3. San Onofre Surfing Club

“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.”
Andy Rooney

(art by Jim Krogle)

While Corona del Mar provided an ideal beach community for growing up, it was my time with Dad at San Onofre that most influenced my views on balancing work and life later in my career. Just mention the words “San Onofre Surfing Club (SOSC)” and it brings on a rush of heart-felt memories of living an unencumbered life on the beach doing what I enjoyed most, surfing. San Onofre (“SanO” or “Nofre” as the locals called it) was a slice of heaven.

The story of how the San Onofre Surfing Club was formed and later impacted by the 37th President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, is one of the more colorful stories of surfing history. Looking back on it today, it seems inconceivable that a group of surfers could arrange to lease a pristine and secluded surfing beach in Southern California from the U.S. Marine Corps for $1 a year!

San Onofre History
As the crowds converged on Malibu, a unique surfing beach emerged 90 miles south near the San Onofre railroad station. Originally known as a fishing camp, it was soon discovered that this beach had a unique environment for surfing. The collection of bottom rocks mixed with sand on the seabed produced strikingly consistent waves with a long peeling and gently sloping nature, like those at famed Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. Word quickly spread among the surfing crowd of this gem of a surfing beach called San Onofre.

Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison and Pete Peterson were two of the first regulars at San Onofre in the mid-1930s, after the new jetties in CdM had destroyed the surf there. Both had traveled to Hawaii and brought back that aloha spirit to San Onofre. It was a perfect fit for this secluded stretch of beach, over a half-mile long and backed by dirt cliffs to maintain a sense of exclusivity. There was even a palm thatch shack on the sand left behind by a film shoot from a Hollywood movie company.

By the late 1930s, San Onofre had become the place to go to enjoy the surfer’s lifestyle with an unbeatable combination of good fishing, excellent surfing, and a community atmosphere. World War II was soon to disrupt all that, changing everyone’s lives.

In 1942 the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) announced that San Onofre beach would become part of Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine Corps base in the country. It was officially dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt later that year to train U.S. Marines for service in World War II.

During those years Dad described how they would tape paper over their headlights when driving PCH between San Clemente and Oceanside for fear the Japanese were going to attack. For those lucky enough to return home from the war in late 1945, the USMC began to allow access to the beach again for surfing. The Marines in charge of Camp Pendleton were willing to work out an agreement with these surfers, understanding the sacrifices they had made for our country. [1]

(SOSC decals were a prized possession back then!)

In a startling story of cooperation between civilians and the U.S. military, the SOSC was loosely formed in 1951 to provide a group of surfers exclusive access to the beach. The SOSC gained responsibility to maintain membership, keep the beach clean and orderly, and pay a $1-a-year annual lease. Dr. A.H. “Barney” Wilkes (a San Clemente dentist), and Andre “Frenchy” Jahan (SOSC’s first president) are two heroes who finessed the USMC into the agreement.  

In the end, it was brilliant, but it did not come without some turbulent times between the two. [2] Club bylaws, membership cards, auto decals, and rules of conduct were established at the first formal SOSC meeting on the beach on April 24, 1952. Dad was fortunate enough to be a part of that early membership crowd.

This was the beginning of an era at SanO that had roots firmly planted in a simple lifestyle of a surfing society which soon became a way of life for raising your kids at the beach in SoCal. There were no lifeguards, no running water, no paved roads, and no way to take a phone call; just an idyllic world of sun and surf in a serene setting, free of life’s challenges with plenty of time for rest. These traditions would be passed on for generations to come.

Waiting
I waited all week with great anticipation for the trip to SanO with Dad on weekends. Getting that official military salute at the gate to Camp Pendleton was like gaining entrance to Main Street at Disneyland. Those windshield decals that got us by the USMC guard became a source of great pride to signify our status as a member of the San Onofre Surfing Club.

The Infamous USMC Salute to Secure Passage to San Onofre

However, getting to San Onofre was another matter. What should have been a 45-minute drive took forever! We left CdM onto PCH in mid-morning with our two Dave Sweet boards bungee corded on top of our ’64 Chevy Nova Wagon. Our first stop was the Laguna Beach Arts Festival, where Dad would play a couple sets of tennis with his good friend Jack Upton. I would try and pass the time digging holes, killing bugs, and throwing rocks, constantly hoping it was match point, no matter who was winning. After what seemed like half the day, I knew they were finally done when the Tab came out over ice in the metal tennis cans. I sprinted to the car.

“Aahhhh!” Dad would belt out with each sip while working the three-speed column shift through the maze of Laguna Beach traffic and hills while juggling the tennis can of Tab.

We were on our way! My first marker was the “Laguna Beach Greeter” (Eiler Larsen) in his bright red coat, who always recognized me, I was sure, giving me that wink and pointing right at me. Next, I watched for a wrecked car that was overturned up a cliff by Poche Beach along PCH. Getting close.

We made a final stop off the 5 freeway (Avenida Calafia) at the El Camino Market to buy some Mug Root Beer, Paraffin wax, the LA Times, and a small cluster of grapes for nutrition. The owner of the El Camino Market, Tony Duynstee, was always there to cheerfully greet us at the cash register and update us on the surf report.

The Basilone Road offramp was where we got our first view of the waves overlooking the renowned surf break—Trestles. Regardless of the conditions, my pulse spiked at just the sight of the waves; I could not wait to get in. The fancy hand wave by the USMC guard at Camp Pendleton was our final green light. We bounced down the rutted dirt road and parked at “Old Man’s” to set up base camp; a Coast Hardware beach chair, beach towel, and small Styrofoam ice chest to preserve the Mug Root Beer and grapes (no other food). Once the boards were moved off the car to the palm shack, the next hiatus began. In my younger years, Dad would not let me go in the water until he got out. He wanted to keep an eye on me in the water. Although, every time I looked to see if he saw my ride, he was immersed in the LA Times . . .

The SanO Scene at Old Man’s in the 1960s

After chatting it up with friends about the wind, tide, water temp, and Dodgers, Dad would finally wax up and paddle out. I knew he would not stay in the water long (he never wore a wetsuit), so at least the clock had started.

Jeez . . .

Dad was easy to pick out riding waves as he would drag a foot on his turns, which I now understand was from his days riding the heavy balsa wood boards at Malibu where you used your foot as a rudder to turn. My only distraction beyond watching his every move was keeping an eye out for Candy McCue to walk by. Anyone on the beach in those days would surely confirm that.

After what seemed like a 16-inning scoreless baseball game, I raced to get my board and wax up as soon as I saw Dad coming in. The water at SanO was always like dipping into a familiar bath—I never wanted to get out. Old Man’s is one of the more consistent breaks in Southern California, so there were always waves to ride, regardless of the conditions. Once I hit double digits in age, we could finally paddle out together. Surfing with Dad was about as good as it got.

SanO was a unique environment in the water. People looked out after each other, brought loose boards back out (before the leash), and took care of anyone in need. When I was ten years old, I wiped out and got hit hard in the head by my board. It opened a good slice next to my left eye, so there was lots of blood. Amazingly, Dad was right there and able to carry me to shore over the rocks on a low tide day (cutting up his feet badly in the process).

The next thing I knew, I was lying in a van chewing on European black licorice while getting eight stitches to close the gash (“It’s your Novocain,” the doc told me). I will always remember our doctor back home telling us what a good job he had done stitching it up. Only years later did I find out it was Dr. Dorian Paskowitz who had done the good deed. I remember Dad carrying a bottle of champagne in the car on the next trip down for the doc. That was how things worked at San Onofre—life in harmony.

