Almanac Music: Dave Kimber and Surfing with James Arness  




Surfing with James Arness  


Besides growing up next to Hollywood, the entertainment capitol of the world, I also lived about an hour-and-a-half from Malibu Beach and the Pacific Ocean. After seeing the movie ‘Gidget’ when I was 12 years old, I really wanted to learn how to surf and become a beach bum – but it was hard because the ocean was too far to walk or ride my bike and I was too young to drive. My older brother Johnny, however, also saw Gidget and was bitten by the same surf bug. He had a drivers license, a convertible car, and other friends who wanted to learn how to surf, too. So I became the kid brother who sat in the back of the car, or, the pick-up truck of my sixteen year-old brother and his crazy friends. I usually sat on top of the boards in the back of a truck driven by a guy named Jimmy, who thought he was a race car driver. When I think about it, I’m lucky to be here now writing this story because Jimmy was a crazy driver. Driving to the beach was a lot more dangerous then learning how to surf in the ocean with the sharks and other creatures. By the way, Stephen Spielberg had not yet come out with ‘Jaws’ and succeeded in scaring the world about swimming in the ocean. Thanks for that, Stephen.


On the weekends we would either go to Malibu (which was ‘up north’) or Laguna, San Onofre, or, San Diego (which was ‘down south’). Occasionally, we would go a little past San Diego to Tijuana in Mexico. My father told us not to go to Mexico. He was afraid we wouldn’t come back alive because, even in my youth, Mexico was a pretty lawless place. As they used to say, ‘In Tijuana, anything goes’. I could tell you some stories about Mexico that would curl your hair and definitely make me blush. But, that’s for another day. Let’s go back to surfing.




I think that next to candy, surfing was the most addictive thing in my life. It was certainly the most healthy addiction I ever had. When we went down south there was a private beach called San Onofre Beach that we loved because the waves were very good for learning how to surf. There was only one problem…it was a private beach because it was part of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base and you couldn’t drive in without being a Marine, or, having the right sticker (which none of us had). Ironically, many of my surfer friends got one of those stickers a few years down the road when the draft board and the Viet Nam War took most of the youth, and, a lot of my friends when they turned eighteen and ninteen years old. A lot of them never returned home.


Well, without that sticker we had to park our car out on the Coast Highway and climb over a barbed wire fence with our towels and our surfboards. Then, we’d walk about a mile over dirt marine land to a huge cliff that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. The cliff was maybe thirty to forty feet high. We had to climb down it to the sand then to the ocean. Once we reached the beach we were safe from the soldiers who were training there. It was kind of a game between the surfers and the army guys – but, not a real fun game. I had friends who said they were shot at by the Marines who liked to kill surfboards and scare the surfers. They hated guys with long hair. I think that surfers were really the first hippies, with their long blond hair.


Once we hit the beach it was like D-Day in reverse. We would run down the beach a half a mile or so and then charge into the water where we joined scores of other surfers. Most were members of the club, but, no one knew who was or wasn’t a member and they weren’t looking for ID’s with everybody wearing bathing suits.


One day I was sitting out in the ocean waiting for a wave to come and give me a ride and there was a older guy sitting on a board near me and I thought, man I hope that I am still surfing when I am an older guy like this guy. He looked to be in his forties or more. He was very friendly and told me he’d been surfing for most of his adult life. I told him that I hoped that I would be surfing for many years to come and way into my old age.


I asked him what he did for a living. He was pretty big and looked like he could be a construction worker. He said he was an actor. “In movies,” I asked. “No,” he said he was on T.V. I wasn’t placing who he was without his clothes or his costumes. This was during the sixties and it seemed like about seventy-percent of TV series were westerns. I asked ,”What show are you on?” “Gunsmoke,” he said, and, it hit me. I was talking to Marshal Matt Dillon…the star of ‘Gunsmoke’. It was James Arness. I said, “Well, of course. I didn’t recognize you without your gun.” And we both laughed.


I recently read that surfing was one of James Arness’ favorite hobbies. His son apparently inherited the bug and was a competetive surfer who represented the United States in competitions around the world. Rolf, his son, actually won the 1970 World Surfing Championships held at Johanna in Victoria, Australia.



Many years later, I moved to the snow fields in Mammoth Mountain up in Northern California with my good friend Dennis. We were both amateur skiiers and we wanted to get better. But it was too far away to go skiing more than a few times a year. So, we both quit college for a semester and went to Mammoth and were busboys and washed dishes at night, just so we could ski all day.


One day I got off a high chair lift and almost skied right into a big guy, who was also on skis. I said, “Sorry,” and looked up and it was James Arness…again. But this time he was standing on his skis and looking big….looking like himself. I apologized for knocking into him and he said, “You look familiar.”


“Well, I’m not in the movies but you and I met many years ago.”
“Where was that,” he asked?
“San Onofre…in the water.”
“Oh yeah, you’re the little guy who wanted to still be surfing when he got older. Well, are you still surfing?”
“Yeah, as soon as ski season is over.”


When I had met James Arness while surfing he didn’t seem that tall because, of course, he was sitting on his board out in the water. However, when I saw him snow skiing, he looked like a giant…He was 6 feet 8 inches tall. We skied for a while together that afternoon and he was the nicest man – just a regular guy. He wasn’t conceited and had a fantastic sense of humor. He wished me luck in surfing when I was an old man. I never saw him again after that trip.


You never knew who you might meet at that ski resort. One day I met actress Sally Field and we spent the day skiing together!


Dave and Sally Field



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