“I’ve learned that simple walks with my father around the block on summer nights when I was a child did wonders for me as an adult.”
Prologue (Part 3 of 4)
While Corona del Mar provided a near ideal beach community for a young grom growing up in the 60’s, it was my time with Dad on the weekends at San Onofre that most influenced my views on work/life balance today in Silicon Valley. Just mention the words San Onofre Surfing Club (SOSC) and it brings on a rush of heart-felt memories of my childhood, living an unencumbered life on the beach in Southern California. San Onofre (“SanO” or “Nofre” as the locals called it) was truly a slice of heaven. The story of how the San Onofre Surfing Club was formed, the growth of membership through the 60’s and 70’s, and how its future was directly impacted by the 37th President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, is in one of the more colorful and engaging stories of surfing history in California. Looking back on it today, it seems completely inconceivable that a group of surfers could arrange to lease a pristine and secluded surfing and fishing beach from the U.S. Marine Corps for exclusive access (surfers only) for an annual lease of $1 a year!
Following is a quick overview on how this came about, along with a perspective on the lifestyle that greatly influenced me.
The sudden attention brought on to Malibu in the post World War II era (see “Malibu and The Greatest Generation” post below) by Columbia Pictures’ blockbuster film “Gidget” was beginning to overrun Surfrider’s Beach with crowds of surfer “wannabes”. The days of sharing Malibu among a small crowd of friends in the water were gone forever. However, 90 miles south of Malibu near the San Onofre railroad station, a unique surfing beach environment was beginning to evolve, which drew the attention of many of Malibu’s original surfing crowd. Dad was fortunate enough to be a part of that crowd, and we started surfing San Onofre in the early 1960’s, after moving south from Santa Monica to Corona del Mar in 1959.
This all started with the San Onofre fishing camp, which had been leased from the Santa Margarita Ranch for day usage in the 1930s. And while the corbina, sea bass and halibut fishing were excellent, it was soon discovered that this beach had a very unique environment for surfing. The seabed is a collection of bottom rocks mixed with sand that produced amazingly consistent waves for surfing. The waves were of a long peeling and gently sloping nature, similar to those at famed Waikiki beach in Hawaii. Word quickly spread among the surfing crowd of this gem of a surfing beach down south.
Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison, a long-time SanO regular, tells the story of how he started surfing San Onofre regularly in the mid-1930’s after the new jetties in CdM had destroyed the surf there. Harrison, along with Pete Peterson, had traveled to Hawaii and brought back a slice of the aloha-spirit to San Onofre. It was a perfect fit for the setting on this secluded stretch of beach, over a half mile long, and backed up by dirt cliffs to maintain a sense of exclusivity. There was even a palm thatch shack right on the sand, which had been left behind by a film shoot from a Hollywood movie company. By the late 1930’s 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 true community atmosphere.
But the approaching storm of World War II was soon to disrupt this idyllic community on the beach, changing everyone’s life.
In February of 1942, the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) announced that Santa Margarita Ranch would become the largest Marine Corps base in the country. It was named Camp Pendleton, after Major General Joseph Henry Pendleton (1860–1942), and on September 25, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially dedicated the base to train U.S. Marines for service in World War II.
Surfing and fishing at San Onofre was mostly curtailed during the war years. Dad told me how even just driving that part of Coast Highway between Oceanside and San Clemente required one to tape paper over the headlights at night for fear the Japanese were going to attack. Soon after the war in late 1945, the USMC began to allow access to the beach again for surfing. Most of these surfers were the lucky ones who had just returned home from World War II (over 400,000 U.S. soldiers lost their lives in WWII). These guys had just saved the world from Japan and Germany! It seems quite reasonable that the U.S. Marines in charge of Camp Pendleton might have been willing to work with them, understanding the sacrifices they had made to preserve the freedom of our country. There were even a few stories documenting the Commanding Officers (CO’s) on the base having a ‘look the other way’ approach to it. It’s like the dog that fought off the fox to save the hen house – surely you are going to let the dog in now and then to have a free egg or two.
