Meet L.A. Lifeguard Fred Colby
The eternal flame of his cigar glowed like a volcanic ember as he rode waves of all sizes. Buzz-cut and bushy eye-browed Fred Colby was a heroic legend at California beaches from the 1940s through the 1960s. His headquarters was the #5 lifeguard tower at D&W beach.
The initials D&W either stood for Dockweiler, as in Isadore Dockweiler Beach, or two of its early star surfers Mike Doyle and Jim Whicker who painted their initials on the jetty.
At D&W, Lifeguard Colby was the “King of the Roost.” He attended to most of the Westchester and Playa Del Rey surf crowd.
* * * *
On Good Friday, March 27, 1964, Lifeguard Colby was asked to take the Jeep and to patrol the local beaches for late night grunion hunters, partiers, and submarine race spectators. Civil Defense wanted all the beaches cleared by 10 p.m. Tidal waves might be racing toward the Los Angeles coast, all the way from Alaska. It should have been easy enough job. Fred Colby was to clear the Playa del Rey beaches.
Six hours later, three empty-headed clods would decide to paddle out at Ballona Creek, at 4 a.m., on Saturday morning, March 28, and….
Earlier That Week – “Mediocre Thursday,”
4 p.m., March 26, 1964
On the day before the Alaskan Earthquake, Mike Paulin, Spaz Barnett, and Will Elder were holding their most impressive surf sacrifice to date. Instead of burning the usual miniature 6-inch long balsa surfboards lovingly carved from wood bought at Carl’s Toy Store, they decided to burn Mike Paulin’s full-size 9’6″ board, an old Jacobs POS (piece-of-shit). Mike was stoked because he would soon be getting a new custom 9’6″ Dewey Weber on Saturday. “Just like the big hot-doggers with the red jackets!”
Somewhere in the distance, the new surf song, “Chunky” by the Crossfires, played….
The three gremmies had barely had gotten the words out: “Oh, big Kahuna, we ask you for bitchin,’ boss and tuff waves tomorr…,” when the entire POS board ignited in one giant burst of yellow flame, followed by thick smoke that blackened the colorful ‘relief maps’ on their teen faces.
The juvenile delinquents were busy choking on poisonous fumes, when air pockets inside the foam board caused a thunderous blast. Five hundred feet away, a young woman let out a shriek from inside the closed and presumed “uninhabited” #5 lifeguard tower on the nearby rock jetty.
Rudely interrupted, D&W’s legendary lifeguard, the cigar-chomping Fred Colby was reeeeeaaallly ticked off. He’d been putting up with the antics of Orville Wright, Jr. High “kooks” like these guys for too many years.
“GRRRRRRR!” he roared. Seagulls scattered. The bluffs above D&W shook.
* * * *
There they were, three prime examples of sunburned fourteen-year-old “hodad (greaser) bait,” smeared with soot and zinc oxide.
The offshore wind was blowing smoke toward the lifeguard tower on top of the stone jetty. Spaz and Will were busy feeding the remaining tail section of Mike’s board into the cement fire pit when lifeguard Colby ripped open the curtains of his bachelor pad/lifeguard tower — where he had been “entertaining” his lady friend. With his megaphone in one hand and lit cigar in the other, he marched up behind Mike and sprinkled a few hot cigar ashes on the kid’s already lobster-red back.
Paulin, was an average-sized, skinny, goofy-looking, bucktoothed, yellow-haired kid, who came from a Mormon household crowded with about three hundred other goofy-looking, skinny, bucktoothed, yellow-haired kids. (Colby always called Mike “Piss-Mop” in reference to his hair.)
“Ow! Hey! Holy Joe Smith!” screamed poor Mike, whose protest quickly faded to a “Sorry, sir,” as he turned and looked up toward the cigar-chomping madman.
“Quit complaining Mop! Cigar ashes will put hair on your back,” barked Colby through his red bull horn directly into Paulin’s ear. He lowered the horn and spoke to them directly with the same decibel level. “I hear that the Mop here ordered a new board from my pal Dewey. Well, I sincerely doubt that a new board could make you paraffin-chewing sea slugs into better surfers. You’ll always be a bunch o’ kooks.”
“Thank you, sir. We always do our best,” said the well-bred Will Elder.
Spaz had just washed the soot off himself in the shore break, but the coarse topography of his face had turned a deep red.
