Jim Gallagher

Introduction | Gallagher interview, page 1 | Gallagher interview, page 2

Conducted as part of Tales from Kelly's Cove, by Western Neighborhoods Project, May 2, 2013.

LaBounty: It’s May 2, 2013. Woody LaBounty interviewing Jim Gallagher. Are you “James” Gallagher?

Gallagher: Jim Gallagher is what I go by. If my birth certificate says James, then I sign my checks James. James E., as a matter of fact.

LaBounty: What’s your birthdate?

Gallagher: August 27, 1935.


Jim Gallagher at China Beach in the 1950s. - Courtesy of James E. Gallagher

LaBounty: And you grew up in…

Gallagher: The Richmond District.

LaBounty: You were telling me you were the eldest of how many kids?

Gallagher: Twelve.

LaBounty: Wow. How many boys?

Gallagher: Nine.

LaBounty: Wow.

Gallagher: All frontloaded.

LaBounty: Now, you were born in the ‘30's.

Gallagher: 1935.

LaBounty: So, was your family, was the Depression affecting you…?

Gallagher: Oh yeah.

LaBounty: What did your dad do?

Gallagher: He did a lot of things, obviously, to support the family. I was born in 1935. He and my mother were both immigrants to the country from Ireland. He was from Achill and she was from a slightly inland area, both in the Mayo County, but they met in the KRB here down on Mission Street, which was a kind of famous Irish club for immigrants and local Irish.

LaBounty: And KRB stands for…

Gallagher: Knights of the Red Branch. My mother was a domestic initially and my father was a laborer. He had some relatives that were in construction and as a laborer he did a variety of kinds of things. In the late ‘30’s he got a job at what was then called the Marine Hospital – it was located off Lake Street on 14th [Avenue]. It’s not a hospital anymore, but it was a public health hospital that primarily dealt with merchant seamen. As a matter of fact, I had my tonsils taken out there when I was six years old.

I was born at St. Mary’s Hospital on Stanyan [Street] between Fulton [Street] and Hayes [Street]. My parents were living on 10th Avenue between Clement and California [Streets] at the time. I think it was 252 or something of that sort, but I don’t recall that. And two years later [1937] they bought a home out on 30th Avenue near the tennis courts – 371 30th Avenue between Clement and California – and we lived there until the mid ‘40’s when they moved to 21st Avenue to get a larger house. As I said, the first five children were all male, so we just lived in a big room together. And, as a matter of fact, when the war started a friend of my mother’s came by and left her two children because her husband was a merchant marine shipping out of Seattle, so she had to go to Seattle and live up there and work in some kind of war industry and, so, we had seven boys. [Laughs]

My sister, Kathleen, was born in 1943, so it was necessary to either add on a room or move to a larger home. I remember my mother preparing me for the change and I was not happy because I had many friends in the area. Finally the decision was made to move to 21st Avenue to a much larger house with three bedrooms and a “sun room” that served as a fourth bedroom.

LaBounty: How big a house is this?

Gallagher: Well, it was a fairly good-sized house. There were only two bedrooms, but they were kind of large rooms, and it was a two-story house with a basement and when we initially moved in there was a coal furnace and later it became gas. I remember my mother picking up the coal sacks and dragging them. I couldn’t even budge one as a kid. And then we moved to 21st Avenue between Clement and Geary – 323 21st Avenue – and probably the most significant thing about that was my father had that house “Perma-Stoned” in 1947. I don’t know if you know what Perma-Stone is.

LaBounty: Yeah, it’s a fake façade of stone. It looks like stone on the front.

Gallagher: That house still exists today and they haven’t had to paint that since. It was an outlawed process because of the fear of dry rot and things of that sort, and basically I think the painting contractors, they were really out of a job. But, anyway, we lived there. I attended St. Monica’s grammar school from kindergarten through ninth and then went on to St. Ignatius High School and I’m one of the few attendees from St. Ignatius that also attended Sacred Heart [High School]. I went to Sacred Heart a few years later and then I graduated in 1954 from George Washington High School.

LaBounty: So three high schools.

Gallagher: Three high schools, that’s right. I thought I was going to be a politician so I was trying to get around and meet a lot of people. Anyway, that was pretty much my high school. The high school thing and anything of significance was I worked entirely all the way through. In fact, that was the reason I transferred from St. Ignatius to Sacred Heart. I got a job down at Gilbert Electric. At the time it was a hardware store on O’Farrell Street between Jones and Taylor [Streets] and I was hired principally to be a stock boy, although I did deliveries: TVs, radios, and some housewares. They wanted me there at 2:30 and S.I. got out of school at 3:15 – but Sacred Heart got out at 2:45, and it was only five blocks away. That’s when I started running, because I ran from school to work every day and then I left there to go to Washington because I secured a job in a financial district pharmacy down on Leidesdorff [Street] and they wanted me to work at one o'clock and George Washington had a 4/4 plan, so I went there and could get out at twelve and make it down to work and that was the reason for all the transfers.

