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OUT THERE

Cross-Country Trek a Skateboarder's Tribute

A 46-year-old man hit the road to raise money to fight the illness that killed his teenage son.

September 27, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Jack Smith Jr. died at 14 on May 6.

Three months later, his father set out to honor him by skateboarding across the U.S.

The elder Smith had done it twice before, most recently in 1984. But now at 46, he had reached an age when even a cross-country drive can be taxing.

That didn't keep him from hopping on a board and crossing the continent with three pals, taking turns as they scaled mountains and traversed prairies, enduring heat, thirst, blisters, potholes and the all-too-close, shuddering thunder of 18-wheelers. Last month they completed the trek in just 21 days -- beating Smith's time for his 1984 cross-country jaunt by five days.

Raising money for the rare disease that killed his son, Smith and his team plied mostly back roads. They ate high-calorie meals at roadside cafes and fell dog-tired every night into motel beds. Each used a heavy-duty $300 German skateboard called a Rolls Rolls, which is longer, lower and more stable than a standard board. Just an inch off the baking asphalt, they would look down as they kicked and pushed, and see the face of Jack Jr., whose photo was taped to each board, staring back at them with thick glasses and a wide grin.

Jack Jr. had Lowe syndrome, a genetic ailment that afflicts only boys. Many die in their teens. Most of the 300 or so known patients suffer from poor vision, failing kidneys, seizures and mental retardation. Like Jack, many share an improbable cheerfulness.

"He was a happy kid," his father said. "He never comprehended that he was different. He just went about living as best he could."

Smith works in San Luis Obispo for VAS Entertainment, a distributor of sports videos. At an office that features a climbing wall for employees who need to blow off steam, Smith, clad in shorts and a polo shirt, looks serious but relaxed, like an attorney on vacation.

One of skateboarding's early champions, Smith in his younger days briefly held a world speed record. For the last couple of years, he has organized an international skateboard slalom race in Morro Bay, where he lives.

His recent trek was eye-popping to observers of the sport.

"It was an epic journey," said Michael Brooke, author of a skateboarding history called "The Concrete Wave." "His perseverance is amazing. I'm almost 40 and after an hour at a skate park I'm calling for oxygen."

During their trip, Smith and his buddies each did well more than a marathon's worth of skateboarding daily. One would skate a few miles while the others rode in a van. Before the first boarder arrived at a relay point a second would depart, and so it would go, 10 or 12 hours a day.

"Pretty soon, it was almost a job," Smith said.

The four left Newport, Ore., on Aug. 2, first dipping their back wheels in the Pacific Ocean.

Accompanying Smith were two of his longtime friends -- Scott Kam, 33, who runs a skateboard company in Los Osos, and freelance writer and photographer Nick Krest, 38, of San Jose -- and Josh Maready, 24, a North Carolina skateboard pro who learned of the effort on the Internet and met his partners the night before they shoved off.

At towns en route to Williamsburg, Va., some 2,900 miles away, they handed out fliers and told local reporters about Lowe syndrome. Their van, thick with stickers from the skateboard companies sponsoring them, would draw crowds of kids. They signed autographs and gave away trinkets. By the time they auction off their skateboards and reap ad revenue from a documentary, they hope to have collected $30,000.

For the Lowe Syndrome Assn., the effort is unprecedented.

"Because it's such a rare condition, we're spread out all over the U.S.," said Kaye McSpadden, an association founder whose son died of the ailment at 22. "We can't exactly get together and have a bake sale."

Smith and his crew encountered little gestures of generosity everywhere. At a diner in Wyoming, the owner wouldn't let the men pay for their lunch when she heard about the reason behind their trip.

"Then outside, this guy who had to be unemployed came up and slipped us five bucks," Smith said. "That meant a lot."

Police officers along the route generally were more forgiving than those encountered by Smith on his crossings in 1976 and 1984.

In Idaho, though, a security guard stopped Kam, insisting he couldn't skate down a public road outside a nuclear installation.

"I was all, like, I have to skate here," recounted Kam, who can barely remember a day he hasn't either skated or surfed. "I'm skateboarding across America."

The guard relented.

Aching and sunburned, the team enjoyed the kinds of surprises people run into when they take their time on the back roads. In Oregon, they saw a family walking a pet antelope. In a small Ohio town, they discovered Mexican food worthy of Oaxaca.

In Iowa, they rolled through the tiny town of New Providence, where Smith and his family lived in the mid-1990s. He and his wife divorced in 1997 and Jack Jr. died at his mother's home in Colorado. But the Iowa years had been the boy's happiest.

Skating past his old house, Smith remembered how the kids of the country town had taken his son under their wing. He once hid to watch them as they helped their disabled classmate onto the school bus and, later, shepherded him around the playground.

"He just loved it there," Smith said. "He loved going off to school. He loved the other kids."

A day later, the team was cheered on by the Ankrums, a family from Pennsylvania whose 12-year-old son Jonathan also has Lowe syndrome. Jonathan, a boy with the short stature and thick glasses typical of kids with Lowe, waved a sign encouraging them.

"When we left I went to hug him and I had to turn my face away so he wouldn't see the tears," Smith said. "For just a moment, it was like hugging Jack."

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