Marine Stadium Leeches...

August 13, 2017

It’s a cold foggy Tuesday morning in the dead of winter and Marine Stadium is empty. 

 

The same Marine Stadium that has become world renowned since its inception before the 1930 Olympics; the Marine Stadium that’s seen Olympic gold medals in rowing, national championship drag boat races, world record waterskiing times, and crowds into the fifteen thousands… 

 

The Marine Stadium that projects the roars of a summer stadium crowd so loud they tickle the ears of residents from 90803 to 90808…

 

That Marine Stadium.

 

It’s quiet, silent and empty except for a guy named Wayne Wilms, who’s rigging a clothesline between a city parking sign and an old home-made “Easy-up Tent” with four wooden legs.  Setting up camp.

 

It’s too foggy to see the water while standing on the sand. Never mind 15 feet down to the stadium. But the others know exactly where to find him. After all, the routine’s been going on for a long time, about 8 years or 48 depending on who you are and how you look at it.  The exact spot here even has a name: Scrogs Landing. A guy named Lou coined that...

Leeches enjoy company at Scrogs Landing on a Tuesday waiting for their next pull in Marine Stadium

 

In about 30 minutes the fog will clear revealing a spectacular view. The sun will begin rising over the calm, crisp, glassy 

stadium surface. Between 9am and 3pm about 20 - 30 diehard skiers will mosey in and out of the stadium, sit under the tent, share stories, eat lunch, play cards and take turns skiing behind Wayne’s boat.

 

The “Leech Club,” as they call themselves, is a Long Beach Water Ski group as unique, impressive, notable and perhaps as under-the-radar as Marine Stadium itself.

 

If there were memorable summer times at Marine Stadium over the past 50 years, these are the guys who would know. For them, it started in the early 1970’s. They were at the stadium pretty much every day back then giving the club its name, “leeching” water ski pulls from unsuspecting boat owners. Wayne and the other members reminisce about that long-ago heyday for waterskiing. The stadium was always packed, 20 to 30 boats full all spring and summer long.

 

Perfect for Leeches.  

 

“All they can do is say NO!” reads the club motto printed all over members’ T-shirts and patches. The young men were in their 20’s back then, and good at what they did – both the asking-for-rides part, and the skiing part.  

 

They even had a Leech Club Code of Conduct: Always offer five bucks and ask for two laps and no more. It was a sucker’s offer though and the Leeches knew it. They always had a “free ride coupon” the boat owners wouldn’t know about. It was called skill. These guys were good.

 

Once boaters gave them one pull, the rest of the day was usually free. If you liked water-skiing at all this was the group you wanted to watch. They rode at high speeds, jetted side-to-side, and pioneered cutting edge tricks. But, once they kicked off their skis and went barefoot, it was game over for the driver. 

 

Some of the best barefooters in the history of the sport are Leech Club members, now in their sixties and seventies. On any given Tuesday, these skiers can be found at Marine Stadium sharing stories, feats, resumes and world records with one another. Stories that, if known, would make the joggers, strollers, and general passers-by drop their jaws and pull up a chair.  Of course, no one does because, well, they don’t know. Shame, because they’d be welcome to join the group too. Turns out these “leeches” don’t quite live up to their name these days. The group’s gone-all generous in their older age.

 

But before we get too far into the lives of today’s Leeches - guys like Lee Squier, Stan Leder, Wayne Wilms, Craig Vestermark, Charlie Saunders and Greg Jones - we have to talk about the guy who started it all.

 

The Godfather. 

The brawny, barefootin’, bartender. 

The welcoming, wavy-haired, Italian.

The original “scrog” with a personality that can’t be forgotten.  

Lou Arzio.

Big Lou. 

The Great Luigi.  

 

Before Taco-Tuesday, Super-Tuesday, two-for-Tuesday or anything else, Tuesday’s were “Lou’s Days” at Marine Stadium, Long Beach. There’s really only one reason so many water ski legends and local greats gather at Marine Stadium every Tuesday even in the dead of winter to slice up the glassy water: Lou Arzio.

 

The Leech Club is Long Beach through and through. Guys like Greg Jones and Craig Vestermark, multi-generational Long Beach folks. Lou Arzio was not a Long Beach guy. He was a bartender from the San Fernando Valley and Tuesday was his day off…or his day on, depending on how you look at it. Tuesday’s were, and always will be, Lou’s days.  

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Simply put, for a group of Leechers, Lou was the find of a lifetime. A blood donor.

