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Gary Silberstein

Introduction | Silberstein interview

Conducted as part of Tales from Kelly's Cove, by Western Neighborhoods Project, May 22, 2013.

[Tape begins mid-conversation.]

LaBounty: Who were the people you surfed and socialized with at Kelly’s? What did they do when not surfing?

Silberstein: In the trades – people – I didn’t know what they did for a long time. I mean, I can name Jim Bonaldi. I’ve got a nice picture of Jim here. What did Jim do? I don’t really remember.

Gary Silberstein with O'Neill balsa and foam boards in front of hits house at 220 30th Avenue in 1960. -

LaBounty: Right, but you said, so we had Charlie Grimm.

Silberstein: Charlie Grimm was a fireman.

LaBounty: Firefighter.

Silberstein: Rod [Lundquist].

LaBounty: Rod was an academic.

Silberstein: Basically, yeah. Yeah. There was John Irwin. You ever hear of John Irwin?

LaBounty: Uh huh. That’s a new name to me.

Silberstein: Oh boy! Well, he’s famous. He became a famous criminologist. He wrote a book having to do with the – I could be wrong – the ineffectiveness of incarceration. When he died, which was about five years ago, they did a thing on NPR [National Public Radio] about him. That’s – that’s how widely known he was. John… was a thief, okay? You can read about him. I mean, he was a badass, you know, criminal. Okay? So he really knew. He had been in prison. He had been shot at. He told stories of running away from the cops and bullet holes in the back of the car and stuff. Yeah, interesting guy. Good surfer. And, by the time I knew him he was a professor at San Francisco State in criminology.

LaBounty: So, he had moved from his life of crime to…

Silberstein: Parlayed it brilliant. I mean, think of what a move that is, okay? He goes – wait a minute – I can make more money talking about crime than actually doing it and I don’t have to be in prison, I get to surf. So, John was one of that crew. Bill Hickey, of course. I’m trying to think of the other brother. Bill Hickey’s brother. Rich Hickey. Nice guy, lived in Pacifica. Good – they were all pretty good surfers. Hal Satler, Roy Lutze, Loren Wilson. They weren’t all around that fire initially. Of course, Carol Schuldt, you know, wonderful character.

LaBounty: Was Carol there when you first showed up?

Silberstein: Oh yeah. Yeah. Think about that. Here I am a kid, you know, and there she is topless around the fire and nobody’s paying much attention to it.

LaBounty: Right.

Silberstein: You know, it’s just like – oh, that’s – you know, that’s Carol. And I’d go – WOW, that’s pretty amazing.

LaBounty: You’re a teenager, right?

Silberstein: Yeah, yeah. This was good. And Carol’s – oh gosh, what was his name?

LaBounty: Tambi [Tavasieff].

Silberstein: Yeah, that’s right. Tambi. Again, a really nice guy. Tambi didn’t surf all that much. Then there was Bud Lavagnino. Do those names come up for you?

LaBounty: Yeah. Photographer, right?

Silberstein: Photographer, but he worked in the juvenile delinquent system at Juvie. He was in that south of town where they incarcerate underage kids basically. He was a good photographer. I got a picture he took on my wall here of me.

LaBounty: Is that the one with – it is Bonaldi in the background?

Silberstein: No, no. That is iconic. Jim soul arching with Seal Rocks in background.

LaBounty: Amazing shot, yeah.

Silberstein: I mean, that stands as the kind of quintessence of what we remember from Kelly’s.

James Bonaldi surfing in front of Seal Rocks at Ocean Beach, early 1960s., 1963 - Photograph by Bud Lavagnino.

LaBounty: So, you were about sixteen or seventeen when you first go to Kelly’s?

Silberstein: Yeah.

LaBounty: And, you were born, you said, March 7, 1942. So this was late 1950’s. And you go to the beach with your board or Ben Davis’s board with a giant gorilla on it and you go out, you get cold, you…

Silberstein: Wiped out.

LaBounty: You wipeout, and Charlie Grimm is there and it says to the others "he made it outside and took off." Then they let you come in and be part of the fire. Now, after that, do you go [to Kelly’s] a lot? You kind of pop in and out?

Silberstein: Pop in and out.

Yeah, I still wasn’t good enough to surf Kelly’s. Ocean Beach was/is a harsh mistress, as you know. So, I just progressively got more involved out there as I got better at surfing, and began to make friends and that became my crew. I was a golfer before that and I just let that – that just disappeared from my life. All I wanted to do was surf and so by the time I was like a junior in high school and by the time [of] my senior year, every spare moment I was out there. If there was no surf, you’d sit, bullshit on the wall. You ever hear about wall ball?

LaBounty: Yeah, why don’t you tell me about wall ball? Your version of it.

Silberstein: It was a great game. It was a wonderful game. You know, unlike normal handball the curved wall made a ricochet, so the returns were really unpredictable. The trajectory could be up if you hit low or down if you hit high. Each player’d get a number. There might be five or six people. One, two, three, four, five. So, whoever had the ball would call a number: “Three.” And if it’s your number you’re it to try and catch the ball. If you don’t catch the ball you’re out. If you catch it, then you get to call a number and so the game went. It was a great game. Hot sand. The surf’s no good. You spend hours doing that.

