Beach People say old surfers never die. They dry up like some sunbaked seaweed and are blown away by the offshore breeze. Before their end, they may move the knotty knees inland to manufacture surfboards or promote surfing films. Or they may even trade the salt air and freedom for classrooms or bureaucratic jobs. But whatever did happen to the La Jolla surfers immortalized by Tom Wolfe in his book, The Pump House Gang?
Eight summers have drifted by since Tom Wolfe (author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) traveled to California to write a series on “The New Life Out There” for New York Magazine, a Sunday supplement to the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune. It was after dirtying his white, vested suits in East Los Angeles interviewing greasers and custom car freaks that Wolfe was told about this strange group of wealthy La Jolla teenagers who were living in a garage, guzzling daily kegs of beer on the beach, and careening through inland San Diego valleys performing “destructos” (tearing down old, unwanted barns for obliging farmers).
Fascinated by the idea of teenage communal living, Wolfe took his notebooks and migrated south from L.A. to observe what he believed was a purely west coast phenomenon. “I was interested in the possibility of young people living together at a time when it was relatively unheard of,” explains Wolfe, who has been deemed America’s pop sociologist.
Wolfe spent roughly a month in 1965 observing the life of the group at WindanSea beach in La Jolla. He called them the Pump House Gang because they congregated around the salmon-pink La Jolla Water System pump house at the end of Nautilus Street. Tourists and older people, called “black panthers” because of the black shoes they inevitably wore, were verboten on the WindanSea Beach. The Pump House kids maintained territorial rights by heaving water balloons on the intruders.
Amazed at these goings-on, Wolfe wrote the story that originally appeared in two February 1966 New York Magazines and later in a book of his stories. To the easterners dredging out their days in the sooty, smoldering humid cities, the story seemed incredible. They couldn’t believe that kids frolicked half-naked on California beaches, surfing and living together without a care.
The last paragraph of Wolfe’s tale asks a question about the future of his Pump House friends, “Tom, boy! John, boy! Neale, boy! Artie, boy! Pam, Liz, Vicki, Jackie Haddad! After all this — just a pair of bitchen black panther bunions inching down the sidewalk away from the old Pump House stairs?” Perhaps this question can best be answered by revisiting some of the members of the gang. Coincidentally, several are still living in La Jolla, not more than a mile from the old Pump House.
Jackie Haddad Hellingson, whose essay about surfing, “My Ultimate Journey,” appeared in Wolfe’s book, has remained in contact with many members of the gang. She lives in a hundred-year-old cottage on Draper Avenue in La Jolla. The woody, cozy house has been totally remodeled by her husband Ken, a carpenter. She sits in her book-filled living room, surrounded by letters from Tom Wolfe, various articles about the Gang, and a hardcover edition of The Pump House Gang, personally inscribed by Wolfe.
Tanya, Jackie’s six year-old daughter, wanders about the house, her long blonde braids flying behind her. It is hard to imagine Jackie, the picture of calm motherhood, heaving water balloons from the Pump House roof.
Jackie starts to review the recent fates of the Gang members. “Well, I know that Kit Weldon is a diver in Santa Barbara, and Jack MacPherson, founder of the Mac Meda Destruction Company, is a postman in La Jolla.” Jackie explains with a smile, “The Mac Meda Destruction Company was created as a joke by Jack and his friends who were older than the rest of the gang. Jack had Mac Meda decals made, and he and his friends plastered them throughout La Jolla. The company even had a bogus phone number and held conventions.
“The conventions were usually held in Sorrento Valley,” Jackie continues. “We would start drinking beer early, and by the time everyone was feeling good, we’d all go out and tear down an old barn or building a farmer didn’t want anymore.” Jackie emphasizes that all their destruction was done with permission. “Sometimes the guys who played football would knock it down with just their shoulders, but usually we used Jack’s jeep, and then tore the rest down by hand… When I think back about all the police harassment we got for our conventions and just hanging around the Pump House, it wasn’t fair. We weren’t half as bad as some kids today!”
Jackie recalls that the wealthy residents around the Pump House constantly called the police, and the gang was given an endless stream of tickets for “spitting on the sidewalk and obstructing pedestrian traffic.”
“At the end of that summer we couldn’t even sit on the Pump House.” Jackie reflects that the police, and the introduction of drugs to La Jolla, were the beginning of the end for the Gang. “We split up mostly after a battle of the wills; some got into drugs and some didn’t,” she comments seriously. “Two of our friends eventually died from drug overdoses.”
Jackie rises to begin fixing lunch for Tanya and her little friends. The former Jackie Haddad, expecting her second child soon, brushes a strand of her long, wavy hair from her eyes. “In La Jolla parents say here’s the money, instead of here’s me. We’re not that kind of parents,” she pauses. “I think that’s why so many of the Pump House gang were mixed up. They needed each other because they didn’t have a good family life.”
A mile away, in the dark, rustic Bratskellar restaurant, Geoffrey Seales, now a 22-year-old manager of a bar in a Mission Beach restaurant, sips a drink. He is anxious to discuss his Pump House days.
“I wasn’t mentioned in the book, but I was partners with Tom Coman, the guy whose garage we all hung around at.” He holds up two fingers tightly pressed together to emphasize their closeness. His long hair is sun-bleached, and his moustache moves animatedly as he speaks.