 

Much of what are Tuesday rituals today at Marine Stadium still mirror what Lou began in the early 1970’s. He would drive down from The Valley early in the morning, 8 a.m. or so, bringing his boat, his hibachi grill, and his personality.

 

“Outgoing, gregarious, yet extremely patient and sincere,” that’s how Lou’s son Tony describes his dad. “It was like growing up with a dad who was a celebrity.”

 

Lou seemed to know everyone who strapped skis to their feet in the Southern California waters. He introduced many of them to the sport; probably over 1,000. He tended bar by trade and would invite anyone who showed vague interest in the sport to come out on his boat. His original stomping grounds were out at Hansen Dam. But after a horrid winter in ’69 and ’70 closed that lake down for good, Lou Arzio was introduced to the golden waters of Marine Stadium. The Glassy Oval.

 

He drove his boat down all by himself one Tuesday, parked it in the river, and hoped for the best. 

 

Lou met Gary Covert first, who eventually introduced him to the rest of the gang. Thus began a legendary decade of Tuesdays. The Leeches were in their 20’s and they were down at the stadium almost every day. But their favorite was always Lou’s Day. Tuesday, when they soaked up the wonders of this amazing man Lou, almost triple their age, who was so, so cool.

 

Today when the Leeches talk about Lou their deep admiration for him resonates. There have been lots of additions to the Tuesday crew since the original Leech Club, both guys and gals, all with impressive water ski achievements. But something peculiar happens when you ask about Lou, the now-deceased Long Beach Legend. A certain respect. Or hierarchy. Not just for Lou, but for the guys who knew him.  

 

It’s like you’re a little bit cooler if you knew Lou. And if you knew him well, or for a long time, you’re that much cooler.

 

Wayne Wilms is cool. He knew Lou well. 

 

Wayne’s the guy who drives his boat down now and waits for the others to show. By all accounts Wayne shares a dedication to the sport and special patience for encouraging others, just like Lou. You won’t see him grilling burgers and dogs on the beach anymore…the city put a stop to that. But you will see him passing around bowls of fruit and snacks, inviting everyone to dig in. Around 11:30 am Bill McQuaid shows up with pizza from Costco, and the group eats lunch. “Pizza Bill” they yell out, as if his name is “Norm!”

 

Just like Lou, Wayne drives the boat for most of the day, giving the others pulls. Twenty or thirty skiers might roll through on a given Tuesday, but not all at once. The morning crew comes and staggers out. The lunch crew rolls in, and eventually the afternooners. Wayne stays. 

 

Around 2:00 or so, if the skiers are content, they’ll park the boat and pull out cards. Gin or Hearts are the games of choice. But if someone needs a pull, Wayne or one of the others is back in the boat. 

 

Like Lou, Wayne doesn’t do much skiing anymore. He’s content to host the others. But it’s not because he can’t ski anymore. He’s still damn good. He can barefoot, one foot, you name it. Some days he does more than others. And every Tuesday he does at least two laps.

 

The two laps are a tribute to Lou. And during the two laps he does a trick that none of the others can do. Just Lou and Wayne. It’s called the Great Luigi, and Wayne only started doing it after Lou passed. The routine is a sight to behold. 

 

 

Wayne is a salt water beach rat, from a German background. But watch his routine and it’s like you’re watching the Italian Stallion himself.

 

The boat takes off and he starts by getting his hands wet and slicking back his hair,  shrugging his shoulders, licking his lips, and cranking his neck. The fellas on the shore smile at the tribute to ole Lou. He slaloms then bends his knees. One side, then the other side. Slaloms then bends his knees. The driver of the boat starts laughing. He twists his waist, raises his hands, and does just about every other grandiose Italian physical movement you can imagine. His body language screams Luigi. 

 

But don’t be fooled and think it’s just a pantomime act. As the boat makes its turn down by Marina Vista Park, it picks up speed and turns into a straightaway. Wayne (or Lou, it’s hard to tell at this point), brings his right foot out of the ski, balances on his left, kicks his right foot into the air, and puts the rope in his mouth with his hands out to the side. The flying Luigi.

 

The crowd on the shore gives him a standing ovation fully orchestrated with high pitch whistles and yells. Tuesday Lou’s Day lives on for one more week.

 

Why do I get the feeling one day in the future a group like this one will be paying tribute to Wednesday Wayne’s day?

 

 

***

 

The 70’s at Marine Stadium were a heck of a time.  

 

As far as a particular “summer to remember” goes, Craig Vestermark makes his case.  

