KENNY SCHREIFELS: THE EARLY WAVE-RIDERS OF ROCKAWAY

Kenneth Schreifels and his older brother Walter grew up in Brooklyn where the Dodgers were their life until both were relocated, the Dodgers to Los Angeles and the Schreifels to Queens. They worked as lifeguards in Rockaway during the early 60’s and were introduced to surfing by pioneers like Harry ‘Hal’ Olson who founded the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, Mickey McManamon, Pat Reen, John Boudet, John Whelan and Jim DeLazon. Walter met Carl ‘Tinker’ West on a trip to California and the brothers began selling Challenger Easterns on the beach in Rockaway during the mid-60’s, making boards readily available to Rock surfers for the first time.  This was before Atlantic Surfing editor John Gunderson opened his Rockout shop on Beach 116th in 1966. Their parents’ Richmond Hill address can be seen in early Challenger ads, which the brothers used for taking orders and invoicing purposes. They sold a board to a young Billy Sautner in 1965 and a few years later Kenny and he opened Schreifels and Sautner Surfboards, a showroom for Challenger Eastern. It was only open for a year but is considered Rockaway’s second surf shop after Atlantic Surfing editor John Gunderson’s Rockout.  In 1969 Kenny and Sautner started spending winters on the North Shore at a house on Kainui Road near Sunset Beach which became the go to spot for many Rockaway surfers. Kenny started university back in New York and eventually relocated to California where he works in contracting and still surfs as much as possible. Music lovers will recognize the name Schreifels.  Kenny’s nephew, Walter Jr. played in seminal New York Hardcore bands Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits, the latter for which he wrote the music and lyrics, and was the front man to legendary post-hardcore band Quicksand. This interview was conducted in May of 2014 over the phone.

Kenny rocking long hair, a beard and shooting film in Hawaii during the late 60’s.

MM: Where were you born?

KS: Brooklyn, New York. I lived on Fenimore Street where Ebbets Field used to be and then we moved to Richmond Hill in Queens. I only lived in Rockaway in the summertime when I was a lifeguard and we used to rent houses and apartments.

MM: Is that when you were first exposed to surfing, as a lifeguard?

KS: There had been a bunch of guys who’d been in the military, picked up surfing in Hawaii and formed the Rockaway Beach Surf Club. It was through their influence that my brother Walter and I bought our first board in 1963. The oldest was this thin guy Hal Olson who was a World War II veteran, Mickey McManamon who was chief lifeguard in Rockaway and Jay DeLazon was another guy. There were about five or six guys in the club and they seemed like kind of a quiet group. We joined and were the young blood. The younger guys who came up after us were Billy Sautner, the Stathis brothers, Dee and Dennis McLean and Frankie Stamp. They all displayed talent of the sport and certainly a wild enthusiasm for it.

MM: And surfing in NYC was still illegal…

KS: Yeah, the biggest problem we had down there; surfing was illegal. I was if not the first person, one of the earliest to get a surfing ticket. I had to go to the courthouse in Astoria to pay it. It was a desk appearance ticket, I think it was ten bucks or something, but you didn’t want a warrant issued. It was a whole new thing and I wanted to see what the deal was really and was curious about the whole process, how they handled this stupid ticket for violating a parks department ordinance. I was more of a curiosity to the judge and we were having a mutually curious experience. There was no big protest and we weren’t a target at that point. Later on it was not as friendly an experience and the authorities went a little nuts when a lot of people started surfing.  

MM: Where were you guys getting surfboards from back then?

KS: We had to drive down to Delaware; there really weren’t any shops around. I had an Ole Olson, later on Hobies were readily available because Pat Reen was a Phil Edwards fan and would direct people toward Hobie. Pat had already been to Hawaii (fall of ‘63) when I started surfing.  He knew how to surf and was certainly the most experienced and the best guy around when I started. I mean, he had surfed the North Shore, a real wave, instead of a lot of the storm surf we get there. Rockaway is actually a good place to learn because you’re dealing with a lot of things that work against your ability to surf well. Reef breaks and stuff like that everything is working in your favor. You’ve got the power and speed of bicycle riding; more power and speed allow you to do more with better control. With reef breaks off deep water the wave’s moving faster, it has a lot more power and when you get used to that it’s a lot easier to make sections. You don’t have to beat yourself up getting back out either unless you wipeout then it becomes a horrific experience.

MM: When did your shop open in Rockaway?

KS: In 1968. I had that shop as a factory outlet with Challenger surfboards. It was located two doors down east of the police precinct on Rockaway Beach BLVD but only open for a year. Billy Sautner helped me run it; we sold wax and some other accessories. My brother had met Carl West, “Tinker” in California and since the market was exploding on the East Coast, it was economically feasible and for tax purposes a good idea for Tinker to move his operations east. Challenger was selling more boards on the East Coast than the west through us and other venues. We’d get the orders and send them to Challenger and then dealt with a lot of shipping problems and damage claim kind of crap. Diamond Alkali was in New Jersey and was the preferred resin for layups. One of their engineers came to the factory he had little idea what a surfboard was or that their product was used in its manufacture but helped set up to improve the quality of our product dramatically.

