ERIC KRUEGER: Skateboarders stir other older memories
“On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be. And there the world below can’t bother me …” Gerry Goffin and Carole King, 1962
I am 62 years old and can never retrieve the physical fitness and physical courage of my youth, but if I could be 15 again, you can bet I’d own a skateboard.
Indeed, teen and tween boys from Clovis to Beijing today treasure their skateboarding as recreation, self-propulsion and as a boundless and exotic personal freedom; for me it’s also kinetic art wrapped in a sovereign culture.
I walk through my Clovis neighborhood every day, and most every day see skateboarders riding on sidewalks or in the street, although “driving” is a better verb because the complex physical prowess — the eye-leg-foot coordination — these guys bring to their boards consistently snares my attention.
Fact is, the kids dazzle me with their myriad speeds, jumps, whirls, leaps, tricks. They never talk, shout or fall, and as they dart up Villa Avenue, I feel as if I’m watching ballet dancers whose only sound is the low rumbling friction of their boards’ polyurethane wheels speeding over the surfaces that lead to nearby Letterman Park, site of a 27,000-square-foot, concrete colossus named “The Clovis Rotary Skatepark” — an artfully designed canyon of concrete walls, curves, dips, drops and outcrops explicitly for local skateboarders to perform their demanding tricks and maneuvers, their striking athleticism.
We didn’t have skateboards then — then being 1950s and ’60s suburban Springfield, New Jersey. According to research, skateboard riding is an international culture with no single father, movement or well-delineated early history.
Some observers speculate that California ocean surfers, bored with waiting for big waves, built the first crude mini-boards to ride on pavement; but whatever the case, various models — about eight inches wide and 32 inches long with wheels resembling those on roller skates — were making informal debuts by the early 1950s, and soon manufacturers began producing and selling them on a large scale. (By 2002, for example, worldwide skateboarders numbered 18 million, with 74% of them boys under age 18.)
No, we didn’t have skateboards then, but we did have Baltusrol Golf Club, the prestigious site of many famous tournaments, including seven U.S. Open Championships. Since Baltusrol wasn’t used during our New Jersey winters when snow drenched it, my childhood buddies and I could sneak onto the course with our Flexible Flyer sleds, for us the equivalent of F-16 fighters, and at imposing velocity sleigh down its steep hillsides and rocket and weave across its frozen fairways, greens, sand traps and ponds.
That fabulous sledding was the zenith of my winter adventuring. My buddies and I would normally go in packs of six or so, our sleds on our shoulders as we marched in New Jersey’s winter snow up Hillside Avenue and climbed Baltusrol’s high chain-link fence. Once on the handsome grounds, we’d hike past the upper 18 holes and up snowy slopes to near the top of the skirting Watchung Mountains.
During one of our trips to Baltusrol, for reasons I can’t recall, we were singing over and over, with some flair, a new pop hit single called “Up on the Roof.” The song, performed by the Drifters, was about escaping the crowds and hustle and drudgery of city life by going high up to a magical perch on a building’s rooftop, which symbolized for us our joyous getting away from our nagging parents, household chores, dreary school and time-wasting homework, all the stupid stuff.
Yes, back then our sleds were our skateboards, our freedom. And Baltusrol our roof.