was the “Laguna Beach Greeter” (Eiler Larsen) in his bright red coat, who always recognized me, I was sure, giving me that wink and pointing right at me. Next, I watched for a wrecked car that was overturned up a cliff by Poche Beach along PCH. Getting close.
We made a final stop off the 5 freeway (Avenida Calafia) at the El Camino Market to buy some Mug Root Beer, Paraffin wax, the LA Times, and a small cluster of grapes for nutrition. The owner of the El Camino Market, Tony Duynstee, was always there to cheerfully greet us at the cash register and update us on the surf report.
The Basilone Road offramp was where we got our first view of the waves overlooking the renowned surf break—Trestles. Regardless of the conditions, my pulse spiked at just the sight of the waves; I could not wait to get in. The fancy hand wave by the USMC guard at Camp Pendleton was our final green light. We bounced down the rutted dirt road and parked at “Old Man’s” to set up base camp; a Coast Hardware beach chair, beach towel, and small Styrofoam ice chest to preserve the Mug Root Beer and grapes (no other food). Once the boards were moved off the car to the palm shack, the next hiatus began. In my younger years, Dad would not let me go in the water until he got out. He wanted to keep an eye on me in the water. Although, every time I looked to see if he saw my ride, he was immersed in the LA Times . . .
After chatting it up with friends about the wind, tide, water temp, and Dodgers, Dad would finally wax up and paddle out. I knew he would not stay in the water long (he never wore a wetsuit), so at least the clock had started.
Jeez . . .
Dad was easy to pick out riding waves as he would drag a foot on his turns, which I now understand was from his days riding the heavy balsa wood boards at Malibu where you used your foot as a rudder to turn. My only distraction beyond watching his every move was keeping an eye out for Candy McCue to walk by. Anyone on the beach in those days would surely confirm that.
After what seemed like a 16-inning scoreless baseball game, I raced to get my board and wax up as soon as I saw Dad coming in. The water at SanO was always like dipping into a familiar bath—I never wanted to get out. Old Man’s is one of the more consistent breaks in Southern California, so there were always waves to ride, regardless of the conditions. Once I hit double digits in age, we could finally paddle out together. Surfing with Dad was about as good as it got.
SanO was a unique environment in the water. People looked out after each other, brought loose boards back out (before the leash), and took care of anyone in need. When I was ten years old, I wiped out and got hit hard in the head by my board. It opened a good slice next to my left eye, so there was lots of blood. Amazingly, Dad was right there and able to carry me to shore over the rocks on a low tide day (cutting up his feet badly in the process).
The next thing I knew, I was lying in a van chewing on European black licorice while getting eight stitches to close the gash (“It’s your Novocain,” the doc told me). I will always remember our doctor back home telling us what a good job he had done stitching it up. Only years later did I find out it was Dr. Dorian Paskowitz who had done the good deed. I remember Dad carrying a bottle of champagne in the car on the next trip down for the doc. That was how things worked at San Onofre—life in harmony.
The magic of the SOCS soon got out among the surfing crowd, and membership soared to 1,000 members by 1971 with a waiting list of 2,000. It was almost too good to be true, and many of my friends were begging me to take them. Having exclusive access to one of southern California’s most consistent surfing breaks with a built-in social community lifestyle was hard to beat. The SOSC had become a mini-civilization built around surfing with luaus, horseshoes, surfing and volleyball contests, fishing, Bocce ball, and even a Sunday school for kids! The SOSC was even mentioned in an October 18, 1965 issue of Sports Illustrated about surfing. 
President Nixon As progress would have it, change was imminent with the SOSC. Construction of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station began in 1968. Just a half-mile south of Old Man’s beach, this plant employed over 2,200 people and became a prominent landmark with its twin spherical containment buildings designed to contain any unexpected releases of radiation.
In 1969 Richard Nixon became the 37th U.S. president, setting up his summer White House residence near Trestles (1.5 miles north of San Onofre), at the La Casa Pacifica. When President Nixon was in town, Trestles was off-limits to everyone, especially to surfers! Armed military police would be patrolling the beach in jeeps, helicopters flew overhead, and an 85-foot Coast Guard ship sat just outside the surf line. The SOSC was just far enough south to be unaffected.
