This year there have been half a dozen wakes at Windansea, locals say, for guys who bailed before the big four-oh. More than a hundred mourners gathered at the one for Seth Johnson, on a Sunday afternoon last March; most were locals. They came to pay tribute to an outsider who first heard of Windansea from Butch Van Artsdalen when the two met in August of 1969 at a surf contest at Cape Hateras, North Carolina. Although Butch bailed back in '77 when his corroded 38-year-old liver succumbed to years of abuse, Windansea grommies and rats still talk about Butch riding the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii. They talk about Seth, too.
"Seth and Butch had the same kind of purity of heart," says Seth's old surfing buddy, Hugh Duckworth, who still wears his hair in a long ponytail even though it's beginning to get gray. "Seth never wanted to be a surfing star. He just wanted to have fun," he explains. "What was remarkable about Seth is that he blended gently into a locals-only beach, without turf fights. He really put an end to the "localism" myth."
There was more to it, of course. People didn't just come to the wake because three or four kegs were keeping cool under the shack. They didn't come just to watch dolphins and pelican gather after Danny Krug, Dick Dutton, and Robin Wood paddled their boards out to the rock off Simmons Point to Seth's favorite fishing spot to scatter his ashes. They came because Seth was one of a kind.
Because red was Seth's favorite color, beach people wore red shirts over their bathing trunks at the wake. It was more than just a wake, of course; it was a festival of Seth, and people were taking photographs. "He would've liked it," whispered his widow Stephanie. "It was a perfect ending for Seth." Since then, at least 20 surfers have claimed Seth as their best friend. He was the ultimate fun hog, they agreed. At 34 he had everything — the six-foot, two-inch stance of a Central Casting hero and the smile of a fairy tale prince. Idolized by men, adored by women and children of all ages, loved by a wife and two daughters, Seth was a master at everything he did. Oh, and he was good with dogs. Even with Buck, his Australian shepherd, who was always eating nuts, bolts, and guitar strings until his teeth ground down to nothing.
Windansea people say Seth became a local legend not due to his surfing skills, not like Van Artsdalen, but from the NOT WHEN THE SURF'S UP sign painted on his van and from its outgrowth, the NOT WHEN license plates, and for what they symbolized to Windandea people. Seth milked the idea. The Branding Iron silkscreening shop in La Jolla screened his NOT WHEN THE SURF'S UP logo on T-shirts and halter tops for him, and he sold them out of his van. When the demand exceeded the supply, these T-shirts and halters were being traded in vans throughout the county. They wound up all over the United States. Before long Seth and his big white van had become a beloved beach institution.
There was nothing remarkable about the van. It was an ordinary bread truck, a 16-foot step van, until Seth put in a skylight, decorated it with posters of the Kinks and a topless female surfer,a chalkboard, and photos of his daughters, his buddies, and his dogs, in addition to a small oil painting of a surfer with a surfboard tucked under his arm standing in a graveyard late at night. The van became a Windansea clubhouse where other fun hogs gravitated. Besides being repository for a vast collection of top-of-the-line work tools which everyone borrowed, the van served as impromptu concert stage; guitars were brought out to celebrate the sunsets. If Seth wasn't surfing, he was playing drums, roller-skating, skateboarding, fishing, or checking the tides — always with a Schlitz longneck in his hand.
His van attracted beach life. Seth created entertainment; he was the catalyst for good times. On balmy nights when Seth and company were drinking in the van, they'd set up the drums and an acoustic guitar and Seth would be drumming a Kinks song and all the kids would be dancing in the parking lot past midnight and every once in a while Seth would punctuate the music by hollering out, "Are we having fun yet?" If you were looking for someone, you'd have to get five or six deep into the van before you'd spot your friend drinking a beer and shooting the breeze and Seth would poke his dark, curly head out and holler, "There's a cold one in here for you." People he'd met only once, surfers he'd met on the East Coast, would come to the Windansea parking lot to look him up. Strangers who'd only heard about his van came over, too. They said they just wanted to shake hands with the NOT WHEN SURF'S UP man.
