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Cal Porter's Then & Now
BiographyThere are many famous opening lines from great works of literature: “It was a dark and stormy night”, Bulwer-Lytton, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, Charles Dickens, “Call me Ishmael”, from Moby Dick, but ever was there a line more to the point than, “I Am Born”, in Chapter 1 of David Copperfield. So that’s where I will start. It happened to me in the year 1924, and by my calculation that makes me 88 this year.
I surfed at an early age. I had older brothers, and we had surfboards of one kind or another before I was five years old. I’ve surfed all my life. I’ve bodysurfed all my life. I dived for lobster and abalone and fish for dinner, and I sold them to restaurants and fish markets. I had a small fishing boat and fished commercially. I taught swimming. And when I was old enough I became a lifeguard so that I could earn a living and still be on the beach and in the water. Lifeguarding put me through college and graduate school. I became a teacher and then a school principal for many years. But I never left the beach. All my spare time and days off were on the beach. It’s a good thing for me that my family shared my love for the ocean. Most of our trips were to the watery places of the world, where the sea was warm, the water was clear, the diving was good, and the waves were beckoning. I lifeguarded for almost 40 years. And now many years into retirement I’m still on the beach. I live on the beach. Through my windows I can see the beach. And when that day comes and it’s time to “shuffle off this mortal coil” (Hamlet), I will return to the sea once more.
THE PIER JUMPERS
I never jumped off the Malibu Pier when I was a kid. Oh it was there all right, built back in 1900 by the Rindge family, the owners of all of Malibu at one time. It’s just that it was far away from where I lived on the beach at Playa Del Rey when I was of pier jumping age. In the late 1930’s when I started to frequent Malibu it was not to jump off the pier, it was to surf the fine waves of Malibu Point at what was then called Keller’s Shelter. Of course when I was a very young kid you couldn’t get into Malibu anyway, it was all private and fenced off at what is now Duke’s Restaurant, and guarded by armed horseback riders.
Malibu Pier, 1930’s
1. But going south from Malibu we come to all those piers I did jump off starting with the Santa Monica Pier. I usually wasn’t alone; there was often a buddy or two along who also had this thing about jumping off piers. The Santa Monica Pier had a swimming area established where you were almost encouraged to jump off, unlike today’s mind set of over protection. Where the pier narrows just beyond the present day fun zone where the old La Monica Ballroom once stood, a ladder allowed you to climb half way down to a platform built against the pilings. From there you could dive or jump into the deep water below and then climb back up another ladder from the ocean to the platform. The platform doubled as kind of a hangout spot where you could be with friends, sit in the sun, eat lunch or whatever. Usually we would jump from the top of the pier instead of the platform since it was twice the height and twice as scary. If you tried it today you would hit the ocean floor since the water is so shallow there from the gradual widening of the sandy beach. In later years, when I was older, my brother and I would quite often jump or dive off the end of the Santa Monica Pier to swim to our fishing boat that was moored there in the small boat harbor if we got tired of waiting for the shore boat, or didn’t want to pay the ten or twenty cents for the ride.
The SM Pier with the ladder to the water visible, 1930’s, early 40’s.
2. The Crystal Pier was the next pier, about a mile south of the Santa Monica Pier. It was once quite glamorous with actor-comedian Nat Goodwin’s restaurant, cabaret, and ballroom on the pier where Hollywood stars would play. When I was a kid it had become quite seedy with its run down bath house, but the popular Rendezvous Ballroom was going strong at the foot of the pier. We would run to the end of the pier and jump off the south side to pick up some nice right breaking bodysurfing waves back to the beach. To warm up after the swim, one of the only four volleyball courts on the whole beach in those days was there and waiting for us. The pier made the news some years later when, in a fierce storm, our thirty foot fishing boat, “The Clara” (another story), broke loose from its mooring in the Santa Monica Harbor, went through the pier pilings, and ended up on the beach completely destroyed and in pieces.
The Crystal Pier in the distance, with the red roofed Rendezvous Ballroom on the beach.
3. The most popular pier in those days was the Ocean Park Pier, a few blocks down the sand from the Crystal. It had more thrill rides, games, roller coasters, dance halls, saloons, restaurants and bandstands than any of the rest plus two movie theaters. If we jumped off the end of this longest of the piers where the tower for the boat slide was back then we were in for a very long swim. We did it but we preferred the jump from half way out on the pier where the old Egyptian Ballroom stood.
Ocean Park Pier with boat slide at the end
4. The Lick Pier was adjacent to the Ocean Park Pier and attached to it at the beach. The Bon Ton Ballroom was half way out to the end of the pier when I was a kid, later called the Lick Pier Ballroom, and then the Aragon Ballroom during the big band era where Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey and all the rest of the swing bands played. It wasn’t even half the length of the Ocean Park Pier but it was fun to jump off and catch the excellent right breaking body surfing waves that formed alongside the pilings. Years later the area was made famous by the team of surfers and skateboarders called “The Z-Boys”; a film was made about them. I worked as a Los Angeles City Beach Lifeguard there for several years alongside the Lick Pier and always thought I would be going off the end of the pier in the line of duty, but rescues were always accomplished faster by just swimming out than going up the stairs to the pier and losing sight of the victim.
Lick Pier with Ocean Park Pier and boat chute beyond.
5. The Venice Pier was a long pier a mile or so south of Ocean Park with lots of good jumping off spots on both sides. The main one was at the end of the pier on the south side where there was an open area where tourists could stand and throw pennies, nickels and sometimes maybe even dimes (Depression Era, 1930’s) for us kids to dive for. It was the most popular jump off spot of all the piers since in a short time you might end up with enough for a hot dog, (ten cents), and a roller coaster ride, (fifteen cents). It is also the place where I described in another story of jumping off during a cold and fierce winter storm, swimming a hundred yards out to sea with newly invented (1940) swim fins and bodysurfing the biggest waves and longest rides of my life, breaking far out beyond the end of the pier.
The Venice Pier, second from bottom
6. The Sunset Pier, at the bottom of the above photo, was the pier I jumped off from more than all the others put together. This was our beach, between the piers, where all the Venice High School guys and gals hung out. The end of the pier, where the band stand and stage were, was enclosed by a glass wall. We could sit in the hot sun, play handball or practice handstands on the stage, and watch for the largest and choicest sets of waves to come rolling in. Then over the wall for the long drop into the ocean and a ride on the chosen wave to the beach, finishing with a run back out to do it all over again. Of course there was “no diving off the pier allowed” but the lifeguards in the headquarters building at the foot of the pier in the above photo knew us, mostly high school swim team members, and they knew what we were doing but left us alone. Most of us became beach lifeguards ourselves later.
7,8,9. Further south there were two piers at Playa Del Rey where I grew up, the Del Rey Pier and the Hyperion Pier. I fished on both and jumped off both. In the south bay beyond there were three piers but usually beyond my roaming when I was a kid. However, I did go off the Hermosa Pier several times in lifeguard training sessions.
1930’s. Neither the Del Rey Pier or the channel to the lagoon are there now.
So there it is, the end of the long ago pier jumping saga. Almost all of the piers in this story are gone now, gone a long time ago. But there are a few left, and I’m wondering if at eighty-eight it’s not too late to get back in pier jumping shape. I miss those days.
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 23 , 2012
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