DEL MAR — Tony Magnusson likes danger.
He likes the feeling of uncertainty that goes with being on the edge. But the edge has not always been kind to Magnusson. He has two less fingers and half a thumb because of it. He has scuffs and scars and a face wizened beyond its years.
Magnusson, 21, is a skateboarder.
Believe it or not, a professional skateboarder. In a culture where surfers and hang gliders also are professional, skateboarders see a fight for acceptance as legitimate and long overdue. They may be men in a boys' world, but they're as serious as a 16-foot fall onto concrete.
Magnusson, who does most of his skateboarding at the Del Mar Skate Ranch, in the shadow of Interstate 5, is at a crossroads. He looks around and sees boys--competitors--much younger. He still craves the sense of danger, but his wife and a son nearing his second birthday give pause to a man's zest for splashing onto concrete.
Questions such as What am I going to do with my life? crop up more and more, sometimes when the only surface staring him in the face is a slab.
Magnusson is not a rich man, but he does make a healthy living manufacturing and selling skateboards. These days even that gives him pause. How much longer can this go on? he asks. Five more years on the business side, he says, no more than two in the rarefied air of skateboard competition (less a lark than one might think). Then it's on to college and "getting serious."
Already, skateboarding has given the diminutive Magnusson (5 feet, 3 1/2 inches, 135 pounds), a platform for recognition and style. In his native Sweden, which he left in 1980, he appeared in a movie ("King") made by the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Magnusson played a troubled adolescent--a part with relevance to his own checkered past.
Magnusson was born in Stockholm, the only son of a house painter and a newspaper circulation clerk. Magnusson started skateboarding at 13 and became, in less than three years, the best in Sweden. At 16, he left for the bright lights of America; specifically, California, where he knew skateboarding would not be looked down on or reviled. Well before his prowess was established--for him, skateboarding is a fitting symbol of stylish rebellion--he was expressing himself in ways both mischievous and independent.
"My mom always let me do what I wanted," he said. "You could say she was almost careless in the way she raised me. But, ultimately, I see it as a kind of responsible carelessness--if that's possible. In my case, I think it was."
Magnusson's mother bitterly resisted his move west as well as his growing proclivity for what she saw as a puerile endeavor (skateboarding, much less as a professional). Mother and son were at odds before that, albeit in a loving, free-spirited way.
Mrs. Magnusson's reaction to her son's injuries in an elevator shaft accident only worsened the problem. Overwhelmed with a feeling of loss ( If only I could have kept him from it ), she also harbored a quiet rage ( How could he have done such a thing? ). Magnusson's reaction was, however, more important. He decided to vent daredevil peregrinations in a more socially acceptable way (i.e., skateboarding).
Magnusson was 14 at the time of the elevator incident. He and a friend were climbing the wires of a long cylindrical shaft when Magnusson decided, hey, why not rest on the ledge and grab hold of this big wheel here? A tiny hand was soon being gobbled by modern technology, an ordeal that caused Magnusson tremendous pain.
Doctors applauded his determination at hanging in and said, yes, he's lucky he didn't lose the entire hand--but even luckier he didn't die. Surgery saved the index finger and half the thumb, but the two middle fingers were amputated to the knuckle. Only the pinkie remained unharmed.
The incident has stayed with Magnusson in all sorts of strange ways. It's given him a handicap, which remains--not always to his liking--a conversation piece, and a symbol for the kind of power life can wield when fear and loathing of authority mix with the innocence of youth.
It also affects his skateboarding. A gloved hand reaching down for board is not nearly as effective when more glove than hand reaches board. It keeps him from doing certain tricks and from being effective at others.
Magnusson says of skateboarding, "It's danger, it's freedom, it's a big rush, like walking on the edge of an out-and-out disaster."
But it is also brutally competitive and serious stuff to the man-child heroes who don the equipment and risk its indiscretions.
In a recent afternoon workout, Magnusson--heavily padded and sweating--fell repeatedly. He promises there's a trick in knowing how to fall. It's one that the teen-agers and grade-school scrubs who fell along with him would do well to master, and soon.