Red, blue, and yellow were Seth's colors, and they were painted, rainbow style, on everything he owned — including his surfboards and fishing rods. Seth's wife, Stephanie, sewed his colors onto everything that was sewable. She made him a pair of red, yellow, and blue bathing trunks. Soon red, yellow, and blue bathing trunks were bring worn by most everyone at Windansea.
Some of he slogans on his van read "Not a Licensed Contractor" and "Plumb Crazy" and "Kitchen Counters of a Third Kind." He had a Mac Meda Destruction Company sticker and a bunch of E.T. stickers. With its stickers, logos, mascots, and music, the van sounded and smelled like a frat house; the beer orgies looked like surer conventions. A Frank Lloyd Wright book was incongruous next to a plastic globe being held aloft by a two-foot-high plastic statue of a nymph, labeled with the Schlitz beer logo. Seth was an E.T. enthusiast and he was crazy about the Kinks. He collected and played their music and attended their concerts with an expanding troupe of followers. The Kinks line, "Who needs a job when it's sunny?" became Seth's theme.
During those few periods when the sun didn't shine on San Diego, Seth became a master craftsman. There was nothing he couldn't do with meticulous precision — drywall, carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, even setting tile. If a water pipe burst in the middle of the night. Seth came to the rescue. If a tire needed repair, Seth came running. According to La Jolla real estate agent Louise King, Seth did meticulous remodeling and repair work for some of the city's most affluent and influential residents. "He worked for the vice president of Bank of America, and for former Congressman Bob Wilson, and for the Halcyon," she says, "and they all loved him. I remember when he and his buddies began coming into Putnam's in La Jolla in their drywall clothes. Seth wasted no time disrupting the formal ambulance by making his presence known. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he'd say. "Bartender, buy that lady a drink, will you/" Everyone seemed to enjoy his antics. Even when he addressed his remarks to the patrons dressed in three-piece suits, they didn't seem to mind," she remembers. "Seth had the knack of making every woman feel special, no matter how plain she was, how fat, or how old. He charmed them all. 'Don't you worry, darlin', I'm goin' to build you a Gucci fence,' he told one society matron."
"I never missed him as much as I did at the Del Mar Fair this year," says Dick Dutton, who used to attend the fair every year with Seth. "As soon as Seth would have a gigantic cocktail in his hand a pocket full of Kinks buttons from the button stall, we'd head right over to the Fun Zone and we'd stay there until our money ran out — and it always did. We never got to stay until the fair closed up. Seth liked the most radical rides. His favorite was the radical rides. His favorite was the double Ferris wheel. 'Mahvelous,' he'd say when we were turning upside down and I was afraid I'd get sick. 'Hogswallow,' he said. He was right. I didn't get sick. He liked the miniature laserium. He'd be living there on his back in a beanbag listening to rock, saying, 'Mahvelous, mahvelous.' He'd even do all the pitch games like pitching a dime into a dish.
"Seth used to fish a lot, too," Dutton continues. "He'd bring back rock cod, cabezon, sheepshead, bass. One year Seth traded a halibut he'd just caught for two tickets to the fair. I notice that I've been fishing more than i used to. That's Seth's influence," claims Dutton.
He wears Seth's stained fishing cap as if it were a sacred object. Dutton also wears Seth's white socks and he wears Seth's watch. And sometimes he walks around in Seth's shoes. "They're a little too tight," he admits. Robin Wood has Seth's customized surfboard done in red, yellow, and blue — Seth's colors — and he's got dibs on Boomer, Seth's dog. Someone named Big John has the motor from Seth's NOT WHEN THE SURF'S UP van. Seth's brother, Ben, has tapes of Seth and the three other members of the Twang, a rock band that played at beach parties. Everyone has a piece of Seth.
