In the 1950’s when I was in elementary school, a child’s self-esteem was not a matter of concern. Shame was considered a spur to good behavior and accomplishment. If you flunked a test, you might be singled out, and the offending sheet of paper, splattered with red marks, was waved before the whole class as a warning to others, much the way in which ranchers hung the carcass of an offending coyote across a barbed wire fence as a warning to other coyotes.

Fear was also considered a useful tool. In those post WWII days, we were all raised by parents and a society in which was engrained the sort of discipline, not applied with a stick, but rather, the strictures one learned by the seemingly endless depression and the world wide war that followed it. Both events required strict rules that applied to almost all parts of our parent’s lives.

They had been tempered by the depression and had the scars to prove it. Many of them had grown up without enough to eat, with holes in their shoes, ragged shirts and trousers; radios, decent cars and a complete education cut short by the depression or the war. When it came, they were not soured by their experience, but rather still looked on their country as something to love, something special. They came out of this experience self reliant, not afraid of hard work and used to taking orders. They had a sense of worth and self confidence.

We were fortunate enough to be their children.

Teachers were inviolate. Their word was law, and never in my eight years at Branch, did I ever see a parent be other than polite and solicitous to a teacher. In those days, a teacher was not suspect at all, she took care of a child’s education, both academics and social. My parents considered themselves honored guests at school and under no circumstances would they take my word in a dispute. I wouldn’t have dared.  You see, there was no principle or administrator, just the teacher and she was the be all and end all for all things school.

At my school, a two-room wooden building,  far older than a half century when I went there, hard working parents provided the foundation for teachers in every sense of the word. The teachers taught and the parents supported them. Repair and maintenance of the old building was done by volunteer labor and she was kept in pretty good shape for an old girl. Better, in some cases than the homes kids came from.

Two teachers taught about 50 kids in all grades. Divided smack in the middle by a hallway, the two class rooms were entered by doors tucked in between coat hooks, trash cans and tall cabinets in which were tucked the essential tools of the teaching trade. Grade level books, spare erasers, boxes of chalk; for we still used slate black boards in those days, Rags, cleaning supplies and the detritus accumulated over eighty years of use.   Mrs Edith Brown taught first through fourth and Miss Elizabeth Holland, a spinster lady, taught fifth through eighth. Mrs Brown had just arrived a year or two before me; 1949, to be exact, after a long career teaching at the Arroyo Grande grade school on Orchard St. The home of kids we referred to as “Town Kids,” somehow sensed as inferior to us. They on the other hand referred to us as “Farmers,” Most certainly a perjorative term, usually accompanied by a sneer.

Miss Holland taught her entire career at Branch. Until almost her 35th year she taught alone. Only at the twilight of her career, was a second teacher assigned as enrollment increased school population; the beginning of the “Baby Boom,” and the closing of nearby Santa Manuela school made the classes too large for a single person.

Branch school had been moved from a previous location by the expedient of jacking it up, sliding peeled logs beneath it and hitching the entire contraption to a team of horses, then dragging it wherever you wanted it’s new home to be. In our case, a hollowed out side-hill near the old Branch Family cemetery on the original Santa Manuela Rancho in the upper Arroyo Grande.  Behind and to the right was open, oak studded pastureland, complete with the occasional Hereford. To the left, a scattering of homes, mostly small and fairly recent. Across Branch Mill road was the Ikeda brothers reservoir, a small fenced pond in which the gate was never locked. Tthe creek, was about a half mile down the hill. Across the creek lived the Cecchetti family. Gentle Elsie, big George and the legendary George “Tookie” junior. To the left, an expansive view of the lower valley, all the way to the dunes, fourteen miles away. The view explained, at least in part, why Don Francisco Branch located his home on a little hillock, less than a mile from the school. That building was long gone, having been built of adobe sometime around 1838, it had gently melted back into the earth from which it came. The site guarded by a pair of ancient pepper trees, whose seeds traveled across an ocean in a small bag carried by the Franciscan Fathers who found their way 2690 miles on foot to the site of the Mission, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

In the fifties we considered ourselves modern because we had a school bus. When I started school, it was a 1949 Chevrolet half-ton pickup, fitted with a brown canvas top, two wooden benches down the sides and a chain across the back where the tailgate used to be. You simply climbed up and over the bumper and perched where ever there was a seat. It had a roll down flap in the rear to protect kids from the rain. Why I don’t know, most kids had to walk from home to the bus stop no matter what the weather. Our house was about a quarter mile from the back door to the mail box where we were picked up. In the winter that driveway, if I can dignify it as such, was slimy with mud and puddles that reached little boys ankles.  I still recall the ritual of using a kitchen knife to scrape as much mud as you could from your shoes and then putting them in the oven to dry. The next morning, shoes were dry, but as stiff as an old hide and had to worked about in order to make them soft enough to wear. In case you missed the part about the kitchen knife, yes, they were the same ones we ate with. No one seemed the least concerned about that. Just a job that had to be done.

