- Historic Sites
The Beach Boy
How Southern California capitalism and one mysterious loner met, courted, married, and gave birth to our modern surfing culture
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
I see him at Waikiki, in that summer of 1907. He is standing on air, out in the blue, beyond the reef, beyond the grasp of Jack and Chairman London.
The older original surfers began to feel like outcasts and sometimes like outlaws. Mickey (“Da Cat”) Dora, who had laughed at Gidget’s surfing attempts back in the fifties, was the leader of the naysayers. He had film-star looks and a laid-back way with a surfboard. The way he moved, the way he combed his hair, the way he pouted defined the ultimate in Southern California style. He was the King of the Malibu Pit, and though he wasn’t shy about accepting money to show off his prowess in beach movies, he’d vent his anger on the new beach crowd stealing his waves by hazing them out of the ocean with supple use of his board. He hated lifeguards because they wouldn’t let him light a fire to wax the board. Indeed, he hated anyone in authority.
In the late sixties Mickey Dora made a visual statement of disgust by dropping his trunks and mooning the crowd (including a national television audience) during a Malibu surfing competition. Later he put his beef into words: “I remember how things were before the subdivisions, the concessions, the lifeguards —before exploiters polluted the beaches like they do everything else. … The water’s already curdling from the football-punchy Valley swingers, surf dopes, magazine and photo hacks. … I hope you all become One while stewing in your own juices. For myself, I’m dropping out.” This is more than George Freeth said publicly in his entire life. But at least Mickey Dora was as good as his word: After some brushes with the law and a spell in jail, he disappeared. Since then sightings have been reported in France, South Africa, and a college library in Orange County.
Meanwhile, back in the late sixties, beach culture was inducted into a drug culture of surf thugs in Nazi helmets and swinging metal iron crosses and swastikas. In Hawaii, where our story beean, the islanders grew impatient with overweening, exploitative haoles (mainlanders), and they came to wage a war ranging from the throwing of angel food cake to gang rape at gunpoint. One leading American surfer, visiting the islands for a big wave contest, kept a loaded shotgun under his hotel bed. Too many people chasing too few waves.
Today, on once-pristine and comradely beaches, I find sand stuck with plastic and glass, rocks covered with graffiti, boom boxes thudding out war chants, and signs posted ordering you not to do this, that, and the other.
And so I return to the image of George Freeth, the complete waterman, a fellow who could not only surf but also swim and dive and spearfish and paddle an outrigger canoe and save lives. I see him at Waikiki, in that early summer of 1907. He is standing on air, out in the blue, beyond the reef, beyond the grasp of Jack and Charmian London and of Alexander Hume Ford. As the sun sets, he evaporates, becomes part of the ocean, part of creation.
“Was he crooking his finger to us? Was he?” wrote Ford to London. “My binoculars are pretty powerful—and I say HE WAS .” No reply came from London. Ford wrote again: “If he WAS crooking his finger, then what was he telling us??” Again, no reply.
To me George Freeth is not crooking but beckoning. He is saying that there is somewhere a grand swimming place of endless crystal water and friendly Loreleis, beyond time and beyond present understanding and belief.