11. Lessons for The Grandchildren

“Mike, it all boils down to preparation, details and work, work, work . . . Everything the man says makes so much sense that I can’t believe so few coaches have followed his philosophy. I suspect because it involves too much work.”

–Kona Jack, reflecting on Coach John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success”

Surfing Malibu circa 1949 on a Simmons Foam Sandwich
(photo by Doc Ball)

If there ever were a perfect sunset, Dad (A.K.A. “Kona Jack”) surely would have seen it over his 27 years at the Keauhou Kona Surf and Racquet Club on the big island of Hawaii. It was a nightly ritual for him to collect with neighbors on the shore’s edge to stare down the sun as it dipped into the royal blue Pacific Ocean. As the glazed orange ball reached its final glimmer, all eyes were peeled for a “green flash” at the horizon’s edge as a final tribute to the day. With the curtain closing and the skies darkening above, Dad would always have a conclusive comment to abruptly move everyone out of their reverie so he could go about his evening:

“Ah, another day in paradise!”

Dad passed on the night of a full “Strawberry moon” in 2016 on Father’s Day (1). I was on my bicycle en route to work at Oracle when the call from my sister Terry came in. In a flash, the world stopped turning. It was monumental. Life would never be the same. I had known it was coming, but could not fathom the feelings that surfaced.

Dad was a man’s man, and I lucked out by being his boy. Life with Dad just happened. We didn’t talk things out. We mostly just hung out doing things guys do together, primarily around sports and exercise. He taught me most of what I know about surfing, skiing, and tennis. I don’t mean that he instructed me; that definitely was not Dad. He was about being together and doing whatever it was we were doing; not much needed to be said. Later in life, I realized what I had learned from him. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. He taught me how to truly relax and enjoy life. That was my most valuable lesson from him.

I am looking forward to heaven. That is also a nice way of saying that I look forward to dying; that’s OK with me. My faith is firm in the truth of a glorious life in heaven awaiting us for eternity. Keep reading; we will soon be surfing in heaven!

The Bible is crystal clear on the joy and peace that await those who place their faith in Jesus. I don’t know if that includes Dad. I communicated to him how simple it would be to accept Jesus into his heart. On my last visit with him in Kona I was able to share my Christian faith. We watched a video together to get him thinking about heaven. He did not say much, but appeared receptive to what I was saying. It rests in God’s hands.

I often dream about being reunited with Dad in the prime of his life in heaven. It would be a wonderous homecoming. I imagine, of course, he is going to say,

“Michael, let’s go surfing!”.

Until then, I hope that I can have as much of an influence on people as Dad did on his friends and family. Somehow, Dad seemed to rub off on everyone, including people he would seemingly completely ignore. Everyone who knew Dad would agree that he left a mark that won’t soon be forgotten.

Following are a few of the areas from Dad’s legacy that his grandchildren should take note of. I like to think of it as passing the baton to Marisa, Matthew, Brennan, and Hayley. These are all quite simple—not anything that would surprise those who knew Dad. But the combination of them together is what sets Dad apart. He lived each one of them to the fullest.

“Six lessons for the grandchildren,” from Kona Jack:

1 – Keep your sense of humor.

This may be the single most important of all!

Dad was hysterical with his many dry and humorous comments that always seemed to come when you least expected it. He had a fantastic wit and was not afraid to use it on anyone. Most importantly, it didn’t wane at all as he launched into some challenging times in his eighties. Dad was a walking comedy act that I appreciate now more than ever.

On my last trip to Kona (before he passed), I had come to assist him after he took a severe spill walking down the hill from the KTA market with a full bag of groceries (in his flip-flops!). He was quite bandaged up head to toe and not moving too well when I arrived. His first comment to me was:

“I’ve lost my swagger, Michael.”

I couldn’t have said it any better.

His first request was to drive into town for a haircut at his regular barber. I had been there many times. As we approached the barbershop, Dad shuffled slowly in as a customer held the door open and patiently waited for him to get by. The guy was looking at him and his bandages with obvious curiosity and sympathy (along with everyone else) when suddenly, out of nowhere, Dad looked up at him and blurted out,

“You should see the OTHER guy!”

The man holding the door was pausing to process what the heck Dad was talking about when it hit me as I was taking a seat. I was laughing so hard that I almost started to cry. Dad just shuffled up to the barber chair and sat down as if nothing had happened. The barber knew him well and took it in stride as he began dressing him for his haircut.

Dad was not a letter writer, but he was famous for his sticky notes on stuff he would send you in the mail. Often, they were written on a card or piece of paper that he would reuse. Here’s one he wrote on an article he sent me:

“Hey, it’s not all wine and roses over here! This can be a very tough life, especially if you’re in your late, late eighties. I messed up cutting these articles out of the paper, but I’m sure you’ll get the drift.
Dad”


Another sticky note on a rather lengthy New Yorker article he sent me about Apple and the upcoming iWatch:

“ Mike – I don’t want to over burden you with too much shop talk, but thought this might be of interest. It’s a little long and drawn, but does have its highlights, and it’s a good inside look into Apple’s modus operandi. In any event, you’re stuck with it!
P.S. For your appreciation of my sending it, you can give me an Apple watch for Father’s Day.”

