Know When to Jump

93-year-old Billy Meng on living underneath the Manhattan Beach pier, surfing California’s prime spots by himself, coded surf reports, and more.

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What Neal Cassady was to the Beat movement and the counterculture, Billy Meng was to California’s proto–surf lifestyle and waterman culture. Although he never won a world title or starred in a surf movie—much less “branded” or “monetized” himself—Meng was one of the most influential surfers of the twentieth century, a hero to our latter-day icons. 

Today, the 93-year-old rises with the sun and lives simply, as he always has, in his small trailer in Los Padres National Forest. Never married but never lonely, Meng shares his home with crows, raccoons, squirrels, and the occasional skunk. “I was content because I made the most out of every situation,” he says. 

A true pioneer, Meng surfed San Onofre, Trestles, and Malibu in the 1940s, Hawaii in the ’50s, and Santa Barbara County from the ’50s until the day he stopped riding waves forever in 1984. “When I quit at the age of 54, I’d had enough adventure, surfing, and sex to last three lifetimes!” he says while accompanied by his crow, Pushy, on a warm summer afternoon. “Many of the gremmies and surf legends that I was the role model for ended up millionaires,” he recalls. “It’s sad that so many of them are dead: Greg Noll, Dewey Weber, Jeff White, Mike ‘Bones’ Bright, and many, many others.” 

When asked about his status as a surfing legend, Meng scoffs at the very idea: “On my tombstone epitaph, I want it to say, ‘Billy was a good person.’ If you call yourself a legend, you are living in the past! You can’t live in the past! I did love surfing, though. When I came up to Santa Barbara, I had Ventura to Point Conception all to myself.” 

When Meng turned 90, after a lifetime at sea fishing commercially, he said to himself, “‘Billy, stop!’ And that’s what I did. It’s a euphoric kind of feeling sitting here, doing nothing. Now, I’m in suspended animation and it’s pure meditation, like an out-of-body experience. When I think back on my life, it brings me peace and comfort. You’ve only got one life, so don’t hand it over to anybody else. Be good to everybody, be honest, and everything will work out.”

Billy Meng. Illustration by Yann Le Bec.

PM & JH Take us back to the beginning.

BM The first time I surfed was in 1938. I was 8. The moms in our neighborhood would load the cars with kids and pull their teardrop trailers to “Shanty Town” on Terminal Island in LA, where a few fishermen and ladies of ill repute lived. It was a white-sand beach with clear water, and you could catch corbina, white sea bass, halibut, and perch all day long. We would camp there all summer. You could do anything back then. It was nothing like today. With those big boards, there were only a few places you could surf. It had to be a soft, feathering wave where you could go straight, like Long Beach. The Long Beach Breakwater wasn’t built yet, so the south swells got in. Perfect lefts and rights peeled across a big sandbar where the LA River emptied into the ocean.

PM & JH Do you remember your first surfboard?

BM It was a Tom Blake, and it wasn’t shaped like a surfboard. It was a small, hollow plywood paddleboard. It had square ends and a drain hole with a cork plug on the deck. When I was done surfing, I’d pull the cork and drain the water out. My second board was a 10’6″ Simmons that I bought for $20. Bob Simmons was a tall, classic guy, and a genius. He had worked as an engineer at North American Aviation making big money, but quit to start making boards. They were works of art, with spliced balsa wood and spooned noses. Mine had a concave stern and two skegs. We’d bring him life rafts from the war surplus stores because they were lined with balsa wood. He would kind of splice the wood so that he could get a scoop on the nose. He was a pioneer, and his boards were beautiful and big, all over 10 feet long and 24 inches wide. There was a special way to turn those boards, and I had to take a real long stride and put all of my weight on one side. The first surf leash I ever saw was on a redwood. Back in the old days, you drilled a hole in the redwood, put an eyebolt in it, and tied a piece of rope to it.

PM & JH What were your early days at Malibu like?

BM I used to stay with my older sister, Bunny, who lived in Santa Monica Canyon. This was in 1943. I was 13. Her roommate was a beautiful up-and-coming movie star named Junie Blair. She was on the Ozzie and Harriet show, then became a Playboy Playmate and married actor David Nelson. We all used to hang out at Pat Dorian’s [Shane Dorian’s father] Sip ’N Surf bar in Santa Monica Canyon. The walls were covered with pictures of the guys surfing Malibu. Bunny talked some of her guy friends into taking me surfing at Malibu. They were all 4-Fs, unfit for military service, and the servicemen hated them. When they came to pick me up, they were all wearing big, baggy fluorescent pink, green, and red trunks made out of parachute cloth. They had redwood boards and I had my little Tom Blake. The whole coast was under a siege alert and lined with barbed wire fences and sentry towers. At Malibu, a Marine with a machine gun let us climb under the barbed wire with our boards, and we surfed perfect 6-foot waves all day. Afterward, we were relaxing on the beach when a detachment of Marines came marching down the sand. They were getting ready to go down to the South Pacific, and when they saw the 4-Fs, they exploded. “You goddamn 4-Fs,” one said. “We got to go down there and get killed, and here you are lying there in your bathing suits!”

PM & JH Did you spend a lot of time in Malibu in the 1940s?