“What the hell happened to you, Spaz?” asked Colby.
“I ducked under a wave and got a jellyfish in the face, sir.”
“A big purple medusa jelly on your ugly kisser might clear up that pizza face, Kid. When I was young, my family didn’t have any Clearasil. Sandpaper and a blow torch. That’s all we could afford! Listen up, Guys. I’m letting you know now that I’m already pissed today. I do not need smoke and noise. Furthermore, if I see one more of you guys wipe out and see your ugly gremmie logs hit one of my competition team buddies out there – none of you will be ever allowed to surf MY beach again! Understand, Mop?”
Spaz got mad. “This is your beach? Can you please clean up this tar, sir?” Spaz had just put his worthless-punk-gremmie life into the lifeguard’s barnacle-encrusted hands.
“Listen up, Baggy Pants!” Colby shouted through his bull horn into Spaz’s left ear, while used his free hand to give the kid a painful wedgie by lifting up the back of Spaz’s crotch-sanding canvas shorts.
“You kids are pissing off my friends out here with your loose boards. There is no room for junior high larvae, Spaz. You’re stupider than those valley toads. What’s with the damned fire? Wimps! It’s 65 degrees today!”
“Surf sacrifice, sir.” Will said, accompanied by a military salute.
“Was I talking to you, Elder?” growled Colby.
“No, sir! Sir!”
“Stop calling me ‘Sir,’ Sand Crab. Just call me ‘Your Hiiiiiiiighness.'”
“Your Highness, sir! We ignited the conflagration at fourteen-hundred hours this afternoon, sir!” Will Elder’s military dad had brought him up with manners.
“We’re tired of the crappy little ankle slappers, sir,” said Mike. “We figured it couldn’t hurt asking the Big Kahuna for some decent sized surf.”
“Maybe if you runts can hold onto your logs and stop injuring my buddies, I can put in ‘the word’ with Mr. K. for you.”
“Mr. K.?” asked the Mop.
“Yeah, the Kahuna. We used to call him big until I met him at Waimea Bay in 1960. He’s only about 5’8″ tall. He dresses really snappy.”
“Do you know anything about the other Mr. K? A guy named Koulax?” asked Spaz.
“Goddamnit! WHO told you punks about Koulax?!!!!!!!”
Mike was puzzled. “I’d never heard of the surfing God ‘Koulax.’ Do you mean the baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax, Spaz?”
“Walt Flannery said something about this guy Koulax at band practice!” said Spaz. “Walt , himself, worships the all-powerful Koulax. Walt called him ‘the keeper of the flame.'”
Colby laughed. ”Ohhhhh, sure. Flannery! Walt should shut up and you kids should be home doing your homework instead of worrying about Koulax. Damned Flannery. The mouth on that guy.”
“Is Koulax one of the Polynesian Gods?” asked Spaz. “
Could it possibly be that Walt is just full of crap? My mom calls Walt ‘a bad influence.’ Is Koulax like a big Tiki God?”
“Big Tiki, huh? You kids are too young to know of Koulax. Go wax your skateboards with Clearasil, or whatever the hell it is that pimple poppers like you think about,” said His Highness, the guard-of-life at D&W beach.
Colby seemed to deflate when he turned his back, and began to walk back to the lifeguard tower. “Koulax,” he was mumbling to himself. “Flannery and his big mouth.”
“Wait! Your Highness?” said Will.
Will Elder was the only natural athlete among the three. The “Red Coats” were paying attention to his smooth surfing style, so Colby let him talk.
“Your Highness! When will we be worthy to meet the great Koulax? “
“When he sends for you, Elder! Remember you guys, no loose boards! You’ve got manners, Elder. I still think that the three of you are nothing but shark chum. Even though you torched Piss-Mop’s old dinged-up piece-of-shit-Taco-wagon, you will hardly get a message to or from any Kahuna—especially the supreme Kahuna… unintelligible-mumble-mumble… Koulax! It’ll take a lot more than burning your boards.”
“Who’s this Koulax?” the boys wondered.
Colby paused and then kindly replied, “Put this fire out goddammit, before I cram some medusa jellyfish down your baggies, you seagull targets! Your smoke scared the shit outta my chick while I was enjoying a fiiiiine lunch at the ‘Y’, aannnndd …. you are stinking up my beach!”