Having President Nixon flying by in his helicopter was a sure sign the tide was about to turn. I will never forget the day in 1971 when I heard the devastating news that the entire SOSC beach had been leased to the state of California for use as a state park. It appeared to be the end of the SOSC and my dream of passing on the San Onofre baton.
The story we heard was that President Nixon looked down from his presidential helicopter at the SOSC members and asked how they had arranged to gain exclusive access to that beach on a U.S. military base. I can imagine how that conversation went! Soon, talks were in process around the creation of a new California state park, and it was believed that President Nixon wanted it to be named after him. In the end, it was deemed a presidential gift from Richard M. Nixon—but at least “San Onofre” took the name slot.
As has been the history with the SOSC, a few heroes again emerged to keep the club alive and thriving into a new era. One was SOSC President Doug Craig, who provided the dedicated leadership and guidance for the club to stay together and work with the state of California to preserve the beach and surfing culture for future generations. The story of President Nixon meeting with the SOSC to gain his personal SOSC membership is documented in the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album and is good for a chuckle. 
San Onofre Surfing Contest Next to Christmas and my birthday, the most coveted time of the year for me was the annual SOSC surfing contest at the end of summer. I thought about it every day I was in the water at SanO, replaying in my mind what the announcer would say after a good ride. It was a family fun event with something for everyone, no matter what your age or skill level. The club members who orchestrated it were the early pioneers of the sport and knew how to run a first-class surfing contest. The trophies for the finalists were right up there with the Heisman in terms of star power.
For me, it was all about my desire to surf like Erik Hops, who was in my age group. Erik surfed at a level I could only dream about. He won 1st place every year (as far as I know) and was the best surfer in the entire club in my view. I never saw anyone at SanO who had total board control and walked the nose as smoothly as Erik. He was even famous—the very first surfing book I was given (Modern Surfing by John Severson – 1964) had a picture of Erik surfing in it. When I ordered my first custom Doug Haut surfboard in Santa Cruz years later, I fulfilled my dream of having a solid red pigment board, just like the one Erik rode at SanO.
The highlight of the contest each year was announcer Jim Irwin, who was appropriately labeled “the Vin Scully of surfing contests”. Jim’s booming voice made you feel like you were a world champion, even if you were just barely navigating an ankle biter. His enthusiasm was extreme, and his joy of the sport leaped out as he described each ride with fantastic detail and emotion. When announcing the “8-year-old and under” kids, who were barely 25 yards offshore, he made it sound like they were dropping into 25-footers at Waimea Bay:
“The white water is thundering down as he streaks across the massive face of a turbulent curl and cranks a bottom turn just in time!”
Hearing Jim describe each contestant was like reading a character description in a Steinbeck novel. He was an artist in motion. God bless that man; I am praying that he will be announcing my rides in Heaven.
SanO Today It has been a great joy to live out my dream of taking my family down to SanO to experience much of what I had growing up. The SOSC leadership has done an amazing job keeping the original structure of the beach intact and maintaining the culture I became so fond of as a kid. We now arrive at 6 a.m. to get in (Dad would not have approved!), but once I park the car and collapse into my beach chair, the familiarness of it all comes right back like a favorite song from that era.
I always wanted to experience SanO like the many families who camped there all summer in vans with lots of food and drink. We started making an annual trek from northern California to SanO in a fully equipped RV, which allowed us to spend entire days into darkness soaking in the San Onofre aroma of a healthy simplicity of life. The kids loved it and I was thrilled to finally barbecue that meat I always smelled as a child among the many camper vans. We even catch the SOSC surfing contest when we can, which has maintained the same all-inclusive aloha spirit. Jim Irwin has passed on, but his legacy continues from the announcer’s booth; those “8-year-old and under” kids are still a personal highlight for me.
On one trip down I took our kids on a sightseeing tour to see the tennis court at the Arts Festival (still there), the Laguna Beach Greeter (a new one!), and we even pulled off at Avenida Calafia to find El Camino Market for some last-minute wax and ice. Incredibly, I found Tony Duynstee still at the counter almost 50 years later! Tony finally sold the store to a developer after 75 years at that location.
