Ray Kunze: Your Life is Your Art

Remembering Ray Kunze – October 2, 1936 – November 4, 2004

I figured Ray would always be here, dispensing stories, wisdom, and opinions. I loved his easy smile and gregarious personality and the way he called the ladies sweetheart when we came through the gate. Ray was loud and expansive, robust and good-natured, optimistic and resilient. He had a colorful and remarkable history but was fully immersed in the present. He had a definite sense of the way things ought to be (and wasn’t shy about telling you) but he never stopped learning, either. He had devoted friends all over the world but was so much a part of the Hollister Ranch it is impossible to fathom his absence. Ray slipped away suddenly, and some of us wish we had paused a little longer the last time we saw him to chat or grouse or remark about the day. Too much love remains unspoken as we hurry along in our routines; now and then we are stunned into seeing that we really should slow down.

Ray's MemorialBut Ray knew where he stood with the world. He simply held his strong arms open to the amazing experience of life and embraced it completely. “Your life is your art,” he famously proclaimed, and that’s the way he lived. He started out body surfing as a young boy in Hermosa Beach. In 1948, on a trip to Doheney Beach, he saw someone stand up surfing, and he thought he’d like to try it. Large, powerful, and a supremely gifted athlete, Ray became a well-known figure at Malibu in the ’50s and ’60s along with the likes of Dora, Doyle, and Mysto George. “Great surfers?” he once said, “I’ve seen them all. But the best surfer is the guy having the most fun out there.” And Ray always had the broadest smile of all.

Ray did a stint in the army in the early 1960s and was proud to have been an L.A. County fireman for 25 years. He was physically active all his life, even playing professional baseball for a time, but he was perhaps best known as The Malibu Enforcer of the surfing world. “I got that name from John Milius.” he explained, “He’s a famous movie producer now, but when I first knew him he was a young boy at Malibu. I was like a big brother around the beach; I had just come from the army and was trying to get back into surfing, so I spent a lot of time at Malibu. And I used to try to keep kids from getting in trouble or fighting. One day, John showed me he had a handful of pills, and I made him throw them away. Then I made him stay out in the water until dark — I wouldn’t let him come back in. He told me about this years later, and when he made the film Big Wednesday, he had a character called The Enforcer and that was supposed to me.”

According to Ray, surfing was not so much about the waves you rode as the friends you made. “I’ve made lifelong friends everywhere I’ve gone, and that’s a gift,” he reflected. He recognized the exhilarating and addictive nature of the sport, but he was modest about his own impressive achievements and he knew that a life needs balance. “Think of a good life,” he told a group of middle school kids, “Think of yourself becoming something. Everyone should help others and contribute to the world.”

Ray was as good as his word. He was a champion helper of others and was profoundly loved by countless friends, many of whom gathered at Big Drake’s on Saturday to remember him and celebrate his life. It was a grand day, epic and Ray-esque. The sun shone and the water sparkled, and two hundred surfers, young and old, gathered in the water and formed a circle at the place they knew Ray would have been, scattering ashes, flowers, and prayers. A pair of dolphins joined them.

Afterwards, friends and family lingered on the bluff, remembering Ray with laughter and tears. A small plane inexplicably dipped and whirled in the empty sky above the Ranch, a strange ship passed, someone played Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s Hawaiian-style version of Over the Rainbow, and a shiny fire engine led Ray’s last procession through the dark. It was a wondrous thing.

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Legendary surfer and colorful local guy, Ray Kunze was known as much for his good nature and easy smile as for his skill in the water — definitely not your average senior citizen. When we interviewed him, probably around 2002, he was robust and gregarious, as always. No one could have possibly imagined that we would lose him just a year or two later. Here’s the interview, in his own words, Ray Kunze:

“I started out body surfing as a young boy in Hermosa Beach. Then I went to paipo boards, which were just a piece of cut plywood, shaped almost like a boogie board. I saw someone stand up surfing in 1948 at Doheney Beach, and I thought I’d like to do that. I’m 65 now, and I still surf. I surfed yesterday, and will probably go surfing after this.”

“The surf is real big today, and kinda crowded. I’m waiting for the crowd to dwindle. It’s not the size of the surf that matters — it’s the lack of crowd, and the wind conditions. Big isn’t always better; sometimes small waves are a lot more fun than big waves. It’s always different. Sometimes it’s just exercise, sometimes it’s thrilling, and sometimes it’s scary. Surfing has a lot of facets. That’s one reason it is such an addictive kind of sport — it changes all the time. Not like basketball, where the hoops are always the same, the court is always the same — the waves are changing all the time.”

