Even if you live and surf in La Jolla doesn’t mean you’re welcome at Windansea. “This is one of the last places in San Diego with a visible and well-known reputation for localism,” says 17-year-old native surfer Joe Aguirre. “But they say it’s not what it used to be.”
One of the younger members of the Windansea Surf Club, Aguirre has only heard about the “good old days,” when the parking lot along Neptune Place at the foot of Nautilus Street was the domain of a closed society. Says veteran surfer Bill Andrews, “When I was in high school [in the early 1960s], lots of big guys surfed. Football players surfed. There were a bunch of tough guys who were pretty mean, and they all seemed really big. They thought we were all a bunch of pussies at La Jolla Shores because we were younger guys.”
“I surfed the Shores initially, because the older guys wouldn’t let us surf at Windansea,” says surf club member Jim Neri, who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s just blocks from Windansea on Kolmar Street. “There was ownership at Windansea back then,” says Neri. “Militant ownership which no longer exists.”
A popular spot since the 1940s, by 1963 Windansea was definitely the place to be. Beach culture had grown into a national phenomenon. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello had just made their debuts in a movie called Beach Party. “Surf City” by Jan and Dean was the number-one hit on the Billboard charts. The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” was number two. “All over La Jolla and Waimea Bay,” they sang, “tell the teacher we’re surfing — surfing USA.” The Surfaris rounded out the top ten with “Wipeout.”
Except perhaps for Malibu Beach, Windansea was arguably the epicenter of California surf culture during this golden age of surfing. Many who surfed Windansea in the 1950s had already left to pioneer big-wave riding on the North Shore of Oahu — guys like Ricky Grigg, Pat Curren, Mike Doyle, Joey Cabell, Mike Diffenderfer, and Jim Fischer. Former Surfer magazine publisher Steve Pezman once called them “the heaviest beach crew ever.”
But the most colorful, if not the greatest, surfer ever to emerge from Windansea was Butch Van Artsdalen. “Patrolling Windansea with an iron fist, Butch was known to be able to drink a case of beer then casually rip,” wrote Fred Stoughton and Andrew Tyler in a March 1978 Surfer article. “Butch was a habitual fighter and built such a widespread reputation that outsiders would constantly challenge him, hoping they could whip the king of the lot. And they never did.”
Van Artsdalen had a personality described repeatedly by people who knew him as “larger than life.” Standing six feet two inches tall, in his prime Butch was a lean 190 pounds with a triangular torso. He had very broad, almost perfectly square shoulders and a narrow waist.
By 1963 Van Artsdalen had joined the exodus to Hawaii and became one of the first persons to conquer Oahu’s Banzai Pipeline, now the world’s most photographed wave. Butch was the original “Mr. Pipeline,” achieving worldwide star status through his surfing, his appearance in movies, and his infamous reputation for drinking and fighting. Behind the tough-guy image, however, Windansea’s first enforcer was an insecure and incomplete person, truly understood by just a few close friends and family.
Born Charles Van Artsdalen on January 31,1942, Butch was the oldest of four children, with two sisters and a brother. Butch’s father was a chief in the Navy, and the Van Artsdalens grew up in Navy housing along Archer Street in north Pacific Beach. Butch’s brother Marvin was two years younger and eight inches shorter than Butch but shared his brother’s interests. Butch played baseball, basketball, and football for La Jolla High School from 1958 to 1960. Marvin lettered in football, wrestling, and track.
According to one teammate, Butch was as aggressive on the basketball court as he was on the beach, an early-day Bill Lambier who was brought off the bench as an enforcer. “If our guys were getting shoved around by a physical team, the coaches would put Butch in to mix it up a bit,” says former teammate Bing Drastrup. “But Butch would get too carried away.... If we didn’t win, he would want to go over after the game and take the other team on.” If Butch didn’t show up for practice, says Drastrup, “the conclusion was the surf was up. That’s where he felt he had it all together. That’s where he was comfortable — in the water.”
Football teammate Bill Helming remembers Butch as being like a kamikaze pilot. “He could display tremendous athletic skill, then minutes later he would turn around and do something really dumb — a personal foul or a late hit. Butch was famous for making late hits. He wasn’t a smart football player. He was an aggressive football player. Too aggressive.”
Butch would later be offered a contract as a catcher with the San Diego Padres (when the team was still in the Pacific Coast League). But his brother and other teammates agreed: Butch was missing something. “Coaches tried to show Butch how to be a team player, but he was too much of a rebel,” said Marvin. “I can remember [football] coach Gene Edwards really lighting into Butch,” says Helming, “telling him, ‘grow up or get off the team.’ ”
The strong competitive nature of the Van Artsdalen boys often developed into intense sibling rivalry. Marvin remembers one nasty day on the gridiron. Butch was a varsity fullback. Marvin, on the B team, scrimmaged against his brother as a linebacker. “I caught him behind the line three times that day. He was furious,” recalls Marvin. Moments like that kept little brother out of the water. “I promised Butch I wouldn’t get involved in surfing. Even though I wanted to, I stayed away.”