The magic of the SOCS soon got out among the surfing crowd, and membership soared to 1,000 members by 1971 with a waiting list of 2,000. It was almost too good to be true, and many of my friends were begging me to take them. Having exclusive access to one of southern California’s most consistent surfing breaks with a built-in social community lifestyle was hard to beat. The SOSC had become a mini-civilization built around surfing with luaus, horseshoes, surfing and volleyball contests, fishing, Bocce ball, and even a Sunday school for kids! The SOSC was even mentioned in an October 18, 1965 issue of Sports Illustrated about surfing. [3]

President Nixon
As progress would have it, change was imminent with the SOSC. Construction of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station began in 1968. Just a half-mile south of Old Man’s beach, this plant employed over 2,200 people and became a prominent landmark with its twin spherical containment buildings designed to contain any unexpected releases of radiation.

OK.

In 1969 Richard Nixon became the 37th U.S. president, setting up his summer White House residence near Trestles (1.5 miles north of San Onofre), at the La Casa Pacifica. When President Nixon was in town, Trestles was off-limits to everyone, especially to surfers! Armed military police would be patrolling the beach in jeeps, helicopters flew overhead, and an 85-foot Coast Guard ship sat just outside the surf line. The SOSC was just far enough south to be unaffected.

Having President Nixon flying by in his helicopter was a sure sign the tide was about to turn. I will never forget the day in 1971 when I heard the devastating news that the entire SOSC beach had been leased to the state of California for use as a state park. It appeared to be the end of the SOSC and my dream of passing on the San Onofre baton.

The story we heard was that President Nixon looked down from his presidential helicopter at the SOSC members and asked how they had arranged to gain exclusive access to that beach on a U.S. military base. I can imagine how that conversation went! Soon, talks were in process around the creation of a new California state park, and it was believed that President Nixon wanted it to be named after him. In the end, it was deemed a presidential gift from Richard M. Nixon—but at least “San Onofre” took the name slot.

Whew!

As has been the history with the SOSC, a few heroes again emerged to keep the club alive and thriving into a new era. One was SOSC President Doug Craig, who provided the dedicated leadership and guidance for the club to stay together and work with the state of California to preserve the beach and surfing culture for future generations. The story of President Nixon meeting with the SOSC to gain his personal SOSC membership is documented in the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album and is good for a chuckle. [4]

San Onofre Surfing Contest
Next to Christmas and my birthday, the most coveted time of the year for me was the annual SOSC surfing contest at the end of summer. I thought about it every day I was in the water at SanO, replaying in my mind what the announcer would say after a good ride. It was a family fun event with something for everyone, no matter what your age or skill level. The club members who orchestrated it were the early pioneers of the sport and knew how to run a first-class surfing contest. The trophies for the finalists were right up there with the Heisman in terms of star power.

For me, it was all about my desire to surf like Erik Hops, who was in my age group. Erik surfed at a level I could only dream about.  He won 1st place every year (as far as I know) and was the best surfer in the entire club in my view. I never saw anyone at SanO who had total board control and walked the nose as smoothly as Erik. He was even famous—the very first surfing book I was given (Modern Surfing by John Severson – 1964) had a picture of Erik surfing in it. When I ordered my first custom Doug Haut surfboard in Santa Cruz years later, I fulfilled my dream of having a solid red pigment board, just like the one Erik rode at SanO.

The highlight of the contest each year was announcer Jim Irwin, who was appropriately labeled “the Vin Scully of surfing contests”. Jim’s booming voice made you feel like you were a world champion, even if you were just barely navigating an ankle biter. His enthusiasm was extreme, and his joy of the sport leaped out as he described each ride with fantastic detail and emotion. When announcing the “8-year-old and under” kids, who were barely 25 yards offshore, he made it sound like they were dropping into 25-footers at Waimea Bay:

“The white water is thundering down as he streaks across the massive face of a turbulent curl and cranks a bottom turn just in time!” 

Hearing Jim describe each contestant was like reading a character description in a Steinbeck novel. He was an artist in motion. God bless that man; I am praying that he will be announcing my rides in Heaven.