This one was written on a copy of the Santa Monica High School alumni newsletter, which included some photographs of his classmates:

“Mike: I have enclosed 2 Xerox’s from the recent Viking news, which is a quarterly published for SMHS alumni. One is a recent picture of Charlie French, which I thought you would like to see. The other caught my eye because I knew everyone involved from my Malibu days. Dave Rochlen is the founder of Jams, and Peter Cole and Buzzy Trent were famous big wave riders (Buzzy looks like he had a couple of 20 footers break on him).”

And looking at the picture of Buzzy, I had to agree!

2 — Sleep trumps diet.

Sneaking in a nap just hours before the wedding bells ring!

A key to Dad’s long and physically active life was his ability to sleep anywhere at any time. He regularly took two naps a day and never (that I remember) had a hard time getting a full night’s sleep. I will never forget one incident on the day Marla and I got married. I came into the bedroom to get the tuxedo on and found him flat on his back, taking a nap. I thought he was kidding at first, but with his hearing aids out, I could hardly wake him up!

Dad’s sleep habits also seemed to counterbalance his daily nutritional habits, which were not healthy by any standard. He should have written a book on how to live a long and healthy life while eating and drinking anything you want.

My favorite story was the trip we took back to Kona from Queens Medical Center in Honolulu after surgery to install a stent in one artery. The surgeon had ordered him on a low-fat, low-sodium diet and told him not to lift anything over ten pounds for two weeks. He repeated the last one three times! We were driving back to Dad’s place from the Kona airport when he had me stop at one of his favorite restaurants along the way (“Michael, pull over here!”). I was not surprised when he ordered a giant schooner of draft beer and a large plate of french fries. Of course, he salted the fries heavily and covered them with ketchup.

Picking my words carefully, when I mentioned that the schooner probably weighed over ten pounds (deciding to ignore the rest), he looked at me like I had gone mad. I will never forget that gaze as he held the giant glass mug with both hands visibly shaking as he lifted it to his lips. It was as if I had threatened to turn off his air!

And, of course, there was Dad’s infamous grocery list. Here’s one he gave Marisa for her trip to KTA one day:

– Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream, Ranch-style Doritos, Eye of the Hawk beer, Laughing Cow cheese, Frosted Flakes, Half n Half, Snickers bar.

On a thank you note he sent Terry, he outlined what would likely happen to him if money were no object in Kona:

“Terry, I want you to know that I had a big time blowing away your gift certificate at Drysdale’s: 1 beer, 3 Rob Roy’s, 1 Stinger on the rocks, and the Shrimp basket.
So thanks a lot. I hope I can repay you if you make it over in December.”


Surely, he slept better than ever that night!

3 — Keep life simple.

Dad’s bathroom towel rack was draped with one pair of swim trunks for each day of the week

Everyone who knew Dad was envious of how he had simplified his life. He had boiled his world down to the bare essentials. He should have won an environmental achievement award for having the lowest carbon footprint in the state of Hawaii. We all have a lot to learn from him in this area.

On the day I took dad to Los Angeles airport for his move to Kona from Newport Beach (Park Newport apartments), I came to the shocking realization that he was serious about simplifying. He told me he had sold everything for the move, including his car. When he got into my car with a single (small!) suitcase for his flight and nothing else, it hit me.

Huh?

“Dad, where’s your stuff? Did you ship it?”

His quick reply:

“This is it, Michael. I got rid of everything.”

And he stayed that way. Dad never succumbed to a life of possessions and complexity. Including never again owning a car. His unit #29 at the Keauhou Surf & Racquet Club was a perfect example of that. A couple of $3.99 plastic Wal-Mart chairs around a $4.99 plastic Wal-Mart table was the only furniture he needed. He didn’t seem to mind that we all had to stand around to talk with him when we visited. I think he liked that you would never stay long if you didn’t have somewhere to sit. I tried to buy him a Lazy Boy chair several times to help him get his feet up.

“If I want to lay down, I’ll just go out to the pool!” he quickly shot back.

Good point.

Dad’s fantastic ability to keep life simple and avoid the stress attached to the things we accumulate was genuinely something to be admired. Here’s another note he wrote us on the back of his race number for the Keahou 5K run, effectively reusing the race number as a notecard:

“Hi Gang: I picked up my race booty, which consisted of two T-shirts in addition to the race shirt (I may not leave much money, but I’ll leave a lot of T-shirts,) a twelve dollar gift certificate at Drysdales (that’s 3 Rob Roy’s), and a medallion on a blue ribbon…. The weather has been great. Highs in lo 80’s; lo’s in high 60’s with afternoon clouds and no vog. The snow bunnies are real happy!”

