Gnarly knowledge was imparted by surfing legend Woody Eckstrom, assisted here by professor Jerome Hall.
Seagulls skree their raucous song while rays of sun pierce through roiling clouds. Blown-out waves look gray, until they flash a moment of clear aqua wonder before vanishing into flecks of foam. The water rolls back out, ebbing and flowing its ancient song.
And the students are rapt.
Not at the ocean’s endless dance. No, they are hanging on the windblown words of Woody Eckstrom, literally a legend in his own time. He stands before them — under The Shack at La Jolla’s Windansea beach, a palm-frond topped structure very much like the one he helped build a half-century ago — telling of what it was like, back in the day.
“We had huge surf here in 1945,” the still-fit Eckstrom recalls, fighting to be heard over the strident birds. “And the luaus were amazing. It was one party after another. My parents said, ’You kids will get tired of that beach after awhile’.” Everyone laughs. He tells of riding waves on an ironing board, of overnights on the beach, of tricking out the Model T he bought with a war bond so that it could lug the heavy oversized surfboards that early wave-riders fashioned out of the materials at hand. It’s history, live and in person.
Though this is definitely an upper division cultural anthropology class, just now it feels like something more. New this year, Anthropology 364: Surf Culture and History, is taught by professor Jerome Lynn Hall. And judging by his smile, this is a moment he’s been looking forward to for a very long time.
“When we talk about ritual, celebration, and respect, this is what we’re talking about,” Hall says upon introducing Eckstrom to the group. When the surfing icon takes questions, the students have plenty to ask.
“Did you realize you were the first of your kind?” asks one. “Yes, we did,” he answers with a smile.
“What do you think of short boards?” asks another. “All I can say is, to each his own.” Laughter.
“Have you seen changes in the way surfers act over the years?” “Yes.” He looks a bit saddened.
“I think we had it maybe a little better than you guys do.” A collective sigh signals that at least a few of the students think so too.
A week earlier, class was held in the more traditional environs of Maher Hall, where there was nary a seagull within earshot. Clad in a Hawaiian shirt exploding with hibiscus flowers and palm fronds, Hall greeted the class with a resounding, “Aloha!” The students returned the greeting with gusto.
There was a buzz in the room, since a story about their studies had just appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune, stressing the novelty of offering it at all, and noting that “it’s the first serious examination of the surf culture to be offered at (USD), and one of the first of its kind in the world.”
Outgoing College of Arts and Sciences Dean Patrick Drinan was an early supporter of Hall’s proposal to add the class to the curriculum, saying, “This course’s emphasis on the true meaning of aloha — respect for elders — makes it perfect for USD.” It’s certainly proven popular among the 50 or so enrolled students, though as the semester progressed they found it wasn’t necessarily the stroll in the sand they might have imagined. Hall expects them to work, to read, to discuss, to think and, naturally, to prove their knowledge on tests.
On that particular day, participants continued a discussion about masculinity and the problems that arise when surfers go “aggro.” Students came up with a list of words describing that state of being: aggressive, aggravated, militantly angry, confrontational. Hall contrasted this sort of behavior with the concept of aloha. “Look,” he said. “There’s a difference in being a person on a surfing board and a surfer. It’s about respect. ” The students murmured agreement.
“One of the benefits of having a good liberal arts education is that you don’t just look at what data say. We’re training you to say, ’Yes, I see that. But is there more?’”
After a brief foray into the merits of living one’s life to best exemplify the aloha spirit, the discussion returned to talk about masculinity, aggro behavior, respect and rebellion.
“Listen,” he says, just before it was time to go. “If you have respect, you’ll be treated with respect. Oh! And don’t forget! Next week we’re at The Shack at Windansea!”
No worries. They’ll be there.