From left: John Cole, Mouse (with the shortest surfboard), Buddy Lewis, Sonny Maggiora, 1944
Early on a foggy morning in the mid 1950s, Jim “Mouse” Robb stopped by the Ocean Beach lifeguard station. The men on duty were his friends. Until the year before, he had worked beside them on this same stretch of beach. As he helped his buddies set up beach signs and roll out the dory, everyone paused to listen.
The surf was giant that winter day, the roar loud and constant. What caught their attention was a wrong note inside the deeper rumble. At first, Mouse couldn’t be sure what had them listening so carefully. And then there was no doubt. That faint sound was the hum of a boat’s engine. What made it so wrong was that it came from where no boat belonged in such conditions.
As sometimes happens, a patch of fog lifted. A 30-foot fishing boat materialized out of the mist, and the men saw that the pilot had missed the channel entrance to Mission Bay. The boat was headed toward the beach and a field of heavy surf.
Mouse (second from left), 1947
The fog closed in again. The lifeguards needed a way to alert the boaters, and time was running out. The tower had no PA system back then, but the Jeep carried its own loudspeaker. One of the men on duty was Mouse’s long-time friend Doug Smith. He drove the Jeep to the water’s edge and cranked up the volume. No good. His amplified shouts barely registered against the booming waves.
The fog lifted again to reveal the boat entering the surf zone. As if only now recognizing his mistake, the pilot tried swinging around. A breaking wave caught the boat broadside, engulfing it in a burst of white violence. When the boat rolled free, Mouse saw that the cabin had been ripped away, gone in a single hit. Small figures clung to the wreckage.
The lifeguards didn’t hesitate. They shed their sweatshirts and raced toward the water. Mouse ran beside them. No one knew these waters better. If he didn’t help, someone could drown. He swam out in the frigid surf, diving beneath walls of rolling whitewater. Reaching the boat, he spotted an unconscious man bleeding from a head wound.
Mouse wrapped an arm around him and set off, swimming toward shore. The man outweighed him by 50 pounds and he wore a waterlogged jacket, adding to the load. The work was slow going.
The power in big waves is stunning, irresistible. Good surfers and lifeguards learn to yield to the force, to take advantage of the pauses and work with the currents. Mouse was trying to do this when a wave unloaded a raw slab of ocean on top of him and his charge, driving them deep. The turbulence rolled and bounced them on the bottom, and then tore the unconscious man from Mouse’s grip. When he surfaced, he could not see the man in any direction.
Later, Mouse would learn that three generations had been aboard the doomed boat — grandfather, father, and two boys in their early teens. The man he’d just lost had been the father. He was never found.
Mouse swam back out, found one of the frightened sons. By now, the boat was more dangerous than the surrounding waters. Mouse swam him away from the wreck, but the boy’s life jacket worked against them. The buoyancy prevented them from diving beneath the waves. Mouse wasn’t about to let him go. Stuck on the surface, they were taking a beating.
Meanwhile Doug Smith had hold of the grandfather, swimming him toward shore. Each time a wave rolled over them, the old-timer surfaced looking worse, his eyes not tracking. When Smith finally got him to the beach, the grandfather had drowned. “He died in my arms. He couldn’t take the submersions.”
Sunset Cliffs surfing video from 1947
Still half a mile outside, Mouse decided to keep the boy in his life jacket and to swim beyond the breakers. There they waited for the rescue boat from Mission Bay. When the boat arrived, Mouse was bone-cold. He handed off the boy and then made the long swim back to the beach.
One of the other lifeguards helped the second boy onto the rocks at the jetty and finally into the rescue boat.
Mouse has a singular take on helping others, no matter the circumstances. “It’s what you do,” he says.
Smith looks back at that cold winter morning as, “One of the worst episodes of lifeguarding I’ve ever seen.”
“That was a tough one,” Mouse says. “You don’t forget.”
