Several weeks ago my wife Carol and I made our annual pilgrimage to Napa, to drink great wine, eat great food and see Stu Smith. My old lifeguard buddy Stu, wine producer extraordinaire, is a “must see” for us at his winery at the top of Spring Mountain. Stu served as a Santa Monica recurrent lifeguard from 1966 to 1970. He was a year ahead of me when I went through rookie school in 1967. During my first year I spent a lot of time with Stu in 2-man tower #26 close to old POP Pier and jetty.
A man, his vineyards and his wine in repose at the top of Spring Mountain, Napa
Stu had this walrus-type mustache and still does (he’s got more hair on his stache than I probably do on my head!). Only now it’s a full beard. Carol calls him “Grizzly Adams” because he looks every bit a mountain man (see picture above), trekking through the High Sierras and canoeing in Canada for over 35 years.
Stu has a brilliant mind and is very well read, having graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1970—an old school Renaissance guy. He became a beach lifeguard through the junior guard program and the mentorship of Rudy Kroon (RIP). Particularly on those cold, foggy days in Tower #26, Stu and I would philosophize and he would fret about how crazy L.A. was becoming. Stu had an incident his first summer while working Tower #27 right next to POP Pier. On one of his several daily patrols under the pier, Stu came upon a group of tough-looking young men wearing Afros and bandanas. He probably should have returned to his tower, but he stopped, they stopped and there was a 1-minute tense silence while they looked one another over. Finally, Stu spoke up and “informed” the “visitors” very genteelly that a Santa Monica City Ordinance prohibited anyone from being under the pier and that they had to leave. They stared back for another minute, Stu smiling but standing his ground. Suddenly they turned around and just left. Stu mentioned that this lesson has informed the rest of his life: “If you treat people politely and with respect, you will come out alright.” I told him about the time during my first summer, when there had been a gang fight in back of #26 before he arrived for his 11-7 shift. Like a dumb-ass rookie, I went back to straighten things out. To my dismay, members of each gang had knives and chains (they would probably have AK-47s and RPGs now!). Fortunately, I had called the switchboard to say I was going back on a reported fight in the parking lot and to have the guard in #25 keep a close eye on me. When I got there mayhem was ablaze and I was right in the middle of it. Except for beating the crap out of a rival gang, there is probably nothing those gangbangers would like more than to go after some lifeguard in red trunks and a rescue tube! Without even thinking, but sensing I was in deep shit. I jumped on the hood of a parked car, held my rescue tube over my head, whistled as loud as I could, and screamed out: “Now you can beat the crap out of each other for all I care, but there is a full tactical division of the Santa Monica Police Department on the way and will be here in about 2 minutes. You can bail now or go to jail.” They split in about 30 seconds just as Ronnie Brown (RIP) was pulling up Code 3.
When Stu came on duty that day I told him of my adventure and he became even more taciturn than usual and kept shaking his head. It had been about a year since the University of Texas Bell Tower massacre where a gunman with a high powered rifle had killed 16 and wounded 32 innocent bystanders. Stu was sure some crazy would position himself on the palisade at the north beach and put a bullet through the big number on the back of one of the towers. He wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be him in that tower! Each year he became more restive and unhappy with what L.A. , and by default the beach, were becoming and bailed in 1970 to enroll in the U.C. Davis M.S. program in Enology and Viticulture. When he graduated in 1971 Stu and his brother Charlie (still a world class croquet player) found and bought a 200 acre parcel on the top of Spring Mountain, one of the first vineyards in the area. They bought an old Gulfstream trailer and lived in it while they cleared the land of Madrone bushes by hand (no migrant labor back then). When done they started building the winery, also by hand, but confronted the existential question—what would they name it. They couldn’t call it Smith Brothers since cough syrup is anathema to great wine and because the name was also trademarked for the medicine. They looked around at all the cleared brush and it came to them: “Smith Madrone.” They planted Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon on various sites conducive to each varietal. In 1977 Stu’s first wine, a Riesling, was produced. It was sent to a European wine competition in Paris and won the gold medal for the best Riesling. Just to be clear, it is a very dry Riesling in the real German style, excellent with seafood and is considered the best Riesling made in America. In 2014 the Daily Meal website named Smith-Madrone the “Winery of the Year” ahead of Domaine de la Romaneé-Conti, makers of the finest red Burgundy in the world! Stu’s great wines go for a small fraction of Romaneé-Conti’s prices.