The Prized SanO Trophy with My Dave Sweet in Front of 507 Marguerite (1966)

SanO Today
It has been a great joy to live out my dream of taking my family down to SanO to experience much of what I had growing up. The SOSC leadership has done an amazing job keeping the original structure of the beach intact and maintaining the culture I became so fond of as a kid. We now arrive at 6 a.m. to get in (Dad would not have approved!), but once I park the car and collapse into my beach chair, the familiarness of it all comes right back like a favorite song from that era.

I always wanted to experience SanO like the many families who camped there all summer in vans with lots of food and drink. We started making an annual trek from northern California to SanO in a fully equipped RV, which allowed us to spend entire days into darkness soaking in the San Onofre aroma of a healthy simplicity of life. The kids loved it and I was thrilled to finally barbecue that meat I always smelled as a child among the many camper vans. We even catch the SOSC surfing contest when we can, which has maintained the same all-inclusive aloha spirit. Jim Irwin has passed on, but his legacy continues from the announcer’s booth; those “8-year-old and under” kids are still a personal highlight for me.

On one trip down I took our kids on a sightseeing tour to see the tennis court at the Arts Festival (still there), the Laguna Beach Greeter (a new one!), and we even pulled off at Avenida Calafia to find El Camino Market for some last-minute wax and ice. Incredibly, I found Tony Duynstee still at the counter almost 50 years later! Tony finally sold the store to a developer after 75 years at that location.

Fab Four Under the Grass Shack at Old Man’s in 2012

Today, as I reflect on growing up at SanO and watch my kids in the water at Old Man’s, I dig my toes into the sand and think how fortunate I am now, and was to have such a wonderful place to grow up. It is a joy to share with my wife and children. I always believed life at SanO was the way things were supposed to be. It made an indelible impression on me.

This quote from the San Onofre 1973 Cookbook for Surfers, captures the essence of SanO (unedited):

“Say San Onofre and you hear the sound of surf rolling in a long way, and smooth stones chuckling together in the shore break. As a place name, San Onofre has come to have deep meaning for a large group of men and their families who have surfed together for as long as thirty years at the same lovely, wild stretch of beach. The constancy of both surf and friendship has distilled a camaraderie that is as strong as the surfers are different… All this time, the beach has remained unspoiled, as delightful on a wind-swept winter’s day, as it is on July 4th, awash with dogs, kids, and cold drinks. Improvements in the name of comfort were avoided; no showers, no blacktop, no running water, no lifeguard stands. Out on the water, the surfers took care of each other. All problems could be brought to an open forum, a circle of beach chairs. Access to San Onofre depended on the good spirit of cooperation with the Marine Corps, and two more unlikely groups never lived side by side.”

Marion Haines, Polly Buckingham, Claire Shaver
San Onofre Cookbook, 1973

_________________

Footnotes:
[1] The San Onofre Surfing Club, 1952 – 2002: 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album, this book is a treasure of pictures and stories of the 50-year history of the club. Page 36 describes the new world order at San Onofre following WW II (unedited):

THE FORTIES – A Changed World

“World War II changed America in profound ways. It ended the Depression, unified and equalized the country, restarted the economic engine and opened doors to new lifestyles. Those who had never seen the beach till they shipped out of California [from Camp Pendleton] knew they wanted to go back there. Those who had grown up with the beach knew just how good they had it.

In 1946 a bunch of us lived down there at ‘Nofre: Glen Fisher, Wild Ass Wiley, [James] Arness, Bob Card Hammerhead – we’d go to the dump and get old furniture and set it up and live like a hobo camp. We called ourselves the “52-twenty club,” cause for the first 52 weeks after the war they paid us $20 a week as veterans. You could live like kings at ‘Nofre for that. We all enrolled in college to get better jobs and surfed every day.”
Jim ‘Burrhead’ Drever

[2] The San Onofre Surfing Club, 1952 – 2002: 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album, A summary of the struggles between SOSC members and the USMC in the 1950s are neatly summarized on page 41 of this book: “The Fifties – Birth Of The Cool”. The net of the story is that the USMC notified the SOSC in 1955 that they would no longer have exclusive access to the beach. Total chaos followed (unedited):

