The Spirited, Six-Decade Adventures Of Surfer Joe
He goes by Surfdog. It's in his email address and on his license plate. It works for him. He knows that out of the many surfers in the world, he is one of the dawgs who has clamored for -- and succeeded at -- sucking on the teat of the planet's fine waves.
Most mornings or afternoons or evenings in his 54 years of tasting the salty suds and being pushed by a power much greater than himself, he would -- not literally -- salivate like a dog about to get a snack when all of the Earth's conditions have been met for an upcoming surf session.
The Surfdog solidly planted on a glassy offering on the north side of the Huntington Beach Pier in 1974 or '75.
Lot o' variables. And he knows them all -- and then some. Wind direction. Swell size. Buoy reports. Which size board to ride? Which break will be best suited for the can't-wait-for-this session? And so much more. He has always been data-oriented.
For the purposes of this story, however, we'd like to keep the Surfdog name but add the more glamorous "Surfer Joe." Picture the Ray-Ban sunglasses. The bleach-blond SoCal 1970s flowing hair, now a distinct whitish, blondish that was mixed on the ocean's palette.
Surfer Joe's 1965 Ford Falcon Futura.
Yeah, yeah. For this story, he is going to be Surfer Joe because he made his way up the ranks of the ever-growing army of surfers in the world and that name is slightly more fitting for someone who has been around the block in his chosen sport thousands of times. No he doesn't have fame like the biggest dogs in the sport -- icons like Gerry Lopez all the way through to John John Florence -- and there is no fame wanted or needed. Happy to hold that symbolic badge that he can carry with him wherever he goes, knowing that he climbed to the top of his personal mountain (or, the occasional 10-footer).
I believe that if you told Joe he is one slot above the median of all of the hard-core surfers in the world, he would say, "Yeah, I am" with a confident air and in the particular mode of those who also enjoy this particular waterman lifestyle. He never wanted to be the best. He knows he didn't want to be the worst. Anywhere in between -- and preferably as high as possible -- is honorable.
And the knowledge that he surfed in six (or is it seven?) different decades. Wh-what? In a recent phone conversation with Joe Abramo, my brother, he was telling me he hadn't been out in the water in about a year. That was tough for me to stomach. It's been his life. But when you're 72, things have a way of slowing down.
I clearly remember the following words that day about a month ago, "I've surfed for 54 years." And then after a millisecond pause, but a pause nonetheless, he added ever so lightly: "That's pretty good."
Yeah, Surfer Joe, that's right.
Joe Abramo at about age 31 in 1979 on his boat, the only way to get to the waves at Cojo Pt. at the Ranch in Santa Barbara.
That means for 54 years he's been able to give his friends and surf mates the following line, "You shoulda seen it yesterday." That's standard talk out in the lineup when there is a lull and you're sitting, waiting for crumbs, when yesterday everything was firing and you couldn't make a mistake. You caught every wave you tried for, you ripped everything and the conditions were oh-so perfectly clean.
Oh yeah, now we're talking. Surfer Joe, I'm sure, can count those 100 percent nothing-can-go-wrong magical days on his fingers and toes. And nothing can pull away the memory of a 5- to 6 footer (measured from the back) rolling in -- and when the wave pitches -- sliding down a rolling ball of thunder as high as your living-room ceiling and thicker than three pick-up trucks. And even then, it's not really big-wave surfing like you'll see at the Eddie Aikau Invitational, but still, plenty big.
It is what he pursued, after all. And, as they also say in the surfing brotherhood, "He scored."
No question about it, he scored. From the frigid New England waters to the Huntington Beach pier to the high-life in Santa Barbara and on to the big test of Kauai, where his wings were waiting and he needed to earn. All of it -- to borrow a hockey term -- can be summed up with, "He shoots. He scores."