When we visit Stu and Charlie we always take a huge picnic lunch from the Dean & Deluca market. Stu brings the wine. This year as usual, conversation waltzed around to the old SMLG days and this time Tom Zahn’s name came up. Stu pulled out a Life Magazine issue of “The Loves of Marilyn Monroe.” We both knew Tom had dated Jayne Mansfield, but didn’t know about Marilyn. Apparently if I had read Art Verge’s book more carefully, I would have known. According to the story, Marilyn really loved Zahn but the studio executives who ruled her life didn’t think a great waterman and lifeguard was who she needed. They positioned her with other men more wealthy and suitable for a starlet.Stu took us around the property in his Mule ATV to his better “A” redwood grove where there are a number of trees that are more than 250 years old! He has sold the land they are on to a conservation group to ensure they will be there for many more generations. Stu was featured in two books by James Conaway, “Napa: An American Eden” and “The Far Side of Eden” for what the author pitched as Stu’s shameful free market philosophy and his views on private property rights. He has been a scout master with the Boy Scouts of America for several decades, chaired the Napa Valley Wine Auction twice and held leadership positions in a variety of other community organizations. He told me that a number of years ago he and another scoutmaster took a group of ten scouts on a 3-day backpacking trip through the High Sierras. One night there was a terrible thunderstorm with ferocious lightning and so he and the other scoutmaster followed the rules about what to do when lightning is around. Despite their vigilant efforts, 12 of the backpackers were struck by lightning (including Stu) and a young scout and Stu’s other scoutmaster were both killed. Stu talked about administering the CPR he had learned as a beach lifeguard on both victims, but to no avail. He sent his son uphill to the nearest ranger station in the torrential downpour to call for a Medevac chopper. As I have learned living in Florida, the lightning capital of the world, Mother Nature can be a very unforgiving mistress. At 66, Stu is still in excellent condition, but no longer hikes for days in the High Sierras. While many of his contemporaries are retired, Stu is up and at the winery by 7 and often stays until just before dark, tending his vineyards and crafting great wine with his brother Charlie and son, Sam, who is now the assistant winemaker at Smith-Madrone
When I returned home from Napa I got a call from the other Smith—former LACO recurrent, Doug, who was in the “Lunar Lounge” at his home on Sunset Beach with former LACO recurrent guard, then Fresno District Attorney, then Superior Court Judge in Fresno, now retired Jim Oppliger. As many know, Doug left LACO as a recurrent and moved to Oahu where he lifeguarded at the North Shore and then for the secret Naval Tracking base. Since retiring, Doug has been the keeper of stray LACO lifeguards (Bohn, Heinrich, Stevenson and Bake), both active and retired at his home with wife Connie on Sunset Beach. Not only has his home been a refuge for lifeguards but also some of the denizens of Topanga Beach, before the State paved paradise and put up a parking lot…and lifeguard tower.
L2R, Doug Smith, master of beach-space and time with Loyd Pettegrew near the Lunar Lounge on Sunset Beach (apologies to Leon Russell).
Doug is the only white guy I know who played b-ball and jived like a black man, but in many ways better since it was surf jive. Like Bill Beatie, Doug used to run the switchboard with 20-words-a-second surf jive flair. It was common to hear him answer the phone: “What’s shakin’? Smith comin’ to ya from HQ, where I’ve got more moves than a can of worms, I’m tougher than paint on a pump handle, meaner than a sack of red ants, number 21 on your scorecard, and number 1 in your heart, what happenin’ Tower 9?” When he or Beatie were working the SMLG switchboard, life was anything but dull, especially for Captain Richards. Doug is fond of and uses polysyllabic words every chance he gets; the longer and more arcane, the better. He learns a new word every day.
Doug has always lived a Spartan lifestyle with few essentials except good friends and the Aloha spirit. I sent him the Life Magazine article about Tom Zahn that Stu had given me and he loved it. He called me not once, but twice across umpteen time zones to thank me. The second time, LACO Ret. Greg Pfeifer had just come in for a stay after Oppliger left. Turns out Doug had the month off from the Mrs. (Connie) and had a standing invitation to the entire lifeguard world to come play. Connie went to San Diego to visit their daughter, Maris (married to a San Diego permanent beach lifeguard) who was giving birth to Doug and Connie’s first granddaughter Kaia. As a result Doug and the Lunar Lounge were in full swing with iconic lifeguard and surf stories.
Doug is an analog guy. The only digital things Doug tolerates are the fingers on his hands. He has no cell phone, computer or an email address, but the coconut telegraph and U.S. Mail work overtime at the Lunar Lounge when Doug called to tell me the Tom Zahn article had taken its rightful place among his print archives. He picked Jim and Greg up at Honolulu International Airport using Connie’s 2014 Toyota, but admitted that he had grave difficulty using any of the digital devices on the car. The Bluetooth cell phone went off in the car and he didn’t know how to answer it. He had no clue about the GPS or what to do with it. I only hope he can find out how to open the gas cap and put gas in the tank or Greg may have to take a cab back to the airport when his stay ends.
Doug is an inveterate raconteur and theorist. He’s got a story and theory for everything and everyone. In these times when most of us suffer from CRS disease, Doug remembers everything and everybody. He can tell you the latest news about his myriad of old lifeguard or surf buddies because most have done time with Doug at the Lunar Lounge and passed on stories. Ironically, he only has access to material from the LA County Recurrent through the people who read it digitally and pass it on to him. Sadly, I am confined, but obliged to pass this and Bill Beatie’s recent story on to Doug via mail. Miraculously, when you call him, he knows the latest scoop on nearly everybody, despite his analog dependencies. He stays seriously up to date the old school way.
*** Thank you very much, Loyd, for another great article about a couple of legendary beach lifeguards from yesteryear.
Loyd has also, in effect, thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of our readership to step up and share a story with all of us. It's up to each of us to keep each other entertained and to "tell it like it was" back in the day. Time to man, er, pencil up!
("Two Smiths" story and photos by & Copyright Loyd Pettegrew 2015. All Rights Reserved. Used here with permission.)
Until next time.....
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