Surfing and the Civil War: Local embraces multi-faceted lifestyle

Paul Lopes, a long-time surfer and Civil War re-enactor, at Bandidos in Myrtle Beach.
Paul Lopes, a long-time surfer and Civil War re-enactor, at Bandidos in Myrtle Beach. For The Sun News

Paul Lopes, 60, is so multifaceted that he can’t easily be pigeonholed. He is laid back and driven at the same time, blessed with an innate kindness and a disarming smile that seems to draw people in and put them at ease – and a work ethic firmly rooted in self-determination.

If you peg him as a surfer, you would be right. You might have run into him at Civil War reenactments, or he could have been the guy who finally solved a daunting construction challenge for you. He might have been the server taking your order at Thoroughbreds Chophouse & Seafood Grille, Banditos Restaurant and Cantina or Travinia Italian Kitchen.

Over the years, he has worn so many hats and deftly juggled so many vocations and avocations that it would make some folks wonder how he has managed to hold everything together.

A self-proclaimed Army brat, Lopes was born in London, spent his childhood in Hawaii and grew up in stints between California and Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

He learned to surf in Hawaii when he was 7 or 8.

“That’s what you did in Hawaii,” he said, adding that his family lived in Honolulu, not far from Waikiki.

“My dad took me to a place that was kind of like a pier. I didn’t know how to swim, and he just threw me in the water. Of course, there were relatives around, but that’s where I learned. A couple of weeks later, I was on a surfboard.”

Lopes once hitchhiked across the country, something he said couldn’t be done today. He said he left California with a box of cereal, three oranges and four Hawaiian shirts. Highlights from that trip included hanging out on a Navajo reservation, seeing a fresh-faced Olivia Newton-John open for Mac Davis at Oral Roberts University [her first tour in America], rolling along with a threshing crew while they cut huge swatches of wheat from state-to-state in the Midwest and briefly attending Oklahoma State University.

He was also on hand for Evel Knievel’s iconic jump at the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in 1974.

“He did make it – for all of those naysayers out there who say he didn’t. The wind blew him back,” he said.

Myrtle Beach had always been a destination for Lopes. He and friends would constantly be driving to the coast from Fort Bragg, either to Carolina Beach, N.C., or the Grand Strand.

He sometimes did weekend work for friends in the burgeoning surfboard industry here. He worked at the Goodyear factory in Fayetteville, N.C., for 14 years and once had a small inland surf shop there. For a time, he was involved in early design work for wakeboards, knee-boards and Skurfer boards, which are small fiberglass boards similar to surfboards and used as an alternative to water skis.

“I did a lot of bits of work on design and fiberglass work, and I probably have it in my veins,” he said. “I grew up in the fiberglass era and did Corvettes, boats, planes, motorcycles – anything to make something special out of fiberglass.”

He finally decided to move here in 2001, and through a connection with a friend, ended up working on the first model homes at Grande Dunes.

“We did all of the custom wallcoverings in those model homes when Grande Dunes came out of the ground.”

This led to other jobs in the building trades, and folks were eager to have him.

“What happens in Myrtle Beach is that somebody retires from somewhere, comes to the beach and decides to open up a little business – doing what they retired from,” he said. “They end up on the golf course or the local pub – and you can’t get them to go to work. Nobody shows up, no matter how much money you pay them.”

The Grande Dunes jobs paid well, but this was the result of hard work. “We did what needed to be done in those homes and then we took some time off. You work a couple of months and then you can goof off.”

But because of this pattern of work and play, Lopes decided that he had too much free time. Restaurant work was the magic bullet.

“I needed to calm down, so I went and got a job at Thoroughbreds,” he said, adding that he worked in several capacities there and was the caretaker for a long time.

From there, Lopes said he went to help build Banditos on the Boardwalk – involved in the actual construction of the restaurant. “When it opened, I was one of the original service managers – and I’m still there in a scaled-down position. Having been there from the beginning and doing as much as I can to help the people that own and run the place, it’s home.”

But he feels the same familial ties to Thoroughbreds and now Travinia Italian Kitchen. He said he used to enjoy bartending, but just doesn’t love the hours, so he went back to serving.

“During the season, it’s reasonable money,” he said. “You can’t complain about it, and there’s nothing to stress about. I also do it to clear my mind – and while that’s going on, other things are going through my mind in the creative process.”

Gardiner Lawrence, general manager of Travinia Italian Kitchen, first met Lopes in 2005 when Lawrence became a bartender at Thoroughbreds.

“We became really good friends,” he said, adding that Lopes has since become one of his servers at Travinia. Lawrence also relies on what he says is Lopes’ genius for fixing things.

“Paul is probably one of the kindest men I have ever met in my life. He is always there and is very reliable. He will give you the shirt off his back if he can.”

Surfing in Myrtle Beach is an exercise in patience.

“The way East Coast surf is, you really have to be ready,” he said. “It can go from perfection to flat in 45 minutes. It’s like sitting in a deer stand, waiting for the right one.”

Lopes attests that Cape Hatteras is the best bet for surfers on a local level.

“It’s not the consistency of the West Coast or as good as Florida can get most of the time, but it’s as good as we are going to get without getting on a plane.”

