One man, one wave, one experience. Individualism and originality. The first surfer knew it, and anyone who has ever ridden the surge of the sea, even once, knows it. The feeling is solitary, soaring and essentially personal, intensely private. It liberates as it enslaves. A waveride has a beginning, amiddle and an end. It is neither sport nor art, it is life distilled down to a moment. For all the reams of crap that’ve ever been written about surfing (guilty) one wave buries all the words. Cooper is a surf-riding man, and his entire life has been crafted around this act. But instead of the act of surfing consuming his life, Cooper has managed to put his religion in the driver’s seat, allowing his passion to ride along at high speed for free.
“I am a person with a lot of interests, with a lot of involvement, a lot of different areas and my own particular search,” says Cooper. “Surfing is something I do, but believe me, it’s totally minor to what I’ve discovered and to what I want to be doing. Extremely minor. I want to tell somebody out there a few shortcuts to happiness. Surfing, for all those people out there, brings them a form of happiness, but when the surf goes down, they are groveling until the surf comes up again. You know the quote from Mickey Dora, ‘When the surf’s up, I’m a surfer. When there’s no surf, I do other things.’ The big connection is what I’m interested in and I want to bring it to the surfers’ attention.”
We, the rest of the surfing world of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, have watched without looking and heard without listening, the message of this surfer’s style of living. He never dropped out. He didn’t have to. He just appreciated what was given and had the faith to act on his own.We didn’t understand the commitment or know the man, but we tried to. Unconsciously we all followed this surfer’s path, against the grain and into ourselves. Sadly many of us lacked the spiritual compass and fell. The rest of us are still hanging on, working at living. But Cooper’s work is far from done. He has messages for us.
He wants to advise us on how to grow old and still surf. He wants us to be the greatest that we can be. He wants us to keep growing and, if we can, to know God. He wants to show us how it can all be done; live the surfing life, for the whole of your life and be true to yourself, your family and your fellow human beings. These are the gifts Bob Cooper wants to share with us now, still leading by example. He’s so genuine that we’ll follow without knowing it. We’ll feel original, too, and that stokes him.
Drive 16 hours north of Sydney, then another 2.5 hours north of the Gold Coast, and you’ll run out of freeway at Marcus Beach on the Sunshine Coast. They weren’t fooling around when they named this place. It’s bloody obvious! The sun is furious, welcoming, glorious…appalling. This is “heaven on a stick” country. Miles and miles of squeaky (literally) clean beaches, scarcely any people on them and a climate to live for. Of course the famed and crowded point breaks of Noosa Heads beckon nearby, but up there on the “Sunny Coast” foreshore, it’s the open, empty beaches that really stop you. Housing’s mostly on the inland side of the beachfront two-lane and there’s plenty of empty space between the dwellings and the developments. By California standards it’s untouched.
The water is unconditionally clear and 80 degrees. The mixed peaks usually start to blow out by midday, but mornings are often excellent. Twenty-five years ago Bob Cooper, then in his late thirties, threw out his hook here and bought a small house on beachfront land. Then he drove back to Coff’s Harbour some six hours south where his surf business was. Coff’s is a small coastal town not known for its quality surf. That didn’t matter. Cooper felt his future required him to invest some time there and that it would pay off. It did.
In a town that would for years only be famous for having the Big Banana (a roadside store), Cooper’s Surf Shop would become a must-see on the road south or north…a radiant beacon of surf stuff for sale, all presented at just the right price and displayed in the most modern way possible. Two decades later, he and his wife,Wills (the former Miss Wilhemina Margaretha Jongebreur, child immigrant from war-torn Holland), would sell what had become the biggest surf shop in Australia and move back up to where it had all started for them—the Sunshine Coast. There they built their dream beach house and started anew.
Pull up in front of Cooper’s place and you marvel at his positioning. Just off the highway, but right on the sand. It’s a rare perch; few like it exist anywhere on the Sunshine Coast. The back of the house opens into a narrow band of native She Oaks (Casuarina). Wispy and thriving, they hold fast to the dunes, supporting a rare colony of glossy black cockatoos; coal with red-orange flashes beneath their wings, these birds are seldom seen at the beaches anywhere these days. If it weren’t for the She Oak nuts, they’d be hiding away in the hinterland valleys or possibly gone forever. Big, hairy huntsman spiders scuttle in the brush, and the odd dangerous snake can be found there too, but no one’s down for killing around these parts. It’s a peaceful place for man and beast, and all the critters avoid the well-trod path from Bob’s backyard down to the sea.
Their home is a pleasing amalgam of all the things that ever struck Bob or Wills as important in a beach house; easy to care for, open, spacious and bright. The lap pool is cleverly designed with a small comma-shaped alcove in the shallow end for loafing and socializing, and the curved granite kitchen fronts onto one of several talk-story lounge areas. It could be Cabo or Kauai. There’s a wild-looking Phil Edwards balsa semi-gun hanging up in the stairwell—turned up nose, turned down tail—immaculate, unique. A redwood Velzy hot curl hangs behind the sofa, complemented by numerous artifacts, shells and several of Bob’s original paintings. Art has always been a strong subcurrent running through his life. He’s a good painter.
A couple of years ago, I dropped by and found the upstairs living room filled with canvases and paints. Bob was working on a large seascape and I offered to buy it immediately. Not for sale. I asked him how long he’d been painting (I had no idea that he was even interested). He said, “Oh well, I’ve been dabbling for years, but I just read (Mike) Doyle’s book and I thought I’d take his lead (laughs). I have a background in art, and nowadays I’ve got the time.” Two weeks later and all the paint supplies were gone. Bob’s artistic efforts mainly go into his boards.
Wills and Bob, married 33 years, always offer you one of their famous refreshing, non-alcoholic drinks. Cooper’s punch is made from guava juice, ginger ale, bitters and various fruit bases, and it’s great. You quickly forget you’re thirsty for a beer when you’re filling up on those. The Coopers don’t drink alcohol. Bob never really has. It’s not Mormon. Mexican food appears with just a few deft sweeps of Wills hand…she’s done this before many times. Lots of surfers have guested at the Cooper’s table.
