Sunday, May 23, 2010

Birdwell Summer

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

34 comments:

Scott said...

I had that Birdwell conversion experience at Myrtle Beach my senior year of HS. Also found out about Wille T, Billy Stewart et al. I called it "oldies"; they called it "Beach Music". My life wasn't the same after that.

You'd have to pay me big money to go north of Murrell's Inlet these days.

Scott

Toad said...

Looking for what a 26 this season? I hadn't thought of these since I nailed my first skateboard together.

ELS said...

"the proverbial back story, the collateral lore that accompanied things". Wish I'd written that - it encapsulates my love of so many things. I think this might be your best ever post - a short story, gripping and touching and funny.

Nice one, mate.

Anonymous English Female said...

ADG - I think you and Allie should get together to design and market your own line of board shorts for surfing down Connecticut Avenue... I can see pink paisley and lime green cashmere to be worn only with Begians...

TWJ said...

Love the post. You have a great way of bringing back memories that helped mold a young lad. We use to do our “surfing” at Hatteras Beach, (OBX). I remember trying to be cool in my size 28 red britches while busting my ass on a long board. I think most of us had those older cousins who had friends that would get to come down to the beach for the week. I get that “all tingly” feeling right now thinking about one of the “older girls” asking me if I could put suntan lotion on her back…

Woa, I forget where I am sometimes. Thanks again ADG.

oldominion said...

If you do jump on em make sure you follow her sizing instructions. I'm a normal 34 and ended up with a 37.

ADG said...

Oldominion...thanks. They made that loud and clear on their website.

TWJ...at least Hatteras HAD waves.

AnonEngFem...you just might be on to something there.

ELS...Thanks. That's huge...coming from you.

Toad...I was just talking to a parent at soccer on Saturday about homemade go-karts, mini-bikes,skateboards etc. and the fact that it's a miracle any of us survived.

Scott...I don't go to any of the Carolina beaches anymore.

Patsy said...

My husband spent the summer after his senior year of HS living in a van (ew) and surfing at Hatteras. I should show him these shorts.....

I'm sorry about your cousin David.

JDB said...

We spend 3 weeks at the Texas coast every Summer. The surfing in SC may not be great, but it's bound to beat surfing in TX.

LPC said...

Yeah but they were GATEWAY swim trunks. You shoulda listened to your mama buddy boy.

LPC said...

Oh, and I had an uncle who came home from Vietnam too. We were told he was different now. And to be careful of him. Not that he was dangerous, more that we children were. No more explanation. I'm sorry for all those boys.

NCJack said...

Buggin' Mom to get me what the "cool kids" wore: now THAT brings back memories!

Ben said...

They're gonna revoke my literate-surfer license for failing to blog about Birdwells before you. I wore my blue ones this weekend.

ADG said...

Patsy...David fared ok. I think we all know/knew of a "David".

JDB...Texas has a coast?

LPC..."buddy boy" ...I like that. And yes, I'm sorry for all those boys too.

NCJack...yep.

Ben...do another post!

ilovelimegreen said...

The summer of 1981 was defined – for me- by Birdwells, OP shirts, and the quest for a Speedo bathing suit in a print that NO ONE else had. I wanted a pair of Birdwells so badly – my father scratched his head when I told him I wanted a pair of boy’s swimming trunks. He refused. I remember going to the beach that summer and all the cool boys wore Birdwells; one particularly cool guy wore two pairs at once and would do all sorts of wild acrobatics while jumping waves, dropping the yellow pair to reveal the green pair, and so forth. He must have had a pair in every color - and he wore a different color combo each day…that made me want a pair even more.
As for OP shirts (maybe I am digressing, but OP shorts remind me of OP shirts), that same summer I was allowed to buy ONE surf shirt – I couldn’t decide between one from the Sunshine House in Ocean City or an OP shirt. I must have visited every surf shop between Rehoboth and Ocean City until I found the perfect one – it was beige with a silhouette of a surfer in navy on one side, superimposed over a band of a dozen or so stripes in every color of the rainbow – I was in heaven. I wore that shirt with a pair of painter’s pants, Dr. Scholl’s sandals, and knock-off Rayban aviators with my hair in two pigtails tied with rainbow ribbons to match the stripes in the shirt and thought I was hot stuff! (And I got a Speedo suit in a print that no one else had and THAT made my summer.) (Sorry this is long...but what memories!)

Anonymous said...

Lord Minimus,
For crying out loud, don't you bother to read the comments to your archived posts? Thanks in advance. I wore some of my new duds for gin and tonics with my nurse in Old Town last weekend.

~H.

ADG said...

H....did I miss one? Where?

LimeGreen...I think I saw you that summer. I was also in a Speedo.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say this but, your photo of the soldiers in the helo are not from Vietnam, they are from Gulf War I, or as other call it, Desert Storm

Anonymous said...

What a timely post . . . just rekindled a proud family tradition and ordered a pair for myself and a pair each for both of my boys (think it's great that they call their kids britches "JLD's". Just like Dad's). We've been a Birdwell family for about 30 years. Every Summer from about 1979 my mother would buy 6 pairs of britches in various sizes and colors - a pair for Dad, 4 pairs for myself and my brother and even a pair for my sister! They would fade all Summer from the salt water and would be retired or handed down every year. I know for a fact that my father has a yellow pair that has to be at least 20 years old. Pretty sure he was rocking them last Summer with a pop collar polo and a pair of Sebago Docksides - all probably purchased at the same time some time in mid 80's.

