Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Surfers Like Lemmings To The Sea-With The Gaslight Gang In Mind-Take Two
From The Pen Of Bart Webber
Before dawn on a warm winter San Diego Mission Beach morning in 2015 but it could have been any year since about World War II, maybe before, a bunch of guys, and a few gals, dressed in non-fashionista but endlessly long day searching for perfect wave mandatory rubber suits, black from head to toe. Carrying, of course a fully-waxed surf board which they will umbilically, if there is such a word to be used in the surfing vocabulary to explain the real nature of the relationship of board to human, tie to themselves and if there is no such word let us say they will tie the board to their wrists with a cord, and tie that cord to themselves at water’s edge as they head to the far edge of the beach, to the place where the sand gives way to stones and edges toward the sawdust peeling sand cliffs in the distance.
This is important because just the morning before this one as Josh Breslin had walked along the beach that same herd of black-suited lemmings had been anchored around the pier about a mile before the rocks and sawdust cliffs. As Josh well knew, although since he had not been to coastal Southern California for some years he had put the thought somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind, the search for the perfect wave will drive every savvy surfer to the place where they think that perfect wave action is likely to happen and if they are not savvy then they will follow the others betting that wiser heads will take them to Nirvana.
All this surfer action this day had gotten Josh to thinking back, thinking back to the mid-1960s back when he had snagged surfer girl Butterfly Swirl, Cathy Callahan, from up the road in Carlsbad. The strangest part, the strangest part after the affair had blown it course, was that he was not a surfer and could barely swim although he had grown up alone the ocean and had hear ocean waves and breezes from early childhood. Worse, despite his love, really love/hate relationship, with the sea, he had when young, about eight or nine years old, had foolishly drifted out to sea on a log at high tide and had almost drowned when he had let go of the log to head back to shore except for the quick wits of the female life-guard, a mother of one of his fellow female classmates and thus he became the butt of jokes all fall once she had put the word out, kids calling him the deep sea diver and stuff like that. That event had etched his love/fear of the sea, and make him very cautious about going over his head in water until this day. Stranger still Butterfly Swirl was despite her surfer girl tag not a swimmer at all. But that will be explained later.
As befitted the times, if such an old-fashioned word, old-fashioned even back in the day can be used here to describe the various odd social configurations and permutations of the times, Butterfly had been a young just out of high school surfer girl on the loose looking for what everybody was talking about, talking about when they talked about the new breeze coming through the land, the new Edenic age when all would shake off their narrow little lives and try to turn the world that had not created, and had no say in creating upside down. This is the stuff that the late Peter Markin had told Josh that he had clued Sam Lowell, Frankie Riley, Jack Dawson and the other corner boys about in the hometown Carver night back in the early 1960s and had laughed at him about at first but they were not laughing about later. Stuff that Markin had told Josh too in the summer of 1967 when they first met up in San Francisco, up on Russian Hill, when Josh had hitchhiked west from Maine the first time and somebody had told him the guys parked in the psychedelically-colored ex-school bus parked across the park had plenty of good dope. And they, he, Peter did have primo dope and took Josh on as a kind of younger brother once he knew that Josh was from back in New England.
That new breeze thing, read the dope, sex and acid-etched rock and roll part of the breeze, Josh had been all over, had his doctorate in that subject and had no mixed feelings about what had been going on back then unlike that mixed relationship of his with the sea. In another time, say the early 1960s or late 1970s no way that Butterfly and Prince Valiant, the moniker Josh was travelling under in that change-your-name-change-your-karma moniker-filled time as Cathy was using Butterfly Swirl, would have crossed paths. Butterfly would probably have endlessly continued to wait on shore for her perfect wave golden surfer boy like some beached sea animal. Young women were not usually surfers themselves but just looked bikini beautiful on the West Coast beaches tanning themselves waiting for the sunlight to fail and then give their pruned boys a little something to take the chill off, and you can figure out what that was. So they needed not know how to swim unless they wanted to do so to kill time or get fitter. Josh, after a serious bout of corner boy petty crime and grifting with the likes of Frankie Giron, Peter Pirot, Jack Dubois, Jimmy Jenkins and a revolving cast of characters, mostly second or third generation French-Canadians like Markin’s were mainly Irish-American, in high school would have gone off to college and law school like his parents wanted him to do.
He had let those choices hang fire, had caught hell from his working-stiff parents for going off the path they had worked so hard to provide for him, had caught hell from his sometime girlfriend, Marly Dubois, Jack’s ounger sister, who had the traditional mill-town dreams of marriage after that cookie-cutter college-law school-start-a-small-practice-in-Olde Saco routine got them out from under the old neighborhood burdens, when the siren calls came from out in California (the call could have been from anyplace at a certain point in that decade including Denver, Ann Arbor, up in the Oregons, Seattle, Santa Fe and so on but Josh had his mind set on Frisco where he had heard the new world was beginning, was in flower. Jack, as Markin later would once he had gone west, had also held a certain sway over him since he was the first of the Olde Saco corner boys to head west as soon as they had graduated and see what it was all about, see if all those freedom ideas about the new breeze held up. When Jack had headed back East to bring others back out Josh been the first guy who hitchhiked to the West Coast with him. Once there Jack decided to head to L.A. and Josh had to make do the best he could since he was committed to checking Frisco out.
