Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Whitey Harrison 2

San Onofre

Back in Southern California, it was not long before Lorrin was part of the early crew to establish San Onofre.  It was at San Onofre that Southern California surf culture’s roots became most firmly embedded.
“I was surfing [at Corona del Mar]... with Willy Grigsby, Bob Sides and Bill Hollingsworth,” Lorrin recalled.  “... Sides traveled between San Diego and up here frequently and he said, ‘Hey Whitey, there’s this neat spot down south where the waves break way out.’”[1]  Sides declared of Corona del Mar, in 1933, that “They’re wrecking this place,”[2] due to the dredging of the channel and changes to the breakwater.

“So,” Whitey said of their first trip to San O, “we loaded up a whole bunch of people into touring cars... and we went down there and tried it out.  We went clear down to where the atomic plant is now and surfed that spot.  Then we came back up the beach and tried it right where the main shack is now.  That’s where we found it was always steadiest.  The surf was always pretty good.  In one day we surfed all the different breaks.  The entrance to the beach was just across from the old San Onofre Train Station.  You’d drive across the tracks and down the dirt road.  At that time Santa Margarita Ranch owned the beach there along with another ranch that owned the land north of the point.  We weren’t the first people to go down there, people had been going fishing down there for years and stayin’ all night.  The ranchers didn’t seem to mind.  In fact, the first time we went there, they were making a Hollywood movie.  They had built this big palm thatch house right on the beach.  We slept in it the first night we stayed there.  This was about 1933/34.  By 1935, Corona del Mar was over with, and San Onofre was our main spot.”[3]

A few years later, by 1939, the San Onofre crew included the likes of Tule Clark, Jim Bixier, Don Oakey, Dorian Paskowitz, Lloyd Baker, Gard Chapin, Vincent Lihnberg, and, of course, Pete Peterson.[4]

Later San Onofre regulars were remembered by Lorrin’s daughter Rosie, born from his first marriage with Ethel: “I loved all those old guys with their colorful nicknames,” she wrote in her biography of her father Let’s Go, Let’s Go!  “They were so good to us two little girls.  They carefully baby-sat and tended to us while we played on the beach.  Knowing that we were missing a mother they all took a hand at being one.  They were like family.

“‘Pop’ Proctor was retired and lived in his old van at ‘Nofre.  He started surfing when he was sixty years old.  He was the oldest.  Not having children of his own, he raised several boys.  ‘The Viking’ I remember most.  There were rarely any other kids at the beach so even though he was older than us we found him interesting.  He was lean with dark hair and tanned skin.  Pop taught him to surf and fish and respect the sea.  We liked to follow him around and watch him catch baby octopus in the tide pools.  Guess Pop did a good job.  The Viking grew up to be a very professional person.”[5]

Rosie continued: “‘Kioki’ had only one good eye due to a car accident.  Being a magician, he would eat starfish, sea shells, kelp balls, or whatever we would bring him.  He made them disappear and reappear for us like magic.

“Eddie McBride was one of my favorites.  A short brown bear of a man, black hair curling all over his body and a big white smile laughing from under a broad-brimmed tightly woven straw hat.  He usually had a bottle wrapped in a brown paper sack in one hand that he took a swig from now and then.

“‘Opai’ was the kid.  ‘Opai’ means shrimp.  He probably was in his late teens or early twenties.”  Also, “There was Card, Peanuts with his woody station wagon, Hammerhead, Burrhead, Huckleberry, Fritz, Windy, to name a few.  They were regulars and often would spend the entire weekend at San Onofre, riding the waves, telling stories around the fire pit, drinking, dancing, singing, and crashing on the beach or retiring to their panel trucks and wagons.”[6]

There was only one surfer Lorrin cautioned his daughters from and that was Nelly Bly Brignell – not because of the possibility he might be a bad influence, but because of his lack of sight: “My dad quietly warned me that we would stay as far away as possible from Brignell.  He wore coke bottle glasses and rode a big hollow paddle board...”[7]

The automobile helped increase surfers’ ability to go on surf safaris.  At places like Long Beach, Palos Verdes as well as San Onofre, surfers established the Southern California surf culture.  Following their trips to the Hawaiian Islands, guys like Whitey and Pete Peterson were major influences in helping foster a love of Polynesian culture along with what they were creating with the Californian.

