We are sitting in a large linoleum hall in which Samsonite folding chairs have been arranged as pews. Sitting on all sides are young people of both sexes: they are pre, barely post and flat-out stone pubescent. The majority of them are cradling skateboards in their laps.
The occasion is the first Corte Madera, California, screening of Jon Malvino's skateboard film, That Magic Feeling. Skateboard movies are of a type. You can expect spectacular stunts accompanied by an unsynced soundtrack of original music, undistinguished for the most part and marked by constant drumming, equally persistent rhythm guitar and occasional lead guitar runs that one supposes are meant to be soaring. Surfing music, it is called. The films themselves feature thin, suntanned young people of both sexes balancing on boards with wheels on the bottom, and moving rapidly in every conceivable direction.
The lights go out, the titles appear on the screen. Here's a young man in shorts skating toward the camera.
"Yeah, get it, all right, get down, do it," the audience suggests in shrill cacophony. "Yeahhhhhh."
There are no signs, but it is definitely wrong to smoke. Unhealthy. Not clean … old. The odor of bubble gum is overpowering.
Up front, in the honor row, sit some of the stars of the film: older skaters, veterans, some as old as 18. They are blond, tan and healthy. Their complexions are clear. Three of them are sharing a joint. When any of the locals appear on the screen, the younger members of the audience clap and cheer and laugh loudly in recognition.
The movie shows people skating down steep blacktopped hills in lonely sections of Northern California. It shows people in empty backyard swimming pools, the kidney-shaped ones. The skaters starting at the shallow end push a few times off the bottom of the pool, work up speed and shoot down the incline to the deep end. They throw their weight toward the sky and ride the deep-end wall way up toward the tiles at the top, where it says eight feet. This feat takes perhaps two seconds in its entirety, and it is cheered wildly by the audience. The object, quite clearly, is to ride the two inches of blue tile at the top, while avoiding the lip of the pool. When a skater hits the lip, he invariably loses his board and must run down the steeply sloping side of the pool. This often results in skinned knees and elbows. Sometimes a skater simply plummets to the bottom of the pool and strikes his head on the bottom, producing a muffled gonglike sound called a bongo. Bongos often result in periods of unconsciousness, during which other skaters gather around the fallen comrade and ask if he is all right until he regains his senses.
The pool-riding sequences are some of the most popular in the film. The moves are graceful, dangerous and thrilling to watch. A nonskater could conceivably complain that they go on a touch too long, but that is to miss the point of the film. Everyone here tonight — with a few old, overweight parental exceptions — is a skater. The film is a celebration of the cult, of the sport. There is a sense of being special here. The danger is part of it, the grace is part of it, the exclusivity is part of it. Those who haven't mastered the moves are clearly studying them. Tomorrow there will be a concentrated search for empty pools. On the screen, the pool riders take rim shot after rim shot. One feels that they have been doing this since dawn and will continue until sunset.
Other shots show young skaters making their stealthy way into dry reservoirs and drainage ditches. The audience cheers the trespass as much as the subsequent skating sequence. The ditches with their sloped sides and gradual inclines provide good, fast, gutsy rides. Never mind the chain-link fences. Skaters are above the law. Moves are studied. Younger members of the audience succeed in identifying the location of one of the ditches. Tomorrow that ditch will be filled with young skaters from dawn until sunset.
Cut to a panorama shot of San Francisco: A young man is rocketing down the steep residential streets of Russian Hill. To slow his speed, he cuts into every other driveway. Pedestrians stare in awe. The audience laughs, cheers and stamps on the floor.
Downtown San Francisco. An office building with a curious architectural conceit. The building erupts out of the concrete in a gentle curving wave, perhaps four feet high. Here comes a shirtless skater, taking the building-based wave to the top, then dropping back to the horizontal. He cuts, pushes with one foot and takes the wave again. Another skater takes the wave. The camera pans to a uniformed security guard who regards the skaters with sour amusement. Perhaps the guard has yelled something and has gone unheeded, for the next shot shows him to be angry. The skaters skate their wave and the surfing music crashes and sprays against the eardrums. Now we see a fat man — old, maybe even 40 — whose face is curled up in a mask of ugly anger.
"Ohhhhhhhh," the audience remarks in unison.