In Ocean Beach, some cars display bumper stickers that read, “Mouse Would Go.” This is a takeoff on bumper stickers in Hawaii that read, “Eddie Would Go.” The late Eddie Aikau was a revered lifeguard and big-wave surfer. No matter how big the wave or how tough the rescue, he would go. The same is true of Mouse, O.B.’s own venerable waterman. He is more subtle than flashy, more soft-spoken than loud, but no matter what happens, Mouse steps up.
Mouse in 1995
Consequently, everyone seems to love Mouse, and this is not a fluffy thing. At 83, he is known as the unofficial mayor of O.B. He’s had a positive effect on several generations of surfers, lifeguards, and local characters, even a few lost souls.
Three decades ago, Mad Dog was drinking, snorting, and smoking himself toward a bad end. Mouse worried about him. “Oh, he was a mess.” When Mad Dog turned his life around, he credited Mouse’s influence as an important part of his recovery. “I saw this guy living the life I wanted. He had it together. I wanted to be like him.”
The most Mouse will admit is this, “The best thing you can give someone is to listen.”
When asked if he ever experimented with drugs, Mouse laughs and shakes his head. “I was afraid I’d like it.”
Getting old in America often means becoming invisible. Somehow, Mouse is exempt. Even the angriest young surfers in the O.B./Point Loma community respect him. This young guy is a terror. People avoid him, except for Mouse. It’s as if there’s a smiling-Buddha thing going on — Mouse taming beasts simply by being comfortable in his own skin.
City lifeguard Shiloh Spangler explains, “Mouse is like a San Diego Willie Nelson. He has this wisdom, but without the pot smoking. He’s got that smile, and a huge childlike heart. You always feel better after you talk to the guy.”
Spangler has known Mouse for most of his life. His dad knew Mouse. Through Mouse he learned to respect the old lifeguards. “The best ones,” he says, “have been doing this since they were kids. They see stuff as it’s happening, and they’re willing to help. Mouse is like that out of the water, too. He’s had a great impact on me.”
Mouse volunteers for fundraisers to help such community projects as hosting the O.B. Street Fair, raising the O.B. Christmas tree, sending talented young surfers to Hawaii for contests. When a fire gutted Willie Shoeshine’s shoe-repair shop, Mouse joined the group rebuilding the man’s store.
But Mouse doesn’t spend his days seated on a lotus blossom burnishing his karma. He has a wicked sense of humor and he loves a good prank. Local surfer Chris Reising says, “Mouse is a consummate gentleman, but he’s got that twinkle behind the curtain.”
Not long ago, Reising says, Mouse took aim at PW, an O.B. regular who loves his classic Volkswagen van to the point of obsession. The van is spotless, restored to the smallest detail. One morning while PW was surfing, Mouse and his buddies put rocks in the van’s hubcaps.
When PW came in from surfing, he dressed, started up the van, drove off. He didn’t’ get ten yards before the rattling wheels stopped him. He climbed out, checked under the van. No obvious problem. Another ten yards, another stop. He repeated this five times before looking back to see Mouse and his friends doubled over with laughter.
Reising says there’s a 90-second transition from “You assholes!” to giving in and having a laugh. He tells about the time he watched Mouse come in from surfing, watched him dry off, dress, and walk away to find breakfast. “He forgot to lock up his board. He just left it.”
Such an opportunity was too good to waste. Reising and several friends stabbed the surfboard into the sand berm and draped it with kelp — heaps of the stuff, stinky, gritty, decomposing kelp. When Mouse returned, the gang told him they had hidden some dude’s board and were waiting to see his reaction.
Mouse’s face lit up with his trademark grin. He stepped closer to the mess and said, “Hey, that’s a pretty nice board.” Then, “It’s got the same colors as my board.” And finally, “Wait a minute.” Mouse took the full 90 seconds to acknowledge a good prank.
The kidding around never ends. Local Clark Matson recently pointed to a beach sign with a list of city ordinances. He said, “Hey, Mouse, they wrote this one for you.” His finger rested on the line that read, “No disturbing noises.”
Mouse grinned. “See what I put up with?”
With him, no matter the topic, the conversation always comes back to the ocean. “It’s my life,” he says.
