MAN ABOUT TOWN: Skateboarding – Just Take the Pain

man-about-townLast year a neighbor boy spoke four words to me that for some reason burned into my brain. About 13 years old, he was an avid skateboarder, practicing daily the pretty amazing stunts these kids learn. The practice involves a lot of falls, but he wore no protective gear – no helmet, no kneepads, no elbow pads, no gloves. “What happens if you get hurt,” I asked, and his answer was:

“You just take it.”

That’s why skateboarding is not just a “sport” – it’s more of a sub-culture. And although I know essentially nothing about skateboarding, I’m writing about it because, in my walks around town, I’ve encountered it enough to realize that for the male under-16 age group, its importance has increased noticeably.

Most recently, the City converted the basketball court at Cavalier Trail Park into a skateboard park, and it’s getting a lot more use now than before. The City supplied a number of ramps, but now I’ve noticed some more dangerous-looking equipment. Last week I saw a boy practicing on a kind of parallel bar – a long horizontal steel pole suspended from the ground. According to the Internet, it’s called a round grind rail. You approach it on the board, jump, and somehow ride it. It’s no mean trick, and the kid invariably would fall from the bar onto the concrete court.

A few months ago we had a little controversy in the City over the bad language being used at the skateboard facilities at Madison Park. The impression was that the kids were just being ill-mannered and uncouth. But as I watched this boy fall on the concrete, and heard him swear, I realized that his profanity was the most primitive form of pain reliever.

I needed some pain relief myself. Seeing the boy hit the concrete made me shudder. Then he’d swear, and a buddy would ask, “You OK?” and he’d grunt, get up, and do it all again.

Obviously, he was just “taking it.”

Why? I don’t think it takes a degree in anthropology to understand what’s going on. This is very much a male thing, of course. It’s related to every kind of male sparring for dominance, from elephants to seals. Blood and pain are badges of honor.

For once, I’m grateful to be part of an earlier generation. Although I wasn’t completely spared — I got a skateboard as a birthday present in my teenage years, and I well remember my first experience on it. This was in the steel-wheel era, before boards evolved to enable any fancy tricks. Back then you just pushed off and rode.

We had a pretty steep hill where I lived, and several of us set off on our boards to ride down the hill. Protective gear hadn’t even been invented yet, and our sensible genes would not kick in for a number of years. As my skinny board picked up speed my balance grew more precarious until the board started fishtailing as I hung on for dear life. Toward the bottom of the hill I lost control and wiped out, hitting the pavement at a pretty good speed. Oh, the pain! I suppose you could say I “took it,” but unlike the boy at the park I had no desire to do it again.

So my friend, Morty, seeing I wasn’t going to use my board, proposed the dumbest idea I had ever heard: he would ride BOTH boards down the hill. I really didn’t want to see him get killed and told him so, but he insisted. With a nonchalance only possible among the young, he mounted those boards, one per foot, and cruised down the hill without incident. I was amazed, but pain is an excellent teacher, and no amount of cajoling could make me follow his example.

That was way before any kind of sub-culture built up around skateboarding. Later, as a high school English teacher, I learned about the culture from a student who would write about nothing else. He had his own claim to fame as a cousin of Arlo Guthrie, the folksinger and son of Woody Guthrie, composer of “This Land Is Your Land,” but that’s another story. From this boy I learned some skate-culture vocabulary such as “rad,” and that skating was not so much a sport as a mindset and lifestyle.

Since that time skating has ebbed and flowed in popularity, but clearly now it’s on the rise. If you want some “cred,” you better learn how to skate.

And be prepared to “just take it.”

MAN ABOUT TOWN appears Mondays in The Falls Church Times.

July 13, 2009 


4 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: Skateboarding – Just Take the Pain”

  1. Andy Rankin on July 13th, 2009 9:12 am

    Interesting that you mention swearing as pain relief – I saw this on this morning:

  2. Brian Sulc on July 13th, 2009 4:09 pm

    Very insightful piece. At the core, you show understanding and appreciation for an important piece of the process of becoming a man that our modernized, feminized, comfort-based society has done its best to forget. Video games and action movies are worthless substitutes. It is an age old truth – every boy, every man needs a mission. Men today have been trained to stifle what John Eldredge in Wild at Heart, calls a man’s three essential needs: to fight a battle, have an adventure, rescue a maiden. Even if he can’t put it into words, every man is haunted by the question, “Am I really a man? Have I got what it takes…when it counts?” If we as a society don’t understand this in our boys, we will reap what we sow when they become husbands, fathers and members of our communities. Skateboarding, which I am not personally a fan of, is just a suburban manifestation of how we are wired.

  3. Kristen Terry on July 13th, 2009 11:52 pm

    Bravo Brian! I could not agree with you more. Boys need to be encouraged to live dangerously, for the sake of goodness.

  4. Christine Sanders on July 14th, 2009 12:03 pm

    Thank you for this article and for the positive comments. My son occasionally visits the skateboard park and has friends who frequent it. He enjoys the challenges, is aware of the risks and is not afraid to suffer the consequences of a risky but fun and thrill-seeking activity. There is preciious little for the young teens to do that doesn’t require parent involvement, -just what they’re struggling against. I applaud the community’s desire to suport the park. Smaller and much less affluent communities than FC support these parks. They are usually supervised by older teens who can provide some mentorship and supervision. Maybe FC would consider this as well.

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