Kirk Putnam was a skinny kid from Burbank, sneaking across Topanga Beach with his surfboard under one arm, trying to slip unnoticed into the waves.
"If the local guys spotted you, they'd point you out," Putnam says. "Then the guys on the beach would start chucking rocks."
It was the early 1960s, the early days of the surfing boom. Locals didn't want their waves cluttered with San Fernando Valley kooks. Young surfers who flocked to the coast from Burbank and Van Nuys and Granada Hills suffered taunts, sometimes playful and sometimes worse. They laid low at certain beaches, removing license-plate frames and other identifying marks from their cars, hoping to escape attention.
"The flattening of tires, the breaking of car windows--it could get vicious," says Mark Richards, who grew up in North Hollywood. "If you showed up at a surf spot with an attitude, sure, you were asking for trouble. It's just that Valley surfers were automatically tagged for having an attitude whether we had one or not."
So the Valley, landlocked, denied even the scent of ocean breezes by surrounding mountains, assumed a role in the emerging Southern California surf culture. "Valley cowboys" were cast as the bad guys, the marauding hordes.
This image had little to do with young men such as Putnam and Richards, who paddled out against south swells. They counted themselves among a breed drawn to the sea, willing to learn a difficult skill, willing to endure the interminable waits between good conditions. They never thought of themselves in terms of geography. They merely wanted to ride waves.
But they encountered a larger prejudice, a notion of the Valley as Los Angeles' hick cousin. This caricature, the same one that eventually spawned "Valley girl" jokes, was made clear to 1960s surfers by the graffiti scrawled across the famed Malibu wall:
"Vals Go Home."
Each morning in the summer, Steve Krajewski and his buddies would tie their surfboards atop the family Corvair and squeeze into the back seat. His stepfather, Ron, would drive them west from Canoga Park, through winding canyon roads, and drop them off at the beach on his way to work.
"He'd make a point of telling us to meet him at 5:15," recalls Krajewski, who is now 44 years old. "But when he came back, we'd still be in the water. He'd start honking his horn. Then he'd drive home at 80 miles an hour and scare the hell out of us."
These were first-generation Valley surfers, the children of a postwar migration that had transformed acres of farmland into a vast suburban grid. These teen-agers listened to the Ventures. They jeered Frankie-and-Annette movies. They caught the same bug that had infected beach kids years before, when visiting Hawaiians such as Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth first surfed the Southern California coast.
But as Krajewski and others like him felt the tug of the ocean, most were too young to drive. The intricacies of surfing, the necessary strength and balance, paled in comparison to a more daunting challenge--getting to the beach.
Not everyone had a parent who would offer a ride. Glen Kennedy hitchhiked from Canoga Park. Putnam waited at a hamburger stand near his house, careful to hide his board from the "hard guys" who cruised by in their hot rods. He waited until older surfers came along.
"The older guys would say to us younger guys, 'All right, I'll take you,' " Putnam says. "But we ended up paying for gas and paying for their lunch."
When beach surfers realized that carloads of awkward newcomers were streaming over the hill, the rivalry began. The locals acted as if they could claim some ownership to the sea, as if they could trace their blood ancestry back to ancient Polynesians who rode heavy wooden planks across the breakers. They began painting "Vals Die" on the sidewalks.
"The beach surfers always felt they had more right to the water because they lived closer," Richards says. "Sometimes there were fights in the water."
More often, the animosity took the form of trash talk.
"You saw a lot of guys getting vibed," says Michael Marcellino, a Sherman Oaks surfer. "There was a lot of talk to psych guys out."
And there were antics. Legend has it that locals once tried to block the canyon roads during a large swell so that Valley surfers could not reach the coast. They also waxed car windshields and stole lunches from the younger, visiting surfers. Some Vals, in turn, developed a technique called "buttching," by which they would sabotage their sandwiches and fruit by rubbing this food against various parts of their bodies.
Malibu proved a hotbed for such give-and-take. An angry veteran punched dozens of dents in a Valley surfer's stray board. Young Vals "buttched" their lunches daily. And Putnam made the mistake of cutting off the legendary Mickey Dora.
"You," Dora muttered. "Out."
Putnam dutifully paddled to shore and spent the rest of the afternoon watching from the sand.
At beach high schools, surfers enjoyed acceptance in the social scene. On campuses such as Cleveland High in Reseda, they were outcasts. They weren't as popular as the jocks. They didn't dress as nicely as the soshes.
"We wore Jack Purcell tennies, jeans and madras short-sleeve shirts with our hair parted," Chris Faust says. "It was like punk rock is now. It was considered sleazy."
Out on the coast, all the hot surfers had banded together in clubs such as Windansea, Bay Cities and the powerhouse Malibu Surfing Assn. Faust and his friends began calling themselves the Overhead Surf Assn.
Other fledgling clubs popped up around the Valley. Chatsworth High School had the North Coast Surfing Assn. Burbank had the North Swell Surfers. In the mid-1960s, a group of younger kids, including Faust's little brother Kingsley, formed the Southern Surfing Assn.
"We'd all meet at the Canoga Bowling Alley before dawn, 10 or 15 cars full of surfers," Kingsley Faust says. The ensuing caravan northward might include a stop on the Conejo Grade where surfers would urinate into plastic bags and throw them at each other. "We had a few consummate drug addicts who would sniff glue all the way. We'd take over a beach and have a blast."