“I’ve been a Californian most of my life, except for a short period of time when I was in the army. I’ve had some sponsors and gotten free boards, but I’ve never been a professional. I was too old by the time there was any money.

“In the early days of surfing, a lot of surfers were really into water activities other than just surfing — we went diving, fishing, boating, sailing, canoeing, catching lobsters. We enjoyed the idea of living off the sea. It was a lifestyle within a life.”

“When I started surfing, boards were all made of wood. Now they’re plastic. They’ve changed from big heavy boards to lighter boards. The weight is different, and the craftsmanship is better. Things are better in a lot of ways. In other ways, we are losing some things. But remember, every day is the good old days. All of us are artists, and we can paint a good picture for ourselves, or a bad one.”

“Surfing really took off between 1962 and 1967. In the fifties, when I was a surfer, there was more of a mystique. We were like beatniks with boards, beach bums, the first hippie types. It was a counter culture. Then, in the 1970’s, there was lot of turmoil. It wasn’t all good: there was a lot of bad drug use, and it got into surfing and gave surfing a bad name. Drugs are not the way to go. You’re a pretty bored person if all you can do is abuse drugs.”

“I got the name The Enforcer from John Milius. He’s a famous movie producer now, but when I first knew him he was a young boy at Malibu. I was like a big brother around the beach; I had just come from the army and was trying to get back into surfing, so I spent a lot of time at Malibu. And I used to try to keep kids from getting in trouble or fighting. One day, John showed me he had a handful of pills, and I made him throw them away. Then I made him stay out in the water until dark — I wouldn’t let him come back in. He told me about this years later, and when he made Big Wednesday, a surf movie, he had a character in there called The Enforcer, and that was supposed to me.”

“I was there while they were filming that movie, coaching this guy on how to be me. Part of it was filmed at the pier at Gaviota. I was there one night when a boat broke loose. I swam out after it, and then I got it, but I couldn’t pull the thing in, and nobody would do anything. The wind was blowing. Finally, I said, ‘If nobody’s gonna help me…’ So I let it go of the rope.”

“You have to be in good condition to surf. Never go over your limits. If you’re starting out, you should be surfing at Refugio or Leadbetter’s, somewhere soft and nice. Then, as you get better, you can go somewhere and take on bigger waves – Jalama, Hawaii – places with a more powerful wave. But remember you have fear for a reason. Fear is to save your life. Fear is not bad. It’s like a door. When that door closes, and you’re afraid of something, back off. Take a step or two back and make a good decision.”

“I’ve been held down, and it’s scary. But I started out as a young person in the ocean, so I’m not as frightened by the ocean as I am by some of these drivers on the road heading to the beach. That’s the scariest part!”

“Sometimes I go back to where I was brought up, down south to the beaches I used to like, and I see all the condos, all the traffic and stuff, it really depresses me. But you have to keep a positive attitude…”

“I started going to the Hollister Ranch in1964 by boat. It cost a quarter to launch at the Gaviota pier. My friend was a teacher, and I was a fireman, so during the holidays, we would boat up to Government Point, or Cojo, or Rights and Lefts. This was before it was the Ranch as we know it today. Seals would haul out at Little Drakes and sit on the rocks. Even deer would swim out sometimes to get ticks off themselves. You’d always see some kind of wild animal.”

“I’ve seen sharks and had to leave the water. I’ve also been right next to dolphins and sea turtles. It’s really a beautiful environment when the water is crystal clear and the sun is shining.”

“On the other hand, I’ve had skin cancers, and had my ears drilled because I didn’t take care of myself when I was young. I started surfing in the days when we didn’t even consider skin cancer. We just wanted to be blonde and tan. Now I’m gray and tan.”

“I’ve traveled a lot because of surfing. And I’ve been a lot of places where I go away on a nice big surf trip and I have great expectations and when I go home I get better waves in my own backyard. But the trip was well worth it because I may have gone to a museum or a library or met interesting people or got to go on a boat ride somewhere — something other than the surf. I went into the backcountry of Australia one time, and they took me to all these beautiful waterfalls. And I swam in the rivers and had a great time.”

“So when I go somewhere, surfing might only be two hours of the day — there’s all that other time to intermingle with people, and shop, and look and see the different things that different cultures have. It’s fun to try different kinds of food when you travel. You should always try something. You never know if you like it until you try it.”