And yes, he did leave us lots of T-shirts.

4 – Exercise for life!

Still playing solid tennis well into his eighties!

One quality that most influenced me was Dad’s example with consistent exercise throughout his entire life. This was one of the few areas where he did offer advice as we were growing up. Dad believed exercise was a true fountain of youth, whether it was his tennis, surfing, skiing, or even jumping rope in the living room. And he was living proof that it worked!

This note on the back of a reused Christmas card says it all:

Life here goes on! Following is my current schedule:
– Monday: work 9-12:30. Tennis 3-5.
– Tuesday: Bike to the village. Coffee at the Pub. Work out at the club and a run. Bike back to the pool.
– Wednesday: Tennis 2-4.
– Thursday: same as Tuesday
– Friday: same as Monday
– Saturday: same as Tuesday and Thursday
– Sunday: rest it up at pool. Tennis 3-5.
Of course there are variations, but not many. I’m sure you get the idea!
Love, Jack”

5 — Enjoy life.

Never one to miss an ice cold beer after a round of tennis.

Everyone who knew Dad agreed that he set the stage for enjoying life. Whether it was a brilliant Kona sunset, cold beer, or a well-played football game on TV, he enjoyed it to the fullest and let everyone around him know. It was a fun quality of his that I miss a great deal. Dad never let work distract him from taking pleasure in life and kept a keen eye on those who did the same. No question that a part of this has propelled me into the work/life balance coaching arena.

Here’s an insightful comment he made about Bob Simmons, a fellow Malibu surfing pioneer, in a note to me about a recent surf auction of a Simmons surfboard for $40,000:

“This is the same board I’m riding in the Malibu photo. I’m not sure how many of these Simmons made, but don’t think it could be more than 5 or so. I can only remember seeing one other that was owned by Jim Arness. Bob was anything but a grinder when it came to making boards and never let work interfere with his surfing. There seems to be a lot of money out there for old surf collectibles. I may be sitting on a fortune!”

Dad was not a complainer. Later in life, when the speed bumps (as he called them) started showing up, he would still find pleasure in the midst of it. Don’t get me wrong; he let you know if he didn’t like something or if something had not gone well. He never dwelled on it and soon was making light of it after.

When we made a trip back to Queens Medical Center in Honolulu for his bladder cancer surgery, he had to carry a catheter bag with him along the way. I could not believe how he kept his spirits up and maintained a sense of humor about it all. I was cringing at the sight of him carrying the catheter bag when we came to airport security and he (of course!) got pulled aside for the complete shakedown treatment by the TSA agents. He kept looking at me with an “are you kidding me” look on his face as they patted him down.

“I need a beer Michael,” was his first comment as he rejoined me. I’ll never forget that beer. He took a long draw from the cold, wet mug, and belted out:

“Ahhhhh, that’s a good one, Michael.”

I was looking at him and wondering how he possibly could be enjoying a beer right now? Yet he savored it as if it was going to be his last!

6 — It’s OK to be sentimental.

West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery in Kona, Hawaii

The family all knew about Dad’s goodbyes. They were painful for those of us who were trying to leave from a visit with him. I dreaded it every trip, as he always fell apart and started to cry when it was time to say goodbye. My last trip over was the worst of all. It was as if he knew he would not see me again, finally just telling me to leave.

The point I think he would make for the grandkids is not to hold your emotions in, but to let them out. I wish I could be more like that. Here are a couple more of his sticky notes as evidence.

This one is regarding a blog I had written about my San Onofre experience with him growing up:

“Mike, this is pretty good. I must confess your re-capitulation of a trip to SanO brought tears to my eyes. I’ve out-grown my motion sickness, but it doesn’t look like I’ll ever outgrow my sentimentality, which I for sure inherited from my father.”

In the mid-80s, Dad had taken a three-week solo trip to Australia in which the airline (Quantis) lost his luggage on the flight over. We were surprised to find a detailed daily journal he kept from that trip where he periodically lamented over the loss and its impact on his emotions. His final entry in the journal:

“Checked with Qantas about my suitcase and no luck. Someone else is wearing my snappy clothes and it pisses me off to no end!

And finally, a birthday card (not reused) he sent me shortly after college (early ‘80s):

“Hi Mike – They do roll around awfully fast don’t they. I hope you have or had a real good one! This is one birthday that always sneaks up on me. I am watching the U of U – San Jose St. basketball game from Utah and couldn’t help but have a flash-back to your graduation. You can be real proud of what you accomplished then, and what you have accomplished since. To put it mildly, you have done quite well; and I’m a very proud father.

Utah seems to have one of their better teams and I cant look at Tarkanian without thinking of Woody [our tax accountant – who did in fact look like him!].
“Fresno State has a 26 to 11 lead and the Utah coach is having kittens!
Love, Grandpa Jack”


Footnotes:

  1. All told, dad’s life was a bit of a fairy tale. The “strawberry moon” on the day of his passing is the nickname for June’s full moon, which coincides with the summer solstice. According to AccuWeather.com, the last time these two phenomena coincided was back in 1967, and it won’t happen again until 2062. I would venture to guess that it has been even longer since it fell on Father’s Day.

    Dad passed away just four months shy of his 90th birthday. He had just spent Father’s Day with his daughter Terry, and her husband, Bob Hankenson. They went out for his favorite meal of fish and chips and his favorite cocktail, a Rob Roy served “up with a twist.” To top it off, sitting on the table in his dining room was the day’s crossword puzzle in the Honolulu Advertiser with every box filled in!

10. HODADS

“Don’t give up on your dreams, or your dreams will give up on you.”
– Coach John Wooden

When my wife Marla asked me what I wanted for my 50th birthday (many moons ago), my immediate thought was not to give up on my lifelong dream of filming a surfing movie. Ever since the evaporation of our “Mexican Miracle” video in Mazatlán (in 1972), I had continued to envision starring with my best surfing buddies in a surfing movie.

I immediately moved into action. My birthday is in January, so Steamer Lane was a logical spot to film it. The lane is the place to be when the rain-soaked Pacific storms bring thick and powerfully consistent surf into Monterey Bay that time of year. It is also an ideal venue for filming from the cliffs above, where you can easily perch and capture the surfers as they go by.

On my last three birthdays at Steamer Lane, I rode big waves that never seemed to end. I was like a kid coming into a candy shop—giddy with anticipation of what was to come! The call went out to a few close friends I knew would be stoked to join in. We booked a cottage at Seascape Resort in Aptos (jacuzzi required!) for the birthday weekend and began searching for a cinematographer. I asked each of the megastar surfers to bring their big wave quiver, a CD of their favorite surf tunes from the 60s, and photographs to document their surfing history. I took the project a bit more seriously, anthologizing a 25-page term paper with photos and footnotes galore. That document turned out to be the genesis of my blog on surfingforbalance.com (in 2014). And that led to this book!

Hodads (L to R): Jack Schott, John Park, John Davis, Mike Mulkey

The surfing celebrities to join in were:

  • John Davis[i] – John was my one and only Silicon Valley high-tech surfing bro at Sun Microsystems. Ten years my senior, John and his wife Deb built their dream surf chalet on 38th Street in Santa Cruz with a quiver room for surfboards and a hot outdoor shower with a bench seat to help extract the wetsuit. I am eternally indebted to them for that shower; it is the only way I can get out of my wetsuit on a cold winter day at Pleasure Point.  
  • Mark Magiera – I grew up with Mark in CdM (since 3rd grade), crossed ski tracks in Utah, and then lived together after college in CdM. We shared many surfing safaris over the years, including a trip to Hollister Ranch that Mark invited me on in the late 1960s. We camped in Brian Blumer’s VW bus on the bluff at “Lefts and Rights,” which was about as good as it got!  Unfortunately, Mark had a conflict and missed our weekend of filming.
  • John Park – As the founder of Clear Spirit Surfboards, John frequented San Onofre with my dad and me back in the late 1960s when surfing was all we thought about (well, almost).  Johnny led me on surfing adventures in Baja back in the seventies and eighties and was a member of the infamous “Mexican Miracle” trip to Mazatlán in 1972.
  • Jack Schott – Jack was another former roommate who shared many epic days with me surfing, as well as being my loyal tennis partner. Jack was the best surfer I knew and always seemed to stay out longer and catch more waves than I did, despite having ten years on me.  He came down with a horrible cold on HODADS weekend, sitting out one day, and then borrowing a 7mm deep-dive wetsuit to get in for some action the second day. He still out-surfed us! Jack continues to surf today (at 77).
  • Gary Irving[ii] – Gary was a rare find as a local Santa Cruz artist/photographer who joined in as a cinematographer and producer. He was an answer to my prayers. Gary immediately understood what we were trying to accomplish and proceeded to invest untold hours into the final production, giving it the vital spark it needed.  Considering the lack of surf that weekend, Gary did a spectacular job producing what will be remembered as the surf movie to end all surf movies (pun intended).

Despite many objections from the peanut gallery, I held firm on naming our movie “HODADS,” a term to describe a surfer without much skill. When you bring together five surfers whose combined ages cover some 270 years, it would be serious HODAD surfing, whether we wanted to admit it or not. The title stuck.

Gary filmed HODADS[iii] on the weekend of January 14th, 2005.  As luck would have it, we had a freak lull in the surf in Santa Cruz for that entire weekend. Steamer Lane was so flat that there was not a single surfer in the water on Saturday. I could not believe it! We decided to invite Gary and his camera into our Seascape cottage with unlimited pizza and beer to spend the day recording each of us recalling our glory days surfing. We had many laughs jabbing at each other as we took our turn on camera. On Sunday, Gary let us in on a secret spot in Monterey Bay that “always had surf.”  He was right!  We ended up filming a couple of decent surf sessions at that secret spot.