Back to the Butterfly meet-up though. In order to meet somebody who was hip to the new wave scene Butterfly had left her golden-boy-looking-for-the-perfect-wave surfer boy and headed to San Francisco where all the action that she was interested in was happening. She and Josh (he had initially introduced himself as Prince Valiant which she thought was charming and had said to call her Butterfly Swirl in reply) had met in Golden Gate Park when he was on board Captain Crunch’s psychedelic color-plastered converted yellow brick road school bus and she had come up to him with a come hither look and asked if anybody had any dope. The next generation cometh thought Josh having done exactly the same bit with Markin as he flipped her a joint and lit a match to get her going. Of course new wave or not, new wave in 1967 anyway, no way that a fox like Butterfly was not going to be hit on by an old corner boy “mentor” like Markin who thought he had the old feudal “rights of the first night” or something since he had been on the bus longer than Josh. In any case Markin was lying in wait once he saw her. Butterfly had picked the younger Josh after a little verbal struggle between the two old corner boys who were like high school kids about the situation. Worse since neither of them would have bothered each other back in Olde Saco and Carver respectively under the universal corner boy code-“you don’t mess with another guy’s woman”- maybe an idea honored more in the breech than the observance but still part of the genetic make-up of the corner boy code.
Josh, as he thought back, still walking head hung down, deep in memory thought, along those sloping Mission Beach sands, thought too about how he had not only snagged Butterfly from her surfer boy but from his old friend Markin and chuckled at the thought since usually Markin with his piss-ass two thousand facts would talk his way into something like Butterfly leaving Josh to get mad about the lost. That Butterfly had in the end turned back into the surfer girl and had gone back home to her golden boy after about a year had also been a sign of the times but Josh had long ago figured out that he had been lucky for what time they had had together since he a New England boy, a bookish New England boy would never have run into a surfer girl otherwise. He never had subsequently and that kind of proved the point.
A few times while Josh and Butterfly Swirl were together, usually when they were riding up and down the coast in Captain Crunch’s magical-mystery-tour-yellow brick-road converted school bus, and usually when stoned Josh (then using the moniker Prince of Love once he tired of the Valiant moniker since everybody seemed to switch up without notice as a sign that they were breaking out of their bourgeois old habits of thought and living) would ask Butterfly to tell him about the attractions of the surfer world that he had known really only by photographs and the songs of the Beach Boys who had made a fine career out of paying homage to all the Southern California post-World War II youth cultural signposts.
Butterfly told Josh during those conversations that she was not sure how she had become a surfer girl, although she was hardly alone in that designation in a place like Carlsbad since it was part of growing up in such a town. (or for that matter La Jolla, Mission Beach, the beach cities heading north on to Mecca Malibu and as Josh remembered back he had also seen the scene in such outposts as Old Orchard Beach, Maine and off the coast of Cape Breton so go figure). In her case as Josh realized since she was a long leggy blondish young woman with ocean blue eyes she was a perfect specimen of the surfer girl then. What Josh could not figure is why in those days somebody as attractive and smart as Cathy would sit on shore all day if necessary waiting for her golden boy to have a shot at the perfect wave or come out of the water prune-like (even with the protective suits long periods in the water tended to prune a guy up). See, unlike today when you are likely to see more than a few surfer girls suited up to search for their own perfect wave, in those days surfer girls by definition waited on shore for their menfolk. Waited maybe working on their tans then to be taken home in the ubiquitous “woodie” in order to get ready to go out that night and catch some act at a surfer bar and then to “curl a guy’s toes” before going home to rest up for another day of the perfect wave. (That “curl your toes” Cathy’s expression for sex and an expression of what she was capable of doing in bed as Josh found out pretty quickly).
That routine had been what Cathy had been was taking a break, a momentary break from as it turned out, when she headed north after breaking up with golden boy. Josh would thereafter always wonder about what drove surfers to the see on those occasions when he saw the sight at any beach about the lure of the surf board where the black-clad brethren held forth. And he was wondering about that the Mission Beach morning when the worm turned.
