May 17, 2020by Jon Kramer

The Last Free Ride |Skateboard Mercenaries at the University of Maryland

Copyright 5-17-20    /   2,062 words, by Jon Kramer
Nonfiction.  These events took place in the late 70s – early 1980s while I attended the University of Maryland.

 I went to high school in DC at a military academy run by the Christian Brothers.  How they reconciled teaching the theology of love thy neighbors with practical war skills on how to kill them, God only knows.  But they made some damn fine wine and maybe that had something to do with it.  Despite the dichotomy, I excelled in the regimented military setting.  While at St John’s I was a totally disciplined, clean-cut, science nerd, advancing in rank.  I graduated as a cadet captain and in the upper part of my class.  Then the bottom fell out.

The problem was, I went to college.  You’d think that a student who took college level courses in high school would transition easily to university undergraduate status. Not so, in this case.  I found myself overwhelmed when I entered the University of Maryland.   The classes where huge and impersonal, the student body was monstrous, and the campus was enormous.  The number of course offerings was endless and trudging from one side of campus to the other took forever.  You had to plan your courses according to the time it took to get from one to the next and there was scant little chance that Sociology 103 would be anywhere near Physics 101.

So, naturally, the first thing I learned was – skateboarding. Like a lot of kids, I had played around with skateboarding for 10 years.  But now I saw some practical benefits and got serious – I bought a new Free Former skateboard from California. In a fit of creative genius, I nick-named her “Free”.  How original of me. Free became my best friend and closest companion through my years at Maryland.

Of course, skateboarding wasn’t a course, at least not one offered by the university, per se.  But it made sense to me and I was baffled why there were so few students skating.  If you planned the right route you could wing from the Heath Sciences building to the Foundry in three minutes.  If you walked, it’d take 20.  Even if you biked, with all the attendant hassles of the official lock-ups, it’d take at least 10.

Skateboards had recently experienced a fundamental design revolution.  The first skateboards were created by simply attaching roller skates to the bottom of a wood plank.  Even as they evolved into their own, skateboard wheels were derived from roller skates: hard steel.  The sea-change happened in the early 70s with the advent of softer polyurethane wheels and “leaning trucks”.  Not only was the ride far smoother, but the new technology allowed one to ride overtop of small rocks and debris.  Now every paved surface was open to skaters.

By the mid 70’s – following on the heels of surfing’s popularity – skateboarding rapidly grew into its own.  Surfers who found themselves land-bound, took to skating as a substitute when the waves weren’t accommodating (thus the original label for the sport: “sidewalk surfing”).  The novelty quickly spread from southern California across the country, and then the world.     Skateboard manufacturers began popping up and jockeying for market share.  In 1976 the first skateboarding parks were opened – one in San Diego, the other in Port Orange, Florida.  Competitions were organized and, inevitably, magazines dedicated to the sport started up and fed fuel to the skateboarding bonfire.  This is the scene I skated into with Free as my ride.

The University of Maryland sits among grassy knolls and landscaped hills on the outskirts of Washington DC.  Its great variety of sloping pavements and winding sidewalks became, for me and the Skate Crusaders, an open arena.  We skated our way through the throngs of students, professors, and campus cops. All the Skate Crusaders had developed routes winding around and between buildings. We inked detailed maps of the topography and plotted a labyrinth of skateboard routes with names like: Saigon Slalom, Hammerhead, T-bone, Frank Zappa, and, my favorite – because I developed it – Psycho.

In those days no one wore helmets or protective gear, so skating the more inclined paths of campus was a serious undertaking.   A steep hill can be a blessing or a curse.  If a blessing, it’s wide enough to be safely negotiated by carving back and forth while descending.  But, since the university architects never consulted us on how they should lay out the pavements, most of our routes were cursedly too narrow for carving, especially when overflowing with students and traffic.   In the midst of such challenges, Psycho lived up to its name.

The Psycho run started at the side entrance of the Student Union, which was at the top of the main hill.   You skirt along the sidewalk to the back, then angle over the loading dock, down into the parking lot, and out into the street.  From there it was a steep downhill dash that gained too much speed because the road was narrow.  But if you kept it together, you could exit before the cross street at the bottom.  If you missed the exit, assuming you made it to the bottom, you’d crash through the three-way intersection and smash into the side of the Psych building, the inspiration – in addition to the insanity of the run –  for the route’s name.

Since brick walls do not make for a comfortable landing, you would probably prefer the exit I had devised for this route. The idea was to hit a crosswalk ramp that was 40 yards before the intersection, fly right over the sidewalk and, as gracefully as you could, wipe out onto the grassy hillock beyond.  Grass, being softer than brick, was the more enjoyable way to go.  On Free I could make the exit and enjoy a face-plant into the dirt.  Most other boarders had to bail long before that.