BM I did. I could drive from Manhattan Beach to Malibu without stopping. The 101 was just a two-lane road back then. Things were so much better. Surfing was a classic thing that nobody did. There was just a handful of guys on the whole coast, so we were unique. When I drove up the coast with my surfboard, I had countless miles of beach all to myself. I slept on the beach at Malibu in my sleeping bag and lived on fresh seafood that I caught. I ate lobster salads and abalone sandwiches on sourdough bread with mayonnaise and onions. I speared rockfish, cabezon, all kinds of fish with my Hawaiian sling. Life was just so simple. I used to surf Malibu with the movie star Peter Lawford. Peter was extremely handsome. He’d pull up to the beach in his jeep with a surfboard on top of his rack. We’d be sitting at Malibu waiting for a set and he would say in an English accent, “Outside!” The actor Richard Jaeckel also surfed. “Jake” was a good-looking, short guy with blond hair who was in a lot of cowboy movies and war pictures. We surfed together a lot and became good friends. His house was around the point of Malibu in the Colony. There were lots of movie stars who lived in the Colony. One day, I saw a famous star who I won’t name. He was trying to roll a log to the front of his house. I ran up and helped him, and when we finished, he said, “Billy, I’m having a party tonight. You should come!” That night, I went to the party, and when I walked in the door, I could not believe my eyes. Music was playing and there was a daisy chain of naked beach gals, naked guys, and there he was at the tail end of it. It was a full-on orgy. I didn’t join in. I just grabbed a beer, sat on the couch, and watched. That Hollywood crowd was different.

PM & JH Who were the best surfers at Malibu?

BM Matt Kivlin, Gard Chapin, and Dale Velzy. Kivlin surfed so slow and cool at a time when everyone else was out of control. He’d take off on a wave and just take his time. Another good surfer was Leslie Williams. They called him “The Bird” because he had these big, long arms. Velzy made excellent surfboards for Malibu. Kivlin and Joe Quigg were also pioneer shapers, but Velzy revolu- tionized everything. He would glue chunks of balsa wood together, drill them full of holes to make them light, and then fiberglass them. He built boards in the alley above the pier in Manhattan Beach in an old real estate office. After the war, you could get balsa wood from General Veneer, so we’d drive over there and buy perfect balsa wood from South America that was milled for model airplanes. He and Simmons revolutionized surfboards. Both of them were great experimenters.

PM & JH How did you first make your way to Hawaii?

BM I lived under the Manhattan Beach Pier for two years. I didn’t have a job. I got my mail at the Knothole Bar and had love affairs with women twice my age. Every Saturday at five o’clock sharp, me, Woody Brown, Wally Forsythe, and a bunch of other friends would huddle around a little radio at the White Stop Café at the foot of the Manhattan Pier. It was like a shortwave radio. It would come in and come out. You’d hear static and we’d turn the volume all the way up. “BEEEEEWWWW!” And then a Hawaiian man would announce, “HAWAII CALLS!” All of a sudden, there’d be a blast of beautiful Hawaiian music. The Hawaiian ladies had beautiful, high falsetto voices. We were mesmerized by the Hawaiian singers and musicians strumming their ukuleles and slack-key guitars. Everyone wanted to go to the Islands because of the music. Back then, very few people actually went, so going to the Islands in the early ’50s to surf was something special. After listening to the Hawaiian station, I said to myself, “I’m going to Hawaii!” And I did.

Everybody had white-shirt jobs, and there I was, living under the pier or going fishing, just living life the way it should be lived. Not everybody agreed with that. But here I am at 93 and most of them are dead.

PM & JH Tell us more about some of the other guys you used to surf with.

BM Greg Noll surfed Manhattan Beach really well. He was a skinny, arrogant kid, and a lot of people didn’t like him, but he was a good guy once you got to know him. I used to drive down the alleys of Manhattan Beach with kids on the roof and the running boards, and the back was filled with boards. The first time Dewey Weber surfed Malibu was with me. He was 11 and I was 19. I was really good friends with Dewey and all of the gremmies. I introduced them to poor-boy sandwiches. I showed them how to take a loaf of French bread, slice it and pull all of the bread out, and fill it full of bologna, cheese, and pickles. I met Miki Dora when he was just a little kid. Gard would drive him down to San Onofre and just leave him there for the entire summer. Everyone there would take care of him and feed him. I surfed Malibu a lot with Miki during the golden days. He liked to put on a show when he surfed and tried to impress everyone. I liked Miki. Every time I saw him, he would give me a big hug and say, “Hello, old friend!” Miki was a con artist, but back then all of the surfers were con artists. None of us ever had any money. I remember one scam where Dick Metz figured out how we could give each other free surf reports from a telephone booth. He’d dial zero for the operator and say, “I want a person-to-person collect call to Billy Meng from Mr. BeSwell.” We had a code. Dick could hear me on the other line, and I would say, “No, I won’t accept the call, but tell him Billy isn’t here right now, but he’ll be back at six o’clock.” That meant 6 feet at Rincon, and if it was 6:15, that would mean it was a little windy and choppy, and 6:05 was flat.

PM & JH When you think back, what are your fondest surfing memories?

BM Surfing Trestles, Malibu, Rincon, and the Ranch all by myself. Trestles was one of my favorite surf spots. I’d tap out a couple of gallons of Mrs. Espondido’s Italian red wine and head there with my friends. Those were such carefree days. Everybody had white-shirt jobs, and there I was, living under the pier or going fishing, just living life the way it should be lived. Not everybody agreed with that. But here I am at 93 and most of them are dead. I think that’s the most important thing in life: Just do what you want to do. Friends say that I’m like the Artful Dodger in the movie Oliver! because I’ve known how to zigzag in and out of situations. It’s instinct! You’re either born with it or not. It was survival of the fittest, and you have to know when to jump. I did exactly what I wanted to do. I still do.

[Harden and Maguire are currently collaborating on Meng’s autobiography, Know When to Jump.]

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