The angry old fat man — he has a cigarette in his mouth — yells something. The young graceful skaters circle him, just out of reach, like gadflies. One of them miscalculates his turn. He falls. The board continues a few yards, and the fat man grabs it.
The audience rises up in indignation. Not his skateboard. No. Booo. Fat. Clumsy. No.
The fat man has the board under his arm and he is rolling up his sleeves. He has white, pasty arms with muscles like Popeye. And here comes the second skater, fast, fast, a lightning bolt of justice, moving toward the fat man's back. The fat man whirls and we miss the action behind a something-out-of-focus, a sculpture perhaps. But now the second skater emerges, the captured skateboard under his arm. The fat man kicks, misses. The skaters are out of reach, and the audience is jumping up and down on their seats and yelling and screaming and cheering. It is reminiscent of those audiences who cheered Froggy the Gremlin in the old TV show. On the screen is a last, lingering shot of the slow old man: fat and vanquished and ludicrous in his anger.
Toward the very end of the film we are treated to some scenes which are simply spectacular. They take place in the Charmless Canyon "Pipeline," and the skating in this section of the film produces the only sustained silence of the evening. The pipeline is awesome: for skaters it is one of those rare experiences legitimately classified as a Supreme Challenge. The pounding music is almost appropriate: the volume and the intensity have something in common with the pumping of adrenalin-rich blood.
Later in this sequence there are helicopters and filmed arrests, which are vehemently booed. The film ends, the audience files out. Mothers and fathers fire up the Buicks, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles. The kids insist on skating home. Talk among the lingering older skaters is of the pipeline. Strangely, it is the inconceivably old fellow who smoked cigarettes all during the movie who knows the most about it. A crowd gathers in the parking lot, and the smoker, flattered, tells all.
The young skaters in that foggy parking lot knew something about the history of skateboards, and the semi-elderly fellow with the nicotine habit spared them his knowledge of that arcane subject. Still, to understand the pipeline, you do have to know something about skateboards. In a nutshell, then:
Let us postulate that sometime in the dimly remembered past some adventurous soul nailed a couple of roller skates to a two-by-four and tried to ride the resultant contraption. There were skateboards around in the late Fifties. Kids in New York used them like handleless scooters, a transportation device whose steel wheels shot up a lot of satisfying sparks at night.
The skateboard boom came in '64 and it corresponded to the surfing boom. If everybody had an ocean across the U.S.A., one of the major surfing theoreticians of the time opined, then everybody would be surfing, just like Californ-aye-ay. Of course, not everybody did have an ocean, and even those who did often found it flat or choppy or otherwise unfit for surfing. When that happened you could still comb back your bushy blond hairdo and put on your huarache sandals and pretend that you were surfing on a skateboard. There were speedball artists and guys who could do curbies and handstands and dozens of other rully boss tricks. There were movies about skateboards, and songs about skateboards, but in early 1966 they all went the way of plastic boomerangs and hula hoops and suddenly nobody had one.
The skateboard of the middle Sixties was a severely limited machine. The wheels were made of hard-composition clay, which is very fast. Unfortunately, clay wheels will heat up during a long run, and when a hot clay wheel hits a pebble, it tends to explode. Skateboarders found this tendency extremely annoying and they complained about it a lot while applying mercurochrome. Another problem with clay is that it just won't hold going into a sharp turn or a steep turn or a fast turn. Taking a speedy corner on one of those boards was a little like drifting into a four-wheel power slide in an overpowered stock car. The failure of the wheels to hold limited the maneuvers you could make and the terrain you could skate. There was no precision to skateboarding.
In the early Seventies, a man named Frank Nasworthy brought precision to skateboarding. Nasworthy, now 25, a surfer out of Encinitas, California, adapted the urethane wheel to skateboards. Previously, these hard plastic wheels had been used in inferior models of roller skates because they were virtually indestructible. Nasworthy assumed that on skateboards they would eliminate the pebble-explosion problem. As it turned out, urethane also held fast on all but the most suicidal of turns.