Our bus driver was Mrs Evelyn Fernamburg. She did duty as the bus driver, janitor, school board member and 4-H leader. You see, Branch was its own, independent school district. It was almost entirely a volunteer operation. The county school office  provided the budget and thats all you got. The budget came almost completely from property taxes and after the county skimmed off the lions share, schools received their allotments. School board members used  funds for improvements, teachers salaries, the bus and driver, and then did the rest of the jobs for free. They built the monkey bars, teeter totter and carousel on weekends. There was no lawn and the playing fields were simply scraped out of the hill sides. No child of the fifties will ever forget that, in order to save money on the continual painting of the old redwood siding, which was a big job, the board decided to cover it all with a brand new innovation, asbestos shingles. An off pink color, they solved the problem of repainting but, of course, they were asbestos. Didn’t seem to hurt anyone though and the school was well known for its “wonderful” color.

Behind the school were the restrooms. The term restrooms is applied loosely. Both boys and girls were in a small green shed, divided in the middle with the girls on the school side and the boys on the up hill end. Neither had a door, only a little privacy wall to prevent any immodest peeking. They both had a toilet with a wooden seat. In the fifties they had dispensed with old phone books and stacks of small squares cut from newspapers and used what my dad called window pane toilet paper, you can guess what that meant. Each room had something unique. The boys had a urinal or rather a trough for them to use. It was a galvanized thirty gallon water pressure tank cut in half lengthwise and bolted to the wall. A piece of half inch diameter pipe, drilled with a series of small holes and a gate valve at one end, completed this modern marvel. The girls had something even better; Bats. Boys, of course, knew all about bats and how the would lay their bat eggs in little girl’s hair. Mass screaming during recess would bring whichever teacher was closest, running to the bathroom with a handy broom to chase the bats away temporarily, at least. We boys took an unusual amount of pleasure in this.

One of the things that we didn’t realize until we were much older was, with only a few kids of any age, every activity from classroom study to recess and organized games required all ages, six to fourteen. All grades were together for every thing we did, be it a school play, softball or jump rope. Each game had its season, none marked on a calendar, but mysteriously appearing when the time was right. Suddenly, in the spring, marbles. The jump ropes, dormant in the old closet that served the athletic gear, brought out for the two weeks that jump rope was in vogue. In our school this was not just a sport for girls. There was no PE. Groups of kids just decided what to do on their own. There was almost no adult supervision, kids were expected to use their imaginations.  Older girls might stay in during lunch and listen to records they brought from home on the little portable record player that was kept in the closet. Oh, the wailing and crying in 1959 when the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens were killed. Lulu, and the Judy’s were fit to be tied. A terrible tragedy when you are just 13.

I never heard a teacher or parent discuss curriculum. We were taught the basics of math, social studies, California history and we read, a lot. With perhaps 30 kids, Miss Holland supervised four grade levels all at the same time. When giving lessons to one grade level she left the others on their own. We helped each other. Books were kept for a long time not traded in for new ones every couple of years. I used a social studies book in 1956 that was used by William “Bill”  Quaresma in the 1930’s. I used a reader with the name Al Coehlo on the flyleaf. His son Al Jr was just a year behind me and used the same book as his father. History doesn’t change much, the teacher could fill in the blanks. Lest you think our teachers weren’t very good, The county schools superintendent told my father that Miss Holland was the finest teacher in the county in reply to a parent complaint. She had polio as a young woman and walked with a pronounced limp and used a crutch when she was tired. She was so very kind to all of us kids and I’ve thought through the years that those hundreds of kids she taught must have been her true family. My mom took me with her when she went to visit her on Pine St in Santa Maria a couple years after she retired and she seemed somehow diminished, as if the school was a part of her that was lost. She died in 1965, just 58 years old. In the picture at the head of this story, she is 47. She lived her whole life in that house on Pine St, she never married. We were her children.

All in all I was treated with kindness, which was often more than I deserved. My public school education has stood the test of time, which includes both the lessons my teachers instilled and the ones they never intended.


On the front steps of Branch School, 1932. I went to school with the children of many of the students pictured above. Most of these children are second generation immigrants whose families were working, renting or buying the rich farmlands of the Arroyo Grande. Mostly Portuguese from the Azores or South America whose families came to this country in the surge of immigration from the islands after the 1880’s. The Japanese families arrived about the same time, post 1880.

My own classes in the 1950’s weren’t unlike this one. We had some of the same surnames. We were Italian, Portuguese, Mexican, Irish, English, Filipino and Japanese. Quite a hodgepodge. My eighth grade class had four, the two Judys, Hubble and Gularte and the two Mikes, Murphy and Shannon.  Our teacher, the same Miss Holland.

credits: Cover photo, 1956, Back Row, l-R Dickie Gularte, Jerry Shannon, Irv “Tubby” Terra, Georgei “Tookie” Cecchetti. Front, Patsy Cavanillas, Doreen Massio and Irene Samaniago. The entire fourth grade class.



sunset draw

Being a surfer is like being in the Mafia, once you’re in you can never leave. In the 1960’s and 70’s it was the central pin around which my life revolved. I traveled to find waves, Mexico, Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji and up and down the coast of California and Mexico. Surfing populations were still small, particularly in the early days. With just a few thousand surfers along the entire Pacific coast. You rarely surfed in a crowd, and when you did; why, they were all your friends. We traveled in groups, exploring anywhere we thought we might find good waves.  Long distance travel wasn’t common just yet. What travel we did was in our cars, usually someone else’s cheap old junker that only a kid would have the nerve to drive. The front row of the parking lot at Pismo was populated with old woodies from the forties and fifties and a collection of mom and dads cast-offs. Younger surfers arrived at the beach in packs, delivered by Mrs Carnate’s station wagon or Beth Fossaceca’s Studebaker. Gary and David McDonald left their boards at dad’s optometry office on old highway one next to the A & W. Bootsie could walk out on the deck of his house to check the waves.  There were no rich kids. I don’t recall anyone thinking that way, we were all democratic, money gave you no status and neither did education or family connections. Really, only one thing counted, did you want to surf. Pecking order was established by skill. At the beginning, before Gidget, if you knew someone who had been in the water for more than a year or two, you knew an old timer.

I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be in the water. Mom would take us to the high school pool in the summer when we were young and I never wanted to leave, When we were older she took us to the beach where she would rent those inflatable mats for us to play on, you remember, yellow on one side blue on the other. Wade out as deep as you could and then ride the whitewater. What a thrill for a 12 year old. When I entered high school surf culture was just beginning. Jon Macom, Ralph Miller, Larry Hill, Sehon Powers and John Steele made up a group who had been surfing for a bit in 1961 when I started shortly after my 16th birthday. They were one of a very small group of kids who hung out at the beach and rode surfboards. For some reason I was desperate to try it so I bought a used Velzy surfboard for twenty five dollars from Sheriff Mansfield’s son, loaded it in my car, and with my friends Andy Harp and Mike Senuik, went to the beach after school, ran down a stairway known as the thousand steps. actually less than a hundred, truth be told, and paddled out into the coldest, windiest and absolutely miserable surf you could imagine. A blustery winter afternoon. We really didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t surf an actual wave but we did get pushed around by the whitewater and even managed to stand up; briefly. So cold and miserable, wretched conditions, but I loved it and never looked back.

pismo 191961

Pismo Beach 1961

That sort of existential excitement fades with time and responsibility. The standard of wave type grows narrow with experience, which is kind of sad. Maybe it’s not big enough, glassy enough or the water is too cold in March so the veteran may go home. The other day though, I sat in the Addie Street parking lot and watched as an old orange Datsun, that had seen much better days wheel into the lot and before it could come to a stop, boys were piling out, hopping around on one foot trying to pull their wetsuits on, frantic to get in the water. It resembled a circus clown car act. Yanking surfboards of the roof they jumped the seawall and ran into the surf. It was freezing cold, onshore and the waves were small, but they were stoked to the gills. That__is__surfing. Fundamental, visceral, the best. If those kids ever stop feeling that way, they are done.

My timing was perfect. The following spring, 1962, the Beach Boys released their first record and the sport became a nationwide phenomenon.  If you surfed you were suddenly “Cool,” even if you weren’t. Funny.

