Gene “Tarzan” Smith spent most of the Depression in Hawaii or Southern California, surfing and lifeguarding. Smith was superhuman on a paddleboard, and in 1940 he became the first to cover the 90-mile rough-water gap between Oahu and Kauai. But to those who knew him personally, friend and foe alike, Smith was best remembered as a bull-sized, bloody-fisted, never-say-die street fighter. Laguna Beach journalist Craig Lockwood has written extensively about Smith, including a 1998 feature article in Surfer’s Journal. Lockwood, a fellow paddleboarder, clearly idolizes Smith, and mostly holds focus on his subject’s many ocean-going feats. But violent episodes are branded into the Tarzan narrative, and Lockwood, to his credit, doesn’t look away.
If you read Lockwood article casually, and squint your eyes a bit, Tarzan comes off as a wave-riding Marv from Sin City—brutal, sure, but warped and loopy and funny in a flying-anvil kind of way. Here’s Tommy Zahn telling Lockwood about Smith’s days as an Orange County lifeguard and party boy in the mid-’30s. “Gene was living in a cave at Corona Del Mar, with his dog. He had one suit of clothes and one pair of shoes. On Saturday nights, the big kick was to go to the Rendezvous Ballroom [in Newport]. So Gene would get out his paddleboard, with his suit on, tie and shoes draped around his neck, roll up his sleeves and pant legs, paddle across the channel, and walk up to the Rendezvous. Gene loved to drink, and was never happy unless he got into a big fight. He’d usually take on two or three guys. At the end of the night, totally thrashed-out, he’d jump on his board, paddle back across the channel, suit and all. Monday morning, he’d take the suit to the cleaners.”
What a kicker that last sentence is. You can almost see the big man there at the local A-1 Chinese Laundry, in full Gene mode, no more Tarzan, polite as pie, strips of plaster on face and knuckles while he carefully points out the blood spots, tucks a claim ticket into his chinos, and says he’ll be back on Wednesday.
Dig a little deeper, of course, and the Gene Smith story is predictably, infinitely sad and fucked-up. Dead mother, violent father, foster care, lots of moving around, reform school. Then at the start of the Depression, when Smith was 19 and just off a stint as an Oregon lumberjack, he arrived in the Laguna-Balboa area and began surfing.
You’d be stretching the facts to claim that surfing and paddling saved Gene Smith. Both his marriages were short. Never had kids. Never really settled down. Then again, it’s safe to say that Smith was less broken for his years spent in and near the ocean. If there was solace in Smith’s life, it was found riding waves, or paddling for hours at a time, or in the company of Tom Blake, Wally Froiseth, Mary Ann Hawkins, and a few other beach acquaintances. If Smith had gone east from Oregon after his lumberjacking period, instead heading west for the coast, its not hard to imagine him dying violently or in prison before 25. Instead he became, as one Honolulu newspaper put it, an “all-around surfing champion” and “Hawaii’s peer of surfboard riders.”
I’m always on guard against overstating the benefits of surfing, just as I’m eager to point out that a hardcore surf life is itself filled with dangers and pitfalls. But I do think that you can prove surfing’s worth, or at least measure its remove from the larger world of sports and recreation, in the way it welcomes the broken among us and give them time and space, a mindless healthy task, a beautiful view, solitude or alliance, as needed. Smith certainly got all that.
On the other hand, with Gene Smith you probably want to leave off in 1940, right after his epic Oahu-to-Kauai paddle. Otherwise you end up . . . well, take your pick. A Honolulu alley in 1947, with Smith left for dead after getting jumped by four local cops. Or 1976, with Smith, 65, sprawled atop of bunch of cardboard boxes behind a Santa Monica Safeway store, handcuffed with a broken leg, the work of three store guards. Or 1986, with Smith dying alone in Brawley, California, a flyspeck desert town 120 miles off the coast.
Surfing heals, and that is wondrous, almost miraculous. Surfing heals, but it doesn’t save. Not Tom Blake. Not Miki Dora or Michael Peterson. For sure not Gene Smith.