Things went downhill almost immediately. Irresponsible surfers set fire to the brush in the San Mateo Creek estuary and nearly burned down the railroad trestle. Burning wood thrown at the commuter train and piled debris on the tracks once caused a passenger train to grind to an emergency stop. Parking and other regulatory signs were used as firewood. The grass shack was torched. A cave on the cliffs was filled with old tires and gasoline. The fire was so intense the Marines couldn’t reach it with the fire truck. Occasionally the M.P.s were so provoked that they fired rifles and pistols at the trestle surfers. Some surfers set up camp overnight on the beach in defiance of patrolling M.P.s. The Marine Corps demanded the Club maintain order or all civilians would be restricted from the beach. The Club, of course, disclaimed responsibility, since the Marines had allowed free and uncontrolled public use of the area.

[3] San Onofre – Memories of a Legendary Surfing Beach by David Matuszak, is the encyclopedia on San Onofre, weighing in at an astounding 1,561 pages (not kidding).  One must see this book to believe it. Page 702 has an excerpt from the Sports Illustrated article in 1965 which included the following (unedited):

“At the opposite pole is the San Onofre Surfing Club, which is at the same time one of the most exclusive and one of the tackiest clubs in the world. Founded in 1951 and located at Camp Pendleton, its facilities seem to consist of little more than a few shacks badly in need of repair, which serve as dressing rooms and toilets, and its existence seems to depend on the whim of the Marine commandant. The SOSC has 800 members, each paying $20 annual dues… Elderly men wearing straw hats, smoking cigars and drinking cans of beer sit on the swells astride their boards, occasionally riding a wave in, still seated. One old gentleman says he only surfs on his birthday, of which he has several every summer.”

[4] The San Onofre Surfing Club, 1952 – 2002: 50th Anniversary Commemorative Album, A fitting close to this era is summarized on page 64 (unedited): 

Tricky Dick Goes Surfing
“When Richard Nixon moved the “Western White House” to Cotton’s Point (north of The Trestle) in ’69, ‘Nofre was put in the spotlight more than ever. As a result, the Club was now on the verge of being stripped of its beach due to the all out political battle waged against it. Members had no choice but to play their hand. Bob Mardian (Nixon’s Attorney General at that time), was an enthusiastic and active member of the Club, and was considered an ace in the hole. Members increased the clean-up detail and suspended members who trespassed on Marine property at Trestles, trying to put on the very best face to the outside world. The SOSC even went so far as to make Nixon an “honorary member” with hopes of wooing his support for a status quo approach to ‘Nofre. Tricky Dick was scheduled to meet with them down at the SOSC beach, but, for unknown reasons, he never showed. In 1970, then Club president Doug Craig was permitted a 15-minute meeting with Nixon at the Western White House after Bob Mardian had pulled some strings. Craig believed he had Nixon’s backing after their talk. But a year later, Nixon did an about-face and handed San Onofre over to the state as a “Presidential Gift”. The San Onofre Surfing Club’s little-known book for members only, published in ’74, has a special tribute to Nixon in its closing pages: a picture of Craig standing next to an upright, driftwood log, with a giant middle finger carved into it. “He betrayed us,” says Craig.”

This picture was taken the day Nixon was given his honorary membership to the SOSC in 1970. Left to right:
Robert Mardian (Nixon’s Attorney General), Mike Hops (Erik’s older brother), President Richard M. Nixon, Dick Hoover, Julie Brown, Tony Mardian, Denise Tkach, Tom Turner, Billy Mardian, Rolf Arness (son of James Arness of Gunsmoke fame), Tom Craig, and Doug Craig (SOSC President).

1. Malibu and “The Greatest Generation”

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

Drew Kampion, Stoked! A History of Surf Culture

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

My earliest memories of the beach date back to the late 1950s when our family would go to Incline Beach in Santa Monica. We lived just up the hill on 22nd Street until I was almost five years old. I don’t remember much around those early years, but the picture below of my sister Terry and me in the back of our 1947 Plymouth Woody captures a glimpse. I do remember looking very forward to our trips to the beach to play in the ocean and sand.