HODADS was a dream come true for me. It turned out better than I could have wished, largely because of the extra time we had to film each of our personal histories with surfing. Those scenes Gary filmed in our hotel room are a treasure to pass on to the next generation. It was all about being stoked with good friends, sharing precious memories, and enjoying God’s magnificent creation in the process.

In 2015 we held an informal 10-year reunion of HODADS to rekindle some of that good karma. Somehow, we ended up having lunch at the Spanish Bay Inn at Pebble Beach instead of surfing, although our boards were strapped on the roof for action. The two 70-year-olds assured me that had nothing to do with our age.

Ha.

In the end, I’ll rest peacefully in heaven knowing I finally got my surf movie.

HODADS 10-year reunion in 2015 to sign autographs and count chest hairs.
(L to R: Mark Magiera, Mike Mulkey, Jack Schott, John Davis)

Footnotes

[i] On our second day of filming, John Davis was not feeling well and not catching waves. He left suddenly and drove home shivering and feeling some chest pain. He soon was in the Emergency room at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, diagnosed with a heart attack.  He had an angiogram that day to install a stent in the blocked artery! Thankfully, he was fine and in good spirits and continues to surf today at Pleasure Point (at 77).

[ii] I lost touch with Gary Irving shortly after our movie was produced. Unbeknownst to us, later that year in 2005, Gary married actor Paul Newman’s daughter, Nell Newman. He never mentioned that one!

[iii] The full-length DVD that Gary Irving produced is available for special order through “surfingforbalance.com” (click “Contact Mike”). There is an abbreviated version of the full-length DVD available for viewing online at:

HODADS (the movie)

Part I – HODADS (the “surfing”): 10:40

Part II – HODADS (the “surf stories”): 12:50


9. Peace of Mind

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.”
-John 16:33 (NIV)

Quitting the Corona del Mar High School basketball team my junior year is one regret in life that has lingered. I showed up late for a Saturday practice (the surf had been good!), and coach Tandy Gillis made sure that I would not want to do that again. And I didn’t. At the end of practice, I sheepishly told him I was quitting. Enough already. I was seventeen years old and didn’t need a basketball coach telling me what to do.

Or so I thought.

Coach Gillis was a bit of an icon in the basketball world. I appreciate that much more now than I did then. He was an All-American at The University of California at Berkeley (Cal), where he had played under coach Pete Newell, who coached Cal to the 1959 NCAA championship. Rumor had it that Tandy held Jerry West to his lowest offensive point total in his college basketball career at West Virginia University. And if you don’t know Jerry West, he was good enough to have the logo of the NBA modeled after him. Tandy’s Cal Bears beat Jerry’s West Virginia team in the finals 71-70 that year!

Coach Gillis was all about defense. He could teach it like Einstein could teach physics. It was quite simple. He taught us to play an extraordinarily tight man-to-man defense by following two principles:

#1: “Crawl inside their jockstrap,” as he used to say, and deny every pass possible.

#2: Protect the baseline as if it were Fort Knox; Don’t let anyone with the ball go by.

Conceding on either point resulted in sprinting the lines up and down the court until you were ready to barf.

Coach Wooden
Paradoxically, another basketball coach emerged later in my life, Coach John Wooden of the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team.

Growing up as a basketball fan in SoCal meant you had to be aware of what the Wizard of Westwood (as Coach Wooden was known) was doing on the basketball court at UCLA. For me, it started when I stayed up late with Dad to watch the KTLA Channel 5 replays of those UCLA games in the mid-1960s. I could not wait for the “Oh MYs” from announcer Dick Enberg as UCLA ran endlessly up and down the court, scoring at will, always ending up on the winning side. Dad would tell you that I usually fell asleep by halftime as the replays started at 11:00p.m.

The Wooden-coached UCLA Bruins won ten NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships (March Madness) over a period of twelve years (1964-1975), including seven in a row (1967-1973), and had four undefeated seasons (1964, 1967,1972, 1973).

However, I will never forget one loss in 1968 when the Houston Cougars and Elvin Hayes ended UCLA’s 47-game winning streak in what was billed as “the game of the century” at the Houston Astrodome.[i] I cried like a baby at the end of that game.

What Coach Wooden was doing was unprecedented in the sports world, and I could not help but be caught up in trying to understand it. Something was quite different about how this man approached the game. Amidst the myriad of UCLA victories, he inspired his players to find their very best within themselves while being as cool as a cucumber watching them do it from the bench.