But not only surfers inhabit the beach world although they are much more likely to be there at the sun’s call, or cloud’s call or wind’s call than landlubbers who will abandon our mother the sea at the drop of a hat. Josh remembered the time Sam Lowell, a guy, a corner boy guy, from Carver whom Markin had hitchhiked out to California with on one of his many trips back and forth and who had stayed on the bus a couple of months, had told him that when after he had semi-retired from his law practice he went golfing out at Torrey Pines in La Jolla a few years back. Sam had struck up a friendship with some of the regulars there and played with them for a few days straight on very sunny warm days. Then one day they were not there, although they had said they were serious regulars who laughingly said they played about three hundred days a year. He had played in any case. The next day they reappeared and he asked what had happen the day before. They told him it was too cold, too cold at 60 degrees to play. Hell, Sam from snow country cold weather Massachusetts opened his jaw in disbelief. But Josh knew the surfers all suited up and impervious to the prune effect anyway would be there unlike the sullen crowds who are no shows at the golf courses and amusement parks when the weather hits the slightest bit south.
Yes the worm turns, and turns in odd ways since no way would anybody back in the 1960s be thinking about golf, hell, Josh remembered being at one meeting in San Francisco where they were discussing how to actively stop the goddam war in Vietnam and one guy, and no radical either, just barely a liberal and recent convert to the anti-war struggle, just to show how upside down the times were said that they should burn down the country clubs. Jesus, Sam would flip out now.
Josh thought about another time now that he was thinking about other places as he walked along the beach, being at Mission Beach seemingly exploding some old previously tight kept thoughts in his head. One time, one hot sultry time. Josh and his companion Laura had walked from the Mission Park parking lot at West Bay Bridge to Belmont Park, the amusement center which confronts you before you hit the Mission Beach, a distance of maybe a mile which was easier to do that California wait in the traffic that was going nowhere so Laura could take pictures of the amusement park for some camera club competition. Needless to say old serious Josh, having had his fill growing up about twenty miles north of the Orchard Beach amusement park in Olde Saco normally would give such places a wide berth. Laura too. But that day something of the old time kids taking the rides for the momentary thrill of being bumped, dragged, twirled, jumbled, twisted, made seasick, and just plain bedazzled got to them.
Josh, naturally, as an old arcade man from his Old Orchard days attempted to try his luck on the skee game that he had mastered very early when he was young (unlike the pinball wizard games that he never quite caught and usually had to depend on some generous older corner boy up in his corner at the Colonial Diner on Main Street who had other things to do, go meet some girl or hijack a car or something to leave him his games won).
Josh was excited by the prospect of “winning” some little trinket for Laura although having been down that road before with Josh she just rolled her eyes at the prospect of getting a rabbit’s foot or a feathery snake like in previous Josh efforts down at Paragon Park south of Boston or Seaside Heights in New Jersey. Josh tried to reason with her, telling her his classic skee story about the time when he was twelve or thirteen and this girl, Mary Lou, was having a terrible time working the skee balls, trouble getting the right aim at the targets. So he stepped forward and showed her how. She still could not get the drift and the ever smooth Josh decided that he would win her a trinket so she would not feel like a klutz. He had been on fire that day and he actually won her a stuffed animal. For his bravado efforts Mary Lou and he walked to the secluded end of the beach and she gave him a big kiss. That was what was at stake. Laura just rolled her eyes again and said that was when he was twelve, get over it.
In any case Josh’s story had a weird if modern ending. Apparently even on the lowly skee ball machines you have to deal with the modern technology way of payment. You needed to swipe your debit card to begin the game, to have the balls roll down the chute. No cash accepted although on other wizard machines at the park cash was accepted. Josh had not brought his wallet not thinking that he was to do combat that day at the arcade. He asked, no, begged, cajoled, cried for mercy for Laura to let him use her card. No dice, no way Jose. No way was she going to expose her credit card to whatever craziness was going on in the hacker world, and emphatically was not going to pay for her rabbit’s foot or feathery snake. Josh was “bitter” very bitter about that as they moved on to the bumper cars so Laura could take some photographs.
Strangely one of Josh’s fondest memories, fondest brother memories was when they, all four of the them, would bump the bejesus out of each other all trying to get the maximum from a direct frontal or back hit on those saucy bumper cars. Such were the times, better times in the Breslin family. Laura said that she never went on the rides, was too afraid to even look at them usually as they went skyward. She did confess to a weakness that she and her sister had had for the whirl-a-whirl which was just a covered surrey which did dips as it went on its circular route. They would laugh like crazy so it could not have been too scary.
As they left the park Laura spied the inevitable carousel and needed to take photos of the little ones on the painted ponies going up and down, gently as a new generation got used to the momentary thrills produced by the magic of the amusement park. The carousel a relic of a gentler by-gone day before the super-electro dump up and down, speedo, nip and dip rides carried the day. As they walked back to the car they both almost simultaneously said that they had had fun in the park. Yes, they did.
