Billy Meng (1930-2023)

Surfer - Fisherman - Waterman - First Surfed San Onofre 1938 - Malibu 1943 - Rincon 1951 - Makaha 1954 - Elder to Greg Noll, Dewey Weber, Miki Dora Et. al - Los Padres National Forest Resident - Subject of the autobiography Know When to Jump (with Jennifer Grgich-Harden) - “Billy Meng, one of the most classic surfers who ever walked the face of the earth.” -Greg Noll

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Which of these terms best describes your relationship to Los Angeles: point of origin, detour, or destination?

I was born and raised there and I can remember when it was a beautiful small city surrounded by orange trees and beautiful mountains that had snow on 'em all the time. From San Pedro, you could see those mountains every morning, full of snow. Baldy and Gorgonio.

What year does your relationship with Los Angeles begin?

February 16, 1930. I was born in bed on Orange Street right across from Orange Street Grammar School, in Lomita.

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Can you describe your first house or apartment of significance in Los Angeles? What was the street? Who were the neighbors?

It was just a regular house, board and batten, and a yard. My dad was still alive and we had two bedrooms. Us kids, me and my three sisters, all stacked in one bedroom. We moved quite a bit ‘cause we just plain didn't have any money. It was right after the Depression and the neighborhoods were real tight then. Everybody looked out for everybody. The Thirties was the best years this country ever had. Everything was in perspective. And then Hitler changed it all. He just souped up that Industrial Revolution and things never were the same.

How did the war alter the landscape around you?

I remember Pearl Harbor. I was sitting with Eddie Lopez on the curb in the harbor area. Oh, beautiful weather. Eight o'clock in the morning. The lady next door, Mrs. Adam, redheaded lady, was in hysterics. She come running up the street and she's screaming, "The Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor and sunk the Arizona and my nephew's on there! I know he got killed." God, I'll never forget that. That night all hell broke loose. I mean, barrage balloons going up, long formations of those Dodge Army trucks going from Fort MacArthur to Pendleton and formation after formation of B-17s going down to Hickam. Oh, just one after another. It got real wild.

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Especially your neighborhood. The port became the hub for the war.

Oh, yeah. LA Harbor was a big harbor and the place was just filled with barrage balloons with cables hanging down. We were scared. We didn't know what that madman was gonna do. Everything we knew came from a newspaper and the radio.

When the city was new to you, where did you go for fun? What were your rituals?

Oh, we could hike out on the San Pedro breakwater and fish. There was about six barges anchored to the breakwater. For a dime, you got a pole, some live bait, and oh, you'd get Halibut, Sea Bass, Corbina, you’d get every kind of fish there is almost. Then we surfed. The first board I ever rode was a Tom Blake hollow. It was a gift from my best friend Johnny Kerber. They didn't have fiberglass in those days, so we used to glass ‘em with GI canvas. Every neighborhood had an anti-aircraft gun that they would cover with camouflage canvas and we used that to cover our surfboards. I used to surf Rainbow Pier in Long Beach. It was a good little board but it had a cork in it you had to pull out to drain all the water. Our best surfin’ spot was Terminal Island, if you can believe it. Because the two federal breakwaters weren't there. You’d get south swells and you had miles of beaches. Terminal Island was a heck of a place.

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When you were growing up, did you ever go down to the Long Beach Pike?

Oh my God, yes. That was famous. Usually it was just full of sailors. Before the war, Pedro was the Navy town. It had big mooring cans, as big as a car. The Arizona, the West Virginia, the California, all those ships that went down to Pearl and got sunk used to moor in Pedro. When the war started up, the Navy moved over to Long Beach by Pierpoint and they built the two federal breakwaters at Terminal Island and all those battleships anchored inside the breakwaters. So the Pike was just full of sailors. The rolly-coaster was famous and, uh (laughs) it was scary, I'm telling you, for a little kid. But our mom'd take us. She'd take us swimming all the time at the big swimming pool, the Long Beach Plunge. The Pike was, oh, I'd say about a block long and had all kinds of weird shows. It was famous.