Even during the tensest moments of a game when his team appeared rattled, he would let them play on without calling a time out. After the game, he was always very humble, giving credit to those around him before himself. Most unique of all, Coach Wooden never spoke about “winning.” His focus was on helping each player become the best they possibly could be on the court. He emphasized the importance of practice, telling his players that the games would go well if they practiced well. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

Wooden’s unrivaled success was a puzzle I felt compelled to piece together to see if I could apply it to my life. Fast forward 20 years to Silicon Valley in 1992, and I was starting to see the picture. As soon as our two children, Marisa and Matthew, were old enough to play organized basketball, I entered the coaching ranks, determined to make amends for my regret of quitting Coach Gillis’ team in high school. It was there that the pieces came together, as I modeled my coaching around Coach Wooden’s now-famous “Pyramid of Success,”[ii] which summarized the building blocks required for success, both on the court and off.

Hard work was at its core, no getting around that with Coach Wooden. Once you had done the hard work, Wooden emphasized patience (“good things take time”), along with faith (“through prayer”) to be at your best when your best is needed. All this resulted in peace of mind that you could rest in the knowledge that you gave it your best effort. Coach Wooden would add, “You are the only one who truly can judge that!” Soon, I had every player on the team memorizing these pyramid blocks and reciting Wooden quotes during critical moments in a game or practice. The kids were terrific in embracing it, and of course, the parents loved taking the emphasis off winning.


When I read Coach Wooden’s first book, They Call Me Coach; I discovered a crown jewel that had been missing in my puzzle. In discussing his beliefs on success, Coach Wooden quoted straight from the Bible:

“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33, NIV).

Right there, in Chapter 13, Wooden spilled the story of his Christian faith and how basketball was of minor importance in comparison to belief in our Lord Jesus Christ. Coach Wooden carried a metal cross of Jesus in his pocket through all those many games at UCLA so he could hold on to it and be comforted by his Savior when things got difficult. He said he would rub the cross for comfort to the point that it had been worn down on the corners over the years.

Oh MY!

This was the missing piece I had been looking for; it fit perfectly. It was so simple, yet so true. The mere idea of attaining peace of mind through faith in the cross in pursuit of success would be a theme that rang true for me in my career for the next two decades in Silicon Valley. I bought several metal crosses as reminders. Most remarkable of all was that Coach Wooden practiced what he preached. His players all looked up to him for his principles and commitment to his faith. He lived it! That set John Wooden apart and helped him see the level of success he achieved at UCLA.

Meeting Dick Enberg and exchanging stories of those late-night KTLA broadcasts of UCLA basketball games.

The most challenging job of my career was as a field sales manager at Siemens (1993-94), with a $6 million annual sales quota of telecommunications systems. I managed ten sales representatives who fought daily battles for sales territories, new accounts, quota alignment, customer satisfaction, and that very elusive Purchase Order to win a deal against the competition. My Circle of Life centered on work and not much else. I was struggling to find peace of mind at the end of the day, whether I was achieving my sales quota or not. Each day I went home to my family battle-weary, struggling to find success in the midst of it all.

In a panic to find help, I decided to type a letter to Coach Wooden and ask for resources to apply his principles around the Pyramid of Success. It was a long shot; I was hoping someone in his office might respond. Within one week, I had a hand-written letter in a hand-written envelope to me from Coach Wooden himself.

Huh?

He opened by thanking me for taking the time to write:

“Your words of commendation were very kind and deeply appreciated. Many thanks for taking the time to express yourself.”

Coach Wooden was truly demonstrating the principles he was teaching! I soon created a leadership model for my sales team around the Pyramid of Success. We overachieved our sales quota two years in a row while improving customer satisfaction ratings. The puzzle was complete.

“Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.” -Coach Wooden

As a coach, father, and follower of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I have found Coach Wooden’s philosophy to be an excellent way to model the values our holy Bible teaches, both to children on the basketball court, as well as to adults in the business world. It enabled me to go home at the end of the day with a sense of contentment that regardless of how the day had gone, I gave it my best and had peace of mind in knowing that it now rested in God’s hands.[I]


“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming.”
-Coach John Wooden

Footnotes:

[i] Wooden authored and co-authored seventeen books before his death in 2010 at the age of 99. I have listed a couple of my favorites below. A google search on “John Wooden” will bring up many more. They all model the values and beliefs of this remarkable man.

  • “Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization” (2005) by John Wooden and Steve Jamison. Wooden’s strategies for competitive greatness translated into a leadership principles book for business or sports. A Wall Street Journal and L.A. Times bestseller.
  • “Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success: Building Blocks for a Better Life” (2005) by John Wooden and Jay Carty. A translation of Wooden’s philosophy with the Pyramid of Success into a self-help handbook based upon each of the pyramid blocks.
  • “They Call Me Coach” (1988) by John Wooden
    This was his first book and a personal favorite. It describes his humble upbringing on a small farm in Indiana and how his relationship with his father impacted him. It also is the only one of his books that covers the UCLA basketball teams in quite a bit of detail, which I appreciated, having watched so many of those games.

