Ed note: The following story is true and the facts are accurate to the best of my knowledge. NO names have been changed to protect the innocent since nobody I knew back then ever remotely fit that description.
While reading Jackson's blog this past week, a commenter using an alias let it be known through the use of cryptic clues that he grew up with us at West Point, and had known some of the same folks I hung out with. He asked a couple of specific questions regarding the skateboard ramp in the background of my profile photo and alluded to another that myself and my gang of skate rats built. Jackson recommended that perhaps it was time for a post on the subject, and I couldn't agree more if for no other reason than to coax our mystery blog commenter out of anonymity.
If you’ve seen either of the Dogtown movies: “Dogtown and Z Boys” (most excellent documentary), or the drama enhanced “Lords Of Dogtown” (as the Outback Steakhouse dude says, "not as good...") you know that skateboarding’s first big quantum leap occurred when the street skaters of Venice and Santa Monica discovered a practical use for all the swimming pools left empty due to the severe drought Southern California was grappling with in the late seventies. This gave birth to the art of vertical skating and all it’s popular offshoots so common place nowadays (snowboarding halfpipe being at the top the list). Street skating was cool and any teenage male growing up in 1976 could certainly find plenty enough mischief by doing that, but vertical skating took real balls. The consequence factor went up ten fold when one went from doing kick flips in the street to sailing up the 12’ vertical concrete wall of an empty swimming pool. Naturally, once me and my gang saw pictures of guys skating pools it was a foregone conclusion that we had to have us some of that!
The problem we confronted was that unlike drought laden Southern California, where I was living in the spring of 1977 (Newport News, Virginia), there weren’t an abundance of available empty backyard pools to do this activity in, and neither was this the case at West Point NY where I, along with my family, would be moving to in a few short months. Back in Virginia after school let out for the summer, my skating friends and I put together a poorly constructed two transition ramp and began shredding it. It was by far the most fun we’d ever had in our lives up to that point at least, and I was genuinely sad to leave it behind when my Dad packed my brother and I into the car for the long drive and our new life in NY. Oh, what was in store for me I had not a clue…
On my second day as a New Yorker, while at the local swimming facility, I met West Point’s lone resident skateboarder at the time. His name was Chris Lagasse and by the time we headed home for supper, me and my new found friend had plotted an after dark plywood stealing raid for that same evening. As planned, my new friend showed up at the predetermined rendezvous point, but he had some new intel to divulge: on his way home for dinner, he had met a couple of guys who, that same day, had moved in down the road. The Rogers brothers, John and Dave, had skated on a team over in Europe and had just begun skating ramps before their family had to pack it up and move (for those unfamiliar, this is the life of a career service family). The Roger’s Bros. were definitely interested in helping the ramp cause. We met them over at their house and after introductions and helping their older brother set up his killer stereo, we spun the first side of "Aerosmth “Rocks”, and then set out for the historical post cemetery, the final resting place for many of our nations finest, to commandeer our needed building materials. This began a long legacy of night time dark ops style missions in search of materials for skateboard ramps. It’s worthy of note that this inaugural mission to the cemetery was also the first time we were detained by the Military Police (they let us go with the plywood intact after hearing our hastily put together bullshit story. That would be the LAST time they did that). This first ramp went in against the side of the hill where our house shared the parking lot with the Catholic Chapel. It was a crude two transition job much like the one I left behind in VA, but it was a little bigger and better built thanks to the improved quality of pilfered material. It was also closer to true vertical at its peak.
The West Point winter took its toll on that ramp and by the time the spring of 78’rolled around, we had a chance to study some pictures of what other swimming pool deficient skaters were doing to satisfy their jones for anything vertical. We carefully analyzed each and every photo in Skateboarder Magazine throughout the entire winter (nothing cured the winter doldrums like coming home from school and finding your issue of Skateboarder Magazine in the mailbox). The typical solution was a quarter pipe to vertical 10’-12’ tall ramp. This required a higher level of engineering and more complex bill of materials than either of the first models we’d built.
By the time our second summer was upon us in NY, we’d all become proficient at sneaking out of our houses in the wee hours and it was almost a nightly thing. The time was spent either taking these gorgeous downhill speed runs on West Points’ mountainous Hudson Valley terrain, and/or swimming under the stars at Delafield Pond. We took a night or two off from the usual routine to scout and abscond with our needed material from any of the academies bazillion construction sites. We were so familiar with every rock and tree on post by then that it was like taking candy from a baby. It’s funny, my folks rarely asked where all the lumber came from and accepted the lamest of responses whenever they did. Maybe they just didn’t want to know. We’d even use the yellow saw horses that the MP’s would use to close roads and redirect traffic for these ramps with the words “Military Police: Do Not Cross” stenciled across them ("...Oh, these are the ones they didn’t want and were getting rid of anyway. They said we could have them…”)
The plywood surface for this next project would come thanks to Matt Beall and the use of his VW van. Matt wasn’t a skater, but some in our group were his soccer teammates and somehow convinced him that loading up his parents van with stolen plywood in the middle of the night from the roofing jobsite at the cadet Field House was something he wanted to do (If I never told you Matt and if you’re out there, thanks dude!).
