The smell of the crisp, cool dawn triggers memories of the paper routes and dawn patrols of my youth. Those dark, quiet times before first light were special; a time when life shone brightly. Before dawn’s light, anything was possible and the day was promising. Would the surf be big? What’s happening in the world? For a few years, I lived in those mysteries; the unknowns delivered in daily parcels. There was no predicting either and in that space, I lived for the day and life was simple. But those days are gone, swept away by the tides of time.
It started with the Pacific Beach Sentinel. As a nine-year-old in 1966, getting paid to ride my Sting-Ray bike up and down the steep hills of Pacific Beach (PB), California was a dream. Up at 4AM, I folded, banded, packed, and delivered papers in total darkness on my bicycle. On Sundays I had inserts and I bagged them on rainy days. Monthly, I went door-to-door and collected my fee: a few bucks for the paper and 50 cents for me. Tips for on-time, front-door delivery were gravy. When I switched to the San Diego Union, I made $1/customer and I was stoked; $30-50 a month was a small fortune for a kid in those days. But I would have done it for free: I loved the quiet time — no cars, home lights out, no one in sight. It was my own world and I loved the freedom and peace before the day began.
But life moved on. I lived in a Navy family, and over the next three years I moved to Virginia, then Idaho, then miraculously, back to PB in 1970. As a newly sprouted teenager, I resumed my paper route with the Union. It was then that my pre-dawn existence meshed with my newfound passion in life: enter surfing and the dawn patrol.
As a Grom, a beginning surfer, I quickly became obsessed with finding and riding good waves. Early on I learned the good spots were packed in the morning and wind-blown by the afternoon. Where to go? Dawn patrol! And the early-to-rise lifestyle fit perfectly with my paper route. Here’s how it worked: up at 3:30am, 2½ miles down the hill on my bike to my 50 Union customers in De Anza trailer park; band, pack, and deliver papers; done by 5:00am. Power back up the hill, meet my surfing buddy Neal, grab my board, down the hill again carrying my board and towel on my bike, and 11 blocks (2 miles) straight down Diamond St. to the beach; we’d surf, then head to school (PB Junior High), arriving just before class (or on good days, late). I remember having unkempt wet hair in class, my nose dripping with water, our boards stashed in the bushes. During the summers we surfed all day. It was a totally awesome life!
Dawn patrol was bitchin’. Staring into the darkness, we could hear the surf and guess about the wave potential. Loud = big waves. But we hoped it wasn’t too loud; that was scary. Over time, we became tuned to Mother Ocean’s moods and learned to predict the quality of the waves looming out of the darkness under different combination of swell size, direction, wind, and tides. The Crystal Pier lights helped. If we saw white foam peeling left and right emerging out of the blackness we’d scramble down to the beach and stand at water’s edge until it was light enough to paddle out. Most times, the waves were small and mushy, but on rare days, we were rewarded with perfect waves.
I live in the moments of those days. They were pure gold. Sliding down a glassy, tubular wave face with the early sun’s rays beaming across the water was Nirvana. The only ones out, we hooted and cheered at each ride, then paddled back to the lineup at top speed with our hearts pulsing in excitement and anticipation of the next wave. It was the pure spirit of surfing. But our sunrise rewards were short-lived. Within an hour, other surfers would appear on the shore, paddle out, and flood the line-up. Even in the early 1970s, PB was crowded as surfing started in the 1950s
Golden moments in life are rare but they last a lifetime. I remember the days when we were rewarded by our diligence and determination to beat the crowds; the triumph of our dawn patrols. But those simple days — paper routes and dawn patrols — are long gone. As with many aspects of life, the relentless march of time has erased the days when the early bird got the worm; they were swept away by the cultural and demographic tides of the burgeoning masses, fears for children, and advances of technology.
