Friday, June 5, 2015

Jimmy Wallace's Driveway Part 2

This is the second part of series of posts about one of the most important days in my skateboarding life. Read the first part here.

In the 80's anyone who took a journey on a skateboard began it at a crossroads. On one side was a slight detour off the conventional teenage track: a scenic exit that lead, ever so briefly, down the “skater dude” stretch of an otherwise conventional segment of the highway of adolescence.The other direction was the wrong turn; An exit that might put you into the social badlands for years, and out of the orbit of the right clothes, the right music, and the right friends forever.

Regardless of which direction that little piece of plywood was going to take you, the journey really couldn’t begin until you had a skateboard that cost about a hundred bucks and was endorsed by some feverishly marketed pro superstar. Lifer or poseur, to be a skater You had to have the right board, and there were magazines, videos and, for a while, even peer pressure to let you know what the right board was. It’s not very punk rock, its not egalitarian, but it’s true. The mid 1980s boom that helped define skateboarding, was subsidized by trendiness, conspicuous consumption and the acquisitiveness of skateboard manufacturers.

For kids in full on fad mode, exactly how those expensive mail order or surf-shop purchased boards were superior to the department store junk was a non issue. The ambient forces of pop culture had declared that a pro skateboard was cool. There was no reason to ever give a thought to wheelbases or concave. Durometer and wheel size were not nearly as important as who rode what wheel or what kind of graphics ringed the urethane. You didn't admit you picked out your board for the graphics, or your trucks because of their color... but in that first wave of the trend, most kids didn't know enough about boards to make an informed choice on any other basis.

Those of us who did think about performance had only the vaguest ideas about why the "real skateboards" were better. Some kids just thought they were stronger (not necessarily true), or lighter (true). Others knew a good set of trackers or Indys were going to grind better than the scrap junk bolted to a valterra (not that we could grind anything but the edges of our driveways). The pro wheels certainly looked different, many were bigger and narrower, and we assumed the low durometer wheels would take on the crusty pavement around us more effectively than the plasticene garbage on our crap boards (very true). The shapes of pro boards were much more diverse and interesting too, but how these things applied to actual on-the-pavement riding was beyond us. When it came down to it, we didn’t know shit, just what Thrasher, BMX plus or Club Homeboy told us.

Thanks to the flashfire trendiness of skating, the possibility of being “cool” was a nice potential side effect of becoming a skater in 1988, but, for me, the real mission was always the skating itself. It was all about turning the blah rural-suburban world I lived in into the giant playground we saw in Thrasher magazine. A "real" board was the entre into an endless grinding game with no rules, no scoreboards and no varsity teams. The griptaped stairway to heaven.

The hypothetical difference between what I had and what I wanted was more than just a point of curiosity, it was an article of faith, the crux of all my fevered midwestern loser dreams. After all, if the difference between Variflex no name and Vision Psycho Stick wasn’t enormous and paradigm-shattering, then the lack of progression in my skating had nothing to do with my board's lack of concave and everything to do with my lack of athletic talent. If the marketing hype and ad pitches didn't mean anything, then I was destined to forever suck at skateboarding no matter how much I loved it. For me, so much hinged upon pro boards not just being a little better than the generic ones, but exponentially better.

So I became fixated with deducing just what kind of board was going to slingshot me into the land of stoke fastest.  I couldn’t just toss off some wish list based on names and graphics. There was too  much at stake. I paged through the mags like a zealot digesting scripture. I was looking for the cryptic knowledge, the secret codes, the data that would put the magic in my hands.

So When I stepped on Danny’s “real” board for the first time, I wasn’t just expecting it to be something significantly better than what I had been riding, I was depending on it.

The whims of youth serve up a lot of disappointments. The transformer figure you had been eyeing in the sears catalog all year was never as big as you thought it was once you got it on Christmas morning. The Evel Knieval rip cycle would barely roll 3 feet before toppling over and spinning out. The slot cars always flew off the track at the corners, and that damn electronic football game...the players never went in the right direction, and no one could ever hold onto the ball.

