Mike and I had agreed to publish his autobiography, which I was coauthoring with him, with George Foote of Silent e Publishing. I don’t know if that book will be completed. It may be a long time before that decision is made. But, I wanted to share a chapter from it which Mike was particularly fond of, to offer some comfort to his friends through Mike’s own words. As many of you will, I’ll miss my friend. May he rest in peace with those who have gone before.
I killed Black Beauty
It was in 1994 and my friend Robert Wolfe, who was originally from New Smyrna Beach, was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach, which was originating the first edition of the Walk of Fame. The Walk of Fame is a section of sidewalk on the corner of Main St and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, directly opposite the pier. Patterned after the Walk of Stars in front of Grumman’s Theater in Hollywood, there are plaques sunk in the sidewalk which commemorate legendary surfers.
So Robert said, “We’re having a big display at the museum to coincide with the Walk of Fame premiere, and we want to feature pro surfing and the ASP surfers, because the premiere is going to take place during the US Open. Can you try to get something from Tom Curren?”
After two World Titles in 1985 and ’86, Curren made a comeback and recaptured the crown in 1990, the year before I moved to California. I said, “Well, I’ll call him. I’ll try.”
I got Curren’s number and called him. I had to try several times because he’s kind of a reclusive guy. He was living back in Santa Barbara, his hometown, with his second wife after living in France for years with his first wife. After many messages, he finally called me back, which actually surprised me. But, we did have a relationship of sorts because I had been Head Judge during his first years on the Tour and his first two World Titles. I explained about the museum exhibit and asked, “Is there something you could loan to the museum? I’ll pick it up and put it in the museum and I’ll be responsible for it.”
He said, “Let me see, I might be able to dig something up.”
I was going up to Rincon to judge a contest, which is in Santa Barbara and is his home break. I said, “I’ll give you a call when I’m up there. I’m spending the weekend at this contest.”
Curren said, “Oh, okay, that’s pretty close by.”
I actually had doubts that he’d show up, because he was a kind of “Mr.Mysto” type guy. So I rode up there with the late Midget Smith, Mary Lou Drummy, and Kurt Page to judge this WSA, Western Surfing Association, Amateur contest. We drove up in Midget’s van. We were there three days for the contest. I call Curren every day and left messages, but I never heard from him, which, once again, didn’t really surprise me. I told Robert and Midget and everyone I was with, “This is really a long-shot because Curren just isn’t into this type of thing. He really doesn’t care about publicity and he hasn’t promised me anything anyway.”
My best hope was actually just to speak to him again, maybe while we were in the same town at the same time. So, I just kept leaving messages like, “Tom, I’m here until Sunday afternoon, if you get the chance to call me back.” And this was before almost anyone had a cell phone. I certainly didn’t. So it was call every evening from the hotel and just wait another day.
It gets to be Sunday, the last day of the contest, and we’re going to leave straight after the final and drive back to San Clemente, which is about four hours, and I haven’t heard from him. Oh, well.
But, late in the afternoon, during one of the last heats, I see this tiny little woman walking down the beach toward us, carrying this surfboard. She’s not dressed for the beach, and she can barely get her arms around this surfboard, carrying it with both hands. It’s clearly not her own board. It’sTom’s second wife Maki, from Panama, who I’ve never seen or met. Anyway ,she’s coming down the beach with the board, and I figured it out and said, “Mrs. Curren?”
“Are you Mike?”
“Tom asked me to bring this to you.”
“Wow, that’s fantastic, thanks so much! Please tell Tom thank you from me!”
So, all of us are holding it and looking at it, especially Midget Smith, who was a surfboard shaper by trade himself. It was a 6’3” Channel Islands, shaped by Al Merrick (before he dropped the Channel Islands label). I recognized it as one of Curren’s boards because it had all his sponsor logos and this thick black line all around the rails on the deck. But, at that time, I didn’t know it had a nickname, “Black Beauty.” I had seen enough boards of his to recognize it as one of them, because they all had the same two-inch black outline regardless of the size of the board. His whole quiver looked like that. If he was riding a 6’0’ or a 6’8” they all looked the same from a distance. It was only later— and to my great consternation— that I learned that this was the original one that he and Merrick had dubbed “Black Beauty.” Of course, now anyone can order a “Black Beauty” model Al Merrick, as the mystique of that surfboard has passed into the lexicon of the sport. But I get ahead of myself.
The board was in horrible condition. It was all beat up; dings on the tail and broken nose and it looked like it had probably been stored under the house or something. But, hey! My mission is accomplished! I’d just take it back to Huntington Beach and give it to Robert Wolfe to display in the museum.
Well, Midget had this van and we were already packed up to leave with all our boards on top, and we hadn’t brought any extra racks. I really hadn’t thought this was going to happen. That’s the part I really screwed up, and is the oversight that still wakes me up at night occasionally. Midget says, “No worries, I’ve got some rope we can tie it on with.”
