Lemoore: Meant nothing to you yesterday
December 5, 2015: It changed everything. Don’t deny it. At 6:35am the greatest competitive surfer to touch water is rendered speechless, sucker punched by what his dream has delivered. He’s jumping up and down like an 8-year-old unwrapping a spanking new PW50 for Christmas. And as we see that murky wave for the first time we too are just a little unsure of what it is we’re looking at. 7:05am and we get it. Finally, after years of bluffing, and developers forever promising and never delivering, from Tempe, Arizona, to Allentown, Pennsylvania, we have, what we surfers could call a wave.
…and if I had asked the right question I would have known all about it during the harvest of late Autumn, early October 2015.
Two and a bit years ago, but more importantly, ten weeks before the great unveil by Messer Slater on 15 December, 2015.
Here I am, sitting at a dinner table a few miles away from the old water ski park on Jackson, near 18th Avenue just out of Lemoore. 8 miles to be exact. 8 miles from Kelly’s wave, which is on the other side of Stratford. The end of the road is cotton for as far as the eye can see, miles ahead, deep into the abyss of the Tulare Lake Basin. I’m with a third generation farming family who have been here for over 100 years. They’ve seen the depths of depression and drought, the highs of high commodity prices and water in abundance. The Kings River that flows through the property and onto the border with Highway 41 is as low as it’s been in a generation. I’ve seen it high and I’ve seen it low, but never seen it look like this. For the Kings looks miserable, bereft of energy, bereft of care and abandoned of love. But it’s just after 7:00pm, we’re on last light, I’m on my second Michelada (I’m still a sucker for them) and about to tuck into BBQ that could be straight out of the Marble Falls Rodeo, West Texas.
…and that’s an important point. The Central Valley of California has much more in common with West Texas than it does with the gyrations of Orange County or the hipsters of Capistrano and below to the Tijuana line. ‘The Valley’ is more Texas than California. If there are any Democrats out here, they keep a low profile. It’s red through and through. Are there surfers in town? We’ll get to that. But back to the dinner table…
"You do know a guy called Kelly Slater?" Rather incoherently I respond, "Yes, he’s a surfer". And then, and then? Nothing. Nunca, not a word, sweet FA. That’s as far as the conversation about Slater went, or surfing for that matter. We got back onto more important matters. Water, crop yields from the previous year, capital equipment, and farm debt. Farming families? You’re right, that’s typical conversation. But, what if I had asked the question? ...yet I didn’t, and here’s why.
In 1987, eons ago in a time and land now far, far away, I was an exchange student. The beneficiary of the magnificent initiatives of the post-World War 2 appraisals and recommendations of the leaders cleaning up the mess of war. That being, the belief that people who have been exposed to other cultures would choose not to go to war. On the whole, it’s been a pretty stable period since WW2. So, thank the exchange student.
Somehow, I got Lemoore, or more accurately, Stratford, a small farming community 10 miles out of town…and 100 miles from the beach. Yep, that was a shock. But let’s go back 30 years. It wasn’t as if we had technology or information on hand like we do now. We ‘knew’ through radio, TV, the movies, the mags or the family Encyclopedia Britannica collection - now what a status call that was! The USA was a very different and mysterious place, even if we did think we knew about the place. Contact with Mum and Dad? That was an aerogram letter very few weeks. Mum was better than me - of course. I rode in on the saddle with Crocodile Dundee, god bless Hoges, he rolled out a red carpet for me I could never have rolled out myself. I just didn’t carry a knife.
Today we see a global merging of cultures, we pretty much understand the slang of other global communities because of the ease of access to information. But 1987? I thought I knew the USofA courtesy of Back To The Future, Ronald Reagan and Eddie Murphy. I was right on the first two, and dead wrong on the last one. US society then wasn't too dissimilar to today, swearing, profanity, ‘cussin’...well, that’s just not part of the lexicon. Eddie Murphy’s Delirious probably wasn't the best research methodology into the USA, as I soon learned. ‘Shoot’ is a damn handy term to use when you want to use every other phrase you can think of, but know you can’t, or dare not to. Yep, I jumped into everything and anything I could, head first, boots and all. Did not want to waste a day, an hour, a minute while in Lemoore.
So just one story…I lined up for football (yes, that’s me in the photo trying to look like Charles Bronson), did the ludicrous amount of training, memory of plays, team bonding, everything you see in those movies about football teams in small country towns. Life revolves around the High School Football team and Lemoore was, and remains, no different.
