I don’t recall the exact quote by writer/director John Milius from his film “Big Wednesday,” but it goes something like this: “The great rides and the big swells will fade, but we will never forget the friends we rode them with.” While not as poetic as Milius’ original verse, you get the point — friendship is the central experience of the surfing life.My first surf friend was a French kid named Robert Vermont who lived behind us in the inland town of Montebello. As usual, we attended the Gar-Mar Theater one Saturday afternoon. What was unusual was that the movie, “Gidget,” would change our lives.
The year was 1958 and I had heard of surfing through my father, who had ridden waves prior to World War II in Hermosa Beach. Seeing surfing, however, the grace and beauty of boys and girls (they were in fact all boys, because Mickey Munoz wore a wig to double for Sandra Dee who played Gidget) was something I have never been able to free from my head.
Robert told me he knew how to make a surfboard. Our first act was to strip the train tracks from my H.O. Model train. Next, we sawed the boards in two, squared off the noses, and painted them yellow. We were surfers. One weekend we tried our new boards out, and were quickly sent back to shore, to discover skimboarding.
It would be four more years before the surf bug struck again. Then, I took $45 from my savings earned on my paper route and purchased a used Wardy. With that I began the difficult task of surfing with two guys in my class, Mike Arnold and Richard Moses. While I struggled in the soup, they turned and hung five, far out beyond me.
Within six months I sat outside riding waves, while my younger brother, Dave began surfing, and fought white water until he eventually joined me in the lineup. Our dad often drove us to the beach and when he was busy we hitchhiked beyond his gaze to Huntington, where we borrowed boards.
In time a friend of mine, David Zerr, and I bought a Ford station wagon together for a hundred bucks. With no spare tire, cans of soup taken from the cupboard, and less than $10 between us, we would set out into Baja on the weekends. Our plan was simple — drive until the gas gage registered half full and sleep there, on the side of the road.
In the mornings we would wake and surf until we became tired and hungry, then drive into Ensenada where $0.50 bought enough pan to fuel the weekend.
By 1969, my brother Dave and I moved to Maui for six months. A few years later it was off to Guam, Australia and New Zeland for two years.
On my return, in 1974, I began surfing longboards in response to the crowds here. A new surge of stoke hit when I began riding shorter boards built by the young, up-coming shaper and designer Michael Willis.
Michael and his twin brother, Milton, were the hot kids in town and the ones primarily responsible for getting me back into the water on a regular basis. No matter what the surf was like, they were stoked, and that stoke rubbed off, lingering even after they moved to Hawaii for a few years and I began hearing of the massive waves they were riding.
I recently caught up with Michael and Milton, and we reminisced about the old times. As I walked away from one particularly enlightening conversation with the brothers Willis, I realized we had not discussed a single wave. We did, however, remember, the friends we had rode them with. Milius was right.