Butch and Marvin shared a bedroom in a converted garage decorated with bullfight posters and “a lot of things from Mexico,” according to Marvin. His friend Jeff Junkins recalls Butch also had pictures of quarterbacks getting hit by linebackers. “Butch hated quarterbacks,” says Junkins. Several teammates remember Butch wasn’t too fond of his own team quarterback, Doug Manchester, now a successful San Diego developer.
Though they were rivals in sports, “Butch really admired his brother. He always bragged about him,” says Carl Ekstrom, another famous La Jolla surfer, the one who taught Van Artsdalen how to surf. “But Marvin and Butch were like day and night. Marvin was a real straight shooter.”
“Marvin was Butch’s alter ego. Butch got bogged down in Bird Rock, blue-collar south La Jolla. His brother was more white collar, the La Jolla Shores type,” says Tom Fanning, a Point Loma tough guy who frequently crossed paths with Butch and later served with Marvin as a paratrooper in Vietnam. “Butch was the product of his old man, an enlisted guy in the Navy. So here was a guy going to school in La Jolla, and he felt insufficient. He was left behind socioeconomically, so he excelled in sports.
“In those days following World War II, the masculine performance was based on war movies and your father’s war stories,” says Fanning. “Things were a little more ‘John Wayne’ back then. Butch learned to assert his territorial dominance with his fists. He got his reputation and he got his chicks. If you tried to cut in on his chicks, you entered his territorial domain. I was a stag, an interloper. I liked the La Jolla girls, but I didn’t want to deal with him if I didn’t have to.”
If Butch so often went astray, it was perhaps because he never had much of a family role model. “My dad was an alcoholic and would fight with my mom a lot,” says Marvin. “So Butch was also an alcoholic and a fighter. I don’t think I remember a day that I didn’t see him with a Budweiser in his hand. Sometimes I feel that if I’d been older and stronger, I would’ve grabbed him by the neck. Butch excelled in one area to superstar status without developing another aspect to his personality.”
During Butch’s first four years, his father was at sea aboard an aircraft carrier. “Butch grew up having to wait in food lines with my mom during the war,” says Marvin. “He had to grow up real fast. He had to learn quickly to fight for himself.”
After the senior Van Artsdalen returned from the war, he and Butch didn’t get along too well. “They were always at odds with each other,” recalls Marvin. But Butch’s relationship with his mother was an entirely different story. “Mother always protected Butch,” says Marvin. “She had the oh-my-son-would-never-do-that attitude. My mom to this day thinks my brother was an angel.” Sometimes it was difficult for the younger brother. Marvin always had a job and would save his earnings. Butch raided his brother’s money box twice and was never reprimanded. Mrs. Van Artsdalen once told Marvin, “I think you’re too good for this family.”
The qualities that made Butch an outcast among affluent and studious teenagers made him a leader among the rebellious beach crowd. No matter where he went, it seemed Van Artsdalen was always the center of attention. He was always surrounded by women. But Butch never got too close, he never dropped his guard.
“Butch was nice looking,” says Carol Clifford, La Jolla High School’s 1962 senior princess. “But he always had a chip on his shoulder.”
Though he dated dozens of girls in high school, “the one that broke his heart,” says Marvin, “was Marsha Brown.” The daughter of Cadillac dealer Marvin K. Brown, Marsha came from an affluent La Jolla household. She had big plans for Butch, but, according to his brother Marvin, “he just couldn’t change enough to fit into her way of life. She wanted Butch to be stable, to continue with his education, but she couldn’t tame him. She tried,” says Marvin. “Believe me, she tried.”
“We were from extremely different backgrounds,” says Marsha Brown, who left for the University of Arizona after graduating from La Jolla High in 1960. But the beach brought Van Artsdalen and Brown together. “Golf and tennis were more my thing, but I spent a lot of time at Windansea,” she says.
Brown knew a sensitive side to Butch that many people didn’t see. “He had this outward appearance that was exactly the opposite, but I think his ego was very fragile.” She still recalls the image of Butch sitting alone in his car at the Windansea parking lot on a Friday night, parties raging all about him, staring blankly toward the sea.
“I think there was a lot of insecurity that he covered up with that macho, ‘don’t cross me’ attitude,” she says. A lot of it had to do with growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. “Unfortunately, there were a lot of snobbish people in La Jolla, and they kind of considered Pacific Beach as out of bounds,” she says.
Brown remembers a night when she was 17 and her parents were away, leaving her and her younger sister alone in a large house. Fearful of prowlers and peeping Toms, or perhaps just bored and mischievous, Marsha called Butch. He hiked all the way from Pacific Beach into the Muirlands hills to reassure two frightened girls, then walked back home. If Marsha or her sister were at a party and missed their ride home, they could usually count on Butch to borrow a car and pick them up. Brown returned Butch’s numerous favors by buying him a sweater for his birthday. “He loved that sweater,” she says. On cold days and warm days, at school, at the beach, “he wore it and wore it.”
Mrs. Van Artsdalen liked Brown. She must have seen the rich La Jolla girl as a good influence on her son. Marsha kept Butch on his best behavior. Besides, time spent with Marsha was time spent away from delinquent beach bums — and what mother wouldn’t want her son to marry into a comfortable, established family? When Marsha graduated, she says, Mrs. Van Artsdalen bought her a beautiful plate with her name engraved on it from Jessop’s Jewelers. “It must have cost her four times more than she could afford,” says Brown. “I don’t know where she got the idea.”
