Since the invention the wheel, mankind has stoically and consistently invented human powered wheeled machines for enjoyment as well as transportation. Probably the best example of our achievements is the bicycle, which is a proven, practical and affordable invention, and found in most everyone’s garage. My mountain bike is gathering dust in the shed outback of my own garage.
Growing up in Westchester, CA, and bodysurfing at Playa Del Rey whenever my pals and I could, many of us were swept up in the surfing culture that exploded in the area beginning in the 1960’s. And with its roots in the sport of surfing, the skateboard was spawned and took the area by storm. We abandoned our Schwinn’s, and neither rode or walked when we traversed our way through town; we skate boarded.
My first skateboard was a red-decked #10 Roller Derby. It was mounted with steel, ball bearing wheels, and was a piece of junk. When you rode it on sidewalks or in the street, sparks would literally shoot out from beneath the board, and even the smallest pebble; when it came in contact with the wheel, would stop your forward progress. You, as a result, became intimately familiar with Newton’s First Law, as you were propelled through the air and deposited in a heap on the sidewalk. Legs, hands, feet (we often did this in bare feet), chins and arms became perpetual Mercurochrome’d scabs.
ROLLER DERBY, #10 SKATE BOARD. First introduced in 1959, the Roller Derby skateboard was the first mass-produced skateboard. It was basically a one-tip wooden plank with modified roller skates attached to it. Completely lacking features which nowadays are common for skateboards, the Roller Derby had no concave or even kick tails, not to mention grip tape, and like all early skateboards, it featured steel wheels which offered little to no grip on most riding surfaces. (Complements, Wikipedia).
After these cheap boards broke, we would remove the wheels and nail them to planks of wood and although that may have seemed cool, all maneuverability was lost. Looking back, I wonder how we survived the fifth grade. My brother Tom once collected as many spare wheels as he could find, and built a ten or twelve foot long board, and five of six of us fit on it. Eventually the skate wheels would split and with the ball bearings lost, the whole mess was useless.
Sometime around 1965, while the Beach Boys were battling The Beatles for the number one spot on the Top-40 Chart, I received a much better skateboard; The Makaha. These models, the first real performance skateboard, had soft clay wheels (later urethane, I think), and enhanced steer-ability. The decks were made from strong laminated wood, and although we were forever mindful of Mr. Newton, the wheels sailed over most of the kind of grit they came in contact with on streets and sidewalks. We rode them everywhere.
When you are riding a rubber wheeled device, such as a bicycle, there is very little noise. Not so with a skateboard. I am to this day very fond of the rat-tat-tat-tat noise that a skateboard makes when it crosses over the expansion cracks on concrete sidewalks. It annoys many people, but for me, it brings back the memories of that freedom and speed that one experiences when they have mastered the sport. In reality, it was less about the sport, and more about the utilitarian use of the things, which gave us the ability to travel long distances on our own power; and still look cool. The alternative; having Mom drive you in the family station, was not cool.
MAKAHA; MOLOKAI, SKATE BOARD. Santa Monica based, Larry Stevenson started Makaha skateboards in the early 1960’s. He is credited with being the man who made the first high-quality skateboard. He patented the double kick tail in 1969, had the first skate team in 1963, and held the first skateboard contest in 1963. (Complements, Wikipedia).
On 87th Street, where I grew up, there was one nasty old neighbor who hated skate boarders. I think he actually hated kids period, and on that street in those days, the post War baby boom was well represented. There must have been fifty or sixty school-aged kids on that block in the mid 1960’s. No kidding. Anyhow, the old coot used to wait until a large group of us were skate boarding up and down the block, and turn his lawn sprinklers on so that the sidewalk was flooded. Water and skate wheels are a poor combination for friction, and we would hit those water puddles and spin out of control and fly all over the place. And remember, we never even heard of helmets or gloves in those days, so the consequences could be very grave.
The old guy finally moved off the block, and we had to find another place to “egg” on Halloween night.
Also around this time, another new-wheeled device was introduced to the area. Unlike a skateboard, or a bike, which could be with practice, a very safe mode of transport, this new thing was just plain suicide to ride, and of course being so, we all wanted one.
Enter, The Flexy.
The Flexy, or Wheeled Flexible Flyer, was manufactured by the snow sled manufacturer of the same name, and for us West Coaster’s who had never even seen snow; the thrill of riding one was indescribable. These were essentially snow sleds on wheels, with handles that turned the sled, sort-of, and brakes which could be applied by pulling back of the handles; sort-of. But unlike a skateboard, which is generally ridden standing up, a Flexy was ridden lying down; in a position that meant your nose was just a few inches from the concrete. You could also sit on a Flexi, and steer with your feet, which meant you had no braking ability. That was just as nuts as these things were to begin with.
Now, just how the Flexy was allowed to be built, I will never know. Today, the things wouldn’t make it past the U.S. Patent Office. The low friction rubber wheels, and aero dynamics, allowed the rider; especially on smooth concrete and coming down a hill, to achieve incredible speeds with almost no hope of stopping the thing when you came to the end of that hill.
THE FLEXY RACER. Is there anything more Americana, more Christmas, than the Flexible Flyer? Invented in 1889 by Samuel Leeds Allen, whose Philadelphia-based company was best known for farm equipment, the steerable sleds with the iconic eagle logo were sold by the millions in the years before and after both World Wars and long after the company was sold in the 1960s.
These wooden “wheeled” sleds were produced from the 1930s to the 1970s.
Flexy Racers were made to be used without snow on the ground. The body was designed
Similar to the Flexible Flyer snow sled, but instead of metal runners, it had
wheels to propel you down the hill. (Complements, Author).
The end of most neighborhood hills meets at an intersection; most of which are laid out at 90 degrees. If by some miraculous feet of physical ability, you made the turn you were the hero on the block. But most of the time you would have to turn up and onto someone’s lawn, and when the rubber wheels hit the grass, it was; Hello Mr. Newton! all over again, as you were catapulted off the thing and into outer space. If set to music, the only apropos tune would be the Safaris; Wipe Out, or The Ventures, Telstar. We sure did love them.
In 1941’s Citizen Kane, newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles, who also directed and co-wrote the script) is dead. The opening shots show Xanadu, Kane's vast, elaborate, and now unkempt estate in Florida. Interspersed with segments of his newsreel obituary are scenes from his life and death. Most puzzling are his last moments: clutching a snow globe, he mutters the word "rosebud."
So when all you current and former denizens of Westchester’s 87th Street, in good old 90045, hear some strange last words from the lips of your dying loved ones, you will know what a “Flexy” was.