LaBounty: And what kind of ball did you guys use?

Silberstein: A handball. Yeah. And I think it was a handball or it might have been a squash ball, which is softer and doesn’t have quite the crazy velocity. Yeah, they’d set off a boundary between two of the lines of the concrete – so that was the court. They’d make a line in the sand or something and it was a lot of fun.

LaBounty: The beach is very different now. It’s so much more sand and you don’t really have the little steps in the wall, but, a lot of pictures there’s these sort of benches that somebody put into the wall, hanging there.

Silberstein: Yeah.

LaBounty: Those were there when you were around?

Silberstein: Yeah. Yeah. I got a couple of pictures of me and Steve Krolik and Charlie Grimm sitting up there. I don’t know who installed them.

Young surfers around Kelly's Cove bonfire at Ocean Beach, some sitting on wall benches., circa 1965 -

LaBounty: So, you kind of let golf go behind and surfing becomes your thing. What drew you to surfing? What was it…? I mean, if you had to say, what was it about surfing?

Silberstein: Just fun. Incredibly fun. It’s noncompetitive. I mean, the whole golf thing was, you know, you’re competing and I had no interest in that. The surfing – it was just you and the ocean and the wave and – what can I say – it’s just – it’s wonderful. And it just remains so. I surfed several hours yesterday. I’m still surfing a lot. So, as soon as I saw surfing, as soon as I did it… I mean, That was it! We started out with mats from Jack’s [O’Neill]. Those rubberized yellow mats. You know about those? They had the old O’Neill logo on it, which was done by a guy named Jim Fisher who lived down here (Santa Cruz). It’s still a great logo, stood the test of time. So, the first surfing at Kelly’s – now that I’m thinking about it – was with mats. Stan Ross was the premier mat surfer at Kelly’s. He was a greenskeeper at Harding Park Golf Course. And so, we surfed mat. It seems to me I was out at Kelly’s with a mat at some point, but it could have been further south – could have been VFW [surfing spot across from Golden Gate Park]– could have been someplace else. In any event, we surfed with mats for a while before getting surfboards and learned something about wave judgment and oceans, conditions and so on. So, what drew me to it – look at all the people that do it now. I just like a lot of solitude, and especially in those days you got that. I’d be out there alone a lot or with another person someplace. I mean, that’s how Steve and I got washed out. It was just the two of us and Freddy German – the guy who didn’t make it out. Ocean Beach is a big beach and for two or three people to be there is nothing.

Another regular was Gary Cefalu. He went to Lincoln [High School] and he was a wiry little guy. We called him "Surfing Louie." He was Jim Bonaldi’s buddy and, anyway, we’d go down to Pedro [Point] or down to Santa Cruz together and surf. Yeah, Kelly's was just a crew of people that you met and, you know, I don’t need anymore than this. [Laughing.]

LaBounty: And, did you, I mean, I read somewhere – I think Norm Stahl was talking about Lowell kids would also surf down at Sloat [Boulevard] – down the very southern part of the beach. Then you talk about VFW, which is part of the beach across from where the Beach Chalet [the former Veterans of Foreign Wars building] is. Did you go up and down? I mean, did you surf around Dead Man’s [Point]? Did you go anyplace else?

Silberstein: Lowell kids in my day they didn’t surf. There was a guy named Denny [Lewis]– a very athletic guy who surfed, but basically kids from Lowell didn’t surf. Lincoln – maybe Washington [High School]. So, that was later, okay? Yeah, sure, we would go up and down the beach and we’d go to Pedro [Point], or Santa Cruz if we had gas money to make it down there, if we had a car that would make it there. But mostly it was Kelly’s. That’s where you knew you could meet your friends and see the cars there and… Did anybody mention Rod Lundquist’s brandy box?

LaBounty: Brandy box? No, tell me about the brandy box.

Silberstein: Well Rod – first of all, one of the nicest things about Kelly’s was intergenerational. In other words, here I am sixteen and here are these guys – these are older guys. Charlie and Rod and so on — they’re, twenty-five, whatever years old. They took the kids in – I mean, everybody was a surfer. It simply didn’t matter. So Rod – it was cold, we surfed all winter, and he had a beautiful mahogany box, and it had a nice bottle of brandy or Courvoisier or something like that – and then two really nice crystal glasses, okay? And it would be a cold day, you’d sit in the car and he’d say, “Let’s get the brandy box out.” You’d open the brandy box and out’d come the glasses and you’d pour it. Not a lot – you’re not getting loaded on it, but just sitting there in the car and it’s cold as could be outside, and sipping some brandy.

LaBounty: That sounds a lot more refined than most stories I hear about drinking at Kelly’s.

Charlie Grimm talking with a group at the Ocean Beach wall. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke

Silberstein: Yeah, I mean the parties – Charlie Grimm’s Christmas parties – you’ve probably heard about them. Oh, back to Rod for a moment. He was an outstanding big wave rider. I recall him out on a twenty-foot day off VFW all by himself. All by himself – on a gray, gray, forbidding day. He had a compass glassed into his board for when the fog came in and he couldn’t see the shore! He took off, wiped out and we didn’t see him again for ten or fifteen minutes.

LaBounty: Well, tell me, Charlie’s parties.

