The Wedge is a spot at the end of Balboa Peninsula in southern California. Located at the east end of Newport beach the place is a surfer’s paradise and a spot anyone with any sense, would stay out of. When conditions are right, a steeply rising sandy bottom causes waves to rise to 30-feet and more. Great, curling monsters breaking onto the shore with such force the outgoing water alone creates a surf and a backwash so powerful as be a danger, to the strongest of swimmers.
Wally O’Connor was a four-time Olympiad, a competition swimmer and water polo player inducted in 1976, into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame. Long before that, he stood at the entrance of Newport Harbor admiring The Wedge, and what may have been some of the biggest waves he had ever seen.
O’Connor turned to his friend Marion and said I’ll take the first pass. “Watch and learn”.
O’Connor stood at the crest of a wave of his own at this time, a craze that was sweeping the west coast surfing crowd. Body surfing. The man didn’t invent the sport but his strength and skill was capable of drawing crowds on the beach.
Marion hated that name. As a boy, he was rarely seen outside the company of his best buddy, a large Airedale terrier, named Duke. Local firefighters took to calling him “Little Duke” and the name stuck.
Now years later on that day at Newport Beach, Marion Mitchell lit another Camel, and watched. It was easy to see why Wally had won Olympic gold in Paris, back in 1924. Powerful strokes brought his friend out to 100 yards where, diving into the face of an oncoming wave, he sprang from the bottom to emerge at the curl of a giant breaker, not on the crest but in it, speeding to the shore like Superman with one arm out straight and the other, tucked behind.
Wally was flying, not on but of the water, his body staying just ahead of the thunderous crash that hurled him forward like a spear where he glided, grinning, onto the sand. Like a seal.
For Duke, that ride was heart pounding. Electric. An upper Midwest kid who had moved with his family to southern California where he now played football, on a scholarship to the University of Southern California. Duke was well accustomed to the adrenaline, the bone crunching action of college football but this, was something different. This looked like human flight itself and no power on earth was going to keep him from it.
Though himself powerfully built, Duke wasn’t the swimmer that Wally was. The water wasn’t his home but, there he was, strong if ungraceful strokes bringing him out to where Wally had launched that virtuoso performance.
Waiting for a wave as big as Wally’s he too dove into its towering base, springing from the bottom to emerge from the crest and, for a moment, to fly.
And that is where the similarity, ends. One must have exquisite timing to do this at this level, to be at just the right place where the thundering crash of the water hurls you forward and not down, toward the bottom.
Duke hit solid ground with the force of a car wreck. He could literally hear his collarbone break, feel the shoulder dislocate with the terrific force, of that impact.
The other thing he could almost hear was the sound of a football scholarship, crashing to an end. Of the end of USC and the promising law career that would never be.
Duke emerged alive from the water that day but not so, his future plans. With the end of that scholarship he was left no choice but to drop out. Duke left USC never to return and took a job. A prop man, at 20th Century Fox.
There, Director Raoul Walsh saw Marion moving studio furniture and thought, this guy would be better in front of the camera, than behind it.
So it is, one of the great leading male actors of the age of film, met with reporters some 35 years later, in the living room of his Encino home. He spoke with them of his lung cancer, only four days out of major surgery, though he didn’t call it that. With four ribs and a lung removed and stitches pulling loose even now he called it “The Big C”, assuring reporters it was no big deal. Soon, he’d be back in the saddle.
That he did, going on to appear in 24 feature films over the next 12 years until finally, the Big C returned. This time there would be no encore. The man who shot Liberty Valance born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, died on June 11, 1979, at the age of 72.
So it is we remember his name, the man the LA Times once called a “$35-a-week prop department flunky” who performed in over 200 feature films, all because of a body surfing accident, in 1926.
Happy birthday, John Wayne.
Hat tip Mike Rowe for this story and his excellent podcast, The Way I Heard It.