Challenger Eastern ad of Randy Whited from 1967. Note the Schreifels Richmond Hill address, “Linden Boulevard was in full swing” like A Tribe Called Quest said, even back then.

MM: Any Bruce Springsteen encounters when you were working with Tinker?

KS: During the Steel Mill days when he was playing the Sunshine Inn and those places. This was later on when I was helping Tinker out promoting the free concerts in New Jersey. Bruce certainly impressed all of us with his innate talent for learning instruments and writing music. The biggest problem we had with his songs is that they were too long for commercial airplay. Tinker’s factory was converted into a sound studio and one of the things he offered was a place where people could come and try new things out. Tinker’s a pretty good guitar player and can spook the crap out of you on congas.  He had a lot of connections with studio musician people, bands and he built most of the electronic stuff in the studio himself. Tinker used to build the electronics for the bands he promoted, “idiot proof PA’s” as he would say, they needed it as far as he was concerned so they wouldn’t blow their investment up. During this period we also discussed a free concert in Rockaway. Several days of music by local bands and the bands on the promotion list as well as the possibility of some name bands at the time. The plan progressed very well until the permitting. We were denied and implied threats of legal action made the more reasonable among us abandon the idea of an illegal approach to the event.

Kenny Schreifels is standing dead center (dark hair), Billy Sautner is on the far right standing, Rockaway surfer/sander Ernie Vohs is next to him, Frankie Stamp is far left, Tinker is next to Frankie holding his power planer.

MM: Tinker’s factory was in the Highlands would you guys surf in New Jersey?

KS: I’ve surfed Sandy Hook and that was a trip, “bird in the hand” kind of stuff, you can spend your whole life looking for a wave which is one of the arguments I had with Pat Reen a lot. He’d like to go explore earlier on and you know how that goes, by the time you get out the wind is already on it. That was the discussion with Pat all the time. We had this favorite place to surf in Rockaway that was hard to get to, whoever went was usually all who was out surfing. Pat would sometimes drive his Volkswagen Beatle as far out as he could and then we’d walk from there through the dunes. The only problem was the terns. We’d cut through their nesting area and I remember putting the board on my head so they’d hit that instead of you when they dive bombed. They were just defending their territory.

MM: Did you eventually wind up traveling?

KS: We did that trip with Atlantic Surfing to explore Puerto Rico. There were two really good surfers in Puerto Rico the first time I went down there, Coco Lisio and Freddie Ortiz. They took us around to Wilderness and Crashboats, we didn’t do Tres Palmas but surfed Maria’s and a few other places. We stayed at an abandoned farmhouse with pigeons in the attic which they sold to local restaurants; there were milking goats and chickens everywhere. The owner said, ‘you can eat the pigeons but don’t scare my chickens or my goats.’ The eggs and milk were the main concern. It was walking distance to Maria’s and Maria was there selling Coca-Cola out of an antique Coke machine, you know one of those old coolers. Freddie and Coco made that trip a success for us; that’s for sure. Kept us out of trouble especially me in old San Juan which was a pretty spooky place back then even for a New Yorker. Just like in New York, if you don’t know where you’re going, or don’t look like you belong you can get into trouble. With Atlantic Surfing we were probably one of the first groups of people to go down there and exploit Puerto Rico and help ruin the place.

MM: Who else was on that PR trip?

KS: Pat Reen, Geri  Vartan, Billy Sautner, Frankie Stanton and I were staying at the house. Paul Chapey, the editor of Atlantic Surfing was on that trip but stayed elsewhere. Frankie got sun poisoning and we sent him home in fear he was going to die on us. We kept telling him you can’t do that shit but he wouldn’t listen. Geri almost got arrested at the airport. We’re waiting for the boards, they’re coming off the cargo belt and he jumped over a security fence, onto the tarmac and ran up a conveyor belt to get his surfboard because he thought it was going to fall, then rode back down with the board in his lap. There were no repair places or material to do a repair in Puerto Rico so he figured he wasn’t going to surf if it got dinged. Plus, Gerry was always in love with his boards, whichever one it happened to be. The police had no idea what surfboards were, they thought they were oversized water skis and once we convinced them Geri wasn’t crazy they let him go. It was on that trip I ran a rocky road with Reen trying to get our surfboards back after they’d been stolen. Pat woke me up yelling, “they’re taking our boards” and I didn’t even know where I was running but just kept seeing surfboards and put two and two together. The only board left was mine and I said, ‘you can drop the board or I’m gonna hit you with this rock.’ The guy pulled out a machete and I said, “I can hit you from here but you can’t cut me from there” and he dropped the board and left in his Spitfire. We filed a complaint with the police department the next day in Rincon and they said they’d be glad to file the complaint but nothing was going to happen to him. We described the car and they knew who it was, he was the nephew to the owner of a popular PR-based rum company. Then in the winter of ‘68 I started going to Oahu.  I was working as a lifeguard in Rockaway in the summer and would surf all winter on the North Shore until 1972. Billy Sautner had a connection through Kenny McIntyre, who was our connection to a house we leased at Sunset Beach on Kainui Road.

