R.G. was the first guy to have a pair. I saw them when we were at the Elks Club pool one day. He had a hippie sister in California who sent them to him which made them that much more out of reach and desirable. You see I was already hooked on the proverbial back story, the collateral lore that accompanied things…and I was only in grammar school.
It would be several more years before any store in my hometown would purvey something like Birdwells. We weren’t backwater per se but we were…well…comparatively quaint I suppose. The other challenge would be for me to find a pair small enough. Would they even make something like this in a twenty--whatever waist? Maybe the Myrtle Beach surf shop would have them. We would stop at Mammy’s Kitchen for lunch in Myrtle Beach en route to Ocean Drive…North Myrtle Beach. By the late sixties and early seventies North Myrtle Beach remained a holdout for local Carolinians who clung to wood frame beach houses with screened front porches and no air conditioning. Myrtle Beach by then was well on the way to rightfully earning it’s moniker of “K-Mart by the Sea”. Sixty five miles away in mom’s station wagon and with a low key whine (too much of a whine and my mother would reach back without looking—and I’m talking about reaching all the way to the “back-back” of her VistaCruiser station wagon and slap me naked) en route and maybe my mom would stop and I could get a pair.
Long before the national chain surf shops, the one in Myrtle Beach was a family owned independent enterprise that was a retail outlier in the truest sense. It appealed to a leisure life that was in my elementary school eyes…randy and rowdy. How long would it be before I weighed enough to wear most of the stuff that the older boys bought from this one-off purveyor of cool? And would I ever be able to enter such an establishment without my mother—the exchequetrix and facile roller of the eyes…eyes that said…“I don’t know what’s going to become of you if you fall in with this crowd”. Damn mama, it’s only a pair of swim trunks.
I’m sure the LaJolla characters in Tom Wolfe’s The Pump House Gang would have laughed at the North Myrtle Beach of my childhood. All the cool stuff started in California…surfing…skateboarding…tie dyed t-shirts…they say some of the best cannabis came via California…I wouldn’t have known. Kids surfed in the Carolinas but come on…where was the real surfer subculture? The best of the Carolina surfing best would be hodads in California. What I did know as a grammar school kid was that everything for sale in that surf shop seemed not only out of my reach but also illicit…and this wasn’t even a head shop. My mom would have been back out the door in a heartbeat if there had even been a modest display case of hash pipes and roach clips.
Things as benign as Gordon and Smith t-shirts and surfing accoutrement, as well as the skateboards and other kit therein spoke to me a lifestyle that my mama wouldn’t let me take on. The round puck of Sex Wax made my pulse quicken as a kid. Why did they call it that and why couldn’t I have a cake of it? …Even though I didn’t have a surfboard. Wouldn’t it be cool just to have one? Kinda like that condom I would slip into my wallet several years later only to replace it every couple of years…new old stock I suppose…wallet worn but certainly never used. So I prevailed…at least in matters Birdwell. My mom bought me the smallest pair offered and my color choices were—nadda. I could have the blue ones or the blue ones.
My memories of this time…so early in my life’s journey, are inextricably tied to Vietnam. I didn’t know what it was all about. I just knew that my much older cousins…the guys that were for me, the arbiters of everything cool…were being drafted. My mother, the youngest of ten, had older brothers and sisters whose kids were being shipped off to Vietnam by the busload. My cousins…Carroll, C.H., David and my oldest cousin Nancy’s new husband, Bill, all shipped out for Vietnam the same summer I got the Birdwells. David ran the rivers on a Swift Boat and came back a mess. *UPDATE...I've been made aware that the photo above is from our current conflict...not Vietnam
We always shot tons of fireworks on the 4th at my Uncle Connie’s. The next summer when David came home from killing people on the riverbanks of Vietnam, we didn’t have fireworks at Uncle Connie’s. David, Connie’s son, stayed in his bedroom the whole day. This was probably around the same time that Ernie, the guy who worked at the trad haberdashery with me many years later, sat on his lifeguard stand at Ocean Drive, maybe in Birdwells, waiting to be drafted.
I love the movie Big Wednesday. I love the surfing stuff but the conflict manifest in being too lazy and too in love with surfing to sign up for the Draft intrigues me. I suppose that there was less of a moral issue with war than there was a desire to not interrupt what was probably the best summer of their lives.
I also correlate those first Birdwells with Coppertone. The white gunky stuff that mom used to smear on us. I also remember my older girl cousins being sunburned and putting Noxzema on each other. I probably got a nano glimpse through a cracked bathroom door…of a pallid budding breast made more pallid by encircled sunburn. Or maybe I just think I saw one. Ten-O-Six lotion, Stridex Medicated Pads and Dipity Do seem to channel through my recollection of the Birdwell Summer. All things that would be on the dresser of one of the beach house bedrooms…along with those heated curlers…props and unguents used by my older girl cousins.
I think I went through another couple pair of Birdwells before moving on to other board shorts…Ocean Pacific I think, was probably next in the queue. I even had the corduroy OP shorts. My tobacco farmer grandfather couldn’t get his mind around the fact that one would wear a winter fabric as a pair of shorts…especially in bright colors. He and Longwing.
I snooped around a bit while thinking about this post and discovered the Carrie Birdwell family is still cranking out the Beach Britches just around the corner from where she first began all those years ago. Her decidedly low tech website is a personification of the pluck that’s probably been a key ingredient to her survival all these years. I doubt that the Smithsonian has a pair of Birdwells in their archives but they should. I’m thinkin’ I’ll pounce on another pair—probably not in a twenty eight waist this time.
Onward … ADG—Hodad