The morning fog glazed the car window as we pulled into a parking space at the old pescadería in Tijuana. The damp, cold, heavy air muffled the sounds of people. The smells of diesel oil, sulfur, and fish seemed to permeate my being as well as my clothes and skin. Inside was much the same, a slow motion dance centered around two old men and an upside down caguama – the biggest sea turtle I’d ever seen.
I was only five or so, and it was vastly bigger than I was. Its mouth, a reptilian beak, opened and closed noiselessly as it looked around, surveying its captors. It stared me straight in the eye, unblinking as if it knew. One of the old men spoke to the other. For some reason, I couldn’t understand, even though I felt I should have.
“¿Qué dijo, papá?” I asked my father, falling into the Spanish that always felt more comfortable in Tijuana. “I don’t know.” he replied in English, “He’s speaking Kumeyaay.” The old man who was talking seemed to be chanting the same phrase over and over. A red bandana tied around his hand had some blood soaking through. I remember wondering if the caguama had bitten him. The turtle’s flippers waved helplessly in the air as the long knife stabbed into the center of bottom shell. Then they were slicing. Blood was everywhere and a kind of anticipation drew the crowd closer. The turtle never made a sound, as the other old Indian, who, I saw now, was a “tuerto” (with only one eye), reached into the depths of the still struggling animal with his hands and a knife. He withdrew his arms, red to the elbows, with the still-beating heart in his hands. His toothless smile startled me as he handed the beating heart to my astounded brother and, chanting incomprehensible words, drew the sign of the cross on my brother’s forehead with a bloody finger. Then, it was my turn.
I was frozen with fear, holding the still beating heart that tried to jump out of my hands. The blood oozing from it was almost purple. I remember how the cross on my forehead shrank as it dried. We bought some abalone and totoava and drove in silence all the way home. My heart still races with the memory.
Photo: Jeff Knox
HEADING SOUTH 1962
Three bare light bulbs illuminated the old border crossing. It was 4:30 AM. Mr. Locke slowed down the old pushbutton Rambler station wagon just enough to negotiate the two lines of topes as we rolled right through the unmanned Mexican aduanas and started to accelerate over Puente Mexico. The surfboards in the back bumped my head as we bounced over the uneven surface of the bridge then turned left onto Revolución. I had finished my paper route ten minutes ago and was now wedged between my brother and Vance who were both snoring, not being used to such early hours. Tijuana was deserted except for the lights on in the big tortillería at the bend where Revolución turned into Aguas Calientes. The doors, however, were still closed. We turned right onto the old Ensenada Road at the downtown bullring and sped off into the predawn darkness, the only car on the road.
I must have dozed. The smell of the old dairy at San Antonio de Los Buenos assaulted my nostrils and brought me back to wakefulness. The lights of Playa Rosarito loomed in the distance. Mr. Locke had the bit between his teeth and passed the old Kumeyaay’s bakery, not stopping until we passed the hotel. Jim and Vance stumbled out of the car still groggy from sleep. Mrs. Locke and Susie were already inside as I finally forced my way out of the overloaded car and into the chill of first light. Uncle Sam’s Café… again. The gaudy blue of the exterior was beaten into submission by the even gaudier red, white and blue of the interior. We sat in the semi-darkness of the café. The only illumination came from two Coleman gas lanterns sputtering and smelling, suspended from the ceiling. Though the menu was extensive, I knew what to expect as the youngest daughter of the owner (the pretty one, about 15) poured hot water into our mismatched coffee cups and plunked down a jar of instant Nescafé caked with the residue of many wet spoons. We ladled in the brown, big-grained Mexican sugar and poured in a touch of condensed milk from the small can as Mrs. Locke went through the inevitable litany in her southern belle accent:
I couldn’t stand it any more so piped in, “¿Qué hay?” and got the usual answer, “Machaca de manta raya”. We ate our machaca with fresh hot tortillas Indian style instead of with the dirty forks as the sun began to make its appearance over the mountains. We would be surfing in another half hour.