But if you’re looking for Bob, his likely hangout will be either his shaping or glassing room. They are tiny but purpose-built, perfect for an artist who still bangs out a dozen or so new and unusual boards for himself every year. Of course, he’s a very good glasser and sander, just as he says he is, and that’s a good feeling to have in his pocket. That ability was hard won over many years with many teachers in many shops. You never lose that as a craftsman. Having a studio at home is only logical. You can’t buy what you want. so you build it. Cheaper, too, so you can have more boards and sell the lessons learned.
Casa Cooper is a reflection of wealth as experienced humans as opposed to wealth in dollars. Now, only a few years after completion, they stand ready to do it all again elsewhere, and perhaps even throw in a year’s tour as Mormon road warriors as well. The Coopers do not lack a sense of adventure.
But for now, Bob’s happy to sit and talk. Name a subject and he’s ready…
The Early Days
“All these people that I was with…I watched them. I watched the good things they did and I watched the bad things they did and I saw the results of the bad things and I learned something. All these envelope-pushers, these edgewalkers, found some expression for this thing that was inside of them, and surfing gave them an arena for them to express that individuality.
“Let me tell you, walking down into the ‘Pit’ at Malibu and seeing all those people there, you realized…this is not Santa Monica Boulevard. There’s something special here. Without ever touching a surfboard or riding one…just the attraction. That’s not what’s happening now. Now I think we have the watereddown version. The entrance of surfing into a normal life presents a crossroad and the intersectional signs read: ‘Could be fun; trendy; healthy or I can reinvent myself. The latter seemed to be happening about the time I left Malibu.
“Back then, it wasn’t the high-profile thing that it is now. You had to have something special to go down there to the beach—cold, foggy, terrible, unwetsuited California conditions—and paddle out at, say, P.V. Cove and be exhilarated. They were much stronger characters back then. It was work, boards were heavy. They hurt. There were no leashes. You had to bloody well want to do it, even though you didn’t know quite why you wanted to do it. The reward factor was much greater then because the effort was greater.
“Malibu was a focus point for much of Southern California’s early surfing, and there were all these extreme personalities who were just assaulting the public morals there; doing things which were really far out. There was also a kind of sister/brother relationship between San Onofre and Malibu going on too. Where you’d see guys surfing Malibu regularly only to find out that they actually lived full time down at Newport or Laguna. Eventually, I realized that these guys were driving all the way up to Malibu every day for the surf!
“You could do it back then, it was a fun time because there wasn’t much traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway. Say you were coming up to Long Beach on the PCH, there was just a sea of stop lights in front of you, but my father showed that they were all timed and you could drive from Newport to Long Beach and never hit a red light if you got your timing right. Of course, if a big bus pulled out in front of you, it threw the whole thing, but the point is that it didn’t take that long, and so these guys would do it every day. I remember seeing Walt Hoffman up there all the time and he never lived in that area, and Jack Haley from
Seal Beach, too. Whenever the swell was up they’d be there. Dewey and Peff Eick and all those guys would come up from the South Bay, but that wasn’t such a big deal. It was amazing that there was this crew of guys coming up from way down there, Laguna and such. I’d always assumed they were locals until someone finally told me where they came from.”
The Death Of The Spirit
‘‘The early days at Malibu were all about fun and friends. The spirit of aloha flowed over the scene bonding the diverse elements. You might find eight or more surfers all riding the same wave at the same time with no problems. But as soon as the focus of surfing went on to the individual, all that ‘eight on a wave’ stuff stopped.
“It stopped when the individual started to do more than just ride. They wanted more than just sliding. You know, paddle out, slide in. Paddle out, slide in. Paddle out, slide in. Somebody finally said: ‘Wow, so and so’s getting really hot!’ Then someone noticed that Dora and Muñoz were getting exceptional. They were younger than the Kivlin/Quigg/Rochlen group and their exuberance became visible. A subtle split was noticeable. They tried some different things.
“On the other hand, you had Kivlin and his group. This was the crew that all stood up together and came in together. They all kidded each other and cut each other off…they did the sliding thing. There was no ego involved even though they were great surfers. Kivlin was so relaxed, great to watch. Simmons was a little bit more aggressive but went faster than anybody else and you could sit on the beach and analyze that. But then six guys would get up, all at once, and it was, ‘Look, six guys up!’ and, you know, (laughs) ‘Oh cool!’ That was their value. But…it changed. I guess it was a combination of things. The boards were getting more maneuverable and some people got better at that, got recognized for it.
“Human nature needs recognition and this was, after all, The Pit. Like, ‘hey, wow…that was a good wave man.’ And you’re hanging around after that and suddenly you kind of went: ‘Hmmmmm, they’re keeping an eye on me.’ Then you’d go out and fall off or something! But it was true. You’d focus on the pleasure of pleasing others. Looking for adulation, recognition. Whatever it was, it changed the way it had been from ‘just riding’ to ‘be seen riding.’
“But the old rule still stood. One of the first things I learned: the inside guy has possession.He calls it.There was an acceptance that it was his wave, but you could take off on it under his good graces. To be benevolent while you had the power of possession was to say, ‘Okay, you can all have fun too,’ and that was your reward for having that possession. You had the crown and you could wield your scepter either way. To distribute largesse, that was your power. “Of course nobody was negative then. Nobody was trying to perform. There was no spotlight, so there was no point in trying to stand in one. It was better to be known as a neat, fun guy. Your beach acceptance was a nod of recognition, friendly conversation or a few surf quips. Acceptance is a fact of love we all seek.