But clubs offered more than social mayhem. In an era before professional contests, they allowed surfers to compete against rivals. Each team had its own jacket with a logo. Overhead members strutted the sand in their trademark green trunks.
"The secretary from our club would call the secretary from another club and say, 'Let's have a contest.' There was a lot of pride on the line," Chris Faust explains. "If you were going up against Windansea, you were going against guys like Skip Frye, the magazine heroes of the day."
Rarely did Valley clubs win. But along the way, surfers such as Gary Ross and Ron Hoffman earned respect. Krajewski became known as a stylist. The younger Kennedy and Angie Reno established themselves as power surfers who could manhandle the big waves.
The coastal clubs took notice.
"The Valley became a farm team," says Doug Williams, an Overhead member who garnered a sponsorship from a surfboard manufacturer. "When you got to surf good enough, they couldn't wait to pick you up."
Lynn Coleman watched the scene with bemusement.
"Being a girl," she says, "I was basically out of the loop."
She wasn't the only female in the water in 1964. Several of her teammates on the Taft High School girls' volleyball team surfed, too. But women remained something of an oddity in the culture.
"To even walk into a surf shop was taboo," she says. "It was like a men's club or a barbershop or something."
So Coleman hung out with surfers who avoided the club scene, all the parties and the road trips. They shied from the popular spots, hanging out at Sunset Beach or at the county line instead, forming surfing's version of a counterculture. And by the 1970s, everyone else would rush to join them.
Surf clubs began to dissipate when the Vietnam War escalated. Many surfers were drafted. Others fell into the increasingly prevalent use of drugs. And, as the times grew rebellious, no one wanted to wear matching jackets and trunks.
"We became soul surfers," says Marty Peach, Overhead's last president. "We were all part of one tribe."
For Peach and the rest of Overhead, the end arrived ignominiously. They were defeated in a contest against the younger Southern Surfing Assn.
"I ripped my patch off," Peach says. "Then I handed the S.S.A. president the rest of our treasury, which wasn't even enough to cover the bet we'd made."
In the years that followed, surf shops would become the focus for the culture. Back in 1962, Richards had persuaded his father to open a shop in North Hollywood. As Val Surf & Sport established itself as the grandfather of Valley surf shops, the guys who hung around there were known for wearing shag haircuts and riding the latest in board designs.
Along Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana, Greg Liddle attracted a smaller cadre of surfers, the so-called "Liddle League," who swore by the boards he sold. Not far away, the Al Beach store catered to West Valley kids. And a few years later, Kennedy would open a shop of his own in Woodland Hills.
The scene changed considerably in the ensuing years. It was the age of shorter boards and acrobatic maneuvers. Some surfers drifted away from the ocean, saddened by the end of the clubs.
"The clubs were an ego deal," Williams says. "Those were the most fun times I ever had."
If anything, Willie Morris figures that being from the Valley helped his surfing.
"If you live at the beach, you'll only surf when it's good," the Woodland Hills man says. "But if you live in the Valley, to get to the beach, you've got to have dedication, you've got to work at it.
"Plus, guys who drive will surf a lot of different areas," he says. "You go to Huntington Beach and surf the beach break. You surf Malibu, where it's a point break, and you have to surf it differently. You have to be able to surf a lot of conditions."
This adaptability served Morris well when he joined the professional tour in 1980. After a string of top results on beaches around the world, he was hailed as a top new talent and the Valley's first successful professional surfer.
"It was a big deal for me," he says. "I thought about all the guys ahead of me. Guys like Krajewski, Kennedy and Marcellino."
His predecessors had largely defeated the "Valley cowboy" image. Morris, who retired from the tour in 1986, carried that hard-earned respect into the glitzy contest era. He paved the way for the current generation, surfers such as Joey Jenkins.
A North Hollywood native, Jenkins heard none of the old taunts when he began surfing in the mid-1980s. He got his first job at Val Surf & Sport. And he had a history of Valley surfers to admire.
"I was influenced by guys like Willie Morris," Jenkins says.
Last year, the Assn. of Surfing Professionals ranked Jenkins as one of the top 28 surfers in the world. But he seems equally proud of an earlier accomplishment when, as an emerging professional, he was sponsored by a coastal surf shop.
"A Val riding for a Santa Monica company," Jenkins says. "That was pretty much the confirmation that I wasn't getting the flak for being a Val."
Somewhere along the way, the term "Val" became synonymous with anyone who wasn't part of the established crew at a surf spot.
But locals don't seem to guard their waves as jealously as they once did. "It's nowhere near what it was 20 years ago," Marcellino says.
At most Southern California beaches, from Santa Barbara down to San Diego, geographical distinctions have melted away. The crowds run anonymous.
As for the new breed of Valley surfers, the new kids, they can take a bus that carries them--and their surfboards--to Zuma Beach each day during the summer. And rarely will they see "Vals Die" or Vals Go Home" painted on the walls when they get there.
"When the swell hits and the waves are good, either you're in the water or you're not," Krajewski says. "That's what surfing is all about."
Or, as Williams puts it, "If a guy's out there ripping it up, who cares where he lives?"
In an odd way, though, acceptance may have robbed some of the fun from Valley surfers. In a sport that has always prided itself on rebellion, they no longer have great forces to rally against.
"The symbol of the Valley surfer," Richards muses. "Maybe we took some pride in that."