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my weakness is i can't let go...
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TRANNY: act 1, part 2, by dave carnie

We looked at the birth of transition skating in the TRANNY: Act 1, Part 1, and we will continue extracting that bloody, snot covered baby here in Part 2 of Act 1: The emergence of the backyard ramp scene and transition skating’s continued evolution.

A reenactment of the great skatepark extinction.

INTRO: THE GREAT BACKYARD RAMP AGE

Around 66 million years ago a large rock from outer space entered our atmosphere and collided with the Earth near Mexico. The impact caused one of the most massive explosions in our planet’s history. The fallout of fire and brimstone covered the entire planet and wiped out nearly all life on the surface. This event marked the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some life managed to survive, however, most notably, very small mammals that were able to take refuge underground—animals known as eutherians that include the placentals—what would become the ancestors of rodents, squirrels, rabbits, mice, moles, rats, and us, basically. And the Age Of The Mammals began. (So we come from rats? That makes sense, actually.)

The dinosaur extinction event makes for an interesting analogy with the history of skateboarding in the late '70s at the height of the skatepark boom: Skateboarding is the Earth, and the asteroid that collided with Skateboarding was the Insurance Industry and it effectively wiped out the Dinosaurs, represented here by “The Man” who owned and operated the Skateparks. In one fell swoop—POOF!—all insurance companies deemed skateboarding too dangerous to cover, thus completely decimating the skateboard industry, and by 1980 skateboarders had all but disappeared.

Much like the mammals that took over the Earth after the dinosaurs were wiped out, skateboarding was also re-inhabited by small, isolated communities of resilient little creatures who somehow managed to survive the extinction event—rats. Specifically, skate rats [1]. (I would have liked to have reenacted this scenario in TRANNY—with animation?—but it’s difficult to imagine that happening since TRANNY itself never happened.)

That was me. I was one of those stupid little skate rats born amid the rubble of the skateparks. And just like those rats who ascended to a barren, scorched earth 66 million years ago, we had no knowledge of the dinosaurs that preceded us. We never skated the parks, there was nothing for us to look longingly back on, we were kids, and the whole world was a blank slate in front of us. We just wanted to skate, and skate we did, but we were to learn very quickly that skateboarders were no longer welcome anywhere. No matter where we went—curbs, banks, ditches, pools, parking garages—we were chased away and our search for terrain would take us to remote locations further and further away from society. While we didn’t experience the skatepark extinction directly, we felt its effects: the skateparks closed because skateboarding is extremely dangerous and there were too many injuries and, as is the custom in our country, the dangers were wildly exaggerated to the point that the skateboard was commonly recognized as Satan’s favorite mode of transportation so anyone who dared step on one was going to crack their head open, DIE, and then drown in a river of boiling shit for all eternity in HELL. People HATED skateboarding and it was outlawed everywhere. Which, of course, made it all the more attractive.

Surely not my first ramp, but definitely an early example. This is also, I imagine, exactly how I looked when my mom took me to Sessions skate shop for the first time. Owner, Joel Gomez, tells me the same story every time I see him: “You came in the first week we were open with your mom and you were dressed like a tiny little punker with a Faction shirt.” I really did wear that Faction shirt all the time.

MRS. HA STORY

So the attitude was: well, if no one is going to let us skate anywhere, we’ll make our own place to skate. And so we started building. We got our inspiration from the magazines. They were full of pictures of people skating wooden ramps. And so we built all kinds of ramps: banks, quarter pipes, jump ramps, mini ramps, off ramps, on ramps, and, of course, vert ramps.

One of the first quarter pipes we built was in a friend’s driveway. It was rather small, only four feet wide, about three feet tall, and probably went to vert. As I remember, we used it more like a jump ramp than a quarter pipe and did airs off the side of it—WEEEEE!—because we were stupid little twerps and we didn’t know what we were doing. Anyway, one particular day as I rolled up the driveway to skate there was a woman attacking our ramp with an axe.