LaBounty: You’re the first person I’ve heard of who made their high school decisions on work decisions like that. So work was a high priority for you.

Gallagher: Well, yes, when you come from twelve kids and things of that sort, particularly going through the private schools, and I was paying my tuition – no income, no tuition. It was amazing that I still had enough time to – I couldn’t play organized sports because I couldn’t make the training thing, but I had played a lot of basketball in grammar school. In fact, our basketball team had won championships four years in a row.

LaBounty: At St. Monica’s?

Gallagher: At St. Monica’s – the CYO league. We won Northern California championships. I happened to be very fortunate that I was playing with guys who were great. Several went on to play at college—not only high school ball, but at college—and they were very, very good athletes, so… During summertime I got lifeguard jobs. I first worked as a lifeguard up at Boyes Hot Springs and then later at Guernewood Park in Russian River and much later at the Bohemian Grove for five years.

LaBounty: And these were paying jobs?

Gallagher: Yes, very lucrative paying jobs. Not only paying jobs, but also you were put up. You always got a little cottage or something. At Guernewood Park I had a nice little cabin – so that was a nice deal. The Bohemian Grove job came by way of my surfing pal. I met a guy and he approached me and wanted to know if I would be interested in being a lifeguard at the Bohemian Club for one summer. I took the job and I did it for five more years until fortunately I stopped because of my skin. I mean, I ended up with skin cancer from all that exposure.

LaBounty: Wow! Back then?

Gallagher: Yeah. Well, I was told at the time that I was very liable, you know, that my skin already had taken such a beating. A dermatologist who was a member of the club just looked at me one day and he said “you’re going to have a real problem as an adult,” and he was prescient. It’s definitely what’s happened.

LaBounty: So, you said you graduated – what year?

Gallagher: 1954.

LaBounty: ’54. I was reading your memories – your history on surfing in San Francisco. Can you tell me about the time you first heard of surfing or knew it existed? Do you remember that? I know you were talking about when you first saw a surfer, for sure.

Gallagher: Yes. You know, that’s probably less clear. I was a beach kid and around beaches long before surfing was really part of my life. We did body surf. We used to go to Baker Beach when I was in high school and we could body surf at that most westerly corner there when you can come out of the rocks. We used to love to go from China Beach to Baker Beach and often out – even as far away as the bridge [Golden Gate]—the base of the bridge. Some days you could make it all the way out there and we did the other way, going out to Ocean Beach, but that was much – that was much harder. We would go there, but most of the time you had to swim around. And a few times with fins we swam out towards the foghorn thing – [laughs] – gosh, the lighthouse.

LaBounty: Mile Rock lighthouse?

Gallagher: The lighthouse. We would swim out towards there and then decide it was too far away and swim back.

LaBounty: How did you get into this? I mean, how did you get into running around the beach and swimming and all that?

Gallagher: Well, I lived in the Richmond District and warm days, we’d go down to the beach – probably go down to see all the girls is what it was – and then you needed to do things to keep yourself active and we started running around doing things, you know.


George Schnapp, Dick Petrocchi, Carol Schuldt, Dick Bruggisser, Jim Gallagher, Pat Cunneen, Tom McFetridge and Don Gehring at Kelly's Cove "pit," 1950s. - Courtesy of Jim Gallagher

LaBounty: Just you and your buddies?

Gallagher: Yeah, yeah. And there were a couple – Pat Cunneen was one. That’s when I first met Pat Cunneen. Yeah, we were probably about thirteen. I knew him a little bit because Pat’s about two years older than I am and I knew him from playing basketball. He played for St. Anne’s and I played for St. Monica’s and, so, I knew who he was, but I didn’t know him very well until he started coming to the beach and we would swim around together and, you know, talk. And we talked of surfing. There was no board surfing to speak of at Kelly’s at the time. We did see guys body surf. There was quite a bit of body surfing, but there wasn’t board surfing. I had gone to Kelly’s and body surfed for – I’m not sure – roughly a year, but it was an experience and I had never seen a board. I remember the first day I saw a board out there was Al Peace and, you know, ohhh that was it… We’d heard about surfboarding. We hadn’t seen any movies. The movies hadn’t started yet. That was much later.

LaBounty: You were aware that people did it though.

Gallagher: That’s right. I guess people talked about it who had been to Hawaii and maybe Southern California. Because we knew about Malibu and some surfing at Malibu. Now, interestingly enough, surfing had been going on at Pedro Point [in Pacifica] since the early ‘20’s and in Santa Cruz also. There’s now an argument that Santa Cruz was the first place in the west coast, that the islanders, the princess came over, went to San Jose State or – I’m not sure what university – and did some surfing there. But, I remember seeing Al Peace surf at Kelly’s and I don’t remember anybody else and the next person I think was Frankie Freitas. But, I’m not really positive about that.