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What song or piece of music evokes the neighborhood where you grew up?

Oh my God, there was so many famous singers. That’s when they had Sarah VaughanJo Stafford, Ella Fitzgerald. Rosemary Clooney. Kay Starr. Oh, they just had wonderful vocalists. Frank Sinatra was still a young kid. The songs were all good!

Where did you get your first surfboard?

I bought my first board at Cabrillo Beach. It was in the summertime, 1937 or ‘38. It was a classic 10’ 6” Bob Simmons with two skegs. I bought it from Pancho Olguin for twenty dollars. I went to San Onofre. You couldn’t turn the board! I don’t know what it was, the board just wouldn’t turn. I hit an outrigger canoe full of kids. It’s a wonder I didn’t kill somebody! I paddled in, took it back, sold it back to Pancho for twenty dollars. I knew Dale Velzy and I went over and got me a Velzy, and that’s what I surfed from then on.

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When you first ventured into the city beyond your immediate environs, what were the places that made an impression? Who showed you these places?

The first time I saw Malibu was during the war. My sister Bunny knew these three 4Fs. Now 4F is somebody that didn't have to go down and fight the war. These guys worked at North American Aviation. You had gas stamps in those days and they had saved up their gas stamps to get enough money to get to Malibu. And my sister, she was a beautiful girl, said, "Well, will you guys take my little brother up there with you?" So they did.

Malibu then was nothing but vacant lots. This is about 1943. The whole coastline was all barb wire. And they had a sentry, oh, every half mile. And they had a sentry posted at Malibu in a guard tower. And we crawled through the barb wire and put the boards through. They used to make their bathing suits out of those fluorescent parachutes and they had the old redwood boards. Balsa wood hadn’t come in yet. I remember we were laying on the beach in the sun and this detachment of Marines that was going down to the South Pacific come marching by. And boy, did they give them 4Fs hell. (Laughs.) They called them every name you could think of. The 4F was hated back then. These guys, they could have climbed underneath their surfboards.

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Who did you look up to when you were coming up?
Oh, I'd say Matt Kivlin. He made boards. Surfed Malibu all the time. A good lookin' big guy. He had the old style. This modern surfing, I don't even claim. It's more of a gymnastic event. I like the old days when you had a long board turn, walk the nose. That's what I grew up with.

Matt Kivlin was only a year older than you. Dale Velzy was three years your senior. What did you make of Velzy?

Oh, he was classic. I knew him because as a kid he was started making boards in Hermosa Beach in his family's garage. Well, after the war, there was liberty ships going all around the world. You could get on one through Sailors Union of the Pacific, S.U.P. Velzy started shipping 'cause they were making so much money. I remember he came in on a liberty ship in the Pedro Harbor. So I went down to see the Hawk. They used to call him the Hawk 'cause that nose he had. He said, oh, I want to get back to makin' boards. I'm tired of the sea. Balsa wood was real easy to get after the war. During the war, you couldn't touch it. So we got him a place where he could shape boards. It was the Cabrillo Beach recreation room. The little kids were trying to play ping pong and here's Velzy shaping with about four foot of balsa wood shavings on the floor. You couldn't even get in. And he brought out George Kapu from Hawaii. There were a lot of Hawaiians shipping. Kapu was out front drinking a gallon of wine when the superintendent came. So that ended that. (Laughs.) The Hawk moved over to the Manhattan Beach Pier about a half a block up. It was a real estate lady and she rented the real estate office to Velzy. Then he just got famous.

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When radio mattered in Los Angeles, what program, station, or announcer did you love?

