Skateboarding in the Olden Days

Johnny and friends with the latest technology circa 1976.

by John Robinson

Barry and I, both 12, had hiked the path of the old incline railway straight up Mill Mountain, skateboards hanging from our spindly arms. A quick visit to the zoo and then came the real purpose of our trek: skateboarding down the old road. It was basically a jump-on jump-off affair but we loved the adventure. That laminated wood Hobie skateboard which I had just acquired was the very coolest. Barry was using a homemade job of which he was quite proud. We were really getting into skateboarding.

The advent of soft urethane wheels a few years later was an extremely exciting development. I mean, we loved skateboarding already, on the old “clay” wheels –not so much the 1920’s steel ones – so one can imagine how ecstatic we were to get our hands on these magic soft rubber “Stokers.”

As soon as my mail-order box arrived, I tore open the packaging of the new wheels. On our back porch I carefully installed the wheels and loose ball bearings (sealed cartridge bearings would come out the next year) and tightened the axle nuts. My skateboarding friends followed the introduction of urethane wheels closely, and soon more lawn mowing money was in the mail for wheels with names like Road Rider, O.J., and Weber. Along with the new wheels came new, wide “trucks” –Excalibers, Trackers- and boards made from all kinds of materials. There were beautiful laminated wood ones, flexible fiberglass ones, even aluminum ones. Names of boards like Fibreflex, Santa Cruz, and Logan Earth Ski were highly desired.

Our passion for skateboarding skyrocketed and we were soon living and breathing skateboarding 24/7. We skateboarded everywhere – sidewalks, streets – you name it. We loved the style – like Easy Rider freedom and surfing and skiing combined. And nobody seemed to mind, thankfully. Except one time on the Blue Ridge Parkway when I received a carefully-written “courtesy ticket” for illegal riding.

About that time (1975)  photos from the west coast filtered across the country showing guys skateboarding in empty cement swimming pools. That’s right, they’d push off hard from the shallow end, drop into the deepest part and then arc far up the vertical side of the pool. Oh yeah, we have to do that, our crew agreed.

When you’re a kid it’s amazing what you can get away with, and I was no exception. There were several pools in the Roanoke Valley in which we trespassed during the off-season. We never considered getting permission; we just climbed over or burrowed under the fences and launched into our pool-riding careers. We’d carefully clean out the leaves and any other debris which had collected in the deep end, and the fun began. In the months of pool riding we got pretty good at it, “carving beautiful lines” across the smooth concrete. Tapping the edge coping with a front wheel was a trick for the mastery of which we persevered. It was an exciting time.

We eventually tired of riding in the pools –or they got filled up or we got kicked out (my memory fades here . . .) so we started building wooden ramps instead. Some were small and simple, some were quite another thing altogether.

My friends Rocky and Jeff, with essential parental blessing, built a huge, curved, wave-like wall for us to ride. It was over ten feet tall and must have contained enough scavenged two-by-fours and plywood to construct a modest-sized house. The ramp was situated at the bottom of a long steep driveway and one would launch toward it at some point on the hill. This point was determined by one’s skill, bravery, amount of sense or lack thereof.

 The objective was to gather speed on the driveway, then smoothly and boldly attack the ramp, riding up it as far as possible and then executing a smart turn and controlled descent. It didn’t always work out that way, and this was all done without helmets, knee pads or any other safety gear beyond our own wits and the love of God. So, even though impressively-scraped body parts were the rule, we somehow avoided serious injury.

The boys in my skateboarding gang (no girls, are you kidding? They were too smart for this) finally dispersed to other pursuits like, well, girls for one thing, and time moved on.

But I’ll never forget the grin I had on my face, and the elation I felt, when I watched my friend  Doug push off from the shallow end of the empty pool we had just entered, and drop into the deep end with great style and grace, not to mention bold commitment. Arms positioned just so, he ascended the far wall, smeared the coping with his front wheels, and descended, weightlessly tracing a flowing arc across the bottom of the pool.

It was magical, and I couldn’t wait to try it myself. And maybe I felt a twinge of urgency, a hint of fleeting childhood, with the glimmer of understanding that in the twinkle of an eye, time and life would take me away from here to other places, other things – other equally amazing and unexpected adventures.