Frankie "Tapu" Freitas, 1960s - Courtesy of James Gallagher

LaBounty: When would this have been roughly? Into your high school years or after?

Gallagher: Yeah, that would have been in 1954. Yeah, I was probably a senior. In my last semester at George Washington I quit my job. I saved up enough money. I wanted to have at least one semester of high school life, and so I remember planning that for quite some time. And that period from January 1954 until June I spent a lot of time on the beach. And as soon as June was over I graduated – that Monday I went to work for the Eugene McCoy Company and pretty much a lot of that stuff came to a standstill.

LaBounty: And what did Eugene McCoy do?

Gallagher: It was a church goods and religious store. I worked there for a year and a half and then I got the job with the California National Guard and that’s when it opened everything up for me because now I was working nights and had all days off and I could go – not only I went back to school, but I spent a lot of time at the beach.

LaBounty: I think about who these guys were hanging out at Kelly’s: what kind of people were they? One thing that seems clear is that these were guys who, for some reason, either their job or their situation, could spend a day at the beach, right? Maybe they worked nights, maybe they had swing shift, maybe they were unemployed for some reason, but they definitely had some kind of situation where they could be there during the day.

Gallagher: That’s correct. In fact, definitely we talked a lot about things like vocations that would support your surfing interest and the prime ones were the fire department, teaching in junior colleges and getting all morning or late night classes, and the jobs were available. At the time, interestingly enough, one of the things that went on is we had a lot of breweries in San Francisco, so a lot of the guys when they got out of high school went to work for breweries. Now, breweries were a seasonal job. So they could work a lot – I don’t know when, what season – but then they would get laid off for six to ten weeks and they could collect unemployment because they had been working and, so, there were – I don’t know what percentage of them, but it was not an uncommon condition so that they could support themselves and still have all the daytime off. And there were guys that had night jobs and garbage men. The garbage guys – there were several guys who were garbage men ‘cause they got up at two o'clock in the morning and then they got off about ten o'clock so they could be at the beach around ten, eleven o'clock. There were people that were thinking about how they could have a life and still go to the beach every day. And then there were the bums. But even bums, you know, had some kind of scam. Some of them worked weekends – would work for the city out at Fleishhacker’s [Pool] or for one of the vendors. I’m trying to think of some of the others. Carol Schuldt used to make sandwiches early in the morning. That’s how – yeah – that was her job when she was probably in her twenties.

LaBounty: And then she’d sell them too?

Gallagher: She worked for some guy down – I believe it was off the pier – muni pier – and I think that’s where his vendors were – she’d make the sandwiches, take them down to him and…

LaBounty: He’d sell them.

Gallagher: I’m not really knowledgeable about the mechanism of her employment, but I just remember that was one of the things that she did. But there were a lot of people like Carol, who had several ways in which to, yeah, pick up some money to pay their rent. Their parents were going to throw them out of the house if they keep coming home with a suntan.

LaBounty: Right, and no money. Tell me about when you saw the first surfer. I know you were telling me you were over at Dead Man’s Point or someplace like that.

Gallagher: Well, it was Frankie and he had a paddleboard and he used to…

LaBounty: Frank Freitas?

Gallagher: Frank Freitas, yes. Yeah, “Tapu.” Yeah, he was a character. He moved to Santa Cruz and opened up a restaurant. In fact, there was a big article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, or whatever the paper down there is called, about him not so long ago – a year ago or so – and he – I think his shop was around 41st Avenue down in Santa Cruz, off in the east cliffs. But, anyway, Frankie was a part-time lifeguard for the city and he would take the paddleboard and paddle it around out there. And one day I was over there and I saw him and he was paddling and catching waves. Actually, you know, Dead Man’s has some pretty good waves. These weren’t those kind of waves at all. These were just rollers really coming in, but there was enough of it he could get the paddleboard going pretty good because it was about a 3-1/2 – 4 inch, I guess – but it was hollow and it was – I’m guessing sixteen feet or so. It was a good size, much bigger than any surfboard I was ever on, but he could get it going and then he’d get up and it was enough momentum in the wave where he could be riding this thing and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. He’s a very sensitive sort of guy. He saw that I was really taken in by all this so he asked me if I wanted to try it.

"How would I know how to do it?" And he goes, "I'll tell you how to do it." and that’s how it all started. And I don’t think I rode a surfboard for quite a while. I tried a couple of times at Kelly’s and, I mean, they were almost always disasters. The boards were terrible. They’d just get all screwed up. It wasn’t really until I started going to Santa Cruz that I actually got confident that I might be able to do this, you know, and learned it and then I came back and surfed at Kelly’s. And Kelly’s is… the waves out there vary from real mild things you could take your kids out into, to some stuff that only the most skilled and hardy water guys could handle. I mean, it can get pretty hairy out there. And when you’re first starting you don’t make all those discriminations. You know, the beach is the beach. That’s how people get into trouble, because they were out in that water last year and it was, you know, a baby trough and then they came back and, you know, maybe the same month, but this is a different day and they don’t make that distinction and now, you know, you get the tides going in and out deeper water so you get the rips that are just running through there, you know, six and seven knots.