The woman was Mrs. Ha, the mother of two boys who were my friends and fellow skate rats (!). They were a Korean family and part of a tightly knit Korean diaspora that was spread throughout the Bay Area. There were always Korean church vans pulling into the Ha’s driveway and whisking them away on Korean adventures. Their dedication to their community and their heritage was endearing.

But there was nothing endearing about Mrs. Ha that morning as she swung her wild axe at the clunky wooden piece of shit in her driveway. It was very surreal: Korean mother, floral print dress, apron, tightly styled short hair, stereotypical housewife/mom attire—and swinging an axe. She was insane with rage and the object of her wrath was skateboarding. The scene was all the more crazy because it was obvious Mrs. Ha had never operated an axe before so her attacks were especially dangerous, more to herself than the ramp. Fortunately, we were able to calm her down and remove the weapon from her hands. Perhaps due to her inexperience with hatchets she inflicted little damage to our quarter pipe.

The antecedent to the attempted murder of our quarter pipe was a phone call from another Korean mother in Woodside (aka “Weedside”) who reported that her boy, a sometime acquaintance of ours, had “cracked his head open” while skating and was in the hospital. I don’t think Mrs. Ha was very supportive of skateboarding to begin with, but this particular injury pushed her over the edge, she could no longer tolerate skateboarding in her midst, and she completely lost her mind. Mrs. Ha was not a skate rat, but she did THRASH our ramp. (The Korean boy who hit his head, incidentally, suffered only minor injuries and made a full recovery.)

Mrs. Ha’s reaction to skateboarding was typical of the time and this prejudice was ubiquitous throughout our youth. Skateboarders, much like bikers, were simply BAD—bad kids doing bad things. Tony Hawk, for instance, has often said that when he was in high school in the '80s he used to hide his board in the bushes so he wouldn’t be made fun of. I can’t tell you how many times I heard someone drive by in a car and yell, “FAGS!” Cops and security guards enjoyed open season on skateboarders. Unfortunately for Mrs. Ha, and all enemies of skateboarding, our interest in skateboarding, and the ramps we continued to build, would only get bigger and bigger.

This is obviously a very early ramp construction because it’s more of a pile of trash with a piece of plywood on top—a lean-to. And it looks like some PVC coping? And I’m grinding the fuck out of it with copers? Mmmm, plastic on plastic. An infamous San Jose figure named Donald, (aka “Skull Face,” and CEO of Generic Lappers) once tagged our ramp, in big, black (Big Black!) spray painted letters underneath the coping: “GRIND TOUGH OR GO HOME TO MOMMY!” I knew Donald well enough to know that his stupid graffiti was written in EARNEST—he really, really, really meant it—which was all the more adorable because the coping on that particular ramp was, yep, PVC.

SKATEBOARDING’S AUTONOMY

What’s remarkable is that this ramp construction was happening everywhere. Skateboarders, for the first time, took ownership of skateboarding and began to really define what skateboarding was and would become. The backyard ramp era represents one of the most prominent examples of the DIY spirit that became a distinct characteristic skateboarding’s collective consciousness. It’s a testament to the power of skateboarding that skateboarders across the world refused to hang up their boards and instead chose to build.

At the time, though, we were just doing what we had to do, it was totally normal, but in hindsight it’s rather comical to picture me and my dumb little buddies, a gang of children really, wearing tool belts, swinging hammers, snapping chalk lines, and ripping boards with circular saws, all without adult supervision. We must have looked like The Little Rascals on a construction site. My father was a sales rep for tool companies like Vice Grip and Stanley so we had access to the necessary equipment and, through trial and error and after lots of mistakes, we taught ourselves basic carpentry.

Mark Waters shot this photo at Mush Ramp 2 and wrote: “Brad Boardman at Mountain Ramp in Cupertino, 1985. This ramp was one of the first decent ramps out westside that the San Jose/Saratoga crew were able to localize. It was built by Dave Carnie, Frank Ha, Pete Ha, and Dave Peters at the Peters’ house in the hills. Oh yeah, and Vern, Dave’s cool funny little brother. This was the predecessor to the Mush Ramp which was near the Carnie/Ha/Hobson/Tranfaglia estate not far away. Rob Bingham introduced the two crews I think. A lot of good times there and a lot of learning to skate, shoot, and fine tuning what we thought it meant to be a skateboarder. Missed the coping on this shot.”

