Forgiving Tom Wolfe
Four decades after publication of The Pump House Gang, the work is still a point contention for member of the local surf culture whose lives it cronicled.
(page 2) of 2)The writer walks into La Jolla Rancherita and asks a bar full of sixtysomethings where to find Bo Fellows, Rupert Fellows’ brother.
“Rupert Fellows is passed on,” one of the men says.
“That’s why I’m looking for Bo.”
A conversation about the old Pump House Gang ensues, and names are bandied about.
“Artie Nelander?” the writer asks.
“Last I heard, he’s in Hawaii,” a voice says.
“He passed in ’93,” a voice says. “Lymphatic cancer.”
“Died years ago.”
“Gary Wickam?” the writer asks.
“Heard he’s in Oregon.”
“Never heard of him.”
“She died a long time ago.”
“I’ve already talked with Kit Tilden,” the writer says.
“Where’d you find him?” asks the barkeep.
“Well, he . . . if he has any brain cells left . . . he could tell you some things.”
By his own admission, Kit Tilden lived some wild years. His name showed up in Wolfe’s book, and then there was trouble with school and a move to the Bay Area. Eventually, Tilden pulled things together, moved to Puget Sound and launched into a successful building career.
“There were no hard-and-fast rules, and there were no geographic boundaries; people came in and out of the mix,” Tilden says of Windansea in the 1960s. “But there were two distinct groups. Tom Wolfe took creative license to the point of fictionalizing.”
In the eyes of Jack Macpherson, who put the Mac in the legendary Mac Meda Destruction Company, there was little irony in the fact Wolfe named his article after a building designed for pumping human feces into the ocean.
“The book was a bunch of bullshit,” Mac opined during that winter 2006 conversation. “Wolfe got it all wrong.”
According to Windansea lore, Wolfe originally approached the Mac Meda guys in the parking lot but was run off for being a kook. Matt Edwards, a 1979 La Jolla grad whose older brothers were involved with the Mac Meda and Pump House crowds, remembers hearing from previous generations that anybody banished or turned away from the parking lot was relegated to the Pump House and its brood of teenyboppers, outcasts and squares.
The Ballardo sisters, Kit Tilden and Lindy Brower all remember being suspicious of Wolfe when he first came asking questions of them at Windansea.
“I thought he was a funky, greasyhaired detective or a pervert,” Brower says. “All of a sudden, this scrawny guy comes down the street in a funky, black suit and flat, black shoes and . . . we thought everybody that wore flat, black shoes was a cop. None of us wore flat, black shoes. So he came around and started asking people questions. Right away I said, ‘I don’t want to talk to that guy,’ because I thought there was something really wrong. Well, Elizabeth [Liz Ballardo], who was always ready for an easy buck, thought, ‘Maybe I can get some dough out of this guy.’ ”
Tom Wolfe was a substantive force in the 1960s wave of innovative and iconoclastic New Journalists who began inserting the writer into the narrative. Most of the living voices associated with Mac Meda and the Pump House Gang, however, remember him as the consummate outsider and something of a geek. Jackie Haddad thinks that may have been as geographical as it was social. She says:
“We must have looked as strange to Tom as he did to most of us kids. He didn’t look quite as strange to me because I was born in Connecticut and spent time in New York. But I will tell you that, in those days, anyone who came from the East Coast definitely had culture shock when they came to visit Southern California. Some still do.
“Tom was flamboyant and unique with a very dry sense of humor and a sharp wit. He broke all the rules about what defined good or great writing. His style opened the door for other writers to experiment and be unconventional. The Pump House Kids and the Parking Lot Guys were definitely two separate groups —in age and in interests. Some kids may have ‘aspired’ to graduate to the Lot, but there was a gap between us that involved more than geography. Perhaps to Tom it didn’t seem that different, and maybe it really wasn’t. But at the time, at least to me, the Lot was another world entirely, and completely off limits.
“Tom definitely embellished, and created a story that was partly fiction and partly nonfiction from his impression of what he found when he came to La Jolla. I think we were unique in some ways—because of the setting, the beach culture and some of the newfound freedom of expression we felt in that era. That’s not to say other beach communities didn’t have similar groups of kids up and down the coast of California. Prior to Tom’s description of us, one wouldn’t have used the term ‘gang’ to describe the teens living in La Jolla or any similar location.
“Every person you talk to has their own version of what Tom got wrong or right, and how it actually was back in those days. I keep coming back to the same thing . . . a writer’s voice obviously comes from within the writer, so it isn’t possible, or desirable, to try to write from someone else’s point of view. We all have our own memories of that time or any time, and each of us experiences a different reality, even when we do things as part of a group. Tom captured his mental image of what we were all about, then went back to New York and did what he always does: He created stories and marked them with his own definitive style and voice.”