And he wants to get back out there. I know it. At least I think it. The floods on Kauai in 2018 set him back. Because of the destruction, he could no longer easily get to the breaks and scope out the ocean's offerings. The roads were closed. He bought a motorized bicycle and jimmied a way to put his board on it. Still, it was no picnic and ever-so frustrating. And now, with COVID-19 here and his surf muscle memory going south fast, what's a man to do? Sit there and let it happen? Eh, I figure that's about 60 percent right. But there is one way back -- and that's to do something he's never done before -- cross train. He admitted to me that it's not so much the paddling that is tougher, but the pop-up on to his board once the wave is caught. It's not as automatically fast as before and that throws EVERYTHING OFF. I know that much. Thanks to the Surfdog, I surfed throughout the 1990s on Kauai and after a long layoff while raising a family on Oahu, I've gone back out occasionally with my kids. That pop-up -- or lack thereof, I should say -- ruins it all. Fortunately, I've been to breaks that are forgiving and allow you to take the ugly 3-4 second pop-up, but that just doesn't cut it in "real" surf when the pop-up must be immediate.
And so, if there is somebody out there who can work with Joe on the pop-up, please do so. He's like Spongebob, man -- he needs to be in WATER.
The Surfdog can relate to Spongebob's dilemma in this episode.
For this story today (which will read like an introduction and a selected chapter of a book), I spoke with Joe a few weeks ago for about an hour and asked him to illustrate one portion of his many stops on the surfing road with two stories that can move the narrative along. I asked him for possible benchmarks or bookends, high moments or low moments, whatever can tell the tale.
And I know he's got so many of these stories to tell that could not possibly fit into one hour. I've already heard most of 'em through the years. And I most certainly would like to add that on most of 'em he could easily say to an audience, "You shoulda seen it yesterday" -- or more to the point -- you shoulda been there 10, 20 or 50 years (pick one) ago. Surfing's fish tales, sort of.
We needed a starting point and Surfer Joe obliged by picking one aspect that weaves the beginnings of his surf life with the place where he's been since 1983, the North Shore ... the ultimate proving grounds. And as with any good story, it has to do with pretty much the deepest friendship that he's had, outside of family, in his life. An unlikely friendship, too, but to purloin a line from "The Big Lebowski," one that ties the room together.
His Name Is Bacci And He Apparently Lied
Mike Lorusso is from Maine -- or Massachusetts. You, the reader, can figure that one out for yourself.
He's the Surfdog's friend, co-conspirator of sorts, so let's peer into the time when Joe met Bacci, shall we?
Here's how Surfer Joe tells it:
"One of the great stories is how we met and how the truth came out later. I was with Bob Whitacre (another of Joe's super close friends) on the edge of the road on the beach at Kalihiwai. We get the boards out of the car, getting ready, changed to trunks, wax up, make sure the leash is connected. This guy drives up in a big. old bomber, a 1971 LTD, a junker at the time, a car that was probably only 15 years old but Kauai eats cars like that for breakfast. He's with a buddy or two. Never seen him before. Then I heard him talk and I say, 'You're from Massachusetts.' He goes, 'Fuck no. We hate guys from Mass.' So he tells us he's from Maine and we went out surfing. He did OK. I did OK. We all had fun. Then I start seeing him around at other surf spots, down at The (Hanalei) Bay or at the store. Turns out, he comes over for three months at a time in winter. That's when Ogunquit (Maine) is shut down. His family owns a motel, supermarket, strip mall, sandwich shop, laundromat, trailer park, a giant conglomeration of a family-owned business. A restaurant.
"After a while, I got to know him and became enamored with him. And after a time, he was beginning to be a little pain in the ass -- 'Oh, it's him again.' And then he'd disappear. Go home for the summer in Maine, the high season."
As years went by, Bacci began to stay with Joe during the winters and would keep asking Joe to visit Maine some day.
"I would say 'No,' all the time and finally, when when my daughter was old enough to enjoy it, we went and visited him," Surfdog said. "It was great."
It turns out, though, that Bacci had definite Massachusetts roots that he didn't want to admit to.