[i] The UCLA Bruins were #1 rated in the country and had won 47 games in a row, including the NCAA Division I championships in 1964, 1965, and 1967. Houston was #2 in the country and led by Elvin Hayes, who scored 39 points (he could not miss!). A footnote is that UCLA’s star, Lew Alcindor (Kareen Abdul-Jabbar), had the worst game of his college career (making 4 of 18 shots), suffering from a severe eye injury the previous week (he sat out the two previous games). Two months later, UCLA destroyed Houston 101-69 on route to their fourth NCAA Championship.

[ii] Coach John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” can be found at: https://www.thewoodeneffect.com/pyramid-of-success/

8. Spirit of Char

“Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but the Bible says love your enemy.”
-Frank Sinatra

Christmas breakfast at Char’s was an experience never to forget!

The first thirteen years of my life were a fairytale. My mother Charlene (everyone called her “Char”) was, for me, the perfect mom. Char was a living example of the power of the soul. Her spirit carries me forward each day. Anyone who knew Char would tell you what a tremendous life force she was.

Then one day, out of the blue, I heard these words from mom:

“Your dad has asked for a divorce.”

I will never forget that day. She had been asking me to sit down for a talk for several days, but I kept avoiding it. I was in the living room with my good friend Kevin Leitch when she came in and let it out. I didn’t react. I don’t remember thinking anything. The first words out of my mouth were,

“Will I still be able to go to San Onofre with him?”

I’m not sure when I comprehended the scope of what was happening. San Onofre was all I had to hang on to at that point, so it became my focus, and I stuffed the rest deep inside. Their divorce continued to reign down repercussions on my world for years. Life would never be the same.

While Dad greatly influenced my surfing and athletic side, Mom was the essence of who I am. Even her twin brother (Charles Lloyd) was a bit like looking in the mirror for me. Their mother (Oa Cannon) had as significant an influence on my life as anyone. I got their DNA.

When I look back at Mom’s life, I am amazed at what she accomplished. She always kept her perk and cheer, despite many challenges. Everyone admired Char’s grit and determination. She was a very hard worker, determined not to depend on anyone.

Mom was ill-prepared for life without Jack following the divorce. She didn’t drive, for starters, and had never balanced a checkbook. I will never forget that first driving lesson when she asked me which pedal was the “gas” and which was the “brake” (not kidding!). Her plunge into independent living was akin to planning an ascent atop Mount Everest without a guidebook. Her achievements were herculean.

Despite many nights crying herself to sleep after the divorce (I would hear from my bedroom), she rose above the calamity and created a loving home base for my sister Terry and me. Our home was full of her upbeat attitude, delicious cooking, and an open door to all of our friends; Everyone loved Char. She always looked at the glass as half full. I have warm memories of our high school parties on Marguerite Avenue with mom in the center of the action booming Frank Sinatra songs on her concert-sized speakers. Char loved Sinatra.

507 Marguerite Avenue became party central in our high school days

On January 3, 2007, Mom passed into heaven in bed at her home in Santa Barbara, California. We had a memorial service and spread her ashes into the Pacific Ocean on January 12th. Pallbearers Greg Ross, John Park, Mark Magiera, Skip Lauderbaugh, Jack Schott, our son Matthew (age 11), and I paddled her ashes out for spreading. It was a remarkable event, capped by a school of dolphins who joined in for the paddle back to shore.

I had no idea of the void I would feel once mom was gone. She was always accepting and supportive of who I was. I can hardly remember her ever criticizing me or telling me not to do something. She provided the loving support a boy can only dream of.

I read the following poem at her memorial service. It was written at her bedside in 1997 at Hoag Hospital (where she worked for years as a breakfast chef) while she was on a respirator for seven days after suffering a pulmonary stroke. Doctors had given her little chance of surviving and told us that she would not live on her own again if she did survive. As Char’s story goes, she lived another ten years, fully independent, continuing to balance her checkbook, doing her cooking and cleaning, and enjoying her four grandchildren right up to the day she passed.

————-

The Spirit of Char

A gift from the heavens, you and Charles were.
Born to a widowed mother with young Norma, it was tough on her.
The Lord blessed you with a spirit, flourishing with love.
A spirit cheerful and happy, embracing hope from above.

Your young life took a turn, with an accident to the head.
Everyone had an opinion, but your spirit was not dead.
You carried on with great passion, determination, and will.
Your spirit was alive! You would not stand still.

School was more difficult; language came back slow.
You were self-conscious about your bandage and what you didn’t know.
Your spirit carried you forward, that was for sure.
No fear of the hurdles; that spirit led the cure.

School continued to be a challenge, but your progress was clear,
You stepped way beyond your boundaries, year after year.
Your parents had you tutored and watched very close.
What you wanted was freedom, to make of life the most.

Going off to Sun Valley, the Grand Canyon, and more.
It was time to experience a life different from before.
Then off to California at Malibu on the beach.
Your spirit caught fire, and surfing Jack would teach.
You fell in love and married in Las Vegas; it all happened so quick!
But it was right, your spirit told you; he was the perfect pick.

Two kids, Terry and Mike; dreams realized and more.
The move to Corona del Mar, and a house you adore.

