I wrote this last week for my surfing friends from the ’50s. It’s a tribute to an extraordinary guy who was, among other things, the foremost big wave surfer in Northern California in those golden years.
“Out, out brief candle!”
He had this quote on the nose of his balsa wood board in 1955, crudely written (in longhand), and funkily glassed. It’s a quote from Macbeth, Shakespeare commenting on the brevity and inevitability of death.
I used to wonder if it had something to do with Rod’s dad dying at a very early age. Maybe he thought he wasn’t going to last long, but luckily for many of us, he did.
I first knew Rod in San Francisco high school days in the early ’50s; he was a city swimming champion, in the 220 and 440 yards. I was one of the swimmers at Lowell and we knew the best city swimmers: Jim Fisher and Bill Floyd at Lowell, Jose Angel at Washington, John Stonum at St. Ignatius, Billy Wilson at Sacred Heart, Rod at Lincoln; all of these except Bill Floyd became surfers. Many of us trained at the YMCA on California Street, and then the Marine’s Memorial with coach Lyle Collett. Charlie Sava, who coached SF girl Ann Curtis to 2 gold medals in the 1948 Olympics, was the city’s genius coach.
I was going to Stanford and in 1954, got started surfing, and thereafter spent half of each week in Santa Cruz. By the time I moved up from Cowell’s to Steamer Lane, I met Rod. He was going to San Jose State, but spending all the time he could in SC. He lived in his car with his dog Steamer.
He was a dynamo, and a fearless surfer, taking off on impossible-to-make waves. In those days he was the only surfer going left at the Lane. He favored pintail boards and his style was to stall by stepping back on the tail and then when the wave built up enough power, to shuffle forward and fly across the wave. Stall, fly; stall, fly. He was a bit awkward, and a goofy foot, but got the job done.
Photo from documentary in process by Christopher Thompson, where Rod is the foremost speaker. Trailer:
He was a powerful swimmer, along with the likes of Jim Fisher, John Stonum, and Peter Cole. They were swimmers before they were surfers; they had no fear of the ocean. Around 1953, Rod had started body surfing at Ocean Beach near Fleishacker pool with Cliff Kamaka and at Kelly’s Cove with Charlie Grim and Jack O’Neill. No wetsuits.
In the summer of 1955, he had a bet with his intellectual buddy Henry Jacobsen that he could swim around the Santa Cruz pier in 20 minutes or less. After Rod and I got off lifeguarding that evening, Henry and I walked around the pier as he swam. He had to weave his way in and out of fishing lines and anchor ropes and even so, got out to the end of the pier in less than 10 minutes. Henry was sweating it; 5 bucks was a lot of money in those days. Rod made it in less than 20, and Henry had to pay him.
One night Rod and I were invited to dinner at the O’Neills (Jack O’Neill later became the wetsuit king). They had just moved to Santa Cruz, lived out, I think, east of the highway in the 41st Ave. district. Marge made a leg of lamb dinner and all 10 of us—the 8 O’Neills, Rod and me sat at this big table and ate everything Marge brought out, lamb down to the bone. The vibes were excellent, the kids with their youthful energy. Abundant gemütlichkeit. As we sat back, in the glow, Rod looked around and said, “Life is rich.” That statement has stayed with me all these years; when things get quite wonderful and extraordinary, the phrase comes to mind.
In 1956, Rod rented a little cabin on Plateau Avenue in Santa Cruz for $10 a month; it was part of an unsettled estate. It became a headquarters of sorts. Pat Curren was his roommate for a while, as was Spike Bullis. The centerpiece of the front room was a “hi-fi” system: record player and two huge speakers. He didn’t play Fats Domino or Chuck Berry, but rather Beethoven symphonies, Schubert, Mozart, Vivaldi. I can still hear Beethoven’s Fifth, rattling the window panes. Bum-bum-bum-bum…
L-r, standing: Rod, Gus Gustafson, Sarah Hammond, Lloyd Kahn; kneeling: Charlene Mohus
There was a century plant in the front yard and it bloomed the second year he was there, shooting up a stalk about 20′ high.
Rod was studying philosophy, ravenously reading Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Spinoza, Hume, Schopenauer. He read all of Shakespeare’s plays, Beowulf, Chaucer. His intellectual and musical tastes were way different from typical surfers. He was probably a more influential teacher for me than anyone at Stanford.
I left Santa Cruz in 1957 and spent two years in Germany in the Air Force. My only contact with Rod was being awakened by a phone call at 3:30 AM one morning. He wanted me to send a screenplay he had written to my ex-roommate at Stanford, Dick Zanuck, by then a Hollywood producer. Sorry Rod, no will do.
In the early 60s, my ex-wife Sarah and I would go to movies with Rod every (usually foggy) Friday night at the Surf Theater out by the beach in San Francisco. Foreign movies like “The 400 Blows,” “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” “La Dolce Vita,” “Jules and Jim.” Afterward we’d go to the Coffee Cantata or over to Rod’s house in the avenues for tea and cinnamon toast.
He could imitate people speaking English with other accents. One night driving past the McAvoy and O’Hara funeral home on Geary, he started riffing in an Irish accent and I remember laughing so hard I could hardly drive.
He spent some years in the 60s studying classical guitar with Julian Bream.
He wrote poetry.
I didn’t see him much for some years, but ran across him in Santa Cruz at the Catalyst one day in 1970. We talked about surfing and he said, “If we had been able to look ahead back in the 50s at what surfers are doing these days (the short board revolution), we’d have thought it was science fiction.”
Fast-forward to 1985 when I interviewed Rod for my book, Over the Hill, But Not out to Lunch, about people over 40 years of age who were still in shape. By this time, he was hang gliding instead of surfing, sometimes taking his dog up with him. He said hang gliding was like riding a 5,000 foot wave.
Through the years he and I would call each other “old pal,” based on a gregarious 10-year-old freckled redheaded kid named Rusty who hung out with us surfers in the 50s, and referred to us by that name. In his last years, even when he couldn’t talk, I’d call him old pal and I could see the spark in his eyes.
I have a theory that a lot of people who are “disabled” and cannot speak or even move, are usually OK on the input. It’s just the output that’s fucked up. They perceive the world just as we do, just can’t respond. So I would go over there and blab away and I think he understood everything I was saying.
So old pal, the candle is out, but the luminosity remains. You enlivened our world.
Life is rich.
PS His angel at the end was Armando, his loving caregiver, who made it possible for Rod to stay in his own home, rather than a rest home, up to the end.