“I remember everybody used to say Gard Chapin was a jerk. Nobody liked Gard Chapin, but he was a hell of a surfer and that’s who Miki learned from. So Miki became a hell of a surfer and many people put him down, but that wasn’t important. It was all about being a good surfer. You can’t invalidate his contribution to surfing, it was huge. He contributed on many levels. He surfed for himself, but self-interest undid him.
“During my Malibu years, about three different Pits existed before there was ever the Kahuna Hut. Every south swell season the Pit would be refurbished. The Hut was not the Pit. Three different shacks and I can’t remember anybody saying: ‘Hey man, that was an incredible ride,’ which would put focus on to the individual they were talking to. It was always: ‘Man, what a great day, you got some BIG ones. (The emphasis was on riding bigger waves.) Everybody’s having a good time. So and so is catching a few waves. A month ago she didn’t catch any.’ That was the kind of conversation. It wasn’t, ‘Man, you really got a hot ride!’ You’d look and people would be pulling up and you’d go, ‘Oh wow, great! Here comes so and so.’ Instead of, ‘Oh no…here’s those Valley kooks.’ Or, ‘Oh no, those guys are goons! What are they doing here?’ People in the sport were never referred to so specifically or judgmentally, just observed.
“Look at all the extreme sports coming to the fore now, the characters that stand out are all larger than life. I think about how many of the people I have met in surfing who, essentially, were really doing it to the extreme. The Downings, the Trents and Froiseths and Miki and Curren. You know, these were guys who were really out there solely for their own fulfillment. These guys were out there searching for an extreme before there was money or publicity or whatever was involved.”
Without trying, Bob evolved into quite a character himself. His path wound through and around the many unique individuals of that era and into many eras to follow. He surfed early Ranch with Yater and Greenough. He knew Dora well and John Peck very well. He expressed serious disdain for the commercialism of the pure sport, but he succumbed to it willingly at various moments. He knew how to adjust and turn the commercial dial when necessary.
Did he win a lot of contests? Nope. He could have, but with the finals always falling on Sundays, he’d have to pull out. This irritated some of the contest officials of the day and they actually advised Bob that maybe it would be kinder to the competitors, whom he’d been beating, if he just kinda stopped competing. Since his beliefs regarding the priority of Sunday were based on the 10th and 11th commandments, literally, he just couldn’t be there on Sundays.
So, not famous for contest surfing. What then? Well his signature model, the Blue Machine by Morey-Pope, was a cool-looking board that sold well and surfed good, but it wasn’t what you could call a revolutionary design, even though it had an asymmetrical fin setup with a monstrously difficult color job; it wasn’t a world beater—more a promotional vehicle to reinforce John Peck and his Penetrator from the same company. (Cooper wryly adds: ‘I never made a penny from the Blue Machines.’)
Neither was outrageous behavior his thing. It just wasn’t in the nature of this deeply religious, but equally hard-core surfer to abuse his health and act like an idiot in spite of some monumental peer influence to the opposite.
The reason an individual like Bob Cooper could rise to such quiet prominence lies deep within the monotonous, bland, don’t-be-noticed nature of society in the U.S. at the time. Cooper didn’t like the uniform so he refused to wear it. He was well known and loved by the surfing public of the 60s simply because he was an individual in a time when individuality was hard to come by. Bob Cooper did things his way and it didn’t matter if he got noticed or not. At least not to Bob anyway.
In the days of nicely parted, slicked-back hair, Cooper was the haystack. Everyone else had clean-shaven faces. Bob had a beard. Surfers wore enormous baggies. Bob wore shorts. And it could be fairly argued that a percentage of Mexico’s gross national product in the 60s could be attributed directly to Bob Cooper for his pioneering efforts in the wearing of huaraches and woven vests. In the land of white cords, madras shirts and tennis shoes, the bearded Mexican-looking guy was the king of style.
Bob sees it a little differently: “All the things I did, you know, the beard and the whole works, were desperate attempts to define myself and to set myself in there and to have other people reaffirm to me that I was unique, special. But when the attention came, it wasn’t what I expected at all. Eventually I learned that by being true to my beliefs and to myself I didn’t need to have approval from anyone.” (Still has the beard though.)
Not saying that surfing lacked individuals; there were plenty of individuals in the 60s, but Bob was uniquely pure. No drinking, no smoking, no womanizing, worked hard, surfed harder, asked the big questions about life and found the answers in religion. Now that was really rebellious.
It was much harder to buck society a decade earlier in the 50s. A time when normality was equated with conformity. Though some of the early beatniks and many of the surfers of the time didn’t actually choose to live an alternate lifestyle either, those at the start of the period did. “We’d heard about the Beatniks and the Bohemians before them and wondered if we were part of them. They had clues but not the full story on what I was feeling. Later the hippies were the same deal but with love and music and acceptance. Then too much of all that became license and with no discipline…you stop progressing.”
Somewhere between “off” and “on” lies “start” and it’s in that place that the few originals live. People who choose to live a different way—their way. The rest of us, lacking the core materials to do the same, follow in the sincere belief that we’re originals also. Frustration comes later when the choice of a free and easy lifestyle clashes with the realities of a wife and kids and a mortgage. Problem is, decisions about the nature of life made as a kid, while not necessarily correct, do run exceedingly deep in the heart, mind and soul. “One is Heart and Spiritual, the other is Cerebral, self-interested position,” says Cooper.
In a way, these thoughts are set in stone because of our youthful sense of conviction. We are inflexible even as we espouse flexibility. This was the point when many beatniks shaved or got their heads shrunk. A few surfing people just dug in deeper. Cooper just kept on being Cooper.
A decade later, as the 60s surf-set eventually crashed against the straight world and its demands, they found they too had limited room to adjust. Many, lacking the bottom-line convictions from which courage springs, had only ad slogans to support them and they caved in badly. Never feeling good about themselves for making affirmative lifestyle choices, only hating themselves for betraying childhood dreams. It can be said that they never knew; they never were taught that you actually make life-changing decisions every day.