It’s a Monday morning, sometime in the God-knows-when throes of the mid-1960s, and Jack Macpherson, always the early bird, is up before the sun. The front door to his apartment is wide open, beer cans line the coffee table, and there’s a new hole in one of the bare walls. His roommate, Bob “Meda” Rakestraw, is sleeping off a hard night of drinking. Meda’s room is decorated prison-style, replete with jail-house bars and a tin cup for food and watering time.
Tom Wolfe treats the men—and the cult that bears their names—peripherally in The Pump House Gang, calling the Mac Meda Destruction Company “an underground society . . . something to bug people with and organize huge beer orgies with.” Macpherson, on the other hand, says Mac Meda was nothing more than a joke—a kind of drinking gag that manifested itself into a batch of T-shirts and accidentally took on a life of its own.
The Mac Meda moniker was born when Macpherson and Rakestraw——the latter was the type to enter a party through a door and exit through a closed window—were described as a “walking destruction company.” Later, the two men, with a steady group of friends (including San Diego Charger Pat Shea), began throwing beer parties in abandoned houses in Sorrento Valley and demolishing them by hand.
After another long night of drinking, Macpherson is headed to the La Jolla post office (he began delivering mail after high school and wouldn’t retire from the job for 37 years), thinking about the two hours of sleep he’ll get after work, before the revelry begins again. Today he’s to see Rakestraw and Albert—the president of the Mac Meda Destruction Company—at the San Diego Zoo before meeting friends for a costume party. A gaggle of them are to dress to the nines in Nazi uniforms and race down through the drainage pipes, from the high school all the way to the beach, on Flexi Flyer wheeled sleds.
Though the origin of their friendship is unclear, there are common characteristics in the personalities of Macpherson and Rakestraw that explain the strength of the bond between them. That bond is one of the golden kernels in all of the La Jolla beach lore —a writer’s dream that Wolfe missed in the fleeting snapshot he took away with him. For starters, Mac and Meda were both enthusiastic drinkers. In 2006, Macpherson claimed he’d consumed 18 beers a day for the past 50 years. At the same time, he never missed a day of work, and he was an avid outdoorsman—heavily into biking, running, skiing, surfing and scuba diving.
Macpherson took over the 6 to 10 a.m. bartending shift at London’s West End the day after he retired from the USPS in 1991. His afternoons came to revolve around a bevy of bars and friends he visited on his bike, after serving drinks in the morning. By all accounts, he was funny and likable, the kind of guy with whom one would be lucky to share a beer and a story. Rakestraw, on the other hand, was wild, a natural-born hell raiser.
“That recorder off?” asks a source who doesn’t want to be identified.
“It’s off,” says the writer.
“Something you should know about Rakestraw——he was crazy. And I don’t mean crazy like wild crazy. I mean there was something not right upstairs. He did some things that just weren’t . . . he wasn’t right in the head. That, and he had a mean side.”
Rakestraw was an orphan, adopted and raised by a professor at UCSD. His brother is rumored to have been, like the adoptive father, a straight arrow, making Meda a polar foil and the black sheep of the family. He fell into a raucous beach crowd, went into the merchant marine after La Jolla High, which, one legend holds, is where he picked up his nickname—a bastardization of the exclamation used by Portuguese sailors, “Mira! Mira!” (Look! Look!)—and became an icon of the pranksterish Southern California beach culture immortalized in the movie Big Wednesday. Though he enjoyed a strong, fraternal connection with Macpherson—one gets the sense Mac was more family to Meda than the man’s relatives—the two were more different than alike.
Behind the hard-drinking, Scottish genes and a lifelong affiliation with spirits, there was an adventuresome spirit in Macpherson that had to be where the action was—even if that meant just two hours of sleep before a 10- or 12-hour workday. Rakestraw, on the other hand, seemed to be driven by an atavistic need to create havoc; to raise the stakes and push the limits; to destroy. The men found common ground in beer parties and a love for the thrill and laughter of risky behavior, which they cultivated into both a decades-long friendship and a joke–turned–underground society that had the La Jolla cops scratching their heads through most of the 1960s.
“The recorder’s stopped, right?” a source asks.
“Yes,” the writer says.
“Rakestraw could be a real asshole ——he was never too nice to me. And he did crazy stuff, stuff that crossed the line. Like he’d go down to the supermarket and buy a dozen frozen dinners, take them home and peel the covering off. Then he’d take the meat out, [defecate] in it, package it back up and return it to the store.”
With a larger-than-life character like Rakestraw—a man who comes across as a combination of Bluto, the character played by John Belushi in Animal House, and Leroy “The Masochist” from Big Wednesday—one wonders where fact ends and legend begins. Doug Moranville, an old Macpherson friend, claims Rakestraw shot an antitank gun off the La Jolla cliffs into the Pacific one day and nearly hit a fishing boat. Others have him shooting the weapon down La Jolla Boulevard. And Lindy Brower claims the man once rolled a bomb through the middle of town, trying to blow up a building.
