Jock Sutherland: A Salute

Reconciling with the surf star who signed up for Vietnam

Jock Sutherland. When the North Shore stopped being a challenge, he picked up the Army's rifle. Photo: Kampion
Jock Sutherland. When the North Shore stopped being a challenge, he picked up the Army’s rifle. Photo: Kampion

“War is not healthy for children and other living things.” All you retired hippies, remember that poster? Antiwar chic, circa 1970. Thick rough-hewn type and a napalmed-black flower, set against a bright yellow background. One-third cheerful, two-thirds Grim Reaper.  Half the kids I knew in Venice had that poster on their bedroom wall; mine was slotted between an Evolution handbill and a yarn-and-popsicle-stick God’s Eye. We were against the Vietnam war, all us 10-year-old pre-Dogtown surfrats, because our parents were against the war; because Drew Kampion dropped anti-war references into every issue of SURFER; because anti-war demonstrators on The Boardwalk, who actually were a little scary themselves, flashed us peace signs and smiles as we ran by, beavertails flapping, on the way to the Breakwater.

Surfing at that moment had a distinctively bleak undertone. For the most part, year to year, generation to generation, the sport doesn’t change. Close your eyes and throw a dart at the surf history timeline, and wherever it lands, the boards at that moment are cutting edge, the most recent huge swell was epic, and the hottest hot surfer is a running five-hundred yards ahead of the pack. There is always a Filipe Toledo.

But the military draft—that’s a different matter entirely. Conscription fundamentally changed the game. If you were eighteen in America or Australia during the height of the Vietnam war (1966 to 1972, more or less), when service was mandatory rather than elective, you were dealing with issues that eighteen-year-old surfers today can’t even imagine. Pull a bad lottery number, and you’d go to bed at night thinking not about Rolf Aurness’ run for the world title, but a jungle warfare tour of duty versus an underground semi-outlaw existence in your own country versus a new start in Canada. Not do-or-die in the Joe-Turpel-WSL-Round-Three matter of speaking. Do or die, literally.

Raised as I was, where I was, with a mother who did volunteer work keeping local war-eligible boys out of the draft, Vietnam was a cut-and-dried deal. The war was wrong, and you did anything and everything possible to not be part of it. So when Jock Sutherland—1969 SURFER Poll winner, North Shore master, Pacific Vibrations star, and gifter of the weirdest, most delicious surf mag bon mots—dropped everything and enlisted, enlisted! with the US Army, my juvenile morals and politics were thrown completely out of whack. I was still bothered 25 years later, when I sat down opposite Jock in his tiny studio apartment on the North Shore, just behind the house he grew up in, for a long-sought-after interview. This was a year or two after I’d graduated from UC Berkeley, and I was full of what I took to be intellectual righteousness and rigor, which I’d been funneling into 10,000-word Surfer’s Journal articles (and to anyone who stuck with me during those long, airless, forced-march reading experiences, God bless you).

I carefully steered the conversation toward  Jock’s enlistment. There was something behind it, something unknown to the surf world at large. I was sure of it. In fact, I had a theory.

Warshaw: The Army . . . was that forced? Did you cut a deal with the DA? Is that why you joined up?

Sutherland: That’s an understandable interpretation (laughs). But no, not true.

Warshaw: Oh. Okay. (Pause while I consult notes)

Sutherland: So why did I enlist?

Warshaw: Thanks, yeah.

Sutherland: A lot of reasons. Lack of momentum, I guess is how you’d put it, in terms of where I was in college. Disenchantment with the surf contest scene. With both sides. The pro-contest guys were anti-drug and I was, ahhh, shall we say, pro choice. Then meanwhile all anti-contest guys were on my back, telling my get off my contest kick and just surf. Except I liked contests! So I was sick of all the tension. Also, I loved surfing, but at that point [early 1970] there didn’t seem to be any kind of career there, you know? Plus both my parents were in the military; that had an effect on me. Then there was the whole challenge deal. This might be a difference between us here in Hawaii and you guys in Southern California, but there was a challenge aspect to the war. I was a local boy, bred in the country, pretty tough, and I just thought I could handle ‘Nam. I wanted to see how I’d stack up. Here on the North Shore, with surfing and everything else, I was feeling kind of untaxed. I wanted to test myself. Another thing was, guys I knew, guys from high school, they’d gone into the service, done their time, and come home to job opportunities. The military in Hawaii—it’s a big deal here. Pearl Harbor, Schofield, all of that. The anti-military thing was never as strong here as it was on the Mainland.

Question answered. In full. Clear and concise, reasonable start to finish. Yet my own take on the war and Vietnam-era military service—thoughts and opinions formed while idly looking at that “War is not healthy” poster, in-between worrying about my Christmas present list, the Lakers-Knicks series, puberty—wouldn’t let Jock’s words to sink in. Through some writerly slight-of-hand, I intimated in my Surfer’s Journal profile that he still wasn’t giving us the full story on why he joined the Army.

To finish up: Jock was hurt during basic training and missed active service. He completed his term at Monterey Presidio, in Central California. By that time Jock had changed his mind about wanting to fight, and returning to Hawaii, in late 1971, was a great relief. But he had no regrets about joining the Army. Life got hard for Jock in the years to come—coke bust, prison time, divorce—but by the time we met he was healthy, working, surfing, content. He hadn’t challenged himself the way he hoped to, back in 1970, but he’d been there and back, a few times, and was certainly the wiser and more self-aware man in the room on the day we talked. Me hanging some slogan-based peacenik trip on him for that Surfer’s Journal article was a bullshit move. A small one, but bullshit nonetheless. My belated apologies, Jock.