He describes the kind of training it took to become a lifeguard in 1955. “It was my years as a surfer.” A life of reading the ocean each morning brings an innate sense of wave dynamics, rip currents, of the changing rhythms of the ocean.
Doug Smith recalls a time several years back. While walking along Sunset Cliffs, he and Mouse spotted two young women in trouble. One of the women had lost her surfboard, and both were trying to climb onto the remaining board. To the old watermen on the cliff, one thing was clear. The women had panicked.
Before Smith could untie his shoes, Mouse had pulled off his T-shirt, kicked off his shorts and sandals, and climbed down the cliff in his underwear. He swam out to the women and talked them down. “The biggest thing you can do is be calm,” he says. He showed them how to avoid the rips and let the waves push them in for a safe exit.
Mouse stopped counting the people he rescued over the years. But the main component, what drives the engine in a classic waterman is not the lives saved or the trophies won, it’s the raw joy of his involvement in the ocean. And what brought Mouse to the beach in the first place is one of those ironies of life when a bad thing produces a good thing.
His father, a recovering coal miner from Scotland, had been moving west in stages, looking for a healthier climate to ease his black-lung disease. After a stop in Ohio, where Mouse was born, and another stay in Arizona, the Robb family arrived in Ocean Beach in 1940. Mouse was seven years old.
Mouse (on top), 1945
In those days there was no pier, there were no jetties, and Mouse could fish off the bridge connecting Ocean Beach to Mission Beach. Mouse couldn’t have imagined a better setup — the sun, the water, the wide-open beach. And then one day it did get better.
He spotted another kid standing at the water’s edge. At his feet lay an old wooden surfboard known as a kook box. Mouse walked up and asked if he could try the board. When the kid said yes, Mouse’s course was set. That other kid was Marsh Malcolm. They’ve been friends ever since.
Mouse Robb and Marsh Malcolm
Of course, there were other kids and lifeguards who kept an eye on them. One lifeguard, Dwight Young, taught them the importance of fitness and basic water skills. Before long he had the boys committed to a hard daily swim. They set out from the O.B. lifeguard station, swam south to Pescadero Avenue and back, about a four-mile workout.
Some mornings, when the weather was cold or Mouse felt lazy, he considered not showing up for the swims. But always, the ocean, the camaraderie, and his love of a challenge got him out of bed. He earned his name on those tough morning adventures. He was smaller than the other boys, a mouse, but Dwight Young declared him no ordinary mouse. He was Mighty Mouse.
In O.B., nicknames are common and indelible. A short sample: Skeeter, Worm, Butter, B-Fly, Blackie, Mad Dog, Tarzan. The list goes on, and these are the affectionate handles.
Mouse and Mrs. Mouse at his 50th birthday party in 1983
Mouse’s wife, Carole Robb, has been called Mrs, Mouse more times than she can count. She answers with a tolerant smile. Mouse says, “She’s been called worse than that.”
On a recent morning, I spot Mouse walking toward the pier in the dim early light. He looks hearty and solid, his chest big, his legs strong. Running the beach at dawn has been his routine for the past seven decades. It goes like this: greet his friends and check the ocean, then surf, swim, or go have breakfast, depending on the conditions.
Today, as he approaches the parking lot, he passes two police SUVs parked on the sand, the officers questioning a ragged group of homeless guys. Mouse gives them a glance and keeps walking. He was a part of the community when there were no homeless, and the sea was his favorite grocery store.
The reefs were covered in abalone. Diving for dinner was common. Mouse kept a freezer full of abalone steaks. “My kids grew up on it,” he says. The abalone are gone, the psychedelic era came and went, property values shot through the roof, and in today’s congested realities, what remains constant is Mouse himself.
Life in O.B. is layered. On the top of the stack is the rising cost of living at the beach. Mouse says many people living here now are transient — students doubling up in cramped apartments. “They’re here to party. They’ll be gone in a few years.” Another layer is an edgy undertow — the homelessness and a rise in petty crime. But the foundation layer remains.
