An Era Revisited : 25 Years Ago, Tom Wolfe Immortalized a Group of Teens From Windansea Beach in ‘The Pump House Gang’; Now, Some of the Gang Recall It With Mixed Feelings
With a smile that slid into an easy laugh, Jackie Haddad Hellingson recalled that free-frolicking beach summer of ’65 when her bronze-skinned gang of teen-agers waged war against The Outsiders.
Yeah, those were the crazy times when every day seemed to last a whole year and the surf-whompers, sun-lovers and rock ‘n’ roll kids staked out the sandy turf at Windansea Beach in La Jolla like it was their own back yard--because it was.
Back then, The Enemy drove huge gas-guzzlers with out-of-state plates. They were overweight mommy-hubbies who invaded the beach like an army of clammy white cadavers, carrying every piece of paraphernalia imaginable--the gooey vat of tanning oil, the folding chairs, portable grills and chicken sandwiches. And those dorky umbrellas!
In the confounding months of early Vietnam and the Watts riots, 40 lean and tan native Southern California teens decided to draw the line against The Outside World.
So they invented The Hood Check. The Hang-Out. And The Stare.
A dozen at a time, they would lollygag on the concrete steps near the old pump house, their legs spraddled, setting up a Cadaver Obstacle Course to block The Outsiders from the beach. When the old-timers went for a swim, the teens would eat the lunches right off their beach blankets.
They would stop the big tourist cruisers in the middle of the street for phony oil checks. And then walk off laughing, leaving the hood up.
Or they would just fix strangers with a sort of Zombie Stare--cold enough to turn any Outsider into a block of oil-greased ice, replete with their scandalous black socks and sandals--until they just went somewhere else.
That’s when the gang met The Ice Cream Man. Mr. Outsider Himself. He wore a doubled-breasted seersucker suit and a white tie looped into this incredibly tiny knot. And he wore sneakers, along with this skyscraper top hat and walking cane--at the beach!
He was a New York writer named Tom Wolfe. And he wanted to do a story about The Kids. And about this new and young social rebellion he saw taking place on the shore at Windansea, right there at the La Jolla pump house.
“Most of us thought he was a geek,” Hellingson recalled. “Some people thought he was a narc because of the oddball way he dressed. Some of the surfers refused to cooperate with him. I mean, back then, nobody had ever heard of Tom Wolfe.”
Twenty-five years later, both the writer and his story about the kids at Windansea Beach have achieved literary stature. “The Pump House Gang,” written in the pyrotechnic prose of his “new journalism,” helped establish Wolfe as one of the most prominent social critics of his generation.
But what happened to the kids?
Well, the Pump House Gang has grown up. Some have responsible jobs and kids of their own. Others are dead. Or in jail. Or in drug rehab clinics. Still others just disappeared.
Recently, a half-dozen members of the old gang discussed how their lives have turned out since that summer of ’65. Some expressed remaining doubts over the scope and accuracy of the story that came to represent an entire generation of Southern California youth.
Mostly, though, they talked about the new relationships each has forged with the beach, their old stomping grounds.
And, even as members of the Older Generation, they insist they haven’t turned into the very Outsiders those teen-age ghosts of their past once sought to ban from their surfside paradise.
Some have even become 15-minute heroes. Ex-surfer John K. Weldon was visiting a relative in Germany a few years ago when he happened into a college English class using Wolfe as assigned reading.
“When they found out I was a character in that story, the kids treated me like a celebrity, a living legend,” he said. “It was great.”
For Tom Wolfe, the Pump House Gang represented something new and different in the American culture of the mid-1960s--a separate youth society based on beer busts, the rolling ocean waves and a segregated beach where being old was definitely out.
Amazed at these goings-on, Wolfe produced a two-part article--"The New Life Out There"--that originally appeared in New York’s Sunday Herald Tribune Magazine and later as “The Pump House Gang” in a book of his stories.
The way Wolfe saw it, the middle and upper-class kids who hung around the salmon-pink La Jolla water system pump house represented the earliest version of a rebellious surfers’ subculture that would grow to enormous proportions in the years to come.
He liked the way they would spit on the sidewalk and stage sit-ins to obstruct pedestrian traffic. And the way neighbors always called the police, who always showed up to issue them tickets.
But there was a darker side to the story. Wolfe wrote about teen-agers afraid to grow old. Like the young couple who decided to blow their brains all over the pump house steps rather than face “the horror age of 25, the horror dividing line.”