Besides collecting Seth memorabilia, his friends have been repeating slogans he used to paraphrase or invent. If Seth repeated something two or three times, it would become a litany and everyone else would be saying it too. "Let's gaze upon it," he'd say, meaning, "Let's explore the problem," and everyone at Windansea would be gazing upon it. Sometimes he'd create his own designs — the Crow Bar, for instance. His idea was to have a portable bar business which would be called the Crow Bar. Dutton drew a logo of a cigar smoking crow dressed in a tuxedo with a surfboard tucked underneath his arm. Although it never materialized, everyone at Windansea knows about the Crow Bar because Seth talked about it and Windansea people listened to what Seth said and they'd remember it They don't get tired of repeating. Seth stories. "It makes you happy just thinking about Seth," Windansea people say. Seth would say, "Let's go to Cuyamaca for a minute," or "Let's get a bottle of Mount Gay." He'd shout, "Let's go to Borrego for lunch!" and they'd go. "Let's go to Mexico!" And they all wound up in the Tecate Brewery. When they'd come back the following day, they'd be tired and broke and absolutely wasted, but their mothers and girlfriends and Seth's wife would feel relieved that they got back without getting themselves killed or thrown in jail. Once Seth drove a truckload of kids up to La Costa to the big hill and they they all skated downhill at 55 miles an hour. "There's more to life than just hammering nails," he'd keep reminding them.
Because they were water men, some of Seth's closest friends took on the names of sea animals — whale, because of his size, and Beaver and Otter, two brothers. Beaver tells a quintessential Seth story about the time they were both browsing around a music store on Girard Avenue and Seth eyed a pair of cymbals that cost more than a hundred dollars. "When he brought the cymbals to the cash register, Seth looked at em and said, 'Hey, ya got any money?' So I would up buying the cymbals. He didn't do that to just anyone, though — only his best friends," Beaver smiles.
"Seth was kind," says Beaver's roommate, Sally Stimer. "He'd go out of his way to help people. He had a habit of picking up strays." At the standing-room only memorial service held a week before the wake (and conducted by a Presbyterian minister who, in Seth's honor, substituted a scarlet clerical vest for his more traditional white clerical collar), people told Seth stories. Sally spoke about what happened last Thanksgiving. "It was raining very hard that night when Seth was driving through Torrey Pines. He spotted a guy on a ten-speed who had a backpack and all kinds of gear with him. This stranger was really soaked. Seth backed up a few feet and told the guy to hop in and in classic Seth-to-the-rescue fashion, he brought him over to our house in the middle of the night. The guy stayed with us for a week or two. Bill's his name. He's from Scotland and he was riding his bicycle across the United States," Sally remembers. "What was eerie about the whole thing was that after he left, we hadn't heard from him. He showed up on March first, the morning after Seth died. The first thing he said was, "Let's go find Seth!'"
Bill came to the packed mortuary and Seth's two brothers flew out from the East Coast, but his parents didn't attend of the services for their son. His mother didn't leave her home in North Carolina. His father said he doesn't believe in funerals. After the services were over, Dick Dutton offered tapes he'd made of him and Seth singing six songs with Seth on drums. They sold for$15 apiece and the proceeds went to Stephanie.
"It was in the early '70s," Dutton recalls, "when I was depressed about not doing enough with my songwriting. I was just marginally employed. Seth invited me to move in with his family. They put up with me sleeping on their floor or on the couch. When they kept moving around to different places, I'd move with them. There aren't too many people I know who'd put up with me for a year and a half, but I knew I was always welcome to the couch. Seth never asked me to chip in for rent or food."