The urethane wheel, the new flexible board which takes your weight into a turn, lowering your center of gravity, and improved trucks — those metal gizmos that fasten the wheels to the board — have all combined to produce a skateboard whose limits are yet to be explored. By 1972 the new boards were an underground phenomenon mostly confined to the sidewalks of the beach towns south of L.A. An Encinitas surfboard manufacturer, Bahne and Company, turned out a few urethane-wheel boards in the late months of '72. The next year they produced 2500 boards. The last two years, Bahne, only one of at least 20 manufacturers, has cranked out as many as 2500 boards in a single day. Skateboard entrepreneurs expect the summer of '76 to be to skateboarding what the summer of '68 was to surfing.
It is not, however, all roses. A number of skateboarders have been injured during the recent boom. There have been tragedies. A typical street-corner collision involves an inexperienced skater and a one-ton automobile. Because of the obvious danger to the skater, many towns and municipalities have banned skateboards from public streets and sidewalks. Skaters, however, are nothing if not resourceful. It was discovered, especially in California, that outlying districts often have huge cement channels and bowls and reservoirs that are dry throughout much of the year. The banks and the basins and the nature of the various inclines seemed, to the skaters, divinely inspired arenas for the testing of the new skateboards.
The supervising civil engineer of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, Norman Bradley, describes the situation at Dominguez Channel near Vermont Avenue: "Every weekend they would cut the fence. They'd stay for two or three days and have contests and such." Dominguez is a trapezoidal canal; that is, it has a flat bottom and high cement sides that slope out at an obtuse angle. The long flat run was made for speed. The sides were for slowing down and for tricks. Near the drop at Vermont you could sometimes see literally hundreds of skaters lining the rim of the canal and cheering on some particularly hot skater. "The skaters often had to call a nearby firehouse so that first aid could be administered to kids," Bradley says. "They had concussions and broken collarbones as I remember." The Flood Control District suggested that the L.A. Parks Department make the channel a skate park, but there was no money for the necessary landscaping or for insurance, and the county eventually studded Dominguez with speed bumps. The channel can no longer be skated.
Also rendered impossible to skate is the huge, aptly named Toilet Bowl, a storm-drain basin above Universal City. Ditto for the so-called Super Bowl. The Brea Spillway was filled in with earth after the tragedy there. Skateboarders don't like to talk about it. They call that accident "the splatter at Brea," and there is not a trace of humor in the phrase. It was a typical accident. A young man tried for top speed, lost control, struck his head. Dozens of skaters and one moviemaker saw the death fall.
It is important to note that most skateboard accidents are minor ones. William Tully of the Southern California Permanente Medical Group says that "most of the skateboard injuries we saw were fractures of the forearm and were usually of a nature that was not serious." Warren Bolster, editor of SkateBoarder magazine, circulation 200,000, points out that the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission ranks "skates, skateboards and scooters" 25th in terms of number and severity of accidents. Bicycles topped the list. Beds, springs, frames and bunk beds — a little perspective here — are positive deathtraps and rank number eight on the safety commission's list.
One relatively rare injury sometimes results from what is called a gorilla-style jump. In this maneuver, a barefoot skater works up speed, wraps his toes around the front and back ends of the board and jumps for height and distance. When the leaper fails to properly calculate the distance to the ground, or fails to distribute his weight evenly, his curled toe tips are caught between the end of the descending board and the rough cement. This results in broken toes and a certain frayed effect not unlike the bottom edge of a much laundered pair of cutoff blue jeans. The toes heal up in a month or two.
The most common injury is called a raspberry or a road rash or a stone bruise and occurs when a patch of bare skin, traveling at some speed under the weight of the body, scraaaaaaaaapes along the pavement for any distance at all. These abrasions are almost always round and red and raw. A really big one is called a burger. As in: "Hey, I see you just made a trip to McDonald’s." "Yeah, I spent 52 bucks there." And, "Looks like it."
Even veterans, pros like World Pro Men's Freestyle Champion Bruce Logan, hot young stylists like Gregg Weaver and Laura Thornhill, are mottled with burgers. They sport stone bruises on the elbows and knees--some raw and recently purchased, others perhaps six months old and the color of uncooked liver. The skaters are, without exception, quite happy to show you each and every visible burger they possess. These painful, self-treated abrasions are the skateboarder's red badge of courage.
There is a solution to the problem of where to skate legally, push the board and the body to the limit, and still not risk a fatal splatter. You must imagine an area set aside for skateboards alone: a vast moonscape of molded concrete with long slalom runs that drop into steep canyons, with bowls, and cups, and flat land for freestyle tricks, and cloverleafs and ripples and pipelines. A skate park, in other words; a roller rink for skateboards. There are several skate parks in the works, and some are already operating.
