The Coast News Group
The La Jolla sewage treatment plant made famous by Tom Wolfe. Photo by Jeff Divine

Tom Wolfe said what?

“As I turned around, I saw Tommy make a beautiful drop-in, then the wave peaked and fell all at once. Miraculously, he beat the suction. He cut back and did a spinner, which followed with a reverse kick-up.”

 — Tom Wolfe, The Pump House Gang

I’ve had a hard time taking journalist Tom Wolfe seriously since he attempted writing something I know a lot about, surfing. Wolfe, who knew nothing about surfing, attempted explaining surf culture in a book of collected short stories titled “The Pump House Gang.”

The scene of his crime is Windansea’s sewage pumping station. In his book, he manages to get every reference to surfing, and his singular reference to rock ‘n’ roll, wrong. Yes, one of America’s most celebrated journalists misquotes one of the top songs of the era, “(I Can’t Get No) satisfaction,” calling it, “I Ain’t Got No Satisfaction.” It was, after all, 1968, so maybe certain illegal (at the time) substances were to blame.

Numerous stories continue circulating about Wolfe edging nervously toward the Windansea shack where local boys like Pat Curren and Butch Van Artsdalen were known to congregate and tip a few between surf sessions.

You would think Tom would have been more stealth and known better than to arrive at the beach in plantation-boss garb, topped with a white fedora. Instead, he ridicules the tourists in print, apparently never realizing he was linked in spirit with them. He writes about “the black panther,” which was apparently how the pump house gang referred to tourists who wore black socks. Wolfe was no black panther, he was a white panther, pasty white and a virgin to the workings of SoCal soul.

There’s something about Windansea that cannot be captured by bunking down at the La Valencia for two weeks. Windansea at that time was a closed shop. You didn’t just show up, announce yourself. If you didn’t live there, it might be wise not to surf there. Even if you did want to surf there, and even if you were a good surfer, you had to break in slowly.

To know anything about the culture of Windansea, you had to mix it up with some tough locals who rode some tough waves. Not every Windansea local, or the waves that break there, want to drown you. Both can be welcoming, but it is best to check the mood of the people and of the waves before paddling out.

After all that, I have a confession to make. I am not a Windansea local. I have not paddled out there for over 20 years, and I am writing a book about the place, its history, and the saints and sinners who inhabited it.

The book, “Windansea: Life. Death. Resurrection” will be a compilation of short stories beginning with glider pilot Woody Brown’s first ride there in 1938, moving to chronicle the stories of surfers like Tiny Brain, the Ekstrom brothers and Van Artsdalen, who became the original Mister Pipeline.

The book culminates with the life and death of one of Windansea’s best surfers, Chris O’Rourke, who passed away while still in his early 20s. I don’t have the reputation of Tom Wolfe, or the backing of a fancy New York publishing house. I do, however, have at least one advantage over Mr. Wolfe. I paddled out and mixed it up with the wave and the surfers who rode there. It was rough, and I hope I get it right.

If you would like to help fund this story, please check out the details at GoFundMe or GiveSendGo.

Leave a Comment