This aspect of the skateboarder’s character was an element in the TRANNY story I really wanted to highlight and emphasize in the documentary: skateboarders are relentless, impassioned, and will stop at nothing to realize their aspiration to skate. Like a drug addict who suddenly finds himself giving blowjobs in a Greyhound bus station bathroom to fund his habit, we would often find ourselves in weird places doing weird shit that we never expected to be doing: we would bail fecal water from a pool behind an abandoned crack house, we would lick a ditch on the side of a freeway clean with our tongues, we became thieves stealing massive amounts of wood from construction sites, we erected gigantic, noisy ramps that were taller than our neighbors’ houses, and we learned diplomacy and politics by persuading our neighbors to let us keep our gigantic, noisy ramps.

(The addict analogy is apt because, while I wasn’t jamming needles into my arms, I was very much a child pincushion: my feet were magnets for nails. I stepped on so many boards with nails sticking out of them. Vans and Converse, as you well know, offer no protection. Crucifixion question: where does one begin, with the hands or feet first?)

I often refer to this quote Keith Hufnagel made in an interview I conducted with him in 2016: “The best thing about skateboarding,” Keith said, “is that it holds the keys to everything. It allows you to do anything you want to—if you want it. … Because if you’re a skateboarder, you already know how to work hard: you trained yourself to be a good skateboarder. Skateboarding doesn’t come naturally. It’s not like you come out and you can do all these tricks. You work hard. And if you can translate that into a job, a real job, then you should be able to succeed.”

We did a lot of weird shit to skateboard and becoming unlicensed, child contractors is still the weirdest to me.

ANATOMY OF A HALF PIPE

The first halfpipe, incidentally, predates the first skatepark. Tom Stewart, inspired by cement full-pipes in Arizona he had recently skated, drew up some plans (with the help of his architect brother) for half of a pipe to be constructed out of wood, erected the structure in his Encinitas front yard (!) in 1975, and the first skateboard halfpipe was born. Tom called the ramp, and the company that subsequently developed out of it, “Rampage.” Tom and his brother sold tens of thousands of blueprints and kids all over the world started building halfpipes.

The halfpipe is almost comical in its primitiveness: it’s half a circle, nothing more than a wooden pipe cut in half, or, as we once heard an adult describe it, “a wooden-U.” But the halfpipe’s simple design makes it easy to construct, the materials (2x4s and plywood) are readily available and relatively cheap, and it does what it is asked to do: it propels a skater into the weightless world of vert. And while its flat walls are incapable of replicating the elegant sensation of carving in a curved, cement bowl, a skateboarder on a halfpipe can, in theory, skate in circles for eternity, endlessly pumping the two facing transitions.

While skateparks were booming in the late '70s, ramps were already being built (see Rampage caption above). So when the skateparks crashed, there was (accidentally) an alternative terrain already in development. And by the time we had graduated from leaning plywood on piles of trash, to building quarter pipes, to finally gaining the ambition to construct an actual halfpipe, there was plenty of precedence. As aforementioned, there was an explosion of backyard ramps built around the world in the early '80s and we would devour the photos of them in the magazines. I was taking drafting and architecture classes as early as junior high and I was constantly drawing plans for ridiculous ramps all inspired by what I saw in the mags. Here’s a short, incomplete list off the top of my head of ramps that influenced us:

  • Joe Lopes’ ramp, site of one of the first backyard ramp contests.
  • Palmdale, so many extensions, also an early ramp contest.
  • Eagle Rock, in the Vision video.
  • Caballero’s narrow 12-foot wide ramp crammed in his narrow Campbell backyard.
  • Lance’s ramp.
  • Groholski’s clear ramp in NJ.
  • The Clown Ramp in Texas.
  • Cedar Crest and Houston had metal surfaces.
  • Virginia Beach’s ramps were public and the white surface was alluring.
  • Terror in Tahoe.
  • Kona, one of the oldest.
  • The Fresno Ark.
  • Fallbrook.
  • The Boomerang, at Raging Waters in San Jose, was the widest ramp in the world.
  • The Chin Ramp… etc., way too many ramps to list.