Today, as I reflect on growing up at SanO and watch my kids in the water at Old Man’s, I dig my toes into the sand and think how fortunate I am now, and was to have such a wonderful place to grow up. It is a joy to share with my wife and children. I always believed life at SanO was the way things were supposed to be. It made an indelible impression on me.
This quote from the San Onofre 1973 Cookbook for Surfers, captures the essence of SanO (unedited):
“Say San Onofre and you hear the sound of surf rolling in a long way, and smooth stones chuckling together in the shore break. As a place name, San Onofre has come to have deep meaning for a large group of men and their families who have surfed together for as long as thirty years at the same lovely, wild stretch of beach. The constancy of both surf and friendship has distilled a camaraderie that is as strong as the surfers are different… All this time, the beach has remained unspoiled, as delightful on a wind-swept winter’s day, as it is on July 4th, awash with dogs, kids, and cold drinks. Improvements in the name of comfort were avoided; no showers, no blacktop, no running water, no lifeguard stands. Out on the water, the surfers took care of each other. All problems could be brought to an open forum, a circle of beach chairs. Access to San Onofre depended on the good spirit of cooperation with the Marine Corps, and two more unlikely groups never lived side by side.”
Marion Haines, Polly Buckingham, Claire Shaver San Onofre Cookbook, 1973
Footnotes:  The San Onofre Surfing Club, 1952 – 2002: 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album, this book is a treasure of pictures and stories of the 50-year history of the club. Page 36 describes the new world order at San Onofre following WW II (unedited):
THE FORTIES – A Changed World
“World War II changed America in profound ways. It ended the Depression, unified and equalized the country, restarted the economic engine and opened doors to new lifestyles. Those who had never seen the beach till they shipped out of California [from Camp Pendleton] knew they wanted to go back there. Those who had grown up with the beach knew just how good they had it.
In 1946 a bunch of us lived down there at ‘Nofre: Glen Fisher, Wild Ass Wiley, [James] Arness, Bob Card Hammerhead – we’d go to the dump and get old furniture and set it up and live like a hobo camp. We called ourselves the “52-twenty club,” cause for the first 52 weeks after the war they paid us $20 a week as veterans. You could live like kings at ‘Nofre for that. We all enrolled in college to get better jobs and surfed every day.” Jim ‘Burrhead’ Drever
 The San Onofre Surfing Club, 1952 – 2002: 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album, A summary of the struggles between SOSC members and the USMC in the 1950s are neatly summarized on page 41 of this book: “The Fifties – Birth Of The Cool”. The net of the story is that the USMC notified the SOSC in 1955 that they would no longer have exclusive access to the beach. Total chaos followed (unedited):
Things went downhill almost immediately. Irresponsible surfers set fire to the brush in the San Mateo Creek estuary and nearly burned down the railroad trestle. Burning wood thrown at the commuter train and piled debris on the tracks once caused a passenger train to grind to an emergency stop. Parking and other regulatory signs were used as firewood. The grass shack was torched. A cave on the cliffs was filled with old tires and gasoline. The fire was so intense the Marines couldn’t reach it with the fire truck. Occasionally the M.P.s were so provoked that they fired rifles and pistols at the trestle surfers. Some surfers set up camp overnight on the beach in defiance of patrolling M.P.s. The Marine Corps demanded the Club maintain order or all civilians would be restricted from the beach. The Club, of course, disclaimed responsibility, since the Marines had allowed free and uncontrolled public use of the area.
 San Onofre – Memories of a Legendary Surfing Beach by David Matuszak, is the encyclopedia on San Onofre, weighing in at an astounding 1,561 pages (not kidding). One must see this book to believe it. Page 702 has an excerpt from the Sports Illustrated article in 1965 which included the following (unedited):
“At the opposite pole is the San Onofre Surfing Club, which is at the same time one of the most exclusive and one of the tackiest clubs in the world. Founded in 1951 and located at Camp Pendleton, its facilities seem to consist of little more than a few shacks badly in need of repair, which serve as dressing rooms and toilets, and its existence seems to depend on the whim of the Marine commandant. The SOSC has 800 members, each paying $20 annual dues… Elderly men wearing straw hats, smoking cigars and drinking cans of beer sit on the swells astride their boards, occasionally riding a wave in, still seated. One old gentleman says he only surfs on his birthday, of which he has several every summer.”
