I woke up once again in a sedated opium den hospital room. I looked around trying to figure out where I was and how I got there. There were flowers and get-well cards everywhere so my wake up was full of good feelings and love, then it was time to recall. I checked my leg and thank God it was still there! It was now bandaged from my thigh to my toes like King Tut. I just sat back…. I needed to relax that morning and reflect, not wanting anymore pain-killing drugs. I wanted to be wide awake, feel the pain and get ready to hear my prognosis. That morning, when the doctor arrived, the scene was much more mellow and I thanked the doctor for doing his best, but the news was the same, my right leg was paralyzed and there was nothing they could do. I got my papers and I wanted to check-out but needed to remain for a while. Yeah, it was bad news, but I had optimism. That was only one man’s opinion, and I didn’t care what coat he wore, I knew I would research many more. I had to remain positive! I had just got out of the “poor, poor pitiful me” stage with my sister’s death and was not going to go back to that self-pity world again! I had to face whatever was ahead of me. These were the cards I was dealt! You fold or you call! I chose to double down! My parents were there, knowing the news and consoling with tears. I didn’t want that–I told my pops the same thing he always said about everything, “It’s all bullshit!” I went right back at him with his infamous quote! Without a tear in my eye I said, “That’s their opinion! It’s all bullshit! We got this! I know I’ll walk again.” Man, he laughed, we all hugged and blew away the negative to full-force positive. Dad knew I had this and he was my Big Papa partner to make sure it would happen!
I was becoming a man. But that doesn’t come with just puberty, it comes with knowledge and experience. When you’re young, you’re full of lofty goals until reality hits you in the face. I would soon have to face the hard reality that I would be on crutches for a long time. What I had was called drop foot, where your leg and foot is dead below the kneecap. The craziest thing is my neighbor across the street had it as well. I would watch him drag his limp leg to get the mail daily. He had been injured when he was young and had been dragging his leg around for 70 yrs. It was hard to watch knowing that could be me forever. After researching diligently I came across some hopeful news. They were experimenting with nerve grafting and wanted a human guinea pig. The odds were slim to none but I was all in and off we went on a coastal voyage up north. The surgery experiment was no walk in the park, I had never been in so much pain in my life. They kept me in the hospital for almost a month, morphined out of my brain to kill the pain. The hospital in San Francisco was a catalyst for another big change in my life. Back home it was the same boring music; the Eagles, Led Zeppelin—the late seventies rock was stagnant. ‘Frisco was a whole other scene. I found this incredible radio station that blew my drug-induced mind. There was a new underground movement in the air, a youthful rebellion against the boring and redundant music of the hippies. The Sex Pistols were pissing off the facist regime with “God Save the Queen” and the local radio station had interviews with the Ramones, The Clash and other Punk artists. I listened every night from my hospital bed, high as a kite and grooving on the crazy energy and creativity of the new music. I couldn’t wait to get home to tell my friends. Art and this new music scene were connected and soon I would be one of the artists drawing flyers for the shows. When I was released, they had made me a brace, so I could walk without crutches, which helped my self-esteem. Now it was “hurry up and wait and pray for results”.
After a long while of healing I decided to get back in the water, I couldn’t stand, but I could kneeboard. I got heckled all the time, people would yell at me to stand up or call me a gimp. They didn’t know I couldn’t stand up and I was a gimp! I didn’t care, I was just happy to be back in Mother Ocean. So I just took my board and dragged my bad leg down to the surf and went on to become the National Scholastic Surfing Association’s first National Kneeboarding Champion! Not bad for them saying I’d never walk or surf again.