Silberstein: They were the best. Charlie, he loved to party. He enjoyed his alcoholic beverages, but I would not say he was an alcoholic. He was a huge personality, a huge guy, just full of life and everything he did was pedal to the metal, including drinking. I remember one of his parties where he just ended up passed out – he had them at his place – he fell on a table or something and he had a lamp on top of him and it was broken. People just moved him aside and kept on partying. They were one of the highlights of the year for Kelly’s people and they were fueled by Charlie’s Surfer’s Eggnog. And I’m going to give you the recipe.

LaBounty: Yeah! Okay.

Silberstein: How many fingers am I holding up?

LaBounty: Three.

Silberstein: Because this is important.

LaBounty: Three.

Silberstein: Okay. One-to-one-to-one. Half gallon eggnog ice cream, half gallon whole milk, half gallon rum. That’s a party drink – I’m telling you. I make it every year now in memory of Charlie.

LaBounty: Half gallon of each.

Silberstein: Yeah, of each. I cut back for adults. I mean, it’s insane. But the good thing about it is it’s not cloying and it’s food, so you don’t get sick. You just get really, really drunk. But you can keep on going. You can party all night on it. He knew some people who made ice cream, and he had specially made eggnog ice cream for this. He had a blender and he would make gallons of this stuff and you could drink it all night.

LaBounty: Like a shake almost.

Silberstein: It’s cold. I say – eggnog – you think of eggnog, you think of kind of a heavy, rich, creamy. This is not rich. This is just – it’s really good. And, so Charlie Grimm’s eggnog lives on. I give the recipe out because it’s my way of remembering him.

LaBounty: And where did he live? Where was the party?

Silberstein: He lived up off of Twin Peaks at the time and then Bill Barrington, Bill and Sonia, they would have parties at their place too, but not the Christmas party. That was always at Charlie’s. And, Charlie’s was just a great party. He loved to dance. This was pretty much before drugs hit. Drugs came in the – I would say – whenever the Haight Ashbury started to go off, probably ‘60’s – late ’63 – early ’64 – started to get that happening and drugs just, I would say, decimated the Kelly’s Cove crew. I mean, if you want to ask who these people are, including myself, kind of outcasts, you know? I just didn’t fit in at school. I didn’t – I mean I had friends. It wasn’t like I was not social, but they weren’t people I really felt kin to all that much, but the Kelly’s people I liked, you know, and so we were – I mean, why were we there? These were people – this is the Outside Lands, right? The Kelly’s crew were Outside People!

LaBounty: Well, that’s a common thing too that people talked about: people at Kelly’s might be outsiders someplace else, but they had a community there.

Silberstein: Exactly.

LaBounty: Right?

Silberstein: Well, almost nobody surfed in those days and so you couldn’t relate to people. If you haven’t done surfing you’re clueless, you know. It’s something like any other intense personal activity. I don’t care what it is. It could be something academic. But it’s a special thing and that brought us all together. So, yeah, I mean all of us in some way didn’t fit in elsewhere and there it was.

LaBounty: And when you say the drugs came and kind of changed the dynamic…

Silberstein: So, I think a lot of these people were just very vulnerable. LSD hit hard. Marijuana not so much. It was basically marijuana and LSD. Not hard drugs, at least not to my knowledge. Alcohol was always real big. Dan Lenahan – did I mention him? For some reason, this guy – he did not surf, but you talk to [Jim] Gallagher about him – he was an alcoholic and he made no bones about it. He was always there. There were other people there that didn’t surf. Slim, okay? You probably heard of him. There was a guy – Henry – Holocaust survivor. He always showed his numbers on his arm. He was out there a lot. He didn’t surf. He just hung out. Oh, man… Dutch Schultz. Dutch. You ever hear about him?

He didn’t surf. We played chess a lot. And Dutch was a really good chess player. What I know about him is that he was an enforcer for the waterfront union.

Dutch Schultz, Ocean Beach chess master. Playland behind. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke

LaBounty: The Longshoremen?

Silberstein: I guess so. He had been in San Quentin for a while. He says, “I had a long term to learn – chess, that is.” But he was real nice. He says, “You know, you’re a really nice kid. You’re very polite.” I said, “Thanks, Dutch. You’re really cool.” John Wu and he were very close.

LaBounty: Did John Wu surf?

Silberstein: Oh yeah. John surfed. Dutch didn’t surf but he was always out there and kind of part of the crew.

LaBounty: Yeah. And then when the drugs are coming in, these Haight Ashbury kids are coming in, are they coming out to the beach too?

Silberstein: No, no. I would say – Haight Ashbury, forget about it.

LaBounty: They’re not near the beach.

Silberstein: No, no. It’s just the drugs. People suddenly became, you know, wow, this is amazing. You can get high. I don’t know. Maybe people getting older too, but the at a time when most people that age that are going to be middle class citizens, they’re going to school, they have some idea about what they might want to do with their lives. You know, they’re tracking. These people didn’t track like that. I mean very few of us had any idea what we wanted to do and so consequently it was fertile ground for some distractions and drugs were an incredible distraction.

LaBounty: So your dad – the dentist – what did he think about you going down to the beach and hanging out with people drinking beers and surfing and all that?

Silberstein: You know, I look back on that and I go “isn’t that amazing?” He never said a word. He didn’t know about drinking, etc. Didn’t have a clue.