He recounted a story about the contrast between weather and waves in Myrtle Beach and Costa Rica one February.

“We surfed here in full wetsuits and 30-degree water, and the next day we were on a plane to Costa Rica, and it was 70-degree water and 80 degrees outside – and then came back here, back into wetsuits for some surf that came out of nowhere.”

Local surfboard shaper Gary Wilson of Kinetic Surf Designs/Surf City Surf Shop in Myrtle Beach said he has known Lopes since the mid-1980s.

“We probably met at Surf City or out on the beach,” he said. “He would come to Myrtle Beach just about every weekend during those days, and he was always making surfboards too at different periods. He would buy materials from me because I’ve been in various mini-warehouses across this beach.”

His takeaway quality about Lopes is his positivity.

“He will never say a bad word about anybody. He is just always positive and a good guy.”

Although he has always been interested in history, Lopes said he drifted into Civil War reenacting through a random conversation with a bartender at Thoroughbreds who put him in touch with a roommate who was involved in the hobby. That was 15 years ago.

Lopes is captain of a group called the 1st South Carolina Infantry “Horry Rebels.”

“A bunch of guys get together and we go re-enact the Civil War,” he said, adding that camping is involved and he jokingly calls it NASCAR with guns – in period clothing.

“You are wearing wool and different things, and you are in essence living a story. There is a lot of travel involved, and you re-enact actual battles as best as you can.”

He said the re-enacting community is worldwide and certainly not limited to the Civil War, running the gamut from cavemen to Star Wars.

In his particular niche, Lopes said he has done every major battle.

“We just completed the five-year cycle – the 150th anniversary, and we started with the bombing of Fort Sumter. We got up at three or four in the morning and started firing cannons at the fort – and the fort replied with colored searchlights. It was very special, and the people that were there to do that re-enactment were from all over the world. We are still in contact.”

What he said he enjoys most is the camaraderie and the mutual love of that historic period – and representing as correctly as possible what it was like to be a soldier in that era.

Does this mean that there are no modern conveniences to be had?

“You can take the family in a motor home and eat steaks, drink beer and watch TV all night – or you can grovel down in a hole in the dirt and eat nothing for the weekend. It’s about the extent of your involvement, and there are niches within niches.”

About 13 years ago, Lopes began making high-end, era-specific knapsacks for others in the hobby. He became inspired when a little kid came trotting up to him at a re-enactment in Tennessee, showing off a knapsack.

“He took it off his back and showed it to me, and I’m looking at this – a wooden frame with some canvas on it. It’s been painted and it’s got some leather straps on it.”

He went home and made a knapsack. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it drew attention at the next re-enactment. A couple of people asked if he could make one for them – and he knew he was on to something.

He went into research mode, and for the next couple of years visited museums and poured over books and online resources.

“I was in these museums, physically touching and measuring – getting as much as I could from the museum people.”

He said many museums have already done all of this groundwork and have worksheets available.

“A little money or volunteer time is involved to get access to these worksheets and the history of these things and how they were actually made – and you have got a set of blueprints to go by.”

His items are hand-crafted and produced to museum specifications.

“It’s going to be spot-on, as long as you know how to formulate the raw materials and how to get them – and trying to keep all of your stuff of U.S. origin.”

But therein lies the challenge.

“It’s gotten to the point where some of the stuff is so global that you have to bend. A lot of the people that used to make this stuff are just not out there anymore – the craftsmen that do the metalwork and tinwork. There are lots of places to get U.S. leather, which I have to use because of the leather itself – but the hardware and the particular buckles are just getting harder and harder to find here.”

If his finished products don’t match what’s in the museums, he has to start all over again.

“That’s the most important thing when you are making stuff for these guys,” he said. “You have got to be on the cutting edge, making something that is 150 years old. That’s what the guys expect.”

But that’s the high end of the hobby. Folks can go as basic or as deep as they choose.

Local author and musician Paul Grimshaw said he met Lopes at a re-enactment about eight years ago, through a group Lopes was once a part of, and they have remained friends.

“It turns out we had mutual connections in the restaurant business,” he said. “I think he was working at Thoroughbreds at the time, and ended up going to Banditos. My band played there, so I would always see him there. We would see each other at re-enactments, and I bought some of his re-enactment gear.”

Grimshaw wrote about time traveling Civil War re-enactors in his first novel, “Travelers of the Grey Dawn.”

He finds Lopes to be congenial, extraordinarily funny and a lot of fun to hang out with.

“After the battle is over and the public has trampled through your campground and have all gone home, a good deal of the fun comes from the late night bonfire. We camp, drink beer, eat too much, tell stories and jokes and play music,” he said. “Paul was always at the forefront of the fun.”

Lopes can be seen at these late-night shindigs as an alter-ego, “Amish Osborne,” playing washboard and various other instruments, channeling his inner musician – and music has always been a part of his life as well.

He lives in Myrtle Beach with longtime girlfriend Lisa Thompson, daughter of longtime local photographer Jack Thompson.

“Lisa has always been supportive,” he said. “I probably would have gone down a dark road if we wouldn’t have met. These would all be bad stories.”