 The San Onofre Surfing Club, 1952 – 2002: 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album, A fitting close to this era is summarized on page 64 (unedited):
Tricky Dick Goes Surfing “When Richard Nixon moved the “Western White House” to Cotton’s Point (north of The Trestle) in ’69, ‘Nofre was put in the spotlight more than ever. As a result, the Club was now on the verge of being stripped of its beach due to the all out political battle waged against it. Members had no choice but to play their hand. Bob Mardian (Nixon’s Attorney General at that time), was an enthusiastic and active member of the Club, and was considered an ace in the hole. Members increased the clean-up detail and suspended members who trespassed on Marine property at Trestles, trying to put on the very best face to the outside world. The SOSC even went so far as to make Nixon an “honorary member” with hopes of wooing his support for a status quo approach to ‘Nofre. Tricky Dick was scheduled to meet with them down at the SOSC beach, but, for unknown reasons, he never showed. In 1970, then Club president Doug Craig was permitted a 15-minute meeting with Nixon at the Western White House after Bob Mardian had pulled some strings. Craig believed he had Nixon’s backing after their talk. But a year later, Nixon did an about-face and handed San Onofre over to the state as a “Presidential Gift”. The San Onofre Surfing Club’s little-known book for members only, published in ’74, has a special tribute to Nixon in its closing pages: a picture of Craig standing next to an upright, driftwood log, with a giant middle finger carved into it. “He betrayed us,” says Craig.”
This picture was taken the day Nixon was given his honorary membership to the SOSC in 1970. Left to right: Robert Mardian (Nixon’s Attorney General), Mike Hops (Erik’s older brother), President Richard M. Nixon, Dick Hoover, Julie Brown, Tony Mardian, Denise Tkach, Tom Turner, Billy Mardian, Rolf Arness (son of James Arness of Gunsmoke fame), Tom Craig, and Doug Craig (SOSC President).
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” John Kabat-Zinn
If asked to dream up a place for growing up, it would be difficult to find a better community for a young boy than Corona del Mar (CdM), Spanish for Crown of the Sea. CdM was the quintessential beach community in the 1960s, with a small-town atmosphere (population ~8,000), beautiful sandy beaches, and balmy SoCal weather that was comfortable year-round. We had a tight-knit gang that hung together from grammar school at Harbor View Elementary through graduation at Corona del Mar High School. I maintain close contact with many today.
Looking back on those days growing up in CdM reawakens the simplicity of my youth. If we weren’t in school, throwing rocks at each other in the alley, or playing ball at the Community Youth Center, our days were largely about hanging out at the beach—which could easily fill an entire day! I have fond memories of “corn dogging” in the warm sand to heat up your body after a long stint in the water, and then going back into the water once you got too hot. Rinse and repeat until it was time to go home.
I had no idea at the time that CdM had a strong history of surfing. It was one of the premier spots on the west coast in the late 20s and early 30s, hosting the Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships[i] during that period. A large jetty extension was then built at the entrance of Newport Harbor in 1936[ii] and surfing popularity in CdM died out because of the change in surf conditions. Most of the serious surfing crowd (and the Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships) ventured further south to San Onofre in search of consistently good waves.
CdM Beaches The primary charm of CdM was the beaches. Big Corona was a half-mile-long strip of fine white sand that had a jetty for surfing, bodysurfing, volleyball, girl-watching, a snack bar, and lots of tourists. We called the south end Banzai, which ironically had no shape for surfing at all (due to the jetty extension), but lots of open sand to hang out when the tourists were crowding near the jetty.
On a “red flag” day (meaning, big waves!), we would bodysurf at Banzai, taking the drop like we were diving off a cliff, getting completely bombed when the entire length of the beach seemed to break at once. There was also a very short tubular left by the jetty which magically appeared during the big south swells at low tide; our own homegrown Banzai Pipeline. It came out of nowhere and was astonishingly good when it happened.
