Monday, December 17, 2012

Part 1: Stone-Age Throwbacks (Ca. 1984)

The thing I remember most clearly about getting my first skateboard was that I didn’t want it.  It was a Christmas gift from my uncle Harry; a light blue plastic banana board with open bearings and wide, translucent red wheels. The trucks were so narrow the inside edges of the wheels nearly scraped the kingpin housing and bushings. If you stood in the middle of it with both feet together the bottom of the flexible plastic deck would almost scrape the ground. This was either 1983. I was about ten years old.

Uncle Harry was my dad’s twin brother and he was sort of like a shaggily cool bizarro world version of my father.  Harry was the kind of uncle who was more likely to have a disassembled Harley police special in his living room than a coffee table. He was kind of uncle every kid needs at least one of, the kind who had an uncanny knack for picking the gifts kids wanted most and their parents wanted least. The year I got my first skateboard he bought my older brother, a kid whose primary hobby was wedgie application, a mini crossbow. Not a plastic nerf thing with suction tipped arrows, a real bolt throwing, squirrel impaling one-handed crossbow.

Of course, in Indiana in 1983 a skateboard was as great a harbinger of senseless bodily harm and destruction as a mini crossbow, but, for a kid like me it was sort of baffling. I was never athletic. Any shred of confidence in my physical abilities and any desire take any sort of risk had been pretty much pummeled out of me by my older brother. We had a gravel driveway in front of my house and no decent pavement in my neighborhood to boot. I had no idea why my uncle Harry, the guy who always got the slam dunk gift, thought I would like a skateboard. He might as well have given me a dogsled or a whitewater kayak.

Of course now I wonder if my uncle wasn’t some sort of prescient mastermind.

My disappointment had nothing to do with the perceived quality of the board itself. Even though, by 1983, the plastic flexy banana board was already hopelessly out-of-date, a kid like me had no way of knowing it. When it came to pop culture, living in the midwest in the pre-internet days was kind of like being an astronomer looking out at the cosmos. You could find lots of interesting things if you searched really hard, but the image of whatever you found had to travel so far to reach you that it was probably already over by the time the light hit your eyes. This is how it was for fashion and music and art where I grew up. It was doubly true for skateboarding, which, even in California, was only a tiny part of the mainstream.

Its important to put this in context because I didn’t live in some tiny grain-elevator-and-gas-station farm community. I grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, a mid-sized city with a population of about 170,000 if you count the folks living in the outlying subdivisions and unincorporated communities, which you have to since, in a midwestern city, that’s where most of the middle and working class people actually lived. We were rinky dink enough that Steve Martin had a whole routine about us inhis act back in the 70’s, but not so rinky dink that he wouldn’t play our civic center when he toured. Terre Haute was the kind of place that combined the worst aspects of the rust belt and the bible belt. Deeply conservative, the streets were relatively safe by virtue of the fact there wasn’t much happening on them.

From a very early age it was clear that if you lived in Terre Haute you were living in a place whose best days, whose shot at being a real urban center, had long passed.  There had been a time when The Haute had been not just an upcoming business center, but an amusement center. It had once had a famous racetrack, a notorious red-light district, and had even served as a furlough of choice for Chicago’s prohibition era gangsters when the heat was on in the windy city. By my time, Terre Haute was like some middle aged jock who peaked in high school and could never quite acknowledge its decline long enough to do anything about it.

By the 1980‘s the prosperous dreams of turn of the century Terre Haute had faded in tandem with the ongoing slow-motion collapse of American manufacturing that continues to this day. Workers that had settled down in Terre Haute in the 60‘s and 70‘s for a good living working at the Case Plant or Anchor Glass or Anaconda Aluminum (where my dad worked) lived under the shadow of frequent layoffs and plant closings. The stable mid-income lifestyle that they hoped would carry their kids through college and themselves through retirement was far from a sure or even likely thing by the 1980's. The view from our architecturally imposing, and now buffoonishly self-important looking court house was of a city as mired in economic stagnation as a cruise ship navigating the mud-choked shamefully polluted channels of the Wabash River.