Just how often do feverish childhood dreams live up to the expectations aggregated by a youthful imagination? How often do they not only meet those expectations, but exceed them, not just for a day but for a lifetime?

I dropped Danny’s board, put my foot down over the front bolts, and took the first push.

Aside from the fact that they were both made of wood and had wheels on the bottom, it quickly became clear that my board had almost nothing in common with Danny's real-deal pro set up.

Let's start with the bearings.

Bearings are not sexy. Old kooks aren't coughing up their tax returns on ebay for vintage GMNs and NMBs from 1987, but in the humble bearing lies the essence of skating. Even at the simplest, most qunatum level, the level of just rolling, Danny's board was fundamentally different from my shitty department store one.

Just pushing and rolling was suddenly transformed. 

The crappy department store boards we had been riding all had what were called “open bearings”. This meant that the ball bearings that made the wheels roll sat directly in a groove in the wheel itself, making direct contact with wheel and axle. They had no covers, no teflon shields, not even races to separate the bearings form making contact with the wheels. The open bearing design, which, at that point, was about a decade out of date, was  incredibly hard on the bearings, especially the cheap-ass alloy ones in the standard issue crap board.

The worst thing about open bearings was that if your wheel ever fell off, or if you wanted to take a wheel off on purpose to try and do clean all the crap out of it, there was nothing to hold the bearing assembly together. As soon as wheel left axle, everything inside fell out and dispersed in a hundred different directions; ball bearings and washers all rolling free of their urethane prison, never to be reunited again. If your Nash bearing got crushed you couldn't take your wheel off  and fix it. You couldn’t buy a replacement either. One jacked bearing and Your whole board was pretty much done.

Danny’s board, on the other hand, rolled on precision bearings.  A precision bearing is basically a self contained bearing assembly, housed in its own metal casing separate from the wheel. Balls, races, cover, are all self contained in ne unit that can pop in and out of the wheel completely intact. This design not only protected the ball bearings inside from wear and debris, but also made the bearings completely removable for maintenance or easily replaced if one of them got crushed or completely seized up. You can just pop out a gunked up precision bearing with your axle, pop another one in, and you’re golden.

For me, the fact that precision bearings were protected and could be taken out and cleaned meant they were light years beyond what I had on my board. I didn’t even care if they were faster.

But the thing is, those bearings were faster. Ridiculously faster.

After riding open bearings, especially my bearings, which were gummed up and gnarled by 3 years of riding in rain, gravel, and dirt, stepping onto that board, with its precision bearings, was like stepping onto a patch of ice.

So my first push on that board ended with me on my back.

A short moment of embarassment aside, that back-slapping wilson immediately made it clear that wanting the expensive gear, the decks and wheels and trucks you had to order from California, was not like wanting Air Jordans so you could sit at the right lunch table. It was not like needing Guess Jeans or a Starter Jacket so you wouldn't get clowned during passing period.  A good board actually mattered. It was more than a sales pitch and a celebrity endorsement. The california cachet was there, the bullshit, the image-making, that alone sold a lot of plywood in the 80’s, but that was not why I needed a good board.

I needed one because I needed to skate.

The system shock I got from riding precision bearings was just the beginning though. When I got back on and leaned into  the first carve to circle the driveway, I almost fell over sideways. The way the bushings in the truck evenly compressed meant that the resistance was uniform and smooth. After carving on bushings that were basically hard plastic, my body was conditioned to push into stiff resistance followed by a sudden break in the bushings. On real trucks, the cushion was easy and consistent, so my reflexes made me push my weight too hard on Danny's board. Once I got used to the trucks, though, carving was so smooth, so responsive, it was like I had never really ridden a skateboard before at all. It had never crossed my mind that the trucks might actually turn better. I had been fixated on grinding.