Why? One reason is demographics. San Diego was at the forefront of urban development in California and between the 1950s and 1970s, the population doubled and then doubled again during the next three decades to 1.4 million. When I visit PB now I’m shocked by the crowds swarming the cliffs, beach, and in the surf. I imagine surfers are still enjoying the waves, after all the crowded scene is what they’re used to — it’s the shifting baseline of surfing — but there’s little room for private surf sessions.
And there’s no escape to the dawn patrol, or even to the once remote depths of Baja, as the adoption and use of modern technology has elevated the “luck” of the dawn patrol to a scientific model. Now, due to the superb science of Sean Collins and the advent of Surfline, we know days, sometimes weeks, ahead of time when and where the next perfect swell will arrive with a high level of certainty. These days it’s common to arrive at dawn only to see the beach full of surfers, everyone alerted to a new swell in advance. Today, I can check the surf at PB on two live videocams along with swell, wind, and tide data for the day with predictions for the week ahead. In many ways it’s awesome, but we’ve lost the mystery. Instead of laying in bed dreaming about waves, I pull up the forecast and videocam on my phone. There’s little possibility of finding a swell to yourself by being an adventurous early riser, at least in southern California. The dawn patrol I knew is dead.
Similarly, a suite of cultural shifts eliminated paper routes for kids: primarily, declining readership (50% drop nationally between 1970 and 2017) and the advent of adult delivery in cars. Like many recent jobs, adults squeezed out kids to add extra income. Plus, routes are now huge. When I was a kid, about half of the houses got a paper. Now readership is so low that newspaper routes can have 35-700 customers; too much ground to cover by a kid on a bike.
Also, many parents pulled their kids off pre-dawn routes due to publicity around child abductions. As the abduction data shows, bike-ridden dawn routes by pre-teenage kids in their local neighborhood is the most common age, time, and place for abductions. However, the horror of experiencing a missing kid is more perception, than reality. The risk, according to the Washington Post, is that children in 2015 were “…being killed less. … hit by cars less. And they’re going missing less frequently…” than the previous generation. The likelihood of childhood abductions in 2015 was both historically low and infinitesimally small. The article concludes: “Truth is, if it was safe enough for you to play unsupervised outside when you were a kid, it’s even safer for your own children to do so today.” Even so, it’s rare to see a kid on a per route these days. I don’t think I would have allowed my kids on a route either, but it never came up.
…by the tides of time
But I don’t lament the past too much. The Earth spins around the sun and time marches on — it’s the way of the world. We can’t go back, only forward. And like my parents growing up in the 1930s, and my grandparents in the 1910s, the tides of time are strong and sweep away old traditions then surge back with the new. Although I deplore the loss of dawn’s mysteries — the daily doses of the world’s news and the rare clean surf session with my friends — there are so many great dimensions to our shiny-new tech-driven world I can’t complain.
In 1980, fresh out of college, I read Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave. It was prophetic: “Change is not merely necessary to life – it is life.” Moreover, he said, the advancing wave of a technological society doesn’t break smoothly but clashes with previous waves to create a turbulent world. We’re living in that world now. And in many ways, life is better. But the constant bombardment of horrific crises and the 24-hour spin of politically-divided news channels is dispiriting and a far cry from the slow pace of dawn’s front pages in the 1960s and 1970s. Sure, I can turn it off, but the effects permeate society. To truly escape, I retreat deep into nature and seek days of solitude to slow the march of time. If we’re not careful, we may lose access to the wilderness and have no refuge at all.
Those days live in my head and the memories are imprinted in my soul. I can feel my strong legs chugging up the hill on my bike, board in arm, dripping wet, happy. And now, 50 years later, when I’m up at dawn and experience the quiet moments before the day explodes in complexity, I rejoice in the smell and feel of the crisp cool air; I recall the bright promise of my youthful days delivering the news and hitting the surf before first light. Like many simple things in life, at the time I took them for granted. And before I could place those days in the context of my life and the flow of time, they were swept away by the surging tides of life.
- Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave. Morrow, New York.