As with all  surf spots, there were the locals. Kids you saw on a daily basis, checking out the waves and deciding if it was good enough to surf now, or maybe later, was it better at Saint Andrews, maybe Oceano, if the tide was out; perhaps a run down to Refugio or El Capitan. As boys will do, we would spontaneously take off for some distant place without giving it a thought. Who has a little gas money? Anyone who did could go. Maybe for the day to “C” Street in Ventura where the dirt parking lot right at the edge of the water had  some old telephone poles to keep the your front wheels from running over the edge and into the water. Or maybe the Rincon, the best surf in California, where you had to park right on the edge of the freeway, opening the drivers side door carefully so it wouldn’t be removed by cars and trucks whipping by, staggering the car with their blast of air and flipping a surfboard or two over the guardrail to the rocks below. We lived on hope, Twinkies and chocolate milk.

Nobody locked their cars. I didn’t seem necessary, there was little to steal. Except towels, yes towels. John Steele was the master towel thief, the back of his woodie was the home of a smelly pile, taken from anyone who was reckless enough to leave theirs on the hood of the car or hung on the handrail to dry. Johnny’s car was saturated with the odor of slowly moldering, still wet terrycloth, warm with decay at the bottom, not unlike the nuclear pile at the lab in Los Alamos. You could have extracted Penicillin from it. Jealously guarded, towels helped to stave of the bone chilling cold before wetsuits. Seawater at Pismo dips into the high 40’s in the winter. Walking with Harry Hoover down to the water, frozen sand crackling under our feet, Knee paddling out to the lineup using only our fingertips, anything to stay out of the water as long as possible. So awfully cold. In the font seat, motor idling, those old heaters going full blast trying to warm feet and hands which were literally purple with cold. Going to the Seaview for a cup of coffee after, eat a donut from the plastic case on the counter. All better now, right? A small price to pay for a wave.

In 1965 I made my first trip to Hawai’i, going home to Kailua on O’ahu with a college friend and spending the summer at Waikiki Beach. Richard got a job at McWayne Marine, owned by the then state Senator Hiram Fong and I worked part time for Nathan Napoleon at the Halikulani Hotel beach services in Waikiki. The two of us tooled around in a 1959 bug eye Sprite, which, if loaded with Nathan’s son Nihi hiding in the trunk, would agonizingly  make its way up the grade to and from the Tavares house in Kailua town, which was on the opposite side of the mountains from Honolulu. The old Pali road was a two lane switchback then, unlike the bustling freeway of today.

The  Hawaia’n families who ran the beach services at the hotels there were very old fashioned, get your hair cut short every week by the Japanese girl barber in the basement of the Reef hotel or else. This was my introduction to the scissor cut, dressed with a straight razor, so unlike the old barbers in Arroyo Grande, Kelly and Buzz, who hacked away with electric trimmers, in Buzz’s case, I’ m sure he used the same ones to trim the bushes at his house on West Branch Street.

Mr Napoleon, always mister, never Nathan, was a big man and a former California Highway Patrolman who had returned to the islands to take over his fathers business. The families that worked the beach had done so for generations and do to this day. I became a friend to his son and was welcomed into their home and a life I had never seen  in Arroyo Grande. I never saw a potato on that table, only rice . This was something entirely new. My only real experience with rice was Uncle Ben’s, hardly the sine qua non of the rice world. This spelled, then, the end of my meat and potatoes world. There were hundreds of ways to prepare fish, fruits that were so good they make your mouth water and they grew everywhere, bananas, passion fruit, papaya and mango ripe for the picking on every street corner. There is a saying in Polynesia that they had to invent war so they would have something to do besides sit around and eat. They weren’t far wrong. At my house you could step out on the front porch and pick fresh Papaya for breakfast. In the rear, banana trees. I once lived in a house in Makiki that had three Mango trees. There was so much fruit we had to haul it away in 30 gallon trash cans. We could not eat them fast enough.

On Waikiki, each day you put out the folding chairs, umbrellas, got the surfboards out of the lockers, put the paddle’s in the Koa wood outrigger canoes and helped pull the big Woody Brown sailing catamaran up on the sand to ready the day for the guests who would soon arrive. For me, the best part was an introduction to local culture and the people who made it so interesting. In the 60’s Hawaii was a segregated society. Whites ran the banks, big plantations, and shipping companies. The Japanese were state legislators, medium sized business and the labor unions. The Chinese were spread across most areas as they were the first immigrants to be brought to the islands in the 1840’s. The native Hawaiian’s worked labor jobs and were the police. Like many cities and states you could travel from one ethnic enclave to another where customs were as different as night and day. Growing up in Arroyo Grande in the fifties and sixties I never gave much thought to that kind of thing. Our little town was so small and the schools I attended so homogenous that it never occurred to me other kids where any different than me. I surfed with Filipino, Japanese, and Black kids every day at Pismo. On the islands it was Hawaiian, Filipino, Japanese, Peruvians, Aussies, Brazilians, and South Africans, all these distinct cultures to learn about.

