26.9

by Anthony J. Mohr

Mike Nader and I never met. When I was a freshman at Beverly Hills High School, he was a junior. When Nader and I passed each other in the halls, we passed each other in the halls. Neither of us said “hi.” We were a species apart, the Greek god and the geek. He had a chiseled face, sweeping brown hair that skimmed his eyebrows, a square jaw, and a level look. I had none of the above. I debated, because I wanted to go to law school and change the world. Mike surfed, and he changed my world.

I’m sure he didn’t mean to. Years later, journalist Sheila Weller would write in Vanity Fair that Nader and his pals, Duane King and Larry Shaw (I never met them either), day-tripped to Malibu in order get away from parents who ranged from violent to “perpetually inebriated,” and the beach offered freedom as well as girls. There, one summer day in 1961, a photographer for Life magazine spotted Mike Nader, got him to don a tuxedo, and then took pictures of him surfing in it. Life published the shot and, according to the conventional wisdom, the image drew national attention to the sport, which was already on the teenage radar screen thanks to the movie Gidget. Nine months later—that is to say, in June of my freshman year—Beverly High’s yearbook, The Watchtower, reprinted the Nader photo.

It was a unique gesture by the school. We had no surfing club, yet the yearbook devoted two pages to surfing—more space than it allotted to most of our “approved extracurricular activities.” Even the honor clubs were rationed to at most a page. Meanwhile, Mike Nader, Duane King, and Larry Shaw rated individual photos of themselves nose riding and catching the hard ones at Malibu. Before long, American International Pictures would cast Nader, his sister Stephanie, Duane King, and Larry Shaw in the Frankie and Annette movies like Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and Beach Blanket Bingo. Their parts would be small but all-important, because it was the kids in the background—“the scene”—who made audiences yearn. They shimmied, they tossed beach balls, and they smooched while Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon sang to each other. The scene was everything in these films, and it took Mike Nader and his clones to create it. “Bonehead’s really left the scene,” Annette said of one Beach Blanket Bingo boy who chose to spend some time alone, and she was worried sick about him.

I wasn’t the slightest bit jealous. Life wasn’t unfair because the yearbook staff had failed to feature me in the library, researching that year’s debate topic (federal aid to education). My grades were high, and I’d won a few gold medals at speech tournaments. Those one-square-inch charms featuring Demosthenes were what counted, or so I thought. I had no desire to get up on a board. I’d fall and crack my head on it and forget how to conjugate French verbs. Instead of surfer girls, I wanted someone within the reach of my daydreams who wouldn’t break out laughing if I asked her to the Pigskin Prom.

If anything, my crowd laughed at them. The honor club to which I belonged, The Knights, issued a weekly schedule of activities, and I renamed it The Serf. Two of us endorsed a surfer for student body president. He’s got the qualifications, we wrote, including “a steady 4.0-foot average.” For an after-school talent show, three of us wrote Surfers Unite, a terrible song full of doggerel. I skipped a WAGS (Wednesday Afternoon Gab Session) debate to perform it. In our best Stanley Kowalski accents, Jim and I sang with glee while Mark chanted “surf surf surf surf,” but at the height of this ridicule, I imagined myself in a pipeline. A blonde lingered at the edge of the crowd, someone who, I had been told, ditched school to surf. I looked straight at her big eyes and belted out, “There’ll be a surfer girl for you and me.” She tilted her head. She probably thought we were longing, not mocking, and now I can admit she was right.

That’s when I began to realize that deep in my bookish mind was a space that enjoyed the fact that surfers walked among us on campus. As I typed factoids onto four-by-six index cards for easy retrieval in the heat of a debate, I hoped that one day my brilliant second affirmative speech would turn me bold and free, like Nader, King, and Shaw. Surfers deserved their eminence, even if they couldn’t solve quadratic equations, because they triumphed in a literal place apart, a body of water that curved from Malibu to Asia. None of the school’s “approved extracurricular activities” removed you from the North American continent and challenged you to return while balancing on a fiberglass plank. No one was as daring as these mermen, certainly not the varsity football team. Hell, I watched one of our players miss a high kick when he shielded his eyes against the November sun. Years later, our star quarterback told me that once, when he called a play during a huddle, his receiver had replied, “Steve, I want to be a surgeon. I can’t risk breaking a finger to catch that ball if I’m going to be tackled.”