The beginners' section of the Carlsbad Skatepark in Carlsbad, California, opened this spring. Helmets, knee and elbow pads are required. It is a strange small area of concrete molded into low cups and bowls. The owners of the park, Jack Graham and John O'Malley, claim to have contracts to design three more parks, tentative commitments on several others and feasibility studies out in 35 separate cities.
The idea may well be one whose time has come. Skaters like the idea that runs are engineered for skating. In a good park, for instance, a skater of moderate skill could be going slowly, say no more than 10 miles an hour, and still pull two Gs in a bowl with a tight radius. The most experienced skater could take the bigger bowls, faster, and pull 2.5 Gs. The speedball artist could take the longest run, confident of a smoothly engineered exit ramp. Skaters are uniformly gaga over the idea of skate parks. "Stoked" is the way they put it.
Similarly stoked are local government officials who see the idea as a way of keeping the kids off the streets and out of trouble. They believe, with some justification, that the middle-class sons and daughters of their constituents will be spared serious injury in the new parks. Consequently, we may all look forward to a time when young people on skateboards will careen around a cratered parking lot next to the Taco Bell.
After the movie in Corte Madera, the old guy in the parking lot with the cigarettes told some of the veteran skaters what he knew about the pipeline. Somewhat modified for print, the story goes like this:
The assault on the federal facility at Charmless Canyon began Sunday morning, in one of the provincial beach towns between Los Angeles and San Diego. Fifteen or more persons participated in the abortive operation. We know the identity of two of the perpetrators. Jon Malvino and Scott Williams were fairly nailed by officers involved in the inter-police-agency effort that employed at least one helicopter. Others in the assault team slogged ankle- and knee-deep through stinking subterranean silt and mud through a manmade tunnel to eventual escape. Some — police-file number 381003 for example — surrendered peaceably but claimed they had left their identification in a safe house. Because they were clad only in their assault uniforms — tennis shoes, T-shirts, shorts — they were allowed to simply spell their names for arresting officers. These people, as it turned out, were appalling orthographers, and a name such as Bob Smith might be spelled A. Stoker Session or Sebastian Herringbone, or Winston W. Poontang.
The perpetrators were skateboarders all, by some accounts the best of their breed in the world; artists, if you will, of that special sport. The facility at Charmless Canyon offered the Supreme Challenge, and the Supreme Challenge is always worth a two-and-a-half-hour drive, even if it takes you through the smoggy valleys and parched foothills of San Bernardino.
The perpetrators locked up the cars, took up their boards and, avoiding a Quonset hut and a water tower and parked earth-moving equipment, made their way to a break in the Century fence. The steep trail to the canyon floor was littered with Coors cans faded white in the sun, like old bones. Stretching out below and on all sides were white cement spillways with V sides and flat bottoms. The main canal runs as far as the eye can see, down toward the cities and towns of the valley below. The skateboarders, on the canyon floor, climbed another chain-link fence, ignoring a badge-shaped red, white and blue sign reading, "No Trespassing U.S. Property." They helped each other into the deep, dry central canal. Every few yards they passed spray-paint graffiti which, for the most part, was in reaction to the heart-stopping runs of the Supreme Challenge:
"I'll never get over it."
"Great day in the morning."
"We're hung up on the pipeline."
Other signs, stencil painted and less frequent, read, "No Skateboarding, Subject to Fine."
Presently, the perpetrators stood on the lip of the great pipe, perhaps 15 feet in diameter and an eighth of a mile long. The pipe disappeared into the earth and headed on up toward the wooden house where the dam keeper stays. The angle was steep. A heavy oak desk, placed on its top, would slide easily down the incline. The pipeline at Charmless Canyon looked like tough skating, a genuine widow-maker.
Worse, a thin trickle of water ran down the bottom of the pipe. The water was no more than a fraction of an inch deep and less than five inches wide at its broadest point near the end of the pipe. Even that minimal amount of water contrived to sound like a small waterfall. The echo inside the pipe was awesome. The word "hello" hesitated up in the darkness at the nether end, then shot back down to the lip so loudly and so clearly that one could hear the tenseness in his own voice.
