To protect and to surf
It is the cusp of another summer, a bright morning with just enough breeze to carry the overripe scent of ocean, like food left on the table too long. The waves run small, which doesn’t stop two dozen surfers from sharking around the lineup, dropping in on each other, riding shoulder to shoulder.
Mysto George stands by the wall at Surfrider Beach in Malibu and shrugs: “Kinda crowded.”
This spot was always a zoo. Even back in the 1950s, when Mysto first arrived on the scene, surfers flocked here for perfect waves curling off the point and the gentle texture of a west wind. That will never change.
But like other veterans, the 74-year-old looks out on the water and sees a difference. And it’s not just a case of old guys pining for the way things used to be.
Mysto starts to explain, then veers into a story — he has a way of doing that — talking about a phone call he got from his buddy Ray a few months back. They had started surfing as young men, grown old together, kept riding waves all these years.
In the middle of chatting about a south swell, Ray said, “I feel dizzy.”
Try putting your head between your knees, Mysto told him.
Then Ray mentioned something, almost casually: “I might be having a stroke.”
“Do you want me to call 911?”
Paramedics arrived at Ray’s house to discover that the 68-year-old had suffered a massive stroke. For the next week, as he lay in a coma, old pals came through his hospital room. He had never been a surf star, never been featured in magazines or films, but when he died on a Friday afternoon in November, the Internet buzzed with tributes.
Ray had been a load of a man, a broad hull for a chest and fists like anvils. In the old days, the surfers who roamed the coast called him “Peter Proportion” and “the Malibu Enforcer.” With his nose slightly bent and his front teeth busted out by a wayward board, everyone knew to stay on his good side.
The point is — Mysto finally gets there — Ray embodied a time when surfers from San Onofre to County Line lived in a world of their own, a renegade faction with unique ethics, an exclusive cast of characters. The life and times of Ray Kunze symbolize how things once were, and how different Southern California surf culture is now.
Surfing’s childhoodA thousand memories sparkle like sunlight on the water, hard for George Carr to pick out and grab just one.
Carr got his first surfboard in the early 1950s, a tandem that had been cut down to size, 10 feet of balsa wood wrapped in fiberglass. He recalls that it cost $35, about $10 less than his used Plymouth.
His pal Ray came along for the ride, the two of them heading for Hermosa Beach. Mysto was in his early 20s, Ray about five years younger. They had met through sports, both fine athletes at their high school in South Gate, both eager to try this new thing.
Nowadays the water is littered with surfers. Back then, the two friends could stand on the pier and spot only a handful of die-hards, huddled together, chatting, waiting for the next set to come in.
Though Ray was big and strong, Mysto recalls telling him to be careful because that board weighed a ton. Sure enough, Ray paddled out and got himself in a bad spot, the board flipping up and catching him square across the face, breaking his nose.
“He never got it looked at,” Mysto says. “He had a bent nose the rest of his life.”
Surfing was rougher then. No one wore wetsuits to stay warm in chilly waters, and no one had a leash. If you lost your board, you had to swim to shore to get it.
Physical hardship was a litmus test, a filter, weeding out all but the most determined.
Another thing: No one had money, so they used to forage. Whenever Ray surfed at Laguna, he headed into town at sunset and made the rounds of the local pizza parlors, collecting uneaten slices off the tables, bringing them back to the car where he slept. The next morning, leftovers were laid across the dashboard, warming in the sun while he caught the day’s first waves.
By the mid-1950s all the California surfers were giving each other nicknames, just like the original Hawaiian beach boys. Mysto already had his, short for “mystery man.”
One day, at a hamburger joint in Hermosa, some kids were talking about a local vagrant who loitered around bus benches. They called him something odd, and Mysto went straight to his pal, saying, “I think I’ve got a nickname for you.”
Ray liked the sound of “Peter Proportion.” The other surfers figured it had something to do with the way he was built, and soon enough everyone took to calling him “Pete.”
It wasn’t until a few years ago that he found out he’d been named after a bum.
“He laughed,” Mysto says. “He never knew.”
Unwritten rulesSurfing is a pop culture phenomenon now — fodder for movies and clothing lines, a backdrop for magazine ads. It might be hard to imagine that in the late 1950s, anyone who hung around the beach waiting for waves was considered a degenerate or worse.
Surfers of that era reveled in being different, setting their own rules, their own caste system. Their subculture thrived at hallowed spots along the coast, in Palos Verdes, Santa Barbara and, of course, Malibu.
At Surfrider Beach, the hot-dog masters served as tribal elders. Dewey Weber and Lance Carson, Kemp Aaberg and Johnny “the Malibu Lizard” Fain. Miki “Da Cat” Dora was their rebel prince. If one of those guys took off on a peak, no one else dropped in, especially not young gremmies or invaders from the San Fernando Valley. At least that was how it was supposed to work.
“It was an unwritten law,” says Denny Aaberg, who, despite the celebrity of older brother Kemp, spent several years establishing his reputation. “You didn’t take off in front of guys or act like a jerk. You didn’t go out and hog the waves.”
The pecking order extended onto land, where a regular named Tubesteak ruled “the Pit,” a stretch of sand adorned with, at various times, a traditional palapa or junk couches and coffee tables.
Newcomers did not dare sit there. If you wanted to be part of the crew, you had to earn your spot.
“Basically, it was your prowess in the water,” says John Milius, the film director, who grew up at Malibu. “But there were people who gained power on the beach in other ways. They were wonderful organizers of parties or seducers of girls. Some were just colorful characters.”
Ray, now in his mid-20s, quickly made a name for himself.