These are the die-hard O.B. regulars. They keep O.B. unique, even as Southern California beach towns all begin to look alike. These are the local merchants working to keep things local, saying no to Starbucks (though there is a branch at Newport and Bacon) and other corporate incursions. These are the still dreamy hippies shopping at People’s Food Co-op. And then there’s Mouse each year, 50 feet up in a cherry picker, wiring the O.B. Christmas tree for lights. Many of the locals are lifelong friends. They’ve created a loose-knit tribe around their shared love of the place. There’s an old O.B. saying — drive to the end of I-8. If you turn left you’re cool. If you turn right you’re an idiot.
Buddy Lewis, 1947
Mouse remembers first surfing Sunset Cliffs in the ’40s. He and his friends rode there from O.B. on bicycles, balancing heavy wooden surfboards up on a shoulder. “I don’t know how we did it. That board weighed more than I did.”
The Point Loma boys saw this gang out of O.B. as invaders. “They had the best of everything, and we were the rabble from O.B. We were the heathens,” Mouse says. Then, after a while, the Point Loma locals wanted in. “They saw how much fun we were having.”
Their favorite wave at the Cliffs broke on a reef so covered with abalone, early surfers named the place Ab. There are many good surf spots at Sunset Cliffs. In particular, there is one highly prized reef not far from Ab. In the ’40s, Mouse says, that reef was where beginners learned their chops before being allowed out at Ab. Today, that same break is so fiercely governed and defended by the local turf warriors I hesitate to use its real name.
With time, an unfortunate thing developed in the surfing world. Overcrowding created a diminishing resource. Often, there aren’t enough waves to go around. The friendly approach would be to share. But surfing, being a euphoric sport, is addictive. Passions run high. The resulting localism is surfing’s dark side. On a crowded day of good surf, frowns outnumber smiles. Locals throw rocks at surfers they don’t know. There have been more than a few fights.
In Mouse’s early years, four or five surfers might share the same wave. The more, the merrier. No one yelled. Why would they? This was fun. If a young surfer bragged or got too pushy, the older guys gave him a dunking — problem solved.
A few years ago, Mouse paddled out at the highly prized but un-namable reef. Someone who clearly didn’t know him demanded, “What are you doing out here?”
Mostly, Mouse won’t react to hostility in the water. “It’s not worth it.” But Chris Reising happened to be out that day. In his world, “An enemy of Mouse is an enemy of mine.” He paddled closer and barked out a history lesson. “Mouse was here long before any of us was born. Every wave is a wave for Mouse.”
Reising has a favorite Mouse story from ten years ago. The surf was big that day. Mouse and Mister Wonderful, a guy half his age, headed out. The waves were continuous, breaking across the deep channels. Paddling out on such a day takes endurance, dogged determination, and a certain wiliness.
Reising watched the two men battle walls of whitewater, ducking under, getting pushed back and trying again. After half an hour, Mister Wonderful gave up and came in. Mouse made the outside and had a good session of surf. Reising says, “Mouse is the sweetest, kindest bad-ass you’ll ever meet.”
Mouse Robb in the “Rock ’n’ Roll to the Rescue” Beach Boys video shoot in Marina Del Rey, 1986
I ask Mouse if he actively dislikes anyone in the surfing community. With a rueful smile he says, “Sometimes you have to talk to a guy.” After a childhood at the beach, Mouse served as a gunner in the Air Force during the Korean War. He returned to O.B. and went to work for the city as a lifeguard. But in 1955 and 1956, lifeguards earned $300 per month. He and Carole wanted to start a family. They needed a better income.
His dilemma was the same for most surfers: How do I make a decent living, raise a family, and still spend enough time in the water? Mouse prepared himself by studying electronics at night on the GI Bill. He found a job at Western Electric, satisfying his three requirements. He worked there until he retired.