 

Craig wasn’t part of the Leech Club back then, just because he grew up in a different group of friends. But he was still down there every day leeching rides. He just didn’t have a patch with a name. It was only a matter of time till he linked up with these other guys though. They share the passion.

 

Craig would tell you the summer of ’72 was the one. The year he became world record barefoot skier twice in 3 months. First, in Bakersfield clocking at 72mph. Three months later Craig went head to head with the world record barefoot skier from Australia. And won. Taking the win by 4mph and representing the United States at the World Championships held at the Long Beach Marine Stadium. It was the biggest crowd he’s ever seen in Marine Stadium at one time. And keep in mind there have been lots of them.

 

The National Drag Association allotted 10,000 tickets for the event and sold out in minutes.  Unsure of what else to do they started collecting 5 bucks from the oncoming crowds.  An estimated 18,000 showed up to Marine Stadium that day to watch the races, the highlight being The American… the Long Beachian… the local…Craig Vestermark setting the world record in barefoot speed topping out at 88mph. The stadium was so packed the people were standing 10 deep in the water.

Craig Vestermark after barefoot racing in front of a huge Marine Stadium crowd in 1976 Championships

 

 

The others nod in agreement with Craig’s account. They were all there. It was a huge deal back then.

 

They sit now around a booth at The Crooked Duck on PCH reminiscing about those days of packed races. They were all so cool. This one was the best. 

 

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” explains Craig.

 

He would know, having put on and organized a number of the largest races Marine Stadium has ever seen himself.

 

Greg Jones won’t argue that summers skiing on the stadium were something to remember, especially in ’74. After all, he and his two buddies were renting a house right on Appian facing the stadium. The stadium was packed with skiers every day and huge crowds every weekend. He was the one throwing parties on his rooftop, blasting rock ‘n roll music and generally partying like it was 1974. 

 

There’s even a picture that was published in Water Ways magazine of a huge ski race going on where the crowd is looking up at the Jones roof party instead of the race. Now that’s a summer to remember… although Jones gets a little tight-lipped these days when asked exactly what everyone was looking at up there. The group at Crooked Duck laughs.

 

Charlie Saunders, a habitual Tuesday skier, starts passing around old photos from Marine Stadium and the group continues to reminisce. They keep mentioning a guy named “Coach” who has passed away now.  

 

Who was he?

“He was the biggest Leech of us all!”

Why do you call him coach?

“Because he somehow retired when he young and we wanted him to coach the rest of us on how!”

 

The owner of Crooked Duck, Joey Rooney, had never heard of the Leech Club or Tuesday’s Lou’s Day, or any of that when he opened his water-ski themed restaurant in 2011.

From left to right: Craig Vestermark, Joey Rooney, Wayne Wilms, Charlie Saunders, Stan Leder, Greg Jones, and Lee Squier meet at The Crooked Duck to share water ski stories and summers to remember at Marine Stadium

 

“Wayne stopped by one day a few months after we opened, looked at all the skis hanging from the walls and asked to talk to me,” Joey explains. “As soon as I said hi, he said, ‘We water ski Tuesday’s at Marine Stadium. Be there!’ and he walked out!”

 

And so the Leech Club grew by one more. Sounds like a classic “Lou Arzio” move by Wayne. Rooney got to join a great group and acquire a bunch more cool water ski paraphernalia to hang in his restaurant.

 

Lee Squier and Stan Leder are also more recent additions to Tuesday Lou’s Day. They love skiing every Tuesday with people just as passionate about the sport as them.

Lee Squier would tell you his most memorable summer was when he won the Catalina Ski Race in 1993 at age 40 against a field of the greatest high-speed skiers in the world. Much like Vestermark’s record, it was that much sweeter to see the local Long Beach guy beat an international class.

 

Lee also set the record for age 60+ running the Catalina ski race in 2014. He went to Catalina and back in 55 minutes; the first senior to ever break the hour-mark. He lowered the record by 18 minutes.

 

Lee was once victim of a brutal water ski accident where the rope snapped back at him one time when he was driving the boat. He lost all his teeth. The guys love hearing that story. In fact they tell a lot of stories about their own incidents and injuries, and their friends’ incidents and injuries. It’s enough to keep a listener away from the water for good!

 

So why do these veterans keep skiing even though they’ve all been hurt, and the sport has even killed some of their friends?  

 

“Passion,” says Stan Leder.  

 

Stan is 77 years old but looks like he’s in his 40’s or 50’s. He’s been a part of the Catalina Ski-Race for 45 years. Thirty years skiing and 15 years spotting from the boat…since his hip-replacement.