LaBounty: I remember they used to have signs that said there was undertow and you shouldn’t even go in the water.

Gallagher: Well, that’s part of the history not just of Kelly’s, but the whole Ocean Beach. The city learned right away what a treacherous beach it could be and they had two choices, essentially. Spending a lot of money, having highly trained people out there – and it didn’t get much visitation throughout the year– or just outlawing it so that they could cover their liability as much as possible and, yes, at every stairwell you had the ordinance painted on – I don’t remember the exact words – but it just said “swimming outlawed – prohibited” and an ordinance saying you’ll be arrested. They used to put the mounted SFPD police guys out there. Julius Long was one of the horsemen and Tim Richardson was another. Tim was a surfer and a very good body surfer and made – I think he probably received three or four commendations for rescues he made – he and his horse would go in and get people out of the water.

LaBounty: So, he’s a surfer, but…

Gallagher: When he was off he’d go surfing. There were a lot of police officers. Waldo Reesink was a police officer. Pete Serna was a police officer, and so it was among the groups. One of the interesting things about Kelly’s when I first started going there is it reflected family. There were people seventy years old and kids ten that were buddies, you know, that kind of thing. If you went to Kelly’s and you were going to go in the water, this was your community and you were part of it. One of the pictures that I have—I think it is a phenomenal picture, I received it from Mike Lewis—there were a couple of guys playing their ukuleles. This was not uncommon and there are kids and there are older people, and they’re all sitting together listening to the ukulele players and they were probably singing, because they typically did. They’d be singing Hawaiian songs. And that influence came from [Cliff] Kamaka. Cliff was one of the head lifeguards at Fleishhacker’s [Pool] and he was a major influence on the beach crowd, particularly the water people. They used to go mostly to Sloat [Boulevard] and the reason the migration to Kelly’s occurred was because of the outlawing of going into the water. It became a de facto situation that the pier at Kelly’s was a line. So, north of that pier no one was going to get arrested, but if you went on the other side – and it happened on many occasions – they’d come down and harass you out of the water. There’s a famous case where Julius did call the Coast Guard. There was a whole bunch of us out surfing and two guys got arrested. I believe one was Phil Guerrero and I can’t remember who the other one was. They just didn’t think that there was going to be a problem, I think. So, the rest of us scrambled and I remember we paddled back to Kelly’s and came in so they couldn’t tell us apart.

Ukuleles attract a crowd at Ocean Beach's Kelly's Cove in the late 1940s. - Mike Lewis Collection

LaBounty: So there was an informal sort of arrangement that north of the old Olympic [Salt Water] iron pier, you could go in the water and they wouldn’t enforce the law.

Gallagher: I think part of that had to do with the amount a guy could stand up there and survey it and if there was any problems he’d go to the – at that time the police officers didn’t have radios. They would go to the blue box and then make a call for help to effect a rescue or whatever.

LaBounty: It was a manageable space for you guys to be surveyed.

Gallagher: I never heard, you know, the policy that was set at Richmond [Station] or wherever it was set, but this was a de facto thing that we all knew because if we didn’t see Julius there and there was good surf, we’d go to the break south of the pier and go surfing, and you had some great surf, particularly in the fall. I think we knew his day off too. I’m pretty sure that "he has his day off’ or "he’s on vacation’ or something like that was circulated among the surfers, and, so, it was a kind of thing that was fudged against because we all knew that VF had – when the surf got big, it was much better down there. It had a better wave.

LaBounty: When you say “VF,” you mean the area near the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] bar – the Beach Chalet?

Gallagher: The Beach Chalet is now what VF was.

LaBounty: I guess the Kelly’s community was there before the city tried to outlaw swimming and all that, but I wonder if it got a little strengthened or if there were just a little bit more people there because of the informal swimming rules.

Gallagher: Well, I think there’s people out there, going out there from time immemorial that never intended to go in the water. And what it did was merge the water people…

LaBounty: From the Fleishhacker area…

Gallagher: From Fleishhacker’s area and any place else, so it got to be a central area and then new people – word of mouth – knew where you could go surfing and the good news – it turned out – because there was always enough competent water people out there that when some newbie came out and got themselves in trouble and, you know, I don’t think I knew anybody that didn’t haul somebody in from one time or another and, so, it kind of became a self – you know – a community that monitored the situation and I don’t recall any drowning at Kelly’s ever, really.

LaBounty: I don’t know if you remember your first early experiences going to Kelly’s, but, if you do, what was it like? Did you feel any different than the other part of the beach? Was there a fire going on there? Were the characters different or was it just another part of the beach?