Little Corona was a very scenic but much smaller option with minimal sand, lots of rocky coves and tide pools, decent surfing, and no tourists or snack bar. A mile south, The Coves (now Crystal Cove State Park) had lots of untamed beaches with the best surfing and no lifeguards to patrol our many antics. We staged our legendary 4th of July parties at The Coves, which the Newport Beach Police finally put a stop to after our senior year in high school. It was a mutually agreed-upon treaty—we pushed their police cars out of the incoming tide while agreeing to break up the shindig.
There was also The Wedge on the north side of the harbor, renowned for waves that could top 20 feet on a big south swell. We could see the wave cresting over the top of the jetty from CdM on those big days, so a few times we swam across the harbor to watch. Avoiding the Harbor Patrol was nerve wracking, but seeing people bodysurf a 20-foot wave just a few feet off the shore was worth the risk back then.
Foamers When word got out that a sizable south swell was hitting, Big Corona was the place to be. Our small community of surfers lived for those hurricanes off Baja, California when the CdM jetty would break “off the end”. It was all word-of-mouth, so the first one to see a swell got on the phone (or bike) and let out the word that it was “foaming!” An all-out assault on Big Corona ensued, regardless of what you had planned for the day. Foamers were not something to be missed; they were right up there with Christmas and birthdays.
When the call hit 507 Marguerite Avenue, I would instantly grab my Duck Feet fins with Converse Hodgman raft and sprint to Big Corona to get in on the action. It was a long paddle/kick out as I slowly passed the massive granite rocks with sharp barnacles that could easily turn you into ground round at Coast Super Market. Our rafts had no fins and thus absolutely no control, so the thought of “getting sucked” (as we called it) was a real fear.
Arriving at the end of the jetty, my eyes were nervously glued to the bell buoy (top center of the picture above) as an indicator of how big the next set coming would be. When it dipped to the crown, my adrenaline skyrocketed, knowing it was a guaranteed BIG foamer set. We immediately jockeyed for position, shouting out our claim to the wave of our choice: “1st end!” “2nd end!” “3rd end!”
Pandemonium erupted as that first foamer exploded off the end of the jetty, sending white water out like the exhaust from Apollo 13. Proper positioning was essential as I vice-gripped my raft and the mountain of white water exploded onto me. It was like trying to catch a snow avalanche without skis as it raced by. Once I was in, the experience to follow was unforgettable—a guaranteed “E-ticket” ride at Disneyland. The initial drop was completely blind, smothered in white foam, and made it impossible to gain any sense of where the death-dealing rocks were as you bounced along like you were riding a wild bronco.
Breaking free from the upheaval, I got my first view of the jetty and immediately kicked like crazy to steer toward open water to avoid side-slipping out of control. An incredibly long and very bumpy ride followed that was both exhilarating and hair-raising as the gap to the barnacle-crusted rocks quickly narrowed. I navigated my raft with precision to make it to the shore break inside, which sometimes earned a hoot from the crowd watching on the beach.
I remember some of those rides vividly—as if they just happened yesterday. Riding that Hodgman raft off the end of the jetty rivals anything I have done on a surfboard since for pure fun and adventure. It was surfing nirvana.
The odds of getting sucked finally caught up with us when Mark Magiera became an instant rock star (pun intended) for becoming our first casualty while riding a surfboard on the inside channel of the jetty, where the boats were! He magnificently survived, while setting a Hoag Memorial Hospital record for visitors during his stay.
Mark had been sucked into the jaws of the jetty and lived to chronicle his story. We were lined up in the hospital waiting room to pay our tributes. In our small community, that was right up there with being awarded the armed forces Purple Heart. We were incredibly envious of his bravery and many bandages. I imagine our parents were all aghast at the sudden fame Mark achieved for such an act.
As a result of this ever-present danger, in the early 1970s, Woody Woodworth and John Park pioneered a technique of gluing two fins onto the Hodgman raft bottom to help hold you into the wave. This dramatically changed the scene at Big Corona when it was foaming, enabling you to maintain a line across the wave without side-slipping toward the jetty rocks. A new era had been born!
CdM Shenanigans If I ever run for elected office (not something to worry about), our many CdM Shenanigans from those days would likely boot me out faster than you can say “Quick Draw McGraw”. We were safe and sensible (for the most part), but like any kids, we had our fun and games.