And the author had a prediction for the rest of his Pump House Gang. One day, he wrote, they would become prisoners of their own society. They would become a graying generation of beach bums.
“Pretty soon,” he concluded, “the California littoral will be littered with these guys, stroked out on the beach like beached white whales, and girls, too, who can’t give up the mystique, Oh Mighty Hulking Sea, who can’t conceive of living any other life.”
When Wolfe’s piece was first published, most of the Windansea surfers felt betrayed by the caricatured figures in the story. Soon afterwards, someone scrawled a graffiti message on the pump house wall: “Tom Wolfe is a dork!”
Even today, some harsh feelings remain.
Although they concede that some of their contemporaries have become the graying beach bums Wolfe envisioned, the ones who managed to escape that youthful culture don’t feel much like beached whales. They’re holding down solid jobs and are proud of their accomplishments, no thanks to Tom Wolfe.
“Even to this day, I feel used by the way I was portrayed in that story--Tom Wolfe’s little social experiment,” said 49-year-old Gary Watkins, immortalized in the story for his free-wheeling overnight sojourn into the midst of the Watts riots in a VW van--a trip he and friends made for kicks.
“It was like he was saying, ‘Watch out Gary, you’re going to be old one day, too.’ Well, I’m no beached whale. I’m basically the same Gary Watkins I used to be.”
Today, Watkins lives in Pacific Beach with his wife and son. And he works at a UC San Diego maintenance garage.
“I still go to the beach to body surf and boogie board,” he said. “But the place doesn’t rule my life. So, you see, you were wrong Tom Wolfe.”
At 13, little Vicki Bellardo was the youngest member of Wolfe’s Pump House gang. Now she teaches Spanish and journalism at Madison High School in Clairemont. And she can’t forget either.
For Bellardo, the Pump House Gang story was more fiction than fact. There was a toga party described in the story that no one remembers. And there was made-up language such as the teens calling tourists “Panthus,” a reference to black panthers for the black socks and sandals they often wore.
“He made us something we weren’t,” she said. “He embellished on things to make our lives sound almost mythic. We were just a bunch of kids having fun.”
Wolfe declined comment for this story. In an interview following his first return to the pump house several years ago, however, the author described his preoccupation with the La Jolla beach scene.
“The thing that fascinated me was this whole age-segregation thing,” he said. “California was the first place where I had seen communes of people segregated by age. These kids forming their own society, some living in garages away from their parents, fascinated me.”
Bellardo doesn’t recall any teen-agers sleeping in rented garages. In fact, most kids--especially she and her older sister, Liz--often had to slip out of the house to show up at the pump house.
“We had curfews. Our parents would have killed us if they knew we were hanging out at that beach,” she recalled. “It was that way for a lot of the kids. But you wouldn’t know it from reading the story. We were supposed to be out starting some sort of revolution.”
Bellardo has yet to read “The Pump House Gang” in her classes--or any other books by Tom Wolfe, for that matter. “I just never trusted him after that story came out. I mean, how much of his stories are the truth and how much did he make up? You just never know.”
But, after all these years, other Pump House Gang members see the story through more tolerant eyes.
Elizabeth Derks, Vicki’s older sister, was the pump house teen-ager who fascinated Wolfe with her “Liz styles”: “hulking rabbit-fur vest and black-leather boots over her Levis, even though it is about 85 out here and the sun is plugged in up there like God’s own dentist lamp.”
Sure, Liz was a wild one. She still is. After a short career as an actress in New York and Paris, she now runs a rural Wisconsin saloon with her husband and sings in a rock band.
“A lot of kids were angry at first over the way we were portrayed. I didn’t even read the story--just the parts I was in,” she recalled.
Since then, however, Derks has read the story to her children.
“It’s funny, but after all these years have made me older and wiser, I sometimes stop and think ‘Yeah, maybe we did do all those strange things.’ And I still think it’s wild that some famous writer made a big deal out of our group. Or else nobody would be even talking about us today.
“The way I look at it, Tom Wolfe put us all on the map.”
All around La Jolla these days, you can still see them: T-shirts and bumper stickers carrying the logo of the Mac Meda Destruction Co.
Mac Meda was a resilient image in Tom Wolfe’s paean to the rebellious kids of Windansea Beach. The very first scene of the story describes the kids sitting on the pump house steps, jeering Outsiders with an insider’s code word.