 

His most memorable Catalina Ski Race was when he was riding in a boat in 2015, spotting for a guy that was skiing right next to a huge whale at one point. 

 

“Show ‘em the picture,” the others yell. It’s pretty incredible.

 

 A helicopter took a picture of the guy skiing right next to the beast. They were going too fast to notice at the time.

Look closely to see a huge whale underneath a skier during the 2015 Catalina Ski Race. Current Lou’s Day attendee Stan Leder was in the boat for this skier. Luckily no accident occurred

 

 

Back to injuries and travesties, Stan mentions that the skier dies later that year during an Australian race.

 

Passion. 

 

Wayne sums it up, “He died doing what he loved.”

 

Craig interrupts a downward spiraling conversation with one of his classic funny stories. This one’s about a summer in the 70’s when he and his dog were down at the stadium leeching rides. His dog got so riled up at the site of one woman skier that it chased her as she started taking off, caught up with her, jumped up, and ripped the bikini off the lady! 

 

The guys erupt in laughter. “She was so pissed!”

 

They could sit and share stories all day. And they do. Every Tuesday.

 

Marine Stadium is one of those Long Beach landmarks that’s integral to the city’s history. It’s another local treasure that keeps people connected. Tied to their life here.

 

The stadium itself has been a constant in our city’s history. Not really changing since its inception in the 1930s. The developments and culture around the stadium have changed. The people who go in and out of the stadium, the boats that cycle through, the speeds and technologies have changed, but the stadium has stayed right where it always was. Same water, same straightaway.

 

For the Leeches who lived at the stadium in the 1970’s, they were on an endless summer. They probably thought they’d never stop their routine. Every day at the stadium, every Tuesday with Lou.

 

But like most young adults who think they have it made, more important things took the Leeches away from Marine Stadium for a number of years. Not totally away, they still all skied, but it was never quite like it was in the 70’s. Families, jobs and careers, made skiing a luxury and not a routine.

 

When Lou passed away in 1993, the crew got together again. And a big crew it was. Lou’s son Tony couldn’t think of anywhere else to hold a memorial service for his dad other than Marine Stadium. So that’s what they did.

 

Lou’s son Tony stepped away from the sport pretty much altogether after his dad’s passing. He didn’t see any of the guys for 15 years after that service.

 

Then one day in 2008, Tony found himself down in Long Beach for his work, at a boating convention. Grabbing dinner at Tequila Jacks of all places, he found himself in a conversation with another gentleman who was talking about Marine Stadium.

 

“You know Wayne Wilms?” the guys asked Tony.

 

Tony said yeah, but he hadn’t seen Wayne in years. Tony got Wayne’s number and the two started reminiscing. Then Wayne told Tony something that made him swell with emotion and pride. Wayne was retiring in 2009 and he said as soon as he did, he was going to start parking his boat down at the stadium on Lou’s Days.

 

And every Tuesday since 2009, Wayne has been good to his word. With a patience and sincerity just like Lou, Wayne’s routine has built the Leech Club back up to what it was in the 70’s. Most of these guys now with their kids grown, some retired, some newcomers, some don’t even ski anymore. But they’ve found their way down to Marine Stadium every Tuesday to keep the tradition going.

 

They understand the cycle of the stadium and know now it’s their time to give rides to any leeches who show up with nothing but a ski and ambition. The summertime will be packed with that new generation. But until then, school is in session and the stadium is empty except for Wayne’s boat.

Sometimes old Leech Club members who have moved to other states will even show up. If they’re in Long Beach on a Tuesday, it’s like old times. They know exactly where to go.

 

Lou coined the spot they meet “Scrog’s Landing.” The word “Scrog” came from Lou’s past service days when he was stationed in the Philippines during World War II. He came back with the word he had learned from the locals; it means friendship.

 

No surprise that the affable Italian made friends with the locals while he was there. Who knows, maybe there’s even a group of old Filipino locals that gather every Tuesday to honor the man that changed their lives.

 

What we do know is that Long Beach folklore had a gem in Lou. And we live in a rare moment, where anyone can go relive some of the greatest Marine Stadium memories in Long Beach history, and all they have to do is head down there on a Tuesday and come as a friend.

 

If you get there early, show faith. The others will come.

 

Look for Wayne wearing a white bucket hat or one of the others passing around a bowl of pineapples on the beach. Offer them $5 and ask for two laps around the stadium.  

 

Remember, all they can do is say “no!”

Official rules of the very unofficial Marine Stadium Leech Club

 

 

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