Thinking about that amusement park day Josh remembered that of course any trip to the sea, waylaid by an amusement park diversion or not, required due homage to our homeland, the ocean, with the obligatory walk, barefooted in good weathers, maybe flip-flops if the going is a little sandy or with appropriate boots in winter time and so before they left the area to head back to the car they had walked Mission Beach. This had been the first time Laura had walked that particular beach, although if one deals with Josh Breslin you will get very jaded after the first twenty or so trips any time you are within ocean breeze of the coast. (One time Josh told Laura when he was heading west hitching with Markin, maybe on that first trip out together, he swore that he could smell that seaweed, seashell, sea animal mucked ocean once they hit Travers City and that town is seventy-five miles from the sea so you know he has a keen sense of the ocean draw). That hot sultry day they walked, talked and observed which half of the fun is when you are at the beach and especially when the weather is warm like that day was warm for a winter’s day. Again a fine day.
Later that night at dinner Laura mentioned to Josh a couple of things she had observed at the beach while they were walking but had just thought of since she had just seen a very tall, slender woman, close to six feet maybe more, walking into the restaurant with a man slightly shorter than she was. Laura commented on her very nice figure and clothes but also wondered as she had observed at the beach as well with so many long-legged women in very skimpy bikinis that there were many more tall women around in the generation or two after theirs then when they were growing up. Laura said at five feet, six inches she was not short by her generation’s standards, in fact would be on the taller side, but related to Josh that she had been teased in high school by some of the guys for being so “tall for a girl” and that had hurt her since she was conscious of what that meant in that less enlightened time.
Laura told Josh she also believed that she had lost dates over the matter since guys then didn’t as a rule see anything attractive about woman taller than they were. All the literature, and she remembered especially a short story by Fitzgerald in which the one woman mentioned had been tall, maybe a little ungainly, and left out of the action, made sport of, which spoke to a woman’s height as much as to say that if such a beast was ungainly she should be treated like somebody’s unwanted sister.
Josh spoke up at that remark and said that he once was “forced” to take one of Peter Pirot’s younger sisters to the Spring Frolic at Olde Saco High as a favor to him since she was five feet, eight inches and nobody wanted to take her. The funny part was that she was something of a beauty, and later in college half the guys on campus were looking for dates with her, some begging according to Peter, but the worm was turning on that tall woman thing a little by then. Josh noted as well that aside from that “duty” performed his preference had been to not date girls as tall as or taller than he is, and thus giving Laura anecdotal evidence of the pervasiveness of the old time custom.
He also mentioned that he had broken up with a girl, Josie Davidson, for just that reason after high school when he was serious about her, a young woman almost six feet tall but he could not get over the fact that people, guys, would think less of him because he was with a taller woman. He was extremely self-conscious about that and while he never mentioned her height to her it was one of the things when they were having their final split-up that he was relieved to be leaving behind. Kids’ stuff but any unacknowledged hurt by him aside it was an unacknowledged way tall women were perceived then as Amazons and thus man-eaters.
Later that night as they headed home in the car Josh mentioned that he remembered reading in some magazine that was hip to such things that these newer generations unlike theirs and earlier generations were corn-fed, got more meat and the like and probably had shot up in height based on that added food supply to their systems as well as whatever DNA stuff was going on. That magazine article also noted that in the 1960s the trend toward very thin women, the Twiggy effect, had started in England after the war when Britain was still reeling from food shortages and that the previously scorned thinness (as against the buxom of say Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell) changed from a negative to a plus. Apparently at least one guy did not mind being with a thin as a rail woman.
Having exhausted the subject of tall women Laura to switch the subject up a bit started talking about the other generational thing that she had noticed, the incredible number of men and women, mostly younger, who had tattoos. And not just like sailors and bikers in the old days with maybe some rose, some mother sentiment, or some sweetheart’s name, but anything from almost full body tattoos giving some genesis story to a lower back or ankle simple symbol. Josh said in the old days tattoos were reserved for sailors far from home, maybe drunk to give themselves a boost and would go to the convenience tattoo parlors that dotted the wharf areas where sailors hung out when not on ship, bikers who saw it as their way of “showing the colors” and occasionally somebody who had sailed into the China seas and as a result was entitled to wear a tattoo to tout that fact.
During the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s occasionally young women would have a butterfly put on their shoulder or on their lower back or ankle. But the latest explosion spoke to a generation trying to scream out its existence to an indifferent world, or some such message. He wondered aloud whether they all knew so young that unless some new therapy to erase the tattoos gets developed they have to live will all this through the skins sags that will come with middle age. Probably didn’t enter their mines, just like they had done what they liked stuff and damn what the rest of the world thought when they were young. Laura chuckled at that. Before bed both agreed once again that it had been a great day.
Josh got the last word in, surfers, misplaced surfer girls, skee ball champions, tall women and shoulder length tattoos all in a jumble but he said don’t’ blame the ocean for all that though. Laura laughed again.