Surfers may have been dunces, but they were our dunces, and they made Beverly High more special than, with its money and celebrity kids, it already was. After winning a speech tournament, it was bracing to slum to a surfer’s beat—Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys. One morning during my junior year, the clock radio snapped me awake with “Surfin’ Bird.” As in, “Suuuuuuurrrrrfin’ biiiiiirrd. Bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb, yaa yaa waaa yaaah/Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa/Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-ooma-mow-mow…” I put on the Pendleton shirt my mother had bought and wore it as proudly as the Mickey Mouse Club ears she had given me eight years earlier. “Surfin’ Bird” made me bounce through the day, starting with first-period forensics where, after an articulate rebuttal speech, I felt so above the Trashmen’s brainless lyrics. “Don’t just quote the Statistical Abstract. Use logic,” my debate coach had always said, and this morning I had. I had convinced him why “social security benefits should be extended to include complete medical care.” (My junior-year debate topic.) Mr. Klotz was hard to convince when it came to medicine. Thanks to the war, he was missing an ear.

“Hang five,” a teammate said to me when the class was over. There was a snippet of sneer in our banter, but had I listened to my thoughts—listened carefully—I would have admitted not only that I wanted to join Mike Nader, but thought I might someday. It would just happen, the way California teenagers used to believe good things would come their way. One afternoon after a debate, a girl with ironed blond hair and a tan would approach me. It wouldn’t matter that she got a C in trig. She’d lend me a board and lead me to a break where we’d paddle out together, and I’d stand up and ride. Nader would shake my hand when I emerged from the foam. The girl would reward me with a kiss, then more kisses that night at a beach party in Malibu.

One reason for my buoyancy was that I was partway there: I could bodysurf. Of course, bodysurfing impressed nobody in the Southland. It was something we all did—another reason why the mid-sixties summers stand out. Gary, Mark, Brian, Rich, Larry, Lee, Joe, Dick, Eric, and I hit Tee’s Beach, a spot near the California Incline where the Beverly kids gathered. We baked on our towels, sunscreen-free, radios going, and we talked about nothing.

Joe rolled onto his back. “What’s next year’s topic?” he asked.

Before I could say “nuclear disarmament,” “House of the Rising Sun” came over the transistor. “Hey, the Animals,” Eric said. He sounded half asleep.

I drowsed until a set of waves reared up—puny by Nader standards, but strong enough to bounce my soft body around. “Outside,” Gary hollered. Then every sense snapped to and I raced into the chilly Pacific. After a good ride, I became ebullient. At the time I thought it was because I had lots of debate cards in my file and planned to apply to eastern schools, places that would never take Nader. Now I know better.

My feelings were due, in part, to Mike Nader, Larry Shaw, and Duane King, archetypes of a culture that had turned the beach into a teenage Eden that stretched from Point Conception to the Mexican border. I craved it. Burgers and fries were cheap, parking cost a dollar, adults were scarce, and the waves were free. In no other place did I feel as good as on that sandy ribbon. Sure, part of that traced to the sound of the white tide, the gentle warmth of silicon granules against my fingers, and the sun, of course the sun. A sun that was, as Eugene Burdick had written years earlier, during the same month the Russians had launched Sputnik 1, “a kind sun…a sun designed for Utopia.” But it also was because, by playing on the lip of the continent, even without a board, I felt, at least a bit, like Mike Nader. But I wasn’t. No talent scout would add me to the scene in Beach Blanket Bingo, no surfer girl would jog my way, and nobody would tell me how to get to 26.9.

* * *

My debate partner uttered that number once, and it may have been the only time I heard him stammer. I knew that 26.9 referred to a beach, but that’s like calling the Great Pyramid a building. 26.9 was an acroamatic Xanadu of boys and girls deep into rites that were more thrilling when performed on sand somewhere beyond Malibu, where the Santa Monica Mountains plunged to the sea. The decimal appeared in my senior yearbook, followed by the word miles. But 26.9 miles from what? Tee’s Beach? The high school? Without directions, “26.9 miles” became a worthless hint meant to tease, not inform.

I could have hunted for 26.9, driven there on a Sunday afternoon in my parents’ Bonneville, trudged from cove to cove, watched the inbound waves. But I never did. The trip would not have answered my questions. In my mind, 26.9 called for the dark, with silhouettes of football stars and class princesses, hands linked and facing the ocean. By daybreak they’d be gone. They’d leave no trace.

Once, after being eliminated in the semifinals of a debate tournament, I sat through the final round. The contest had run late, and a power outage forced the closing arguments to occur in the dark. The staff lit at least ten candles so the contestants could read their cards and make notes. “Can’t say it isn’t romantic,” the speaker told a packed classroom. The candles framing him should have made the scene medieval, but to me the shaky light evoked a campfire at 26.9, where I knew our surfers would gather that night. Maybe Mike Nader was among them. “Can’t say we don’t have a case to prove,” the speaker went on. He raised an arm, pointed at the three judges, and convinced them that social security benefits should not be extended to include complete medical care.

 * * *

It came the last week of my senior year: an invitation to a party at 26.9. The event was set for 6:30 p.m., Thursday, June 17, 1965, the day before graduation. The four classmates who organized this romp knew how to party. Three were varsity athletes. The fourth was a girl with shoulder-length hair flipped just so.

