To my left is a mountain of a man with his blue denim shirt unbuttoned, revealing a swastika that makes a 10-inch journey to his abdomen.
Below the swastika are the inflammatory words, “White Power.”
To my right are two men of equal stature — Black Muslims, if I can trust my guide and judge by their appearance. They eye White Power and me suspiciously.
Two armed guards pace a catwalk, 20-some feet above us, but a world away. A sign directly above them reads, “No Warning Shots!” If something starts, it won’t end without blood.
We are in the maximum-security wing of Donovan State Prison where these men along with around 500 others have gathered to hear the tales of America’s most notorious jewel thief, Jack “Murf the Surf” Murphy, speak on his fast times.
Murphy talks to these inmates confidently and without apparent fear. It is a conditioned response (or lack of one) after serving 23 years in similar joints.
I had joined Murphy and his group of prison visitors at the request of famed ’60s surfer, David Nuuhiwa, who called and asked if I wanted to spend my weekend behind bars.
It was an uncomfortable thought, but I simply couldn’t say no to my childhood hero and so I committed 48 hours to the big house.
I had first heard of Murphy in 1964 when I was a young surfer in high school.
He was originally from Oceanside and had been surfing since the ’50s, before moving with his parents to Pittsburgh where, according to Murphy, he received a tennis scholarship as well as a chair as a violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. But once a surfer…
After a few brutal winters, Jack migrated to the warm waters of the Florida where he won the first two East Coast Surfing Championships. He taught surfing and scuba diving and, for a time, worked as a high diver in the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
He made national news in the mid ’60s when he and two accomplices pulled off the biggest jewel heist in history and took home 24 precious gems from the J.P. Morgan Gem collection housed in the New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
By the time I met Murphy, his rebellious days were behind him and he was a preacher of the gospel, standing and delivering to inmates on a nearly weekly basis.
We stayed in touch for years after that, and whenever he was in San Diego we would get together for a while.
The last time I saw Murphy was when I visited a prison in Fresno with him. He was still active, seemingly healthy and when I suggested he slow down as a concession to his turning 70, he joked, saying, “I want whatever you’re smoking.” As far as I know, he never did slow down.
Over the years, I lost touch with Murphy and was told a while ago that he was in bad physical shape. I had been thinking about him when, on Sept. 12, a friend phoned to say that Jack Roland “Murf the Surf” Murphy had died at age 83. I already miss his sense of adventure and his commitment to men abandoned by society.
I know I will never meet anyone like him. I hope there are waves in heaven, Murf. Aloha.
Murf the Surf is survived by his wife, Kitten, and sons Shaun and Michael from a previous marriage.