LaBounty: Well, he knew you probably went surfing though, right?

Silberstein: He knew that and he said – he insisted that I carry that life pack. He said, “Ocean Beach is dangerous. Don’t go out alone and be careful,” whatever. But, in those days people didn’t have a clue…

LaBounty: What their kids were doing.

Silberstein: Basically we weren’t doing anything. It was not a juvenile delinquent group at all. It was healthy. People surfed. You were in top physical condition. But the mix of people… My dad was very – how would I say it – he had a lot of different friends from all strata of society. So, it wouldn’t have bothered him. It wouldn’t have bothered him at all, I’m sure.

So, anyway, yeah, the drugs – that changed in the mid ‘60’s. In spite of that the Kelly’s attraction held together because, you know, there was still has a rich core of people that survived and then did reasonably well.

LaBounty: For sure.

Silberstein: Stayed alive. Dan Lenahan, okay, was the guy I was saying was alcoholic, he was kind of the personification of alcohol. But he was never drunk. He never misbehaved. He jumped off the bridge and killed himself. He was living with his mother and he just never, never got his life together and was a sad guy. Nice guy. Nice guy.

LaBounty: You know, so we’re talking about some people surf, some people just come to the fire. I remember Carol telling me these older sort of Russian people would hang out there sometimes and Bulgarian women and I don’t even know. She seemed to know a lot of different people, over the years of course.

Silberstein: Well, Tambi was – what’s his nationality? He’s an Eastern European fella.

LaBounty: Yeah, you’re right. And then you’re talking about wall ball and playing chess. Any other activities? I know it seemed like people hanging out at the wall, you know, might just have been socializing up there. Any car culture or anything like that?

Silberstein: Well, surf cars.

LaBounty: Surf cars.

Silberstein: Yes, for sure. Bill Hickey had a woody. Oh wow, that was cool. Well, Bill Barrington got a Volkswagen – the first microbus, okay? Early on. Wow, that was amazing. First of all, that a young person could buy a car. And he took out a loan. I didn’t know that you could do that. Wow! Because he worked. He was older and in construction. But, yeah – cars were fabulous. They could move our surfboards around.

LaBounty: You went there in the ‘50’s – the bonfire was there already.

Silberstein: Yeah.

LaBounty: And – so – where were we? Did you ever go to Fleishhacker Pool?

Silberstein: No.

LaBounty: No? I heard that some of the guys that used to be lifeguards down at Fleishhacker were big Kelly’s instigators in the early days.

Silberstein: They were in early days. Because Jack (O’Neill) would hang out with those guys. Also, there were some Hawaiians that were there. That’s before my time. Fred Van Dyke was an early Kelly’s guy who I did not know at that time. He had left already, but we became acquainted. He joined our surf club, Big Stick Surfing Association here in Santa Cruz many, many years ago. Have you ever read his books?

LaBounty: Yeah. Yeah, I have.

Silberstein: The one about him growing up is pretty amazing and it is an outcast story. That’s how he came here. I guess he got sick or something and couldn’t play football?

LaBounty: Yeah, at Lincoln High School. So he went swimming at Fleishhacker – swimming bridged to surfing. Put it that way. You talked about going to Playland before you ever went to the beach. When you went to Kelly’s, was Playland at all anything to do with Kelly’s? Did you guys go over and eat or anything like that?

Silberstein: Bull Pup.

LaBounty: You’d go over to the Bull Pup to eat.

Silberstein: Sure. Enchiladas there.

LaBounty: I just kind of wondered because there’s this little nexus of activity. You’ve got Playland, you’ve got Sutro Baths, you’ve got the Cliff House, I guess, and Kelly’s. I just wondered if there was any overlap or – you know – or you guys only go to Kelly’s?

Silberstein: Kelly’s and the Bull Pup. Got some food. If you’re hungry. Oh, and It’s It [ice cream bars], of course. Yeah.

LaBounty: You’d go get an ice cream.

Silberstein: Yeah. Get the calories, right?

LaBounty: Just to ward off the cold, eh?

Silberstein: Yeah. Oh yeah. You’d get a couple of hours out in the winter surf out there and you’re just ravenous, you know? So, yeah. And, even though ice cream is cold, it’s a pretty rich treat, so… Also would drink a pint of half-and-half.

LaBounty: Other than Carol, were there any girls? Were there any women involved?

Silberstein: Very few. Very few. Has the name Doug McDonnell come up?

LaBounty: No.

Silberstein: An important guy. He was an Englishman. He was from Liverpool. He’s still alive. He’s down in San Clemente near where Bill Hickey lives, but he had a girlfriend and she would come out. Jan MacPherson. She was an excellent surfer. She was from Southern California, but would come up and surf like the guys. She was that good, but she was not local. It’s not an activity that women did in numbers until about ten years later.

LaBounty: Boards were big. That’s one thing back then.

Silberstein: Yeah, and it just – I mean – you had women surfing in Hawaii and Southern California because of Malibu, because of that beach scene. The weather [at Kelly’s] is just not conducive to hanging out at the beach. You’ve got to love it. It’s got to be something really deep and important to make you do that. There were gals, wives and girlfriends, who would come visit from time to time. They’d pick somebody up or see them, and then they’d come down to the fire and have a beer or something like that.

But, oh, Charlie would bring — it’s a fire tradition — on cold days he’d bring a jug of Gallo haut sauternes and he’d put it by the fire. Then we’d go surfing and by the time we got out it was – not steaming hot, but hot enough and so we – here we are kids, we all drank wine. Again, it wasn’t to get loaded; it was just hot and it’s alcohol and it was good. But that jug of wine by the fire was something he would do and it’s like – wow – these are adults and they’re treating us like – not like kids. It’s like they really like us, you know. We’re just kids who were accepted.

LaBounty: Right. And these other kids your age, did you go to school with them?

Silberstein: They were all kids I didn’t know. Nobody that I knew from my high school did this. The people I met at Kelly’s— that’s who they were, you know. I just knew them from there and they were from all over the city.

LaBounty: When you were going to Lowell did you have a job? [shakes head ‘no’.] Then when you get out of Lowell what happened? Are you still going to Kelly’s? Do you leave town?

Gary Silberstein in Hawaii in front of the Outrigger Club, with an O'Neill blue "foamy" board. -

Silberstein: Leave town? Oh, no. I went to Cal [UC Berkeley] and I was pre-med and so all through college I surfed. I had my schedule set up where I’d try to get no classes on Friday or get them done by noon so I could get out to Kelly’s and surf all weekend. Sometimes if it was good I’d cut classes Monday morning and surf. And I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t doing well, you know? [Laughing.] I thought I was studying hard, because when I was there I did study. I didn’t flunk out. I got B’s and C’s. But, Kelly’s was the center of my life in those days: it was just get out of Berkeley fast as you can, go to Kelly’s and hang out with my friends and go surfing.

LaBounty: Right, that was it. Well, that’s the other thing. People talk about surfing, it’s, like, you talk about how it was noncompetitive, just sort of you and nature, and I guess that’s a part of it too?

Silberstein: Huge.

LaBounty: It’s you interacting with nature, with the ocean, with the sand and the sea and all that. So, I guess it draws people and it kind of gets in peoples’ bones, right?

Silberstein: Yeah, it rules your life! I went to Cal and I was pre-med, but didn’t get into medical school. Big surprise, right? I mean, here I am surfing my brains out. I had a girlfriend in the city. So, by that time I said that – ’62, ’63, ’64 – I could see that people my age were not going anywhere, a lot of them, you know, the drugs and what not. And so I made a conscious decision to leave California and get away from the beach. I wouldn’t say I was wrecking my life, but I realized if I stayed I could never make anything of myself. I had little self-discipline. So, I went to Minnesota to graduate school and stayed back there eight years – broke the surfing habit.

LaBounty: You kind of felt stuck. Stuck here with the surfing and…

Silberstein: I wouldn’t call it stuck.

LaBounty: I mean, stuck as far as you thought you needed to go somewhere else, right?

Silberstein: It’s an addiction. Plain and simple. Like, right now, I know what’s going on, you know? I know what the tide’s doing and I know that it’s a swell and so on. I surf – that’s why I’m here.

LaBounty: In Santa Cruz.

Silberstein: In Santa Cruz. My dream was to somehow make it here and surf my life away and I never cared what else I did. It happened I got to be a scientist. That was cool, you know? And, I’ve had a nice time doing that, but the core of it is surf. I went to Santa Barbara after I graduated from graduate school and did a post-doc down there and I could surf, right? And then a guy said a job opened up here – I didn’t care what it was. You know, seriously. I didn’t. I knew how to be a scientist in a lab, right? I said, “I don’t care. If you’ll hire me.” So he hired me. Cool, now I’m in Santa Cruz. So, get this. About a month after we sold our home in Santa Barbara and we’ve settled here in Santa Cruz, my boss says, “Oh, by the way, I’m taking a job at Harvard and I’m moving a lab back there. You know, of course, it’d be great for your career.”

LaBounty: Come to Harvard.

Silberstein: Come to Harvard, you know. You get to be a scientist at Harvard. I said, “No thanks." He totally didn’t understand I’m here to surf. So, I just bailed.

LaBounty: But you were able to stay.

Silberstein: Oh, yeah.

LaBounty: No surfing in Minnesota I guess?

Silberstein: I loved it. Minnesota is a wonderful place. I don’t know if you’ve been there or not. It’s beautiful and I had a good time there. But the discipline. Winter enforces it. Plus, you know, I was older. More mature and had goals and things. But, against that background there was always “I know where I’m going,” you know, and it’s to surf. Anyway, you wanted to know about the washout.

LaBounty: Tell me what happened. When you and "Zen Buddah" [Steve Krolik] nearly died after getting swept to sea. This is in December of 1959?

Silberstein: You know, it was just one of those days among hundreds of days with no description and you end up at the beach and there’s some surf and wait for somebody maybe to go out with. And so it was Steve Krolik and Fred German were there and they wanted to go surfing. Okay, that sounds fine. And it was gray and kind of – I don’t think – it must not have been that intimidating or we wouldn’t have gone out.

LaBounty: Right. Because there were days, I’m sure, where you were, like, “we can’t go out there.”

Silberstein: Oh, more often than not. You know, you’d learn by hard experience out there that sometimes you just didn’t want to be there, but this must not have been one of those days, so we went out and Fred didn’t make it out for some reason. Steve got caught in a rip north of the old Olympic Club pipeline at the foot of Balboa [Street]. I was south of it when he started getting swept. He got into trouble and he must have called for help and I paddled – I had the board, he was bodysurfing — and I paddled towards him parallel to the wave train. Then a wave hit me broadside and took my board away and then I was in more trouble than he is, actually, because he had fins on.

I’ve got nothing. So, at that point we started being swept north and west. In those days, as you said, the beach was so different. Seal Rocks – now you can walk – almost walk out to them at low tide, real low tide. In those days Seal Rocks was in the middle of the ocean. I have pictures of waves breaking on the stairs, you know. So, you know, that was fifty yards out, hundred yards out. So we were out in the ocean and we’re getting swept toward Seal Rocks. So, we talked about it – talked to ourselves. Said, well, should we try and get up on Seal Rocks, you know. And, so, picture Seal Rock – when you’re right up next to it in the water –it’s big, it’s massive.

LaBounty: Right, looming over you.

Silberstein: Looming over and then the surge on the rocks goes up maybe six, eight feet, and here you are and there’s barnacles and it looks awful, like death. And we had no full wetsuits. We were exposed. So the idea of getting really cut up badly and beaten on the rocks was something we thought we’d better avoid, so I said I think we’d better swim away from this and we did, which took us west of Seal Rocks, northwest of it. At that point we were screwed. We tried to body surf in. We couldn’t make any headway against that current – I think when it hits the corner it just goes north and west and there we were and we started getting swept out and I had that inflatable life pack. I said, “You think we need to be rescued?” and he goes, “yeah, I think we do.” That was embarrassing. You know, it was just like, “Jesus. People will find out about this.” And, of course they did! So I popped the life pack. Once inflated, it blew up into this yellow inflated sausage, which we used to try and attract attention in the Cliff House. We didn’t know if anybody saw us, but somebody did because they called it in unbeknownst to us. We just drifted and drifted and an hour and a half or so later we were out in the – you know, halfway to Marin County off Point Bonita.

LaBounty: Yeah.

Steve Krolik and Gary Silberstein after being rescued by the Coast Guard, December 22, 1959. - San Francisco Chronicle?

Silberstein: And, Steve, he was dying. He was quite blue and he couldn’t move anymore. He was, like – he was awake, but he was not – the Coast Guard said he would have lasted about another twenty minutes before he died. We were holding on to each other. But I figured that after Steve died, I was going to swim to Marin. We had drifted about halfway to Point Bonita and were in the main shipping channel. To give you an idea of our position, we could look back through the Golden Gate main channel and see Alcatraz. Clean view.

LaBounty: Right in the middle almost.

Silberstein: Pretty much. Yeah, it was impressive. It was a nice view, if it weren’t for the circumstances. So, at that point the Coast Guard showed up and saved our lives. I don’t think – I've thought a lot about it and I don’t think I would have made it to Marin – but while adrift I never thought I was going to die out there.

LaBounty: But you thought Steve might.

Silberstein: He was very hypothermic. He was becoming unresponsive and sleepy and blue-colored. So we were holding onto each other. But, in my mind I figured was going to spend the night out there, okay? And, I thought, I'll make it over to Point Bonita. In retrospect, even if I got there my troubles wouldn’t have been over. That’s a rough coast. It’s really hideous. But, there it is. I mean, it didn’t happen – it didn’t come to that.

LaBounty: And then how soon after did you go surfing again?

Silberstein: I don’t know.

LaBounty: Were you a little more scared?

Silberstein: Well, no, but – but it drove home a point and that is I never went out there again unless someone else was in the water and I could see what was happening to them. If they’re paddling like crazy south, I know the current’s going north and then maybe I’ll go out at VFW or someplace where I could have a chance of getting out of the water, but never go out in the corner when I see people doing that. Because it still happens. I’ve got some clippings and I’ve actually talked to two guys — I think it’s an account in that story. Yeah, two guys it happened to and they climbed up on Seal Rock. They made it out. Full wetsuits would have helped. Full wetsuits and booties I probably would have tried it.

LaBounty: Yeah, when did you get your first wetsuit?

Silberstein: Probably – as soon as I started surfing. ’55 – ’56 – ’57. Jack made it, you know. Back in those days they were made like tailored clothes. Jack had seemed like about twenty-five measurements. Here – here – here – here – here – here – here. I mean, the idea that you could do men’s ready-to-wear for wetsuits was – he might have gotten it from Ben [Davis], I don’t know. But, you know, back in those days each one was made to order.

LaBounty: Expensive?

Silberstein: I’m not sure – probably twenty-five bucks – thirty bucks – something like that. But that was a lot of money. A surfboard was eighty dollars. My first board was eighty bucks. Balsa.

LaBounty: You got your first surfboard from him too? Right, yeah?

Silberstein: Yeah. [Ben Davis’s] family is interesting. Interesting history. His dad, why is he in the clothing business, you might ask, especially work clothes. Well, his dad was – one of his partners was Levi Strauss and his dad invented the rivet. [More information on Jacob Davis.]

LaBounty: Wow!

Silberstein: You can look up the patent. Matter of fact, I think I had that somewhere, but…if you talk to his daughter – her name’s Patricia.