And when it comes to the first game of the season, the testosterone isn’t strong, its overflowing. It’s like GI Joe on steroids strong. Hugh Hefner cologne strong. The community, from far and wide, are all there. It’s the only show on in town. The Coach (no, it’s not Mr. Brown, or Bruce as it was at home. In the USA it is, with reverence and adulation, ‘Coach’) gathers his troops around and gives the motivational pre-game gee up. The talk to make us men, the talk to reinforce that we are warriors, because we, men, are the senior football team.
We’re men about to walk into the battle, to mow down the opposition, to annihilate all before us and take victory in the name of any God you want to put before them (Chuck Norris was cool at the time). They’re hootin’ and hollerin', but me? I’m nonplussed. Didn’t understand it to be quite frank.
"We’re going to go out there and kick them on their fanny!" I’m there, squatting in the huddle and I must have looked like a French Bulldog still trying to comprehend what ‘sit’ means. I just don’t understand. Why in the world would we want to go and kick people in the vagina? So, like a bunny in the spotlights, Coach looks directly at me with piercing (and pissed off) intent. "What would your Coach say in Ossstraaleeahh". So, politely I stand up, walk to the front of the squad, 40 odd people staring at me and I think, ‘What would my coach say?’. I quietly proclaim, "Lads, we’re going to get out there and hit them like a fucking freight train. Those pricks will be well and truly fucking rooted by the time we’re finished with them".
Now to you and me that makes sense. Sounds fair. But to small farming community USA 1987, my comments were about as popular as Richard Simmons high kicking in the new year, in velour high pants. I got some disciplinary action…
But back to Lemoore. I loved it. Did my Senior year and graduated in the class of 1988. We went out for lunch everyday sprinting to the car park and racing all of the 1 mile to McD’s, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell (there’s another story there), White Top, and anywhere else all of $2.49 would give you a lunch feast. Absolutely loved it. I lived on a cotton farm on the edge of the Tulare Basin with a loving and caring family looking out over endless acres and miles of cotton. The smell of cotton is the sweetest fragrance you don’t expect to long for. Paradise. So lucky even today I can’t believe it.
Surf? Well the closest was 100 miles away at Cayucos on the Central Coast. I found a board (9’6” Hobie – took me a while to work out how to surf the beast as I’m steering here at Cayucos) and snaffled an old wetsuit off the bloke who owned the local tyre business (thanks again Tom) and I was off. There were two other guys in town, two, that’s two people, who surfed. We surfed every spot we could find on the CC but would normally end up at Morro Bay or the Cayucos Pier (where I soon learned that jumping off the end of the Pier would get you arrested). If only Kelly was around 30 years earlier. But then?
Who locally surfs Kelly’s ranch? As I understand, no-one. The ‘Ranch’ is well known to anyone in the surfing world but to the farming community of Stratford/Lemoore? It’s the old water ski house that’s been converted to a ‘surf park’. Those fences are high and the gates are guarded. I can’t say I remember the water ski park, although a good mate lived near the corner of 18th & Jackson. Walking distance away. Maybe I didn’t have the ‘cool pass’ to the lake. I can’t remember every spare minute I had, if I wasn’t at school, working on the farm or finding local ‘entertainment’, I was finding a way to the coast. Today I’m just not too sure how the community has benefitted from the KSWC or now WSL Holdings, but I’ll leave that one to the commentators and the keeper (thanks Ian Healy).
No, not everyone living knows who Kelly Slater is. But what about Lorenzo Neal? Tommie Smith? or Steve Perry? In Lemoore they’re the names people look up to, not KS.
So, you’re going to Lemoore? Eat at Tadeo’s. Eunice does the best Mexican in town, wonderful people at Tadeo’s, as is the case at Senor Pancho’s. Farmers Fury is a great little wine bar and has live music on weekends, and yes, they play both kinds, country and western. Just keep in the good books with the owner, an ex-Marine. Gentle until needed. Want a throwback to the 1950’s? Head to White Top, nothing's changed. Want to seriously OD on ice cream? Head to Superior Dairy in Hanford for more ice cream than even you could handle, or in hindsight, after consumption, dare to dream.
The reality of Kings County? It’s a valley with multiple issues.
Water Rights? This is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen that handles the massive issue of water in California: ‘A California Heist’
Farming life in Stratford? This is more of the harsh reality of the land: ‘When A Town Runs Dry’
Fresno Living? ….if you like meth: 'Fresno, Calif. now nation’s capital for illegal drug use'