JULY 23, 2018
AT THE SKATE PARK that anchors the southern edge of Grant Park in Chicago, while a cool lake breeze softened the early summer heat, I watched a tall, lanky teenager wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and black skate shoes, land a kickflip. “That was fucking clean, bro,” he said to his friend, who nodded and landed a kickflip of his own before they both skated away. Behind them, past the mani-pad and the grind rail, past the fun box, the concrete skate park cartwheeled with activity — mostly skateboarders, mostly boys, of most shapes and sizes and colors, narrowly but smoothly avoiding one another while popping shove-its and ollies, finding clean lines to skate amid the curse words and chaos.
The Grant Skate Park, where I saw those two boys, is just over a mile from the loft my wife and I live in, and I stop by often to watch the skate scenes play out. I skateboarded when I was younger — my first boards were a Santa Cruz Roskopp Eye and a Powell Peralta Vallely Elephant — and even though I’m 40 now, I can still feel the mark it left on me, the way skating changed the way I viewed the world, and the way I moved through it. I remember the never-quite-long-enough summer days I spent waxing curbs and dropping in on half pipes, bumming rides to the skate shop, days where nothing mattered but skating and friends and whether or not it rained.
At the time, of course, it felt like it would never end. I thought my friends and I would go pro and spend our late teens and early 20s traveling the world and skating the streets of Amsterdam or Tokyo, but instead we drifted apart. A few of my friends went to college. A few of them got jobs in the construction or service industry. A few of them started businesses. Regardless of where we ended up, though, most of us stopped skating. And for me at least, there is sadness in that, and some regret, because I miss the freedom in kicking and pushing a skateboard over freshly tamped asphalt, in hearing the rhythmic clicking of my wheels rolling over sidewalk cracks, in being inside a group that’s made an identity of being outside of them.
That identity — which I still feel to this day — is part of what Neal Thompson’s newest book, Kickflip Boys: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion, and the Chaos of Fatherhood, explores. Thompson reluctantly calls it a “skate dad” memoir, and — at least in general terms — it’s exactly that: an exploration of skate culture and fatherhood. But it’s more than that, too — it’s an exploration of parenting and guilt and of how much responsibility a father and mother share in the paths their children ultimately take in life.
Neal and his wife, Mary, have two sons, Leo and Sean, and they fall fast, hard, and early for skateboarding (“When skateboarding beckoned — a nightingale’s song? a siren’s song? — my kids found their tribe.”) The book opens with eight-year-old Leo dropping in a bowl for the first time at the Food Lion Skatepark in Asheville, North Carolina, while Thompson pretends not to watch, hiding his eyes, wet with pride, behind his New Yorker, as Leo is congratulated by the older skaters. What follows is a fairly linear trajectory of the boys’ lives through high school.
As the book unfolds, the Thompsons move from Baltimore to Asheville, and then from Asheville to Seattle, and it’s there, in the birthplace of grunge music, that the two boys complete their full assimilation into skate culture.
As they hit their adolescence and begin getting in trouble — first at home (blowing curfew, smoking cigarettes and weed, drinking) and then at school (not paying attention in class and acting up) and then with the police (trespassing, graffiti) — Thompson and Mary begin to wonder if their laid-back parenting style fueled some of the decisions Leo and Sean were making. “We’ll build a fence around our kids,” Thompson writes of their approach to parenting, “and as long as they stay flapping within the confines of the chicken ranch, they’ll have the freedom to make their own decisions. Life will be up to them.” Later, after reconsidering the approach, he writes: “Parenting became a series of questions about breaking their spirit, about rigidity versus hands off. The near-daily parental dilemma was: Do we lecture, punish, and pummel them for being who they are, or do we keep them raw and a little wild, and accept the consequences?”
What’s interesting about Thompson’s question is his assumption that the rawness and wildness of his boys is within his control. But for boys like Leo and Sean, who are versions of me and my friends, who were versions of Tony Hawk and his friends, that rawness, that wildness, that pull toward the fringe, is either there or it’s not. If it is, there’s no controlling it; there’s no governing it — there’s only giving in to it, and seeing where it takes you.
I know now that what I truly fell in love with was the movement of skating, how the world became fluid and molten on wheels, how my body momentarily forgot the gravity that held it down. When I skated, my muscles loose and sweat soaking through my T-shirt, I found a sense of peace that was absent in every other area of my life. Even as I wrestled with my father’s absence and was expelled from high school for acting out and began drinking and using drugs with a desperation that would land me in rehab in my mid-20s, skating — what some see as an act of rebellion — became the opposite of that: a place not of rebellion, but of total acceptance — of my family circumstances, my anger, my body.
When I skated, I was connected to my physical self in the most visceral of ways. I felt the warmth of my blood pumping and coolness of my lungs contracting, and the landscape around me, the panorama of my life, the Midwestern geography that I inhabited, became something I could integrate with rather than fight against. Through the movement of skating I found acceptance. Through acceptance, I found freedom. And through freedom, I found myself — even though it would be years before I understood what that meant.
Late in the book, after Sean has gotten jumped at a beach party — “An angry red lump grew behind his ear. Dried blood flaked from his hair” — he begins telling his dad about some of the more perilous situations he’s been in. “I think maybe I’m a little too comfortable being close to danger,” Sean says. “I don’t always make the best choices […] But it’s not like I’m susceptible to peer pressure. I’m susceptible to curiosity.”
It reads like a rationalization, and perhaps it is, but it’s also at least partly true — for both Thompson and his sons, and me. It’s curiosity that binds Thompson to his sons’ skate lifestyle, and it’s curiosity that keeps the boys pushing the boundaries of their family and community. It’s curiosity that pulls me back to the Grant Skate Park, over and over, to hear the sounds and see the movements that shaped me all those years ago.
Curiosity is often defined as “a strong desire to know or learn something,” which also feels like the definition of skateboarding, and of parenting and adolescence. All of them stem from yearning, from searching, from desiring to know something (or someone) more, or more deeply.
In the epilogue of the book, Neal and Mary question their child-rearing choices as their sons leave high school, as all parents must do, and see them as “tentative and unsure […] emerging from the bubble they’d created into the world they’d avoided.” He then writes, “I’d long believed that skating had prepared them for the streets, for the out of bounds places, for the shadowy edges. But for the real world?”
He’s uncertain. Of course the streets, the out-of-bounds places, the shadowy edges — they are the real world, or a good part of it. And I’m not sure there’s a better way to prepare for it than to kick and push right up the edge, nudge your board toward the coping, and lean forward into the unknown.
Tim Hillegonds earned a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing (MAWP) from DePaul University in Chicago. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Rumpus, River Teeth, Baltimore Review, Brevity, Hippocampus Magazine, The Fourth River, the Ploughshares blog, the Brevity blog, Midway Journal, RHINO, Bluestem Magazine, and r.k.v.r.y. quarterly.