When Stephanie met Seth in November, 1969, she was impressed right away. "I was working behind the counter at Kentucky Fried in Pacific Beach packing chicken into cardboard boxes, when this cute guy walked in with a bunch of other surfers. When he noticed me behind the counter, he grinned and said, 'You're pretty.' I was flattered," Stephanie recalls, "so during my break, I slipped over to the table where they were sitting. They were all living in Oceanside then. Seth said, 'When I come down to San Diego, maybe we can live together. Here's my address.' And he handed me a piece of paper. Naturally I was intrigued. no one had ever spoken to me so directly before. He caught me completely off balance, and I didn't resist. I wrote him a letter with my phone number and a few days later we got together. I was 18. I had just graduated from La Jolla High and I was going to Mesa College and working part time and I really wanted to get out of the house. It was the end of the '60s and everyone was a little crazy then." A week later, Seth and Stephanie were designing and making their wedding outfits. When they exchanged outfits. When they exchanged vows at La Jolla Presbyterian Church two weeks later, Stephanie was dressed in a white velvet mini. "Seth wore a white tux and tails with pink buttons and pink tassels and white bell bottoms and peace symbols drawn on his high white tennies," grins the petite, soft-spoken redhead. "It was a real Sergeant Pepper outfit."
A few months earlier, in August, when Seth was still 18, he had met Butch Van Artsdalen at Cape Hateras. The surf champ's enthusiasm about the waves at Windansea was so infectious that Seth hitched across the country. By fall he was waxing his board and tiding the surf and hopping around the beach with a six-pack. Because the past three years had been tumultuous for the high school dropout from North Carolina ("I learned all I needed to know and then got bored," he told Stephanie), being married and making best buddies of Stephanie's former La Jolla High boyfriends kept him out of trouble for a while. Seth set the pace, of course. They live outdoors in a tent for months during the rainy spring of 1970. When they weren't living outdoors, they stayed with Seth's surf buddies in Leucadia. During the time they were camping out, Seth cooked hamburgers in the old A&W Root Beer place in Encinitas when he was cooking steak and lobsters at the Paddock Inn, the couple was living in a nearby trailer park. Wherever they lived, they were always close to the beach.
At the end of spring Seth's restlessness grew. He was only 19 then, not ready to settle down. When Stephanie was six months pregnant, the two teenagers hitchhiked across the country to New York City, carrying Seth's diving gear and surfboards, his collection of records by the Kinks, and not nearly enough clothes.
They lasted only three days in New York. It was long enough to persuade Seth's brother, Ben, to leave with them and to return to North Carolina to visit Daisy, their mother. Seth had been expelled from the state for two years for committing a variety of offenses ranging from skateboarding on the street to receiving stolen goods. Since he had a year to go before he could legally return. Daisy had him in her house near Surf City. She made him stay indoors the whole time he was there because she feared that the neighbors would spot him and report him to the authorities. "Being a prisoner in his mother's house nearly drove Seth crazy," Stephanie says, and after a couple of paranoid weeks Daisy Johnson shipped the young couple off to Florida (where four years earlier Seth had stolen a car and escaped by hitchhiking to Philadelphia). They stayed with Seth's father in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota, where Seth grew up. When Dan Johnson suggested that his son learn a useful trade in order to support his new family, Seth enrolled in welding school, but after two weeks he quit. For a while he and Stephanie were working at a county fair selling tickets to a ride called the Zipper. Seth spent work breaks riding the Zipper. As the vertical cage flipped over and over, he kept shouting, "Mahvelous!" He was repairing and refinishing surfboards for beer and cigarette money when he talked a local artist into transporting him. Stephanie, their newborn daughter, Hayley, and their assorted paraphernalia to San Diego in a dune buggy.
The modus operandi stayed the same. The Johnsons moved around often, sometimes living with friends for weeks or months at a time. Late in 1971, when Seth's two-year expulsion from the state of North Carolina had expired, the movable feast continued. They headed est once again, this time in an old blue Chevy that Stephanie's grandmother had given them.
