From Skateboards to Motocross

As far as I know, I was the first kid in my town to make a homemade skateboard, months before you could buy them. I’d discovered the sport from my cousins, Tom and Jerry, who’d gone to California in 1963, where they discovered surfing. When they returned to Valparaiso, Indiana, they quickly invented dune surfing because waves on Lake Michigan were seldom big enough to ride but the lake was ringed by huge sand dunes. My cousins also started making skateboards and then buying the latest models once they came out commercially. This was years before the sticky wheels with grip revolutionized the sport.

Eventually, the local model-race-car center started carrying the initial round of skateboards. I avoided the typical small board and bought one that would be normal by today’s standards, but back then it was considered huge. It was called The Makaha. I wanted a big board so I could do tricks. My favorite was jumping over a broomstick about four feet off the ground in my basement, but I also liked to jump curbs and lay down flat on my back. Like all boards at the time, it had no kick tail.

In 1964 I started publishing my own newspaper while in junior high. It was called The Cap’n Crunch Courier. When Cap’n Crunch came out, it broke all records for sugar content in cereals, forever earning a place in my teenage heart. None of the original issues of that esteemed fanzine seem to have survived, unfortunately, although I did locate some of the drawings I did for the first issue (above), in which I published an entire page of cartoons devoted skateboarding. I had a couple of skateboarding buddies, one named Steve Tyler, whom I made fun of here, and the other named Stuart Tarr, who also become a journalist.


Here’s a photo of me (left) and Tyler in class at the time. You can see I was a class clown, always instigating one hilarious prank or another, like my snowball fight in Leal School against Patton’s gang. That’s Andy Miller waving his arm in the back. This had to be during winter because I’m wearing a heavy sweater my mom knitted for me. She always made the best sweaters and socks around winter time and got inspired with her knitting after we went to Europe for a year.

Within a few years, our skateboards would be replaced by cheap Japanese motorcycles. It started with a film called The Great Escape, which depicted Steve McQueen jumping a fence with a German clunker built like a Harley. My cousin Tom had earlier led us into dune surfing and skateboarding, so, of course, we followed Tom into this new passion for off-road motorcycle racing, although none of us but Tom had a driver’s license. My brother even stuck with the sport, although today he rides track and not off-road.

Cap’n Crunch Courier

Even though I’d been put in a special program reserved for problem kids, the best thing about going to junior high is I got to reconnect with my friends from Yankee Ridge. That’s me and Steve Tyler in the front row and Andy Miller is waving his arm in the back. I joined the newspaper staff (Tiger Tracks) but was soon relegated to being “jokes” editor, which involved copying jokes out of paperback books and turning them in to the editor. The lamer the jokes, the more she seemed to like them.

The head alpha-male in my class was Harvey Treat, who looked like a young John Wayne. Harvey was already starting quarterback, a position he’d continue to hold all through high school. Harvey also played guitar and performed solo at one of our sock-hops. His guitar sound was similar to the Ventures, all instrumental and lots of reverb. When Harvey found out I was on the staff of Tiger Tracks, he asked me to slip his name into the gossip column, which I was able to do once. (“We like the way Harvey Treat sings ‘Heart and Soul’ on the piano.”) But when I tried a second time, the editor nixed it. She, like some of the more conservative girls in school, had already taken a dislike to Harvey I guess.

Since Tiger Tracks wasn’t really providing much of an outlet, I soon created my own publication, The Cap’n Crunch Courier. (The name was taken from my favorite breakfast, which had the highest sugar content of any cereal in the supermarket at the time.) I wish I could find a copy; I thought I saved some. It was a comedy fanzine that I Xeroxed at my dad’s office in the biochemistry department. My mom encouraged me to publish the paper and helped me make the copies. One of my main targets was Mr. Walljasper, the assistant principal and school disciplinarian. There were a lot of funny stories and cartoons about me and my friends. My cousins Tom and Jerry had turned me onto a new fad in California that had just emerged: skateboarding. My weekends were spent tooling around campus on my Makaha board.

Fortunately, I do have some of the original cartoons I published in the Cap’n Crunch Courier. I remember sitting in the lunchroom one day and I looked across and someone was showing Mr. Walljasper a cartoon making fun of him that I drew and published. I ducked down and just hoped nobody pointed me out as the culprit. Walljasper was interested in finding out who was responsible, but he never did confront me or catch me handing out copies.