Butch’s friend Carl Ekstrom says the Browns invited Butch and his mother to dinner one night and Butch never showed up. “Mr. Brown wanted to kill him,” says Ekstrom. Brown and Van Artsdalen would eventually marry others; Brown is still happily married in Santa Monica, but Butch’s marriage lasted only a few months.
After Marsha, Butch had numerous affairs. “A couple of girls today are claiming to be his daughter,” says Marvin. But “Butch never cultivated a nurturing relationship. That’s why he’s dead. He had all these superficial friends, but he never had a family unit.”
Many of Van Artsdalen’s other high school classmates also left for college in the fall of 1960. Butch stayed in La Jolla. His classroom was the beach, his professors were Ekstrom, Bla James, and Ronald Patterson. During this time, Butch would burn many bridges and wear out his welcome with the San Diego Police Department. He stayed at Windansea just long enough to perfect himself as a surfer and a fighter before leaving for Hawaii. A lot of blood was spilled on the way.
In late 1962, Northern Division Police Captain Howard Charman met with Senior Lifeguard Bill Cosgrove and Aquatic Superintendent Don Vynne and held a meeting to plan a crackdown on rowdy and delinquent surfers.
“We were familiar with Butch and his kind,” says Charman, now retired. “Windansea got to be a real pain in the butt. Citizens around there were getting uptight, and justifiably so. Broken beer bottles, litter, surfers going up into people’s yards and peeing all over the place. First we warned them, ‘If you’re going to surf Windansea Beach, boy, you better straighten up and fly straight.’ Then we put the pressure on. We had more tickets than they had money and we were very generous with them [the tickets]. We warned the surfers we could pass an ordinance to prohibit surfing at Windansea.”
Resident artist Michael Dormer responded by erecting a statue of Hot Curl, an icon of the era, next to the palm shack. Slouched on a surfboard in defiant adolescent posture, beer in hand, face hidden behind his long hair, Hot Curl signified the attitude of a new generation. The unrest among ’60s youth was just starting to bloom.
Also influencing Windansea at the time was an influx of Hawaiians, who brought their pioneer spirit to the mainland. Most notable — if only for his size — was Bla James, a huge islander, “a Neanderthal,” according to Michael Dormer, “something out of One Million, B.C”
People called James the Hawaiian Hit Man. Justified or not, he had a criminal’s reputation back in the islands. Jeff Junkins, a wild character in his own right, calls Bla James “a fuckin’ nut.” Junkins remembers a party where James saw a haole (mainlander) he didn’t know. “He nailed the stranger in the foot with a Hawaiian sling,” recalls Junkins, referring to a kind of three-pronged spear. “Just nailed him to the floor.”
In the parking lot at Windansea, Bla James supervised the pecking order. When somebody skipped the chain of command, if they didn’t follow orders, there was a price to pay. Jeff Junkins talks about his own initiation. “They hung me upside down from the [palm] shack and shaved my head,” he says. “If they told you to go punch someone, you did it.” Michael Dormer remembers James ordering Van Artsdalen into Combat, siccing him on unwelcome visitors as if Butch were his own personal pit bull.
Ronald Patterson, a Hawaiian who arrived in La Jolla in 1953, when he was 17, quickly hit it off with Butch. “I saw this one goofy foot kid, and goddamn, he could sure surf good,” remembers Patterson. At the time, Van Artsdalen was only 11 years old, just a grommet. “I wouldn’t let Mike Diffenderfer and the other guys pick on him,” Patterson says.
A dark-skinned, long-haired kid with a taste for beer, Patterson quickly earned a bad reputation with the authorities. “I was arrested every Friday, 13 times in three months,” says Patterson. “There were no civil rights in those days.” It wasn’t unusual for the cops to pick up Patterson on Friday afternoon and keep him in the slammer all weekend. Once, Patterson says, they found a crowbar in his car and charged him with every breaking-and-entering case in the beach area.
Patterson helped instill in Butch a Hawaiian sense of localism. “You better believe nobody touched our beach,” he says. “I remember one time these hodaddies came down and this huge weightlifter guy called Butch out. He was a monster. We were all wondering if Butch could take him. One hit [from Butch] and the guy was on his knees. They shook hands and the big guy actually said, ‘Thanks for the fight.’ Then they split. They had to. We would have kicked their asses.”
But before Butch reached star status as a surfer, he enjoyed a brief film career in Hollywood in the early ’60s. The surf movie moguls had sent their casting people out to recruit real surfers as extras in their productions. Michael Dormer, who was in Hollywood at the time trying to sell his Hot Curl character to the cartoon syndicates, was asked, “Do you have any beach guys and beach girls down there in La Jolla?” Dormer spread the word at Windansea, loading Cadillacs full of people and shuttling them up to American International Pictures. Van Artsdalen, Billy Graham, and two of Windansea’s hottest wahines, Sally Vining and Linda Opie, took advantage of the opportunity.
Vining and Opie were later dubbed the “two bookends” by director Bill Asher. A pair of attractive surfer girls with sun-streaked, waist-length hair, both had beauty queen backgrounds as Miss La Jolla. Vining went on to be crowned the Fairest of the Fair. (Living nearly identical lives for a period, both were widowed when their husbands crashed in an airplane as they performed barrel rolls together off of Windansea Beach.)