Cycling to work at our school cafeteria was the best.
This life in California, you had been blessed.

Your Christmas show was magnificent! Spending days to prepare.
We were so anxious to get presents; the credit was not there.
That Christmas tree outrageous, year after year.
You decorated it to perfection and filled it with cheer.

Only now do I realize all the work you went through.
Your Christmas event was an amazing to-do.
Your spirit was Christmas; that goes without saying.
Giving us special traditions that will always keep playing.

Life took a twist when you and dad fell apart.
The challenges were many, but your spirit got a fresh start.

You learned to drive a car; “which pedal is the gas”?
To balance the checkbook, and make sure that in school we did pass.

Your spirit was strong, your will even stronger.
Staying cheerful and happy, though your days were much longer.
Enjoying my friends and our parties, which never seemed to end.
Everyone loved seeing Char; she was their best friend.

Selling our house by the beach was hard to bear.
You had your job at Hoag Hospital and now some money to spare.
You bought a mobile home, at Seacliff by the Sea.
With orange carpet and green siding; it was now the place to be.
It had more oriental decorations than the restaurants down the street.
And a stereo with huge speakers, playing to Sinatra’s beat.

I can taste your lamb dinners; it was my favorite I thought.
Roasted veggies cooked to perfection, though you’d argue they’re not.
A special spinach salad with those home-baked buttermilk rolls.
All on orange oriental china, down to the saucers and bowls.

Then came your German chocolate cake, weighing in at ten pounds.
My friends said it was the best, even better than it sounds.

My memories of you are endless; your spirit still stands out.
God has richly blessed me; there is no doubt.
Your life was tough, and tests were more than seemed fair.

But your attitude was positive; always a smile to share.

Now you are in heaven, rejoicing with Oa and Paul.
I really do miss you and want to give you a call.
So I bid you farewell, your spirit remains with me.
On to the New Jerusalem, where you are set free.

Well done, good and faithful servant.
(Matthew 25:23 NIV)

Goodbye mom

ENDNOTES

Mom suffered a brain injury at age ten in 1936 that greatly impacted her childhood. As a means of documenting this for her grandchildren (Hayley, Brennan, Marisa and Matthew), this excerpt below is from a letter written by her mother (Oa Cannon) to describe mom’s injury (unedited):

“It was here that Charlene fell from the top of the shoot-the-slide in the City Park and received a bad concussion. The doctor thought she was not badly injured, but her teachers (who were my friends) said her attention span was very short and quite a problem. When we moved to Salt Lake the Principal called us and said there was something decidedly wrong. She would know something one day and the next day it would be gone. We had her tutored and she seemed to learn quickly, but again, it would leave her. I spent hours in the evenings trying to teach her to read.
In Salt Lake we followed the suggestion of the Principal and took her to Dr. Harrow, it didn’t take long to point out her trouble. The injury was on her main retention nerve. He said she should be operated on or she would become worse. Already her little finger on the right hand was growing crooked, also her right foot had slowed its growth. He told us it wouldn’t be a complete recovery because it had been there so long.

Paul had his appendix out, Lynne (at seven months) had to have her tonsils out, she had been ill with asthma from diseased tonsils, then this operation was about more than we could handle financially. Three days after Charlene’s surgery she had a hemorrhage, her face was so swollen you could hardly tell where her nose was, she couldn’t talk. It took a year before she could walk and talk – still there were words she wanted to say, she tried, but it just wouldn’t come out right. It was a hard experience for her and us all. She was so bad that we all agreed it was only prayer that saved her.”

7. Circle of Life

“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.

Holy cow! 

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.

Here is the “Circle of Life” quiz (pdf file): https://surfingforbalance.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/circle-of-life-quiz-v5-4.pdf

Give it a try!

A balanced life not only feels good, but my experience is that it helps those around you too. As that instructor reminded us that opening day of class:

“If you can keep your life in balance, you will inevitably be a much happier and healthier person.”

6. Riding the Wave in Silicon Valley

“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 suntan. 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. 

Marketing for new members at Covina Hills Racquet Club (1983)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

This Woody Woodworth poster hung in my office for many years.

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.

5. Leisure Society

“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.”

Check.

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.

Resident Advisor’s at the University of Utah in 1974 (Reid Miller with the dark hat)
 

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.

Huh?

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.

My sister Terry and I preparing to drive home from another Salt Lake City ski trip (1958).

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.

4. Mexican Miracle

Heaven is full of answers to prayer for which no one ever bothered to ask.”
-Billy Graham

Bruce Brown’s “The Endless Summer” set my surfing dreams on fire in 1966.

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 [1]

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.

Minor details.

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 Turista sticker was required on your car to travel into mainland Mexico.

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.

“Adios, amigos!”

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.

“Bitchen.”

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.

These signs became our nightmare as they sent us blindly into the jungle on dirt roads.

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

Team “Endless Summer” reunion at SanO 2016

Footnotes:

  1. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060371/