Posted on August 10, 2014
If I was to stay true to the “spots” theme this entry should really be titled “Launch Ramps”. Hell, even that is not very accurate. Maybe “Jeff B’s Driveway and in Front of Brian’s House”? How unwieldy is that? Team P.E.B. is much more evocative and fun.
In elementary school I had a super hero club. Inspired by my favorite comic book, the X-Men, and a book of rare animals a relative had given me, I named our “team” the MAMMALS. Knowing myself, I am sure there was also some tortured acronym that MAMMALS was meant to stand for, but I can’t remember what. I assigned all of my friends code names based on animals best suited to their characteristics. I was, of course, Wolverine since it was my club. The only other code names that I can still recall are Spider Monkey for Ray (a natural climber) and Mongoose for Dwayne (who was quite acrobatic). My younger sister was Hedgehog. She still holds that against me. This team didn’t really do anything, other than imagine ourselves as superheros at recess. Through some selective cognitive dissonance we somehow thought we were superior to the girls that ran around pretending they were horses.
After the onset of puberty and the shift to middle school my dorkier tendencies were somewhat eclipsed by skateboarding. In fact, I can remember exactly when that happened. We had played Dungeons and Dragons in elementary school. “Played” being used in the absolutely loosest sense of the word since I don’t think any actual rules or modules were followed. We basically just made it all up as we went along. We were too young and too easily distracted to sit still through all that dice rolling and math. Sometime late in elementary school, I did, briefly, try to run a campaign following a little closer to how the game was meant to be played, with a simplified rule system I cobbled together from the manuals, but we only met once. Early in 6th grade, another boy, Sam, decided we were going to start fresh and play by all the rules. One weekend afternoon all my nerd friends met at his house to roll up new characters. I skated over there and after a few hours of arguing over the proper means of character creation followed by a last minute decision to play Gamma World, I left, deciding that skateboarding was much more fun.
The MAMMALS had ceased to exist so I formed a skate team. This was in fashion at the time, not even just boys emulating the pro teams, but think “The Ramp LOCALS!” and “The Daggers”. My team was called Team P.E.B. for Pat, Eddie and Brian (I warned you about the acronyms). We were the three boys in our neighborhood that skated so we had naturally flocked together. We were soon joined by Jeff B, who was a year older, better and already a bit too sophisticated to really care about being part of the team. In hindsight I don’t think Brian particularly cared much either. He was not as obsessive as I was and would soon be the first of us to stop skateboarding. Team P.E.B. was, for all intents and purposes, just Eddie and me.
The younger boys though, they ate it up. We had several hangers on that I made honorary members of the team. The most ridiculous of which got himself kicked out of a contest my mother had driven us to. I can’t even remember his name but he wanted to be part of the team so badly he had, unbeknownst to us, brought with him a TEAM P.E.B. stencil and a can of spray paint. This contest was held at a closed gas station somewhere in a nearby Baltimore county neighborhood. Just a few little wooden ramps scattered around an empty parking lot, nothing special. In fact, after finding the pictures, its pretty amazing how sparse it was. Three launch ramps and a quarter pipe. It was the first, and one of the only, contests I entered. We had organized various informal “skate jams” before. Those were a thing at the time. Total amateur contests where you would pick a spot, spread the word and a bunch of random kids would show up and compete. Generally it was for nothing other than bragging rights, but I think the one I organized by the loading dock at our elementary school had a small entry fee with the winner taking the money. This contest was organized by a local shop and had sponsors, age brackets, permits and everything. There were actual adults there.
While we were warming up, this boy who was not skating in the contest, just there in support of Team P.E.B., tagged the empty cashier’s booth with his stencil and was promptly ejected. Having nowhere to go he skulked about in the nearby bushes all day, until the contest finally ended and my mother returned to pick us up. I got third place in the contest. I think I won a gift certificate. Or maybe a t-shirt or hat. Something trivial anyway. I didn’t do much of anything, just went in a circle and did the same airs out of the launch ramps over and over again. I probably kicked turned or axle stalled on the quarter pipe and maybe did a board slide on the parking block. This earned me some criticism from my friends, but I was consistent and didn’t fall so the cautious approach paid off. The kids that won just did more complicated airs. That’s what the contest was really, not a a street competition per se, but a launch ramp competition.
1987 was the year of the launch ramp. Honestly, the whole of my middle school years, 1985-1988 were the launch ramp years, but I think it peaked in 1987. 1987 was also peak squeeb. I had one. My parents were very indulgent about my stupid haircut. My great grandmother cut it that way for me and my father helped me peroxide the bangs. It started short and somewhat respectable but by the end of middle school had become a long dangling blonde thing with cropped hair everywhere else.
The speed that these trends spread, despite being transmitted only through Thrasher, Transworld and the very rare video parts, has always fascinated me. On one hand its not that surprising since skating is such an aesthetic pursuit. Tony Hawk was one of the most popular pros at the time so it makes sense that so many teenage boys decided they wanted his haircut. Other things are more complicated. Airwalks were the most popular shoe. Which is odd, just in and of itself since they are now just a K-mart brand. I had forgotten just how popular they were though. Going through my old pictures, I was amazed how much Airwalk graffiti and grip tape art I saw. Yet at some point we all stopped wearing Airwalks and Vans and instead started wearing big basketball high tops. Did we wear Air Jordan’s because of the Bones Brigade as well? There is a (possibly apocryphal) story that they only were wearing those Jordans in Animal Chin because they couldn’t get Vans. Did that accident (if it did happen) influence the whole of skateboarding? What about Converse Cons? Those were incredible popular amongst teen skaters but I don’t remember any pros wearing them, though I’m sure some did. I feel like we, as children, collectively decided on these shoes because the suede and canvas of the skate shoes of the time just didn’t hold up. I remember my Vans being more Shoe Goo and duct tape than shoe. We didn’t care about “board feel”, all we were doing was launching out of ramps and slamming to the ground and wanted shoes that lasted.
Another question is why launch ramps? With Natas Kaupas’s part in Wheels of Fire heralding the birth of the new age, street skating began to really take off. Gonz and Natas were doing kickflips. In the video I have from this time (embedded below) you can see my friend Brian try a kickflip. He doesn’t land it but the motion is right. He could probably do them. I didn’t think kids were doing kickflips as early as 1987 but obviously they were. Yet, instead of deciding to explore the more technical side of street skating, something that obviously came in to fashion a few years later in the early 90s, in 1987 skaters decided en mass that they wanted to skate launch ramps. Maybe it had to do with Hosoi and the pictures coming out of Venice Beach? However it developed, launch ramps became the primary focus of street skating. There was this weird monomania about it. That is all that anyone wanted to do.
Jeff B had the first launch ramp in the neighborhood. More importantly he also had a large gymnastic wedge mat. That is where I learned. We would set up the ramp in his driveway so that it was downhill, push at it and launch off into the mat. With no fear of injury it was easy to learn all the basic grabs. Next we learned all the tweaks. There was a whole litany of tricks based on vert airs. Every minor variation had a new name. Grab mute and tweak back and it was a Japan Air, melon and it was a Crooked Cop. Does anyone in 2014 even remember what a Crooked Cop was? We almost never skated this ramp without the mat. There wasn’t enough room in Jeff B’s driveway to ride these airs out and the street in front of his house was too bumpy, busy and narrow for us to move the ramp out there. Instead, after we had learned all our tricks in to the mat, we skated a launch ramp at Brian’s house. He kept it in his garage and we would drag it out on to the much quieter side street he lived on. It was tighter and shorter than Jeff’s so we had to brace it with cinder blocks because it had a tendency to slide. The four of us would spend entire days here, doing early grab air after early grab air off of the thing.
Launch ramps obviously weren’t a new invention. The very first kid to ride a skateboard probably propped a piece of wood up on something and attempted to get some air. It’s kind of ridiculous to think about it now, but in a lot of ways nothing has changed. Go to any skate park, and you will find young kids lined up to air out of the fly-out spot. That is all that they want to do. Getting air is fun. The only difference with us is that we had to crash all the way back down to earth, twisting ankles and ruining our knees. I guess there is a second difference, in that it was all early grab, it had to be early grab. We could ollie off of those ramps, but somehow we never thought to ollie in to a grab. No, instead you would crouch down and grab the board, often before you even hit the ramp and try to tweak it slightly one way or another because that was a trick. This is what skateboarding was for a few years until, at least for us, mini ramps took over. But there is something else to talk about first and that is Lutherville which I will cover in the next two posts.
The entire video of us skating Brian’s ramp is now up and located here.