Stuck on meeting Doc Ball and Tom Blake
by Corky Carroll
Doing my very best to stay off any kind of controversy with the current social situation, I thought today I would tell you the story of a very cool encounter I had many years ago with the legendary Tom Blake. For those of you who don’t know who that is let me catch you up. This dude gets a huge amount of credit for the development of surfboard design back in the days of the big heavy redwood beasts that weighed in more than an elephant and were longer than some trains. He is said to have been the first to attach a fin to the bottom, that alone is monumental. His influence on the surfing culture went deep, his casual style being adopted and still in effect today in surfing wardrobe choices. Tom was born in 1902 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a fact that any Great Lake surfer will never let you forget. By the time I came along he was up there in years and not involved in day to day surfing anymore. I knew of him, of course, but really thought I would never meet the dude in person. Then one day that changed.
In the mid thru late 1960’s I liked to take an annual trip far up into the Pacific Northwest. There is a certain point break up there that I was very fond of. My normal program was to drive one direction along the coast, maybe grabbing a wave or two along the way if a swell was working. Then the other way I would take the much faster inland route on the freeway. I am thinking it was the fall of 1968 when my first wife Cheryl and I were heading up Highway 101 in Northern California and pulled into Garberville. I had no idea that this was the home of “murder mountain” at that time, but I did know that my old pal Doc Ball was the town dentist. Doc Ball put out the very first surf photo book in the 1940’s called “California Surfriders.” He was a high energy old surf gremmie, having been born in 1907 himself. No spring chicken, but younger than Blake.
We decided to make what was meant to be a quick stop to say hi. When I walked into the dentist office the girl behind the desk just smiled and told me to go right back. So I did, thinking that Doc wasn’t busy. But he had a guy in the chair and was drilling away on his teeth. He looked up and saw me and pulled back with a big smile. I told him I could wait until he was done with his patient, thinking I was intruding on some poor dudes’ appointment. Doc just swung the chair around and says, “Hey, you know Tom Blake don’t ya?” I was in shock. Tom, mouth full of dental stuff, lights up and sort of mouths something that sounded like, “Hey, good to see ya.”
The result of this was that we wound up spending the night. Doc had all the local surfers over and he showed a ton of his old movies from before I was born. I got to talk to Tom over dinner and it was very cool. He reminded me a lot of Phil Edwards, same kind of mannerisms and the way he talked. Great experience. He would have been 67, Doc 62 and me 20.
We hung out until after lunch the next day and then headed back up the highway on our surf safari. I could leave it at that, but there is a bit more to this little stop off that is kind of funny. Somewhere between Garberville and Eureka there is a “drive thru tree.” You have to turn off the highway and go down a little dirt road to get to it. So we thought it would be fun to check it out, and we did. When we got to it I was sort of amazed that it really didn’t look all that big of a tunnel in the tree. My wife said she didn’t think our van would fit through it. This being the brand new HOBIE SURF TEAM van that was on loan to me. Being me, at that time, I naturally said that it must be big enough otherwise they wouldn’t have it. So, I drove right in. I should say about halfway in. That is where we came to a screeching metal gouging mirror breaking off stop. Oops. O.K., this was not good. I went to back out but it was a dirt road and the tires just spun. If the rear doors were locked you could not open them from inside. Yes kids, we were stuck in the drive thru tree. Nobody around, about 3 in the afternoon. Close to dark a car finally came and starting honking at us. I was in the back window yelling for help, “WE ARE STUCK.” A lot of honking and yelling later they finally figured it out and went for a tow truck to pull is out.
Just some of the little things that can happen when on a surf safari. Meet a legend and get stuck in a tree.