Spaz turned to his buddies.”Is he talking about the YMCA? They’ve got some really shitty cardboard burgers.”
“McDonald’s charges thirty-nine cents apiece,” said Mike.
“Shut up, Mop!” said Colby. “You too, Spaz!”
The inflated Fred Colby stormed off toward the lifeguard tower.
* * * *
It would be nearly another hour before “Spaz” Barnett’s mom would pick up the three shivering gremlins in her two-toned Chevy wagon.
Spaz’s mom was a very tolerant mom. She even stayed awake until 1 a.m. for Spaz to come home after the Grunion run the following evening. Mrs. Barnett rarely got mad but she genuinely worried about him. She knew that Spaz would be punished by his own guilt, and that would be enough. She once tried to support her black-curly-haired son’s dream of becoming a blond surfer boy. Together, they tried to peroxide Spaz’s thick hair over a hundred times. She often used “professional” bleaching mixes to no avail.
Spaz has very little hair today.
In the water, Saturday 4 a.m. March 28, 1964
It seems like only yesterday. The 14-year-old idiot, Spaz, and his two idiot friends sat in the water, waiting for a tidal wave to show up.
They floated between the two parallel Ballona Creek stone jetties at 4:30 in the dark morning, beneath a clear starlit sky, and a full moon that lit up Mike’s golden mop. Their longboards bobbed up and down in the calm, glassy, ankle-slapper surf.
They were all “waxed-up,” wearing their best “hot-dogger” surf shorts, with nowhere to go.
They had retrieved their boards from the Spencer’s’ back yard in the bright moonlight, walked a half block to the beach and carefully stepped down the black, mussel-encrusted boulders of the south jetty. It was as peaceful on the water. A light, cool breeze stirred the air. They decided that they’d stick it out together—come hell or high water. One for all and all for one! Just like the Mouseketeers. Their purpose was a noble one: to ride a tidal wave into the very heart of Los Angeles.
Death rarely, if ever crosses the mind of a 14-year old.
In the Water: 4:20 a.m.
Though the glued seams of their beaver-tailed wetsuits were splitting apart, the boys sat patiently in the chilly water.
Will began a philosophical conversation, trying to help his buddies forget about the cold.
“I sure could use a burger right now.”
“Hamburger Handout’s are only 15 cents, man,” said Mike. “Yeah, those are fine burgers. Why are we here, Spaz? There are no waves and I’m freezing.”
“Nothing is open, yet, Mike. How about we go to the McDonald’s on La Tijera in the morning?” asked Spaz through his chattering teeth.
“Too expensive, twenty-nine cents,” said Mike.
Spaz said, “I’ll tell you what guys, if nothing comes in the next twenty minutes, we’ll get Walt to drive us home.” Spaz looked toward the first bridge and parking lot. “I can see his car near Kerry’s house.”
Mike whimpered, “What about Speedy Mart, near D&W, are they open?”
“A store open 24 hours? Ha! Yeah, right, Doofus!” said Spaz.
“They got that microwave oven,” said Mike. “How about the Marina Fountain?”
Will said, “Fine …What’s that sound?”
“You’ve never even been to the Fountain, Spaz. You said… that….”
Mike’s big ears were perked up, listening.
Spaz said, “Did you hear that, guys?”
Will said, “Did you know that the first hamburger was invented in 1885 by Charles Nagreen of Wisconsin? He fried ground meat between two slices of bread at a County Fair. The first hamburger stand? Two guys named Ingram and Anderson opened the first White Castle hamburger stand in Wichita, Kansas in 1921. They sold burgers for five cents!”
“Five cents? Amazing!” said Mike. “Will there be any places open downtown when and if we ever get there?”
“Nah,” said Will. “Just Olveira Street.”
“Walt says there’s a place downtown…” said Spaz. “and he says that it’s ‘better than eating at the Y.’ Walt, Colby and my big brother. I don’t know why they go on and on about the food at the Y.”
Mike responded, “The ‘Y’ pool snack bar tastes like the crap at school.”
Topside 4:25 a.m.
“Flannery! What are you doing down here in the dark? Do you know what time it is? Go on! Go home and get some sleep!”
“What’s the problem, Mr. Colby?”
“Nothing. Just tidal waves. Civil defense sent me down to make sure that anyone who doesn’t belong at the beach is sent home. You’ve gotta go.”
