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.
"That summer of 1965 was the year marijuana first hit La Jolla,” Geoffrey remembers. Before that, he and Tom Coman had taken up daily collections for kegs of beer at “The Slots,” a hidden section of the beach where under-age drinkers were safe from police. “We weren’t exactly troublemakers, but too outrageous for La Jolla at that time.”
Geoffrey remembers Tom Wolfe as “some weird old man hanging around who asked questions while we made up a lot of the answers.” (Several other Gang members I talked to say that Wolfe’s story contained more fictitious incidents than factual; for example, Wolfe described a “toga party” which no one remembers.)
“It was an insane summer,” Geoffrey continues. “It sort of began in December when Leonard Anderson came down to the beach and shot his girlfriend Donna because she wouldn’t marry him. We all watched as he shot her and then shot himself.” Geoffrey stops as if to conjure up a mental picture of the scene. “Then, two of our friends’ husbands were stunt pilots, and they flew over the beach to put on a show for us. Something screwed up and they crashed into the ocean and both drowned while we watched.” Again he pauses. “Of course, it was also strange to go see the Watts riots for fun…” (Some of the Pump House Gang jumped in a VW van and went joyriding in the riot area in L.A. during the 1965 riots.)
Geoffrey’s sleek, bored girlfriend nudges his arm impatiently. She is tired of his reminiscing and wants to leave. They stand up, and as he walks away, he glances back, “I was disappointed in Wolfe’s translation of our scene…”
In the same restaurant, another Pump House devotee works as a waitress. Susie (Brandy in those days) Brandelius arrives in a white ruffly dress, high heeled vampy shoes, with her pony tail swinging. Now 22, she is eons away from the Brandy pictured in New York Magazine, leaning on the Pump House in the arms of her 16 year-old boyfriend.
“Tom Wolfe really was a jerk when he was with us, and when the story came out, we knew he was a jerk.” Susie sits down and lights a cigarette. “After it came out, someone wrote ‘Tom Wolfe is a dork’ on the Pump House, but it’s gone now.”
Susie agrees with Jackie that police harassment added to the breakup of the Gang. “One day Artie—who’s now married and lives in Hawaii — got mad because some tourists wouldn’t move off the beach. While they wandered down to look at the ocean, he sat down on their blanket and ate their entire lunch!” She laughs at the memory. “Boy were they speechless when they came back and saw this kid finishing up their picnic… but then they called the police.”
Asked why so many members of the Gang still reside in La Jolla, Susie suggests that it is the nature of La Jolla itself. She likens it to a small village, in which money and status are the common denominators of the residents. “Everyone has their roots here… Some of the kids haven’t changed in seven years,” Susie says. “Rupert Fellows is still surfing every day and partying every night!” Susie puts her cigarettes away to start her working shift.
“We had such good times,” she reflects wistfully. “I’ll never forget jumping into John Shine’s van and blasting out ‘Catch Us If You Can’ by the Dave Clark Five, as the police were chasing us through Sorrento Valley…”
Vicki Ballard, called “little Vicki” by Wolfe because she was only 13 in 1965, is still petite; she lives less than a mile from the Pump House. “We were all so tan. We couldn’t believe anyone could be so white,” she recalls as her first impression of Tom Wolfe.
Vicki has a degree in English Literature from UCSD and is planning to attend graduate school in the fall. The house she lives in is still decorated with the pointilistic, almost surrealistic, paintings of her older sister Liz. Wolfe described Liz in the summer of 1965 as “wearing her great ‘Liz’ styles, a hulking rabbit-fur vest and black leather boots over her levis.”
Vicki says Liz is still a “style setter,” and is presently living in Paris with her six year-old son. She models for a fashion designer and is studying mime.
“I was the youngest member of the Pump House group, and I guess I was accepted because they all knew Liz.” Vicki says when she first read Wolfe’s story, it seemed “absurd.” “But now, all the years have mellowed me out, and I think maybe we did do all those strange things.”
Vicki has also remained in contact with her old pals. “The girl Wolfe called ‘Yellow Stretch Pants’ was Gay Burns, and she now teaches handicapped children somewhere in the Midwest. Jeff Thayer is a military policeman in Germany, Vernon Stacy works in a restaurant in Solana Beach, and John Shine goes to City College.” She doesn’t know what happened to Neale Jones or Tom Coman.
Later in the afternoon, the nostalgic group agrees to meet at the Pump House once more for pictures. The sky and the ocean are lead gray, but despite the dreary day, people cluster on the famous stretch of beach.
“I can’t believe we ran up and down those stairs fifty times a day,” puffs Jackie Haddad Hellingson, as she and Tanya scurry around posing for pictures.
Susie Brandelius stands in the ice plant in front of the peeling Pump House, where she stood years before with her high school sweetheart. “Look how messy it is around here,” she remarks, kicking a beer can angrily.
The sun-worshippers on the cool sand ignore the running, giggling group of old friends. They don’t realize that eight summers earlier they would have been bombarded with a barrage of water balloons or run off the beach by a giant tractor-size inner tube, tumbling down the steep stairs with a gleeful surfer inside.
“It’s too bad more of us couldn’t show up, but I guess everyone is into a different thing now,” Susie shouts from her lofty perch on the Pump House roof. She looks down at her old hunting grounds where they all once frolicked in the sun.“I’m glad that Tom Wolfe captured that summer,” Jackie says to the quiet group. “it was a beautiful time that I think won’t ever happen again.”