My first radio was a crystal set and we made 'em in high school. And I put up an antenna on the roof. You could get KNX and then the Long Beach FOX. I don't think you could get KFI, I don't know if it had come out yet. If it did, you could get it. But there was just about three stations and you had an ear set and listened by the hour to those three stations. They had all those shows. I Love A Mystery, that was another good one. Jack Packard, Reggie York and Doc Long. I mean, these were good programs! And they came on every night. Jack Armstrong: The All-American Boy. That Jack Armstrong, he got around. He was going down the Nile with Billy and Betty, his two friends. And Billy said, “Oh, look up on that cliff!” And then, boom—the announcer broke in. “Oh, what did Billy see on the cliff? Tune in tomorrow!” (Laughs.) As a kid, it was big. I’d go back to that. Forget television.

And The Lone Ranger! When he came out, that was about 1937. And oh, he was famous. He was a hero to all the kids. And he was going to come through the brand-new Union Station. It was beautiful. They just got done making it up by Chinatown. And our teacher, Mrs. Sneider, they used to take the kids every two weeks on some kind of an excursion. We saw Mount Wilson, the museum at Exposition Park, everything. So she got the bus loaded with all us kids and we went up to the Union Station and we got out on a loading platform. And she had a Victrola that you wind up. And she had a record with the Lone Ranger theme. (Hums Rossini's "William Tell Overture"). She played it and here come the train. And we kept looking for the Lone Ranger. Those trains all had the caboose on the rear end and as it finally pulled up to the platform, there he was. He had that big white hat and he's waving it to all the kids. And they were just going bananas.

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Describe your first, favorite, or most memorable car.

Oh, that 1934 Ford truck I used to carry my surfboards in. You know, you could take a hammer and hit the fender with everything you had and do no damage at all. That’s how they made ‘em back then. Nowadays, Jesus Christ, nowadays everything is made out of plastic.

It was pale yellow and the front end was shot and it would start shimming now and then. LA was totally different back in those days, Figueroa, Main, all of those streets that go from the Harbor to LA there was hardly a car on ‘em. I’d pick up all the gremmies in Manhattan Beach and take 'em to Malibu. I could drive from Pedro all the way to Malibu and never even stop. I’d have kids standing on the running boards and eight of 'em in the front seat. I ended up trading that for a station wagon woody. I made a bed in that back so I could stay overnight in Malibu. 

Describe the restaurant in which you've spent the most hours.

Across the street from Malibu Pier, oh, it wasn't a hot dog stand, it was more of a greasy spoon. The guy that owned it was a world-renowned violinist. But then he cracked and he went a little bit crazy. But he got this greasy spoon together and you could get a good meal. And so the head guy that we was with told the guy, "Would you play your violin for us?" Well boy, he lit up, and oh, he could really play. Then he said, "Oh, you boys are so good, I'm gonna give you free breakfast." He did that all the time. All you had to do was ask him to play his violin.

What outdoor space in Los Angeles have you spent the most time?

I lived under the Manhattan Beach Pier for two years. I got my mail at the Knot Hole bar and ate breakfast at The White Stop Cafe at the bottom of the pier. I didn’t have a job and didn't really have a place. We all used to sleep right down there under the pier... Happy Jacobs, Kapu, and Willy Barr, who glassed boards for Velzy and tended bar at the Knot Hole. The beaches were full of abalone and lobster, so I just lived in a bread truck and lived off the land and surfed. I got to be like a legend to all the kids. They all looked up to me.

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Some of those kids became big-time surfers, like Greg Noll, Dewey Weber, Mike Stange.

Dale Velzy used to call 'em gremmies because they used to hang around his shop like gremlins. They followed me around like I was the pied piper.

Do you remember the shop Velzy and Hap Jacobs had in Venice?

Yeah! Yeah. Well, there wasn't much to it. Hap Jacobs was a real good friend of mine. We used to go halibut fishing all the time and he got outta the service and wanted to start making boards. So he just teamed up with Dale and they got a brand new shop on the way to Malibu. And then it just took off. It wasn't the good old days anymore. Velzy was kinda lucky. I remember he started getting into bow and arrows. Well, deer season came and everybody, they're all over the mountains after deer. And Velzy looked out the front of his shop and there was a deer across the street and he just walked across, boom. And got a buck with his bow and arrow. (Laughs.) That's how lucky Dale was.

