There was a bright line down the middle of America in 1966, and everybody had to choose a side. You loved Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, or you hated him.
Big Daddy was a lot of things. First and foremost, he was a car guy. Designed and built the coolest, craziest whips during the High Renaissance of Kustom Kulture. The Beatnik Bandit. Mysterion. And Roth's own favorite, the Orbitron. So far, so good. Bit of harmless postwar swagger and style, right? What's not to love?
But Roth was also a cartoonist, and to fund his car-building, he started hawking T-shirts at car shows where his latest creations were on display. Hit it big in 1963 with Rat Fink, a hopped-up, bug-eyed, sewer-green monster rodent—Roth's hairy-middle-finger answer to Mickey Mouse. Wasn't a 14-year-old boy in America who didn't either have a Rat Fink T-shirt or want one. Parents and teachers? Not too stoked. Moms threw away Rat Fink tees by the thousands. School-wide bans were enacted. Sales, naturally, doubled.
Roth, triumphant in his newfound fame as the anti-authority ringmaster—going so far as to dress the part in top-hat and tails—looked around for some more outrage to cultivate. Surfing! Of course! In 1965, Roth unveiled the Surfer's Cross pendant—a replica of the German military bravery medal that had nestled in the sock drawers of people like Hitler and the Red Baron. Six months later the Surfer's Cross was country's hottest novelty item: a Rhode Island plant was shipping 24,000 units a day, to corner variety stores in the Midwest, all the way up to Bergdorf Goodman in midtown Manhattan.
Time jumped all over the story. The Surfer's Cross, as the magazine pointed out, stating the obvious, was mostly a way for teens to Dutch rub their Moms and Dads. "It really upsets your parents," a 15-year-old surfer from Palmdale told Time. "That's why everybody buys them." Roth posed for his Time portrait in Levis and a plain white T-shirt and a leering expression, astride a moped, his Surfer's Cross dangling from his neck to rest gently on his beer gut. What was next for Big Daddy? A plastic copy of the Wehrmacht iron helmet. "You know," Roth said with a grin, "that Hitler did a helluva public relations job for me."
Time, you get the feeling, actually kind of loved Big Daddy. Or at least went along with the joke. SURFER Magazine? Straight-up haters. The magazine rushed out an indignant six-page article, "Sign of the Kook," which remains the only feature-length piece in SURFER's 50-something-year history devoted to a dime-store trinket. Roth was the centerpiece of the article, and SURFER writer Bill Cleary, visiting Roth's office, begins tsk-tsking right off the bat: "Big Daddy stood six-feet-four, weighed at least two-sixty. An unpruned goatee clung desperately to a craggy chin. Behind him, lining the walls, were framed blow-ups of his decals, all grotesque caricatures, misshapen, bulbous humanoids with protruding eyes and rows of jagged teeth. One bore the title: 'Sidewalk Surfer.' Another: 'Hang Ten.’"
The Q&A section followed:
Roth: It was the surfers who picked up the cross. They started painting it on their woodies by hand.
Cleary: No real surfer would have anything to do with an Iron Cross. So just how did you get started calling this Nazi souvenir a Surfer's Cross?
As I said, the surfers picked the cross for a good luck symbol. But the real reason it's become so popular with surfers is that basically the Iron Cross is a good design. Not because they're pro-Nazi. It's the same with the Chiquita Banana stickers, which were a huge fad. That's a good design too. That's why kids dig 'em. Not because they're pro-banana.
Big Daddy, a number of people still associate the Iron Cross with Nazi Germany and the murder of six million Jews. No surfer who is a surfer craves such an association with his sport.
The cross itself has not hurt the sport! For anyone who's not hip to what's happening, I want to say that these surfers who wear the cross are not neo-Nazis.
Very commendable. But are you so sure they're surfers in the first place?
Sure. We see the surfers everywhere. Denver, Chicago, wherever we go we always see surfers. They may not be able to surf, but they act and dress like surfers.
That's the crux of the matter.
With that bit of drollery, Cleary stepped out of the ring thinking he'd scored a TKO. The Surfers Cross fad, of course, died a quick and natural death, as fads always do. Roth's time in the spotlight lasted another few years, then he got religion and started working at Knott's Berry Farm. SURFER maintained its residence just a couple blocks off the main drag of Squaresville. Another scourge, the surf-themed pulp novel, would catch the magazine's eye a few months later, and be dressed down in similar fashion.
Then…1968. Thank God. John Severson fired up his first joint, began reading Rolling Stone, hired Drew Kampion, and SURFER was transformed into a glorious flaming mandala of counterculture beauty. So good, in fact, that you can imagine Big Daddy picking up an issue and smiling his forgiveness.