Stephanie hated living in what she called "Hacksville, North Carolina." In April of 1973 she flew back to San Diego, where she gave birth to April, named for the month in which she was born. During that period Seth was hitching all over the East Coast, picking up odd jobs along the way. In his travels he met up with the J. Giles rock band. When they heard him play the drums, they invited him to join them as a roadie with all travel expenses paid. They were headed west, they said, en route to California. They would have arrived in San Diego a few months later. It seemed like a great opportunity. After he thought it over, though, Seth turned down the band's proposition. He suddenly had a strong urge to see Stephanie, and whenever Seth had an urge, the first thing he'd do was give in. He figured he could get to her faster if he hitchhiked, so that's what he did.
Seth spent time perfecting the carpentry skills he learned from his mother, who had built her own house in the North Carolina woods. By the mid-Seventies he had earned a reputation as a meticulous craftsman, a perfectionist who prided himself on everything he did. Despite his developing craft, however, he had a habit of disappearing whenever the surf looked good. He'd work for a few hours, but the waves kept pulling him toward the ocean and he'd disappear from the job for an hour or two — sometimes for the rest of the day if the surf was really good. Once in a while Seth and his buddies would disappear into El Ranchero on La Jolla Boulevard for lunch and they'd stay there until they spent every nickel hey had and they'd scrounge the floor of the van for loose change so they'd be able to get one last beer, and then they'd sleep if off somewhere. Because Seth would eventually show up and finish the job, his employers tolerated his erratic hours. They were getting high-quality work for nonunion wages. When his less affluent clients ran out of cash. Seth used to finish the job the anyway.
By 1976 Seth incorporated his surf-related disappearances into his business. The sign on his truck read "NOT WHEN THE SURF'S UP CONSTRUCTION COMPANY," his license plates corresponded with "NOT WHEN" — even his customized bowling ball read "NOT WHEN." Seth was applauded for style and innovation. However, on mornings when he didn't surf and had no construction jobs lined up, rather than look for work, Seth often persuaded his buddies to buy a bottle of tequila. Then they whole day was spent drinking.
After Dick Dutton lived with Seth and Stephanie in the early Seventies, Bud E. Roe, a fishing, carpentry, and drinking pal, lived with them on and off for a couple of years in a series of houses in Bay Park and La Jolla. "They were constantly moving because they kept getting evicted for not paying rent," Rowe remembers Stephanie counts 26 addresses during her 15-year marriage to Seth. "Sometimes my father would bail us out with rent money," she recalls. "When he didn't, we'd have to move. I remember once when we'd been evicted and had a few days to get out and I'd managed to scrape up $200 deposit money to get us another place. Seth got hold of the money and spent it on a new tool. This was typical of Seth. When I cried about it, he couldn't understand why I was crying. He just didn't understand." His values were geared toward buying the highest-quality possessions — and he had the best ski boots, the best golf clubs, eight fishing rods, and more — but he didn't feel morally compelled to pay rent. Friends say the eviction pattern was cyclical and predictable.
Buying new tools with bad checks was another indication of Seth's related fiscal policies. "All you have to do to open up a checking account." Seth explained to Bud E. Roe, "is take a ten-dollar bill down to a bank and they'll give you a whole book of checks, and you just write them and gave them to people." Seth meant no harm, but on the other hand, he knew there wasn't enough money in the account to cover the checks. "I really wanted those tools," he'd say when people called him to complain. He had no anxieties about running out of money or running out of gas. He was charming and apologetic, and never got into trouble for writing bad checks.
But Seth did get into trouble for driving when he was drunk; there were arrests, calls to bail bondsmen in the middle of the night, and lawyers' fees. According to Seth's drywall and drinking buddy, Kelly Medigovich, Seth began to boast that he'd never drink more rum and beer in one sitting than his body weight.
