Warren Miller: Ward Baker And The Sun Valley Parking Lot
During the winters of 1947-48, I lived with Ward Baker in the Sun Valley parking lot, in a 4x8- foot-trailer. Someone asked me last night, “Who is this guy, Ward Baker?”
Ward grew up in Manhattan Beach, Calif. I first met him while I was surfing in January, in the freezing cold waters of the South Bay near his house. I was riding my homemade, 11-foot-long, 95-pound redwood surfboard, and he was riding his homemade redwood surfboard that was about 7 feet long, very wide, and very thick redwood. It weighed nearly as much as mine did. We met in 1941, long before the invention of eight-pound, foam and fiberglass boards.
Ward was shy, but a talented swimmer, surfer, fisherman, and skin diver, plus auto mechanic who was also interested in photography. We were almost the same age and we had to register for the draft at almost the same time. We wisely enlisted in the Navy V-12 officer’s training program and wound up together at USC for our initial training.
In a phone conversation with Ward today at his home in Maui, he said, “I used to be 5’10” but I’ve shrunk two inches in the last 20 years, although I still weigh the same as I did in high school…165 pounds.” Ward has always been a good-looking guy, known now as a “chick magnet.”
During the winter of 1944-45, I had a week’s leave from the Navy over Christmas and talked Ward into going to Yosemite with me to go skiing. He brought along his 8mm movie camera, and our surfing ability helped us with our skiing. By the time we left Yosemite, four days later, we were making turns on the so-called Big Hill. We loved this skiing thing because unlike surfing, there were a lot of pretty girls we could not keep up with. Ward went back to the beach when we got home and I went back to Kwajalein for another tour of duty, on yet another small ship.
When I got discharged in 1946, we got back surfing together and took 8mm movies of each other. We both had cameras by then. About this time I found a $200 house trailer that had a bed and an outdoor kitchen in the back. What else did anyone need for survival in minus 10 degrees in a parking lot?
Ward was an amazing automobile mechanic who kept my ancient Buick running, no matter what went wrong with it. He also owned a pair of Army surplus down sleeping bags, which he bought for $7 each, as well as an over/under 410/22, and a 22, so we could eat whatever we could shoot.
Ward was very easy going and it seemed as though nothing could rattle him on the 2-3 week trip that lasted five months, skiing every day. We kept a fairly accurate diary of our adventures, but more important, we wrote down any money we spent for food and gasoline. Ward was as much of a pinchpenny as I was. I think people today would call us cheap, but looking back on our record of expenses, cheap or not, we were able to ski all winter. One entry was; oatmeal, milk, bread, peanut butter, one pound of hamburger, five pounds of potatoes, for $1.87. Another from Glenwood Springs; gasoline: 18 gallons X 17cents a gallon =$3.06.
We traveled and skied together on the cheapskate level for two winters. The second winter, Ward rode the Trailways bus home two weeks early to get in shape to take the lifeguard test. He had to swim around the Manhattan Beach Pier and was told by the lieutenant, “If you want to get the job, make sure that you do not beat Esther Williams.” Ward got the job and had to patrol the beach from the Hermosa Pier to the Redondo Breakwater by himself. No phone, no truck.
Several years later he was stationed in Manhattan Beach. It was in the late forties when United Airlines stewardesses (my wife was a stew…and says she prefers being called a stewardess, they had so much more fun than the flight attendants of today) went on strike and a half dozen of them started hanging around his lifeguard tower. He wisely chased one of them, a very pretty lady, named Jackie. They have been married ever since.
Two children later, Ward was doing a lot of fishing, as well as keeping his lifeguarding job, but he was interested in becoming a full-time fisherman. Ten days after their second child was born, he took a job on a tuna boat operating out of a small harbor south of the equator in Peru, much to the surprise of his wife and family, who preferred he stay home.
Ward described the place as a small town where they had a 20-watt generator for the entire town, and it ran for two hours every evening. He had a friend in town that was 42 years old, and had never seen a drop of rain fall out of the sky. It was a town where the mortality rate from typhoid fever for children under ten years old was 50 percent.
Fishing was not easy because it depended on the size of the tuna caught. There would be one, two, or three fisherman and their poles in a line, all joined to a single hook with a feather jig. Each fisherman wore a crash helmet so that when a tuna was caught on a hook, they would all give a yank in unison and throw the two hundred pound tuna over their heads into the boat. It was dangerous and hard work but Ward stuck it out, while I continued to ski and teach skiing in Sun Valley and Squaw Valley.
He had bought a lot in Hollywood Riviera, between Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes before he went to Peru. He stayed in Peru for more than 18 months so that all of his income could be brought back to America tax-free…at least it could be then. When he got back, he hired a friend to help him build his house in the South Bay, where he had grown up. He spent the next 15 or 20 years maintaining all of the machinery in a rock crushing plant.
He finally gave that up and moved to Maui, where he and Jackie still live today. When I talked with him he was complaining that with the population explosion in Hawaii, overfishing and scuba divers have eaten all of the fish down to a depth of 60 feet.
Ward never liked to use scuba gear because it weighed so much and was hard to carry up and down the cliffs in Palos Verdes so he just started, and continued, to free dive all these years, originally with a face plate he made himself, and his fins. His complaint was, “I used to be able to go down below 85 feet and stay there and spear a fish for dinner…and I could stay for three and half minutes. Today I can only go down about 65 feet, and stay down for only two and a half minutes.”
Our phone call ended when he said he had to trim the coconuts off of a tree in the back yard before they fell and hurt someone. He said the tree was 70 feet high, and yes, he climbs up and cuts the coconuts himself. Ward, like me, is nearly 88 years old. I asked him how he did it, and he said, “I tie my ankles together, and shimmy up the tree,” just as he did when he was a kid.
After spending two cheapskate winters in the parking lot with me, Ward only went skiing one more time in his life. His comment was, “It was too much of a hassle for me.” But I wonder if he wasn’t thrilled about the ski bum life we were experiencing. That trailer must have been pretty smelly by spring.
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Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller