[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in TSJ 1.1 in 1992. For Steve Pezman’s followup with Mickey nearly 30 years later, scroll below to pick up a copy of TSJ 30.1.]
It was a fall mid-morning when I approached Mickey’s Capistrano Beach abode. The sun was just burning through the damp fog, and from across the street where I parked, Casa Muñoz hid in the haze with bunches of overgrown bamboo and pine obscuring most of the structure. It reminded me of a landscape grown out of control on some poor old couple until I got closer. There in every nook and cranny were tucked little still life assemblages of shells, bone, glass floats, driftwood and miscellaneous treasures. I knocked and Muñoz came to the door, motioned me to a chair and a cup of herb tea and opened by telling me the following excerpt, “This morning I talked to Bill Wise (a quadriplegic surfer friend of Mickey’s who wrote a recent article for Surfer Magazine about his accident—his resulting life—and about being a surfer, that elicited a great response) and he received a letter about his article that had a great line that he had passed on ‘…It’s better to die living rather than live dead.’” We discussed that idea for a while, and thus warmed-up, Mickey began:
“So let me give you a quick synopsis of my surfing life and what it’s meant to me, which might explain the overall lifestyle.
“Being small going through junior high school and high school is a little bit tougher when you are being compared to the football and basketball players. They seemed to get the best looking girls and all of that business. But then I started surfing. Ricky Grigg kinda helped get me involved in it, and I bought a paddle board in 1948 that I had to end-for-end to get out of the water. You know, obviously an awkward surfing vehicle. I’d been body surfing, mat riding and belly boarding, all of that before, then I got on the paddle board and began to ride 1-foot waves inside the Santa Monica breakwater. And then in the winter of 1950, I bought my first real surfboard and started surfing Malibu. And I remember Ricky constantly screaming at me, ‘you chicken-shit little bastard, take off, take off!’ And I’d be hesitant and unsure of myself and consequently that probably reflected in my social life as well.
“I went to Hawaii for my first time in 1954, before I’d gotten out of high school, and rode Waikiki mostly, but took trips around the island and rode other places. Actually, I didn’t standup ride at Sunset, but it was like a 4- to 5-foot day out there, and I body surfed it. Anyway, I came back with a lot more confidence after going over there and living on my own at 16 years old. Then the next time I went back was in 1957 when we spent the whole winter on the North Shore and ended up riding Waimea. That winter, I rode some big waves and came back with extreme confidence. Finally, I think, realizing that your only limitations are your limited thinking, and that all you have to do is think you can do it, and you can do it. That was a big step in my life. That kind of attitude has helped me all through my life. Realizing that you didn’t have to be a big guy to ride big waves, or to ‘play football,’ if you will.
“Some other surfing-life experiences that were really meaningful for me…for years after surfing Waimea, I went back to Hawaii, almost every winter, and rode big waves sometimes, sometimes not. But mostly being driven by my peers and by reputation, into having to go out and ride those waves, and confident or not, sometimes being really afraid. Not totally sure of myself. Finding myself in really big wave situations that were foolish, going, ‘What am I doing out here? This is stupid!’ And so some years after riding Waimea, one day a friend and I walked from Waimea along the beach to Pipeline. There we were sitting at Pipeline, it’s about an 8- to 10-foot day, a beautiful perfect day, and there are 50 of the best surfers in the world out there competing for waves.
“After a half hour to forty-five minutes, I turned to my friend and said, ‘You know, this is the first time I’ve been able to sit on the beach and really enjoy watching surfing without having to go out.’ And my friend didn’t really understand what I meant until I started explaining why that had come out. I think it was at that moment that I realized that I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody or myself particularly. And that I really like the hot and glassy, 4- to 8-foot waves. That’s where I surfed the best, felt the best and had the most fun. Surfing has always been fun for me, but from then on, it took on a different meaning. Of course, I still try and challenge myself because that’s living while dying. But that was a pretty big transition.
“Through some of those early years I had a surf school and one of the basic things I tried to get across to new students was that the power of the ocean was a lot greater than you are, that you’re not strong enough to fight it, that you had to learn to flow with it. How I would introduce them to the water was I would start them lying in the warm sand. Pulling warm sand up to their chest. I had them kinda fanned out looking at the water while I was talking about it, talking about the currents and about the power, where the power was and where it went and how it dissipated. And then I’d tell them, ‘Just follow me to the water and we’ll go play.’ And I would breaststroke down through the sand, making like a seal into the very shallowest 4- to 6-inches of water. Now from that perspective, a l-foot wave looks really big. And so you would just kinda let yourself go. Rolling, tumbling in the power. Letting the power wash you up on the beach and then pull you back out. And back in and back out. Pretty soon they got the feel for the rhythm, for the power, and where it can take you. We were underwater tumbling. We were facing waves that were bigger than we were because you’re only head high and it was really fun. In the process, fear and apprehension was replaced with understanding and respect. We’d spend a half hour just playing that way.
“Later, some interesting adaptations of some of those early surf lesson techniques came about when we were getting into boats and getting out to surf and dive some of the islands near here. We’d kinda come up with a very similar game as the crawling down the beach on our bellies. We’d get into an inflatable dinghy and the rules were that it was okay to direct with your oars once in a while, but to do it as little as possible. You could put yourself into position but the idea was to drift in the current…we ended up calling it ‘surging.’ Where you leave crowded Southern California and your wristwatch behind, and you get into this inflatable and let yourself become part of the ocean. Allow yourself to drift in the current, be taken by the current, if you will. All the time you’re being taken by wind and current, you’re being rotated so that your visual perception is changing constantly. One minute you’re observing the kelp beds and the open ocean, and the next minute you’re focused on rocks swirling by and white water and birds and sea lions. Sometimes facing the sun, sometimes away from the sun. And in surging, we were starting to discover the counter currents. That you could actually surge to weather without paddling. Instead of fighting against the wind and the current, you could place yourself in a counter current and surge your way to weather. So that reaffirmed all those past experiences. What I discovered is that my life has been surging in this counter current. I’ve been surging to weather, against the main current. And…I kinda like that position because what it does is that it allows you to look at the mainstream flow that’s going by you. All these people that are rushing by are caught in its currents, and they’re going so fast that they don’t have time to look around and see what’s going on around them.
“From my position, I can jump off into the main current and flow with it awhile, cause there’s a lot of good stuff in it. But having the experience of counter current surging lets me get out of the main current anytime I wish, and back into the counter current where you can rest and refresh your perspective.
“So I think the confidence of big wave riding, having had that experience and coming to the realization that we’re only limited by our limited thinking, and realizing the fact that surfing is pretty much a counter current experience while having the advantage of seeing the main flow with all its stuff going by, and being able to jump off and be part of that, keeps you interested in a lot of different things. That kind of explains our eclectic collection of stuff we live with. We’re interested in art, design, engineering of all kinds. There’s a lot of stuff that turns us on visually both in nature’s design works and man’s, and each little item you see around us here brings back a flash of the experience at the time of the discovery or the encounter.
“But it’s a comfortable surrounding, a facade, if you will…amidst the plastic fantastic of where we are…a bit of an oasis.”