I first heard the word “hodad” in 1962, the year I began surfing. A surfer had used that strange word to describe my friends and me. “You guys aren’t surfers; you’re hodads,” he said, authoritatively, as we browsed the used board section at a Huntington Beach surf shop, trying to conceal our identities. Later that year we would take a step up and be called “gremmies.”
I could live with being a gremmie, or what most now call a “grommet,” the imported Australian term that became popular a few decades ago. By any other name, a gremmie is a young, usually annoying surfer in the early stages of wave riding. The word hodad, however, does not have such an easy definition.
In the early 1960s everybody was goin’ surfin’ and dressing in blue tennis shoes, white Levis and Pendleton shirts with your hair combed over to one side was enough to qualify as being a surfer, if you lived inland, like we did. Hodad, in the way it had been applied to us, was the same thing as being a kook today. Then it seemed to mean the same thing as being a poser, or a phony, someone who copied the dress code of surfers but couldn’t really ride waves. There were stories of hodads who bought woodies and cruised around with a surfboard bolted to the roof.
Confused I once asked my older sister if I was a hodad. In reply she asked, “Do you play with yo-yos?” I said no, in spite of having my favorite toy concealed in my front pocket, beneath my Pendleton. “Good, then you’re not a hodad,” she replied.
Over the years I have heard other definitions of hodad. Many have said that it was a “greaser,” which was someone who used lots of hair product and drove a cool car, was usually a good dancer and liked to fight, especially with surfers. True, I had been a something of greaser before I tried being a surfer after I washed about a jar of Pomade from my hair, ditched my bell-bottoms and bleached the tip of my hair white.
Hodad had been laid to rest for me until the early 1980s when surf filmmaker Steve Core stopped by while touring our coast with his latest film. He then offered another possible take on the word hodad. Steve said he had heard that convicts were often used as laborers in the 1950s, and when surfers would see them hoeing weeds on the side of the road, they would shout out, “Ho dads!” While interesting, that one never did ring true to me.
A few years later I become close with surfer and screenplay writer, Denny Aaberg. Denny, who, like me, had come of age in the early ‘60s readily admits to being a hodad. “I wore creased khakis, Sir Guy shirts buttoned to the top and wore my hair in a pompadour,” he said, proudly. “I was a hodad before I began surfing a few years later.”
So, maybe I too had been a hodad? Maybe I’m a hodad now that my surfing skills have tapered off to the point of being little more than an advanced beginner? For years I have thought of myself as a real surfer, but then again, maybe I’m not.