"I asked him, 'How did your family get up to Ogunquit?' " Joe said. "And I found out that his father and mother owned the White City Diner (on the Shrewsbury/Worcester border) in Massachusetts (less than 20 miles from Joe's native Marlboro, Mass.) But when? It was in the '50s and '60s and they didn't like the way it was going in Worcester. Gangster town. They decided to go up and start a family compound. So Bacci lived in Mass. for the first five, six or seven years of his life and that's when he was learning to talk like his parents. I knew his accent wasn't far from mine. So I called him on it, but he was still in denial. On top of that, I found out that they would send him down to Massachusetts to stay in the Worcester area with his grandmother for the next five summers during the busy season in Maine. Get the kid out of the way.
"But he denies it to this day, denies his accent is even close to mine."
The White City Diner, owned by Bacci's family in the Worcester area, is now, ironically, located in Marlboro, Mass., where Surfer Joe grew up.
The times Joe and Bacci surfed together, there was always friendly gamesmanship.
"One time at Kalihiwai, he forgot to check his leash," Joe said. "It was when he first got back, just arrived, hardly anybody out. He beat me to the punch, drew first blood, scored the first wave. But he took a wipeout. The leash was off, the board was washed in on the rocks. He had to walk in on slippery rocks to get it. I was out catching wave after wave, yelling, "Hey Bacci watch this' while he was suffering on the rocks.
"We would always have little competitions, who got more waves, more wipeouts. My wave was bigger than yours. I was out longer. Keeping score of waves. I'm up 3-2 and I'm going back out to get this one and it's going to be 4-2."
It's quite interesting that Bacci's family was from the Worcester area, because it was in that place (the second largest city in New England after Boston) that Joe bought his first surfboard in 1966.
"My first board, I got it at a new sporting goods store, Wilson Sporting Goods I think," Joe said. "It might still be there. It was a long, narrow shop inside. They had baseballs, basketballs, gloves, hockey gear. I heard at the end of the long building they had a surfboard. So I was with Bobby Blanchette and another guy, I forgot his name. We drive there and go, 'That's it.' We park and we see brand-new surfboards for the first time. We held them in our hands. Oooooh."
It wasn't the first board Surfer Joe had ridden, though. "I had caught waves in '65 and '66 with boards borrowed from Henry Josephson, who was a couple of years older than me," Joe said. "His claim to fame was that he was at Hampton Beach (N.H.) during the riots in '64. Kids went off after police were cracking down on group gatherings -- with crowds of kids being unruly, drinking and drugging. He got busted and went to jail."
Joe borrowed the board from Josephson for $10, but never paid up. "It was a crude (mass produced) pop out and I took my turn at destroying it," Joe added. "The fin broke when I rode it too far into the sand. It had a big black Iron Cross on the nose. One day I left it out on the side of our house. No room in the garage. Dad (a WWII veteran) flipped out when he came home, saying, 'What are you doing displaying that symbol. That's against all symbols of what we stand for. You gotta get rid of that.' "
Editor's note: As a 6-year-old, I remember the board with the Iron Cross. I don't remember my father yelling, but I do remember some sort of hubbub because the overall feeling was that I was uneasy about the symbol and what it meant.
The board didn't last long.
"One day a kid comes by to pick it up for Henry," Joe said. "I was making $2.50 an hour and paying mom rent and buying gas. I never got around to paying Henry. I asked mom for the money to pay for it, but they wouldn't give it to me.
"And Henry, I'm sure he had a German helmet, too. Surf culture. Ever see the beach party movies? Eric Von Zipper, right?"
The Eric Von Zipper character was in "Beach Party," "Beach Blanket Bingo," and "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini."
The board was one of, as anyone can imagine, many, many in Joe Abramo's possession in the last half-century.
"I didn't really learn how to surf until California," he added. "And even then it was a year or two after that. And Bacci ended up in Hawaii, but he didn't move there. Not everybody that gets the bug goes all the way. It's a story of a man with a board on the East Coast. Who is that man? It's the beginning of it all."
The author and the Surfdog in 2015.
The cinematic, Hollywood types might love this story. A long time ago, I suggested to Joe that Bill Murray could play him in his later years and he was like, "What does Bill Murray know about surfing?"
