Surfing Vietnam

surfingvietnam1Local vet Pat Farley sheds light on the untold story of surfers during the war

I am a product of the Vietnam War. Though I’ve jokingly said that for years, it is true. During the war my mother was a Vietnamese civilian working as a translator for the United States Army in Saigon, where my father was stationed as an American helicopter pilot in the Navy. They met there. Just as the North Vietnamese were taking over Saigon on April 29, 1975, my mother fled Vietnam aboard a refugee boat amidst the historical chaos. My father was also on the coast, hovering overhead while commandeering his final mission in Vietnam. They were separated but four months later, my mother would ultimately relocate to San Diego where they reunited and eventually married.

That said, I never grew up with any grand intensity surrounding the circumstances of my parents’ past, despite what most people I encounter expect. It was never really mentioned that much when I was growing up and it has always been a pragmatic detail rather than a television movie-of-the-week conversation.

surfingvietnam2The war, my father’s experiences in it, my mother’s turbulent plight to leave it behind, and the dichotomy that my nuclear family symbolized, were neither taboo nor venerated. They simply were.

So, it surprised me when I happened to catch up with history, right here in Santa Cruz, far from Saigon and such tumultuous family beginnings. I recently came face to face with the Vietnam War in an unlikely place—a local surf shop.

There it was, looking straight at me in the form of a pinned-up movie flier for Between the Lines, a new documentary premiering this month to benefit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. The film examines the Vietnam War and … surfers? It seems unreal that the two topics could find a meeting ground. Sure, most of us are familiar with the notorious surf exploits in Apocalypse Now and the classic coming-of-age story in Big Wednesday—even Platoon had a surfer-soldier. A scene here or there I can understand, but an entire movie that combines both so prominently had me intrigued, to say the least.

surfingvietnam3Raw and unorthodox, as it turns out, Between the Lines confronts the Vietnam War’s influence on the specific demographic of surfers at the time by looking back on two surfers’ opposite reactions to the draft. Indeed, it is striking, but it still begs the question: Why surfers?

Incoming Swell

With 1959’s Gidget having just served as the Big Bang for the surf culture, the Vietnam War was a juggernaut in the middle of all the thriving Beach Blanket revelry, with the draft age—18-26— encompassing a significant portion of surfers by the late 1960s. Fifteen percent of Americans that served in Vietnam were from California, and 10 percent of approximately 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War hailed from the state that doubled as a surf epicenter, more than any other in the country. Such statistics are what led Apocalypse Now screenwriter and Big Wednesday director John Milius, who narrates Between the Lines, to have famously labeled the longest war in U.S. history “the California War.” Finally, it was customary for a California soldier in Vietnam to be greeted with “Are you a surfer?”

surfingvietnam4It was also an era of powerful rebellion and change, as the anti-war Cultural Revolution in America coincided with the shortboard revolution, and each was brimming out of the Golden State.

“There’s a reason why so many war movies have a surfer in it,” says Ty Ponder, producer and director of Between the Lines. “It was an untold story about the Vietnam War that was ready to be told. We don’t take away, by any means, from the rest of the men across the country that served. This is just our take on it,” he adds, referencing his partners Scott Bass (director/writer) and Troy Page (director of photography).

He says he and the filmmakers contend “that surfers are a little different when it comes to these choices. Exploring and surfing is a life for them, and they aren’t necessarily nurtured in that culture where answering-the-call is the thing to do.”

Despite culling vintage footage and photographs of surfers-turned-soldiers transplanting their surf culture to Vietnam in some rare and remarkable surf scenes, at places like the illustrious China Beach, Between the Lines is not a surf film. It’s a war documentary that compares two young surfers, their divergent paths, and the one choice so many had to make. It is, to say the least, heavy.

surfingvietnam5“It might be true that there aren’t bitchin’ waves to watch [in the film], but if you’re interested in that era of surfing, you’re going to be fascinated,” Ponder says. “And if you’re a surfer, it is an important part of your history. The Vietnam War redirected our culture during very radical times.”

The movie chronicles the hunted—the surfer who avoided the war and its draft by chasing waves in Hawaii and hiding from the FBI, and the haunted—the surfer who left behind his home break and went to war, only to, in his own words, “become the war.”

As the 18-year-old from Santa Cruz who found himself entangled in the jungles of Vietnam during 1968-1970, Pat Farley is the latter. I sought out the local veteran to further uncover the movie—and the war—through his eyes.

I thought this story would be easy to write, but I was wrong.

About Face

When Pat Farley visited his mother on her deathbed last September, she warned him that if he didn’t return to a religious life as a Catholic he was going to go to hell.

surfingvietnam6Farley’s incensed response was as dark as the circumstance at hand. “You don’t understand, I’ve already been there,” he told her. “I’ve seen hell at its finest.” Then he walked out of the room.

