I am a
skateboarding father. I don't mean that I am a father who skateboards; though I
have delusions of fitness, I know very well what I am fit for. I mean that I
have a son who takes the sport seriously, and I take his interest seriously. It
is a beautiful sport, very much like surfing and skiing in its seemingly
effortless swoops and rhythms, and over the past two years I have watched John
and skateboarding grow together in speed and grace and defiance of gravity.
Boys are doing
things on skateboards today that were not imagined in 1976. It is only
necessary to flip through back issues of SkateBoarder magazine—which John and I
do astonishingly often—to see how many skateboard parks have opened and how
much more challenge is being built into them. The early parks, which were
mainly in the warm states of Florida and California, tended to be mere slopes
of concrete with relatively gentle curves. Today's parks have steep descents,
banked curves of the kind that are common on bobsled runs, and 15-foot vertical
walls at the top of which a skateboarder can momentarily hang weightless, his
body parallel to the ground, before turning and riding back down.
John's fate was to
be stuck in cold Connecticut, practicing these feats in places built for wholly
different uses: in empty swimming pools, in reservoir spillways, in the
culverts that run alongside turnpikes, in high-rise parking garages. Wherever
man has poured concrete, boy will skateboard—and official will eventually build
a fence or send a guard to chase him away. As for swimming pools, their owners
have an unpleasant tendency to fill them with water.
I thought John
deserved to be put out of his misery, and I proposed that we spend a week of
his vacation driving around Florida and trying out its skateboard parks. (He
would do the trying, I would do the watching, and we would split the driving;
he is now 17.) I suspect that ours was the first such odyssey made by a
skateboarding father. In fact, I may be the first father to identify myself as
a new subspecies in American sport.
But surely I am
not the last. Skateboarding and its industry are expanding faster than most
people realize. Parks are now being built in the cold states—indoor arenas with
ramps, bowls and pipes that arrive ready to assemble—and there is even talk of
sanctifying the sport by admitting it to the Olympics. In any case, my hunch is
that other parents, like stage mothers and hockey dads, will soon be hitting
the trail. They may be interested in our journey.
First I should
retrace the earlier steps in my own education. Skateboards hit America in the
mid-1960s as a fad, rather like the Hula-Hoop: urchins scooting along the
sidewalk on little slabs of wood with hard clay wheels. But the urchins could
never do anything very inventive because the wheels didn't have traction—a
skater starting up a slope would fall back off. The young soon tired of their
new pastime, as the hula-hoopers tired of their hoops, and the passing fancy
passed—or so it appeared.
Then, in 1973,
along came the urethane wheel. It was found that wheels made of this plastic,
fastened to a board, would not only reach high speeds; they would hold their
grip on inclined surfaces and during sharp slalom turns and wide freestyle
turns. The breakthrough was made, inevitably, in Southern California, by a man
named Frank Nasworthy, and though it is not recorded that he cried
"Eureka!" as he zigzagged down the hilly streets of Encinitas at 40 mph
without flying off into the adjacent shrubbery, he knew that he was on to
something big. It is not given to every man to reinvent the wheel.
invention needed refining. The wheels would occasionally slip, the bearings
would pop out, and there was work to be done on the trucks—the metal supports
that connect the wheels to the board. But American technology in its relentless
push solved the various problems. Better formulas of urethane were developed;
bearings were sealed inside the wheels; wheels were made in bigger sizes;
trucks were modified to achieve more strength and flexibility; and boards were
designed in new shapes to give the skater a whole new set of "radical"
maneuvers. (Radical is the sport's adjective of ultimate praise.) By early 1976
the revolution was essentially complete and in Florida the first skateboard
park was built. This is when John caught up with the sport—and when it
therefore caught up with me.
At first I didn't
think much about it. He mentioned that he was doing some skateboarding, but I
assumed it was just the same old fad. Nobody told me that it had turned into a
sport. I also assumed that it would strut its brief hour in John's life and
vanish, as such interests do in every boyhood. (Where is the slot-car track of
Soon I began to
realize that John wasn't just scooting along the sidewalk. We live in New
Haven, a city with many hills, and the name of one of its steepest streets—East
Rock Road—kept recurring in his accounts. He said that motorists have a
peculiarly startled look when they find themselves being passed by boys on a
mere board, propelled by mere momentum.