The beach was a place of complete freedom—open space to roam and recreation in the purest sense of the word. There were very few rules—mostly around water safety—and lots of ways to spend your time, unencumbered by the usual restrictions at home. Life became a very simple event, focused on playing in the ocean, warming up and drying off in the sand, and then eating and drinking whatever Mom and Dad happened to throw into the car that day (which was not much, if it was just Dad!).

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

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

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

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

Dear Mom:

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

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

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

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

Navy Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is an excerpt from a handwritten note [2] Dad sent me describing his experiences:

As I remember I went to radio school for about 1 month, mainly to learn Morse code.  Then went to gunnery school for a week on North Island [San Diego] where I shot 1,000 rounds of skeet.  Really sore shoulder!  That’s where my deafness started. When I finally got on the Saratoga & started flying there was a radio silence & no contact was allowed between plane & ship. So much for radio school. I think I flew about every other day. This was for submarine patrol to guard the fleet (at like 4 hours a flight).  You just hoped you had a good navigator for a pilot. With no ship to plane contact, and the fact that you were well out of sight of the fleet most of the time, if you missed the fleet on return ‘that was all she wrote.’

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

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

After somehow surviving his service on the USS Saratoga, Dad was assigned to a Carrier Aircraft Service Unit (CASU) by his request. These ships were highly strategic to turning the tide against Japan in the Pacific by providing a mobile organization to keep U.S. Navy planes in the air. Dad was stationed at several locations on the west coast of the U.S., including San Nicolas Island (75 miles off the coast of Los Angeles).

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

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

He received his Honorable Discharge (C1766958) on November 18, 1945, three years following his enlistment, and just after turning nineteen. Like others so lucky to return home, Dad took advantage of the G.I. Bill to test out of high school and enroll in college while living “high off the hog,” as he described it, on $20 per week compensation from the U.S. government. 

The G.I. Bill covered him for two years at Santa Monica City College and two years at UCLA. Below is a picture of dad taken at Ciros Night Club on Sunset Boulevard (circa 1944), which was the place to be seen during that era in Los Angeles.

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

Malibu

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

Charley French and Dad lugging two Simmons concave’s up from the beach at Palos Verdes

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

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

A spirit and camaraderie developed among these early surfers which boiled life down to its most simple elements. Many called this the birth of the surf culture, a new way of life outside the usual societal boundaries in Southern California at that time. Dad never spoke of it that way. They just survived a world war, many of them in a direct line of fire. It was the freedom they had fought for, and they were going to make sure they enjoyed it.

As progress would have it, this unique setting did not last long. With the popularity of the Hollywood movie production Gidget (along with several others that followed), thousands were soon flocking to Surfrider Beach at Malibu to test their skills at the new emerging sport. In 1959 our family moved 55 miles down Pacific Coast Highway to a sleepy beach-side community, Corona del Mar (CdM). Mom and Dad found a quaint beach house just four blocks from Big Corona State Beach. It even had a shower in the garage to wash the sand off. It was a dream come true!

The beach soon became my home base. It was where my friends and I always seemed to end up when we had free time. It was ground zero for the path my life took until graduating from Corona del Mar High School in 1973.

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

_________________

Footnotes:

  1. “Dear Mom” letter:

2. This handwritten note was unedited.

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

JackMulkey_malibu1948_600x288

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

Mark Brown Digital Arts did the wonderful recoloring work.

San Onofre Surfing Club

“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.”
Andy Rooney

Prologue (Part 3 of 4)

San Onofre by Jim Krogle (http://jimkrogle.com/)

San Onofre by Jim Krogle (http://jimkrogle.com/)

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

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

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.

SanO_Marine_salute

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

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.

Woodie_at_Alta

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.

SanO_Sunday_School2

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!

old-mans-1971-cottons
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

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

SanO_Nixon3

Nixon's honorary membership card and decal

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.

SanO Cookbook 1973

“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

**Resources**

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.

SOSC_Album