“Surfing has taken me to Tahiti, Australia, Puerto Rico, New Zealand, Trinidad, Tobago, Nova Scotia, up and down California, and the eastern United States. I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of nice people. That’s the thing in surfing — not the great waves you ride, but the great friends you make. I’ve made lifelong friends everywhere I’ve gone, and that’s a gift.”

“I guess my favorite place is Hawaii. I’m thinking about moving to Waikiki. It’s overbuilt and everything else, but there’s something about it that never changes. I love it. There’s an exotic mix of people in Hawaii, also; the history includes Mexicans, Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese… all kinds of people. And you can find waves in Hawaii that fit any ability. At a certain age, you can’t take the beatings you can take when you’re young. The water there is effervescent, soft, and warm.”

“Think of a good life. Think of yourself becoming something. Some of these kids I knew who were surfers and never did anything but surf, they put too much time in. It can be kind of addictive. Now they don’t have a house to live in. And if you need your hip replaced, you’re sure not going to Kelly Slater to have him do it. You’re gonna go to a doctor. Thank God lots of people go to school and learn how to do things and help others. I think helping others is a real important part of life.”

“It’s all a matter of balance. You can have a lot more fun if you work. By working, you have days off, and you appreciate your time to relax and have fun. You don’t want to be a workaholic, but you don’t want to just play all the time to the point where you wake up some day and you’re old, and you don’t have any security or comforts. Get a good balance in your life.”

“Great surfers? I’ve seen them all. From the early days, I’ve seen Whitey Harrison, Mickey Dora… and I’ve seen Kelly Slater — he’s probably the greatest in the magazines. There are others. But the best surfer is the guy having the most fun out there. If you’re out there having a good time, you’re the best in the world.”

“A lot of people go dancing, and they don’t look so good, but they’re having a lot of fun. Some people get paid to dance, but are they having as much fun? That’s like some of these professional surfers. I don’t think they’re having as much fun as Joe Blow at Refugio. He’s gonna go home happy and have that great feeling, those endorphins through his brain, and he’s gonna get a good night sleep.”

“I used to run and ski, and I played football in college. I was a professional baseball player, and I’ve done some mountain climbing. I fell down in the mountains, actually, and injured my arm; that ended that. I couldn’t move my arm for a year, and it made me realize – when I get well, I want to have fun, do stuff, try things I’ve never tried.”

“I mountain bike now, but I stay on paved and dirt roads, not single track. I don’t like to fall down. But I go uphill. That’s the way to stay in shape. I see your teacher doing that on the weekends, heading up and down the Ranch roads. It’s important to study and exercise your brain, but you also need to exercise your body. Get into good habits. Form them soon. If you’re not in shape, you don’t have as much fun, and eventually, you’re gonna have problems.”

“I’m actually a Vietnam veteran, but I was in just before it got to be a shooting war. They were sending in advisors. I got extended because of the Cuban crisis. I was in during that time – 1960 to 1962. I was drafted. I definitely didn’t want to be in the army, but now that I’ve done it, and I’ve been out for so long, it doesn’t seem like it was that bad. It helped me a lot.”

“In my generation, at about 18, you had to start thinking about what you wanted to do. It made boys grow up fast. You would get drafted. And once you were there, you had to do what they told you. I don’t think it was all bad. You learned respect and discipline. You learned how to take care of yourself. You were forced to become a man and learn how to do things.”

“I f heaven exists, I hope to find Ralph there. He was my surf dog, my constant companion. He went everywhere with me. We even drove all the way to Nova Scotia together, and all the way back. I found him when he was eight weeks old; he was an abandoned puppy, and he hadn’t been treated very well. But he lived to be eleven and a half. He just died in November of a heart attack, right in front of my bed. But he was a very nice dog his whole life. He was great. I miss him a lot. He amused me and amazed me for the whole time I had him.”

“I can learn from you guys as much as you can learn from me. And I can probably relate to you better than I can to most old people. People that haven’t taken care of themselves — they’re so grumpy, and no fun. If you don’t use it, you lose it, and that applies to mind and body. So don’t spend too much time sitting there watching television. I’m not saying kill your TV – there’s a lot of good, educational stuff on there. What I’m saying is kill some of it; be selective.”

“Surfing is fun and great, but you have to do something else with your life. Some surfers woke up a little too late; they don’t have anything, and they’re not contributing. Everybody should contribute something to the world one way or another. At least that’s the way I see it. And you need to have a job so you don’t have to depend on other people. That’s the ultimate, — when you’re in charge of your own life.”

“I’m always amazed at people who do things well, but remember, your life is your art.”

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