If you closed your eyes to take in the onshore salt air and the long riffs and soft ukulele of surf music, you’d think yourself in Hawaii or San Diego or Venice Beach, not a bar in New York City. That is, until the A train screeched directly above and a jet outbound from JFK, flying low, tore across the sky. No question, this is Rockaway, not Honolulu.
Screens played grainy old surf movies, homage to the days when surfers danced with waves, not decapitated them with ripping snap-turns. Retired longboards with floral patterns hung from the ceiling. A sea of knotty hair, tattoos and tank tops, belonging to people who don’t care what you think about them, admired photos of local surf legends on the walls.
On Saturday night the Rockaway Beach Surf Club held Talk Story: the History of New York Surfing, featuring surfing legend Rusty Miller and 14 other guests of honor. It wasn’t just a bar, or a venue, or a community gathering place, it was a museum for a time-honored sport and a way of life, one with roots not only in Hawaii and Southern California, but right here in Rockaway Beach, Queens.
Eddie “Fast Eddie” McCabe looks more like your grandfather with his thinning gray hair and collared shirt than a surfing great, until you notice his carved wooden necklace and infectious tranquility. He and his wife Mary drove from Montauk for the event. McCabe, one of the guests of honor with a board bearing his nickname, stared at a picture of himself surfing a wave in Rockaway in 1962.
“It’s like a time machine,” he said. “It brings back a lot of really good times.”
McCabe was waiting to see Rusty Miller, the 1965 United States Surfing Champion whose book signing was the main event of the evening, a face he said he hadn’t seen in over half a century. “There he is,” McCabe said. “He looks the exact same.”
Miller looked a bit sun-worn, with contoured, red skin, but his shaggy brown mop and blazing green eyes made him look younger than his 70 years. As McCabe shook hands with Miller, they both grinned deeply. McCabe’s wife, Mary, watched.
“This is an important night for Ed,” she said. “He can’t surf anymore because he just had a pacemaker put in. He lives for nights like this. I just hope he remembers we have to drive home.”
Miller was busy signing copies of his book “Turning Point: Surf Portraits and Stories from Bells to Byron,” but he made time for McCabe.
“I haven’t seen Rusty since 1967, in Florida, when I was surfing for the Hobie Team,” McCabe said. “He was doing an event at Ron Jon’s Surf Shop.” Miller said that maybe it had been at a contest in Puerto Rico.
Other surfers of yore floated around the premises, waiting to reconnect. “It becomes a museum when old farts like us show up,” said Don Eichin, 74, another guest of honor. “I don’t want to call us pioneers, like the red baron in a goddamned biplane, but let’s just say there weren’t nearly as many people in the water back then.”
Eichin, a career firefighter, got his nickname, “Gums,” when he lost his two front teeth in a wipeout in Hawaii during the winter of 1964. His teeth embedded in the board and Eichin in surfing lore: The scene of the accident, a break near Pipeline, hallowed ground on Oahu’s North Shore, has forever been known as Gums.
Entire generations of water people showed up with additional blown-up photos for the walls, a do-it-yourself museum in progress. Unattended children ran throughout the event, shrieking and playing and oblivious to the reverence around them.
Eric and Randy Eichin, Don’s sons, both firefighters and surfers themselves, watched their father reminiscing with McCabe and Miller.
“This is Dad’s night,” said Randy. “He hasn’t seen these guys in decades.”
“I’m having a Pulp Fiction moment,” said Eric, referring to the deep guitar riffs similar to those in the opening scene of the film.
When the sun set Brandon D’Leo, co-owner of the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, thanked the crowd of about 70. He did it between pauses so he wouldn’t be drowned out by the airplane noise before playing “Morning of the Earth”— a classic surf film with a saturated, LSD-style aesthetic—on a projector on the outside patio. Partygoers sat on wooden pews in the large space surrounded by bamboo, yellowing boards, tiki huts with license plates dangling from them, and an airstream trailer that D’Leo calls “his toolshed.”
Inside, one man looked at a picture of himself surfing a two-story wave in Hawaii in 2005. “I got every set wave that day,” he said, cracking a smile. “That was Jacko’s in Oahu. See that guy duckdiving? He barely made it.”
Ben Yaeger is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.