Seth's playmates were adults in their thirties, some of whom still lived at home with their parents. When this Peter Pan led his pals through La Jolla's Never-Never Land of sea and land delights, they thought the party would never end. "Seth did so many fun things, or at least things he considered to be fun, and he partied so hard, that if he died young, he knew he wouldn't have missed anything," says Medigovich. As a partner in Seth's spur-of-the-moment adventures, he remembers Seth borrowing a hundred dollars from Stephanie when the two men impulsively decided to go to Las Vegas. "Seth went through money twice as fast as I did," Medigovich says. "I had to hide a twenty dollar bill in my shoe for emergencies. If Seth knew about it, we'd have gone through that in a minute, too." After a few hours, they were so broke they had to walk back to the airport from the Strip and wait three hours for their plane without even a dollar between them for a pack of Kools.
When Seth's self-destructive nature began to grow more apparent, his work, his surfing, and his marriage were affected. Since 1981, when Seth was drinking more and remodeling less, he was tending bar at C.K.'s (not The Improv) on Garnet Avenue, shooting pool, becoming involved with C.K.'s daughter, Cindy, and fooling around with guns. "I don't have a problem drinking," he'd grin. "I can drink one right after the other and I can do it just fine." But it was the excessive drinking more than anything else that put such a strain on their relationship that Stephanie and Seth began living apart.
It was an amicable separation. The smartest thing Seth ever did in his life was marry Stephanie, and he knew it. During the few years they were separated, Seth lived mostly at Stephanie's sister's house in Del Mar, where he had been doing some tile work. Dick Dutton remembers Seth tossing a phone out of the window in frustration because he had been trying to call Stephanie and there'd been no answer. He called home every day, took his daughter April fishing, and took his other daughter, Hayley, to rock concerts. "We'd see each other three or four times a week," Stephanie says. Everyone knew that Seth's true heart belonged to her, but women were continually drawn to his boyish charms and Seth offered no resistance.
Last February, when Stephanie and the girls moved into a brand-new condominium near Carmel Valley Road east of Del Mar, Seth moved in, too, and all his trespasses were apparently forgiven. It was unsettling, though, because Seth was too close to the earth and the sea to be confined to a modern condo for long and Stephanie knew it. He still talked about his dream. "One of these days I'm going to build a wonderful house for all of us, far from everything," he told Stephanie. To his buddies he'd say, "There'd by glass runways to watch the rats run through the interior woodwork."
When Bud E. Roe drove up to Windansea last January and saw a solitary figure out on the rocks fishing, he was surprised to see that it was Seth. "The magic just wasn't there like it used to be. He looked lonely. He had a beard," Roe remembers, and Seth's usual jocularity had given way to a more philosophic tone. When they spoke about drinking and Bud E. offered to help him stop, to take him to an AA meeting, Seth refused to admit that drinking was a problem. "When I left him that morning, the last words I said to him were, 'It'll kill ya!'"
Nobody knows for sure whether it did or not. At 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, just weeks after their tenuous reconciliation, Stephanie and her daughters heard police sirens. "They were very close, but we didn't pay much attention to them," Stephanie remembers. "Later, when the doorbell rang, I figured Seth had forgotten his key. 'Seth, I'm coming,' I shouted. When I opened the door and I saw my sister and a coroner, neither of them had to say a word. I realized those sirens were for Seth. I knew it was just a matter of time before something horrible would happen. He took so many risks."
Although his two brothers and his friends have returned to the spot on Carmel Valley Road where Seth's vehicle flipped over several times, killing him instantly, no one has been able to reconstruct the tragedy. No one knows exactly why or how Seth lost control of the bright-red truck. All they know is that he responded to a call from Whale, who asked for help with a tire, and the two wound up having a few drinks at Rudi's Hidden Acres on Carmel Valley Road before Seth headed home.
It would have been uncharacteristic for Seth to leave behind any insurance for his car, much less for his life. What he did leave behind was about $20,000 worth of tools and toys. Stephanie was able to redeem only a fourth of their value. Although the tools are gone, her garage still holds remnants of Seth. Hanging neatly on nails next to a white hard hat with stickers plastered all over it are two handsaws. On each of the wooden handles there are rainbows painted red, yellow, and blue.