“Our group was probably rowdier than the Hollywood movie star set,” says Opie. “Linda and I would get up at 5:00 a.m., do our exercises, put on our makeup, and go to the studio,” says Vining. They both found steady work doing beach movies. Opie later worked on the Gidget television series, and Vining went on to act with Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper in The Trip.
While the gals were making a career of it, “guys like Butch were into the scene for the money,” says Bear Mirandon, owner of Surfboards La Jolla and one of Butch’s sponsors at the time. According to Mirandon, Windansea surfers scoffed at the surf movies and surf music too, for that matter. “They hated that shit. Your hardcore surfers back then were into early jazz, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis. The Beach Boys weren’t anything my friends liked.'”
“Butch did a couple of those Beach Blanket Bingo movies,” says Ronald Patterson, “but he never liked any of those movie guys.” There was a lot of trouble on the set. Jeff Junkins heard that the producers were giving Butch and his gang a keg of beer a day. Opie remembers brandy being passed around on cold mornings when they filmed at the beach. The real surfers got drunk, and when they filmed the fight scenes, they started landing real punches. Toward the end of one movie, “those Hollywood guys actually wanted to kill Butch,” says Patterson. “They wanted to hurt him.”
After Van Artsdalen retired from Hollywood around 1962, Mirandon paid him to hang out at the beach and surf. “I gave him $75 a month to be at contests, have my boards there, all that P.R. stuff,” says Mirandon, who still runs Surfboards La Jolla today.
Socially, Van Artsdalen became a marked man. His reputation as a brawler traveled beyond the predominantly white population of La Jolla to tougher neighborhoods. Butch had already proved himself among the few black people living in La Jolla by playing sports with them at the La Jolla Recreation Center. But there was always someone from across town who wanted a shot at him.
Carl Ekstrom remembers a guy from Linda Vista who came looking for Butch one night during a dance at the recreation center. The guy was about 50 pounds heavier than Butch. They were ready to go at it right on the dance floor, but the security guard said, “Not in here. Take it outside.” So they walked across Draper Street, by the La Jolla Presbyterian Church, and, Ekstrom says, Butch started boxing with the guy. “Then the guy grabbed him. They went down and I thought oh, no,” recalls Ekstrom. “But somehow Butch came out on top.”
Butch wasn’t so fortunate one night at the Power House, a beach nightclub across from the railroad station in Del Mar. “Butch saw Jack Pringle with one of his harem,” says Tom Fanning. “Butch accosted Pringle, and Pringle hammered him. Knocked him cold.”
“Butch was drunk, and Pringle got the first punch on him and just laid him out,” recalls Ekstrom. “I took him home. He had a broken nose and a big bruise over his eye. He kept saying, ‘Ekstrom, I’m gonna get that guy.’ I said, ‘Not tonight.’ ” Even when Butch was with his friends, he was duking it out. On Butch’s 18th birthday, Ekstrom says, Van Artsdalen turned his living room into a boxing ring. “I wasn’t feeling well, and Butch said, ‘Come on over anyway. It’ll be a quiet get-together. We’ll just have a little cake and ice cream.’ I never made it to the party,” says Ekstrom, “but I heard about it. Mike Diffenderfer had a chipped tooth the next day.”
Ronald Patterson, who was at the party, said when Diffenderfer knocked on the door, Butch opened it and “just let him have it,” punching Diffenderfer in the face. Diffenderfer turned around and punched the next guy who came through the door. Butch’s brother Marvin remembers coming home to discover Bla James sitting on top of Butch and pummeling him. Thinking his brother was in trouble, Marvin clocked James. “Butch was furious with me,” says Marvin. By the end of the night the Van Artsdalen house was in tatters.
Butch’s reputation as a partier and brawler spilled south of the border into Mexico. “We crossed paths often [in San Diego],” recalls Tom Fanning, Van Artsdalen’s Point Loma rival, “but it seems like we always ended up in the Long Bar in Mexico.”
“Mexico was kind of a party scene,” says Carl Ekstrom. “It all happened after the bullfights. Those were radical times. One night a guy pulled a gun on Butch, and Butch just punched him.” According to Ekstrom, all the hot surfers from Malibu and Hermosa Beach would congregate in Tijuana and party at the Long Bar. “It was kind of neat how the surf crowd was so cohesive back then,” says Ekstrom.
“I can remember Butch telling me not to go to Mexico,” his brother Marvin says, “because he had broken out of the Tijuana jail three times, and he said his face was on wanted posters all along the border.” Ronald Patterson, one of Butch’s closest friends, eventually quit going down to Mexico with Butch. “He was too dangerous. Butch was getting into too many fights.” With Van Artsdalen leading the pack, the surfing community’s Tijuana exploits became beach lore and were later incorporated in film director John Milius’s movie Big Wednesday.
By the end of 1964, Southern California was closing in on Butch. To the north, he’d worn out his welcome in Hollywood. To the south, Mexico was off-limits. To the east were a bunch of angry hodads who wanted to kick Butch’s ass. The police were after him all the time. Ronald Patterson recalls, “I said, ‘Butch, why don’t you sign the goddamned contract and go play baseball?’ But no...” Van Artsdalen’s problems were growing too large to hide in the waves at Windansea. Butch moved to Oahu.
