With roots in the Deep South, Mike Cotton’s life has been a mix of music, movies, the arts and surfing.
He now combines those loves from his base in the Florida Panhandle.
Before COVID-19 changed the landscape, Mike was a regular at the Northwest Florida Blues Society, playing bass guitar. He has a business copying family videos onto DVD, and produces the “Being Martelli” reality TV series about a Pensacola family and its quilting supply business.
Another project is a documentary he and video producer Dave Barnes made about Vietnam veterans who surfed off China Beach during the war.
“Back to China Beach” tells of the rise of the China Beach Surf Club and the Pensacola veteran who helped grow it in Da Nang. The film debuted at Pensacola Little Theatre in November 2019 and was planned for wider circulation before the pandemic delayed screenings.
Born in Atlanta, where his dad ran a popular nightclub filled with major stars and entertainment, Mike’s family moved to South Florida in the late 1950s. He immersed himself in the Miami lifestyle, with endless opportunities to surf.
“I still surf,” the 72-year-old says. “Growing up, I was what they called a soul surfer. From the mid-’60s, I trekked the coast. The day after high school graduation, I woke up and drove my 1949 Mercury with a few buddies to Mexico, near Acapulco. I actually got stopped in Pensacola as a runaway.
“As a young high school kid, some of my friends were getting drafted or signing up and going to Vietnam. One friend came back and was talking about how they would go surfing during the war. Stressed from combat, whether they were coming out of the rice paddies or jungle, there was a beach they could go to and get a break. That story always intrigued me.”
Mike never served in the military. Instead, his talents led him to work in entertainment and storytelling, producing festivals and concerts to films and events.
“In the world of film, video, television production and the arts, I am more of an executive producer—the one who brings the project together,” Mike says. “I find the production people, the writers, funding and everything to make it happen.”
Ten years ago, Mike and Dave met. They started a show, “Senior Xtremers,” about people 50 and older with active lifestyles and adventures. The pair continued to team on projects ranging from news stories and corporate videos to films.
“Documentaries are our thing,” Mike says. “Dave and I are pure journalists. For network assignments, we shoot the footage, share the content and know the story because we are right there. What you see on the news might not portray what really happened—and it is not always because they edited it. They just don’t show all the good stuff. But we know.”
Mike and Dave started a documentary on surfing in Florida and met Larry Martin of Pensacola, who was one of the Vietnam surfers. That encounter led to the “Back to China Beach” project.
“Larry was one of the first to get to Da Nang Beach (also known as My Khe) back in the ’60s,” Mike says, noting Dan Emerson was first. “He helped organize the China Beach Surf Club with other soldiers.”
With the blessing of command officers, the soldiers built a shack for the clubhouse.
“It became the place for guys to go for a break, what they called in-country R&R,” Mike explains. “They could enjoy the beach and get out into the water to surf, kayak and swim. It was a moment they were taken away from the stress of war.
“For the film, we followed the veterans from the mid-’60s and ’70s through the war to coming home, what life was like after the war. It’s a mix of great photographs, historical footage and these guys telling their stories from the heart.”
Mike says Dave’s interviews are intimate.
“Some of them said they had never told their story to anyone, not even their wife,” Mike says. “They felt a sense of relief.”
Returning to Vietnam was part of the veterans’ story. It took about a year to put a crew and plan together. To avoid attracting attention or running into restrictions, Mike, Dave and the crew took small digital equipment and posed as tourists. When followed by the secret police, Mike invited them to join in as part of their family reunion. After that, he says they were left alone to film and surf at the beach, able to fly out with the footage they wanted.
The film includes original music composed by Tony Pasko, who composed music for the “Duck Dynasty” series.
At the end of the film’s premiere, Mike says the theater was very quiet.
“I thought, ‘This is it. We are done,’” Mike says. “Then the theater erupted with applause. Veterans were coming up and hugging us, with tears in their eyes, saying this is the best anyone has done in telling their story. Then their families, wives and kids came up and told us how they had been hearing these stories for so long and could never put it all together. Now seeing this film, it really makes it clear what it was like.
“This is more than a film. It’s a great event and movement to bring veterans, their families and the community together. You can’t put a price on the experience of hearing these veterans tell their stories.”