When Farley talks about Vietnam, he’s brutally honest. The 59-year-old, retired and receiving a pension from the government for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, doesn’t shy away from unleashing the realities of war and his own actions in it as a highly decorated U.S. Army Ranger. He is straightforward, assertive, unabashed. He’s not about to hide his truths from anyone at any time, whether you agree with him or not—and if you’re looking for PC, look elsewhere.

I first discovered this in the movie, as his words jutted out like a shard of glass hurling from the screen. In what is one of the most difficult scenes in Between the Lines, Farley recalls some of his most trying combat memories and states, “By the end of the war, I wanted to kill … I killed men, women and children and I’ve got no remorse about any of them.”

My stomach instantly contorted into knots. My breathing momentarily ceased. Had my story met its end before I’d even started it? I didn’t think I could meet Farley for an interview. Did I want to? What happened to the usual protocol of tearful lament most commonly associated with a veteran’s accounts? Now I was the one incensed. Those “men, women and children,” in my mind, could have been my family—at least that’s how I instinctively feel when watching footage, real or fictional, of Vietnamese civilians during the war.

I just couldn’t understand. But, as I would later learn, that is exactly the point Farley wants to make.

On the Inside

Sitting on the front deck of his fenced-off yard lined with surfboards and tall greenery, sun glinting through the clouds as signs of approaching rain crowd the Santa Cruz sky on a winter afternoon, Farley cracks open an old-fashioned, 8-ounce glass bottle of Classic Coca-Cola. We sit down for a chat that’s been arranged around his daily surf sessions.

surfingvietnam7“When I did the movie I figured I’d give the shell-shock factor: This is what war is,” Farley says. “People have an idea that going off to war is like a John Wayne movie or what you see in the video games, and that you walk out of there and life is still the same. No. You’re going to make choices in a combat situation that will follow you for the rest of your life, and they are going to change your life. You’re not coming back the same way. People need to hear it raw.”

Still living by the Santa Cruz river-mouth, the same spot he loyally surfed as a teen, Farley possesses a bright, welcoming energy. His résumé since the war includes stints as a writer (“Surfing to Saigon”), filmmaker, surf shop owner and surfboard shaper. He’s open and rambunctious, his blond curls a perfect fit for a bouncy disposition that serves as a precursor to his outspoken nature regarding Vietnam. He is, to put it simply, a very nice and jovial guy. But get him started about the war, and it is obvious that there lies an abyss of agitated anger beneath the surface.

“It wasn’t so much the Vietnamese, I was at war with everybody,” Farley explains, when asked about his abrasive commentary in the film. “That’s what war does to people. You don’t know what it’s like until you’ve actually seen somebody in a tragic mess, where their leg’s flying here, their guts are hanging out there, and they’re still conscious with blood squirting all over the place while they’re just screaming bloody murder.”

And though he does admit a nervousness about offending people—like he’d offended me—and makes an effort to caution his Vietnamese friends about his language in his own writings and in the film, he is unyielding in his defense that saying the words “gook” and “fuck” go hand in hand with honestly conveying his experiences during the war. When asked to tone down his language for Between the Lines by its filmmakers, Farley replied that he’d try—but only so much. “If you want me to go into that mode, well, this was the way I was,” he says. “As soon as I start going into Vietnam, this is the language I talk. War is a bloody hell … Hopefully the movie is powerful enough to get somebody to think twice about going to war.”

Forward March

When an 18-year-old Pat Farley first arrived in Vietnam, he kept hoping it was “all just a bad acid trip.” Despite wanting nothing else in life but to surf, he had volunteered for the army to get away from his poor Irish Catholic, alcoholic family. “I didn’t want to run from the FBI, I didn’t want to go to jail, I didn’t want to go to school, I just wanted to surf,” he explains his logic at the time. “So I wanted to get [the war] over with and then have the government pay for my schooling.”

surfingvietnam8As a result, he found himself outside of Saigon, entrenched in the jungles of the southernmost part of a foreign country he knew nothing about. What he did know, was that he had never been so scared in his life.

“In the beginning, I cried myself asleep at night,” he remembers. “A few times I was so scared that I wet my pants because the shit just hit the fan.”

On the morning of his third day, after experiencing an ambush, he went into shock. He was then set under a tree by his fellow soldiers, a tarp was laid over his head, and he sat. And sat.

“The guys in my unit took me into a little base camp they had set up, set me under a tree, and for a whole week I was bye-bye,” Farley says. That was his first case of shell shock. He would continue to function but endure blackouts up until two years after he was out of the service, at one point finding himself standing in front of a Taco Bell in San Francisco when he last remembered being in Santa Cruz.

