Monday, October 8, 2012
On Tubesteak Tracy, Schwinns and A Good Time
Among the at least somewhat famous people I've met from pointing TV cameras at them is one 'Tubesteak Tracy.'
Best known from being depicted as 'The Kahuna' in the 'Gidget' movies, the Tubesteak nickname derived not from riding inside the wave, not from activities after the surfing was done, but from making his own surfboard (The manufacture of which was in its' infancy) with a napkin offering "Tubes, (Hot dogs) Steaks" at a nearby restaurant he worked parttime at laminated in.
Surfing was a low budget affair back then, at a time when nobody was going to be spending over a weeks' take home pay from a fulltime minimum wage job, or two weeks parttime, to buy a surfboard. Would it have been so fun if it was expensive? So even if I've never been a surfer myself, I always loved the stories that the old timers told of the days depicted in those 'Gidget' movies.
Not to really put the rap on the 'Sacred Craft' surfboard maker types who gathered in Del Mar last weekend, but surfing is the kind of thing that I think is ruined by the search for that perfect board, for reasons more than just the crass commercialism of it.
I remember working on surf television, hearing the answers to such interview questions as "What was it about the old woody wagons from the 1930's that made you guys drive them to the beach?" Routinely, the answer was "They were cheap. The wood paneling went bad and noone wanted them anymore, so we could buy them." Terry Tracy had just lost his fulltime job about the time of his 21st birthday, so he wound up spending the extra time on his hands without spending money, turning an old door into a surfboard and running the words "Girl Midget" together to call one girl "Gidget."
His friend, the legendary Miki Dora, thought maybe he'd started to call him that because he was just a hot dog. I love these guys. So when I was a kid there was a bike that was just like that. I bought my first from a classmate in 1st grade for $2, while it was still too big for me to ride. I was one of those kids that didn't let things stop me, so even thought I hadn't been taught to ride I walked to his house and rode it home.
So rusty already I couldn't have expected it to last another 10 years until I was in high school, but indeed I still had it, along with another such cheap bike I'd picked up for $5. This was during the eye of the storm for the Schwinn Cruiser, after the run of more than 20 years of popularity for the depression bicycle intended to seem like a motorcycle (After Schwinn closed their Excelsior Henderson motorcycle division) had ended in the late 1950's.
Lightweight 10 speed racing bikes, smaller wheelie bikes and low riders, all manner of bikes made the bulky single speed Schwinn Cruiser and it's many imitators the bicycle equivalent of the Ford Model T, overnight obsolete and unwanted. But as with the Model T, there were those taking advantage of the opportunity to pick them up for the relative song. I wonder how many I'd have collected if my parents would have let me have so many around?
More important for it's place in history, they became popular with kids at the California beaches. Not because of any mystical connection to the soul of such a bike, but because so many of the kids were saying 'They're cheap and nobody will steal them.' Being rusty was a good thing. Except they'd become hip and trendy. Suddenly people wanted this bike that wasn't even on the market anymore.
My older sisters were wanting to throw them in the back of someone's car to take to the beach, except they would have lost them one way or another so I kept them locked up. $30, $40, $50, the offers just kept coming to buy them. One was stolen, but that was the days of bike registration and Fullerton PD returned it the next day. Any old cruiser was popular, I made some money off the Murrays and Huffys I'd picked up, but the big score was the Schwinn Chicago, meaning made in America and not in Japan.
Not only did the surfers want them, but the BMX and the Mountain bike had also brough interest in the old cruiser for the adults and the bigger kids, at first because they were cheap. The newer Japanese frames would break but the old "Klunkerz" could endure plenty, although they weren't indestructable. What had once been two unwanted bikes were now kept locked up in the backyard, out of sight. But the most dangerous thief I knew could still get at them. I came home and they were gone.
My always unemployed older brother was crowing at "Taking them to the dump," but he'd made quite a mess in my room searching for the registration slips: I'm sure he was able to put well over $100 up his nose for them all those years ago. Such is life with substance abuse around.
Schwinn put the cruiser back on the market, people called them "Beach Cruisers," leading to great sales of lousy bikes that were made first in Japan, then in China. Schwinn would became one of the first American companies to have a Chinese company blatantly use the tooling they were contracted to use on the American companies product to also produce knockoffs to undercut the owners business. The name that was once the champagne of bicycles is now more synonomous with winos.
There are now lightweight cruisers with aluminum frames, multiple sprockets, expensive bikes from bike shops quite popular with people who don't intend to ride far. There are also cheap cruisers with names like Huffy and Schwinn that are scoffed at when sold at Walmart, Target, etc. Members of my family have these to take with them to the coast in Texas, or anywhere they want a bike handy but don't want something that would be stolen. These are the bikes that are serving the purpose that made them popular again.
People try to sell these when they're ten years old, rusty before their time, to get what a new one would cost even if you can't ride this old one as it is. What a relief to see the Craigslist offering a "Beach Bike" for $10, it can be fixed but it will never be nice. I can see todays surfer scoffing at it and getting the new $500 aluminum frame bike. Afterall, he's driving a new car and using a $300 surfboard. Surfing: It's not just for poor people anymore.
I guess when you have the kind of money tied up in something as these people do, you're going to have to decide there's something sacred about it. Could they ever let go of the idea it's about the money they spent? But what could I have sold my cheap Schwinn Chicago cruisers for if I'd had them over the years? I'm sure I would have sold them, I was so poor at times.
Right now, a perfectly restored cruiser from the 50's can bring as much as $500, as long as it's rideable and not looking so bad it can still go for over $100. Seems better that way, what's the point of a bike you can't ride. I like remembering that those old bikes were riding around a lot before I was ever born. They seemed far bigger and more important than I was.
When I was in high school I was riding from one county to the next, city streets or long dirt trails. Mom might drop me off more than 30 miles from home with my bike. I was having a good time doing it. I was still riding in college, but leg problems that started in the 8th grade were getting worse, I wasn't going to be riding over 50 miles in a day again.
Tubesteak Tracy had to give up his surfboards at the age of 45 as his health went downhill. He seemed happy to see others out surfing even as he couldn't. at the professional surfing events he didn't just talk to the competitors or the spectators, he even talked to me about SHOOTING surfing. This was a true fan.
When he died at 77 last August, surfing historian Matt Warshaw would say "What Terry recognized was that having a good time was the point, not the byproduct, of surfing at the beach. He was the guy who was having the best time." Taking an unwanted old door to make his board, driving an unwanted old car, riding an unwanted old bike.
What's to keep him from having a good time?