The voices were tense because the water was going to be a problem. Every one of the skaters had boards with urethane wheels, a plastic which slips badly against cement when wet. Scott Williams figured that if you shushed through the water at a good clip, the run along the upper wall would generate drying heat. He was pretty near almost absolutely certain it would work. There was a fine chance that nobody would be hurt — very badly.
Still, they were all properly tense. Rumors had it that lesser skateboarders had been injured in the tube, that they had broken legs and hips and arms and that they had had to be medevaced out with cranes and helicopters. Nobody at nearby fire or police stations remembers any such operations, but never mind: The skateboarders believe the rumors. They believe that people have been caught in the pipeline during flood-control maneuvers and have been swept miles down the spillway. Again, there is no evidence of any such occurrence. Regardless of what you believe about these purported accidents, it is difficult to look up that tube all the way to the point where the light ends in blackness and not feel a burst of clammy apprehension. Standing at the top of the tube was worse: The light they saw at the end of the tunnel was a 50-cent piece worth of brilliance, far below. It looked like Burger Circus down there.
Malvino's camera was at the ready. Skateboarding has been the little brother of surfing for so long that people who make skating films — notably Malvino in That Magic Feeling — like to intersperse surfing clips with skateboard footage. It is as if to say: See? See how the footing resembles that of the surfer? The pipeline is the ultimate surfing analogue: it is a 20-second ride in an eternally perfect wave. It is Waimea on wheels.
Scott Williams readied his board.
Someone whispered, "If you like 'em rare, go down there."
There are two ways to take the pipe at Charmless. One is the kick-turn method. You ride up the side of the pipe to that moment when the inertia pushing you up just about equals the gravitational force that wants to see you on your back on the bottom of the tube. Here you put your weight on the back of the board till the front wheels lift off the cement. With your front foot you want to kick the nose of the board around so it faces back down, steeply.
The second method is the standard slalom turn. Here you begin the turn long before the gravity has a good hold on momentum. The turn — it is a matter of shifting your weight — carries you at a great height for a longer period of time. The kick-turn approach requires as many as 25 turns on each wall — a total of 50 turns timed to a fraction of a second. The advantage of the kick turn is that you slow your downward speed and have a deeper slope to dive onto the opposite wall.
Williams, 16, a stony, quiet type with surfer-blond hair, used the faster, more dangerous slalom turn. He began by pumping, which is to say, he worked up speed by pushing off cement with one foot while balancing on the board with the other. He angled through the trickle of water, drew up the other foot onto the board and shot up the side of the pipeline. The greater speed, he figured, would carry him higher on the side wall. It would also heat his wheels more and keep them drier. After his second turn Williams knew he had calculated correctly: the water was not going to be a problem. Now he was looking for height on the side walls. Below, stretching up from the mouth of the tunnel, Williams could see two long streaks of light, one on either side of the tube, each a little closer to the top of the pipe than to the bottom. He had about 10 more turns on each wall and his goal was to stop those streaks of light. Already his thighs had begun to tremble and there was with him the sound of his own running wheels, loud now with his weight heavy on the board at the bottom of the tube, less loud on the side walls.
RRRRrrrrRRRRrrrr is an immediate approximation of that sound, a sound which played in counterpoint to the echoes of previous sweeps. And Williams was topping those streaks, topping them by a foot on this wall, maybe two feet over there. The tunnel was filled with cheers, with the echoes of the cheers, with the echoes of the echoes.
Williams was pushing the Supreme Challenge right to the limit. It was as if someone had come to puff up the perpetrators' chests with about 20 pounds of helium apiece. They were the best, these kids from the Southern California beach towns, and they knew it. It wasn't only their opinion. Many of them in the tube that day had won championships in the competitions sponsored by the skateboard manufacturers or by such products as Coca-Cola.
The perpetrators kept a paternal eye on the new skateboard scenes in Australia and Japan. They had a few kind thoughts about Hawaiian skaters but regarded skaters from North Carolina, Texas, Florida and New York as amateurs. The only people they are really in awe of are the legendary "carpetbaggers."