After six months in Vietnam, Farley says things changed and he snapped. He was no longer scared; he wanted to fight. “Everywhere was the war for me,” he begins, “I didn’t care and I didn’t think about consequences anymore. That is what happens in war.”

For the two years he would live in Vietnam, the avid surfer, used to spending his days hanging ten on his longboard, would never see the coastline. He would find sanctuary dreaming about the ocean and drawing sketches—always of the same image: a guy squatting and hanging ten on a peeling wave. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, the shortboard was coming into its own back home. He recalls first learning about the new era in surfing:

surfingvietnam9“When I was in Vietnam a guy asked me, ‘What size board do you got?’ and I told him I had a nine-foot, six-inch board. Then somebody said, ‘Yeah, my friends are riding seven-foot boards and they don’t hang ten anymore.’ I was just going, ‘What do you mean you don’t hang ten anymore—how can you surf if you don’t hang ten?’ That transition went full stream while I was in the service.”

Provoking even more yearning, he would hear of other soldiers surfing in Vietnam at places like Vung Tau and Cam Ranh Bay, where there were surfboards available for momentary, albeit surreal, escapes from the surrounding war. Farley would never be afforded such blissful indulgences. Upon mention of Between the Lines’ images proving that soldiers did, indeed, surf in Vietnam, Farley laughs in amazement.

“What war were they in?” he quips. “It would have been a treat to spend a war like that. I might not have come back!” He then adds, “I guess I had to work off some karma.”

Karma or not, Farley’s path was one of staying alive under the harshest of conditions. And it’s a feat he attributes partly to being a surfer. “I think surfers are a certain breed,” he contends. “They’re in tune with nature and they put themselves in these precarious situations that put their lives on the line. They want that wave and whatever it takes to get that wave. I transferred that over to war.”

surfingvietnam10Sadly, even after the war, he would continue hiding out. Farley left Vietnam in 1970, when the anti-war movement was in full swing at home. He, like many, would experience the public taunting and disrespect that have since become notorious for the time. In order to travel Military Standby, the 20-year-old had to fly in uniform. Aware of the hostility surrounding him, he would wait until the last minute to change into his appropriate attire in the airport—hoping to remain discreet and avoid any harassment.

“As soon as the boarding started I’d jump into the bathroom and put on my military uniform, and then wait there and run for the plane,” he recounts. “Even while running, people were cutting loose on you. It was just nasty.”

The distress extended into Santa Cruz. Alienated by friends that felt he’d gone crazy, and in disagreement with a family that urged him to continue a career in the military but didn’t want to hear about Vietnam, Farley began living in his Volkswagen van. He would sleep at Steamer Lane and Four Mile, catnap in the day to steer clear of people, and surf at night, living a reclusive life. He tried to cash in on that government-paid schooling he’d planned for, but couldn’t endure being around others in the classroom. It would take almost three years for him to fully assimilate back into Santa Cruz society.

Farley’s only refuge at the time was surfing.

To this day, his first lonesome session upon returning from Vietnam remains a vivid memory: It was his second morning home, before sunrise, and he would finally hit the cold June water of Indicators atop a longboard—no light, no one and no war in sight.

“I didn’t have a weapon anymore, I was knee paddling, sitting on my board and just watching the sun come up with nobody around,” he says. “I remember catching a couple waves, gliding around, and just thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m still able to surf.’”

Last Stand

A few years ago I was adamant about pushing the subject of the Vietnam War with my mom, in order to finally get a straight answer from her about her stance regarding the conflict—probably in an attempt to find a final answer from myself. After all, it’s easy for other people to say “we shouldn’t have been there,” but seeing that my family feared the Viet Cong and fled for a reason, it has never been such a quick statement on my part.

So, I asked her plainly, now, looking back, which side did she feel was right—the Communists whose presence forced my family to migrate south from their original home in North Vietnam, or the Americans opposing them?

surfingvietnam11Her response still resonates.

In the simplest yet most striking of terms, my mother said, with quiet conviction, “In the day we were afraid of the Americans, and at night we were afraid of the Viet Cong. It was just so sad for the poor people.”

Like her response, the Vietnam War never did seem to offer the answers anyone was looking for or expected. And whether it was a civilian like my mother or a soldier like Pat Farley, a draft evader, protestor or traditional patriot, each has a story. In order to learn from them, it’s important to ask what that story honestly is.

And, most importantly, to listen—even when it hurts.

Between the Lines screens at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 28 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets cost a $10 donation to benefit the Surfing Museum, and can be purchased at Zen Trading Company or O’Neill Surf Shop. For more information, visit BetweentheLinesFilm.com . For more information on Pat Farley, visit SurfingtoSaigon.com .

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