La Jolla resident Terry Bowman remembers living with Butch in a pair of abandoned vans in front of Dick Brewer’s surf shop in Haleiwa. Van Artsdalen earned his reputation as a world-class water man on the rural North Shore of Oahu. “Butch and Eddie Aikau were the first lifeguards out here on the North Shore,” says Kimo Hollinger, once a representative in La Jolla for surfboard shaper Greg Velzy and now a fireman in Oahu. Eddie was at Waimea Bay, and Butch was two miles down the beach at Pipeline. Kimo introduced Butch around, showed him the ropes, even taught him to speak Hawaiian, which angered some of the natives. But Hollinger could get away with it. He was on his home turf and very well respected.
With Hollinger’s credentials, Van Artsdalen’s charisma, and a lot of open space, the two settled in to carve their niche as surfing legends. “Him and I were like brothers,” says Hollinger. “We were brothers.”
Kimo and Butch continually amazed people with their aquatic feats. “One day Kimo and Butch drank a case and a half apiece and went out and surfed 20-foot Waimea Bay,” recalls surf shop owner Bear Mirandon. “How they did that, I’ll never know.”
Butch was continually written up in the Hawaiian press for his amazing lifeguard rescues, and all his friends and family have their favorite rescue stories. “One summer he rescued 37 lives,” says Marvin. “He was constantly sending my mother clippings.” Ekstrom recalls a time when Butch rescued four swimmers at once. Patterson talks about Butch saving a 310-pound man in giant Pipeline surf, towing the obese swimmer seaward to a helicopter beyond the crunching breakers. Mirandon says Butch would make rescues in conditions no other lifeguard would even consider. “That shore break, it’s so powerful that you just hope you don’t get hit. If you do get hit, you’re history.”
“In 1976 Butch saved my life,” says Kimo Hollinger, who was caught at Waimea Bay when it started closing out. “I was swimming into the rocks and I was about to drown. Butch had been watching... They made a human chain, and Butch was the first guy to grab me.” Hollinger was so shaken he never surfed Waimea Bay again.
Marvin saw his brother only once in Hawaii. On his way to Vietnam as a paratrooper, Marvin called Butch to let him know they’d be stopping in Honolulu to refuel. “When I got out of the plane, I looked and looked, but I didn’t see him. When we took off, I looked out my window and saw Butch standing on top of the airport building, waving. Police were running toward him from all directions.” Marvin later learned that Butch had left for the airport late, so he sped like a maniac through Honolulu with the police on his tail, hoping to avoid arrest long enough to see off his brother properly.
Butch’s last trip to La Jolla was after Marvin returned from Vietnam. During the visit, he borrowed Marvin’s Buick Super 88. “Not an hour later police called and asked if I knew a Jose Gomez. I asked them to describe him and sure enough, it was Butch. At that time they had so many outstanding citations against him the judge deported him back to Hawaii and forbade him to return to the mainland. That was the last I ever saw of Butch.”
In 1977 Butch was in an auto accident in Hawaii and injured his head severely. “He had been through a rough divorce,” said Kimo Hollinger. “We were in a bar together. He was despondent and he just disappeared.” Hollinger went out on the road looking for him, discovered Butch had run his car off the Waimea Bridge, and rescued his best friend near the same beach where Butch had rescued him. According to Marvin, the resulting injuries limited Butch’s water activities, so the lifeguards took him off the beach and put him in a supervisor’s role. “That really hurt his ego,” says Marvin.
“Butch started drinking on duty,” says Hollinger. “Me, I was just as bad as him. I was an alcoholic too, but I was fortunate enough to quit.”
“Butch craved a lot of attention,” says Ekstrom. “He was one of those guys who were always saying, ‘Hey, why didn’t they invite me to the party?’ ” Younger surfers like Gerry Lopez were emerging to steal the spotlight from Butch at Pipeline. “Way before Lopez, Butch was known as Mr. Pipeline,” said Patterson. “He had the whole place to himself.”
“The media built him up, then dumped him,” says Hollinger. “I was in Hawaii when Butch had his first cirrhosis attack in the mid-’70s,” says Bear Mirandon. “The doctors told him to quit drinking, and he said, ‘Bear, I can’t quit drinking.’ He was still so popular, someone was always offering to buy him a drink, and Butch could never say no.” Alienated and alone in his final years, Butch quietly faded away and drank himself to death, dying on July 19, 1979. “He was a 37-year-old man in an 85-year-old body,” says Marvin.
There was a huge funeral for Van Artsdalen at Pipeline. Right on the beach. People flew in from all over the world to attend. Patterson said that groups from every beach in the islands paddled out in their canoes to scatter Butch’s ashes. “Nothing was breaking. It was flat that day. We all threw our leis in the water.”
“I have fond memories of Butch,” says Marsha Brown. “I just feel so bad that he died young.”
“Butch is the kind of guy,” says Hollinger, “I don’t think he would have grown old gracefully.”