As so often happens, there was one central flaw in his plan, and it applies to all surfers. The tides and swell don’t consider anyone’s schedule. There’s a saying among surfers when perfect waves arrive on a work day. You don’t call in sick. You “call in stoked.” Mouse was tempted many times, but he took the long view. His family prospered, his kids grew up to have their own children, and he got in plenty of water time.
Mouse Robb surfing Ocean Beach Pier on a shortboard in 1964
A room in his house is full of ribbons, trophies, and awards earned at surf contests and lifeguard competitions. One photo shows him on a surfboard holding tandem partner Judy Dibble above his head. They look strong and graceful. A DVD from 2005 shows him surfing Sunset Cliffs. The waves are big, dark and fast, Mouse drawing speed lines and leaving long white wakes.
One afternoon, I call his house in Point Loma. Carole answers. Mouse isn’t home, she says. “He’s down making sure the ocean is still there.” I ask for her take on the Mouse effect, why people feel better in his company. She can’t give a definitive answer. What emerges is that she creates her own version of the Mouse effect. People who know Carole describe her with superlatives. Gracious. Generous. An artist with a camera. What she does tell me that afternoon is honest and direct.
Mouse is not always cheerful, she says. He’ll go down to check the surf and “he sees what the kids are doing. He just can’t do that anymore. He got old.”
Mouse Robb (on top of vehicle), Ocean Beach Geriatric Surf Club at Jack Murphy Stadium, 1986
Mouse agrees. He does have his blue moments. Urban growth and congestion, the homeless, watching his old friends age and die, these things you grieve and learn to accept. One of the hardest is his diminishing skill in the water. Even the abalone are gone. He’s had to let go his classic hunter-gatherer lifestyle not once, but twice.
When the abalone disappeared locally, Mouse began driving to Fort Bragg each year where the waters still support the prized shellfish. This raised the intensity level by a wide margin. Free diving in Northern California is wild. The ocean is frigid, stormy, and the ever-present great white sharks add a certain edge.
Two years ago he traveled to Fort Bragg for the last time. He and Doug Smith swam out to the reef. From the surface, Mouse watched the current sweep aside a mass of kelp to expose a cluster of abalone 15 feet below. He swam down. The current reversed direction, dragging the kelp back. The heavy seaweed caught Mouse and covered him. The surge was so strong and the kelp so thick it pinned him to the reef.
Mouse had been in enough tight spots; he didn’t have to think about what he’d taught so many young watermen, which is, you don’t panic. Still, he’d never been this trapped. Before running out of air, he managed to pull his legs under himself and push off the reef, tearing at the kelp. He lost his pry-bar in the escape. The seaweed ripped snorkel and mask from his face.
Carole was waiting on the beach. Mouse swam in and said, “That’s it. It’s not fun anymore.”
A takeoff on Hawaii’s “Eddie Would Go” bumper sticker, which pays homage to the late Eddie Aikau, a revered lifeguard and big-wave surfer.
In O.B., cars still display the “Mouse Would Go” bumper stickers. Mouse and Marsh Malcolm still surf, though not as nimbly. With his knowledge of electronics, Mouse still helps his friends with their home electrical problems. Doug Smith says, “Mouse has been lighting up O.B. for years.” The metaphor is intentional.
For Mouse’s 80th birthday, the community threw a party. Attendance was huge. At one point in the celebration, Chris Reising called out to the crowd. “If you’ve ever been helped by Mouse, raise your hand.” Reising didn’t bother counting. Everyone raised a hand.
Mouse and friends 2016: (left to right) Annette Maggiora, Marsh Malcolm, Denise Hankins, Greg Hankins, Shiloh Spangler, Rick Geist, Kenny McCroby, Jan Gosewich, Mouse, Jon Longway, Woody, Scatdaddy (with Ellie, the dog), John Warren, Chris Reising, Doug Smith, Ken Goldman, Carole Robb.
Mouse runs the beach each morning. He greets his friends, smiles at dogs and tells stories. In a time of American homogenization and sensory overload, Mouse is an important part of what keeps O.B. quirky and unique. When asked why he is so universally liked, he says, “I don’t know. I’m just an O.B. guy.”