This was Mush 3.0, the one that Donald tagged “GRIND TOUGH OR GO HOME TO MOMMY.” And there’s that Faction shirt again.

We built three Mush Ramps before we built the big one that everyone from Hawk to Hosoi skated. The first three were all variations on the theme of “a piece of shit.” They were cobbled together with scraps of wood, they were mushy and kinked, and if they were half of a pipe, the pipe they were modeled after was the one that ends at your anus—they were pieces of shit. When we tore down the third Mush Ramp and were preparing to build Mush 4.0 we serendipitously received an issue of TWS that had a checkout on Lance Mountain’s newly renovated backyard ramp. Lance had just returned from the Swedish summer camp, circa 1984, where he had experienced the benefits of BIG transitions. According to Lance, the 10-12-foot radiuses he skated in Sweden were far superior to the dinky little 8-foot bathtubs we were riding and so he extended his flat bottom and retrofitted his ramp with bigger transitions. Without ever having skated something so big we decided, “Well, if it’s good enough for Lance Mountain, it’s good enough for us.”

The Raging Waters “boomerang” ramp was the widest ramp any of us at skated at the time, but it had a lot of flaws. It was short on vert, for one thing, and that hip was just complete garbage—it was handcrafted with bondo. This invert seems to be during a contest. And I think that’s Mike Youssefpour sitting on the deck.

Mush IV was designed with: 10’ transitions, 1.5’ vert, 20’ wide, and a channel. It was built in the woods between two creeks behind my friend Tom’s house (huge thank you to Tom and his cool parents). It was a perfect location because it was sort of secluded and thus all kinds of naughtiness went down back there. The only problem with the site was that it wasn’t level—the slope was so steep that the north end of the ramp had to be built on stilts. The ramp was already the most gigantic thing we had ever seen, but on the downhill side the stilts needed to be nearly 4’ high to make the ramp level, thus making the deck about 16’ off the ground and well into the canopy. I don’t even think we were 16-years-old yet? I have no idea how we engineered that.

This is a pretty good overview of Mush 4.0, albeit during the refurbishment (we added structural support and steel coping) while it awaits a new layer of Masonite. Ffej divided his time between Mush and Page Mill. Amazing skater and a super rad human, we always enjoyed when Ffej came to skate. I never knew the real name of the rollerskater who’s getting some tail, but we called him “Swivel Tooth” because one of his front teeth was sideways. He would do huge airs on his rollerskates, but he would never land in the transition, he’d always “deck check” his skates on the coping on the way in, which was fucking annoying because it would shake the whole ramp. Photo: Bryan Temmermand.

Mush Ramp was good—not great—but good enough to attract a steady crowd of big names who were locals: Caballero, Ray Barbee, Ffej, Roskopp, Fab, Bod, Steve Douglas, Namba, Aguilar, Youssefpour—but mostly Cab. We were so incredibly lucky to have one of the greatest skateboarders in history regularly skating our ramp. But all of these people were progressing skateboarding at an astonishing rate. The halfpipe will never be as attractive as the undulating cement waves of a skatepark, but the stupid wooden-U did offer a few advantages that I think accelerated skateboarding’s development.

“Jeff Grosso at Mush Ramp, 1986. This was the fourth ramp that Pete Ha, Dave Carnie and the Mountain/Mush crew built and it was the first one that attracted really great skateboarders. I’ve often referred to it as ‘our ramp’ because I was there all the time, but also because the crew there welcomed pretty much everyone. I helped with the easy building stuff but those guys were driven. The place changed my life.” —Mark Waters

Gratuitous Tony Hawk photo taken at the Mush Ramp by Bryan Temmermand.

RAMP AGE CONTRIBUTIONS TO TRANSITION

For one, if built properly, the transitions on a half-pipe are flawless. No kinks means no obstacles and thus skaters can concentrate more on what they do at, and above, the lip, rather than focusing on the struggle of getting to the lip. The survival element inherent to skating a backyard pool, or a lumpy park, was eliminated with the advent of the ramp and, as a result, the skill level of skateboarding increased rapidly.