Now, almost twenty years later, I must explain to the reader that I accept full responsibility for this disaster, even though Midget tied it on the van. Midget was my great friend and has been gone since 2008, Rest in Peace. He tied it and knotted the ropes firmly and we both tugged and wiggled it and assured ourselves that it was secure.
We take off down the freeway, southbound on the 5, trying to get back to San Clemente as early as we can on a busy Sunday afternoon, which is enough explanation to anyone who has navigated the Southern California freeway system. Whoosh, whoosh, six lanes each way, everyone averaging 70 miles an hour, trying to get as close to LA as they can before hitting the inevitable traffic jam. Apparently what happened was: we were going fast, fast, fast, and the board’s straining against the rope, but secure as long as we’re at speed. Then we hit L.A. traffic, and slow down to a crawl. That must have created loose slack in the rope. We sit and crawl for a while—4 PM Sunday weekend traffic— until we reach the south side of LA. Then, suddenly freeway-style, the traffic eases and the green flag drops and everyone accelerates back up to speed with a sigh of relief. And then Kurt yells, “Curren’s board just flew off the van!”
Oh my God, No!
Midget, to his everlasting legend, reacts instantly like an Indy car driver: brakes hard and jerks the van left into the emergency lane, with all the junk mufflers and blown tires and broken glass. Just, grrrrrr, balls to wall, and fishtails to a stop.
I’m screaming, “Oh my God, we’ve gotta get it!”
Midget throws it into reverse and starts backing up at speed against the flow of the traffic until we reach the spot where we can see the board. It’s blown over now into the middle of six lanes with a thousand cars bearing down on it. We screech to a halt. I’m just hyperventilating.
“I’ve gotta get that board!” I actually jerk open the side door of the back seat and for an instant, purely on adrenaline, I was going to try and grab it. Kurt Page lunges over and bodily grabs me with both arms, yelling, “Mike, you’re crazy, you’ll be killed, you can’t, there’s no way.”
Mary Lou and Midget are both turned around yelling, “Stop it, Mike! Sit down!” And the wind blast from six lanes of speeding cars snaps me back to my senses. Then, in only seconds, before all our eyes, we see boom, boom, boom, boom, the board being hit by car after car. Just disintegrating. Shattered into bits. Fins and pieces of foam flying and bouncing everywhere. It was mulched into small fragments right before our eyes. In retrospect we were lucky it did not cause an accident to anyone who hit it. We sat for a few minutes, now in stunned silence. The relentless stream of speeding cars made it clear that there was no way to wait and salvage anything, even if a small chunk survived.
Midget said, “We might as well get out of here.”
I see Tom Curren’s World Championship Black Beauty surfboard that he’s loaned to me, under my care, destroyed on the I-5 freeway right in front of my eyes. And I can’t save it. We drove on back to San Clemente and I was just distraught. I was speechless most of the way home. I thought about driving back up after rush hour to look for fragments, which would have been another two hours. But what would have been the point? The rest of the ride all I can think about is, How do I explain this to Tom Curren?
Mom always said, “If it’s bad news, you might as well get it over with.”
The rest of the way home I had plenty of time to agonize over what I was going to say. The only small mercy was that, just like always,he didn’t personally answer his phone. I got his voicemail and just started apologizing, “Tom, it’s Mike Martin, I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but your board flew off the van on the 5 this afternoon on the way home. I tried to get it, but I couldn’t get to it, it was shattered into pieces. I can’t apologize enough, I’m crushed about this, I don’t know what to say, I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life, etc.,etc.” Until, beeep, I filled up his message tape and it cut off. I still felt the need to apologize directly, at least voice to voice, so I keep calling back every day for a week. The whole time I can barely sleep, and I know I won’t be able to rest until I actually hear from him. Every day I call again, “Tom, please give me a call back, just so I can apologize to you voice to voice, if not face to face, because I feel so bad about this,” Finally one day about a week later I come home and the light’s blinking on the answer machine. I push the button.
“Hey Mike, it’s Tom. Listen, ha ha, don’t worry about it. I’m just glad no one got hurt. But it’s not your fault and I’m not mad at you. I don’t hold it against you.” I could not believe how kind and gracious he was, even to the point of chuckling over it.
The next time I saw Tom in person I went up to him and said, “Tom, what can I say?”
He said, “Come on, Mike, let it go. It’s not your fault. Stuff happens.”
That’s a real gentleman.
That’s the story of “Black Beauty” Tom Curren’s World Title surfboard. He loaned it to me for an exhibition in the International Surf Museum in Huntington Beach and it got destroyed while en route. But fortunately, Tom seems to have forgiven me, and we even had a laugh about it once.
Years later I saw a quote in a magazine about, Tom Curren’s famous “Black Beauty” world championship surfboard, which was destroyed on the freeway being transported to an exhibition at a museum. Thank God it didn’t mention my name.