The carpetbaggers are rumored to be Northern California Neanderthals, "animals, primitives, wild men," who started using the urethane wheel only three or four months ago. They are said to live in squalid mountain cabins. There they dress in three or four layers of clothes, put on their helmets and gloves and heavy shoes. Over all this they wear suits cut from heavy carpet material. They use the old wooden boards, long ones, 35 inches and more, and they ride these boards on their backs, luge style, down steep and lonely mountain roads. They have been clocked, the rumors have it, at speeds in excess of 80 mph. According to the Southern Californians, the carpetbaggers are "crazy people."
Not at all safe and sane like Scott Williams, who, approaching the bottom lip of the Charmless pipeline, realized he had to make some rapid decisions concerning his immediate future. Williams was going a good 20 mph when he hit the lip, which is gently rounded, open to the sky and ends in a sheer cement cliff. The cliff drops off about 15 feet into a seething pit, filled with mud and studded with sharp rocks. The rocks are covered with old Twinkie wrappers. Bits of broken Dr. Pepper bottles are embedded in the mud.
Some skilled skateboarders deal with the pit by doing a sit-out, a maneuver in which they kick turn to slow down, place one gloved hand on the cement, light on one buttock and, keeping both feet on the board, let it circle them until the momentum is gone. A typical sit-out artist looks as if he backed into a bed of razor blades, then sent his jeans through the wash 15 times. If he is good, both buttocks will show the fray.
The most exciting method of dealing with the end of the tube is the one favored by the least-skilled skaters. Slowing as much as possible, the unfortunate person involved simply steps off the board and runs rapidly in the direction of his or her inertia. This move invariably results in a header followed by a quick trip to McDonald’s. The skateboard continues on up the side of the tube like a bullet in a well-bored rifle. At the top, centrifugal force gives way to gravity and the board drops to the bottom of the tube with a terrific explosive thwaawp. Unless it lands on the fallen skater.
Scott is so good he can literally turn his inertia in on itself, which is to say, by a combination of slalom and kick turn he can get his board going back up the tube. After a sweep or two against the incline, he has slowed enough to calmly step off the board. It is a simply astounding feat.
Scott and the perpetrators had about an hour alone with the Supreme Challenge. More and more of them were reaching up to the rays of light, reaching up and topping them. Limits were being explored, and when they talked about it later, the Charmless Canyon perpetrators spoke of letting it "all hang out," and of "street dancing" and of adrenalin highs. The more poetic of them used phrases like "dancing with danger" and suggested that this testing of limits had something in common with the bullring, that taking the board hard on up to the moment where it can't hold is like watching the horn pass under your chin.
These powerful emotions, poorly articulated, were what the skaters felt when the blue speck on the canyon rim called down to them.
"Everybody out or you're going to jail," it shouted. Fair enough. A few left, but the majority had to take one last run, and one last run turned into two last runs, and maybe, if they were quick, one last run after that. Which is when the helicopter came. Some slid down into the pit and hid under the main channel. Others sprinted down the channel itself, vaulted the fence and spread out in every direction. The helicopter swooped low and herded the lawbreakers into a convenient group.
There were those among the perpetrators who gave the officers false names. Scott Williams, a polite yes sir and yes ma'am sort of young man, does not lie, and especially not to police officers. The cop looked to Scott to be maybe 40, certainly overweight, red-faced and winded from the chase. He was a nice cop. Very polite. Probably only concerned that somebody might be seriously hurt in the pipeline. He was a good cop who chased kids with helicopters and who would never understand what a Supreme Challenge was. Not the way Scott Williams understands it.
In the parking lot, after the movie, the old fellow talked and gestured expressively. There was a moment when he had a sense of being one of them, of sharing their secret and their exclusivity. It was like finally making the clique your senior year in high school. Then he lit another cigarette and with it he became old again.
"You made that up about the pipeline being in Charmless Canyon," someone accused.
"But there's no place called Charmless Canyon."
The man explained then that the Southern California group had specifically asked him not to reveal the location of the tube. Besides, he told them, he didn't want anyone hurt there because of him.
The skaters seemed to appreciate his concern for their well-being. "Gee, thanks a lot, mister," one of them said, and another added, "What a guy."
Instantaneously, it seemed, they were gone, roaring off into the California night in their Camaros and Firebirds. The old man stood smoking under a streetlamp and imagined that he was watching his own youth lay rubber up into the hills.