Gallagher: It was definitely someplace different, but I wasn’t sensitive to what it might have been down in Judah [Street] or even VF or even Fleishhacker’s, because I didn’t go out to Fleishhacker’s. I met and knew many that started at Fleishhacker’s. They talked about the period, but by that time, by ’54, there wasn’t – there was still some – but, less so. They had a pit down there that they described and there was still swimming. A lot of the Sloat [Boulevard] business were the swimmers and most of the early people, I’d say more than 50% of the early surfers, had been competitive swimmers in high school or someplace like that. So they were training at Fleishhacker’s and then Kamaka would induce them to go to the beach. I don’t know that he went in the water that much with them – but he would go out there. I only saw him down in Kelly’s two or three times, so I don’t know how much time he spent down there, but others came to Kelly’s because of this pressure from the city.

Postcard view of Fleishhacker Pool, Zan 658, 1940s? - Redwood Empire Assn. Photo

LaBounty: What was the crowd like? You were talking about different ages. We talked a little about their jobs. Was there any other sort of way the people at Kelly’s were different than any other place? Where did they all come from? Were they all Richmond kids?

Gallagher: No, that’s – I think that’s a very interesting point. Most – well, most of them were – like [Dave] Mojas and those they were from the other end of town. He went to Balboa [High School] and the later ones were like Lincoln [High School] and Washington kids or S.I. and even Sacred Heart. And, they were mostly Sunset/Richmond. I’d say the population became more so in maybe the ‘60’s, that it became a more local community. But early on it was a swimmer’s group, which kind of meant that you could have come from a lot of different places in the city, mostly city, but there were people – and there were definitely people from out of town – newbies coming in. The Lewis family, a major family that went out there and good friends with the O’Neills and the Reesinks, they had moved from Oregon, I believe, a northern community. Now I’m pretty sure it was up there. But I know O’Neill was from up there too and so there are people who are coming to the city for a different reason, for work, and then, of course, at the end of World War II the Sunset was opening up and [Henry] Doelger [Building Company] was building all the homes out there, so these homes were like suburbia almost. So that was a lot of the new people moving into town and mostly they were immigrants, but a lot of them were just, you know, from other parts of the United States that either were attracted out here because of their war experience or jobs opening up or the transition and jobs folding where they were living – all those kind of influences. But, the majority were always San Franciscans. Early on and even later – so the migrant from out of the Bay Area was a small percentage.

LaBounty: I heard a lot about people from the Crocker-Amazon-Excelsior area coming out to Kelly’s, which is kind of funny. I wonder if it’s some kind of class or ethnicity or something that drew them out here because I don’t hear so much about Mission District people, for instance. It seems like they’re all coming from Excelsior and Crocker-Amazon, if they’re not out here already, I mean.

Gallagher: Well, I think that, as I said, the early guys pretty much came out of the swimming pools – competitive swimming in high school here or a strong interest. I talked to John Kaplanis the other night – now John’s the tail end of the era that I addressed. He started surfing in 1972, but he was a Richmond District kid. His father was from the Richmond and I asked him that question – “what got you out there – because you were not a competitive swimmer,” which was not my thing. But I was a beach person. Now he said that he just saw the ocean and he just wanted to get in and so it was some kind of, you know, almost intrinsic sensibility about water and its power or magic or attraction. And I think – there might be some kind of myth – a lot of my memory of early attraction to surfing was this sort of Eden-like sensibility that here was a freedom. You’re unregulated and the truth was body surfing and all the activity on the beach – no one measured it. There were no contests at the time and it did allow for you to engage in some kind of philosophical sensibility about how this was truth and it was uncontaminated and sort of embellished and ritualized that whole experience and take it to another plane. And there was a lot of discussion. Of course we were all in that – you know – late teen/early twenties period where we were beginning to read a couple of things about philosophy and kind of awakening to this whole issue of how you might mentally structure your life or existence or your appreciation of it. So, there was no question that that was a part of it. We were, in my era, we were going through the beatnik revolution too, and there was a lot of intellectualism around. Almost everything you did, there was always the fear of nuclear disaster, so that was all melding in together. I remember one line that a guy uttered one day. We were all out at Kelly’s and the conversation was what would it be like living under Communism and this totalitarian thing. One of the more philosophical guys out at the beach who rarely said anything, I remember, it was myself or somebody who said “Hey, Tom, what would you do if the Russians took over?” And he said, “Fuck ‘em. I wouldn’t work for them either.” [Laughs] You know, he was on unemployment. So…

LaBounty: That kind of summed up everything.

Gallagher: So, it was from just the humorous aspect to the fact that it was a conversation there were people having.