As our surfing improved, we coveted travel beyond the CdM beaches. Sometimes we could persuade a parent or older sibling to drop us off at a local spot nearby. We had no way of knowing if it would be any good (it usually wasn’t), but we always pounced on the opportunity to venture beyond our home turf.
One time Matt Cox got his mom to drop four of us off at the Huntington Beach cliffs with our boards on a day when there was not much surf. She forgot to come to pick us back up. Not kidding. Without phones or money, we were shipwrecked. Just as we were plotting a robbery on a nearby convenience store to stave off starvation, her car rolled up. We never let Matt hear the end of that one.
If we weren’t at the beach, we did have one or two organized activities we participated in. Below is an acclaimed picture of our CdM Community Youth Center All Star baseball team circa 1964. This was an elite team of ballplayers, coached by Scott Flanagan’s brother (top middle and bottom row). The total score of “120 – 0” tells it all (the negative of the picture is reversed).
There is a lot I could say about almost everyone in this picture, including the two who opted out on the team uniform. I’ll hold it to John “Go-Go” Bandel, top left (standing). Go-Go was a very talented athlete in all sports (especially rock throwing), and simply had a way about him that you could not help but like. When we were picking sides, I always wanted to be on Go-Go’s team. He was one of 17 children being raised in one of the original (and small) two-story CdM homes built in the 1940s. I only went inside their house a time or two and remember wondering how the heck it all worked. It did not seem possible that 19 people could fit in there at the same time, let alone carry on with life!
A funny story snuck out at a CdM wedding reception a few years back about those days. One of the Bandel kids was caught in a backyard picking fruit off the tree of another family in the CdM neighborhood. When they got caught, they had a piece of paper in hand which turned out to be a detailed map of all the many fruit trees in CdM. We confirmed that night that each Bandel kid had an assigned fruit tree to be picked on a specific day of the week for the family. Mr. Bandel was one resourceful man!
Once in high school, jobs became a necessity, as our parents (who had survived The Great Depression and WWII) held on to the cash tightly. I was a busboy at the Rueben E. Lee restaurant, and soon was also working weekends at Ken’s Mobile gas station with my friends Danny Moore, Mark Magiera, Frank Frost, and Jeff Zerkie.
Located at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and Jasmine Avenue, Ken seemed to love hiring local CdM high school kids to pump the gas and check under the hood while he was playing poker in his RV parked in the back or at Whitman’s Garage up the street. It was a dream job to get paid to hang out with my best friends, work on our cars, get greasy, and be the conduit in town when a big event (aka party!) was coming down. It was almost as if Ken was partnering with our parents to keep us off the streets while putting a little cash in our pockets.
On weekends Ken was not around much, so we had free reign on running the gas station. I’d be lying to say that things didn’t get a little out of hand some of those days. It was just a little too much freedom for high school boys with lots of ideas.
Jeff Zerkie, Frank Frost, and I were doing our “Petroleum Exchange Engineer” work (as we called it) one of those weekend days when the topic of the “baby’s butt” resurfaced. There was a vacant lot next to the gas station with a large billboard that was recently plastered with a Pampers ad that was mostly just a gigantic bare baby’s butt. It was appalling! We had convinced ourselves that the entire city was disgraced by it. We even complained to our parents. It was an abomination that simply had to be fixed. We might even become famous if we could do something about it.
Well, the next thing I know, Frank strolls by carrying the extension ladder from the gas station telling us he had an idea . . . As Jeff and I manned the pumps, we watched Frank climb halfway up the billboard on the ladder and duct tape an M-80 firecracker to the middle of the baby’s butt.
“Uh Oh . . . ”
He then placed a cigarette to its fuse, lighting the other end of the cigarette, and climbed down before the excitement began.
We were all three giggly for what seemed an eternity while serving customers and looking up at the baby’s butt with great anticipation. Nothing happened. We concluded that the cigarette must have gone out or the M-80 was a dud. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, it exploded like a cannon on a warship.
