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Ho found a more receptive audience at the pier, where his high-performance boards proved useful for dodging the pilings and other wreckage of Pacific Ocean Park. He earned a reputation as an iconoclast both in and out of the water. "I was into doing my own things and making my own boards and selling them to people on the beach and to some shops. I was a kid. I was like 18 years old," says Ho. "To me, making a couple hundred bucks was a big thing."
While Ho had heard of Stecyk and Engblom, they had yet to meet, at least in person. They did, however, share the pages of Surfermagazine in 1968. Ho was captured in the center spread slashing a Hawaiian fatty, while Stecyk and Engblom published photos and a story on Santa Monica surfers like Mickey Dora and Johnny Fain. It was an early testament to the roots of the Dogtown vibe titled, in typically cryptic Stecyk fashion, "The Crackerjack Conspiracy."
The optimism and good cheer of the postwar generation, though, was rapidly being worn down by a power structure that seemed hell-bent on folly. Engblom remembers those as the last innocent days of the '60s, before America came apart at the seams and the Doors replaced the Beach Boys as the soundtrack to the California Dream. They were the last days before Robert Kennedy was shot down in front of their eyes, on June 5, 1968.
"Nero fiddled while Rome burned. We surfed while America went down the tubes," says Engblom. "Robert Kennedy, before he got assassinated that day, I walked out of my apartment on Venice Boulevard and he waved at me and my mom, and he was dead a couple hours later. Starting with all that -- John F. Kennedy, then Martin Luther King and then the brother -- you just knew something bad was happening. Any sense that good things were going to follow pretty much died at that moment."
The threat of being drafted, too, hung as heavily over the three kids as the fog during an onshore flow.
"All three of us were in the same boat because of the Vietnam War. I was 1-A from fucking day one. Any day, I'm thinking, I'm fucking gone," recalls Ho. "That whole thing you saw in Big Wednesday, I went through that. I was part of that. I had friends that went to Canada."
"I grew up in Venice around black people, Mexicans and Asians," says Engblom. "The idea that I was going to go over and shoot Asians was totally repugnant to me. I didn't see these guys storming the beaches of Santa Monica."
Stecyk tried for student deferments. Ho fudged his physicals. Engblom hopped a ship in the merchant marines, staying out at sea as much as possible between 1968 and 1970. "I spent the war riding luxury liners," he says. When his ship finally docked, he came back to the beach with some money, but was "essentially unemployable."
THE ARTIST AND THE IMPRESARIO finally met the shaper on a weird winter day in 1970. It had been raining constantly for about a week, and the whole area was practically underwater.
Eventually the storm gave way to a blustery, ornery sunshine. Stecyk and Engblom went down to the beach to check on the surf. They parked in a flooded lot while the tail end of the storm blew through. When they could finally see out of Engblom's old Cadillac, they realized they had parked next to the '48 Chevy truck, the classic surfer's get-around, in which Jeff Ho lived. Stecyk told Engblom he should talk to the notorious outrider about going into business for real.
"These two guys walk up to me and say, 'Hey you, you're Jeff Ho.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, what the fuck do you want?'" says Ho.
They proposed starting up a factory to manufacture surfboards. It sounded good to Ho, who was in love with a white girl from high school whose parents didn't like his Chinese-American ethnicity or his surfing lifestyle.
"Her parents hated me. They thought I was a lowlife," Ho says. "My motivation was to make some money to buy some land on the big island and marry this chick."
They took advantage of their contacts and Ho's clients and started pumping out boards. Ho shaped new designs. Stecyk experimented with airbrushing techniques. They had imagination and a do-it-yourself attitude. Sometimes stunning progress was made.
"[Stecyk] invented the airbrushed surfboard. That was his invention," says Engblom. "I don't care what anybody is telling you, he was making airbrushed surfboards a year or two before anybody was putting them on the market."
They worked hard and played hard. They took surf trips. Stecyk sent pictures of them and their boards to Surfer magazine.
"It was a fucking really good time," says Ho. "The outlook was that everything could blow up tomorrow, so everything we did, we just did. The goal was to make money to do more projects."
Soon their production spilled over into another factory. It became clear they needed their own shop to keep up. Meanwhile, the girl for whom Ho was stuffing away money, "to buy her a left-point break on the big island," left him for family-sanctioned romantic seas. "She started dating some other guy who was actually going to college or something," says Ho. "Instead of buying the land, I bought the shop."