The ten foot tall quarter pipe we built as a result of all this hard work was magnificent. The run up to it was down grade so getting speed was easy and it allowed us the opportunity to focus on developing and setting up moves instead of pumping the ground for speed. I remember a few local publications coming up to shoot pictures of us ripping that ramp, but can find none of the resulting photos anywhere. I also don’t remember when that ramp came down or recall for what reason.
I do remember the details of next one though. We had befriended a couple of guys in the housing area across the reservoir from the football stadium by the fall of our second year at West Point and it was decided that it was time to build another ¼ pipe. The location we decided on was a lightly traveled road that ran along the back of Lusk Reservoir and happens to be one of the worlds most beautiful and picturesque backdrops. This location was ideal for three reasons: it provided a close location to steal lumber from (the stadium was under construction yet again), it provided the most excellent wooded groves for sneaking off and smoking cigarettes and other things, and it also had a good hill to run down to so we again didn’t have to worry about pumping for speed much like it’s predecessor.
Unfortunately, the stadium lumber raid netted us only the two by four materials we required and we had to come up with another location and plan to jack the six sheets of exterior grade 5/8’’ plywood required to complete the job. On my way home from my dishwashing job one night, I was delighted to discover a road work project that was underway on Wilson Road. The post engineers were replacing all the manholes along the length of the entire street. It was a long ways down the hill from the tentative location of the new ramp, but was off the beaten path a little bit providing very favorable conditions to ply our well honed lumber thieving tactics. It would definitely be a haul to get the plywood up to our ramp location, but they were using brand new sheets of 5/8” exterior grade and after conferring with my esteemed colleagues we quickly determined that it would be well worth the extra effort. Hell, if the Druids hauled all those boulders over those long distances to Stonehenge, carrying six sheets of plywood a mile or so up a hill wouldn’t be all that bad, right?
On the night of the operation, my friends hooked up with me after work and we set about on our mission. We made our way to an unlit spot off into the woods close to the Wilson Road jobsite where we passed around a joint, and plotted the final details of the caper together. The plan was to break up into two man teams. Each team would approach a sheet of plywood laying on the ground, one person in front, one in back, toss their skateboard on top of said plywood, pick it up, and as quickly and quietly as possible, make their way into the woods and up the hill.
One day during that same fall, my brother and I came home from school and was informed by our mother, who bore this look on her face as if someone had died, that our ramp had been hauled to the dump and burned by the Military Police. Apparently, some desk Sergeant, without consulting with his commander, had taken this action base on a single complaint from some nanny officer’s wife who rang the station up the prior day to complain about hooligans hanging around her house skateboarding and terrorizing HER neighborhood. The Post Provost Marshall who had been out of town at the time found out about this serious(?) error in judgment by one of his men and in fear of the potential major retribution campaign he assumed would follow shortly as a result of this mistake(?) wanted to call my folks and offer a plan to smooth it over (imagine THEM being afraid of US, it just doesn’t get any better than this!). Before my brother and I could utter a single word, she told us that the Provost Marshall had directed the Army Corp of Engineers to build us a replacement ramp ASAP and put it right back where the original was. Here I thought we were about to face the music for stealing lumber, and now I’m hearing this story of contrition from our arch nemesis, AND we’re going to get a new ramp built out of it!
An awesome ramp it was too. We all took the ride with the newly completed ramp on the back of a flatbed truck upon it’s completion from the carpenters shop located down on the banks of the mighty Hudson River. As the tractor trailer made it’s way through the housing area, I was hoping in all my glee that the harpy who had called in that original complaint was looking out her window as we drove by. The Army Corp guys dropped our ramp on the spot we designated and left us with the instructions that the monstrosity had to be painted (green of course), but other than the skate punk spray paint graffiti we applied, the green paint they left for us got tossed in the woods. We were quite the popular attraction that football season and we drank up all the attention thrown our way, not to mention the free beers compliments of the most impressed tailgaters.
The winter that followed, boredom, and some asshole who drove his car onto it spelled the death of that ramp and we were again left with no vertical surface to skate. During the snowy months though, our collective and insatiable need for vertical drove an attempt at an off season solution. Again, we “procured” lumber in the usual manner and build a small half pipe in our empty garage up by the chapel. Much to our dismay, it was a disappointing and failed project on many levels. The garage was WAY too cold to skate in during the winter, it was insufficiently lit, and it never dried out enough to skate not even once.