Yet, that is also when things got interesting, as even surfers back then were prone to stretching the rules a bit. There are some very funny stories of the shenanigans that took place in those early years between the surfers and the CO’s of Camp Pendleton as they worked out their differences over access and care of the beach. The San Onofre Surfing Club published a 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album in 2002 that has the best accounting of what went on during those early years leading up to 1951 when the club was first formed, including some amazing photos of the lifestyle that was forming on the beach there. I highly recommend it if you are interested to learn more.
(Following is a quote [p. 36], which sets the tone for life at SanO during that time)
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 shack at Old Mans – circa 1949
In one of the more amazing stories of collaboration and 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 agreement was that they would take responsibility to maintain the membership, keep the beach clean and orderly, and pay what turned into a $1-a-year lease with the USMC. Two long-time San Onofre surfers, Dr. A.H. “Barney” Wilkes (a San Clemente Dentist), and Andre “Frenchy” Jahan (SOSC’s first President), are two of the hero’s that made it happen. Club by-laws, membership cards, auto decals, and rules of conduct were established at the first formal SOSC meeting on the beach on April 24, 1952.
San Onofre Surfing Club 50th Anniversary Decal
This was the beginning of an era at SanO that had roots firmly planted in a simple lifestyle of community, surfing, group games and contests, good food, and lots of rest. These would become traditions that would continue to represent the overall lifestyle at SanO for decades to come.
To quote from the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album (p. 44):
“The simplest way to describe San Onofre is a way of life”, says pre-WWII surfer and longtime Nofre observer, Art Beard. “We were all just raising our families, and it was a cheap, easy and fun way to do it.”
The SOSC was officially off and running with its own surfing beach and soon-to-be, well-entrenched “big family” lifestyle. There were no lifeguards, no running water, and no way to take a phone call – just an idyllic world of sun and surf and good friends at the beach in a serene setting.
Entrance To San Onofre Surfing Club via the U.S. Marine Corps Guard
There was nothing I looked more forward to on the drive south from Corona del Mar than that guard giving you the official military salute to gain entrance to Camp Pendleton. My friend Johnny Park and I used to laugh hysterically at each other as we attempted to duplicate that fancy salute he would make with the hand to signal us by the USMC entrance. As shown, those windshield decals became a source great pride among the surfing crowd to signify your status as a member of the SOSC over the years.
Dad had a routine we would usually follow on the weekends — leaving CdM in the morning in his 1948 Plymouth Woodie with the boards on top (Dad’s 10’+ Simmons Foam Sandwich and my 8’+ Dave Sweet “pop out”). Our first stop was the Laguna Beach Arts Festival grounds in Laguna Canyon, where Dad would play a couple sets of tennis with his good friend Jack Upton. I would pass that time somehow, constantly hoping it was match point. I knew they were done when the cold Tab came out over ice in the metal tennis cans.
Terry, Mike, Charlene, and Jack loading up the Woodie for a trip back home from Salt Lake City
“Aahhhh!” Dad would belt out after each gulp of Tab while working the three-speed column shift through the maze of Laguna Beach traffic. We were on our way to SanO! I would always keep a look out for the Laguna Beach Greeter in his red coat, who I just knew recognized me, as he would always give me that wink and point right at me. Then there was the car overturned up on a cliff by Poche Beach along Coast Highway, which I’d use as a marker that we were getting close. We made one 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 maybe a couple of grapes for nutrition. Tony Duynstee, the owner of the El Camino Market, was always there to cheerfully greet us at the cash register. Amazingly, I found Tony still there as if he never left when we took our kids in to show them the market almost fifty years later!
Here is an article on Tony and the market – which he finally sold to a real estate developer in 2013.
Tony Duynstee at the counter of El Camino Market summer 2012
Basilone Road was where we got our first taste of the surf overlooking trestles, and regardless of the conditions, my blood really started flowing at that point. Then the final hand wave by the USMC guard at the Camp Pendleton entrance and we were in! We parked at Old Man’s, where Dad knew the crowd, and set up base camp, which consisted of a “Coast Hardware” insignia beach chair, beach towels, the LA Times, and a foam ice chest preserving the Mug Root Beer and a couple of grapes.