Albert, on the other hand, was as real as flesh and blood. The 400-pound president of the Mac Meda Destruction Company was a gorilla at the San Diego Zoo. Rakestraw was infatuated with the beast and is said to have spent many an afternoon with it, trading gazes and grunts from opposite sides of the bars. He even looked like the thing—short, stocky and strong—according to Brower. Mac Meda adopted the gorilla’s visage for its T-shirts and gave him a listing in the La Jolla phone book.
A beer is peeled open, film slides into a 16-millimeter motion camera, and the Mac Meda Destruction crew is ready to roll. Half a dozen young men, fully decked out in Nazi regalia—relics and trophies of WWII, purloined from fathers’ closets and thrift stores—finish off beers before lying down on the Flexi Flyers that will take them to Windansea. Imagine the looks on the faces of people who catch glimpses of these tan, wavy-hair young men whisking by in a mind-blowing blur of Third-Reich absurdity, just 20 years after the Nuremburg Trials.
The Mac Meda crew wasn’t anti-Semitic, racist or xenophobic. As Wolfe indicated (and here’s an instance where he got it right), the group just wanted to get a rise out of people, to bug the establishment and have a laugh. Why play with such a loaded symbol? Exactly . . . why not? No social institution was too sacred to be mocked, no taboo deemed off-limits. This was, after all, a population of young people born and raised within earshot of the eternal power, mysticism and mirth of the Great Hulking Pacific.
But even the legends of summer grow old. Macpherson died in November 2006, and his obituary was carried in newspapers across the country (evidence of the notoriety generated by Wolfe’s story). National Public Radio called London’s West End Tavern to talk, on air, about the departed icon, and hundreds of people poured onto the beach at Windansea for a commemoration.
Rakestraw had passed away 10 years before. (He died alone, an anonymous source tells the writer, in a trailer in the desert outside of Joshua Tree National Park. Macpherson hadn’t talked to him in years—nobody had. He drank himself to death.)
LOST BEHIND ALL of the drinking, pranks and revelry is a special innocence that marked the Pump House kids. They were a bunch of water babies, as Lindy Brower recalls, in love with their young bodies, their freedom and the beach that was part mystical inspiration and part surrogate parent. As 1960s adolescents, they were unknowingly caught up in an ephemeral bubble—one of old America’s last gasps of virtue and unmolested freedom.
Wolfe contemporary and fellow New Journalist Hunter S. Thompson looked back, in 1971, and said that in those mid-’60s years there was a “sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. . . . We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
While Tom Wolfe may have missed the mark on the hard nut of Windansea’s reality, he had his finger firmly planted on the pulse of an American culture undergoing rapid transformation. He recognized that in the prosperity of the post–World War II decades, Americans were finding a new kind of freedom—free time. With money in their pockets and time to dedicate to hobbies and themselves, Americans were breaking away from the mainstream and creating subcultures—clubs, cliques and societies devoted to hobbies like custom cars, motorcycle associations and surfing.
Mothers were working out of the house like never before, and crime was nothing like it is today. La Jolla was still a small town. Kids ran free; their sovereignty was unmolested and absolute. But other phenomena were lurking. By 1962, 1,500 American “advisers” were in Southeast Asia, and an unanticipated rogue wave—psychedelic and illicit drugs—was just beginning to break over the head of an unsuspecting American society.
What Tom Wolfe couldn’t have realized at the time was that those young people surrounding the Mac Meda Destruction Company were wards of the 1950s, a generation of beer- and liquor-drinking Merry Pranksters. The Pump House kids, on the other hand—10 years younger—were blindsided by an unmitigated wave of powerful and untested pharmacopoeia. A quarter of them—those beautiful, stylish and uninhibited protégés of the burgeoning hope of the early 1960s—have overdosed or succumbed to drug-related ailments.
“It was a magical time,” Lindy Brower says of adolescence in the mid-1960s, “and I think it gave us all hope, great hope—about life and about nature. We were somebody, you know, we didn’t have to kowtow to anybody . . . we didn’t want to be anybody else. Then the group starting breaking up in the late ’60s, when all of the drugs started coming in—it just got too creepy.”
There are successful teachers and contractors, artists and business owners on the Gang’s roster as well, living happily and raising (or having raised) a second generation of Pump House kids in parts as removed as France, Wisconsin and Hawaii. Wolfe—the product of a stiff, formal 1950s East Coast education—painted the group as an anomaly, an underground society with perverse and rebellious intentions . . . provocateurs, partyers and a threat to the status quo. But 40 years have proven them typical children of their time—boys and girls immersed in their moment in history, a small tribe of tight-knit friends riding the crest of a miraculous and carefree wave that none of them knew was to come crashing down so hard in such a short time.