LaBounty: So, you were brought up in a Catholic family. You went to St. Monica’s and such. I hear a lot about these people who were younger than you going through the late ‘60’s, and the hippies, and all that, and they’re questioning religion and questioning structures and where they fit in the universe. Probably like everybody does all the time, but you talked about this attitude coming up a little earlier. Did surfing—engaging with nature, challenging yourself, non-competitive but a physical activity—do you think surfing brings that out? Do you think it’s the kinds of people that were there brought that out? Or was it just your age?

Gallagher: I think the equation includes all those. I was very interested in that phenomenon. I watch the squirrels play in my tree and they zip around and they jump and leap to things and do all sorts of acrobatics. I think there’s something inherent in us that gets pleasure out of kinesthetic movement and mastery of it and that’s part of it. Surfing is athletic and it has a degree of eloquence to it and, so…

LaBounty: You can’t just overpower it.

Gallagher: Yeah, that’s right. You have to work with it and it – you have to learn about it, so you have to become sensitive to it. So, it takes some planning and if you don’t train, if you’re not physical, you’re not going to be able to enjoy it because you can’t paddle all day and so I think it had all the ingredients. I don’t think it’s the only thing, but it had all the ingredients to be challenging, particularly for males at that time. There were – my friend Jan MacPherson, she went out and surfed at Kelly’s and she’s still surfing. She’s just had her seventy-sixth birthday and so there are not many that have done that well, but today there’s many older surfers. San Francisco is somewhat less the case as it always has been because we have 56-52° water out here and that makes the whole thing a little more challenging. If we had even 72° water we would see a lot more older people in the water. In other places we have better gender representation and age representation.

LaBounty: I guess the early days the surfboards were so big that it would be pretty hard for a lot of women to do it if they wanted to.


Frank Lewis, Waldo Reesink, and Frank Groover with homemade board, 1950s. - Mike Lewis Collection

Gallagher: That’s right. It was hard for a lot of guys. Mike Lewis tells a story – one of the pictures I have – that they also made their own surfboards. They salvaged the balsa boards from boats that the Navy was selling at the end of the war and they pulled it all apart and the boards were eleven to twelve feet and they weighed about eighty pounds, you know. Even balsa, but they’re probably 3-1/2 to – excuse me, they’re probably 4 inches thick. And, of course, then they didn’t have the polyester resin and fiberglass has gotten a lot better so that you could pretty much seal it up, but those early varnishes that they had, the water would seep in so you might have started out with a sixty-five pound board, but six months later it weighed eighty.

LaBounty: Before we get too far away from the beatniks, I was kind of curious about that too because I think of beatniks as a very urban thing. I think of it, like, people in North Beach or in New York and they’re in cafes. I know there’s a nature aspect to it, but do you feel like – was there a crossover between the beatnik stuff that was going on downtown with Kelly’s? Or was it two separate things going on in two different paths that maybe touched on some of the same stuff? Same with the hippies, too. I always wondered about that.

Gallagher: The differentiation really has to do with how each person was manifesting themselves, so that the same sort of psychology that was molded by the culture of beatnikism – all the overriding effects producing that – at night you wore the beatnik clothes when you went to North Beach. In the daytime you wore your beach clothes. I think that while you came with your consciousness, the cultures were a little different, and so the kinds of things that would be teased out of you, the conversations you would have, would probably be somewhat affected by that. Now, with that said, I do remember four or five of us that regularly would meet in Vesuvio’s or one of those many places in North Beach and the conversations we would have there now started to be part of our conversations on the beach and, so, there definitely was hangovers, but it wasn’t – the context was also affecting it. So the topics of the day – the nuclear holocaust and the Philip Wylie, Tomorrow! and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach novels – all those kinds of terrors were with you and in certain settings they would come up. So, you know, it’s probably a part of the culture that was undeniable. It may not have always been clear. As they say, your uniforms were different from the different places and, although you might have a glass of wine on the beach, as well as in Vesuvio’s…

But, you know that was kind of interesting that the beach parties were beach parties, but much of the day wasn’t spent, you know, having beer at the beach. I remember guys having beer with their lunch and things of that sort. They ate lunch and they were going back out in the water. They lay in the sun to get warm so they could go back, because initially, we didn’t have wetsuits. The wetsuits came during that period.

LaBounty: So without that and the coldness of the water, what would your activity be? Would you be spending more time at the beach than you were probably in the water?

Gallagher: No, no. Well, you spent a little more time in the water with the wetsuit. There’s no question – you could on good days. There’s no question about that. And the other thing was how much swimming you did. You know, as you got to be a better surfer – in fact, I lived in Sharp Park for a number of years and I could get up in the morning and see some good waves out in front of the house and have to be at work at eight o'clock. Well, I would go out at six o'clock. I wouldn’t even put a wetsuit on because I knew if I swam it would be all over anyway. But, you could paddle a lot freer and everything was easier and I could only be out for forty-five minutes – I had to get to work. So, yeah – and if you go on in regularly you do toughen up and you lose it pretty quickly if you don’t go in.