Surfing itself had little time for ethnic or national division then, there just weren’t enough surfers to make any place too crowded. Besides, I have always been fascinated by people who were unlike me.

In 1968, when I moved to the islands permanently, I left all my old surfing buddies behind. Five years after high school they were married or in college, following a career and the surf life gradually left behind, in most cases, for good.

For many years I lived a life most of them could only imagine. I had a house near Haleiwa on the North Shore of O’ahu at that time the destination surf mecca for the entire surfing world. Home of Sunset Beach, Wiamea Bay, The Banzai pipeline and other equally near perfect wave sites. There were few fall, winter and spring day where perfect warm water waves could not be found. I was a AFL/CIO union carpenter, made a good living and had a reasonable amount of time off in the winter. It rains a lot, so lots of days off.

Leaving in the dark for work made it difficult to know what the surf was like. You could hear it from my house and the number of decibels or the amount of ground shake gave you some idea of its size but the work day had to pass before you really knew. A sight never to be forgotten is the view out the windshield as you top the high saddle just north of the little town of Wahiawa and look down on Haleiwa bay, seeing the surf conditions for the first time that day. Excitement or disappointment being your lot. If it looked good it was just four miles downhill to my house, grab your trunks and a surfboard or two, it was necessary to have more than one to suit the many conditions you could encounter on your drive along the coast. Turn left from Achiu Lane onto Kam highway then drive through Haleiwa, past the IGA store, Country Surfboards, Matsumoto store where they had good Hawaiian style shave ice and could make you a custom shirt or pair of trunks, cross the old bridge over Anahulu Stream and then along Kamehameha Highway past the old Army Air Corps airfield past Jocko’s, Chun’s reef and Laniakea up to and around Wiamea Bay, turn off on Ke Nui drive, a dirt road actually, then a quick stop at the public access by John Steele’s house to check out the Pipe, Backdoor, Off the Walls and Log Cabins, maybe another drive to Stefan Schweitzer’s place to check Pupukea and Gas Chambers, then to Rocky Point and finally the bay at Sunset. I surfed them all. Not bad for a boy from cold, foggy beach break Pismo Beach I thought.

I recall paddling around the lineup at Sunset or Pipe thinking about the friends I had who had dropped out of surfing and wishing I might surf with them again. We had some good times in the water as teenagers. The camaraderie of a shared delight. Surfing is not a team sport. My high school coaches looked down on surfing as something that losers did. Regimentation is for football or baseball. It allows for the shared experience, but none of the, ” Do this, do that” of team sports. As kids our entire social experience in the surf world was what we did together.

Besides the surf conditions  which had the effect of neutralizing the social aspect of being in the water together, surfing in Hawaii requires that you paddle constantly to stay in the spot that you must take-off from. There are currents everywhere resulting from the vast amounts of water moving around the surf itself. The area where the best location for catching a wave is pretty small and the currents push you around so you must work to maintain your position. Constantly looking towards the beach and watching the relative positions of houses on the shore in order to “line up” the proper spot to be in. You must keep one eye on the other surfers around you in order to judge their skill level, their familiarity with the surf spot, and aggressiveness, plotting the pecking order so you can be in the perfect spot. If you can lay a psych job on someone, all the better.

There is no thrill like being in the perfect spot for a takeoff at big Sunset, paddling hard, using all your skill to force your board to go fast enough to begin the free falling slide down the face of the massive wall of water. Once moving you can  hear the first sharp hiss of water against fiberglass as the board picks up speed and begins the run down the moving face of the water that can only be likened to a living thing. Sliding swiftly to the bottom and pulling a turn much like a fighter pilot does in a High G turn. Turning at the bottom, using the energy of the wave to fly up the face, and then the near weightlesness  as, near the top of the wave, you  snap the turn downward again. dropping to near vertical, heading down again, looking ahead, trying to gauge the exact moment to begin the run towards the end of the wave. There is no perceived sound, in the midst of all the movement and crashing of the wave behind you, you move in a bubble of silence. At Sunset, the last section of a good wave hooks back towards you as you approach and the timing needed to fly through the tunnel formed by thousands of tons of moving water arching up and over your head can only be learned by not making it out, smashed, tumbled and crushed by the self destruction every wave, ever, goes through. Adrenaline is addictive.

