Over the last weekend here in Orange County the annual pro surfing competition took place in Huntington Beach. It's a great big event now, covered by local news and newspapers, but the one and only time I went to the OP Pro, it was covered by the news for a very different reason.
Back in 1986, my cousin George was either living out here in California or planning on living out here. He had joined the Navy and was planning on flying F-14s out of Miramar in San Diego. For that glorious summer in 1986, he stayed with us in Fountain Valley. My sister and I adored George like the brother we never had. He was about 10 years older than me and so grown up!
So, Geo and I decided one weekend that we would go down to Huntington to see what there was to see. We didn't know the OP Pro was happening, but we were a little interested in it once we got there. We parked below 1st Street and eventually walked up to 8th Street before heading back to the car. Geo wanted to walk around town - which we did - and do a little sightseeing. This was all before the big "Main Street renovation" project, so the little shops and bars were packed with people, everything felt really charming and authentic. (Unlike now)
On our walk up the street, we wandered through the beach area, watching some of the crowds at the OP Pro. I was still a young teen, about 16 at the time, so George probably didn't want me to be exposed to the rowdy crowds. This was the era of shocking day glow bikinis, plus lots of surfers and skateboarders who had been drinking all day. We saw some guys harassing a girl, trying to provoke her to take her top off, and so we left.
We had walked all the way to 8th street and bought some sodas at the little liquor store on the corner when we decided it was time to turn around and go home. It was pretty hot that day, as Labor Day weekend can be. Well, as we headed back downtown, we saw the smoke. Thick, black smoke. George knew in an instant that it was more than a trash can fire and he was carefully protective of me. As we got closer though, we had to walk through the parking lot in order to get to our car. It had taken about 20 minutes to walk that far and the crowds were rioting by that point.
This is pretty much what we saw as we got closer. I thought Maxwell's was on fire, but in fact it was police cars, the mobil command center for the police, and an ATV. Those guys we had seen harassing the girl to take off her top? Well, they had moved on to other girls, and they had found some takers, but of course it got out of hand when the girls wanted to put their tops back on. It was drunken and depraved, and I was scared.
By the time we were in the parking area on the other side of the pier, the cops were out in riot gear. We were carefully and calmly trying to move away from them, and somehow the crowd swelled in such a way that Geo and I were suddenly right in front of those cops. I can clearly remember the guys' face - completely pumped on adrenaline I'm sure - it was full of as much intensity as the rioters probaby were. He was shouting at everyone to get back, and reached out and shoved George out of his way with enough force that he knocked over the 6' 1" muscled Navy airman former football player. George rolled over but his glasses flew off, and he had to scramble to find them again. I was terrified that the cops would start beating him and I didn't know what to do if that happened.
Fortunately, George was able to recover and jog over to me. We basically ran out of that place and down to our car. Our hearts were racing with fear and adrenaline. We got in the car (the ever popular Ford LTD station wagon) and took off. Within a block, we were making up a song about it and laughing in that release of fear and adrenaline that can only come after a moment like that. And that was a wonderful thing about George - he was able to turn that frightening experience in such a way that I can remember the laughing and singing in the car better than I can remember the fear and danger.
Our brush with the OP Pro of '86 was brief, but enough. I will never go back. I still like to watch surfing. On TV.
I remember while we were wading through that crowd, something else that was more serious than the riot, which at the time seemed ridiculous - we were in the middle of a riot after all! It was someone on top of the camera tower, shouting down that two planes had crashed into each other in Cerritos. George and I didn't know what to think, but when we got home, our excursion seemed so minor in comparison.