These aspects were really just bonuses for me. What I really had invested my hopes in was the superiority of a quality deck. I was convinced the properties of the state of the art 1980s skate deck were the single most important thing that set a good pro set up apart form the mass market junk. I had all but resolved that an ollie simply was not possible on anything else.

like all good boards, danny’s Henry Guttierrez deck had a concave riding surface that curved like a ver shallow spoon in the front. This helped stabilized a rider's foot both in a push and as you stood. The concavity on the riding surface made it feel lliek your foot belonged there, whereas the flat surface of a bargain board made the deck something you actively had to fight against just to stand on. On the flat garbage boards you could never really throw your full weight into a turn, and the wight you did put in had less leverage, since there was no angle on the toes or heel to push afgainst. The 1988 era Sims concave design on that Henry Guttierrez wasn’t exactly cavernous like the H-Street "hell concave", but it was downright canyonesque compared to the flat, almost convex-feeling Variflex deck I had been riding. 

Under my back foot, I could feel the degrees of kick in the tail. My Variflex had a tiny bit of upturn at the back, but this was a real kick tail, and my feet were itching to pop that tail, or at least lean back on it and drag it across the cement while I bent down and grabbed a rail.

But it wasn’t my board. Sure, real skaters weren’t supposed to give a shit about scratching up their decks, but convictions expressed around a communal copy of Thrasher in the school cafeteria, are a long way from the reality of gouges and shredded paint on your brand new, pro model skate deck. I didn’t know how pissed Danny would be if I scratched up his board, and, even though he was smaller than me, I wasn’t sure I could take him if we got in a fight, so I kept it to carving, not even kickturning the board for fear of abrading that expensive plywood on the cement.

Sill, I knew that wasn’t going to be enough. For once in my life I couldn’t just go halfway. I tipped back on the tail a little just to see how it felt. I looked around for Danny. He was fidgeting around on someone’s GT. I worked up the nerve and made a request.

“Hey, can I try to ollie on your board?”

Danny didnt give it a moment's thought. “yeah. I don’t care.”

That was all it took. Suddenly, I had the keys to the Porsche. the house for the weekend, open access to the liquor cabinet...

I crouched down and popped the closest approximation of an ollie I could.

The board got away from me, bouncing like a coiled spring and spinning form udner my back foot. I had channeled all the muscles in my leg into that downward thrust of the tail, expecting the clunky, stiff contact from my Variflex. What I got was an elastic, energetic response, a rebound, complete with a ringing, vibrating reverberation like the sound of the flexing diving board at the Shrine Hill pool.

I ran over and picked up the board, looking it over to make sure I didn’t do any real damage. I was clear. Danny wasn’t watching anyway. I immediately tried it again.

I’m not going to tell you I hopped back on and immediately started popping ollies, but something real happened. After a few more tries, I began to dial in on the physics of the deck’s steeper kicktail and more responsive elasticity. When I stomped down on that tail, I concentrated on getting the deck as close to vertical as I could. After a couple tries I could feel the  back wheels lifting. I don’t know that the edge of the tail was ever leaving the crete, and U only stayed on the board about a third of the time, but all four wheels were going up every seventh or eighth try. Consistently going up.

It was not the coveted ollie, but it was something closer to that benchmark than anything I had ever done. Closer than anything my friends had pulled off. I heard somebody suddenly say: “Hey, Kyle almost did an ollie.”

What I was doing had piqued everyone’s interest. We didn't know anybody who could do an ollie. People started gathering. I didn’t pay much attention. I kept hammering away at it...8 out of 10 attempts the board got way form me. 2 out of ten sort of tipped up. Given a full day of wacking away at it and I figured I might possibly have been able to manage getting maybe a 1/2 inch off the ground standing dead still once or twice.

I was stoked out of my mind.

So stoked I wasn’t even bummed when Danny came back to repossess his board and try to replicate my breakthrough. So stoked I didn’t even bother to go get my board from the older BMX hesher who had commandeered it while I was flapping up and down on that Guttierrez.

I had taken the pepsi challenge. Run the experiment. Collated the data. The results were incontrovertible. I needed a board. The rationalizations and doubts had been disintegrated like the walls of Jericho, the scabby angels of stoke were circling me in a beam of light singing “halleleuia!” I had gotten a sneak peak of the promise land, and nothing was going to keep me out.

But how was I going to make it happen? I didn't have a hundred bucks. I didn't have a job, and I certainly didn't have parents who would just buy it for me.

So what was I going to do?

To quote Mako: “That is another story...”

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