LaBounty: Pretty early on.

Silberstein: So, his grandfather stayed in San Francisco.

LaBounty: 1850’s

Silberstein: So, it was his grandfather, okay, who was partners with Levi Strauss. Did he get super rich, you ask? No. But, I’m told it was a very friendly relationship. I mean, I’ve talked to his daughter a lot about this and his grandfather did very well, and had the patent for the rivet. He was the buyer for the tent cloth to make the Levis and shipped it up to the gold fields. So, they needed somebody in San Francisco to manage that end of the business, which he did. He said that the pants kept coming back with pockets torn, okay? They weren’t sewn up. And, so, he thought – somehow he had seen these little rivets and he thought — somehow he had this stroke of brilliance — maybe if I put little rivets in the pockets the pants will last longer. History was made.

LaBounty: Yeah, I didn’t even know that.

Silberstein: Yeah, I didn’t either. I mean, I knew about Levi Strauss, but I didn’t know about Jacob Davis. But pretty cool story.

LaBounty: Ben Davis ends up being a maker of jeans and all this stuff too, but I guess there’s no patent issue there or mix up…

Silberstein: No, none at all and as his daughter tells the story they were very amiable partners right up until they died.

LaBounty: So, did they live in Sea Cliff? Is that what you said?

Silberstein: Ben lived out on – let’s see – 42nd [Avenue] between Balboa and Anza [Streets], something like that, out that way, and then when he started to make more money… The business wasn’t doing well, apparently, through the war years or maybe after the post war years and he built it up – he got more modern lines of clothing. And then he bought a home on Lake [Street] and 24th [Avenue] or 25th and Lake. A really lovely, nice home. And, we lived on 30th and right off Lake, so the families knew each other anyway from somewhere. I was getting old enough to surf – it dovetails with what I told you in the beginning. [Before taping, Silberstein related he first surfed borrowing Ben Davis’s board, which had the company logo of a smiling gorilla on it.] He had a really nice waterski boat and he was always waterskiing, so he introduced us to that. That’s how the families got together – everybody thought this was great. Great for kids and it was. We had a lot of fun with that for a long time.

But anyway, I don’t know about the rest of the washout story… What do you want to hear?

LaBounty: I just kind of wanted to hear about it since it was such a well documented thing and also, I don’t know if people get, especially talking about surfing, get that close to dying. And it happened when you were so young I just wondered what impact it might have had, especially since you’ve been a lifelong surfer. So, it seemed like an important story in some ways, but you were probably young enough I guess it wasn’t, right? It was kind of an adventure.

Silberstein: Now that I’m older I realize how lucky I am to be alive. Pure luck. Really. Had it not been for the life pack and the Coast Guard and somebody calling it in. There was a sequence of fortunate events that saved our lives. I look back on that now and it affects me, you know. I think – wow!

Gary Silberstein and Steve Krolik at Kelly's, fifty years after being rescued by the Coast Guard., 2011 -

LaBounty: Do you get free drinks from Steve for all that?

Silberstein: No, but he thanked me. I spoke to him a month or two ago. He said, “Thanks for saving my life.” Well, I guess I did, didn’t I?

Because if he hadn’t – it’s interesting speculation, but if he had not gotten in trouble, would I have been swept out? – I would have kept the surfboard and not swept like he did. Reckon I could have made it in at Sutro's. So, it may well have been his fault. Damn you, Steve. [Laughing.]

LaBounty: So, you talked a little bit about how Kelly’s changed – how drugs affected it – how else did it change? It’s not the same today – right? Is it the same? Is it different?

Silberstein: It feels the same.

LaBounty: It feels the same?

Silberstein: It’s the same mix of people. Yeah. I mean, I think the spirit of it hasn’t changed at all. No, because people love surfing and the ocean and enjoy a good time, enjoy having a lot of fun.

LaBounty: And Carol still goes out there.

Silberstein: Yeah, did you see Surfer’s Journal? Beautiful article about her. This goes back a year or so ago. Yeah, I mean, I haven’t – I don’t go there anymore, but once – I go to the reunion once in a while. It’s – the wave has changed.

LaBounty: Yeah, we talked about how the beach topology changed, right?

Silberstein: Yeah, you know, I don’t understand the dynamics of why that happened or what caused it. Somebody knows, I’m sure. But, in my mind it’s a much heavier wave. The last time I surfed it good was ’03. Caught it on a big day. I thought I was going to die out there. It was – I’ll tell you the story if you want.

LaBounty: Yeah.

Silberstein: Surflog date: October 26, 2003. It was 75 or 80 degrees – gorgeous day and there was a good-sized swell. I pull up to the beach and it’s just gorgeous, gorgeous waves and I go “I’m on this.” So, I grab my board, suit up – the only thing I didn’t fully appreciate – the way the sand is, you know, it kind of goes out. So, the waves when you’re above the surf look smaller than it is. So, as I get down to the water, I go, wow, it was double overhead easy. I’m going, “whoa, okay, – that’s interesting.” So, I caught a lull and paddled out and it was like right off just north of Balboa and I’m sitting out there. It’s gorgeous, amazing, just A-frames, you know. Couldn’t have been better conditions. And this big wave comes in and, when I say big – double, you know, 10 – 12 foot face easy. Pow! I hop into this thing and it just pitches out over me. It’s a lefthander and I could see – when you get barreled it kind of forms a horseshoe and I could see it starting to throw and I make it all the way, down - I can step off in the sand almost. I say, “Bring it ON! This is freaking good!” Amazing. So I paddle back out, making it to where I was before, and I’m sitting there, waiting to do this all over again, and I look out and on the horizon I see a line of kind of darker blue color – okay? And I just know from living there, I’m going – my mind goes, is that a wind line, or is that a set? I was paddling – before that thought crossed my mind I was paddling as fast as I could.