“The Hawaiian beach boys taught us to love their music and instruments as well as their waves,” explained Lorrin.  In Hawai‘i, it had been “so hot during summer nights that we’d sit out in front of the Waikiki Tavern and make music till we fell asleep.”[8]

The scene at San Onofre was influenced in this way as well as being colorful in its own right.  As champion surfer Nat Young put it, “They were an incredibly healthy lot, spending long days down at the beach, engaging in friendly competition, encouraging their girls to surf, and partying long into the night.  They successfully combined normal working-class lives with the excitement of being the first group of [California] surfers.”[9]

Beginning around 1935, San Onofre became the major “meeting place for surfers up and down the California coast – from Tijuana Sloughs [south of San Diego] to Steamers Lane in Santa Cruz,” confirmed Dorian Paskowitz, one who was there.  “Friday and Saturday nights were always gay ‘ole times, with Hawaiian guitar, Tahitian dances and no small amount of boozing.  But come Sunday morning, it was serious surfing for the true beach rats.[10]

Pacific Systems

Pacific Ready Cut Homes, a.k.a. Pacific Systems Homes, or just plain “Pacific Systems”[11] in Southern California, was one of the first companies to produce commercial surfboards, and the era’s most notable in terms of volume and design.  Two separate manufacturers of Blake’s hollow boards had been the first.  Pacific Systems, owned by Meyers Butte, in Vernon, in the Los Angeles area, was the next.[12]

“When I was in Hawaii,” retold Whitey, “I was paddling canoes all the time... When I came back from Hawaii with my first wife, we lived in Dana Point.  I started fishing commercial, and then I got a motorcycle and rode it all the way to Los Angeles to work at Pacific Redi-cut Systems Homes for a summer.

“Tule Clark and Carroll ‘Laholio’ Bertolet worked there too.  Quite a few surfers worked there…  We were shipping sixty boards a month to Hawaii...” [13]

Pacific Systems Homes had started up in 1908 by founding partner William Butte.  By the 1920s, the company was on its way to becoming the largest homebuilder in the world.  Pacific Ready Cut Homes covered 25 acres and was an entirely self-contained company.  It had a steam power plant, an in-house lumber yard, machine shops, art studio and architectural department, in addition to an abundance of large capacity wood production machinery like planers, routers, profiling saws and hydraulic lamination presses.[14]

When the Stock Market crashed in October of 1929, Wilson Butte’s son Meyers was attending Stanford University and training for the Olympics in wrestling.  The economic crash forced Meyers to come home from Stanford and get involved with the family business.  Meyers knew about surf riding and paddleboarding and that his father’s business could also produce surfboards if there was enough of a market for them.  He began to change a small part of the production of Pacific Ready Cut System Homes to surfboards.  The big breakthrough came when Meyers and his associates found a water-proof glue that would hold the slabs of wood used in board construction together.[15]

According to Craig Stecyk in The Surfer’s Journal: “His initial offerings were similar in shape to the basic planks in use at Waikiki Beach… Early boards were of solid redwood construction and had long lag bolts holding them together [before the use of water-proof glue]… Later redwood versions such as those used by notable riders like Typhoon Spencer, Chauncey Granstrom, George Dyna, Willie Grigsby and Bud Morrissey were routed out in places and many of these types had progressive dowel and biscuit joinery.  Contrasting colored pine strips were incorporated into some of their decks.  Later versions of this construction featured alternating dark and light colored woods laid up in narrow strips.”[16]

Combining redwood with balsa was meant to lower the weight.  Milled and joined with waterproof glue, the wood was combined so that the lightness of the balsa ran down the middle and the strength of the redwood went to the stringer and rails.  Varnish protected the outside.  There were also “14-footers, shortened, and with a square tail.  “We dubbed them ‘slanchies,’” Doc Ball recalled.[17]

“Well, that was right after guys got a little worried carrying those big redwoods down [to the beach],” Doc explained.  “They had to walk a quarter of a mile.  They had to figure out sumpin’ to make ‘em lighter.  Instead of making ‘em hollow, why, they put this balsa in there to do it and it helped a lot!”[18]

According to his son Wilson, Meyers Butte took “great pride in the fact that he had pioneered the making of light surfboards.” [19]

While working at Pacific Systems, Whitey contributed to the construction of more than a few now-famous “Swastika Boards.”