Many of the Skate Crusaders were, not surprisingly, also part of the Maryland Medieval Mercenary Militia, a self-described “anarchist movement dedicated to the appreciation and propagation of the Dark Ages”.  (Yeah, I thought the same thing…. )  From what I could tell, most of the time that meant sitting in the attic windowsills of the Student Union, munching on figs bartered from the Hare Krishna’s outside and making chainmail – the original body armor.

If you ever need a lesson in patience, take up the making of chainmail.  It has to be the absolute most time-consuming manufacturing of garments the world has ever seen.   I spent weeks and weeks on my first chainmail piece and only to about 6” x 10” by the end of the semester, not even enough to protect one shoulder.  If I had to rely on my chainmail expertise in a Samurai sword-fight, I’d be chop suey.

A couple of the guys, however, were hard core and created chainmail shirts a Samurai would kill for.  They were heavy – weighing in at about 20 pounds! – but were sufficient to protect shoulders, arms, and torso.  I have no idea where they found the time to complete those laborious works of art, but the results were astounding.  And functional, by the way.  When they had a bad wipe out on pavement, they came up with nary a scratch – even as their boards splintered.  When I wiped out on pavement, I had to buy another box of jumbo-size Band Aids.  Free, on the other hand, was indestructible.

I loved Free and took care of her – oiling her bearings, and cleaning her trucks whenever we hit the dirt together or wiped out on a patch of sand.  I rode Free all over campus for four years, which is an ancient lifetime for a skateboard in daily use.  But she never let me down.

One day around noon I was riding Free down a gentle slope by the Dairy building where the Agriculture department had a retail ice cream shop.  The street was perfectly angled for an effortless downhill glide and the traffic was slow going enough to where Free and I were able to keep pace with the cars.  Being a wheeled vehicle in the street, I took for granted that the right of way belonged to me when the light was green.  But as I slid down the hill toward the crosswalk, an obviously impatient fellow in a dark suit with a carry-out tray, stepped in front of me.

Hey! I yelled as a warning.  He startled and jumped back, while shouting, Moron!

Funny thing is, at that moment, I really wasn’t trying to be a moron.  I was just cruising along on Free with the traffic heading to class.  So I was a little pissed by this fellow with the lunch tray.  He owed me an apology, or something.  I settled for the something.  On the tray were baskets of food and two large cups with straws sticking out.  As I passed him, I angled over toward the curb, reached out and grabbed one of the cups.  As I flew away, I took a sip.  It was a milkshake.

Chocolate! I announced, My favorite! Thank You!

 You asshole! he screamed.

 I’m not an asshole!  I yelled back, as I slid through the intersection, I’m a Moron!

This moron lived off campus, about 15 miles away at my parent’s house in the small town of Burtonsville.    During the winter months I sometimes drove our family’s communal Datsun station wagon to campus with Free tucked in the back beside my books.  I would park up the hill off campus in the residential area and ride Free down to class.

My final winter at the University of Maryland it was unusually cold.  The roads iced over frequently and driving was treacherous.  One icy morning I was carefully heading south toward the University when a car came down the hill, out of the woods to my right.  It failed to slow at the intersection.  They weren’t going very fast, but nonetheless, they slid on the glare ice right through the stop sign and smashed into the side of my car.  Although shaken, I wasn’t hurt and thankfully neither was the woman driving the other vehicle.  Both cars, however, were totaled.

The cop came, took a report, and called a wrecker.  When the wrecker showed up the cop left.  Since the woman was getting chilled, I told the wrecker to take her car first.  My engine still ran so I had heat in the car.  After he had her loaded up, he started driving by and, through his window, he asked, Are you OK?.  I assured him I was and he took off.

I sat and waited for him to return.  And I waited, and waited.  Slowly it dawned on me that his question Are you OK? was possibly not in reference to my physical well-being.  He was likely inquiring if I needed a wrecker.  In my assuring him I was OK he probably thought a different wrecker was coming for me. So there I was with no way out.

My car had been smashed badly on the passenger side.  The back wheel and axle were crushed, but the engine still ran.  So I thought – What the hell, it can’t get any worse.  I may as well try to drive it.  I put it in gear and it lurched a little, then I heard a tire spinning.  I got out and saw the driver’s wheel was dutifully trying to go, but it was hobbled by the other end of its axle digging into the pavement.  I was going nowhere.

I came to the conclusion I’d have to hitchhike or walk.  I opened the back door and grabbed my pack.  Free was there and for a moment I wondered if I could ride her to town.  But the ice would make that a suicide run.  I was about to close the door when I had another thought.  I took out the jack and lifted the back end of the car.  I placed Free directly under the mangled wheel and lowered the car back down.  She sagged a bit, but held the weight. I got in and slowly drove back toward home.  Free carried that car all the way back to the service station near our house.  She saved my butt.  Sadly, though, it was her last dance.  The rescue fried her bearings and ruined her trucks.  That was the last ride Free ever made.

Of the dozens of skateboards I’ve owned since then, none could ever compare to Free.  She was, and remains, in a class by herself.