When the spring finally arrived, we decided to pull the halfpipe out of the garage and move it parallel to the side of our house. This took some serious effort since it was built beyond the size of the garage opening, but we managed to make it happen nonetheless. It was a very tight ½ pipe, perhaps 13’ in diameter. For those familiar, you know this is a very hard pipe to skate, certainly difficult to learn the basics on. Didn’t matter, it took no time to get good at it and we were again impressing passersby with our acrobatics, this time church attendees coming and going to mass and no serious objections from my parents or the priests from the church for that matter. I guess my folks were happy to have us within sight, although all the extra curricular activities were still going on as usual. They even somehow managed to ignore the constant whooshing sound of the ramp and the blaring rock and roll music that was a constant backdrop. They didn’t ask my friends to stop while we ate dinner even after John Rogers skateboard came crashing through the window as we ate one time. We cut our teeth on that little halfpipe and it took us to a new level of skating. Yet, it’s meager diameter was extremely limiting. We had to now set our sights on something major, something more like what the guys in Skateboarder Magazine were skating. This would be the projects of all projects. It would require material thievery on a scale not previously imagined. Some thought it was almost too big. We also knew that the halfpipe we wanted to build would not be one that West Point was going to just let us plop down anywhere without a battle. We spent a lot of our smoking time talking about possible locations and material pilfering plans. What and where was it going to be? I don’t know if it was attempt to coop us, or simply legitimize our plight, but our parents began simultaneously coaxing us to petition West Point’s Youth Activities Division to provide us with a facility to skate. You have to understand that skateboarding was all but illegal by now after many regular trips to the Military Police station by all of us. Our parents put together some kind of informal proposal and submitted it to the powers that be on our behalf. The “powers” couldn’t bring themselves to reward us hooligans for all of our misdeeds, nor did they want to endorse or otherwise spend money on such a non-cadet type activity, but they did concede to allowing us to build a ½ pipe ramp using our own funds adjacent to a playground located in one of the more popular housing areas.
That’s all we wanted and needed. We took a chance and broke with all our previous outlaw conventions and determined that with a contribution of just $20 a piece from each of us, we could build a 10’ tall, full 20’ in diameter state of the art halfpipe. Once the funds were collected my wonderfully understanding, if not a bit naïve, mother drove our family station wagon piled with a bunch of longhaired miscreants up to Newburgh’s Myron’s Lumber and we loaded that thing up until the leaf springs sagged so low we almost didn’t make it back over the mountain (Thanks Mom, after that token deed all my friends thought you were cool. At least cooler than their moms). We put together the project over the course of a week and the result was a sight to see.
It was conveniently located close to the perimeter woods which were more than sufficient to camouflage our extra curricular activities, but visible enough to attract a goodly amount of spectators. At first, the “civilians” were afraid to come close to take a look. This was due to our well established and notorious reputations, but in time it was normal to see a handful of parents and kids standing around watching us skate this ramp with our Aerosmith and Ted Nugent blaring from boom boxes. This halfpipe was constructed in the spring, so we had unfettered use of it all summer. MANY girls came to hang with us here and for a longtime it was THE place to be. This also happens to be the ramp featured in the background of my blogger profile.
Alas, like most all good things, they don’t last and we all grow up. I can’t tell you when I stopped skating that ramp or when I stopped skateboarding period. Thinking back on it, I’d say a change of focus to music (I started singing in a band), fellow skate friends moving away, too much partying, girls, or a combination of all of them put skating further and further down my priority list as time wore on. I can say with absolute certainty that there is no way anyone had more fun than I did when I was an out of control teenager and have the residual scars and guilt to prove it. West Point, in its own hyper conservative and strangely paternalistic way, was a perfect place to grow up despite the oil and vinegar existence we lived as outlaw skateboarders amongst the pinnacle of institutional military indoctrination. There had been nobody like us before we all arrived with our families back in the summer of 1977, and I’d say without a doubt in my mind that there’s been nobody like us there since. All someone has to do is mention skateboarding and ramps and a smile will instantly appear across my face.
The Other "Tony Alva"
UPDATE: I completely forgot that Mike Blackburn, an OG Skateboard Gang member, had given me a copy of a local newspaper that printed a picture of us. This photographer came up and took pictures of us shredding the hell out of the Chapel 1/4 pipe for the enite day. I remember going down to the publishing office and looking at a hundred photos from the shoot. The guy got some great shots as a result of his efforts. I seem to remember him being concerned about the fact that we weren't wearing any safety gear and that his editor may not let him use some of the cooler shots as a result. We were deflated when they went to press with this lame photo:
Also, by request, here's a link to the Flickr page with the above photos along with attributes. Please forward to me any corrections that I need to make.