K 38.5, 1965. Photo: Unknown
CAMPO SANTINI 1962
The Locke’s trailer was going through renovations. Actually, it was having a house built around it. The trailer stood at the northern point a 50-foot high promontory on the south side of the arroyo, directly across from the Santini’s house and the huge water tank painted like a Tecate beer can. The trail down to the cobblestone beach lay on the inland side and switched back behind the outhouse and our shooting range where we had fun plinking old cans with a rusty 22. It was always a good idea to wear shoes down to the beach, what with broken glass, scorpions, an occasional rattlesnake, and the rare bit of flotsam from the outhouse. The shorebreak would boom and then roar in retreat; the sound a of a million cobblestones grinding together, beginning the long process of making sand for the cove at 38 ½. Sometimes we would time the sets and paddle out to the rocks that stuck out of the water, around the rarely good wave there, and up the coast to the right point break at Punta Morro, K 38 ½, which we fondly referred to as Oolee Rock. Other times we would walk up the beach above the cobbles for as far as we could before tiptoeing around the point and down into the cove for the dry-hair paddle out. If anyone else was there, we felt cheated, having surfed it alone so much. We almost always walked back to avoid the shore pound that would ding bodies and boards on the cobbles, picking up treasures on the way. I’ve never gotten over the thrill of finding a rare shell, a pelican or dolphin skull or a whale rib on my sojourns to the Baja. Back at camp we would drink beer (no one cared!), fish and plan forays down to the great wilds of Campo Lopez and its right point break. We thought all surfers did the same.
CAMPO LOPEZ 1963
It was a relief to leave the pavement, such as it was, and start the less bumpy dirt road across the flats to the cliff above the cove at K54. As we rolled to a stop at the flat spot next to the arroyo that overlooked the surf, we knew we had made the right call – a set closed out the beach break from the north point all the way to the left off the rocks. One wave feathered, threatening to break, off the big point. We tumbled back into the old rambler and Vance, too young to have a license, turned onto the track that led south to the collection of houses on the good point at Campo Lopez.
The walk down the ramp to the water was hard on the feet. Somehow, the rocks here were sharper here than anywhere else. It was almost a relief to step into the masses of sargaso that covered the big rocks at the bottom of the cove, even though it made for a slow and slippery rock dance to water deep enough and seaweed free enough to negotiate fin up. As usual, the paddle was easy. Once clear of the sargaso and hidden rogue rocks, it was almost always a dry hair trip out to the point. I loved the suckout next to the rock and the perfect right that was tailor-made for a wave-long backside cheater five. Oddly, I attended (November 2002) Armando Lopez’s wedding. His dad, Hector, grew up at the point. Hector’s older sister even remembers me, the skinny gringo who spoke Spanish, always helped with the panga and who ate everything she offered!
OOLEE ROCK 1964
Another big bump and I might have fallen out. It’s not too easy holding 4 surfboards in the trunk of an old Ford by lying on them with your hands clutching a loose spare tire. J.B. had talked me into it. It was my free ride down to Oolee Rock, known to the Mexican Fisherman as Punta Morro and to the interlopers from North County as K 38 ½. Getting across the border was the easy part. Both my brother and I had notarized statements from our dad so that we could enter Mexico. Every time we were stopped while crossing the border, and allowed to proceed, our parents would get a letter from the powers-that-be stating that we had crossed and were libel to be “exposed to influences that could be detrimental to (our) well-being.” I suppose that good surf, great food, and an occasional beer qualified as detrimental. We arrived at the bluff overlooking the rock at about 10:00 AM. The Duck, Dennis Choate and Richard Joley were just leaving. “You’re gonna get destroyed”, they said in unison as they drove off, still wet and laughing hysterically. The cove was empty of surfers and four to six foot sets were breaking from outside the big rock, pealing perfectly all the way to the inside where Oolee Rock thrust its penis-like head up ruining the last 20 yards of perfection. “Destroyed my ass”, said my brother as we paddled out without getting our hair wet. The waves were long and beautiful in the slight offshore. We traded them for about ½ hour. Then, the horizon turned blue and the once-an-hour 10 to 12 foot set closed out the cove and took our boards. We were destroyed, our boards eaten up on the inside rocks, and we were done until they could be repaired. There was nothing left to do but head for the old Kumeyaay Indian’s bakery on the northern outskirts of Rosarito (“bolillos” – today you would say, “birotes”!) and stuff ourselves with 25¢ worth of pan dulce and cold “Establo Jersey” milk before we headed home, thoroughly disgusted at the prospect of major ding repair. No wonder someone eventually dynamited the Oolee Rock, clearing the last 20 yards for a safe run to the sand of the inner cove. The bruises I suffered in the trunk were worth it!