“Soon, sir. I’ve got friends in the water. They promised to get out in a few minutes.”
“Oh, no. Who?”
“ A couple of gremmies that you might know. Three of them. Spaz Barnett, Will Elder, and Mike Paulin.”
“He’s the yellow-haired Mormon kid that you love to call Piss-Mop. I told them that I’d pick them up here at 4:45. They just wanted to go night surfing under the full moon.”
“Oh, reeeeeally. Are you telling me that those three are — out there — sitting in the Creek, waiting for a tidal wave? Dammit! Those punks already pissed me off a few days ago by stinking up D&W with a burning board. Did you drive them over here?”
“No! They rode over on their bikes and grabbed their boards from someone’s backyard.”
“You’re either crazy, Walt, or your ears are plugged up with surf wax like those three soup monkeys out in the water. You DID hear about the Alaskan Earthquake?”
“Yeah, I heard about it.”
“Not ‘it.’ Them. Multiple waves. We’ve got to get your pals out of the Creek right now.”
“Oops.” Flannery stuck his hand through the driver’s side window and began to honk.
“Don’t B.S. me Flannery?”
“Those three… uh I mean that I came here to talk them out of it. Yeah! It’s insane! We gotta get them out of the water! I heard about the quake while I was over at Suzy’s. Maybe the guys asked me for a ride down here earlier. Of course, I refused them, sir. I figured they’d just ride their bikes down here and grab their boards from Spencer’s place anyway. They have no idea that I’m waiting. I followed them down here to watch them get their butts kic—I mean, to drive them out of here. Their parents must be worried sick, sir.”
“Walt, is your head full of Hyperion effluent? We have to get your three half-wit friends out right now?”
“There’s one-and-one-half wits, sir,” said Math Club president Walt Flannery.
“I saw Spaz with his girlfriend at Gillis beach earlier. Cute. I almost had to hook the jeep up to Spaz’s pants, to pry them apart before one of them got pregnant… probably Spaz. Keep honking!”
“What were you doing at Gillis at 9 p.m.?”
“Zip it, Flannery! If those waves come, they will tear those kids apart! That’s why ‘they’ ask me… not you, to keep an eye on things. There may be some deadly shit headed our way. So get going… Hey! This yours? Bitchin’ car, Flannery. Fairlane? They got guts.V-8? Well, let me tell you, Walt, you’re going to need a rocket ship if you don’t leave soon.”
“What is that sound, Mr. Colby?”
In the Water 4:35 a.m.
“I can’t hear anything, Spaz, except that… train?” said Mike. “Are there trains near here?”
Will, “The Expert,” chimed in: “There used to be trains near here. In 1930, they went down Washington and Venice Boulevards in Culver City. Weird. Maybe it’s just a big truck or the jets at LAX.”
“It must be a jet coming in from the West,” said Mike. “The sound is coming from behind us.”
“Thunder,” thought Spaz. ”Maybe a jet.”
“It’s so bright out there,” said Mike, who was shivering inside his loose ‘beaver tail’ 1960s wetsuit. “The moon is lighting up a fog bank. If any waves come in, we’ll be lucky if we can see them.”
Spaz was thinking about the movie that he’d taken Barbi to. “This place is like a lake. If Frankie Avalon was out here yelling ‘Surf’s up!’ you’d suddenly be hearing Dick Dale and we’d be catching Waimea Bay twenty-five footers right now!”
“Right.” Mike just wanted to go back home to bed.
“That fog is moving around,” said Will. “Did you know that there are many different kinds of fog? Radiation fog, ice fog, sea fog, ground fog. Do you know what else, guys?”
“No, what?” said Spaz.
“It’s just not humid enough tonight for fog to form. The humidity at ground level has to be nearly 100%. That cannot be….”
“There is something moving out there,” said Mike. “It might be fog. Where are the stars?”
“If the fog does move in,” said Spaz, “we won’t be able to see the waves coming. Maybe we should just go home. This is stupid.”
“The tide’s pulling out,” said Will. “My foot just scraped the bottom. Shit! The water’s pulling out fast!”
Will said, “Tidal surges are usually preceded by the water sucking out.”
“Surges?” said Mike. “Do you mean tidal waves?”
“Can it, Will!” said Spaz. “You’re scaring Mike.”