But Cooper, a surfer from the previous era, knew. And he surfed very well to boot. He lived his life in a manner that pleased himself. He was never quoted saying nasty things. No rumors circulated about his decadence. Instead, he just went surfing. Young people in California, later in France and then in Australia intuitively caught the drift. It was okay to just be yourself. In fact, it was the only thing you could really be. The fact that it took courage to be yourself was supported by Coop’s example. Cooper got famous for simply being himself. That is still unique today.
To my eye, the answer to the question of what he ever did to get so well known lies in his humanity as a surfer. He is a man who never faltered in his love of surfing, but always put it second to his love of God. He never veered from the true “soulful path of the artist/surfer,” yet always placed his fellow humans in higher esteem than himself. He never failed to call bullshit where he saw it, but he was gifted with positive sight. He sees things in a generally “up” vision. Cooper is the best of us.
Then, at the height of his popularity in California, he traveled, surfing and adventuring through Hawaii, England, France, Australia and New Zealand. By his second tour of Oz, he’d established that Australia’s East Coast was his kind of place. For a guy who’d been succeeding in his pursuit of the American Dream, he did a very freakish thing. He moved to Australia—forever. Warm water, clean air and a multitude of uncrowded, perfect waves at the ready. Was there ever any choice?
What he lacked in capital he made up with his surfboard craftsmanship. His finely-tuned board building skills were in high demand by the burgeoning surf industry there. Pioneering manufacturers like Gordon Woods, Barry Bennett, Joe Larkin and Midget Farrelly all benefited from the techniques Bob learned from Yater, Velzy, and many other top Californian board builders.
Bob helped the Australians in their learning curve and the Aussies taught Bob how to conserve materials. He recalls a story of how board builder Barry Bennett (now a big blank mogul) once spent 2 hours finding and cleaning a cheap paintbrush that Bob had tossed after the resin went off on it: “So I’m going, ‘Okay…what do we learn from this one, Cooper?’ On the one hand, Barry spent a lot of time cleaning this brush that was worth a quid and a half when he could have spent the same amount of time shaping and earning a lot of dough. On the other hand, he’s industrious, and I’m the throw-away American culture. It was an interesting thing and I learned a lesson from that, too. This was Australia in 1959 and they thought differently about things like that. They did everything they could to make things last. They kept their tools sharp and their cars ran well, even though they were much older than the ones we were driving. They were much more practical.”
The Australians genuinely liked Cooper, so they did the good Australian thing—they tried to corrupt him. “I couldn’t believe how decadent these people were. I mean, I realized that I wasn’t in America anymore, but coming from a strict Mormon background, embracing Mormon values and with a strong sense of American conservatism, it was a big shock. It wasn’t just the cigarettes and the power drinking, but those together with the casual, almost wanton sex had me genuinely shocked! You see, I was always interested in finding a wife, never a girlfriend. I’d always believed in celibacy until marriage, I still do. And even though I flunked the course, I’m quite proud of my record. The only woman I’ve ever made love to is my wife.”
Bob got to see much of the East Coast of Australia that trip and he made many friends. People tolerated his less-than-party attitude toward life and always were eager to trek off to some new or rumored surf spot. In 1964, he returned. The crew was waiting at the airport dressed to the nines and eager to pick up where they’d left off. This trip focused more on the Queensland Coast and it was on this trip that Bob decided to stay.
When he met Wills he knew he was history. She was the one and that was that. In spite of some bizarre difficulties they encountered with Wills’ original benefactor/employer, they eventually locked the deal up and started their own lives anew. This romance is still so fresh in Bob’s mind he busts out some tears when he describes asking Wills for her hand in marriage. Bob’s life in Australia at this time is well documented and he feels privileged to have been able to surf, work and live in that bountiful country at a time of such innocence and lack of crowds.
As for why he never returned to the USA: “I can’t see myself in America. I don’t have a place there anymore. I’ve earned my place over here now, so when I go back there, there’s no room for me. There’s nothing back there for me now. Even though they remember me, there’s no place for me.
“You see, when I left the first time I was a hot glasser and a hot sander, so I could go back and the residue of my accomplishments was still there to the point where I could stir up the ashes and get the heat going again. ‘Oh wow, you’re back. Well look, so and so needs a glasser…’ and it was on. Now all the ashes and embers are dead. I can’t go back there. There’s nothing there to stir up again except ‘Oh wow, yeah, good to see you again.’”
Cooper’s life is in Australia now. That doesn’t mean to the exclusion of friends and memories in the USA, but in a practical sense he’s where he has to be. The country has been very kind to the Coopers, and it still is closer to his way of life than “grubby industrial areas, packaged lunches, nightmares of runaway crime, and maybe going down to San Onofre on weekends just to lay there in the sand and hope that somebody will recognize me. ‘Oh, here’s my album. Do you remember those years…?’”
Time stalks us all, but for Bob Cooper it’s a field trip. The gift of this short visit upon the Earth is merely an opportunity to “…rediscover that who you are is what you were before you came here. And the sooner that you recognize this truth, the sooner you will be free to enjoy your time here.” Pure gospel from a fifth-generation son of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Bob has made his rediscovery, and as a result his life is now filled with time spent well. One of the very few to surf shortboards well into his sixties (and I mean that he surfs them well), Cooper has no lingering nostalgia for the past. No desire to relive earthly history while he remains fit, active and striving for a better board. The present is Bob’s world. The future is God’s plan. And the past? Well, the past belongs to the public…if they want it. As for Cooper, his interests are family, people and getting a little bit better as a surfer every day.
Few others have the qualifications to advise the aging surfing population on how to grow old and keep on surfing progressively. Most of the first “older guys” just kept it up until they lost interest, died or went soft. It’s a lucky thing that this guy Cooper is around, because here’s a man who acknowledges his aging realistically, but doesn’t cut it any slack. He’s on a mission to shape, glass and ride small surfboards, and if that means he only gets the occasional buzz, it’s okay: “Better a solid little buzz than a sack full of longboard rerun buzzlets.” Cooper is the guy who grew up…but didn’t grow old.
“I’ve never read anybody who explained what it was like to be an old surfer. I mean, interviews with Paskowitz and things like that are a start. They’re on the way out there, but he doesn’t talk about being an old surfer and what it’s like to try to hold on to the youth that was back there, if that’s the game you’re playing. I can remember what it was like, but I’m by no means holding on to it. I am appreciative of what it’s like to be old. I like being the age I am. I like the idea that eventually I’ll die and move on. I will have had an innumerable multitude of experiences in the process and the legacy that I leave behind is my children and the things that I hope they’ve learned from me.
“I’ll talk about getting old at times to people on the beach and they’ll go ‘yeah, yeah.’ And I’m just going, ‘You didn’t know that? You didn’t figure that out yet?’ They’ll come in and they’ll have had a bad day or something like that and it’ll just come up. They’ll say: ‘There seem to be more bad days than good days, you know, but if you do something for your body and something for your head, you can change things around.’ They’re living an illusion. They seem to want it all to be like when they were younger.
“In my work as a marriage guidance counselor, I’ve learned much about myself. I realized that my father never had the opportunity to learn the same things about himself and therefore the problems that he faced were mostly constructed by himself and his inability to cope with the world around him. And how fortunate and how free I felt once I got a grip on all this stuff, and how frustrated and constrained my father must have felt not knowing that. As I progressed through the gestalt of the false situation, it was like things were dropping off of me.
“I realized that there was an attitude that I’d picked up somewhere in my life, and I think surfing contributed to this. I’ve seen the larger people and their challenges; the Mikis, the Yaters, the Buzzy Trents, the Pat Currens. They sent me ‘non-messages’ of ‘you can do it.. You can get rid of all the excess baggage.’
“They were so far out there doing it that I actually thought they were getting away with it. But they didn’t think they were getting away with it, they were just doing it.
“The difference between my perception of what they were doing and their perception of what they were doing indicated my inhibition, my entanglements. They were less encumbered. When I could see that and feel it (as was explained to me in my counseling training), then I got rid of it. The freedom I felt! “I went ‘YES! I want more of this feeling. I’d much rather be old. It all starts to get clearer.’”
To himself, he’s a shaper who’s also a bloody good glasser and sander. Also to himself, he’s a man with a mission to help others in their confusion and pain. He’s not a preacher, though he can be if called upon to do so. But he is also a highly trained counselor with the skills and qualifications to guide people through life crises. He’s a human with a wife and kids and perhaps a bit more time on his clock than you and me. He considers his children his greatest asset and is extremely proud of them. He respects their decisions. “They are five great people. Wonderful to know and be with.”
He surfs great even today and actually is a most creative shaper; his shortboard designs all stem from the desire to have more fun for himself—at 61! So they’re wider, thicker and have weird flutes and channels and wild lift here and there. They all work, but the “perfect board” eludes him still…as it must. And he loves the game, the chase for the right board. The board with the good float that still duck dives. The board that carves and slashes but also planes early. One that has unlimited speed yet can tube ride as well as it turns. And it’s got to ride equally well in big or small surf. Yes…the perfect board.We shapers all feel it exists, even though we know that it’s place of residence is in our heads and hearts.
Today, Bob still does all of the work on his boards at his beach house. He still has that pride of work ethic that you only get from years of doing it hard under the thumbs of successive generations of older shop guys. Like many senior workers in the surfboard business, Cooper knows good from bad and finds nothing more interesting than a long chat over a new design.
I remember calling him up last winter and Wills asking me to call back because he was glassing. When I did, his first words were: “I’m so STOKED!” followed by a ten-minute soliloquy on his latest board and its innovations. I noted on a little yellow sticky pad: “The essence of Cooper is enthusiasm.” It’s true. He’s enthused by life, and living, and people and even adversity.
On “Modern” Longboarding
Cooper kicked ass on longboards. Anyone who saw him can attest to the fact that he could carve, cutback, nose ride and do all the state of the art stuff that was happening at the time. He was as good as many of the best of his contemporaries. Cooper is not falsely modest about his ability at that time.
In fact, it is precisely because he was such a strong surfer in the longboard era that he rarely rides one now. Bob’s way of looking at it is something like, “I can have small, but intense moments of fun when I ride my shortboards, although they are more work. But why should I take out a longboard and just get light doses of the buzz, repeating all the old clichés and paddling out with no effort, when I can get a good workout and the possibility of a moment to remember on a shortboard?”
As he told me on the day I met him in 1974 at his shop in Coff’s Harbour (I was asking him about the dimensions for the Blue Machine—9’6″ x 23 7⁄16″); “What do you want to know that stuff for!? I mean, that’s cool if you as a shaper are looking for a challenge or something, but we haven’t come all this way just to go backward have we?”
“It’s like this: You catch the wave and you ride the wave and you’re done with the wave and you go… ‘(sigh), darn it, I’ve got to paddle back out there again.’ And you go, ‘Oh well, it’s not as bad on one of these 10-footers as it is on a shortboard.’
And you get back out there and you catch another one and you might do a trick like hanging ten, but longboards are less an extension of you. If the ultimate thing is flying, then the next best is walking on water. How far away is pushing one of these big, thick, 10-foot logs around as opposed to riding something that’s six-eight and a semi extension of your body?
“Now there was a lot of credit given to tip riding (in the 60s), and I’m a good tip rider. That’s what it was all about. The whole ride was about getting on that tip and back off of it. I can do that. I’ll get up and do it and come back in feeling pretty good. But these days you can easily find some kid who’s been surfing for three years who can go out there and do it just as well. I’m going: ‘Good, Cooper. You needed that lesson.’
