Who recalls “the thumb”?
Do you even know what I’m talking about? The thumb is old-timer stuff, a gesture of yesteryear, a token of recognition and kinship. A lost token.
The first time I spotted it was on the Goolwa road, in the final minutes of the long drive South from the Northern suburbs where I lived in the early 80’s. A bearded bloke in a faded, rust-stained HQ Holden station wagon held his hand above the steering wheel as we passed, making a thumbs down motion. My mate in the passenger seat saw it. “What’s that guy on about?”, he asked everyone else in the car. I saw it too, but I was equally clueless.
Moments later we pulled up in the Goolwa car park, to find a 15-knot sou-easter, and murky water dappled with a disgusting looking brown scum we’d later come to know all-too-well. The surf looked utterly dreadful, 2 – 3 foot of brown, shapeless foam and a distinct but unpleasant whiff carried by the cross-onshore breeze. But we suited up and paddled out anyway, because, well because you did… and it might be two weeks before we got back down there again. And it was terrible but we had fun anyway, and we consoled ourselves with a feed at the Goolwa fish and chip shop afterward.
On the way home we saw a Falcon station wagon with a couple of boards on the roof headed toward Goolwa, and my quick thinking mate held up his hand, thumb pointed toward the floor. The Falcon driver acknowledged us with a barely perceptible lift of his index finger off the wheel. That day, something clicked.
One subsequent trip we headed to Middleton, and as we pulled onto Flagstaff Hill Rd, two dudes in a Hiace Van coming the other way were clearly frothing. The driver took both hands off the wheel for a double thumbs-up, and the passenger was positively bouncing off the seat like Iggy Pop on Countdown. Immediately we started hooting and mind-surfing what we hoped would be an epic afternoon of waves. We headed straight to the Bay, to find a 15 knot Nor-wester and heaving closeouts cleaning up the 20 guys out there every 4 or 5 minutes. There was a crazy sweep running toward Goolwa and nobody could stay put. A kneelo caught a screaming left-hander, but he paid dearly for not kicking out in time and was dragged mercilessly over the rocks East of the keyhole. We watched him stagger back up the path like the walking wounded, red wine oozing from a gash in his forehead. We’d never seen it break like that before. We tried to get out at Day St, but after the 280th duckdive and the third wash-in, we all gave up. As always, the Middleton Fish and Chip shop was waiting for us.
Over the years I gave and received the thumb, always on the drive South but also many times on the Daly Heads Road or coming into Stenhouse bay. There was nothing like heading up the rise from the Ranger Station and getting the thumbs up from a carload of frothers coming the other way. Moments later you’d behold Chi’s winding off mechanically at 6 – 8ft. The thumb was part and parcel of those early days… but then… one day it wasn’t. It’s hard to say what changed, or exactly when… but for some reason, and in a short space of time “the thumb” just stopped being a thing. I think I made some half-hearted efforts in the late 90’s, but most people I passed didn’t even acknowledge me. Eventually, I just stopped, probably much later than everyone else did.
Many times I’ve speculated on the demise of “the thumb”, but I can’t really pin it down to any one thing. Once upon a time, a surfer’s car was easy to spot because carrying surfboards and surfers around was the vehicle’s prime directive. Now every second car is a near-identical looking SUV that may or may not have one or more boards inside. Once upon a time spotting a fellow surfer was quite a novelty, a cause for a mini-celebration of sorts regardless of how cool you tried to appear outwardly. Now EVERYONE surfs. Or at least claims to. Or used to. Has that in turn made surfers more selfish? Maybe… or maybe it’s the sheer logistics of giving a thumbs up to 374 cars between The Middleton IGA and the Old Noarlunga turn-off on an average Sunday in January. Maybe the fall of the thumb is in response to the rise of the “shaka”, which became the go-to surfer gesture by the late 80’s. Maybe it just became plain uncool and fell from fashion.
In any case, the thumb has probably gone forever, and I think we lost something with it. We lost a sense of brother/sisterhood, and a mutual mark of respect. We lost a free, unselfish sharing of stoke or commiseration from someone else who “gets it”. I’d go so far as to say we gave up on a tradition.
I’m glad I gave out as many as I got, so if you ever chucked a thumbs up my way, then thank you, brother or sister!
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