Disillusionment in the Oh Mighty Hulking Pacific: on Tom Wolfe’s “The Pump House Gang”


Illustration by Tom Wolfe for “The Pump House Gang” 

The surviving members of the original Pump House Gang and the so-called Mac Meda Destruction Company would have been happier having never met Tom Wolfe. In their now older, looser skin, aged by alcohol, drugs, life and surf, they feel as though some East Coast Dandy flew to town in a white three-piece suit and stole their stories, re-imagining them in Hi-Def Ivy-League prep-school palaver. La Jolla, and the now legendary surf counter-culture that congregated at Windansea, would forever be synonymous with Tom Wolfe’s first impression.

“The Pump House Gang” was first published in 1968 to national acclaim. In book form, it was the second major success for Tom Wolfe following The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The collection explores various American and English sub-cultural movements,  and the stories tend to imply that Wolfe has privileged access to the people he is portraying. In the case of “The Pump House Gang,” the people of La Jolla seem to disagree. An article in San Diego Magazine titled “Forgiving Tom Wolfe” revisits the people Tom Wolfe portrayed, and its clear that the community feels slighted, if not offended, by the portrait Wolfe created, and they deny the degree to which he was granted access to their group.


The Pump House, Windansea Beach, La Jolla

Wolfe’s narrative flows through legendary moments in the early years of the Pump House Gang, which is an amalgamation, according to La Jollans, of the Mac Meda Destruction Company, who occupied the parking lot north of the Pump House, and the Pump House Gang themselves, stationed at the beach near their namesake. Wolfe’s Pump House Gang comprises the young “very upper-middle” surf crowd of La Jolla, aimless in their habits, rebellious, and “tuned-in” to the “Oh Mighty Hulking Pacific.” They range in age from sixteen to twenty five (twenty-five being the terminal oh-god-kill-me-now age that the youth never expect to reach) and their skin is bronze and their hair is tan. They live out of garages and hustle for change for their “keg-parties” (we call them keggers now, and the hustling for change is currently referred to as “spanging”). Their world is the insulated small-beach-town two-car-garage free-to-have-fun bubble made possible by the cash-flush post-war era. WWII is a history lesson; Vietnam is a country nobody has heard of. 

The point-of-entry into this world is ground level, with the appearance of a black foot, a panther, what the Rocket-Power generation would refer to as a “shoobie” and what surfers have always called a “kook,” simply one who wears shoes on the beach. As Tom Wolfe describes it:


“they all look at the black feet, which are a woman’s pair of black street shoes, out of which stick a pair of old veiny white ankles, which lead up like a senile cone to a fudge of tallowy, edematous flesh, her thighs, squeezing out of her bathing suit, with old faded yellow bruises on them, which she probably got from running eight feet to catch a bus or something. She is standing with her old work-a-hubby, who has on sandals: you know, a pair of navy-blue anklet socks and these sandals with big, wide, new-smelling tan straps going this way and that, for keeps. Man, they look like orthopedic sandals, if one can imagine that.”


For the Pump House Gang, these “Panthers” are the walking-death—that awful shape that awaits their own gorgeous bodies on the other side of twenty-five. Jesus Christ of the Oh Mighty Hulking Pacific, kill me now.  


Mac Meda Destruction Company sticker

Ultimately, this is the crux of “The Pump House Gang.” It’s not about surfing, or La Jolla, The Mac Meda Destruction Company or Kit Tilden or any of his friends. It’s about the Cult of Youth—age segregation—the immunity and immortality of the immature and naive. A place in time and development that everyone is familiar with, but that was granted a special scope, vibrance, and dyanesian glory in Post-War Southern California. Within this moment in time Tom Wolfe saw its contradictions and flaws. 

Perhaps what is most offensive, and most memorable, about “The Pump House Gang” is Wolfe’s retelling of a Pump House trip to Watts during the riots. John Shine, Artie Nelander and Jerry Sterncomb take John’s VW bus to Watts. The first impression is of the kids’ recklessness and bravado as they galavant through a quasi-war zone getting piss-drunk while the cops inform them that they will not receive any protection. One imagines these white kids laughing and busting windows as they stroll through the streets, completely oblivious to the external tension and political struggle that has manifest itself in deadly violence. We feel sorry for these kids. They try to encourage the blacks to get more violent, and in the end it is clear that their own violence and actions is disturbing the black residents who just want to be left alone, but cannot escape the Mac Meda Destruction Company’s insufferable partying. 

The surviving members of the Pump House gang will tell you that these were just the antics of a group of kids looking to cause good old fashioned trouble. They weren’t racists or anything like that. Sometimes their antics were viscous or mean-spirited. They’ll admit that some of them were real assholes. But their major contention is one often present when a group is depicted through an outside perspective. These are not Tom Wolfe’s people. They are not even a part of his generation. What the people who grew up in La Jolla want to remember is the good-old-days of the golden age of surfing, when Windansea was a local’s paradise. What Wolfe points out is that even in this alcove of suburban bliss, there are still the same national tensions of race and privilege percolating towards the surface. He sees the clear lines drawn between young and old, black and white, cool and un-cool. By pointing out the moments when the Panthers cross over into Pump House Territory, or when privileged white youth infiltrate the ghetto, Wolfe makes it clear that the paradise was, and will always be, a myth of the privileged. 


Tom Wolfe’s The Pump House Gang, a collection of essays on American and English Counter-cultures.