After that things really started to happen. Everybody wanted Von Dutch and Bobby always had t-shirts and hats in his car. Pushing the product. It became red hot on the Hollywood scene. And then Brittany Spears got married wearing a Von Dutch hat. Red hot turned white. In a short time they sold 14 million hats at sixty dollars a pop. Rich. Beyond rich.
Things were not as great between Bobby and his partner. He wanted to keep the brand rooted in action sports, in surf, while his partner wanted to turn it into a version of Diesel. They divided the company and without lawyers Bobby signed himself into a horrible licensing deal. He lost his company.
He owed factories over a million dollars and he had no way of recouping. He lost one hundred and fifty million dollars. From everything to nothing. It was at this point that he felt, “fuck the world.” He had a child to support and no way to support him. Fuck the world. He got a lawyer, a real fear and loathing lawyer, but then f–k it. 9/11 had just happened and so Bobby Vaughn decided to go and be a Navy SEAL.
Navy SEALs are the elite of America’s military. They do the most difficult, dangerous, clandestine missions. They are the front line and the back line. And, thus, they go through the most intense training. There are regular episodes of SEALs drowning during training. Drowning is, in fact, part of the training. They must drown to know how it feels. Most kids who enlist and attempt the SEAL course are eighteen. When Bobby Vaughn walked into the recruiter office and signed up he was twenty-seven.
So he began his training. Up at four in the morning and into the freezing cold dive tanks. All day, every day. Part of why he chose the Navy, chose to take a crack at the SEALs is he knew a few of them who surfed. Always back around to surfing. And he didn’t mind the intensity. It was the first time in his life that he had had real discipline. He was told what to do and that was that. It was a different world and he was at peace with it. He trained. Sweated. Grunted. Mastered explosives, BUDs (Basic Underwater Demolition) and guns and worked out nonstop. One instructor was particularly harsh. He went after Bobby with zeal, making him do push-ups until his arms were jello. After a particularly mean session he told Bobby, “I’m doing this to you because you dinged my board out at Pipe one time.” Mean on top of harsh. Ocean swims, running for four miles in soft sand with wet trousers, rowing boats filled with heavy logs.
He kept excelling and then it was time for hell week. Hell week, for the SEALs, is 132 hours of continual physical activity. No sleep. No break. No rest. One hundred and thirty-two hours. And right before hell week his fear and loathing lawyer called him and tells Bobby that he has his case against his old business partner. That he will win his case but he has to drop out of the Navy because he will have to be in court every day in order to make it work.
Bobby was stuck. And he was out. He needed the money; he needed to follow his path. So he left early in the morning, checked into a hotel and slept for three days.
When he showed back up on base he was court marshaled. It is against the law to break an obligation to the military. Bobby met with sympathetic JAG (judge advocate general corps) lawyers and one told him, “Look, the only way out is if you disappear for 28 days and then come back we can get you out.” And so he disappeared. He went back up to Tommy Lee and climbed on a big one. Forty-seven days later he returned.
He slipped in at six in the morning, all f–ked up and climbed into bed. He closed his eyes and opened them, minutes later, to three large military police surrounding him. And soon he was shackled and in the brig, sent to X-Division. A military black hole. But his JAG lawyers lobbied for him. He had special circumstances. He was different. And so was given an OTH. An other than honorable discharge, joining the likes of Walt Disney. Geniuses who had been drummed out of the military dishonorably. Or other than honorably.
It was at this same time that he started FTW. As a concept, FTW had been around forever. Hell’s Angels used to sew it on their jackets but it resonated differently with Bobby and he wanted to do something big with it. Bigger than life. But first he had a lawsuit to win and he attacked it with vengeance. With purposeful drive.
After three days in front of a jury the other side collapsed and offered him a deal. It wasn’t exactly what he wanted but it was a sure thing. He had millions to pay to the factories, he had a child, so he took the sure thing and spent some of the money and bought the FTW mark. He wanted this to be a surf brand. An authentic surf brand. Of all the things he had seen and done, surfing was the hardest and that is where he wanted to be. He would rather take on the most notorious gang on the planet than macking Teahupo’o. That hardness inspired him.
He moved to Venice and started working on building the brand in the way he knew from his time at Bronze Age and Von Dutch. And then his friend, locked up for murder, got out of prison.
Bobby took him in. He was a great guy, his friend, but also had a crazy streak that had been exacerbated by his seven years of prison. It had mentally unhinged him and sometimes he would just flip. Go crazy. But Bobby made the living arrangement work because that is what friends do. There were episodes. Sometimes after nights of drinking the friend would say that he was going to kill his baby’s mama. Or threaten suicide. Once he slashed Bobby’s face with a broken beer bottle.
And then one fateful night he lost his mind. The two, and a few girls, had just returned from a night on the town. When they arrived back to Bobby’s house, his friend’s belligerence had increased. He began popping off at the mouth, threatening, menacing. Bobby walked away, thinking of it as another episode that would work itself out with some space. But it didn’t. In his room, he heard his friend screaming, “Time to chalk it up!” “Chalk it up” is street parlance for killing someone, referencing the chalk lines drawn around dead bodies by the law. Bobby’s door began to shake as his friend slammed himself into it again and again. Bobby went to his safe and got a gun. His plan was to wait until his friend got through and then push around him and run into the night. Then the door snapped in half. Bobby tried to make his move but his friend caught his neck and started pulling at the gun. Bobby pushed with all his might and the two fell backward with Bobby shooting. “It all happened so fast that I didn’t even know if I was shot and dead and dreaming,” he said. But he wasn’t dead and he felt no more weight. No more struggle. He looked back and saw his friend slumped against the wall. Dead. He had been shot in the head. Instantaneous. Bobby began screaming for one of the girls to call the police but she was traumatized, so Bobby called himself and then went into his room, contemplating suicide. Somehow he knew that wasn’t his path.
Return tomorrow for the final installment of the Bobby Vaughn story: jail, freedom and NYC