In San Diego, Van Artsdalen’s reputation is still passed on through the spoken word at Windansea, just like old Hawaiian folklore. Though there are brief clips of him in the movie The Endless Summer, and there was an obituary honoring him in Surfer magazine, there isn’t a single reference to him in San Diego-area libraries. There was also a temporary shrine to Butch a few years ago at the California Surf Museum in Pacific Beach. (The museum has since relocated to Oceanside.) A staff member saw a young woman with tears in her eyes, standing in front of a photo of Van Artsdalen. “He was my father,” she said. The man was amazed. “There was another girl in here two days ago who said she was Butch’s daughter too,” he told her. That’s how Tifani Kahn says she met her theretofore unknown half-sister Kelly.
Sitting on the patio at the Green Flash restaurant along the Mission Beach boardwalk, talking about the famous father she never met, there is little doubt that Kahn is Butch Van Artsdalen’s daughter. Those square shoulders, the bone structure of her face, that smile; she looks just like him. She says she and her sister both share physical and personality traits. “We’re both athletic and we both have a temper.”
Kahn’s mother, who grew up in Pacific Beach, met Butch at a surf contest in Huntington Beach in 1968. “My mother was 19 when she had me,” says Kahn, who uses her stepfather’s surname. It was Dave Kahn who told Tifani that she was Butch’s daughter. “You’ve got to get a picture of Butch and look at it,” he told her. She was 15 at the time. Butch had been dead for five years.
“They only had a brief affair,” says Kahn of her parents. “That’s why my mom had a problem telling me. Butch didn’t want anything to do with kids. He wanted no part of it [the pregnancy].” When she found out who her father was, Kahn says she got “really upset,” wishing she could have met him, could have gotten to know Butch, wondering if she could have saved him. Tifani decided to get to know her father the only way she could — by meeting his old friends and his family.
“From people I’ve talked with, he was really mysterious. They called him Black Butch. No one could get close to him. A lot of people knew Butch because they partied with him. But the people who really knew Butch, they’re kind of protective of him. There are things they didn’t want to tell me.”
Kahn says she talked to famous surfboard shaper Skip Frye, probably Pacific Beach’s foremost surfer. “He told me a lot of good things about my dad.” She also had Thanksgiving dinner two years ago with surf veteran Mike Diffenderfer — the one Butch punched in the mouth on his 18th birthday. “He cried,” says Kahn. “He told me he missed Butch so much.”
There were some emotional and difficult moments meeting the Van Artsdalen family. Kahn says there were tears in Marvin’s eyes as he looked at her hands and her face. “Yeah,” he said. “I believe you’re Butch’s daughter.” Mrs. Van Artsdalen didn’t believe, though. “She wouldn’t believe Butch would walk away from his responsibilities.” Annette Lucas, the only Van Artsdalen sister Kahn has met, is convinced that Tifani is Butch’s daughter.
After learning the truth, Kahn says, she went through a long wild spell, trying to come to terms with her identity. “I would jump from one truck to another on the freeway. I would go to parties and drink a lot.” Not anymore. Kahn avoids alcohol these days, saying her maternal grandmother died an alcoholic. She talks about her mother’s battles with the bottle. Kahn, who plans to change her name to Van Artsdalen next year, says she has developed a strong spiritual connection with her father at Windansea Beach. She likes to go there now.
“I believe I was drowned in a past life,” Kahn says, admitting she is still afraid of the water. But she would like to learn how to surf. She believes it will bring her even closer to her father.
Could Butch Van Artsdalen’s daughter paddle out at Windansea as a beginner and not be hassled? There is still localism at the beach, but it isn’t nearly as virulent as it was during her father’s time. “Today’s kids are no comparison,” says Jeff Junkins. “They wouldn’t last five minutes in the lot with the old crew.” Ask an up-and-coming competitor like 16-year-old Saxon Boucher about localism and he’ll tell you, “I feel it’s dying off. A lot of beginners are coming here now.”
“There’s so many guys paddling out now that have no clue,” says Mike Germaine, a Windansea Surf Club member who works at Mitch’s Surf Shop in La Jolla. “I guess we’ll have to revert back to the old days. It’s an uncool thing to do, but...”
Of course, society has changed a lot since the “old days.” There’s much more general violence, much more litigation. “In our day a fight was a fight,” says Van Artsdalen’s old pal Ronald Patterson. “Now everybody’s got guns and weapons. You gotta be crazy now to do the stuff we did then.”
Surf artist Michael Dormer tells a story about Butch Van Artsdalen that illustrates how much the justice system has changed. “Butch was playing football in the street one day by the Windansea lot. A flower delivery truck went by, and the rearview mirror struck Butch behind the head. It was a tremendous blow, but Butch had an incredibly high threshold for pain. The delivery driver was afraid Butch was going to kill him and didn’t stop. He kept going. So Butch and a bunch of guys walked up to the flower shop to settle the score. The owner ended up buying them a couple of kegs, and that was Butch’s version of an out-of-court settlement.” But now, as Mike Germaine observes, “This is the ’90s. You can’t go out and punch people these days. You’ll get sued.”