One of the most depressing things about being a kid in Terre Haute was the yearly field trip to the Historical society. After the rowdy bus ride down Third Street and through the wasteland of downtown, you'd line up, go through the front doors, and find yourself in a sort of mausoleum dedicated to commemorating a city that had disappeared 70 years before. The tour guides would file you into a room full of pictures of Terre Haute from the turn of the century: Pictures of smartly dressed, sepia-toned figures in derby hats moving up and down streets filled with jurassic automobiles, horse carts and even street cars. In the crowded backgrounds you could see a fledgling cityscape, and if you squinted and used your imagination you could even see how some of those vibrant buildings matched up with the half-boarded in, hollow-eyed architectural corpses that made up upper Wabash Avenue. In those old shots Terre Haute looked like an actual city with a real urbanized center, one with commerce and pedestrian traffic and shops. I would look at those shots and think about the downtown as it existed then; a mostly empty congregation of half-vacant office buildings squatting alongside third street. Downtown wasn’t a place with anything you wanted. It wasn’t even active enough to attract criminals. It was something you saw out the window briefly on the long drive to the mall.  Even when I was 8 I’d look at those pictures in the museum and wonder what the hell happened.

The important thing is this: despite its doldrums, my home city was not some tiny blacktop strip in a sea of cornfields. It wasn’t LA or even Indianapolis, but in a lot of ways its state of post-industrial decay mirrored the places in California where modern skating was born.  Still, it's hard to overstate, especially for the modern, internet accessible skateboarder how completely severed the thousands of cities like mine were from even the most basic aspects of mainstream skateboarding in the early 80’s.

By ’83, out in a galaxy far far away called California, the modern skateboard had become fairly close in shape and dimensions to what it is today.  Boards were specially laminated plywood that hovered around 30-32 inches long. Wheels were urethane and rolled on sealed bearings. Trucks were wide enough to leave a lot of hanger exposed across the 10-12 inch width of the board. By ’83 guys like Gonz and Mullen were beginning to lever their boards off the pavement in no handed bunny hops, and in the storied skateparks vert skateboarding had already gone through a complete life cycle of birth, artistic maturity, and near death when we were just discovering sidewalk surfing, slalom and 360’s.

In the midwest you couldn’t look to pop culture to clue you into the fact that your frewheelin’  banana board wasn’t state of the art. Crappy Nash and Valterra knock-offs hadn’t even filtered down to the heartland’s department stores when I got my first board. The prospect of professional skateboarding or trick riding was some hazy concept people might half-remember from an old “Wide World of Sports” back in ’79 or a cameo appearance from some nuthugger shorts-wearing 70’s pro on Saturday afternoon Charlie’s Angels or CHiPs reruns. You couldn’t get a copy of Thrasher in Terre Haute until 1986 or so. Even Back To the Future, the film that inspired more kids in the midwest to pick up a skateboard than every Bones Brigade video put together, was a year and a half away. If you were lucky your local library might have some cheesy 70’s book full of blond dudes in headbands doing nosewheelies and slashers, but, for the most part, it was like astrophysics: what you got, if anything, was a tiny window into a world that was not only unattainable, but possibly already dead.

The ironic thing is that skateboards were not some obscure object. Every elementary school kid had one of those banana boards in their garage somewhere but I can’t remember ever seeing anybody actually riding one. And why would they? All things considered, a skateboard is a pretty crappy method of transportation just about anywhere, but especially so in the midwest. They also had the reputation of being really hard to ride and fairly dangerous. There was this idea that people did “tricks” on skateboards, but no one really knew how or why.

So there I was on Christmas morning with this puzzling thing in my hands, this thing that was part wildly inefficient vehicle, part sporting good, and part instrument of juvenile delinquency. It was like a big wheel, a baseball bat and slingshot merged into one and none of them were what I was hoping for for Christmas.

What it all boils down to is this: For kids like me becoming a part of skateboarding wasn’t just a matter of learning how to skateboard, but also figuring out why you would want to do it in the first place. To figure that out, you had to figure out what skateboarding was. That wasn’t easy.

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