These swells are formed by winter storms in the Bering sea, three thousand miles northwest of Hawai’i. They are deep ridges of energy, each traveling as an underwater pulse, barely noticeable in the open ocean, just a ripple at the surface. An invisible wave, traveling over the north Pacific abyssal plain which averages over 14,000 feet deep. As this wave of energy approaches the Hawaiian Emperor Seamount, whose exposed mountainous tip form the Hawaiian Islands, the lower edge of the energy wave begins to drag along the shelving bottom of the sea forcing the excess energy to rise from the surface and form visible swells. What is unique about the North Shore of O’ahu is this shelving bottom rises very quickly, nearly four thousand feet in just a few miles. This forces the enormous amount of energy in a pressure wave straight up, as the drag on the bottom is so minimal that the wave can’t slow down but must rise. The water just offshore from the Banzai pipeline and Sunset beach is more than a thousand feet deep. These particular conditions are what creates such massive waves. The prevailing wind blows straight from the shore, perpendicular to the surf causing the wave to stand up longer making for nearly perfect surf conditions.

The term waterman wasn’t in common use in those days but we all certainly fit the bill. We dove the deep water off of south point on the big island. I could cast a throw net, a beautiful thing, hand made of the finest line used to catch reef fish in the early mornings and evenings when the sun was off the water. We sailed. We sailed the islands for no other reason than to see what was over the horizon. Polynesia invites you in. The ancient Hawaiians were a water culture and it always seemed strange to me that people who lived there worked in high rise buildings and wore suits to work.

You had to be a strong swimmer because in the 1960’s and 70’s no one wore a leg rope in large waves. A wipeout meant a swim to the beach to retrieve your board. The more chances you took, the more you swam and it wasn’t just the swim itself, no, you had to stay in the whitewater to get to the shore. Crashing in a wave can be rough enough but the act of getting to shore can be just as perilous. White water, or the broken wave itself can be many feet deep, a churning, spinning whirlpool where, as it goes over you, can pick you up and completely disorient you. It goes dark, the water over your head is suddenly not a foot deep, but ten or fifteen feet deep, increasing the pressure in your ears to painful levels. Your arms and legs are yanked and pulled away from your body, you can be not only held under for minutes but sometimes held against the coral bottom, unable to move because of the water pressure as it rolls over you. When you surface, if you’ve been down long enough the next wave is likely to be breaking right on top of you.  Luckily each wave that passes over, pushes you in towards the beach. A small section of a wave of these dimensions weighs hundreds or thousands tons and. its all moving adding to the dynamic. Add that the wave itself is rushing at 15 to 20 miles and hour toward shore and you, the surfer can be moving as fast as 30 mph. So, moving in at least three different directions at once you must know your business. The good part  is that the better you get the less likely you will have to experience the long swim in. The question has always been, are you strong enough, can you hold your breath long enough, can you swim, are you loose enough. As a friend was wont to say, “Don’t______Be______Afraid.”

On the other hand, the water is warm, low eighties in the winter during surf season. The offshore breeze is always balmy and fresh. Friends with a common interests are all around you. Nobody I ever knew talked like Jeff Spicoli or Ted Logan. That part of surfing is a commercial construct. Avoid it all costs.

Lest you think that it’s too dangerous don’t forget that women do it.There weren’t many women surfers in the late sixties and early seventies but they were about to break out in a big way.  My friend Sally Prange started surfing big Sunset in the seventies and went on to be one of the best women surfers in the world. I’ve always admired her for that. Not easy in the face of a male dominated sport filled with aggressive, ego driven men. Part of the social fabric of the north shore, she practically grew up in the water. You are surrounded by it. It would be hard to avoid.

What I have learned is to become a citizen of the places you travel. Meet the local people, eat the local food, speak the language, immerse yourself in the culture and you will find that people everywhere have the same cares and needs. There are museums and libraries full of books on any place you might live. Nothing will seem strange if you do your homework. Eat Poi, the two fingered kind for me, Lomilomi Salmon, Swordfish Sashimi, pit cooked pork, pipi kaula, Portuguese sweetbread, malasala, and the semi-official state food, Spam. Spam, a million ways to cook it, one for each culture. I’ve lived with Egyptian Muslims, Samoan Catholics, Fijian Hindus, Japanese Buddhists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses and I’ve found that the basic tenants of each religion are faith and caring. We all got along just fine. It’s not necessary to make someone over into your own image.