It was 1978 and they had started the NSSA to be like an Olympic amateur surfing team organized to compete against other countries and groom young surfers to become professional athletes. It went on to produce world champion legends like Tom Curren and Kelly Slater and continues to this day. We competed around the U.S. in a series of contests and at the end of the season they would pick the first ever National Team to represent America in International competitions. Part of the program was you had to do well in school, keeping a minimum grade point average in order to qualify. They put the candidates in a room for an interview with the organization’s directors, it was Danny Kwock, the best from Newport Beach, Bud Llamas, the best from Huntington Beach and little ole underdog me from San Clemente. None of us were doing well in school. I knew my report card was terrible: D, D, F, F and A’s in Art and Surfing. Bud’s was as bad as mine. Danny wouldn’t show us his, we laughed, “C’mon it can’t be that bad,” he finally showed us…the guy had all incompletes!! No wonder the kid was so good, he never went to school. Danny never made the team but he did go on to be the vicepresident of Quicksilver International and made a fortune. Bud and I made the team and were broke with piles of plastic trophies. Think Danny won the real championship! lol
It sounded glamorous and prestigious, and I was proud and honored to be picked as one of the best in the country. They kept saying surfing was going to be in the Olympics and they were grooming us as the team. I never believed that one but went along for the ride. Back then however it wasn’t all glory, in those days it was soul versus sport. Sports and teams were for jocks, uniforms and organized anything was suspect to the freedom loving surfers. Our Hawaiian shirts and board shorts were like our Hell’s Angels patches; worn with pride. Being a “stoner, never amounting to anything beach bum” was a badge of honor for us. We knew who we were and discovered our own cosmic connection with the sea and sand. Something the grown-ups and society didn’t understand. Showing up at the beach in a matching red, white and blue surfboard and wetsuit in a Team America sweat suit was just not accepted. Giant logos from sponsors turning your stick into a billboard for corporate interests was definitely not cool either. Long-haired, black wetsuit-wearing, drug-running, white board only locals ruled the beaches back then and infractions of local customs were enforced with-ass kickings and banishment! Part of being a member of the National Team was doing photo shoots for Surfing Magazine. Larry Flame was the Editor and top staff photographer then and he was calling every day to recruit me to show up at a designated spot to get the photos needed…an opportunity every pro kid would jump at today. He wanted me but I sure as hell didn’t want him, I liked staying under the radar. Bringing Surfing Magazine photographers down to a localized break dressed like Captain America was pretty taboo too. I played sick so many times that Flame gave up on me and luckily turned another guy on the team on to the photo shoot. The whole Action Sports Tradeshow game had yet to exist, and it was like walking on eggshells between sport and soul. Surfing was still then, at its core, an individualistic and rebellious collection of anti-establishment free spirits, and compromising those ideals could get you branded a traitor for years.
I was in a tough position as I was the first guy ever picked by the fledgling organization; the only reason I was named first is that I had gone undefeated. They had to pick me. It took over a month for them to pick the rest of the team. I had a colored wetsuit that read ‘NSSA National Team” down the sleeves in my closet and rode my old board. I prayed that someone from San Clemente would get picked for the team with me, and my prayers were answered when Sean McNulty and Pat Dugan were announced as my teammates! I was stoked! Those two rippers had no problem telling the Surfing Taliban of our town, “we’re the best, deal with it and get out of the way!!” So, I rode my team board–but that wetsuit stayed in my closet.
We were sent to Peru that year for the first NSSA world competition and we were treated like kings upon our arrival. We were taken to fiestas and museums; half went to see the amazing ruins of the Mayans Machu Picchu and we got to go across the desert to witness the Nazca Lines which blew my mind. We were the first American team invited there since the sixties. Peru was a full-blown communist dictatorship and we landed just months after elections had been held to end the regime but locked and loaded angry guerillas were everywhere! We were supposed to be on our best behavior, representing America etc. but being a kid in the late seventies with guys like John Belushi as one of your idols, booze and Peruvian and girls were the first things we ordered on the “Peruvian menu”. The Team broke into different sections. Everyone was so cool on the team but you can’t hang out with 30 people daily! Our crew was a cast of characters.: The HB, SC Bad Boys; Rick Fignettie AKA Rockin’ Fig, and Bud Llamas AKA The Mayor were the Huntington heavies, and we were just SC Style: me, Sean McNulty, AKA Mcnutty and Pat Dugan, AKA Doogie.
