Author documents surfing in San Onofre Beach in new book
At 1,550 pages, author David Matuszak presents what is in his estimation, “the most comprehensive history of surfing culture ever written.”
As the book’s title “San Onofre: Memories of a Legendary Surfing Beach” suggests, its focus is on the famous San Onofre Beach in San Diego County. However, it also thoroughly dives into subsets of surf culture from surfing art, music, literature, vehicles, apparel, and even the recently developed surfing academics at institutions like San Diego State University.
In an interview with the News-Press, Dr. Matuszak said he wanted to leave no aspect of surfing uncovered so future generations will know what it was like being a surfer during the time frame the book covers.
“I wanted readers today and 100 years from now to fully understand the surfing culture here in California in every aspect. The lifestyle, the music, the art, the academic research, I wanted surfers generations from now to know precisely what it was like to be a surfer in the early 1900s and the early 2000s,” said Dr. Matuszak, who lives in Big Bear Lake.
As broad as Dr. Matuszak’s book is in exploring the subject of surfing, the project’s initial conception had a singular focus. That focus was Wally Duesler, a well-known figure in the San Onofre surfing scene who passed away last year just a few months shy of his 100th birthday.
Dr. Matuszak recalled that eight years ago, Mr. Duesler, who he was friends with for 40 years and often surfed and played beach volleyball with, was telling him stories of his younger days as a surfer at San Onofre Beach. Intrigued by the man’s memories, Dr. Matuszak suggested to Mr. Duesler that they chronicle his story in a 50 to 100 page booklet.
As Dr. Matuszak got underway on the project, Mr. Duesler told several of his contemporaries who were also surfers about the project. They approached the author and said, “We have memories too and we want to share them.” This kicked off two years of research and interviewing California’s pioneer surfers.
When interviewing Mr. Duesler’s contemporaries, Dr. Matuszak was invited into their homes, recorded their oral histories, and was shown hundreds of photographs in their personal albums documenting California surfing history that the public had never seen. These interviews and photos served as the basis for the project, which expanded as Dr. Matuszak researched other aspects of surfing over the next two years. Once he was done researching, he spent six years writing the book.
Though wide-ranging within the topic of surfing, Dr. Matuszak decided to focus on San Onofre Beach and recycle an approach that he used to write his doctoral dissertation on the California Gold Rush. When writing his dissertation, the author described it as telling the story of the California Gold Rush from the specific point of view of the miners who lived at the camp Nelson Point.
“I used the same format on a much larger scale to do the same thing on the world of surfing,” he said.
“San Onofre: Memories of a Legendary Surfing Beach” chronicles the famous beach’s transformation from a rowdy, singles beach in the 1930s into a family beach where those once rowdy surfers returned from military service from World War II, got married and had children.
“That’s where the aloha spirit of San Onofre really thrived and remains to this day,” he said.
According to Dr. Matuszak, during the 1930s California surfers rode steamboats to Hawaii in search of waves. When they returned to California, the surfers brought back what he referred to as “aloha spirit,” a sort of friendly, inclusive good will that was cemented after World War II and lasted a good way through the ‘60s.
In the late ’60s, Dr. Matuszak said this started to disappear at many California beaches as an attitude of “tribal localism” took root and surfers adopted a “locals only” ethos at their beaches. At San Onofre, however, this isn’t the case.
“That particular attitude has never developed at San Onofre because the old timers at San Onofre to this day make sure that when young surfers come along and start to demonstrate that bad behavior, that behavior is corrected very quickly,” Dr. Matuszak said.
But that the aloha spirit remains is not the only thing that makes San Onofre a special place to the author.
“First reason is the aloha spirit, and the second is the consistency of waves,” he said.
The constant breaking of waves at San Onofre he explained is due to its cobblestone reefs, and Dr. Matuszak added that days without waves at San Onofre can be counted on one hand.
The book also tells stories about how surfers at San Onofre interacted with other subcultures around the beach. These included farmers of different ethnic backgrounds, cowboys, and military people.
Some cowboys also surfed. According to Dr. Matuszak, these “surfing cowboys” still exist to this day and some even compete in the Santa Barbara-based Californio Bridlehorse Association’s Skills of the Rancho competition.
In 1942 the U.S. Navy took over San Onofre via eminent domain to establish a military base that would become Camp Pendleton. Certain beaches became used for Marines’ amphibious landing training.
One spot on San Onofre called Trestles was a popular spot with surfers. When the military took over the area, the surfers would sneak in to catch waves and retreat from the military police when they were spotted.
Because these stories are part of the area’s surfing folklore, Dr. Matuszak thought it would be interesting to get the other side of the story. While researching he put an ad in the Marine Corps magazine Leatherneck that called on individuals who were MPs at Camp Pendleton between 1942 and 1972 to get in touch with him. He got six responses.
Before San Onofre became a state park and reopened to the public at large in the ’70s, in 1952 the military allowed surfers to use one particular break known as Old Man’s so long as the surfers behaved themselves. To police themselves, the surfers at San Onofre started the extremely exclusive San Onofre Surfing Club, which was the only way to have access to that particular surfing break. The waiting list for membership was five years long, and even movie stars had to wait their turn on it.
As far as Dr. Matuszak can tell, the collection of subcultures that make up San Onofre is a unique one in California history that is unmatched, save perhaps the groups of people that descended upon California during the Gold Rush.
“Not since that experience in California have we seen such a diverse mixture of subcultures in one particular location.”