“Mee-dah,” they said in a “real fakey deep voice.” As in Mac Meda.
In “The Pump House Gang,” Wolfe describes the Mac Meda Destruction Co. as an “underground society . . . mainly something to bug people with and organize huge beer orgies with.”
A quarter-century later, Jack Macpherson still laughs at the little joke invented by a couple of surfers nicknamed “Mac” and “Meda” that the press and police somehow turned into an entire cult to symbolize the youth rebellion of the 1960s.
Macpherson was part of the older beach crowd that hung around the parking lot at Windansea Beach, just down the way from the kids at the pump house. But he nonetheless had an effect on their lives, on the myth of the gang.
Mac had this roommate named Bob Rakestraw who liked to go to the zoo on weekends and have stare-downs with Albert the Gorilla. And he liked to break things--doors, park benches, anything he could get his hands on. But he never used profanity--instead, when mad, he would croak out the word “Meda.”
One night over beers, Mac and Meda came up with the idea for a phony destruction company, complete with business cards and T-shirts stenciled with red spray paint.
La Jolla was a pretty small beach scene back then. Word got around.
Pretty soon, every kid in La Jolla had to have a Mac Meda T-shirt. They adorned their cars with Mac Meda bumper stickers showing an expanding nuclear cloud. They flashed Mac Meda “Get Out of Jail Free” cards.
Eventually, police stopped the kids they spotted wearing the shirts. They said Mac Meda was a gang, scouts for the dangerous Hells Angels and political Black Panthers.
“It was a goof, a joke,” recalls Macpherson, now 53, a La Jolla bartender whose car still bears a “MACMEDA” license plate. “And it just got out of hand.”
For members of the teen-age Pump House Gang, Mac Meda became a code word for beer bash. There would be these huge parties in isolated canyons east of La Jolla, in the then-undeveloped Sorrento Valley and Penasquitos Canyon.
Once, scores of La Jolla teens gathered around a rickety barn that had been condemned. They built a campfire and drank beer and wine coolers, Liz Derks recalled. They listened to tapes of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Dave Clark Five and Jimi Hendrix.
And then they used jeeps, rocks and sledgehammers to tear the barn down.
“It was nothing really that radical,” she recalled, “just a bunch of kids blowing off steam. But the police really made a lot about it. After that, they started raiding the beer parties.”
But the 1960s, Vietnam, the Watts riots and Richard Nixon came and went. The kids disappeared. There was less to be angry about.
For a few years, there were annual Mac Meda conventions in Carmel Valley and Rosarito Beach--mostly to trade old war stories, Macpherson recalls.
Today, the spirit of Mac Meda is carried on by Doug Moranville, a Windansea surfer who still prints the T-shirts--adorned with gorilla mascot Albert MacMeda--in a tiny industrial garage near downtown La Jolla.
And the stickers have become a form of 1990s graffiti, placed not only on cars and mailboxes and not only throughout La Jolla, but in bars and at bus stops throughout the world. Put there by people who remember.
“The T-shirts are big with the young kids,” said 43-year-old Moranville. “It’s become a cult with them. They missed out on the old Mac Meda days. And wearing the T-shirt is a way of making those times live on.”
Vicki Bellardo thinks Tom Wolfe should have written an epilogue to his story about the California teen rebellion and the kids who “float right through the real world, but it can’t touch them.”
He should have written about the people who died.
Wolfe’s story, Bellardo says, didn’t account for the burgeoning drug scene that was just then overshadowing the Pump House Gang. “That wasn’t a glamorous era,” she said. “Actually, it was sort of sad.”
By the time Wolfe’s magazine story appeared in February, 1966, the Pump House Gang was attending the funeral of a member felled by a heroin overdose. And there would be more.
“A lot of people died, or they got strung out,” Bellardo said. “There were suicides. A lot of others ended up in jail.”
People like Tom Coman. The 16-year-old who lived in a rented garage in Wolfe’s story has since spent his life in and out of jail. He has been tried and acquitted of murder. He has been convicted of burglary. And, in 1979, he was labeled a narcotics addict and sent to the California Rehabilitation Center in Corona.
This fall, he was again jailed for burglary in Los Angeles. Now, neither his family nor friends know where he is. And they don’t want to know.
“Tom Coman is just no good,” said his sister-in-law, who lives in Carlsbad. “He stole from his family and everyone else. We never want to see him again.”