When JFK was assassinated, they herded us all into the gym for a moment of silence. By the following year, the Generation Wars would commence. Some people call it the Generation Gap, but it was really a war.

The Snowball Fight

People often ask me how I evolved into such an anti-establishment character and I explain it all happened in the 5th Grade. I’d moved around a lot, from Boston to Cambridge, England, to Munich, Germany, back to central Illinois, where I was born. So when I entered 4th Grade at Yankee Ridge I was bilingual and spoke German with a perfect Bavarian accent. It was hard making friends with all those changes. But it got even harder the next year because I was moved to Leal School when my Dad bought a Tudor-style brick house on Delaware Street.

Leal  was very different from upscale Yankee Ridge, much more working-class. Phillip Patton (sitting next to me in the center of the front row above) had a little gang he started with three of his buddies. I sat behind Phil and he tried to recruit me. West Side Story had recently come to the Princess Theater and that movie deeply affected me. I understood instinctively that forming a gang was a noble quest, but instead of joining up with Phil, I decided to create my own. Andy Miller (top row, second from right) was my initial co-conspirator in this mission, and all the early meetings were held at his house. I must have pulled the rest from another class. There were about six of us to start. I do remember Eric Steffenson (who would die tragically young) was one of us. And, of course, Bugsy, who lived near Andy and would become the central figure in my early creative writing.

For some bizarre reason, I named us “The Roaring 21 Club” and we had a secret sign, which was a perpendicular line with two horizontal bars. Maybe it was a take-off on a Christian cross since I was still a Lutheran at the time, attending Sunday school every week. When a big snowfall hit town, I challenged Phil and his gang to a snowball fight in Carle Park. Unbeknownst to Phil, however, right after he accepted this challenge, I went around school recruiting about 30 extra members for my group, most of whom came from lower classes. I quickly gathered them all in the pavilion on the east side of the park and taught them the secret sign so they would be official members. At the appointed hour, Andy and I stood in the center of the park with three or four others, while the rest hid in the bushes around the perimeter.

Before long, Phil and his gang came screaming into the park with gobs of snowballs in their arms. When they got close, however, I gave the signal and everybody came running in, surrounding them, pelting them with snowballs. They valiantly tried to make a fight of it, forming a circle with their backs together, but it quickly evolved into a remake of Custer’s Last Stand, so they took off running towards Dennis Seth’s house, which was their nearest refuge.

We followed, raining snowballs on their backs. When we got to the house, we pelted it with snowballs. There was a jar of nails on the porch that got broken. As soon as that happened, I pulled my troops back to the park and boy, did we have a hearty chuckle, many of us bent over double, others writhing on the ground, as I recounted the engagement from the battlefield, pointing out where the various highlights had taken place. “Did you see the look on Phil’s face when he realized the was surrounded?!! Hahahaa!”

But the next day, Phil got called into the principal’s office over something he’d done, and while there, he told the story of the snowball fight. The principal wanted to see everyone involved and when we showed up, he had to move the meeting from his office to the gym. He lined up Phil’s gang on one side, and mine on the other; it was like 40 versus five. He looked at me and said, “Do you consider this a fair fight?”

I didn’t know what to say. It was just a snowball fight, fer christsake, I’m thinking. But that principal made sure when I moved to junior high I was put in a program for problem kids. My classes were weird, full of people with learning disabilities and serious issues with violence. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized other classes weren’t like mine. Other classes actually had serious discussions and were learning all sorts of stuff, while I was basically being warehoused in a room filled with dangerous bullies and idiots. I blame it all on West Side Story.

Phil later confronted me in the school yard and we had a fistfight to settle things that became quite a famous showdown at the school, gathering a crowd that was evenly split between who they wanted to root for. Phil boxed me in the ear pretty hard. It was my first fight so I just landed body blows. I didn’t have the guts to swing for the face or head, not yet, anyway.

When I look back on this now, I realize the creation of secret societies is probably wired into our DNA. Another thing that springs to mind: Within a few years The Merry Pranksters would become my biggest role models, accomplished scouts on the Fun Vibe trail, who actually replaced my media-induced street-gang mythology with The Magic Bus, the true secrets of which remain little-known today. I know some. Not as much as Babbs and Mountain Girl, and the grandmaster now resides in the unknown dimensions. This I know: The snowball fight was a prank. Nobody got hurt. Under Prankster rules, I should not have been shamed, and my education should not have been torpedoed. How many kids in America were there like me, shunted into a separate education system for lost causes and instigators?