Whether or not you swam, what beach or pool lingers in your memory?

One of the things I remember of Malibu was this lower hemisphere south swell coming in 1951. It was breaking out at the end of the pier and the only black surfer in California was out there. His name was Nick Gabaldon and he was a lifeguard. He took off and ran into the pier and it killed him deader’n a doornail. He got hung up on one of those cross pieces. Malibu had to be 12 foot, maybe bigger. I seen a picture later in Rennie Yater’s shop and it shows one of the waves from that day. Bob Simmons, Matt Kivlin, Joe Quigg, all on a wave, must have been 15 foot. Malibu is usually five or six foot.

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Do you any specific memories of Nick Gabaldon's personality or style?

I met Nick but really didn’t know him. He was a regular surfer, nothing extraordinary. Nick got a wave that was breaking in front of the pier and got hung up on one of those cross members in the pier. That’s where they found him. And just about when Nick hit the pier, Buzzy Trent came by. They said, “Nick just got killed,” and Buzzy said, “Oh my god! I’m going to Point Mugu, it’s twenty foot.”

What movie theater would you bring back from the dead?

The Orpheum cost a dime to get in when I was about seven or eight. They had one main feature and then you had a number two movie which would be a classic now. Humphrey Bogart, that's when he was in his prime. And then vaudeville at halftime. Jimmy Durante had a joke I’ll never forget. The guy goes to the dentist, he's in total pain and asks the dentist if he has a license and the dentist reaches in his pocket and pulls out a driver’s license.

Can you describe a bar or nightclub you loved that no longer exists?

I think the most fun I ever had was at Beebo's Rathskeller. I don't know if it's still there or not, but you'd go up and dance the German polkas and it was always full of women. We drank dark German beer that would knock our socks off! I'd say that was my most famous bar.

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What household threw the best parties or the parties that you remember best?

Oh my God, I'd surf Malibu all day long and my sister Bunny lived in Santa Monica. Her roommate was June Blair. She was a starlet and a Playmate and boy, we used to have some parties there. Santa Monica Canyon.

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What was your first earthquake or worst earthquake?

I guess it was ‘33. We were living in Lomita. My mom was just over from Liverpool. They don't even know what earthquakes are in Liverpool. And I remember she grabbed me—I remember this, three years old—she grabbed me and ran down the street yelling “It’s the end of the world.”

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If you had the power to preserve a space or building in Los Angeles, what would you protect? Not necessarily for the public good but for personal reasons.

I wouldn’t care if they tore down all of the buildings in L.A. It was a treat going to L.A. but most of my life was the beaches and the Harbor Area. You could live on any of the beaches, they were so full of abalone and lobsters. Between Seal Beach and Huntington, they called it Tin Can Beach, because during the summer people made houses out of driftwood and they spent the summer livin’ on the beach. Times were just different back then. I’d want to protect that one. 

Conversely, what’s a building or feature you would tear down?

I’d tear down the breakwater in Terminal Island and bring back that wave I rode when I was a kid.

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Besides the traffic, what’s one specific change you've observed in Los Angeles over the period you’ve known it?

More people. They took out all the orange groves. And the development. It used to be a low-key, nice, nice little city. Hollywood was full-on. Totally different times. I'm just a dinosaur. This modern world, Sam, has trampled right over me. I'm flatter’n a pancake now. It’s just progress. What are you gonna do?

Conversely, what’s one thing that hasn't changed—in other words, one thing in Los Angeles that is timeless?

Echo Park. In the Thirties we didn’t have television and everyone was tuned in to Aimee McPherson on the radio. She was classic. She had a giant temple in Echo Park which is still there. She would start out, “How are you good people from radio land, this is Aimee McPherson comin’ from Echo Park,” then she would just take off screamin’ over the radio. You could hear her voice throughout the whole neighborhood screamin’.