Dad usually would check in with a few friends before suiting up to go in the water. Charley French is one we would often see. Both Charley and Dad were part of the Malibu crowd, who had survived WWII, and came back to surf at SanO in the summer months. There were no wetsuits back then, both of them worked together as Ski Patrolmen at Mount Waterman on weekends in the winter to get some free local skiing in.
Mom and her sister Kathryn suiting up [with Dad] for a powder day at Alta. Not quite sure how our Plymouth Woodie got there — but from the parking job it looks like there were other priorities.
Charley was my saving grace one day at SanO when I showed up, only to realize I had forgotten to put my surfboard on top of the car. He was nice enough to loan me one for the day without asking questions (about the new girlfriend I had brought along)…
In my younger days I had to wait even longer, as dad to go in surfing first, so he could watch me while I went in after. He was easy to pick out as he often would drag a foot on his turns, which I only now understood was from his days riding the heavy balsa wood boards, where you could literally use your foot as a rudder to help you turn. Not having much interest in reading the newspaper, my only distraction while waiting FOREVER for dad to get out of the water, was keeping an eye out for Lollie McCue’s daughter Candy to walk by. Anyone who was on the beach in those days would surely confirm that.
Once I got in the water I never wanted to get out, regardless of the surf conditions. But Old Man’s always seemed to have something to ride, as it is one of the more consistent breaks in Southern California, regardless of the tide. I don’t actually recall learning to surf, but can remember going out with Dad on his board and kneeling on the nose as he stood up and surfed when I was small. At times he would fall off and lose his board in to shore. He would tell me to dog paddle around until he swam in to get it and paddled back out to pick me up. Surfing with Dad was about as good as it got.
Back in those days SanO was a very unique environment in the water. People looked out after each other, brought loose boards back out (before the leash), talked socially in the water, and generally took care of anyone in need. One day when I was about ten years old I got hit in the head by my board and opened up a good cut next to my left eye. Dad carried me to shore over the rocks (cutting up his feet), and next thing I knew I was laying down in a van chewing on some kind of special black licorice (Novocain apparently not available) and getting eight stitches from a fellow surfer to close it up. I will always remember our doctor back home telling us what a good job they had done when he pulled the stiches out a week or so later. Only years later did I find out it was Dorian Paskowitz who had done the good work. I do remember Dad carrying a bottle of champagne in the car the next trip down for the Doc. That was just kind of how things worked at San Onofre – life in harmony.
Sunday School – San Onofre style
Word about the magic of the SOCS soon got out among the surfing community, and membership boomed to 508 members in 1958, 800 members in 1961, and topped out at 1,000 members in 1971 with a waiting list of 2,000. It was almost too good to be true, and many of my friends were bribing me to take them down with us. Having exclusive access to one of southern California’s most consistent surfing beach with a built-in social community lifestyle was pretty hard to beat. The SOSC was sort of a mini-civilization, with luaus, surfing and volleyball contests, good fishing off the surfboards, Bocce ball games, and even a Sunday school for the little ones! Everyone knew everyone, and they all watched out for each other. I remember Dad leaving the keys to our car in the ignition in the case someone had to move it to get in our out, and sometimes they would do just that!
Looking back now, it is easy to see that change was imminent. It really was too good to last in the midst of what was going on in our country at the time. First was the building of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 1968, just about a half mile south of Old Man’s beach. When fully functional, this plant had employed over 2,200 people, and became a prominent landmark because of its twin spherical containment buildings, designed to contain any unexpected releases of radiation.
