Chuck Dent 1944-1980
By Patt Morrison Times staff writer
A lot of people would have said that Chuck Dent was the greatest fellow to have walked a surfboard. And Chuck Dent would have agreed with them-would have told them so in the first place, no doubt. He wasn’t the world’s best surfer, it damn near killed him to admit it, but he just wasn’t. But Chuck Dent was one of the first in those parts to see what surfing could be and, as he built a surfing legend around himself, he condescended to give surfing some of the limelight, too.
There is a halo of youth to surfing, to its litheness and casualness and the salt-stung tans and straw-fair hair of its acolytes. It is an aura Chuck Dent retained to the end, even though he was overweight, even though he hadn’t really been on a surfboard in as long as five years. But the youth, Chuck Dent still had youth, and if you ask the beach people who measure the years in summers, it seems like some incredible miscalculation of nature that a heart attack should have killed Chuck Dent at the age of 35.
They said Chuck Dent was a character, and he worked hard to prove them right. In truth, it didn’t really matter to him what they were saying, just as long as they were saying it about him. He preened his image, cultivating it until it shone like new wax on a surfboard—his surfboard, nine feet long, larger than life, like its owner, so big that, like its owner, you couldn’t ignore it.
You may not have like him, say his friends—and his enemies, but you didn’t overlook him. That one party, where he entered like the Prince of Wales or something and let the screen door nearly clip off the nose of the girl behind him. Well, Chuck Dent took it as his due when one wag crawled up to him, groveled, kissed his hand and announced, “Our master is here.”
If people didn’t say it about Chuck Dent, he said it about himself. “The original angry young man of surfing.” He labeled himself in a 1974 trade magazine. A miraculous transformation from the candidate fro “Clearasil poster boy,” he wrote with equal bravado. A surfing pioneer since Ike was President, he was the kind of guy who had his picture taken being “crucified” on a pair of surfboards. He boasted that he sold the first pair of bellbottoms in Orange County. It is probably true and he may have bought them himself. Full tilt boogie, that was his motto, like some lapsed Boy Scout, living off the fat of the sand.
Even later, when he stopped surfing (except for his single annual ride, heralded like a coronation and as ritually ceremonial as an Aztec sacrifice), when he took to peroxiding his hair now and again, when his weightlifter’s torso was running to fat, even then, the gremmies—the neophyte surfers—still bought his surfboards, the ho-dads still listened to his stories.
He never let up on himself, he was never off-stage. He was the self-appointed bouncer to those bars that still let him in the door. He once made off with a concrete bus bench for pure hell of it. He ate and drank and partied like an 18-Year-old kid, which in his mind and everyone else’s, he still was.
Everybody knew Chuck Dent, one way or another. To his mother, “you couldn’t ask for a better son, or a sweeter one”- an only child who bought his mother a color television about 15 years after he badgered her to death for one of his first “Woodie” trucks.
To anyone foolhardy enough to be a foe, he was the big dude in the chocolate-brown Caddy with the baseball bat in the back seat. To associates, he was a brilliant salesman who made and marketed his own brand of surfboard before he was old enough to vote. He could sell a board to a paraplegic Bedouin, but he was an erratic businessman if there was a party, or a pretty woman or a good wave, it was “closed for the day.” And Chuck Dent was gone.
Toward the end, in the last year or so, he had “mellowed out” a bit _ a phrase Chuck Dent might have blithely claimed he invented. Began losing weight. Began showing up at family gatherings regularly, and word even got around in the street that he was engaged to be married. Began taking medicine for his high blood pressure as secretively as other people takes drugs-image, you know.
Dave Nuuhiwa, four-time US surfing champ and Chuck Dent’s rival for local stardom, went partners with him in a surf shop a few months before Chuck Dent died. But the swagger and braggadocio, the Barrymore trick of turning his profile to you in conversation for you 90 degree admiration- all that was still there, up to the recent spring admiration = all that was still there, up to the recent spring night, when friends say he was partying with a couple of Peruvian guys and died of a heart attack, sometime in the small hours of the morning. His big exit, and he performed it alone.
They still call it Chuck Dent’s shop and the probably always will. The back room is a surf of self-made shrine to the man who once claim that he was to surfing what the Beatles were to Rock and Roll, the man whose first surf shop bore his name in letters as tall as he was. His favorite pictures are there, mostly of himself, his enormous surfboard, the vintage wheelchair in which he mugged for the cameras in a surfing documentary film.
No one is likely to forget Charles Gary Dent very soon around here, which is precisely what he intended. “I’m not on any crusade or brotherhood trip,” he wrote once. “I just want to put the fun, individualism and togetherness back into surfing. There’s a message there somewhere. Enough seriousness.”