“Of course there are days when nothing will work but a longboard, and if I want to surf on that day, then I’m stupid to take out anything else. I guess I’m very much with Nat on this issue; the ‘Horses for Courses’ way of thinking. But to me the inappropriate application of tools for situations is frustrating, and, therefore, when I see other people misapplying their surfcraft, it bothers me. With my sense of acceptance of everybody I may think, ‘That’s cool, that’s the only board the guy’s got,’ but I hope they’re admitting to themselves, ‘Gee, I’d have a lot more fun if I had a shorter board.’ If they can’t afford a range of boards to handle whatever’s going on at the beach at the moment, that’s reality. I know. I have to make my own boards in order to afford a range, but not everyone can do that.
“But to say, as some newer longboarders do, that the longboard is the only board to have and to abuse all the other guys who ride bodyboards or whatever, and then to negatively classify all those other people who aren’t riding exactly what they are is dogmatic and totally missing the point. You should ride what’s appropriate for the day and what you can afford. If they’re out of shape, and in reality they can’t paddle anymore, I can’t find fault with that. If that’s what they need, if that’s the justification, they’re okay. Nobody should ever be singled out for being honest. It’s the ones who go, ‘No man, this is where it’s at, this feeling is the ultimate.’ They’re dead wrong. They’re all the ultimate.
“As for me, I like the feeling that shortboards give. They’re closer to the water. The freedom they offer is much better than a longboard which is very restrictive as far as what you can do with them. So I’m into the freedom, I’m chasing the ultimate. So far this is the closest I can get and still catch a wave.
“I can go out and have a bad day on a shortboard and come in elated. And yet, I might go out on a longboard, have a bad day and I’m in a funk. The difference is that I’ve been defeated by something that I wired before. An old friend turned on me. Whereas this new, unknown quantity has a right to teach me some things that the old thing doesn’t. A new shortboard can bring me into line and I have lots to learn from it about myself and my relationship to it. That old thing hasn’t got that call on me.
“It’s more a feeling than a description. Say I get the 10-footer out there and I put 10 toes over the front of it. Then I take out the shortboard and I just get totally screwed up. I just don’t make it happen like I want to and that’ll frustrate everybody to no end. People might say: ‘Well, he’s so big on these things, how come they look so crappy under him?’ I’m not riding them because I can ride them well. I’m riding them because I enjoy what they do. The 2 percent of accomplishment that I get off of a shortboard is to me worth more than 100 percent of what I might get on a longboard. It’s the fact that I’ve moved a little bit further forward. I also indulge myself with my age-thinking game. ‘Okay, you look crappy, but nobody else out there is that old. It doesn’t make any difference, you’re always going to have the shortest board out there. Take hope in that, Cooper.’ (Laughs.)
“Those guys that don’t accept shortboarding seem to be stuck back there where they were young and virile. If they can’t meet that standard, they’re not having any fun. I reckon they should be saying: ‘Hey, I’m having a good time because all those other guys my age are in golf carts!’”
To many, Cooper was an icon of an era. The period between Gidget and the Penetrator featured him prominently. He was portrayed in surf films and magazines as the loner. The “Bearded Bard” or the eccentric on a mission, his own mission to be exact. And he was indeed a surfer who did things his own way. But if he dug chafing up against convention, he loved his surfing much more. In fact, his surfing was outstanding. He was able to ride anywhere and take an equal position in the lineup with the best California had to offer. And in the 60s, California was the best there was on offer.
Bob repeatedly hammers the point that he learned so much from his surfing friends and acquaintances. All the wide-ranging eccentrics and larger-than-lifers that made up the surf scene then were his crew, his mates, buddies. None affected him more than Miki Dora. “Da Cat” and Cooper found some level ground between them and they trod it carefully, but with gusto.
“I like to tell stories about Miki Dora and all these people that I associated with because that ties me in with some of their magic. Some of their fairy dust drips onto me that way.
“Our association was over a long period of time. I mean, he was part of the (flippantly) surf scene and so was I, so our paths crossed constantly from the time I started surfing to when I went to work for Velzy at San Clemente. He was lifeguarding at San Clemente and he’d come down to surf. Then I’d drive up to Malibu on weekends and I’d see him up there. Our paths just crossed constantly.
“Miki was an opportunist and you don’t burn bridges with anybody if you’re looking for the opportunity to scam. So he kept everybody juggling and I was probably one of the balls that he juggled. He would never offend and he often extended in order to strengthen the relationship in case of need. I actually found him at stages to be very generous. I went to his house in Hollywood—very few people did that.We’d look at his albums and the interesting things that he would collect, and then we’d talk or just go places. At other times it was just ‘Hi’ at the beach. I never had any trouble with him in the water.
“I could drop in on him at any time and he would never ‘tag’ me, as he used to say. I don’t know why. Other people, he’d take their head off.
“So we used to surf a lot together but I didn’t feel singled out or particularly privileged. I earned my place in the lineup so there was mutual respect, but he, of course, was the king, so he could dole out whatever to whoever if he felt inclined, and you took it. We never sat around and talked about how to surf or anything because, you see, he was so full of jive. All you got was the act, ever. Never anything sincere. Nothing soul stretching. And so you learned to live with the act and accept it for what it was.
“But he treated me well. There were a lot of times when I’d go down to the beach and he’d rent my board out for me, but we’d split the money and I’d have enough to eat on for the day. Those are mutual back scratchings. If he was looking particularly hard done by or something like that, we’d go to the Malibu Market and he would arrange it so that I could buy something for him. I knew what was happening and I would watch him go through his maneuver and I knew it would end up at the cash register. It would go something like, ‘Coops… uh, ever try these?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh wow, Miki, those look really interesting. Yeah, I think I’ll try them.’ (Laughs.) And he would say, ‘Do you mind if I get a quart of milk?’ ‘No, that’s okay, I can swing that, too.’ The bill would be $1.39 and he would have like 14 cents in his pocket and he would gladly give me everything he had. Very good of him. (Laughs.) It was good! I mean, I’m watching a guy at work.