(Bud Llamas, Brad Waller, Pat Dugan, Nigel Kent)
(Rick Fignettie, Sean McNulty, Pat Allen)
We had a blast! FIG was the eldest, so he was the ringleader and already stand-up comic material. I was his Sideshow Bob, so we entertained the troops and Bud entertained us in the water! He was beyond a freak of nature! Throwing buckets of spray, tube riding and tearing the roof off the lip! Fig, McNutty and Doogie were far from slouches, but Brother Bud was beyond! Hard for other surfers to admit it but we were all in unanimous agreement. We were blessed to be able to travel around and surf different breaks with the locals. The 5 amigos had a code during team get-together lunches and photo shoots. We would give a little whistle to each other and sneak out the back before anyone knew we were gone. But when the contest time came, the team was on lockdown and only allowed to surf The Point. The contest was less than a week away at The Point so now it was time to train—problem was it was a zoo fest! 25 team riders on our side plus coaches, 25 team riders on their side plus coaches and locals. One day they had a big lunch event for us in a beautiful two-story house on the beach looking over the point. Everyone was there and the point was empty and firing. We had strict orders to stay put…I gave the secret whistle, and we were out the back and in the lineup, sharing perfect waves together. We knew we were going to be in trouble and had at most an hour before the lineup was packed again but we had the place for over two hours by ourselves. We couldn’t figure it out but weren’t complaining. Bud was now free to cut loose, and it’s a day that will remain in surfing infamy for those who witnessed it, and it was only us five. I was paddling out and Bud had just scored a big set. I was sitting in the channel, waiting in anticipation for a big, big Buddy Llam hack! The tide had dropped so this wave swung left and started guttering and tubing across the dry reef. Bud read it, so was now charging at me like a wild rhino to make the section! I’m freaking out! I sat there frozen! His line was directly at me! I just had my leg cut in half but was about to have my body cut in half! Bud comes flying out of the tube and sees me then comes off the bottom like a rat boat and goes straight-up vertical over me like he was shot out of a cannon. Everything went in slow motion. I saw the board above me completely floating in the air–all the fins were out! I turned around to see if he was ok but instead watched from the back (5 more hacks all the way into the bay…?) What the fuck!?!? There were rumors back then that it was possible but in all my years in the water I hadn’t seen it! I paddled out to the boys to ask if they saw that. They all laughed and said he had been busting those all day! Like one of my all-time favorite surfers Larry Bertlemann’s famous quote he used to say and proved it: “Anything is possible!” In 1978 Bud proved that to us all—-first airs any of us had ever seen!
We had been out on the water by ourselves wondering where everyone was. Ambulances started arriving at the house. We all ran back to see the commotion…it wasn’t pretty! This sweet little gal who was there on her own dime to help the team wanted to get in on the photo shot of both teams together. The fiesta was on the top patio of a two-story ranchero so technically we were on the third floor. She had jumped on the palapa roof and went through it and straight through the second roof landing on the concrete floor below. I just saw the aftermath and it was horrid, the amount of blood on the concrete. She was air-evaced out and we all prayed that she would survive such a devisting fall but we all agreed it wasn’t looking good. Even Superman would have had a hell of a bell ringer on that one.