But there still is an old-fashioned enforcer at Windansea. And ironically, like Butch, today’s enforcer has never been a true La Jolla insider. “The last of the last — and when he’s done, it’ll be all over,” says Micko Fleming, one of the current hot young surfers riding the La Jolla reefs. Fleming tells a funny story about him. “I called the surf report one morning. They said the waves were four to six feet. Good form. Glassy conditions. But look out for Scot Cherry. He’s in a bad mood.”
Classmates at Muirlands Junior High in the mid-’70s remember Cherry as a skinny, gangly kid I went to Muirlands Junior High School with back in 1974. Everybody used to give him shit. Chris O’Rourke, the late, great Windansea surfer, was always ragging on that guy, even gave him a bloody nose once. One classmate pissed all over his clothes in a gym locker. Scot Cherry was considered a squid — it said so in graffiti on the back of the racquetball courts at Muirlands.
Perhaps the problem started with Cherry’s physique. He had developed a big barrel chest at a young age, but the rest of his body hadn’t grown into it yet. He would walk around with his chest puffed out, and kids could interpret it as arrogant, almost belligerent. His posture invited an aggressive response. Cherry was also kind of eager. He seemed to barge in on the scene, and some people didn’t like that. Worst of all, he was from Clairemont, and at the time, La Jolla youth were very parochial. Inlanders were not welcome.
“He really did irk some people for some reason. I used to give him a hard time myself,” says Jim Neri, the Kolmar Street local who was having his own hard time breaking into the Windansea scene. Struggling for acceptance in La Jolla, a frustrated Cherry eventually transferred to Mission Bay High.
Eighteen years later Scot Cherry stands at about six foot four and weighs 205 pounds. He says he was bigger a few years ago. He had bulked up to about 235 pounds while working on a tuna seiner and was a serious weightlifter for a while. “But I felt too big and sluggish. Now I’m a lot lighter on my feet. My hands are a lot lighter and quicker.”
Cherry says it was the heat he took at Muirlands Junior High that forged his menacing disposition. “When we first moved here, I used to get a lot of trouble,” he says. “Kids can be a lot meaner than older people.”
Anybody who wants to surf at Windansea has to pay his dues. “For a long time I had a chip on my shoulder,” Cherry says. “I was out to get revenge, and anybody who tried to beat me back got a face full of knuckles. I felt that after I’d paid my dues and earned my respect, if somebody was rude enough to drop in on me, I’d lose my temper.”
Once, during a big south swell, Cherry took one of the largest guys in the water and made an example of him. “I took off on an eight-foot wave, and this guy, about six foot ten, with tattoos up and down his arms, takes off in front of me. He dropped straight down on me. We collided and both landed on my friend Pete. Right off the bat the guy reaches up and punches me. So we went at it for about five or ten minutes in the water. He had long fingernails and he kept reaching out, trying to grab me by the throat and face. I plowed him about eight times on the side of the head, and after that he didn’t want to fight anymore.
“He never really landed a good punch, but I was bleeding from the scratches on my face. I was so pissed off at this guy. He had cut me off and run into me, and he almost hurt a friend of mine by landing on top of him. Then he started a fight with me, and after I started winning, he didn’t want to fight anymore. I waited on the beach for him until dark. He never showed up. I don’t know what the hell happened to him.”
Though he’s gained the fear and respect of many at the beach, Cherry says he would never take unfair advantage of his position. “When I used to get picked on all the time...when I was a little guy and bigger guys would pick on me, I thought, ’When I get big, never again!’ Well, I got big, and while I’m around no one’s going to pick on a smaller person. No one’s going to push around a lady, no one’s going to be disrespectful.”
In 1989, when he was 13 years old, Joe Aguirre was surfing Windansea, and “this older guy kept dropping in on me. I said, ‘Hey, man, don’t do that again.’ The older guy just told me to fuck off. He slapped me across the face and said, ‘What are you going to do about it, you little punk?’
“Scot was watching the whole thing and got angry with the guy. The guy got real nasty with Scot and asked him if he wanted to go settle it on the beach. Scot said fine. They settled it on the beach, and the guy had to go to the hospital for stitches. Scot stopped after he split the guy’s cheek open and said, ‘Now look. See what you did? Why don’t you go to the hospital, get some stitches, and go home and think about it and try to develop some respect.’ I’ve been pretty obnoxious and gotten myself into a few situations,” says Aguirre, “but that guy had it coming to him.”
“I’ve always said I’ve got a John Wayne complex,” says Cherry, “because of the things that happened to me in junior high. I’ve always tried to stick up for whoever was in the right.”
People have tried to take advantage of that attitude. “There have been times when there’s someone I’ve never seen before in my life out in the water, and that person would stick himself in a jam, then call out for me. And I’d say, ‘Hey, that’s your problem! If you’ve done this, and now that guy’s coming after you, I’m not going to stick up for you.’ ”
For many people around Windansea, in the water and out, Cherry is law enforcement. In some instances, he has managed to clean up the beach area better than the police ever could have.
“There was a guy down here that was following girls home to their houses, and he was a convicted rapist and drug dealer,” says Cherry. “I kept telling the guy, ‘We don’t want you around here,’ but he kept coming back. He followed this one girl home, got her name out of the phone book, and kept calling her and bothering her. She said, ‘Scot, can you do something about this guy?’ I kept telling the guy, ‘Look, you’re not wanted here.’ Finally one day this guy took a swing at me, and I just beat the crap out of him. He hasn’t been back since.”