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What is a place in Los Angeles that was described to you but you never got to see for yourself? In other words, a place that lives only in your imagination?

I’ve pretty much seen everything in LA. In grammar school, every two weeks they’d bring a big bus and we’d go somewhere, Mt. Wilson Observatory, the museum at Exposition Park, even the Cudahy Meat Packing Company.

What demolition broke your heart?

They put that federal breakwater in during the war to protect the big war ships and killed my favorite wave in Terminal Island. 

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Whose backyard you would return to if you could?

My best friend Johnny Kerber’s backyard where we made forts when we were kids in Lomita in the Thirties.

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What is the current view out your window or a view that you see on a daily basis?

I’ve lived in a trailer up in the Los Padres National Forest for about 20 years, in the Ranger District. I'm surrounded by oak trees and have an oak tree next to my trailer that’s been growin’ since before the Civil War. My trailer was probably made 50 years ago (laughs). Jennifer’s always trying to get me to clean the place up. It is so hard to clean up my trailer because two days later it looks worse! I always lived by the seat of my pants. I live with a big gray cat named Puss. I have a good television set that I watch all of the old movies and sports. I have a hard time keepin’ the squirrels out of my trailer but I’ve got everything plugged up pretty good. I have all kinds of wildlife like racoons. They are smart! Flocks of turkeys come through but they don’t stay long, they’re just lookin’ for food. The best way to sum it up, I’m just livin’ with the elements. Couldn't be happier. Jennifer helps me and then another lady, Celia. So I make out like a million dollars.

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Can you describe a personal memento of Los Angeles—a token of the city you’ve kept in the form of an image or an object?

My old trailer was destroyed in the White Fire in 2015 and I lost everything. The most valuable items that I lost was my college track medal and a couple of Western Fishermen articles. I was on the cover of at least one. I never had a picture of me surfing until you dug out this clipping from the San Pedro News-Pilot. That picture was at Cabrillo Beach during a big south swell in ‘54. Dick Muldoon was a good friend. I loved Dick and his brother too. Every now and then a big south swell would come to Cabrillo from the chubascos down in Baja. It wasn’t a very good wave but we had some pretty good days. ◆

IMAGES[1] Front page of the San Pedro News-Pilot, Wednesday, February 24, 1954[2] Billy Meng on Miramar Beach, 1952 (Dick Metz/Surfing Heritage Museum[3] Commissioning ceremony of USS Cassin Young, San Pedro, California, December 31, 1943 (United States National Archives)[4] Terminal Island Bath House ca. 1890 (California State Library)[5] Long Beach Pike midway rebranded the "Nu-Pike" mid-1960s (Flickr)[6] Billy Meng, Hobie Alter, Walter Hoffman and Joe Quigg, Makaha, ca. mid-1950s (Hobie Alter Collection)[7] Matt Kivlin, Malibu, 1948 (California Surf Museum)[8] Dale Velzy outside of his Manhattan Beach shop, 1952 (Don Guild)[9] Lone Ranger promotional poster[10] Dale Velzy and friends under the Manhattan Beach Pier, ca. 1950 (Dale Velzy/Surfer's Journal)[11] Nick Gabaldon[12] Neal Frank, Dick Metz, Billy Meng and an unknown surfer lounge at the Waikiki Surf Club, Honolulu, 1953 (Dick Metz)[13] June Blair, mid-1950s[14] Damage from the Long Beach earthquake, March 10, 1933 (UCLA)[15] Billy Ming on the beach, Dick Metz in the water, Rincon, 1952 (Dick Metz)[16] Exterior view of Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple, Echo Park, 1937 (LAPL)[17] Billy Meng, Los Padres National Forest, ca. 2005 (Joe Curren) [18] Billy Meng, Sunset Beach, Oahu, 1954[19] Billy Meng, Los Padres National Forest, ca. 2005 (Joe Curren)