“The fog bank is getting higher!” You could almost hear Mike’s skeleton rattling. “Can we go home?”
“Closer and louder too,” said Will. “This time I think that you’re right, Mike.”
“Let’s paddle over to the jetty and get out there,” said Spaz.
“Guys! I can’t move!” said Mike. “I’m being pulled out! Barnacles! I’m scraping the bottom. Baaaddd idea, guys!”
“Cowabunga!” screamed Will.
Spaz and Mike looked down at the sandy bottom. Spaz said, “Shut up Will! That’s not funny!”
“What?” said Mike.
Will pointed to the sea. “This is it! Surf’s up! Look!… Hang on!”
“It — What?” yelled Spaz who was peering into the dark, trying to make sense out of the turbulence at the end of the breakwater.
(The water stopped receding, and again began fill the Creek bed.)
Will said, “Do you know that the biggest tidal wave ever recorded was 118 feet high? The most destructive tidal wave hit Taiwan on May 22, 1782. It killed over fifty-thousan—”
“Enough, asshole!” said Mike.
“Zip it, Will!” said Spaz. “What are we supposed to do, now? Listen.”
Then they heard a great cracking sound.
“Are the boulders making that racket? It’s busting up! There goes the barge! The crane! Where’s the beacon?!”
“Foam headed this way, guys!” Paulin said as he held onto his Saint Christopher medal and pressed himself into his brand new board.
“Why am I not stoked right now?” yelled Spaz as he wrapped himself around his board and pushed his head into the deck, hard enough to form an impression of his face.
Topside with Walt and Colby: 4:35 a.m.
“This is between just us. I heard that Crescent City got hit hard a few hours ago. Walt, are you listening?”
“Yeah, but not to you, sir. No offense. Listen! Are you hearing that? Is that a train?”
“Walt! They asked me and a couple of the other lifeguards to… what the… maybe that’s a jet landing over the airport.”
“Crap!” said Walt, “I can’t leave. Not with those guys out there!”
Walt started honking the horn and yelling through a microphone that he’d hooked up to a speaker behind the front grill of his car.
“Spaz! Get out! Get out now!”
“Hey, Look! Where’d the water go?” asked Colby. “They must be sitting in six inches of water out there?”
Walt wasn’t listening to Colby. His eyes were transfixed. ”That fog bank seems awfully bright. Look behind the breakwater! …I dunno. Well, Fuuuuuuuuhck me! That ain’t fog!”
Suddenly the “fog bank” exploded. The barge and crane suddenly leaned and crashed. The boulders splattered with the first ‘warning’ wave as if hit by a break shot on a pool table.
A moment of silence… then….
“Whoa! It might be too late!” Colby said.
The dark horizon heaved white water.
“Flannery! Let’s go.”
Through the mic, “Get out, Spaz! Oh, Fuh… here… it… comes!”
The Creek receded again, and the lights on the barge and crane that had been used to lift the huge boulders suddenly toppled into the end of the northern side of the breakwater.
The sound of thunder rose above the cracking of the boulders. The foundation was breaking apart.
Walt’s car horn was useless.
* * * *
Lifeguard Colby was hypnotized by the hulks of rusted autos on the near dry bed of the Creek. Colby ran and hopped into his lifeguard jeep when he heard another tremendous ‘crack!’
Blocking the stars and moon, an ink-black wall of water lifted the moon and stars upward, outlined by a thin ribbon of white as the edge of the terrible first wave reared up just outside of the marina. The Coast Guard cutter and small crafts that had been riding the waves a safe two miles offshore, had probably now broken free of their anchor moorings .
The left side of the wave rose up at the edge of the southern breakwater, to become a boiling massive beast, raising itself up from the ocean floor. From their vantage point sitting inside of the Creek, the boys could not really experience the frightening scene unfolding on the outside of the sheltering breakwaters. They would have literally shit paraffin.
The black wall of water began to growl as it pushed toward the entrance of the Creek.
“Take Culver, Walt! Your friends will probably wash up around the La Cienega oil fields.”
“Whahhhh?!” said Flannery.
“Take Speedway to Culver!”
Walt, who could drive from LA to Rincon, a two-hour drive, in one hour, when blinded with a bug covered windshield, decided to take a faster route.
They both hit the gas and gave testament to the legendary street named Speedway.