LaBounty: And when you’re not in the water, what are you doing at Kelly’s? You’re just chatting and you’re warming up?

Gallagher: When you come out of the water you’re pretty much, especially the end of October, you’re pretty much glued to that fire and there was always fires. Well, not always, because the – I can’t remember when they started outlawing them. I don’t really remember that and it probably happened – in 1964 I moved down to Sharp Park and I lived on the beach there and I was married and after that probably my surfing up here would be limited to September and October, the great months when there was always really hot surf out here. During the week I would either just surf in front of my house or go to Rockaway [Beach] or Pedro Point [both in Pacifica, California].

LaBounty: But the earlier days you remember a fire pretty much.

Gallagher: Fires were pretty regular and the tires were always on them. There were always tires. I never brought one down, but there were always tires there.

LaBounty: And people would kind of just hang around the fire.

Gallagher: Yeah. You know, the fire would draw people even if they weren’t cold, so a few of the non-surfers would come down, but not a whole lot. There were a few guys that surfed a little bit, you know, and would hang around the walls. But there was definitely a wall gang.

Relaxing on the Ocean Beach wall at Kelly's Cover, 1970s. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke

LaBounty: And what was the difference in the wall gang?

Gallagher: The wall gang always had a beer can in their hand. [Laughing] Not always, but I mean it was – they’d all have their clothes on and jackets. I mean, it was cold standing out there and they stayed there all day long. They were there. The surfers would come down and mostly, you know, maybe an hour in the water, then you’d warm up and go back out again for a little while, then you’d hang around, and then you would be gone. But the guys on the wall were pretty much, you know, they might not show up as early because a lot of the surfers were there six o'clock in the morning to catch some waves before work—the wall guys would show up later but they would be there until five o'clock at night. They would outlast you, no question about that. And they didn’t come down the beach much at all and a couple of times there was a period there where there was some two or three combatant activities, you know.

LaBounty: Between the two groups or just up on the wall?

Gallagher: It wasn’t really – it was between people who were on the wall. I remember one – I think the kid was going to City College and probably was on the football team and he threw his empty bottle against the wall and glass shards sprayed across the sand. Beach folks were not wearing shoes, there were children playing in the sand, so this was a serious violation of protocol. Beach guys were playing “wall ball” in which they were running on the sand to catch a ball that was thrown against the wall. It was the other major activity at Kelly’s—wall ball. Wall ball was a huge activity.

LaBounty: What is wall ball?

Gallagher: You had to have at least two – and you could play it with – I don’t know what the limit would be. We’d play it with as many as eight and essentially the idea was throw the ball against the wall. If you threw it real hard it would go way up. They played with handballs and actually it was a rubberized – because the handball you could really pop out there. Maybe it was a racquetball, a rubberized small, little ball. I’m not sure where they were getting them. But, you’d play in teams and there were a variety of ways to do it. In perhaps the most popular version, each player was assigned a number. Whoever had the ball would have to call a number prior to throwing the ball against the wall. If eight were playing, you could call names or assign numerical codes, and so – I had to call your name or number before I threw the ball and you had to catch the ball before it hit the ground or you were out, eliminated, from that round. Last man, person, although I don’t remember any females that played the game, won.

This was almost an Olympic sport out there and there were some that were dominant players– a guy named Dave Watkins was one of the best, maybe the best – and John “Pints” Satti was equally talented– that was his nickname. He also was a noted runner, primarily a sprinter, although he finished in the top five in the famous Dipsea run from Mill Valley, up Mt. Tampalpis and finished at Stinson Beach.

Satti was associated with another Kelly’s Cove regular, a guy named John Quarts. Both were very athletic, they ran in the annual Bay to Breakers race when there were only a few hundred participants. Some people started to call him “Pints” because both were frequently seen running along Ocean Beach. The nickname may have been triggered by those that did not know his name and within the context readily associated him with Quarts. Satti was far more conspicuous and assertive. He would frequently challenge just about anyone to a sprint or a game of wall ball. Quarts was a San Francisco police officer, much less ostentatious on the beach than Satti, however, he was notably one of the great Kelly’s Cove bodysurfers.

Both were great athletes, Quarts ran the Bay to Breakers, engaged in many bay swims and basically resembled the best of what was referred to as tremendous watermen. Pints (Satti) was also a great athlete. Best known for his sprinting, but he also used to run from Kelly’s to Fleishhacker’s and was an all-round jockstrap. He remained a competitive sprinter in his seventies and raced second to world record holder, Payton Jordan.

LaBounty: Was Quarts and Pints having something to do with how much they drank or their size?

Gallagher: Yep, yep, yep. John Quarts was bigger than John Pints. John Pints wasn’t that small– John Pints was a little bigger than I am, but John Quarts was probably – ahh, he wasn’t that tall either, but he was thick – a big, thick, strong man. There was a noticeable difference in size.