It was ear-piercing, with a quick flash of fire followed by a large plume of smoke, creating a scene that we had not envisioned. All cars on PCH suddenly were screeching on their brakes crossing the yellow divider lines as if “the Russians were coming.”[i]
People were streaming out of Albertson’s across the street to see what happened. We were dumbfounded. Amazingly, no cars collided and no one was hurt. As we hid in the gas station office, it soon became clear that everything was quickly coming back to normal. Whew! For a week after we were certain that every car pulling up with an “E” on the license plate was the FBI coming to interrogate us.
Our mission was accomplished, as the Pampers ad did get replaced a few weeks later. The scar left by the M-80 surely tarnished their brand in a way that needed immediate attention.
[i]Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships – In 1928 the Corona del Mar Surfboard Club hosted the first notable surfing competition held in the United States at Big Corona State Beach, as it is known today. As soon as the harbor entrance was dredged and over 200,000 tons of rocks were dropped to form the jetty, it moved south to San Onofre in 1935 due to the blockage of the surf by the jetty. The winners between 1928 and 1941 were as follows:
1928: Tom Blake 1929: Keller Watson 1932: Pete Peterson 1934: Gardner Lippincott 1936: Pete Peterson 1938: Pete Peterson 1939: Lorrin Harrison 1940: Cliff Tucker 1941: Pete Peterson
[ii] A remarkable story about the building of the jetties was told in a 2014 PBS documentary called The Wedge: Dynasty, Tragedy, Legacy. In 1926, a 15-year-old polio victim (George Rogers Jr.) drowned in the Newport Harbor as the boat he was in capsized in heavy surf. As a result of his polio, the heavy weight of his iron leg braces sank his body to the bottom of the harbor, and it was never found. His father, George Rogers Sr., consequently sold his business and focused his remaining years of life seeking the funding to alter Newport Harbor to prevent such an accident from happening again. Despite the scarcity of money during the great depression, he raised over $2 million in federal and local funds to build the jetty extension in 1936. A month following the re-dedication of the improved Newport Harbor entrance, George Rogers Sr. suffered a heart attack while on his boat as he entered the harbor entrance and died at approximately the same location his son had died, ten years earlier.
[iii]The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming – was a 1966 American film about the chaos following the grounding of the Soviet submarine off a small New England Island during the Cold War. I should note that we were the generation who had nuclear bomb drills in grammar school where we would get under our desks and put our hands over our heads for protection. The thought of the Russians coming during the cold war of the 1960s was not all that far-fetched.
“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
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 :
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.
 Unedited letter written by my father, Jack Mulkey.
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.
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  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).
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.
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 :
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!
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.
“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:
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!”.
“What we do in life echoes in eternity.” -Russell Crowe as Maximus in, Gladiator
Life has been a series of waves thundering through my life, maturing me successively throughout my walk on this earth. As a lifelong surfer who revels in the ride, each wave requires a finely-tuned balancing act to ride to its conclusion and successfully kick out. Sometimes I fall and it can take me a while to acknowledge what went wrong and paddle back out, scanning the horizon for the next test of endurance. My patience is tried as I submit to the lulls and dream of the perfect wave coming. It will be better than I can imagine, I’m sure. Soon, another set arrives out of nowhere to shake me back into reality, and I paddle like crazy to drop in.
Growing up at the beach in Corona del Mar in the 1960s was an idyllic environment for a surfer grom like me. We had a tight-knit community of friends who gathered daily at the beach, constantly anticipating the next big south swell. Best of all, my dad was one of the lucky WWII sailors in the Navy who returned home and found a lifestyle of surfing at Malibu while benefiting from the GI Bill. He had me out on his Dave Sweet surfboard riding waves at San Onofre earlier than I can recall. It was my time surfing with Dad on the weekends at San Onofre that most influenced my early years. As I grew into adulthood, I began to realize that I was at my very best when I was in the water on my surfboard. It became my identity.
The surfing culture I grew up with in Corona del Mar soon clashed with my adult career when I relocated to Silicon Valley in 1990 to become a cog in the high technology revolution that was taking off like an Elon Musk rocket ship. The opportunities were endless, but so was the work! I found myself encased in the innovation capital of the world where there was no longer enough margin in my life to hang out at the beach and wait for waves. Fast-forward from floppy disks to flash memory and I found myself spending the next quarter century raising a family in a marketing career that paid me well to drive the network computing revolution for the emerging world wide web. We called ourselves the “dot in dot com” at Sun Microsystems. Flying high in jet planes around the world, I was in a constant struggle to balance the demands of my career with the needs of my health and the joy of raising my family, including my wife Marla (of 30 years) and two wonderful children (Marisa and Matthew).