My mom and dad at that kitchen table where I grew up never seemed to, nor want to understand what I did. It might have been the Lassiez Faire way we were raised. They seemed content to let us find our own way and didn’t plant many road blocks. Maybe that was all in my own mind, my dad wasn’t emotional, at least not visibly. There are only one or two times when I saw him shaken by an event. I don’t think my father ever asked me one question about surfing or traveling and I always felt he was disappointed in my choices. He always said that you “could live your life in San Luis County and never see all there is to see.” He once asked me, “what is it that you do over there?” But he wasn’t really interested in an answer. A determined child is difficult to sway. Remember the Norman Rockwell painting “Breaking Home Ties?” The boy, with his chin up looks to the future and the father, leaning, his elbows on his knees, looks the opposite direction, into the past. It’s my favorite Rockwell. It perfectly illustrates the severing of  home ties and the infinite promise of the young.

The prevailing wisdom then was that surfers had no ambition. They lived day to day, not caring about tomorrow. They let their hair grow, they didn’t wear shoes, they in dressed funny, clothes  from thrift stores for goodness sakes. Look at the cars they drove, junkers and hand me downs. The local paper even published an article with a list of words or phrases used by surfers. It explained each one in all seriousness. The problem was, they all came from Hollywood movies, made up by screenwriters and were almost never used by people I knew. It would have been embarrassing for us.

We were, and are, real people, just like you. We had jobs. My neighbors in Haleiwa were professionals, a nurse, a stockbroker, an eventual university professor. On one side a anti-war activist, on the other, a Vietnam veteran brought together by a common bond. Writers, photographers, surfboard builders; roofers, architects, international dealers in Persian rugs, airline stewards and engineers. The principle of Sunset Beach Elementary school surfed. I have a friend who is an internationally renowned marine geologist. We were all young and living in that wonderful place. Our bond was the water.

Sometimes living that life was almost too wonderful to believe and I wished I could share it with those whom I started out with in foggy, cold and flat Pismo Beach. Surfers would just pull up to the beach and sit, drinking it all in. The soft Hawaiian breeze, The sparkling sand with the keiki frolicking in the shore break where a tourist from Iowa might drown, the endless sky peppered with towering cumulonimbus clouds drifting down from the Koolaus, the brah’s, doing the same as you. Because of those, as I waited and watched  the approaching walls of water, pushing themselves high and higher as the rushed  towards me, I would say to myself, this one is for you Terry, you Andy, and for you Phil. All yours baby.


Clockwise from upper left: John Steele, Pupukea. Sally Prange, Haleiwa, Mike Shannon, Sunset. Mike Shannon Sunset.


Read William Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days, a surfing life”  It’s a great book. Published by     Penguin Press, N.Y. 2015

…And Susan Casey’s “The Wave” Doubleday, N.Y. 2010






little pirates

Yaaaahr, we be pirates mate and we’uns be seekin’ treasure and a flagon of grog to wet our’n whistle. We’uns come off the brig Nancy’s Revenge, Cap’n Flint commanding’ Sor, and’r looking to spend our share of the loot from divers ships we’ve took on the Spanish Main.

Such are the dreams of boys. My grandfather, my uncle Jack and my dad told us stories of pirates gold and the places where it resided here in the Arroyo Grande. Stolen from Spanish Galleons on the run from Manila to Acapulco, the west coast port where it was to be shipped overland to Monterey, Mexico and on to Spain to fill King Phillips coffers. Gold pieces of eight, bars of silver and precious jewels by the handful, stashed in the caves of Mt. Picacho. Protected by the skeletons of the pirate rogues who buried it there. Dead men tell no tales mate. Beware the Black Spot.

When we were little boys, my uncle Jackie took us to this mysterious place on the southwest side of the distinctive hill known as Picacho. Clambering down the side of the hill, he led us to the dimly perceived opening of the pirate cave hidden below an overhang of ancient rock. A very small cave it was, you having to be just boy size in order to crawl back into it. Along the walls and ceiling were names of intrepid explorers who had visited it before us. Carved with jack knives were the names and dates of boys going back long before my father and grandfathers time, each one searching for the long lost treasure of Francis Drake and Hippolyte Bouchard, or perhaps the gold and silver deposited there when the padres were forced to abandon the missions in 1833. Delicious tales to enliven a little boys imagination. Tell me a story Daddy, like you said you would.

Raised on Frank Merriwell, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Hardy Boys, it was no stretch to begin reading adult adventure novels, “The Captain from Castile,” and in the eighth grade discovering on my mothers bookshelf, a book borrowed from Gladys Loomis, “Beat to Quarters,” a Horatio Hornblower story. Then, Joseph Conrad and I was hooked on the sea.