Vicki Bellardo understands the gnashings of some of her old pals who never escaped the beach. There just came a time, she said, when you had to make your break from that scene. Or else it broke you.
“You had to cut your ties, or you were going to get into trouble,” she said. “If you didn’t get out young, you weren’t going to get out.”
Vicki got out. Today, she lives with her infant son in a La Jolla house she bought from her parents. She keeps that old pump house rebel style, though. A few years ago, she built her own Harley Davidson from the ground up--and still occasionally drives it to her teaching job.
Jackie Haddad Hellingson says there are people in every group who just don’t make it. “I don’t think our group was any different from any group of kids you could take today,” she said.
“Out of 40 kids, some will be successful. And some won’t get there at all.”
So, maybe Tom Wolfe was right after all.
“He was pretty sharp in his predictions,” said John K. Weldon, 42, now an aircraft worker near San Luis Obispo. “I know some people still living on the beach in La Jolla. They’re guys in their late 30s, still hanging in the same parking lot, living at home, waiting for their mothers and fathers to die.
“It’s pretty sad, but for some people his prediction came true. They’re beached whales, that’s really what they are.”
Little Jackie Haddad became a character in Tom Wolfe’s vision of the Southern California youth rebellion with a naive high school essay about her first surfing experience.
She called it “My Ultimate Journey.” And it described how she and a boyfriend--inspired by some classic old surfer films--went down to “the cold, wet, soggy sand of Windansea early on a December morning.”
In the simple language of a 14-year-old, she described the thrilling chill of the waves that hit with exhausting strength. She wrote of the exhilaration of having the beach all to themselves, to experiment with their new-found game on set after set of crashing surf, until even a morning rainstorm and the subsequent colds it brought them couldn’t dampen their spirits.
Wolfe featured the entire essay in his pump house story, the tale of “two kids, a 14-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy, (who) go out to Windansea at dawn, cold as hell, and take on 12-foot waves all by themselves.”
Today, Jackie Haddad is Jackie Haddad Hellingson, real estate broker and mother of two, who married a surfer named Ken whom she met at the pump house back then. The couple and their 17-year-old son live in La Jolla’s Muirlands area--not far from Windansea Beach.
Ken, a carpenter, still has the Mac Meda tattoo on his left arm. Jackie still has that essay tucked away in a notebook somewhere.
But she gave up surfing long ago. Now she’s busy with a career and a family--especially keeping pace with Tyler, her teen-aged surfer son who claims that he’s the new generation Pump House Gang.
These days, Hellingson still goes to the beach at Windansea. But now it’s just to think, take evening walks and watch the peaceful winter sunsets. And, sometimes, just to remember the freedom.
“It was the simplicity of the beach--of not having to make decisions,” she said. “You didn’t have to plan, things just came up. As an adult, it’s not quite the same.”
Over the years, though, Hellingson has worked to keep the youthful spirit of that teen-age girl so thrilled with her new surfing discovery.
Her home is still a gathering spot for teen-agers. Kids say they can talk to her. Unlike other parents, she isn’t bothered by the changes of the youth culture that come in fits and starts--the length of a boy’s hair or the way teen-age girls dress.
She’s not an Outsider.
“Back then, what we disliked in the older generation had nothing to do with age,” she recalled. “It had to do with a philosophy, the mentality of turning yourself off to the new things.”
Young kids comfortable with themselves and their place in life don’t just suddenly become geeks at an older age. “The people who wear black socks and sandals have always been that way,” she said. “Geeks are born as geeks, they don’t evolve that way.”
On a recent weekday morning, sharing the old pump house steps with a defiant sea gull, she silently surveyed the roaring surf. “Wow, good whomp today!” she said.
If there indeed was a war against The Outsiders, the pump house gang came out losers. Most say they no longer surf. The surf is too crowded with strangers. And tourists.
Hellingson still doesn’t like the idea of the tourists invading Windansea Beach. “They bring trash and litter,” she said. “They just don’t appreciate the beauty of the beach. And that still makes me mad.”
But Hellingson slips now and then. She stops thinking and acting like the young hipster of her past and starts acting, well, like a parent.
Like the other day when she was talking with Tyler about the limited access to a beach near their home. “And, before I caught myself, I was saying that something permanent should be done so more people could get to the beach.”
Tyler gave his mother The Stare.
“Oh no, not that,” he said. “Don’t you understand? We want the beach to ourselves.”
TOMORROW: A visit with a 1990’s version of the Pump House Gang.