Kenny, Billy Sautner and Pat Reen at Sunset Beach 1969.

MM: What was the scene like, bump into any Hawaiian legends of the time?

KS: Our neighbor was Tiger Espere he had parties and luaus, the Aikau family would come to the house when Sunset was breaking because the father liked the pool. My brother had met Butch Van Artsdalen, who was a tremendous athlete and lifeguard. That first winter when Butch heard a Schreifels was living at the pool house by Sunset he stopped by, ‘you must Wally’s brother Kenny, wanna go get high and surf Rocky Point?’ I said, ‘no, how about I surf and you get high?’  ‘Ok, How about some beers then?’ Butch asked. I saw him consume probably a case of beer surfing real Sunset, 16 to 18 feet. He’d surf a few waves come in, drink a few beers and go back out again.

Sautner and Schreifels living the good life at the infamous Sunset Beach ‘pool house’ on Kainui Road.  

MM: Which other Rock guys were on that Hawaii trip?

KS: Mike Rourke, Billy Sautner, and Pat Reen stayed at the Sunset house.  Mickey McMannon and a bunch of his friends from town would come out when big surf, like Waimea was breaking. Mickey was a great help to newcomers, there was a key in a light and anybody who found out about them was welcome to stay at his place if you had nowhere to go. Make yourself at home on the couch and wait for Mickey and he would help with whatever he could.  That’s where I stayed when I was waiting for a place on the North Shore. Most of the people from Rockaway who went to Hawaii and knew of Mickey were able to stay there. As far as I know he’s still living in the same apartment in Honolulu, just an incredibly interesting guy, excellent athlete and a really good skin diver too. I went diving with him and we’re chasing this big grouper and I had to come up for air and signaled him I was going. Went up hyperventilated went back down and he was just closing in on the kill. He had problems with his lungs and was dealing with one and half lungs and here I am with two and had to come back up for air. I was thinking 'Jesus Christ this guy is not human'. When I was in Hawaii I was dating a local girl and had one of the best surfing experiences of my life at Makapuu Beach. They just had the Diamond Head festival on New Year’s, Santana had played and he was giving a free concert in the park. They had one PA set up for land and another for the ocean and I was out surfing head high waves with my girlfriend who was bodysurfing, listening to Santana play “Black Magic Woman.” It’s an experience I’ll remember for a long time. Literally the second PA was set up only for the people in the ocean. The big relief for me was going to Hawaii and seeing that people actually liked you. Surfing had some respect there. Totally different than what you got on the east coast where you were doomed to be a skell, the useless part of society. In New York old ladies would try to hit you with their canes.

MM: Seriously?

KS: I was driving down a street in Long Beach after checking the waves with my arm out of the window of my car and this old lady tried to hit me with her cane. She took a swing with her cane because we had surfboards on the roof. Another time Geri Vartan and I had a gun pulled on us in Long Beach down by the old hotel. They had a security guard who decided to confront us when we were leaving the water. Geri got him so aggravated that he pulled a gun on us and I said “what are you gonna do, shoot us?” Stupid, but back then I thought I was ten foot tall and bullet proof, now I duck and cover. We were not very well liked as surfers, we were bums, you know surfer bums anonymous and people thought you probably did drugs too.

MM: What was the drug scene like back then?
KS: Back then pot was a religious experience, it wasn’t a drug experience and people had a lot of hope for it. The upper middle class started partaking in it and the criminal element got involved because there was money to be made. That’s my take on it. Heroin, well, in New York because it’s New York. The kind of drug use was more of a function of the culture not surfing per se, but where you were. There were people in Rockaway who did heroin but some of them could survive the use while others would succumb, but that’s big city life. I don’t think surfers are immune to that. I also think truly participating in the sport the two don’t go well together, you have to be on your game especially if you’re surfing the heavy stuff. A few exceptional people got away with it.

MM: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

KS: I think there are two major liars in the world, bass fisherman and surfers. The other day we had a weak, crappy wind swell working and I looked at one place and looked at another and then found a spot at Swami's right in front of the park and figured what the hell I’ll paddle out and get some exercise. It was a beautiful day, visibility was probably forty feet, but just this little weak wind swell and it really sucked. When I came out I ran into a friend of mine who said he surfed this other place and it was really good. I never understood why people lie about that shit. What are you trying to do, make me feel bad? I went to the wrong spot? So, it's really three hundred percent better a few miles up the coast at a beach that gets the same swell direction as the one I was at? It's amazing and it’s been going on forever. You guys really missed it, should've been here yesterday.

 

Written by Mike Machemer

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