About a year ago, my brother brought up something that was on his heart. One of the old Avila gang had died in SLO and it hit him hard. The paper said Mark was found dead in a creek, had been homeless for some time, and that he died alone.
Too many of the Avila gang died young, some in their teens, most from abusing drugs. I don’t know what attracted us but something drew us toward that dark side from which some didn’t make it back out. My brother’s heartache, which is echoed in mine, inspired these memories:
Avila in the ’50s
John and I grew up in SLO in the 1950s and ’60s. I discovered surfing through Surfing magazine and that was it. We were destined to be surfers, although the closest beach was 12 miles from SLO.
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Avila was a sleepy little fishing town then. It had a wooden pier on Front Street between the bridge to Port San Luis over the San Luis Creek outflow at the north and the cliffs at the south end of the beach. In the ’60s, the pier was mainly used for fishing and sunset walks. I remember one August, some of the wilder — make that braver — ones in the gang walked halfway out on the pier and jumped off.
I worked up the courage and jumped a few times. Without a doubt, it was a result of wanting to be part of the Avila gang. When the Avila lifeguards stopped our antics, we drove to Port San Luis pier.
Diagonally across Front Street from the pier was the Martins’ grocery store. The Martins’ boys, Mark and Mike, both surfed and convinced their parents to set up an area under the store’s raised foundation where the gang could keep surfboards locked up. This kind gesture saved us city kids from having to lug our boards back and forth to the beach. You would get to the beach, ask one of the Martins for the board key, unlock the storage area and grab your board. Or, if you liked another board better than yours, take it out for the day.
I would sometimes cut school and thumb to Avila, spending the day surfing and lounging in the warm sand, especially in September when summer was rudely cut short by the premature return to school.
The surf at Avila was not exceptional by any stretch of the imagination. The beach was ruler straight with no sandbars so the typical northwest swells hit with no shape other than what the deeper water under the pier or extremely high tides provided. So we all had our tide books courtesy of Cork ’n’ Bottle in SLO. These little paper bibles were carried at all times.
Battling big waves
I remember that every Christmas vacation, the waves were giant. Christmas vacation gave us two weeks to get to the beach, but I still remember the pit in my stomach as we crested the hill where you could first see the waves. Santa’s gift to the braver ones in our group was not my cup of tea; I liked ’em shoulder high!
Speaking of big waves and the typical California surfer, some surfers were born with wax on their surf knots and bleached-blond hair. Elmer Coy was one. Elmer’s dad was a commercial fisherman so the saltwater running through Elmer’s veins was there naturally. I remember watching from the pier as Elmer took off on big closeout waves and ran to the nose hanging 10 before backpedaling to make a bottom turn, speed across the face and pull out, all without wetting a single sun-bleached hair on his head.
Elmer, Mike and Mark Martin and Jay Woodward, who lived in south of Avila in Sunset Palisades made surfing look easy, and we inland kids all compared ourselves to them, but knew we were not cut of the same cloth.
Avila had a population of surfer girls as well. Notable were Bonnie Brown and Becky Butler from SLO, Jessica Woodward from Palisades and Paula Coy, Elmer’s younger sister, from Avila, just to name the prettiest ones.
Jessica Woodward was Jay’s older sister and though she was small, she ripped the waves and was a joy to watch. I purchased a Yater Spoon from her and rode it for several years before selling it for a Gordon & Smith log with a fancy paint job. That was one of the stupidest deals I’ve ever done!
We hung out at the Stairs. There were several stairways at Avila. At the north end of the beach it was only five steps or so to the sand from the sidewalk. Our stairs were at the southern end, where the seawall was 15 feet high. We would find our place in the sand, depending on which subgroup we were hanging with — all of us somewhere near the stairs — and examine each newcomer to see if he or she was part of our contingent and then — after having met or failed our criteria — they received our welcome or often verbal criticism.
An amazing dude
One surfer who never failed to amaze was Skeeter Baldwin. He lived in SLO but surfed Avila regularly. Skeeter was a few years older than us and could drive while we had to bum rides or hitchhike to the beach. This put him a notch above.
But what really cemented Skeeter’s otherworldly status, happened one Christmas vacation when a large swell was running. Skeeter was out on a borrowed board — I don’t think he ever owned one — and his surfing was blowing our minds. He’d paddle into a 6-foot wave, turn and run to the nose. He’d then arch his back with all 10 of his toes hanging over the tip of the board and just stand there, disappearing into the tube as the beast pounded him. I’ll never forget it!
Although most of the time it was a big closeout waves, Avila could be sublime. There were times, especially at high tide near the pier, when you could actually catch a wave, turn, run to the nose and ride in the curl for more than 30 yards.
A long ago
In our naiveté, we gave little thought to the draft and the war in Vietnam, to drug overdoses, car wrecks and the many other ends of innocence that would soon enough bring real fears into our lives. The era, the geography, music and our age blended together an elixir that filled us with a reckless abandon and allowed us to live in the instant, in the Zen-here and now, something I long for these many years later.
Of course, time heals wounds and has a way of erasing bad memories. I know it’s impossible to be objective concerning such a personal topic, but that’s not why I’m writing; I wanted to remember a time when trouble seemed so far away and life still held every ripe promise — a time when we still believed in love and peace and happiness.
I don’t know why John and I are still living, or why too many of our buddies died in the ’60s, or why some never found their gifts or a place to use them and gave into the despair the world so readily doles out. Maybe it’s as simple as being in the right place when a set comes through. That might explain my brother’s success in life, but still leaves me guessing why I’ve been so blessed.
Perhaps that which guided our steps and the ride through life is too deep and large to ever understand. That’s all right with me, as long as I can remember, with clarity and fondness, those golden years of waves, sand, brotherhood and the Avila gang.
I lift a glass of cheer to my brothers all, wherever you may be, long may you ride.
Will Hesch was born in 1951, grew up in San Luis Obispo and started surfing in 1964. He married his best friend, Kathy, in 1973. Now a grandfather, Will tells us he tried stand-up surfing just the other day thanks to an old Avila buddy, Rusty Garing, who is still charging huge waves.