Secondly, the ramp became a canvas for all kinds of features to be introduced into the design by skateboarders: roll-ins, extensions, spines, escalators, bridges, etc., but, most importantly, skaters began to tinker with the transition itself. All of the early ramps during this time were constructed with dimensions similar to the parks that themselves were on a scale similar to a swimming pool: everything was about eight-feet deep. This all changed thanks to the ramp at the Swedish summer camp. By simply adding two-feet to the radius of the transition, skateboarding was completely transformed almost overnight.

We were extremely fortunate to have grown up skating a ramp that sometimes had a Steve Caballero flying around in the trees. Photo: Mark Waters… or Bryan Temmermand? Might even be my photo, but I’m pretty sure it’s Mark’s.

Psychologically, the newer, bigger ramps were a little daunting, and, because they were so big, one went a lot faster. Once accustomed to the new size and speed, however, skateboarding blasted off. The bigger transitions meant that skateboarding wasn’t just about “gliding and turning” anymore, now flying was added to the equation. Skaters like Cab, Lester, Magnusson, Sergie, and, of course, Hosoi, were launching themselves into the atmosphere, reaching heights never attained on a skateboard before. The math and the physics were simple: bigger transitions = bigger airs. And the new heights, indeed the new normal, was so much higher above the lip, there was so much more hang-time, that it allowed riders to innovate and push the envelope of what could be done in the air. Skaters began spinning the board (varials were invented), flipping the board (the fingerflip was an early ancestor of the kickflip), unusual grabs could now be made (stalefish), airs started getting tweaked (crossbones, f/s nosebones, method airs, rocket airs), and, most notably, everyone got the spins when the 540 and the 720 were introduced. Because of these advancements (flawless surface + bigger transitions) the simple wooden-U helped transition skating evolve exponentially during the '80s.

Think about how fast that progression was: in 1976 skaters were basically sidewalk surfing on tiny, clunky little boards, slalom racing, and, in terms of transition, they were rubbing tires on coping and a few people were doing little airs above coping. Barely. Then, within the short span of ten years, dudes were blasting airs and spinning 540s eight-feet over coping. It was, as some have called it, The Golden Age Of Vert—wait, do people call it that, or did I just make that up?

Next time, in Act 2 of TRANNY, transition skating goes underground—“VERT IS DEAD!”—and its antithesis, street skating, arises and dominates the skateboard industry.

I originally thought this was Mush 4.0 being built, but upon closer inspection, it’s being torn down—we would not have had a chain across the flat bottom during construction. Vert is dead.

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1. “Skate rat” is a stupid, loathsome term that I have always despised. The vocabulary and jargon from this era is especially embarrassing. “Thrasher” is another fine example of the horribly corny language. “Yeah, dude, I’m a SKATE RAT and I like to THRASH!” To this day I still have a hard time saying, “thrasher,” with a straight face.


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  • Fd on

    We were the ones that raided the construction sites for the wood. Late night punks creepin and hoppin fences cuttin locks. We’d stack ply’s 30 high on a shitty beat up Datsun with some freak sittin on top like a clown car. 🤣.We would roll into The court in front of Franks parents after hitting an Indy Jim phat joint ( he really had the best weed @ that time, hence the indy moniker, it wasn’t for the skate truck brand) @ 2am and dump 30 sheets of plywood @ a time. Over and over. Thanks Cupertino, Saratoga and Los Gatos construction sites! True grand Larceny in the famed punk rock tradition. We were like the honey badger we just didn’t give a fuk. Good time Carnie

  • Jim Fitz on

    Laughing. Dave! Incredible. So fuckin’ funny. But factual. Too. Informative. But funny.

  • Old And In The Whey on

    I visited my Dad in Austin, TX in the summers and circa 1987 attended a vert skate camp. The halfpipe was a metal-surfaced mountain and it would scald you like a grilled cheese sandwich everytime you bailed due to the hit Texas sun.

  • Betsy on

    Another great addition to the history of skateboarding. Thanks, Dave!


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