We had been on a holding period for over a week. The waves had been good, but the Peruvians wanted big surf and were waiting for the big swell approaching. They kept trying to play head games with us telling us how big it gets. My crew had all surfed big Hawaii before, so we weren’t scared. How big could it possibly get? Well, we were soon to find out! The swell was building, and the contest was finally on. We had one last team dinner together before the big day. During the festivities Fig gave the secret whistle and called us all over. He said he had set up a cool gig for us with one of the local boys. We were all set up with free drinks at the hottest club for ladies’ night where the hottest chicks in Peru all go. Oh, temptation is an evil thing. We had the contest in the morning, and all knew we shouldn’t go. Justifying your actions is another doozy. We all agreed we would go there, check it out and leave early. No problem, right? Well, that all sounds good on paper. Life has a funny way of changing the script fast…
Curfew was at ten o’clock so by ten-thirty we had snuck out and were in our boy’s car off to the disco. He had all the goods, and we were drinking Peruvian moonshine in the car (among other things) and we proceeded to whoop, whoop, whoop it up. I don’t know what was in that shit but by the time we arrived we were already wasted. When we walked in the door there were glares everywhere. I’m sure our government had something to do with the revolution boiling pot we had been thrown into that was going on, because they were not happy to see us. This was a tough crowd, and these were their women. The rest of the boys were too wasted to notice anything, but Bud and I sure did. We just had more street smarts. Him with his Hells Angels brothers and me with East LA Chicano rootz, I went right into what my Pops taught me, it was time to lower the eye line and don’t make any eye contact. By the time I had cased the perimeter Fig had already had a round of drinks and was out on the dance floor double-fisted, dancing with two chicks. Seemed like the happier and louder he and Doogie got, the angrier the locals got. I told McNutty our situation and he suddenly sobered up and agreed. Our ride had split so we were stuck. Things started heating up when a couple of the locals grabbed the two girls Fig was dancing with away from him. Fig was not stoked and said something, and the guy said something back. Oh, shit, here we go. I hurried over, doing my best to calm the situation, and got Fig back to the table. Our ride had returned, and we told him we were not welcome here. He knew the crew and definitely agreed. He said he’d walk Fig out then we should hall ass and meet them at the car. We casually finished our drinks then strolled out the door. When we got to the street, we hit the ground running, knowing we were being trailed for a good Perivian beating. We ran around the corner where the car was parked but there was no car! When he came back, he must’ve parked somewhere else and forgot to tell us that vital information. Best thing to do is keep moving forward cause we sure as hell were not going back. We slid down some back alleys to get off the street in case those guys were still looking for us–the alleys kept getting smaller and smaller till we were on a dirt road in one of the scariest, poorest barrios I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen more than a few.
Dogs out of nowhere were coming at us in attack mode barking and showing their teeth. Doogie was still hammered, barking back at the dogs and making way too much noise! The more I yelled at him to shut the fuck up the more he just laughed, completely oblivious to the situation we were in. This woke up the whole barrio and soon I started seeing packs of kids and people checking out our every move. Personally, I thought the packs of kids were the scariest. We just kept moving forward, wandering deeper and deeper into the darkness, dressed in our team outfits (which were basically a “Hi, rob me, just don’t kill me” sign!) We ended up at the dead end of a gigantic trash dump. So now we had no choice but to go back…basically we were totally fucked! We had no idea where we were and had no idea the name of our hotel or where it was! McNutty was basically following our lead. Doogie was out of his mind so had to check in with my Chicano brother Bud to check how bad he thought our condition was. Well he agreed with me, we go back down and were going to get rolled. He said they’re probably going to come at us with knives, so you need to wrap your jacket around your arm for protection and we need to go looking through the dump for some lead pipes. What!?! I said, “What are you nuts? No heroes here! When they come at us I’ll throw you my jacket and I’ll be running like a bitch, jumping over every fence!”
Bud reminded me that I was paralyzed and could barely walk with my brace, let alone run. Oh yeah, forgot about that one! Well, it was looking like we were going in back-to-back. As we climbed the trash mountain looking for weapons for our almost certain demise, I looked over the city to try to figure out where the hell we were at and how we could get the hell out and suddenly recognized a landmark! I was ecstatic and started screaming with joy! It was a miracle! We were basically dead now, suddenly a sign from God! The big church steeple was right in front of our hotel with a shining light and there it was beaming in all its glory. We still needed to get out of our predicament, though. I had seen a road to the left that looked big enough for trucks. It was probably the road up to the dump site. If we headed right down the mountain road we could avoid having to go back through the scary streets of the barrio. Well, I’ll be damned! My assumption was right! Finally, something good happened on this hell night of fright. Before we knew it, we were back down in the city following our beacon of light and back to the hotel safety zone. We actually pulled it! No beatings, no knifings, we were almost home free! Doogie was still hammered but was so ecstatic that he started frisbeeing trash can lids through the empty streets, once again causing noise and more unneeded attention! I told him we were not home yet–who knows who’s on these streets? As we turned the corner we were about to find out!