As a lifelong surfer and seaman, I’ve learned many lessons about sea keeping, having been a merchant mariner and long distance sailor. Sad to say the experience has taught me that there never were any pirates hiding treasure along our California coast. Dreams of little boys are mostly dashed by the practicalities of life.

drake golden hinde

Golden Hinde, Length, 102′-Beam, 20′-Draught, 9′-Speed, 8 knots, Burden, 100 Ton.

Sir Francis Drake, El Dragon, sailed the coast of California in 1579 on his way around the world. Sad to say, his logbooks, accounts and maps were burned in a fire at Whitehall in 1698 so the exact sequence of events is mostly unknown. What is difficult to understand is how remote California was at the time. Mexico was still in the process of subjection by the Spanish, it only being 60 years since Cortes landed at Monterrey, Mexico. The destruction of Tenochitlan, the Aztec capitol three years later began the total destruction of the various indigenous tribal empires of central america. In Drake’s time, the spanish were in the midst of a bloody, protracted war with the Chichimeca people in Zacatecas and had not yet settled on the  northern Mexican, Baja or the California coast.

The state of navigation during the 16th century was such that accuracy of position was chancy at best. Most of the time mariners used a compass and a Log* to determine position. This was called Dead, for deduced reckoning, and with a knowledge of currents, or drift and, an Astrolabe,* position could be estimated with a certain degree of accuracy, particularly in measurement of latitude. Latitude was the measurement of position either north or south of the equator. Longitude, or the distance from a fixed point on earth was largely impossible to determine until the invention of extremely accurate chronometers (clocks) that would stand up to a sea voyage. These were not perfected until the late 17th century and weren’t common on ships until the 1820’s, two and one half centuries after Drakes voyage.

Here, where we live, any idea that Drake landed here is so unlikely that it bears no credence. The site at the old Cave landing could hardly be more dangerous to a ship of the type that he sailed. The Golden Hinde was a square rigged ship, which in his time, were largely unable to sail any closer to the wind direction than roughly 50 degrees. This means that if you sail into a north wind, the best they could do was  about 5 degrees off northeast or northwest. Easy to sail in, very difficult to get out.



The 22 mile distance from Point San Luis to Point Sal which comprises San Luis Bay is what is known as an “Open Roadstead,” meaning that there is little or no protection from the prevailing winds, no protected harbor, and has a sea bottom that won’t hold anchor in a storm or heavy sea. Each year, boats anchored in San Luis harbor go on the beach because they drag their anchors in heavy surf and it would have been much worse before the breakwater was built. The Masters Mate, who normally did the navigation in Drakes time would have been extremely reluctant to put in at a place such as Cave Landing. He could certainly sail in but would have been well aware of the difficulty in getting out. From the sea, the central coast is indistinguishable from most of the west coast. There are no outstanding geographical features to be seen from even a few miles out and with the nearly constant Northwest trade winds no sailor would likely come to shore here.

calif map

Map of California, circa 1590

As for Drake’s treasure, what would be the point of landing, and hiding it. It belonged to  Queen Elizabeth I and thats where it ended up. 80 pounds of gold, 20 tonnes of silver, 13 cases of silver coins and divers cases of pearls and gems, it paid off England’s national debt, and made Francis Drake and his crew rich beyond their wildest dreams.drake ship b1

Much the same as the Golden Hinde began its 7,000 mile journey west, across the Pacific to the Philippines, leaving California behind forever, we leave the dreams of our little boys in the secret places they belong. Or maybe not.




Even today, I can look out my studio window and see Picacho in the near distance and I still wonder, what if it was all true?



Log: a piece of wood attached to a line knotted at uniform intervals. A sailor heaved the log from the stern of the ship and let the line pay out freely as the ship pulled away. When the sailor felt the first knot pass through his fingers, he shouted a signal to another sailor, who turned a one-minute glass. The first sailor counted aloud the number of knots that passed until the sand ran out. A timer of one minute (one-sixtieth of an hour), knots spaced one-sixtieth of a nautical mile apart, and simple arithmetic easily gave the speed of the ship in nautical miles per hour (“knots”).


Astrolabe: By the Elizabethan era it consisted of a large brass ring fitted with an alidade or sighting rule. The user held the astrolabe by a loop at the top, turned the alidade so that he could sight the star along its length, and read the altitude off the scale engraved on the ring – difficult tasks to perform on the deck of a heaving ship. The consequences of imprecise measurement are serious (a latitude reading just one degree off produces an error in position of 60 nautical miles), so mariners often used the astrolabe in pairs, one to sight along the alidade, the other to steady the instrument and take readings. On shore, however, the astrolabe was easier to use and more accurate.