“You know, the one thing I really liked about Dora was that he proved to me that we’re all contained by our fear. That and the fact that he also did things that you’re not supposed to be able to do and get away with it. He could have continued too, if this society that he breached hadn’t suddenly turned on him. If only they had just kind of gone: ‘WOW! That was really good. He pulled that off?!’
“Instead they said: ‘That sucker, nobody does that to MasterCard…we’ve got to get him. Other people will follow him if we don’t get him!’”
Inevitably Bob wants to speak about people’s lives and the peace they need and deserve. His years as a trained counselor coupled with his lifelong faith have widened his vision. He makes no excuses about his belief in God or His plan. He would like nothing more than for people to learn that there’s more to life than just living for the moment. He’s really on a mission about this, although he never corners the hapless listener and ear-bashes them on the subject. Having experienced the combined effects of religious transformation and psychological education for himself, Coops knows he has a valuable word for the willing listener.
“The common denominator is surfing, and my alliance with all those people out there is that I was one of them. I still am, I’m just older. I’m just further down the line. There’s people who are further down the line than I am. But all I can do is tell them all to keep moving. Keep your head down, keep your heart open, keep looking for the bigger answer, because that’s where the reward is, that’s where the satisfaction is and that’s where the contentment is. It’s not coming in after having a great day thrashing waves. That’s a temporary deal, you know. That’s like lighting up a joint or going to a great party or seeing a super rock concert. It’s over! It gets over and you come down after that.
“The things that sustain are the things of the spirit. And these things that happen; like surfing, like music, like motorbike riding, whatever gets your adrenaline going, are maybe keys to the bigger things. You get a fix off these things and you want more. You feel enriched, enlarged, extended; you know, bigger than yourself. Your self image gets inflated and these are all good feelings. Surfing is one of those things. But the sustaining comes from establishing a philosophy that is constantly fulfilling so you don’t need those other things.
“I can go back surfing and it’s great, but it doesn’t give me the satisfaction that I get out of doing what I’m doing now. You know, wife, family kids, concept…an eternal concept. Knowing where I came from, what I’m doing here, where I’m going, what the purpose of this existence is and dedicating my life to getting that one down right. And the more effort I put into, it the more rewards come back.
“Look, the feelings that you get from whatever it is that gets you off are great feelings—they’re highs, they’re emotional explosions as in surfing. What I have is a consistent, warm satisfaction that doesn’t go up and down. It continues all the way. I can get a good wave—that’s a buzz. I can do something else—that’s a buzz. But underneath it all I am not dissatisfied. Beneath it all I am fulfilled, and to me that’s the best thing that’s ever happened.
“Everybody’s looking for happiness and that’s the thing. Man’s search for happiness is what we’re talking about here, and they find these temporary substitutes. Up and down, up and down, up and down. You know, ‘Go there, look for this, look over here…’ and all these things they’re doing are pressing some buttons. The ‘joy factor’ is lower than those great highs, but it is consistent. It’s not an up and down sort of thing. It’s very consistent, very satisfying. Completely filling.
“I’m really pleased with the way my life has gone and as I see it in the future. It’s planned and it’s going to happen the way it should for me to really fulfill my potential. And my destiny is no different than anybody else’s.”
‘‘The idea was, Morey Pope needed a ‘star’ rider. Everybody had stars on their teams so they picked up John Peck. They gave him all these boards to ride and they were all different, but they had turned down noses, snubs and that sort of thing. Peck goes out and rides them, but Peck never did any designing at all. The design was done by the company. “Peck was the proverbial surf star. He had the car laid on, $120 a week to live on, he used to chat up our beautiful secretary, and he got into ‘interesting situations’ a lot. He was generally causing raised eyebrows with Tom and Pope. So they had this giant powwow where they decided that Peck had to work for his dough. I got the job of telling John. John finally comes in and I say: ‘We want you to shape.’ He says: ‘Fine, I’d love to shape.’ To shorten a very long story, Peck had problems keeping his start-up appointment. Today he’s in Laguna, tomorrow he’s out of gas, the next day something really important came up, etc. The boys were getting edgy. And then, out of the blue, he shows. He got suited up, went into the shaping room and checked out all the blanks. ‘I can’t do anything with these. The rocker’s all wrong.’
“The boys are all: ‘No, no, noooo…!’ A week passes. We got some more blanks and he comes back. Goes into the room and begins. ‘Wow, he’s actually working…he’s actually doing it.’ Saw, saw, scrape, scrape, scrape. Then silence.
“‘See you later.’ He bails out to Santa Cruz on a celestial mission or something and the thing has only got a plan shape on it. Finally he came back in a couple of weeks and put the rails on it. At long last he says: ‘Well, it’s pretty rough, but it’ll do. I gotta go.’ And he’s into the car and down to Mexico for a contest or something. So we fine-sand this thing, glass it up for him and he comes back and says: ‘That’s fine.’ Takes it out and rides it.
“Then I rode the board. It was absolutely incredible…an unbelievable board! The only Penetrator the guy ever made was the ultimate Penetrator and we just took everything off of that one. Took us probably three months to get it out of him, and you could tell by the way he handled the tools that he’d never shaped before in his life, but the board was immaculate. We had to clean it up, but it was the one. It worked, it really worked. It was an excellent board. I’d like to see all those other things that he’s shaping now. He calls them the best and the finest, etc. I just wonder.”
Cooper’s take on all this is that life is an education and as far as that goes, he’s been very lucky to have been exposed to so many great teachers.
“It’s all real interesting because that’s part of the deal. You know, this recognizing people like him (Peck) and the multitude that I’ve met in my life. The Yaters, the Velzys, the Hobies, the Clarks, the Phils, the Deweys, the Lances…I’ve learned from every one of them. They have shown me, not personally, but in observation, their unique bend, their contribution to my life. I have learned from all these people. I don’t know if they’re happy or sad or comfortable. Some of them are, some of them aren’t…I don’t know…but I really appreciate them. I recognize the contribution of everybody to what I am and what I understand and what I know. And I really appreciate them for that. I wish and I hope that they’re happy and as fulfilled as I am.