Once, while he was paddling out, a loose board cracked him across the mouth. Kemp Aaberg rushed toward him as he emerged from the water, teeth gone, blood streaming down his chest.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Ray grinned and said, “Novocaine.”
Jimmy Ganzer, a Malibu regular who later founded the clothing line Jimmy’Z, recalls: Ray “wasn’t one of the style masters . He enforced a certain kind of decorum. He was there to say, ‘Hey, you guys are way off.’ ”
Sometimes Ray had to fight — Milius recalls him pounding a guy from the Valley named Karate Dan — but mostly he got by with a glare or a few gruff words.
And, as enforcer, he watched out for the youngsters.
One time, he caught Milius and another grom with a baggie of Benzedrine pills. Ray threw the drugs away, saying: “If I ever catch you with these again, the least I’ll do is tear your trunks off and make you walk to the highway naked. Or I might beat you half to death.”
Years later, Milius and Denny Aaberg drew upon such memories to create a character for Milius’ 1978 film “Big Wednesday.”
“He enforced the correct order,” the director says. “He was John Wayne.”
But there wasn’t anything Ray — or anyone else — could do to keep the rest of the world away.
An end, a beginningSome say the trouble began in 1957. That was the year Frederick Kohner — whose daughter brought home stories about “the Pit” — wrote a bestselling novel called “Gidget,” which eventually became a movie.
Others figure it was inevitable that surf culture, by the nature of its actions, would be exposed. Surfers were out there on the waves, plainly visible from the beach and the highway. It was only a matter of time before society at large took a closer look.
In either case, all hell broke loose.
The mainstream created an idealized image of surfing, held it up as a symbol of Southern California, a romantic vision in beach party movies. Suddenly the sport was socially acceptable, a glamorous prop for admen selling laundry detergent and automobiles.
The old rules? The pecking order? All of that was overrun by the sheer number of kids charging to the beach.
Technology played a role. The new boards, made of polyurethane foam, were lighter and less daunting than their wooden predecessors. They were shorter and more maneuverable, letting kids eschew subtle nose rides for more aggressive turns and slashes.
“The old crew was in its last fling,” Denny Aaberg says. “And in the middle of that was Ray Kunze, trying to maintain law and order with more and more surfers every year. Trying to keep that old feeling, that old charm.”
Much of the pit crew bugged out, and Ray eventually followed. Married and divorced, he had been working as a firefighter in Lynwood, a job that suited his yen for thrills while leaving time to surf. In 1973 he switched to the Lompoc Fire Department and frequented less crowded beaches to the north.
The man still looked good in his 50s, his wide smile framed by mustache and goatee.
Retiring in 1986, he worked as a security guard at the Hollister Ranch north of Santa Barbara, which gained him access to private coastline and some of the most pristine surf found anywhere. It was not unusual to find him at a spot called Big Drakes, charging overhead waves while his black Labrador ran up and down the beach, barking.
Most mornings, he stopped by the Backdoor Boardshop in Solvang, sipping coffee and leafing through magazines, teasing owner Holly Delaney. For all his great days at the ranch, he didn’t mind accompanying her to a spot near Jalama Beach, a secluded place with iffy waves but no crowd.
“He was not a surf-spot snob,” Delaney says. “If I called him any morning at 5 o’clock, he’d go in a heartbeat. Ray would put that 11-foot board on his head and carry it on the mile walk.
“What did he enforce?” she asks. “He enforced good vibes.”
The tribe gathersThe last week of his life, lying in a hospital bed, Ray could not speak. But every once in a while he squeezed the hand of a visitor, responding to some question or a story about the old days.
News of his death spread fast. Hundreds showed up for a memorial at the ranch, bringing surfboards they had bought or borrowed from him, laying them on the shore with flowers and cards and snapshots.
Stories were told, some tears shed; then everyone took to the water. Though the sea was flat, they paddled out past the kelp beds to where Ray would have sat on a big swell.
“We made this gigantic circle, this human chain,” Denny Aaberg recalls. “It was very tribal. One of the great ones had gone down.”
Mysto and several others drifted to the center of the gathering, yelling, drawing hoots in response. People slapped the water so hard that a collective thunder reverberated down shore. It was a moment joyous and sad, a time to reflect on years gone by.
“If you went to the beach, you went all day,” Kemp Aaberg says of those times. “It was a picnic type of thing, telling stories.
“Now I think the whole pace of life has changed. People are down to business. They’re cramming a little bit of surfing in and rushing to the office.”
The sport has grown serious, infused with big money from televised contests and corporate sponsorships.
“All of us were amateurs,” Aaberg says of the 1950s and ‘60s. “There was a little more humor in surfing then.”
So that’s it? The change is all for the worse? Ask the veteran with his longboard. But ask the kids, too, the ones using new technology to carve frantic turns. And the guys using jet skis, towing into unimagined waves.
Ray never judged the new currents of surfing. Even as he sought isolation, he kept reading magazines at the Backdoor, following the latest developments. Delaney says, “He was just so enamored with the sport.”
Out at Malibu, Mysto takes a step back. It would have been unreasonable to expect that surfing could remain cloistered. For better or worse, it’s part of society. Look at car chases on television news, he says. Surfrider Beach is the San Diego Freeway at rush hour. No escaping it.
Still, waves peel off the point as if made by a machine. The west wind, the one that blows other beaches ragged in the afternoon, hits Malibu at a perfect angle, as it always did. “Fantastic,” Mysto says. “That’s why Ray and I started coming here.”
Close to lunchtime, Mysto leaves the wall. He walks back toward his truck, where he keeps his board. Maybe he’ll ride a few waves today.
Staff writer David Wharton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.