Never mind that the summons was not personal. It was a mimeographed sheet in the trademark blue ink of the era. I expected nothing less. Surfers didn’t send engraved invitations. I memorized the directions—directions! Finally, they were telling me how to find their wonderland: 26.9 miles beyond the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and the Pacific Coast Highway. The densely detailed instructions contained a trail map to the right spot. “Bring your own hot dogs, etc. Bring your own wood. Bring your own everything…. Bring your old notebooks—we’ll burn them.” That meant a campfire, the sine qua non of any good beach party. My younger sister had an older friend who enjoyed telling stories. His latest had featured the narrator atop a cliff, peering down at eight fires—“eight bitchin’ parties on the beach”—but when he tried to go there, a naked seven-foot Mexican had appeared out of the night and barred his way. That wouldn’t happen to me. I had their map, and few people went naked in 1965. I’d go there alone, so when I met a surfer girl, I wouldn’t be locked into anyone else’s schedule. And I’d take my parents’ 1964 T-Bird in order to impress my surfer girl.

* * *

There was a fire, all right, but no surfboards anywhere. There were no blonds either. I heard the waves, but no music. There probably were blankets, but I stumbled over no bodies. I wandered around 26.9, a wad of index cards in hand, and talked with a couple of classmates who were definitely not surfers. One asked if I planned to debate in college. A heavyset girl said that she wanted to learn how to surf. I smelled nothing edible. The char from the fire mixed with the salty air, which soon got cold, because June nights are chilly in California. Before long, the party began to whimper away. If our hosts were there, I never saw them. Now that I had arrived, they had vanished, like Amazonian Indians into the jungle, leaving behind their guests, none of whom, as far as I could tell, held hands.

I went home. I needed my rest for Grad Night, which I would enjoy not with a beach babe, but with a future oncologist whose shoulder-length hair was curly and black and with whom I laughed a lot and never talked about surfing. In the back of my car were my debate cards; I didn’t burn them. They exist to this day, in storage somewhere. That’s more than I can say for Mike Nader and 26.9. They left my mind when the president of the board of education put a diploma in my hand, and for over forty years they stayed away. I must have driven the Pacific Coast Highway a hundred times during those decades. Never once did I slow down when I passed 26.9. Usually I was in a hurry to get to a deposition or, after becoming a judge, to conferences up north or back to my courthouse to preside over a trial.

* * *

 Then I came down with the flu.

It took a low-grade fever for me to watch Beach Blanket Bingo. When it was released in 1965, I had probably opted for Dr. Zhivago. But tonight I needed fluff, and the film happened to be on demand. Growing up around celluloid had given me an overheated fantasy life, and it’s still easy to flick that switch.

Frankie and Annette did not take me back. It was the kids in the background; they’re the ones who monkeyed with my memory. By day they frolic on the shore. At night they dance on some patio. In one scene, they make dinner together and listen to Donna Loren sing as she roasts a hot dog in the fireplace. “It Only Hurts When I Cry” is her song, and before it’s over, Mike Nader starts to cry, but then he’s cutting up onions. When Donna finishes, the group applauds, she smiles, starts to laugh, and waggles her hot dog before eating it. They’re all safe and happy in the airy Malibu pad where they live, I assume, rent-free since none of them has a summer job.

I imagined, almost believed, that I was looking at 26.9—not as it was on June 17, 1965, when the kahunas had allowed me a peek—but as it really had been, when each day had offered the surf and each night, cuddles and more. Never mind that Beach Blanket Bingo had been shot during the winter and the cast had shivered in the water. It didn’t matter that some location scout had chosen Paradise Cove, where there’s no surf, instead of Zuma Beach, two miles north, where there is surf. Forget that, when I Googled the film, I learned that Nader, Shaw, and King had had miserable home lives. I still fantasized, almost out loud, about joining their scene.

Recently, I asked several high school classmates if they knew what 26.9 was. Not just any classmates: the homecoming queen, the quarterback, the star dancer, the senior class president. One said, “It sounds very vaguely familiar, but maybe I’m imagining it.” She wasn’t. It was real, then, but it has slipped into that part of memory where unfulfilled dreams go—there to linger until something revives them and makes me yearn again.

 

BIO: Anthony J. Mohr’s creative nonfiction has appeared in, among other places, The Christian Science Monitor, The Coachella Review, Currents, Eclectica, Literary House Review, Oracle, ZYZZYVA, and two Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. He has attended the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and the Sirenland Writers Conference, and he has studied craft with Bernard Cooper, Chris Daley, Tom Jenks, Edan Lepucki, and Jim Shepard. By day he is a judge on the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles.