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Hanging 10 at 36 : Pied Piper of Sidewalk Surfing Keeps His Wheels Spinning, Spinning

October 31, 1985|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

You're 36 now and still on a skateboard, and that surprises no one who knows you. It is Saturday afternoon and you're at the beach as you have been for 20 years, doing 360s like only a few other people in the world can--spinning on your board until you're a blur on the smooth concrete veranda that borders the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach.

A man watches you, shakes his head and says, "Too much."

You don't have too much of an audience because it is late October and with the sun's rays having gone soft, birds outnumber people. But the sea still shimmers and the air antoxicates. And you skate.

Kids Try to Imitate

Kids in knee-length shorts and bleached hair surround you as if you were a Pied Piper in camouflage high-tops, a guru, a godfather of a sport you once ruled. And when you do a handstand while riding your 27-inch-long birch board, or use the board as a pogo stick or do your countless other tricks, they try to imitate you.

They remind you of when you were young, but you know you are still one of them, going on 16, although you joke about scavenging the beach for half-full Geritol bottles.

Your stomach has lost some of its definition, but not much. Your hair, of course, is blond, although a bit washed-out and thinning now and much shorter than it was a decade ago. But you're still California, with eyes the color of the Pacific and sand forever in your blood.

You introduce yourself: "Russ Howell."

But you need no introduction to anyone who got hooked in the '70s on skateboarding. "Sidewalk surfing," Jan and Dean called it, and sang:

"You'll probably wipe out when you first try to shoot the curb..."

You were a world champion in the mid-'70s. You had your own skateboard company. You traveled the world. In Australia you shook hands with a kangaroo.

And when the sport (fad was a more common term) burst out of California, even farm kids in Oklahoma were hanging 10 on Russ Howell skateboards on country roads and dipping their hair in a concoction of hydrogon peroxide and ammonia.

Appeared on TV Show

Neighbors used to ask your parents, "Is your son ever going to grow up?" And then one day in 1976 your parents with great delight told the neighbors, "By the way, did you see our son on the Johnny Carson Show? What's your son doing?"

At 5 feet 3, you're an unlikely looking athlete, until you get on the board and unleash all that strength, grace and agility.

Your legs are thick and so short that knee pads and socks cover most of them. You joke about your size, which kept you out of the traditional sports at Wilson High School. You needed to express yourself so you turned to skateboarding, where there were no coaches to say you were too small.

You went to Cal State Long Beach to major in physical education and began to enter and win skateboarding contests. You reached your peak when the skateboarding craze was at its height. And then the craze, which had never been embraced by mainstream society, lost its wheels in the late '70s.

"An underground sport," you called it.

One of the kids here, Andrew Brown, calls you a "gentleman on skates," but the problem with skateboarding seemed to be that it didn't have enough gentlemen.

Sponsors Withdrew Funds

You saw foul-mouthed kids who showed their appreciation for the parks they skated in by trashing them. And when many skateboarders gravitated to the punk movement, the sponsors who had supported the skateboarding circuit withdrew.

And there was always the stigma of skateboarding being dangerous. You've been relatively injury-free, but then you haven't been skating up the walls of empty swimming pools and doing back flips 18 feet above concrete.

Look at Dave Hegstrom over there. He has water on his knees from falling so much and he's only a senior in high school.

You hope the sport is making a more wholesome comeback but you know it has a long way to go before society accepts it.

A shirtless guy named Rodney, wearing dirty cutoffs over dirty jeans, tries to skate up the wall of the pool building, his skates leaving marks.

"The general image still isn't a healthy one," you say, "but a large percentage (of skateboarders) are good persons. There's more friendship now. No jealousy, no keeping tricks secret.

"But the image has a long way to go."

Few Places to Ride

And it isn't helped by skateboarders who sashay along crowded sidewalks, frightening pedestrians and even decking a few.

"They shouldn't do it but where else do they have to go?" you say.

Skateboarders are not allowed in public parks and on the streets of many neighborhoods, so this pleasant place is one of the few areas where it is OK for you to skate.

You lay out 20 cones and swiftly slalom around them like a snow skier, and you hear a man holler out of respect, "Hey Rusty."

And then you start to spin again, contented, even though there aren't the usual "pretty ladies who stare at me in awe."

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