Another time, according to surfer Tom Tweed, “I was standing on the corner of Nautilus and Neptune when these guys with long hair — these three scroungy bums walked by — no, stumbled by — yucking it up. One guy tripped over the curb and some people laughed at him. Well, he got really obnoxious. He started cussing and raising a big stink. I think Scot told the guy to calm down, and the bum starts going off on Scot, saying stuff like, ‘Suck my dick, motherfucker.’ So Scot walked up to him and told him, ‘You know something? You don’t talk like that to anybody.’ And the bum said, ‘What are you going to do? Take all three of us?’ ”
“Although there was a large group of my friends around,” recalls Cherry, “I told them to stay put, because at that point I was real conscious about problems with the law and lawsuits and stuff. And I figured, if there’s three of them, there’s no judge in the world that’s going to put me in trouble for fighting these guys. So I did. I took all three of them. I had about a dozen of my friends watching, and when it was over, two of them had to carry their buddy away.”
One morning Scot answered a knock at his door, and it was Mike Hynson, the famous surfer from Bruce Brown’s movie The Endless Summer. He said, “Are you Scot Cherry? I understand if I have a problem around here I should come to you.” Scot said, “Well, I’m not the cops.” But Hynson, who’s had some trouble with the law in his time, had developed the notion that you don’t go to the cops with a problem.
Hynson’s problem was with a big Samoan guy he’d been hanging out with. He’d loaned the Samoan his car keys, and the guy disappeared with his automobile for the next three days. “I knew who he was talking about,” said Cherry, “so I said, ‘Well, I’ll see what I can do.’ I went down to the beach that afternoon and asked a few people, ‘Have you seen Dave around? Tell him Scot’s looking for him. Give him this number and have him give me a call.’ ”
Dave got the message. He gave Cherry a call, and Cherry told him, “Why don’t you come over to my house and bring Mike Hynson’s keys.” Respecting Cherry’s request, he returned Hynson’s keys. Dave was a bully, and Cherry recalls, “I bounced him off a few walls, pointed a finger straight in his face, and told him, ‘You don’t bother Mike about this. Leave him alone.’ ”
There is no doubt that Scot now sits I comfortably at the top of the Windansea pecking order. With all the stories about his violent conquests, Cherry’s legend looms large along Neptune Place. “It’s flattering, but at the same time people talk and bend reality out of shape,” he says. “I’m a mellow guy now. I’m trying to play that image down.”
Standing above the beach with his six-month-old daughter, it’s obvious that Cherry relishes his role as a parent and family man. He strolls down the street, stopping to chat with other parents and compare babies; petting a lady’s puppy; waving at the neighbors as they drive by. Cherry now has a legitimacy he could never earn with his fists, and he’s concerned about protecting it.
“Scot’s only been in two fights since we’ve been going out, which is very good, because I’m anti-, anti- any kind of violence,” says Scot’s wife Starla, who’s been with him for two and a half years. She knows about Cherry’s reputation, but she’s certain that he’s changed for the better. “I don’t think I would’ve been attracted to Scot if he were still like that,” she says.
Some surfers talk about the metal plate in Cherry’s skull, joking how he probably sets off the alarm at the airport security. Actually, the plate in Cherry’s head is plastic, the result of a motorcycle accident. He was in a coma for a week. Does he still ride motorcycles? “No. No! I went end over end doing 65 on La Jolla Boulevard. No helmet. I’m just real lucky that I have any kind of brains left.”
Starla credits Scot’s accident as a turning point in his life. “His first wife left him when he was in the hospital,” she says. “She didn’t think he was going to make it. He came home to an empty house.” Cherry now lives with Starla and their baby on a quiet street, just a few blocks from Windansea.
“Scot is highly respected among the local surf community,” says Windansea Surf Club President Bob Pierce. “I can’t stress how much he’s done for the Surf Club and St. Vincent De Paul. Every August we teach the St. Vincent kids how to surf for the day and they have a big barbecue. Last year 37 kids participated, and Scot organized the whole affair.
“He’s real necessary if you ask me,” Pierce continues. “There’s someone like Scot at every great surf spot in the world. Scot enforces the pecking order and prevents people from stomping into the scene. He really gets into very few physical confrontations. I don’t think he’s been in more than five fist fights in the last five years.”
“I don’t like territorialism,” says surf veteran Carl Ekstrom. “I’ve never believed in it. But I also don’t believe in taking advantage of other people. I will say there are some pushy people, and I like to see them come up against someone who will push back.”
Apparently there are quite a few others who share Ekstrom’s sentiments. Last year, in a gathering at the beach, the Windansea surf community presented Cherry with a new surfboard as a sort of public service award for all his assistance. Local surfer and surf-gear entrepreneur Rusty Preisendorfer wrote the inscription: “To Scot: be firm, yet gentle.”
Carl Ekstrom has made the comparison between Cherry and Butch Van Artsdalen. Each had a chip on his shoulder but worked it out differently. “The difference between Scot and Butch,” says Ekstrom, “is that if someone was stepping on Butch’s toes, he wouldn’t say a word. He would just paddle up and hit somebody. Scot’ll usually try talking to the person first.”