Surfing was my escape from the incessant “real-time” processing of riding the Silicon Valley Express train each day at work. Like the pressure release valve at the now-defunct San Onofre Nuclear power plant, the ocean set me free from the urgency of my career while providing a connection point for my kids to join in. Getting wet drew me closer to God and his magnificent creation as I delighted in the powerful waves of Northern California. As this inner-battle of work/life balance consumed me, I launched “Surfing for Balance in Silicon Valley” in 2014 to blog about my drive to stay afloat in the valley of endless work. That blog eventually led me to writing this book, Surfing in Heaven, to consolidate my experiences through it all.
Surfing in Heaven is both a metaphor and a vision for how I invest my time and energy each day. As I was pouring myself into the blog about my struggles to find balance, I kept coming back to the Bible and what God’s Word would have to say. Jesus spoke about storing up treasures in heaven rather than investing in what we have here on earth (1). Like cymbals in a marching band, this rang out loud for me. By starting each day with my eternal future in mind, I found myself able to navigate the many perilous waves I was riding at the time. Heaven became a game-changer!
As the waves kept coming with increasingly shortened intervals, I was able to gain a radical new perspective on how I invested my time and energy. The chaos of the storm settled. It was like going back to the 1960s and surfing without a leash. My life became untethered from earthly expectations. All at once I had peace of mind about laying the groundwork each day for my life to come in Heaven. I was stoked!
To be clear, I believe that I will go surfing when this life on earth ends. In Heaven. Surely the God who created the heavens and the earth (2) could arrange for a little surfing. I think so, as what awaits us in heaven will be far greater than what our imagination can explore (3). More on that coming.
Waxing up a surfboard is an often-overlooked part of surfing that helps to describe this time of preparation for our life to come. When I am going out at Steamer Lane in a large northwest winter swell on a cold January day (a birthday tradition), waxing up is a strategic time to get ready before paddling out.
This process starts by closely reviewing the surf, tide, wind, crowd, currents, and tactic for paddling out. Steamer Lane is not to be taken lightly on a big swell. Next, I thoroughly wax the top of my board. With the amazing variety of surf wax available today (by water temperature), this takes just a minute or two. Finally, I firmly attach my leash and launch.
Waxing your board in the 1960s was much more involved. Since we all had longboards, they required a lot more wax. There were no surf leashes, so hanging on to your board was largely dependent on how well you waxed up. Parowax (called “paraffin”) was the only choice for wax and was a far cry from today’s sticky surf wax.
Paraffin was hard as a rock, so you first had to soften it up to avoid shaving off the wax that was already there. Then you would dip your board into the ocean to harden the surface wax while roughing it up with a couple handfuls of wet sand. Applying the paraffin required serious elbow grease, being careful to cover the nose (for hanging five), the tail (for cranking bottom turns), and the rails by the nose (for turtle diving big waves as you paddled out). Extra wax was needed there.
I would then walk the top of my board a few times with bare feet at the shores edge to get some of the wax onto the bottom of my feet (no booties yet) while rubbing in some more wet sand to rough the surface one final time. I carried an extra bar in my trunks, as you had to repeat the process a time or two if you were out for a long surf session—especially if you lost your board to the beach (the ride in would slicken the wax). Suffice to say, paraffin was better suited for candle making!
Like properly waxing up for a good surfing session, I believe this life is laying the groundwork for our life to come in Heaven. In a sense, it’s our dress rehearsal. We are waxing up for our eternal ride home. This is not our home, Heaven is. Our life here is very short (4), but what we do while we are here really does matter (5). Big time. Jesus emphasized this to His disciples at the last supper just before His death when He told them He was preparing a mansion for each one of them in Heaven (6). He is doing the same for each one of us.
My hope is that you can embrace my journey while catching a few waves with me along the way. I pray that when you kick out of the final wave, you will believe that Jesus Christ is who He said he is.
Time to get out your wax and prepare for the ride of your life!
“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Colossians 3:2