Long ago - before the Beach Boys and Gidget, before fiberglass and surfwear, before "dudes" and even "daddy-o's" - a handful of men carried the first long boards into the gentle swells of the Pacific Ocean here to ride the waves.

The times were simpler then, and so was surfing, freshly imported from Hawaii and yet to be popularized, professionalized and accessorized. In the 1930s, it was just the ocean, a wooden board and a man - somebody like Whitey Harrison or Granny Grannis.Both began surfing when Herbert Hoover was president. Neither has stopped.

"Did you get any waves?" Granny, 74, asked the other day, sitting under a palm-frond shack as Whitey came up the beach, his board under his arm and water dripping from his wet suit and white hair.

"Oh, a couple," Whitey, 78, answered. "The last one was a good one. I got a good left slide all the way down."

They are a little less daring than they used to be, and some of their stamina is gone, but, 60 years after surfing made the scene in this country, some of California's original surfers are still at it.

This is where the graying wave-riders hang - Old Man's Beach, a stretch of sand 60 miles south of Los Angeles, surrounded by a Marine base and sandwiched in between a seaside nuclear plant and Richard Nixon's former oceanfront estate.

Here, a gentle surf, near-constant sunshine and a rich surfing tradition combine to draw them - middle-aged businessmen taking a break from work, retirees with the freedom of beach bums, and the original legends, surfers whose parking places, though not reserved, are sacrosanct.

They don't look for monster waves anymore - most stopped that when they turned 60 - but joy, they say, can be found in smaller waves. And though their spirits are as free as ever, they do worry a little more about each other.

"He can't hardly see," LeRoy "Granny" Grannis said, fretting as Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison paddled alone into the Pacific on a white surfboard with "Infinity" written on it. "I should have gone out there with him."

Back on shore, Whitey shows the scars from his quintuple heart bypass operation in 1984. "I've got wires in my chest. Here, you can feel them."

He was back in the water within months, he says.


"A big surf came up."

You don't have to look far to find the other living idols.

There's Terry "Tubesteak" Tracy, 56, who made his name - and gave Gidget hers - at Malibu.

He was the shack-dwelling beach bum called Kahuna, who befriended young Kathy Kohner. Her father went on to write the book on which the movie "Gidget" was based. Tubesteak's surfing days are over, but he's still a regular at Old Man's, where he sits in jeans that look like they've been run through a paper shredder, taking in beer and dispensing philosophy.

There's Thomas "Opai" Wert, 67, pulling up in a shiny red Renault convertible, his surfboard sticking out the back seat and his long gray hair flying behind him in a ponytail. Before he parks, he asks a young woman in a bikini if she'd like a ride.

Down the beach is Earl Alldredge, 74, knocking back brews with his 44-year-old son Paul (it's not unusual to find three generations of surfers at Old Man's) and friend Bob Dietschy.

"Surfing cures what ails you," says Alldredge, who, though not in the legend category, has been surfing here for 32 years. "You can be grouchy, and it gets rid of the grouches. You can have the flu, you go out there and you get well."

"I need two new hips and I'm arthritic, but I just don't want to give it up," said Dietschy, 46, a private detective from San Francisco. "I let all my clients know that, when summer comes, I'm going surfing."

All - except Tubesteak, who remains a bit of a rebel - are members of the San Onofre Surf Club, a once-elite organization that is the largest of its type in the country.

The surf club was started after private ranchers sold this beachfront land to the U.S. Marine Corps, which turned it into Camp Pendleton. The Marines eventually agreed to allow a few surfers to use their beach, but they required them to submit a list of names. Once an applicant moved to the top of a waiting list, which could take six years, he would have to prove his mettle, demonstrating his surfing abilities to the Marines.

Granny laments what has become of surfing.

"Ever since Gidget," he says, the sounds of a volleyball game and Marine artillery practice in the background. "That was the beginning of the downhill for surfing as we enjoyed it. It's become a pampered sport.

"Professional surfing, movies and the clothing business - that's what's screwed it up," said Granny, a retired phone company maintenance supervisor who began surfing in 1931 when his father brought home a piece of wood that he shaped into a surfboard. He still surfs every day.

"That's what the young people respect about the older guys, they surfed purely for fun," said Brian Ephraim, 25, a restaurant employee and surfer, as he sat at the feet of Tubesteak. "I have the utmost respect for these guys. I admire them because they are still doing what they want to do. Putting everything else aside, that's a real surfer."

None were actually lifelong beach bums, though Tubesteak probably came closest. In 1956 and 1957, he lived in a shack at Malibu, where he met the young girl he dubbed Gidget (a combination of "girl" and "midget").

"I had been working for an insurance company and I got canned. I didn't have anywhere else to go, so I lived on the beach."

Though he no longer surfs, and thinks anybody over 40 who does looks foolish, he still sees himself fulfilling an important role. "There are two parts of surfing," he says, "the beach and the water. Some guys belong on the beach."