By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Accomplished skaters fall down one side and shoot up the other so fast that they fly as much as 12 feet up into the air above the far ramp. They pirouette 180 degrees in the air, then fall back down and hit the lip of the ramp just right, so they can go screaming back down it and up the other side to do it again. Beginners tend to jump off the edge and collapse on their backs at the bottom like bags of dirty laundry. It's very important not to cry.
Dropping in on the vert the first time is so extremely counter-intuitive that kids often go to the edge, stare down, get the shakes, and withdraw many times before finally making their first descent. Other boys at the top give the beginners macho clenched-fist gestures of encouragement, but seem never to deride them for pulling back. Everyone remembers the first drop.
Of all the ramps, the vert exerts the most powerful spell. Ty Redding, 13, and Jacob Caplinger, 13, are so drawn to it that they try every weekend they can to persuade their parents to make the two-hour drive from their home in Tyler, 90 miles east of Dallas, to Eisenbergs. Their baggy jeans and huge T-shirts make them indistinguishable from skaters who come from Dallas or Wichita. In Kansas.
"In Tyler we don't have a skate park," Jacob says. "They build baseball parks and soccer, but they don't build anything for skaters."
Ty says he gets good grades. "A's, B's, and a few C's."
Jacob says, "I'm on the A-B honor roll."
Echoing a theme heard all over the park, they say they think skaters are basically good kids. But on a spectrum from the preps, at one end, to the thugs at the other, they're not sure exactly where to put themselves.
"I think skaters are average kids," Ty says.
Jacob says, "If you're a low-life and you smoke and everything, then you can't skate aggressive."
Skating is definitely cool. Ty and Jacob speak derisively of kids from the small town of Whitehorse, near Tyler.
"Whitehorse kids think they can skate," Jacob says.
"They don't know the meaning of skating in Whitehorse," Ty says.
Both of them have played lots of soccer and other team sports. Neither has to think for even a split-second to answer why this is better.
"No coaches," Ty says.
"Yeah," Jacob says. "No coaches."
At the other end of the skate park, taking a rest from the smaller ramps on the street course, half a dozen boys of about the same ages echo all the same feelings.
"You don't have to be on a team," says Kyle Dixon, 14, of Dallas.
"You can do what you want," says Scott Quinan, 15, of Lewisville.
Scott says he gets all A's in school. The others in the group all say they are A and B students. Released from this conversation with an adult, they all take deep gulps of relief and return to the street course--a series of moderate ramps arranged in a circuit toward the front of the building.
Sweat-soaked boys are gathered in mobs on the end-ramps here, waiting their turns. There is an apparently telepathic system of signaling when it is each skater's turn to go. No one says a word--talk is not cool--but everyone is expected to understand the rules. It's a serious gaffe to "snake" someone--skate when it's the other person's turn.
They move in a blur, roaring down one ramp, flying up over the next, turning 360 degrees in the air, and coming back down at full speed. One after the other, one after the other, pumping and flying, sharing their invisible cues about whose turn it is.
On another ramp--sort of a half-sized version of the vert--two boys are skating together, sometimes passing each other, sometimes flying in tandem. When they are shoulder to shoulder, they both break out in huge grins.
Then they spin, skate toward each other, lose their bearings, and collide. They hit hard, head-on, falling and sprawling. They help each other to their feet, smile, and slap hands. It was a cool collision. Very important not to cry.
The risks of the sport are serious.
Vicki Eisenberg says, "Whenever a mother comes up to me at the park and says, 'Is this dangerous?' I always say yes. I would never want to give any parent the impression that it isn't dangerous."
The first day the park was open, the ambulance came three times to take kids to the hospital. The third day, the ambulance came five times. Now the ambulance runs are down to about eight a month.
"Those first days, it was because the kids were just so excited," Eisenberg says. "And also, frankly, I think it was like when young males first discover sex. They just wanted to do it as fast as they could so they could do it again."
Eisenbergs requires skaters to wear helmets. Most of them also wear serious kneepads and wrist guards. The bulk of the injuries is broken arms and wrists, usually from one-skater accidents as opposed to collisions. Numbers published by the International In-Line Skating Association (IISA) show injury rates for all in-line skaters lower than the rates for bicycling and higher than golf.