“There was this guy there named ‘Dutch’ that was notching these swastika symbols in some of the boards,” Whitey recalled, “and he couldn’t speak a word of English.  They called these ‘swastika boards.’  He’d mix glue and we’d glue up the blanks.  Then we’d run them through a shaper to get a rough shape then finish them with hard planes and sandpaper.  It drove me crazy, but it was work.  They sold a balsa redwood plank for about $25.”[20]

It was around this time that Meyers Butte shipped six Swastika boards to Hawai‘i.  They were immediately appreciated for their shape and workmanship.  It was not long before Swastika models became objects of desire in Hawai‘i as well as California.  “The Swastika boards were droolers,” legendary shaper Dale Velzy was quoted as saying.  “Everybody had home-mades or hand-me-downs, so people really wanted a Pacific System.  There were a lot of them around places where rich guys who had gotten them in Hawaii hung out, like the Bel Air Bay Club, the Jonathon Club, the Balboa Bay Club and the Santa Monica Swim Club.” [21]

Although most boards continued to be custom made by surfers themselves, Swastikas became the most widely used production solid board of the period leading into World War II.  They featured full rails with a square upper edge and rounded lower.  A typical board length was 10-feet long, 23-inches wide, and 22-inches across the tail block.[22]

A good example of a Pacific Systems Homes Swastika model surfboard is in the Surfer magazine collection, in San Juan Capistrano.  It’s solid balsa with redwood stringers and rails.  It features a nose piece and tail block for strength and protection.  The 10-foot, 1-inch by 22-inch board is doweled for rigidity and durability and weighs 45 pounds.[23]

“They also made and sold paddleboards,” Whitey recalled of Pacific Systems.  “They had me racing them against all the other boards up and down the coast.  They would cut all the balsa scrap into blocks, glue them together and cut them into a plan shape.  Then we’d cover the top and bottom with 1/8” mahogany sheets and then laminate redwood strips along the sides which ended with redwood nose and tail blocks.  They worked pretty good, and they were light!”[24]

Swastika symbols also ended up branded into some hardwood floors that Pacific Systems sold and their use on company product was encouraged if not directed.  In the early 1930s, displaying the swastika symbol was far from controversial.  What the Germans called the hakenkreuz, or “hooked cross,” represented health and good fortune.  The symbol has been used by many cultures, on all continents and most eras.  It usually is a symbol of good and productivity.  The word swastika is Sanskrit and translates to “the welfare-bringing thing.”  That was along the lines of how the Buttes intended it; a symbol with “connotations of health and good fortune,” according to Wilson Butte, son of Meyers.[25]

The rise of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or the German Nazi Party, put an end to the swastika symbol’s use on Pacific Systems product.  The German Nazi Party had actually been using the swastika as a symbol since 1920.  Its leader, Adolf Hitler, explained why in his autobiographical/political treatise Mein Kampf, in 1925:  “I myself… after innumerable attempts, had laid down a final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle.  After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika.”[26]

Hitler also said in Mein Kampf:

“As National Socialists, we see our program in our flag.  In red, we see the social idea of the movement; in white, the nationalistic idea; in the swastika, the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic.” [27]

When war broke out in Europe, Meyers Butte discontinued the symbol on Pacific Systems products.  “My father abandoned it to avoid any controversy soon after Hitler began using it,” said Wilson Butte, adding that the name of their surfboard line was changed to “Waikiki Surf Boards”  and that “The Waikiki boards came out around 1938.” [28]

Pacific System Homes, as a Butte family enterprise, soon changed.  Carolyn Patricia Flynn wrote her UCLA Masters thesis in Architecture and Urban Planning on the subject of Pacific Ready-Cut Homes: Mass-Produced Bungalows in Los Angeles, 1908 – 1942:

Butte operated a scaled-down Pacific Ready-Cut Homes during the Depression drastically reducing the number of employees to about 30.  He sold the Exhibition Grounds and moved the main office building, a large, two-story bungalow, to the plant in Vernon.  Although Pacific sold ready-cut houses throughout the thirties, homebuilding did not really recover until after World War II, and William Butte [senior] died in 1936.  As his son Robert put it, Butte had been the ‘chief,’ the one who made it go.  The eldest son became president of the firm, and operated it until 1942, when the Butte sons [Robert and Meyers] sold the business and enlisted [in the military].”[29]