Then, in 1969 Richard Nixon became the 37th U.S. president, setting up a residence near the famed surfing spot Trestles (about 1.5 miles north of Old Man’s), at the old Cotton’s estate (La Casa Pacifica). When Nixon was in town, the beach was off limits to everyone, especially to surfers. The SOSC was just far enough south to be safe to go in the water. There were a few surfers who could surf Trestles when Nixon was in town. One was Rolf Arness, son of SOSC member James Arness from the TV show Gunsmoke, who lived at Cottons Estate. Another was Corky Carroll, who apparently wrote a letter to the Secret Service explaining that he was a U.S. Surfing Champion and that he did his training there. And Surfer magazine founder John Severson happened to live in the house next door to Nixon!
I can remember being down on the beach at Trestles when Nixon was not in town and cameras had been set up on the beach near the railroad tracks (years ahead of the web cam) to keep an eye on us. We of course had lots of fun with that one, trying to keep our swim shorts on! But when Nixon was there the place was off-limits, no matter how good the surf. Armed Military Police (MPs) would be patrolling the beach in jeeps; a helicopter flying overhead, and an 85 foot Coast Guard ship was sitting just outside the surf line. It seemed to me Nixon always came to town when the good south swells were hitting.
Having Richard Nixon flying by the SOSC in his presidential helicopter on a regular basis was a sure sign national politics would get involved. The story I heard is that President Nixon looked down at SOSC members on the beach one day in flight and asked how these surfers had arranged to gain exclusive access to that beach, which happened to be 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 generally believed that President Nixon wanted it to be named after him.
I will never forget the day in 1971 when it was announced in that certain parcels of Camp Pendleton, including the entire SOSC beach, had been leased to the State of California for use as a state park and beach. It was deemed a presidential gift from Richard M. Nixon – but at least “San Onofre” took the name slot in place of Nixon…
I was a sophomore in High School at the time and felt like my world had just ended, as this surely meant the end of the SOSC as I knew it. My immediate thoughts were of the “valley tourists” (as we called them) who flooded Big Corona State beach in the summer, suddenly hanging out under the palm thatched shack at Old Mans with their boom boxes playing The Jackson 5, and no surfboard on the car. The dream of raising a family on that beach the way I had been raised, seemed to suddenly disappear like snow on a hot spring day.
As has been the history with the SOSC, a few heroes emerged to keep the club alive. One was then SOSC President Doug Craig, along with a small group of club members, who provided the dedicated leadership and guidance for the club to stay together and work with the State of California to preserve the beach for future generations. This story is well documented in the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album (p. 59), “The End Of An Era”. But it gives me great pleasure to I take my kids down there today, and enjoy much of what we had growing up there in the 1960s.
Fab Four at SanO – Summer 2012
A fitting close to this era is a written in the 50th Commemorative Album on (p. 64): 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.
Whatever viewpoint one takes on the decision, Nixon’s presence in the Western White House, just a short walk up the beach, brought a unique historical legacy to the Club. And it changed San Onofre forever.”
Here is a historical picture of the day Nixon was given his honorary membership to the SOSC in 1970 (L to R) Robert Mardian, Mike Hops, Richard Nixon, Dick Hoover, Julie Brown, Tony Mardian, Denise Tkach, Tom Turner, Billy Mardian, Rolf Arness, Tom Craig, and Doug Craig
Nixon’s honorary membership card and decal
Today, as I reflect on growing up at SanO and look at my children in the water at Old Mans, I dig my toes into the sand and appreciate how fortunate I was to have such a wonderful place to grow up. I always believed life at SanO was the way things were supposed to be. Looking back today, it was truly a remarkable experience.
A good way to sum up what San Onofre meant to me, is to quote from the Introduction to the “San Onofre Cookbook For Surfers”, which was published in 1973 to capture the essence of the many tailgate feasts. These took place to satisfy the enormous appetites, which naturally come about from a day in the water at SanO.
“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 corporation with the Marine Corps, and two more unlikely groups never lived side by side.”
Marion Haines, Polly Buckingham, Claire Shaver
San Onofre Cookbook, 1973
As referenced several times above, The San Onofre Surfing Club, 1952 – 2002: 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album is a treasure grove of pictures and stories and various tid-bits of what it was like to be a part of the 50 year history of SOSC. And amazingly, it is now available on Amazon.