The Fifties

The San Onofre Surfing Club was loosely formed in 1951. Membership included a key to the swinging iron gate that was established for entry control. That system was short-lived, though, as copies of the keys made their way up and down the coast within months. In early ’52, the Club tightened up its program by hiring paid gate guards, who checked the official Club windshield decal (the logo of which was fashioned by artist Don Smith, a machinist for Disney) and membership ID card against the Club’s roster list. The SOSC was officially off and running with its exclusive beach and soon-to-be, well-entrenched “big family” lifestyle. This era was the beginning of a tradition that had its roots firmly planted by the early-'50s, but in many respects would continue to represent the overall style of life at San‘O for decades to come.

“It was a kid’s Nirvana,” says 53 –year-old Don Craig. “Every Friday, after school, we’d load our converted panel van with all the weekend’s supplies, except the boards, because we were too little to get them on the roof. We’d wait for Dad to get home then head down to San ‘O from the south Bay. We’d camp at the San Clemente State Park and be out of there before sunrise to get a prime parking spot. If we weren’t in the water, we were up hiking and exploring the finger canyons behind the bluffs. We’d come back and Mom would have lunch ready. I couldn’t imagine a more ideal way to grow up.”

“The simplest way to describe San Onofre is ‘a way of life,’” says pre-WWII surfer, and longtime ‘Nofre observer, Art Beard. “We were all just raising our families, and it was a cheap, easy and fun way to do it.”

While some Club members affectionately refer to the ‘50s as the “golden years for raising families, there was still a handful of kids that caused some trouble, like a teen-aged Miklos Dora, who went by the surname “Chapin” at the time. His stepfather (a hell of a surfer) Gard Chapin, used to bring Miki and the family down for weekends at ‘Nofre.

“We called him ‘Meatball,’” remembers Paul Luton. “And if we didn’t call him that, it was ‘Kamikaze Kid,’ because he would just go out and run everybody over. He was just the little meatball out there, knocking people off their boards. Rumor had it he was one of the kids who burned down one of the grass shacks in the ‘50s.”

There were also a handful of notable women who surfed ‘Nofre, starting with Mary Ann Hawkins back in the ‘30s. When the ‘50s and ‘60s rolled around, Benny Merrill’s daughter, Linda Merrill put in a lot of water time there, as well as Paul and M.J. Luton’s daughter, Pauline Luton, who became Mike Doyle’s tandem partner for a while in the mid-‘60s. And, of course, you can’t forget 70-something Eve Fletcher, who has been consistently surfing San Onofre longer than just about any female surfer around today.

In late 1951 the Marine Corps tightened their requirements. They insisted on a gate for controlled access to the beach, with membership cards for personal identification, windshield decals, and responsible representation for the surfing Club. The first formal meeting of the San Onofre Surfing Club was called to order by Dr. Barney Wilkes on the beach on April 24, 1952. This meeting established the following: adoption of Club by-laws as prepared by Andre Jahan, dues budget and banking procedures, membership cards, decals, beach access control, beach maintenance and rules of conduct and access as agreed upon with the Marine corps. The Club was now formally organized.

Things went relatively smoothly until 1955. At this time the Club President, Al Dowden was notified that the Club was no longer to control access to the beach. All marine personnel were to be allowed access, and all other civilians were to be allowed access by simply going to the San Mateo M.P. station and getting a day pass. In early 1956 it was added that the trestle area would be open under the same conditions, and that the Marines would provide trash removal service for the area.

Things went to hell in a hurry! Surfers with no past, present or future concern set fire to the brush in the San Mateo creek estuary and nearly burned down the railroad trestle. They threw burning wood at the commuter trains and piled debris on the tracks, causing a passenger train to grind to an emergency stop. They tore down parking and other regulatory signs and used them as firewood. There were incidents wherein the M.P.’s were so provoked that they fired rifles and pistols at the trestle surfers.

The disease spread to some of the less responsible members of the regular surfing community at San Onofre. The big grass shack was torched into a raging inferno that would rival a college homecoming fire. A cave on the cliffs was filled with old tires and gasoline and turned into an 8 foot diameter blow-torch so intense in jetting flame that the Marines couldn’t get the fire truck anywhere close. The 4th of July fireworks display, in violation of Camp Pendleton rules was wild enough to almost cause the Base Fire Marshall to lapse into a state of coma. Some surfers set up camp overnight on the beach in defiance of patrolling M.P.’s. The Marine Corps demanded that the Club maintain order or all civilians would be restricted from the beach. The Club however was able to disclaim any responsibility in the matter since the Marines had allowed free and uncontrolled usage of the area to the public and Marine Corps personnel.

All these conditions had inevitably resulted in serious damage to the Club’s structure. The paid memberships of 490 members in 1955 had dropped off to 288 memberships in 1957 due to the open beach policy. In late 1957 the Club was notified in writing that the new commanding General of Camp Pendleton would consider a request from the Club to re-establish controlled access to the surfing beach. Subsequent correspondence resulted in issuance of a lease, with additional and eventual renewal of the lease without modification for the next five years.

From 1958, with the support of the Commanding General and a license to control access, the dignity of the Club were regained. With the Club by-laws and the Camp Pendleton Base rules being faithfully observed, the appearance of the beach and the conduct of the surfers improved.

At this point the Club was running smoothly, and it had a well-established relationship with CampPendleton. The one-dollar-a-year lease from the Marine Corps further solidified the arrangement with the Club. Operating with nearly a $25,000 yearly budget, the Club kept the military happy by hiring full-time maintenance men, E.J. Oshier and John Huckins, to clean the beach and maintain the heads. San Onofre was without the cleanest, most organized beach in Southern California.

“I was getting three bucks an hour working for E.J., almost double what minimum wage was back then,” says 45-year-old Bobby Lombard, current President of the SOSC and former teenage beach sweeper. “E.J.’s limit was a match stick. If he found anything bigger than that he was gonna get on you about it.”

In 1958 all 288 active members renewed. The 68 inactive past members also renewed, and 150 new members brought the total to 506 memberships. As in earlier years, there had been talk of limiting the Club membership. The Marine corps had been pressing for this limitation. It was voted and passed at the annual Club meeting in 1958 that the membership would be limited, and a waiting list would be established. New memberships would be accepted only as old members dropped out, and with Marine corps concurrence, and as facilities were expanded.

From 1959 through 1961 the Club functioned with Barney Wilkes again as President. In the past, officers had been elected at the annual meetings on the beach. It was the general feeling that this procedure had become impractical and non-representative.

Next: The Sixties

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