Our entrance had been heard loud and clear! As we turned the next block we were face to face with an army of communist rebels! We were looking down the barrels of army guns! They were locked and loaded with AKAs, and they were all pointed at us along with two tank guns! This was now piss and shit your pants time. We had dodged everything but no way we could dodge bullets! They were all in army gear wearing masks and the commander yelled at us to get on our knees with our hands on our heads! They were tagging the streets with anti-new government banners, so it looked like they were in the middle of a coup and sure as hell didn’t want any witnesses. The commander was yelling at us—what were we doing there?! Doogie (thank God) came out of his drunken stupor and was now sober as a judge speaking perfect Spanish telling him we were National Surfing Champions here to compete against the Peruvians in the championship tournament tomorrow. The Commander looked at his second in command who looked just as bewildered. He asked Doogie to repeat. When he did, there was a long uncomfortable moment of silence. Scary! These were militant communist guerrillas! Not the cats you invite to Christmas dinner! Then suddenly a roar of laughter from the commander, the sub commander and the troops. We pulled our own coup and totally caught them off guard! He told them all to step down. He said “ariba, pase” and patted us on the back and wished us luck in the tournament. We once again were beyond blessed and lucky that he had a heart and sense of humor, otherwise one snap of his fingers we would all have been smoked! As I looked back they were still laughing at how close we were to being shot and thinking they were just as shocked at seeing us as we were seeing them.
By the time we got back to the hotel the sun was rising. I could care less about the contest tomorrow, all I wanted was my bed! I was already scheming on faking an injury so I could sleep in. The next morning came way too early, but time to rise and shine. We all were together again still not believing the shit we had just been through and sure as hell not going to tell anybody about it. Doogie said he was woken up by his roommate leaning over him smelling his breath. He said “I know you snuck out last night and were drinking. That’s against team rules. I’m going to go tell the coach so you’re not allowed in the contest.” After the night we had, that guy had just put his hand in the tiger’s cage! Doogie grabbed him by the throat, picked up and pinned him against the wall with his big locked and loaded fist and told him, “You say one word and you are going to be unable to ever surf again!” He said the guy’s eyes popped out of his head then let out a beyond-long disgusting blaring sound of a wet fart. Doogie let him down thinking he had killed him. The guy turns around and shuffles to the bathroom with the whole back end of his team sweats completely shit-bombed. Doogie named him Shit-show Shuffle! Everyone had got Montezuma’s Revenge except me. So I was laughing at all kinds of shuffling going around. We were all dying laughing when he comes shuffling in with his soaking wet sweats. Then here comes Fig, fresh as a daisy on his second helping of breakfast and coffee, asking where’d we go last night? Before we had time to retort or want to retort, the coach was yelling, “Ok get your gear, bus is leaving!” We, unlike Fig, were on two hours sleep, but ramblers got to ramble, and we were off.
A swell hit the coast and the Peruvians were far from joking about how big it gets! It was fuckin HUMUNGI! We passed by Pico Alto on our way to The Point, there was Waimahia and it was going nuclear. I sat there watching out the window saying, “Damn I’m dead. I should have faked an injury.” We arrived at The Point, and it was going off! It was breaking on outer reefs I didn’t know existed, then coming into a solid 10ft Hawaii close out shore break! MOMMY! The first two heats hit the water and were mopped into the bay like driftwood, never even making it past the shore break. McNutty and Bud said this was as big or bigger than real Sunset! And they would know! Hey, boys had kind of a hard night last night, mind if I sit this one out? That turned into a resounding no and slugs on the arm! Alright— I’m in! One for all and all for one! If I could get my crew back to the hotel I can figure out how to get us out to the outer point line up and win this thing! Gordo was the living legend surf champion of Peru. The last time they had a surf contest in Peru before it turned communist, Gordon won against the best surfers in the world from Hawaii, California and beyond. He was our host and became a good friend. He was a gentle giant with a heart of gold. His mother was still surfing at 80 yrs old! He took me to his house, Mama made us breakfast then we all went surfing together. Magical Memory! But now I was in the moment needed, like Hawaii style, to follow the elders’ path. I remembered even on smaller days Gordo would walk up the point to his launching rock and be out in the line up. I saw Felipe Pomar do the same. The difference was those were small days. You get the timing wrong on this day and you will be embedded into the cliff without a doubt. I went back to the boys and told them my plan. They already knew and agreed! What, am I new? Of course they already had this, but timing was everything.