LaBounty: So they were wall ball players.

Gallagher: No, I don’t believe John Quarts was– John Pints was and he was ready to play every day. The two best were John Pints and this fellow Dave Watkins and Pints was, you know, twenty years older than [Watkins] was and just a physical wonder. The principle tactic was to be deceptive as you would throw the ball and the big thing was you wound up and then you’d call “Dave” and then you’d just let it go softly. The ploy was similar to a pitcher’s “change-up” delivery. You had to make your opponent think a hard throw was coming, so they would begin to back up or run backwards. A soft throw had to be hard enough to come over a line. The skill was freezing opponents, so they couldn’t anticipate – until the ball had been released. Good players could conceal the strength of the throw, so you didn’t know whether he’d thrown it real hard or real soft. Most guys could throw it hard and if you hadn’t started back there was a good chance you weren’t going to catch it. So you kind of had to anticipate, and that was the skill that was involved. It wasn’t really very complex.

There were other aspects, and that had to do with accuracy of the hard and soft throws. The wall is convex, and by hitting precise points the ball would project at a lower arc and hit the ground sooner. So, there was more than just bouncing a ball off a wall. It was great exercise and when you played some of the better players you could be run ragged.

LaBounty: And one of these confrontations had something to do with wall ball you were telling me.


James E. Gallagher, 1957 - Courtesy of James E. Gallagher

Gallagher: Well, that’s how it started. One very warm autumn day I guess one of the guys watching the game, standing above, drinking a few beers and making fun of the players, one of these guys came onto the beach and shouted, “I’m a real athlete…” When he came down he brought a bunch of beer bottles and he’s going to bounce them off the wall. Of course, when he threw them up they shattered and glass came all over the place and there’s little kids there and plus anybody. And, so, “Guys, hey, you know, that’s not such a good idea.” “Aaahh, fuck you,” and all this kind of stuff and so they ended up – I remember it was Frankie Freitas, as a matter of fact, who first confronted this guy and they got into a fist fight. It was a helluva fight, lasting ten or more minutes. Frankie was smaller but had been a boxer in Hawaii and grew up fighting for his rights, you know, that kind of thing. But this guy was really big and early in the fight grabbed him and tried to wrestle him to the ground, but Frankie didn’t submit, and kept getting to his feet, pelting him with punches. Finally a series of punches together with exhaustion left the big fellow begging for mercy. But, anyway, there were several deals like that, pushes and shoves. Then there was a guy, I’m sure you’ve seen him in some of Dennis [O’Rorke]’s photos, Bill Paul, who was a notorious rumbler. Yeah, I mean, he was black belt, karate guy, bouncer in several bars in town and, in fact, he worked at a place called Maurice’s, no Pierre’s—Maurice was the guy who was the co-owner. It was located down on Broadway between Columbus and Kearny. Paul allegedly broke arms removing unruly clients. There were many tales of his exploits as a bouncer. Paul later went to Harvard, getting a doctorate degree in sociology, and taught at San Francisco State University and came out of the closet some years after.

LaBounty: Seems like a varied life.

Gallagher: Yeah, Bill Paul was one of the more infamous wall characters. He later died of AIDS. In his youth he was a terror. In fact, when he came onto the beach, many parted. He was not a very big guy, but he had been, actually, outlawed from judo. He was in a match – an international match in Chicago – and allegedly after being slapped by the Japanese champion four or five times he employed an illegal move and threw the Japanese participant to the floor. He was disqualified and later suspended. Slapping in Judo combat in Japan was legal, but not in International Competition. That’s right, and the champion was slapping him even though it’s not legal in international rules and the guy was warned twice and after the next warning or last time he did it, Paul – I don’t know exactly what he did – but what he did was illegal and almost killed this guy.

LaBounty: Was he looking for trouble on the beach?

Gallagher: No, I don’t think so, but he was one of those guys, you know, like the righteous Tom Mix hero, you know, he knew (or assumed he knew) what was right and what wasn’t right.

LaBounty: But he might step in.

Gallagher: Yeah, and yeah, he was frequently involved in a couple of these things. But I don’t remember him fighting surfers. He would fight these other guys, the guys who would come to the beach during hot weather, not regulars… They would fit a “bully” stereotype, often big, or bigger than most beach kids, and frequently louder and almost always counter to beach mores.

[They came in] the late SF summer – you know - hot day when people come from outer neighborhoods, the Mission, Excelsior Districts and other parts of town and bring the values of that part of town and then feel out of place because they are conspicuous and feel awkward. I only saw a couple of them, but there were several of those kinds of things and they would typically happen in warmer weather in September and October. Often drinking was involved.

LaBounty: Right, when the weather was warm and everybody started coming out and mixing. Not the regulars so much.

Gallagher: Yeah…

[Gallagher interview continues…]

Introduction | Gallagher interview, page 1 | Gallagher interview, page 2




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