LaBounty: Your body already knew.

Silberstein: My body knew. Well, you just don’t take chances. It doesn’t matter. If I’m wrong, wonderful. If I’m right, holy shit! It was a set and it was probably in the – I don’t know – fifteen-foot range. It was huge and I just remember paddling over the first one and then there was one behind it and another and another, okay? And at this point I realize that I’ve got no wind left whatsoever. If I have to go down, I’m going to die. That’s it. I mean, I’ve got no breath. I’m completely winded and there’s another wave, okay – and I’m so tired – so tired – and I scratch this. I realize that I’m dead if I cannot get over this wave and I make it over it, obviously. Here I am. And the ocean is just flapping, calm, like a lake. Inside is carnage! Boards flying. I mean, the set just cleaned everybody out.

LaBounty: You were on the other side of it.

Silberstein: I made it out. Maybe somebody down the beach did, but nobody where I was in my immediate vicinity made it out and I just went – I just flopped on the board. I was just exhausted and I went in. I said, you know, I can’t do this anymore today. I know that I would have drowned had there been another wave or two on me. I would have been held down. There was no hope of survival, given my condition at that point.

LaBounty: So now you’re over seventy and you’re out there surfing. What – do you see other people your age range out there? I mean, not in Kelly’s necessarily, but here in Santa Cruz?

Silberstein: There are people in their sixties and…

LaBounty: You feel like you’re at the top age range of surfers?

Silberstein: Oh, for sure. Yeah, definitely. But, again, the wonderful intergenerational thing about surfing is – when I’m there, first of all, nobody knows how old I am and nobody gives you anything – that’s for damn sure. Nobody goes, “oh, sir – I see you’re an older gentleman. Would you like a wave?” Bullshit, you know! So, I’m out there competing with teenagers, not all that successfully if there’s a lot of them, but, I still get waves and, so, yeah, I guess chronologically I’m way up there, but, by God’s grace, physically I can do this. I’m still able to do it.

LaBounty: What’s the ratio that you go, “I’m too old for this to – I feel so young for having come out here and being able to do this?”

Silberstein: I don’t know.

LaBounty: Is it 50/50 or do you feel more like, “I just feel young, I’m great that I can do this” or you know.

Silberstein: I had a great time yesterday and – so, that the great feeling of surfing lasts for a little while. It’s like sex, you know. It’s like it’s great when you do it and then you want to do it again as soon as you can and it doesn’t last for all that long, you know. I can still do this. Surfing is the same way. You have to get that fix and living here I really get to do that. You know, what I’ll do when it’s over? I don’t know. But it isn’t yet, so…

LaBounty: What have we missed? What did we not talk about that should be – that needs to be said or documented or… Whether it’s your philosophy or an anecdote or anything that you think we missed and we can always do this again or you could – we could correspond.

Silberstein: I don’t know. Just – I just think Kelly’s was such a liberating experience, you know. Beautiful. Great people. That’s all I can say and they remain so. They come back year after year to this piece of sand for the friendship and the sea and memories.

LaBounty: In talking to people, it’s interesting how – I don’t know if my opinion has changed, but it seems – it seems interesting that a place that everybody recognizes is a difficult surfing spot still draws so many people and, but I guess there’s some pride in that there.

Silberstein: Oh yeah. If you tell people that’s your home break, oh yeah. “O.B!” Way to go, O.B. We didn’t call it that, but that’s what it is now. I don’t know if you saw this latest issue of Surfer’s Journal, but are you aware of what happened January 19 with the Mavericks weekend, the swell. Okay, you are. You’ve seen the video. Did you actually see the waves?

LaBounty: No, I saw it – I wasn’t there. I saw a video of it.

Silberstein: In all my lifetime of seeing that place, I’ve seen it that big, but never that perfect.

LaBounty: Do you ever go out down there?

Silberstein: At Sloat? Sure, well, yeah, but not like that. I mean, you know, we surfed everywhere.

LaBounty: At Mavericks?

Silberstein: No, no. On the north side of Mav’s, around Pillar Point, Ross’s Cove named after Stan. We’d go out there a few times. You could drive up to where the radar equipment is now. It wasn’t fenced off. It was a lovely beach and you could go down there and enjoy yourself and go surfing, but nobody that I knew surfed outside Ross’s. So, where am I going with this?

LaBounty: Yeah, we were talking about Mavericks…

Silberstein: Oh, oh, this latest Surfer’s Journal, which I have here there’s a big story about that weekend. That was a historic swell. No question about it. That’ll go down – people will talk about that –remember seeing it.

LaBounty: Well, thank you so much.


Introduction | Silberstein interview

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