“I chose what I chose and everybody out there is trying something. They’re trying to figure themselves out to get their thing together because in getting it together maybe they’ll feel better about themselves. Maybe life will make sense. The whole thing is a spiritual quest. Everything is a spiritual quest and once you’re fulfilled on that level then you realize how hollow all these other things were. You’ll recognize them as attempts to get this fulfillment. What we’re all seeking is fulfillment. We think this or that will satisfy the need. The hollow is temporarily relieved but the need will return until we realize that our spirit’s need is what creates our yearnings. Only spiritual acts of love, consideration, caring unselfishness, devotion to God and others are totally and completely fulfilling.
“We (Mormons) have a saying that we’re spiritual beings having an earthly experience. But the spirit of the individual is much larger than the body or the intellect. We believe that we’re created spirits and the best word that I can use to define spirit is it’s the thing within you that moves you at your deepest level. Your most sincere, honest, emotional person is your spirit. That’s the original aspect of your creation. That’s what God created. And down here on the earth, you were born into the world to have the body experience. So the spirit combined with the body equals the soul. Right now we’re souls, but we consist of these two things and they have wars.
“Maybe something feels good to the body but it’s assaulting to the spirit if it’s not mutually building of the union between you and your wife. The spirit feels uneasy about that, but the body’s in there saying ‘it still feels good.’ The education comes with the overcoming of that, recognizing the proper avenue for your passions that will be building, not destroying your character. You make decisions. Everything is a decision.
“This is it. This is what life is, an education. We’re here to learn and we’re here to take what we learn and to apply it. So becoming it we become our knowledge. A good expression is: ‘What is the meaning of life? The meaning of life is to know God and to imitate Him in all aspects of the word imitation.’
“So that life becomes a study of God. His personality, His desires, our relationship to Him, getting that information, understanding the depth as far as we can. His love and His compassion and desires for us. You can do that much easier as a parent because you have children that you love. You love them without any reservations at all, even though they’re brats, they just broke your such-and-such and they screw up…you still love them. You still want the best for them. You draw on your patience to keep guiding them, to keep them doing the right thing so they don’t screw up. He has that same love for us except it’s magnified a billion times for everybody.
“So, you’re trying to help your kids as He’s trying to help us. They’re rejecting it. They’re not getting the message. They’re not picking up on you. Their mates have more sway over them than you do. You’re the one that loves them. Their mate’s just want to use their bicycle and the facilities that they have to offer. They don’t accept you. So you’re frustrated…as God is frustrated. He’s purely interested in that one thing, He wants us back home. That’s the easiest way to understand it. God’s concern for us is like my concern for my children. And we are His children. We’re created in His image. He’s our father.
“Heaven, or whatever they call it…we’re admonished to try and achieve it here. When we get to the other side, when we step off of this planet and go to the other side without the encumbrances we have here, then we’ll really know, but we’ve got to try as hard as we can while we’re here to achieve that goal. Harmony, empathy, compassion, understanding, love. (Subdued.) It’s a job.”
“All my training in marriage guidance seems to distill to this one great positive truth. They teach you how to handle this and that and then once you’ve achieved empathy with your clients on a one-to-one basis, there is a connection. This is true in any relationship. Once a connection is made on a certain level you become friends. ‘Friends’ means that you can trust somebody, that they won’t rat on you. They won’t turn on you. They’re on your side. So what we’re talking about here is another definition of love. And in order to help anybody you have to achieve that.
“I’m studying and I’m going ‘okay, that makes good sense,’ and I’m writing all this stuff down and reading it in all the books. Then suddenly I realized; ‘This is the same stuff they taught me in church when I was a kid!’ I had to get the same information from another source to validate what I’d been taught as a child. I have always challenged the things that I hear. I have accepted Mormonism and I still challenge it. I test it and it always comes out 100 percent.
“My point is, this means that everybody needs to be loved. More important than that, people have a need to love. We need giving more than receiving. We need to learn to love, to put it out, to actually love someone. It’s once again a Biblical principle, an eternal principle. I know, phrases that are too denominational turn people off, but there are eternal principles and this is one of them. To learn to love somebody unselfishly so that they become your primary focus, not yourself but them and their happiness, that matched return is a constant upper. That’s how really great things happen. We’re all wrapped up in our feelings and our comfort zones and then somebody comes into our lives and they become an extension of us. Wills’ attention to me validates me even more.
“This is where marriages and relationships can get screwed up. Selfishness is always the problem. We’re always thinking about ourselves, our feelings on this and that. What about my, me, etc.? We’ve gotta grow out of it. But we have a mutual attraction. The mutual attraction is one of extraction. What your partner can extract from you to add to herself. In other words, you’ve got the groovy car, the cool clothes, the great job, the possibilities—these all contribute to her aura. Your part with her, her part with you. The pluses have to be equal or you end up with dependencies. The most trouble-free marriages are between independent, secure individuals who really want to be totally with the other because they love the feeling of being with that person. This is a hard one, but marriages of older people have a better chance because these personal securities are achieved over time.
“The really great love stories are the ones where the other part of him is everything. That the individual, sole preoccupation and desire is for the other person’s well being. Total consideration, total acceptance, warts and all. No qualification. She doesn’t have to qualify. She doesn’t have to fill any of my perspectives. What is there I like. I want her to be happy no matter what it costs me. That’s true love.
“This is essentially what God is telling us. He accepts us warts and all. You know all this trash that’s going on in the world, the Bosnians slicing each other up and all the grief everywhere, it hurts Him terribly, but He still accepts them. He accepts their warts, their faults, their problems, their bad breath, whatever. He loves them and that’s it. He can’t interfere but will always try to influence for good. We all are forced to live with the choices of power.”
Bob’s final comment was simply this insightful quote from Bruce Hafen: “This is not your home. You are away at school.”