Pat Dugan, Peru 1978
The waves were pumping, the adrenaline was pumping! Hearts of champions! Everyone forgot all about the night before. It was ON! First up Doogie! In Doogie style he just said, “I got this!” and he was down the cliff and around the point in an instant. He was now out of sight and a bombing set was coming around the corner. We all watched as the first wave exploded over the launching rock. Then about 7 more. If you timed this wrong it would be far from pretty! No sign of Doogie? I said, “Shit man, I think he’s embedded into the cliff like a fossil!” Then the waves stopped and the spray subsided. Here comes Doogie doing the rock hop from hell flying off Gordo’s launching pad into the deep blue sea! Elbows in, meat hooks churning like rudders, he was out in the line in no time. He got 3 of the biggest bombs of the day before anyone else else even made it out. McNutty and Bud did the same and they smoked all their heats and were headed to the finals. Not bad—3 of the 5 amigos were in the finals. Fig didn’t make it cause he got too much beauty sleep the night before but he was right beside me rooting our boys on! Then my name was called.
They wanted us to do an exhibition heat because none of the Peruvians had any idea what kneeboarding was, so we had no one to compete against. What a gyp! What made it worse was I had to compete against the guy who was going to rat Doogie out. I sure as hell wasn’t going to let Shit-show Shuffle beat me! Well, now it was my turn for the rock dance from hell. I wouldn’t let my paralyzed leg stop me. I one-legged rock-hopped it and made it out to the third reef. So if we were the halftime entertainment circus clowns, let’s give the people what they want. I figured I’d just sit outside waiting for the biggest bomb to connect through all the points and drop into the close-out death bomb shore break at the end. Once again, all sounds good on paper. I wait for the biggest wave of the set and I go! It’s big, man, I’m just babying my bottom turn and praying not to spin out. My fins were holding and now I was flying! I went from third to second then into first point–now it was point of no return close-out death bomb shore break time! I dropped into the guttering monster, and it threw out so far, I felt like I was in a bullring tube! I was posted deep in this massive bowl. I couldn’t help but just put both my arms out like an airplane then get ready for the inevitable beating. Then I saw an opening! If I could slide out under the lip I’m coming out dry, so I went for it. I made it! I was going so fast I slid right under the curtain!! But my math was far from correct! The height of the wave and the distance it throws out taught me that hard lesson fast. The lip hit me square on the back of my neck, like a piano out of a 3-story building! I was obliterated! I got washed up on the beach like a dead seal. Took me awhile to figure out what planet I was on, then next to see if my head and limbs were still connected to my body. I was pleasantly surprised that everything was still attached. I knew I had just won the gold for the worst wipeout of the contest award, which I’m sure there was no trophy for so now it was time to get back up the cliff for the finals and watch one of the boyz take home the gold.
They were all out in the line ups and the swell was still building. Doogie was a monster and owned it from the beginning. McNutty definitely got second, but I think they pushed their local boy through. Lucky for everyone Bud was way under-gunned, so he got 4th or 5th. That was it! It’s a wrap! Time for the awards ceremony and to celebrate! I went to the trophy stand and was blown away at the attention to detail they had put in. They were all hand crafted in bronze. Bummer, there was no worst wipeout one, lol. I was checking them out when I heard a cute little voice say, “Hi Roy, you know I wasn’t going to miss my job as the trophy girl.” I turned around and was frozen and speechless. There, sitting in a wheelchair with a bandaged head and two raccoon black eyes was our little sweetheart. Her eyes were still sparkling, and her smile was beaming! Ohhh my God I was so happy! I laughed, I cried! I hugged her so tight and almost kissed her bandages off her poor little bandaged head. What an amazing great ending to an incredible journey! Thank you so much Tom Gibbons, Chuck Allen, Bruce Hoppy, Sam Conroy, John Rothrock and so many more for believing in us kids and giving us the memories and the surf trip of a lifetime!