Eh, but a pretty good actor like Murray might just be able to pull it off. Come to think of it, that's a great idea. Anyone have Bill Murray's 800 number? He's got one. That's where he decides what roles to take or not. Hmmm, probably need more than an itty bitty story on a website. Ahh, but the best thing is, this story has legs. There is so much more ... and more will be forthcoming.
A self portrait by the Surfdog, with a 7-0 Robert August rounded pin and a 1967 9-8 Hansen Powerflex, circa 1974. The Powerflex is also being ridden by Joe in the following shot of an "unidentified surfer" in a 1976 edition of "Surfer" magazine. Editor's note: Anyone who knows Joe Abramo's stance knows that' s him.
Another cinematic-type moment for Joe and Bacci came in the 1990s.
On a solo trip to Rockport, Mass., to see our mom, who was ill at the time, Joe got a ride from Bacci, who was waiting for him at Logan Airport. Joe gave Bacci a case of papayas, but also tried to figure out a way to say no to Bacci's offer to come to Maine later that week.
"Do I have to?" Joe asked. Bacci was insistent.
"He kept telling me I had to come up," Joe continued. "His buddy Mark was having a grand opening of his surf shop for the season and that he always threw a party at the The Lobster Pound restaurant for the occasion.
"I didn't know I was going to make it there for any party. Mom was in the hospital. One day, I went to (nearby) Rockport to kill a few hours, totally forgetting about the party in Maine. When I got back to the house, in the days before cell phones, the phone rang. I was thinking I shouldn't answer it. I thought it was for mom. But I picked it up. It's Bacci and he's telling me I better get up there to the party." So Joe decided to take mom's little Ford Fiesta for a spin up the coast. "It was 8 p.m. I wasn't going to get there until 9:30. I told him he better be at the motel when I got there," Joe said. "The car had tiny little wheels. I was going down the highway (no mega highways on Kauai), swerving in the wind. I finally make it to the motel, pull into the parking lot. There is Bacci waiting for me, standing with his hands on his hips. I come rolling in. I take the hand brake, pull in and (pull the brake and) slide in sideways and almost clip him."
The two then drive 10 miles to the party in the dark and fog at about 10 p.m.
"Davey, Jackie, Joey, Nicky," portraits by mom, Geraldine Abramo.
"I ask him, 'Don't they kick everybody out at like 9:20?' " Joe said. "He says every surfer in New England is probably going to be there. We get close and I start to see cars on both sides of the road. We finally get to the restaurant. The parking lot is full. We're driving around looking for spots. I'm complaining that we're going to have to wait in line and can't even find a spot to park. Bacci says, 'Oh yeah, watch this.' " So Bacci ends up backing into a spot on the side of the road, blocking a fire hydrant and. a security guard immediately walks over.
"Bacci rolls down the window," Joe said. "The guy goes, 'Oh Bacci. It's you.' Out we go. This I recall is a typical, New England-style adventure. We head to the back of the restaurant, avoiding the line, and use the stairs. We go up, walk right in. Bacci says, 'Hey Mitch, two Miller Lites.' I had a beer in my hand in 30 seconds. The place is packed, a big party, you can't get around. There's surf music, a band is playing, there's an emcee and we're going around meeting people.
"... 'Everybody, this is Joe from Hawai.' ... 'Oh, you're from Hawaii?' ... A lot of chicks are there. The party is on. Dancing and drinking. Then it's time for door prizes. You can win a wetsuit or a surfboard. But the emcee says, 'Before we get started, I want to let you know there's a special guy in the audience and you know who I'm talking about.' " 'ALL THE WAY FROM HAWAII, Joe Abramo, the Surfdog.' The crowd goes nuts. For 15 years, Bacci had been telling everybody about his adventures in Hawaii. I was amazed. I was totally amazed. They had to know it was going to happen. they made a big flourish. I was shocked, pleasantly pleased. Too much."
A nice little honor from the surf world. He would have missed it had Bacci not goaded him and had he not picked up the phone.