ADG, I think you and I are kindred spirits. Like a modern dad Fantastic Four of Preppiness you, me, Allie VonSickPreppyCloset and Tintin could save the world from non-bleeding patch mad and poly-cotton blend!

BMO'C (yep, my real initials - Ha!)

Anonymous said...

Please see my comments regarding your post of November 12, 2009. My comments are on the bottom. Great post on Nantucket Reds.

Thanks,
Hilton

Summer is a Verb said...

AVSPC here. Birdwells are the bomb! Ya know, the Fenwick Island Beach Patrol wears them in red as their uniform. And, what I wouldn't give for my old OP collection Ellen. Of course I would also need my Sunshine House and Country Girl/Country Britches t's resurrected...XXOO

ps...can I keep the above moniker at least thru Thursday before ya rename me?

Anonymous said...

You certainly have a way with words.

I think I'm just a bit older than you. We share similar tastes. But, for me, it was a pair of double-seated, short, canvas lifeguard trunks that I wanted. There is probably a name for them, but I don't remember it. I wonder if they even make them anymore.

I thought I read that the Birdwells were running short on some of their original, genuine fabric, at least in one or two colors. I'm too short to look decent in a pair. I hope you enjoy yours.

Laguna Beach Trad said...

You beat me to it. Was going to do a post on Surf Trad, Birdwell, OP, Big Wednesday, long blonde hair, tanned limbs, taco nights watching surf videos, surfing holidays in Hawaii... Nice post, ADG. You make me long for summers at the beach.

Anonymous said...

Consider the question regarding Hampton a rhetorical one as you remind me of the cool cats of my childhood there. I have a stepgrandmother from South Carolina that loved me a lot, but man could that woman raise holy hell. We are in expectation of a forthcoming sartorial guide (book) from you!

~H.

ilovelimegreen said...

ADG- If you were at South Bethany Beach, Delaware, in the early 80s then you saw me. I was the girl with the really bad sunburn.

Allie- I never did get a Sunshine House shirt. Next trip home, I'll rummage for that OP shirt - I pray I still have it - I think I do! Once I find it, I'll frame it...along with my pink and green patchwork sweater!

Sometime Reader said...

This is one of your best posts yet. Are you sure it wasn't ghostwritten? After all, there were no gaudy patterns, no gratuitous "shut up"s, nothing screaming your self-proclaimed "fuzzy dice" aesthetic... OK, who are you, and what have you done with ADG?

Easy and Elegant Life said...

Always wanted a pair of those. Closest to "cool" I ever got were the Jams, black, with big hot pink hibiscus flowers, or maybe a pair of rainbow striped Sundeks and a Morey boogie board. Oh and I was crowned Mr. Diptty-Do. But that was the 80's. I'd rather skip the 70's sartorial memories altogether.

Great post.

ADG said...

Elegantologist...I wouldn't have admitted to the Dippity-Do award. I'll be using that sometime in the future!

Sometime Reader...ADG is sequestered until further notice.

LimeGreenSunburn Gal...we were all sunburned then.

Hilton...No book coming from me on things sartorial. Chris at Easy and Elegant may have something up his sleeve(s).

AnonymousRe:Fabric...they seem to have a fair amount of some of the legacy fabrics.

LagunaTradMon...there's room for another story or two...have at it.

AnonBirdwellOrderer...that's great that you've been wearing them all of your life.

AnonVeteran...thanks for clarifying the picture.

JDB said...

Now look, why do you have to go hatin' (borrowed that from the 14 year old next door) on Texas? I've always been nice, haven't I? I even moved you from my "cute" list to the "devastatingly handsome" list. (sniff, sniff)

ADG said...

JDB....I'm not hatin' Texas!! I'll be in Dallas all day tomorrow.

Thornproof said...

My wife's family goes to the NC beach every year (and has since well before my wife was born ... I have some very cute video of her from her first beach trip when she was just 2 months old). We are going to be heading that way in July and I wonder if Birdwells are in any of the surf shops in Wrightsville?

Also, that is one old-school website! Haven't seen anything like that since about 1992 ...

JDB said...

How was the trip to Dallas? Did you melt into a puddle upon arrival?

ADG said...

JDB...it was an excellent meeting but the precursor...the prodrome of Dallas summer heat was raising it's humid head. I love Austin...one of my FAVORITE towns. Dallas-Houston...not as much.

Thornproof...not sure if you'll find Birdwells down there!

Anonymous said...

Nice post, it brought back memories of childhood trips in the family Wagoneer down to the dumpy little beach box on Dunes drive on Hatteras that my parents used to rent every year back in the 1970s and 80s. That cottage was the cheapest oceanfront rental on the beach, it had no phone, no TV, and no dishwasher but it did have A/C (when it worked). As well as I recall you could only pick up one radio station in Greenville, NC from down there.

My dad always took a several rolls of quarters so he could walk down to the phone booth at Teach's Lair marina several times a day and call his office. Laptop computers and cell phones were the stuff of science fiction back then.

I used to wear Birdwells back in those days and honestly I hadn't even seen a pair of them since the 1980s until one day last year I was at the local thrift store and ran across a pair of red Britches that looked brand new and just happened to be my size. I bought them assuming that they had probably been in someone's dresser drawer unworn since the 80s.

I liked them so much better than the knee length boardies I had been wearing since circa 1990 (when I could no longer find Birdwells) so I decided to look online to see if I could find another vintage pair on ebay and was amazed to find out that they were still in business.

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