[1] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, p. 36.
[2] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, p. 36.
[3] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, pp. 36-37.  The Corona del Mar crew on that 1st trip to San Onofre included: George Brignell, Ned Leutzinger, Joe Parsons, Lucien Knight, Winfred Harrison, Ethel Harrison, Lorrin, George Minor, Hubert Howe, Glen Bishop and Orly Minor.  See also the chapter on Mary Ann Hawkins, confirming the year as 1934.
[4] Paskowitz, Dorian.  “Tarzan At Waikiki,” The Surfer’s Journal, Vol. 1, Number 4, Winter 1992-93.  See also Young, 1983, p. 53.
[5] Clark, Let’s Go, Let’s Go! © 1997, p. 14.
[6] Clark, Let’s Go, Let’s Go! © 1997, pp. 14-17.
[7] Clark, Let’s Go, Let’s Go! © 1997, p. 17.
[8] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, p. 37.
[9] Young, 1983, p. 53.
[10] Paskowitz, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1992-93.
[11]  Santa Monica Heritage Museum exhibit “Cowabunga!”  February 1994.
[12]  Young, 1983, p. 57.  Normally, I would not trust Nat’s dating, but it is true he talked with many old timers when their memories were clear, in preparation for his first edition of The History of Surfing.  Dates of Blake hollow board productions can be found in Lynch, Gault-Williams, et. Al, TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman.
[13] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, pp. 38-42.  Whitey said “this was about 1931,” but it could not have been earlier than 1933, as Whitey didn’t come back from O‘ahu until 1933.  He was probably talking about the summer of 1933 or 1934.  See the Pete Peterson chapter for date corroboration.  Whitey laughed when he recalled Bertolet’s nickname.  He explained “Laholio” meant “horse balls” in Spanish.
[14] Flynn, Carolyn Patricia.  “Pacific Ready-Cut Homes: Mass Produced Bungalows in Los Angeles, 1908-1942,” a thesis submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts  in Architecture and Urban Planning, by Carolyn Patricia Flynn, 1986; homepage.mac.com/llatker/images/Ready-Cut_ThesisUCLA1986.pdf
[15] Flynn,  “Pacific Ready-Cut Homes: Mass Produced Bungalows in Los Angeles, 1908-1942,” 1986; homepage.mac.com/llatker/images/Ready-Cut_ThesisUCLA1986.pdf
[16] Stecyk, Craig.  The Surfer’s Journal, issue unknown.  Referenced by Ben Marcus for the Surfing Heritage Foundation, Fall 2008.
[17] Ball, John “Doc.”  Notes to the Gault-Williams draft, May 19-21, 1998.
[18] Gault-Williams, Malcolm.  Interview with John “Doc” Ball, January 10, 1998.
[19] Flynn, “Pacific Ready-Cut Homes: Mass Produced Bungalows in Los Angeles, 1908-1942,” 1986; homepage.mac.com/llatker/images/Ready-Cut_ThesisUCLA1986.pdf
[20] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, pp. 38-42.
[21] Stecyk, Craig.  The Surfer’s Journal, issue unknown.  Stecyk quoting Velzy.  Referenced by Ben Marcus for the Surfing Heritage Foundation, Fall 2008.  Stecyk marked the year the first boards going to Hawai‘i as 1932, but it was probably more like 1934; possibly 1933.
[22] Young, 1983, p. 57 & 59.  See Ball, 1946, p. 41 for a good shot at the board shapes being used at Palos Verdes Cove in the 1930s.
[23] Santa Monica Heritage Museum exhibit “Cowabunga!” February 1994.  Swastika model board on loan from Surfer magazine, San Juan Capistrano.
[24] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, pp. 38-42.
[25] Flynn, “Pacific Ready-Cut Homes: Mass Produced Bungalows in Los Angeles, 1908-1942,” 1986; homepage.mac.com/llatker/images/Ready-Cut_ThesisUCLA1986.pdf
[26] “Swastika” at Wikipedia:  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika.
[27] “Swastika” at Wikipedia:  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika.
[28] Flynn, “Pacific Ready-Cut Homes: Mass Produced Bungalows in Los Angeles, 1908-1942,” 1986; homepage.mac.com/llatker/images/Ready-Cut_ThesisUCLA1986.pdf
[29] Flynn, “Pacific Ready-Cut Homes: Mass Produced Bungalows in Los Angeles, 1908-1942,” 1986; homepage.mac.com/llatker/images/Ready-Cut_ThesisUCLA1986.pdf

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