Cover Story

Old School

by Dege Legg

Decades before the X Games, Lafayette’s skaters had their own twisted history. This is their story, in their own words.

Shannon May skates downtown Lafayette in 2008

photo by Larry Blossom

Skateboarding began as a novelty fad. In the 1950s, kids were just attempting to emulate surfers. But by the 1970s, skateboarding exploded on a national level with the invention of the urethane wheel. That one development, by virtue of “cushioning the ride,” brought forth the vertigo spectacle of “vert (vertical) skating” on homemade ramps and drained swimming pools. Magazines, Hollywood, and even Wide World of Sports sought to capitalize on skateboarding at the height of its popularity.

Far from the spotlight of fame and sponsorships, an idiosyncratic group of Lafayette skaters — a couple dozen or so — distinguished themselves not so much by how famous they became but by their skill, ingenuity, and determination. They kept a regionally unpopular sport alive in a place where traditional sports like hunting and fishing tended to dominate a hefty portion of the cultural landscape.

Skating’s now a multi-million dollar industry influencing everything from footwear to the music industry, making it hard to comprehend the dedication with which this group sacrificed its time and bodies simply for a collective love of the sport. Per capita, it’s said that Acadiana produced some of the greatest unrecognized skateboarders in the country, specifically during times when the sport waned in popularity and the media had moved on to the next big thing. Like forgotten pioneers on a seemingly nonsensical path, they forged on.

Now in their 30s and 40s, many of these same skaters are still around — working, raising families, and yes, skateboarding.

In the Beginning: the ’70s
Vance Carlin, 48:** I started skating in 1969 on a carpeted 2 x 4 with steel wheels off a roller skate. All I did was chase pools, parks and ramps. I went to Acadiana High. I didn’t last long there. It was all cowboys. I had six counts of grand theft auto by the time I was 17.

Mike Savoy, 45: Vance Carlin lived across the street. I see this dude doing all kinds of wild tricks in his driveway. I had to meet him. We hung out and skated almost every day for the next few years. He had two nicknames “Dirtbag” and “Vance Romance.”

Edwin Howard, 47: A friend of mine had the first skateboard in our neighborhood. One day I jumped on his board and tried to ride it. I fell straight back on my butt! I said, “I’m going to learn how to ride that thing.” I went home and built a skateboard by breaking apart roller skates and nailing it to a piece of plywood. The first ramp I ever skated was an old ping-pong table propped up at an angle. I haven’t been the same since.

Scott Starr, 46: I got my first skateboard in 1966. It had handles bolted on like a scooter. I dreamed of being somewhere besides Lafayette. I wanted to do what kids in California were doing. The urethane wheel wasn’t invented until 1973, but it took a few years back then for a new invention to get across the country. No stores in town sold any until 1977.

Ross Martin, 42: It wasn’t a big industry back then. There’s nothing natural about skateboarding. It’s all urban and man-made. So you had to go where the surface was, and most of the time you had to build it.

Backyard Ramps**

Pumped with enthusiasm but with no local skateparks, Lafayette skaters began building and riding wood ramps in their driveways and back yards.

Starr: One day I took a shortcut home from school and ran into Edwin and Robert Howard who had a vert ramp in their yard. It had “The Eagles” band logo painted on it.

Howard: We had ramp-building parties with lots of hammers, nails, boudin, Miller ponies and donated wood. For my twelfth birthday I got a “real” fiberglass skateboard and started riding vertical ramps and transitions, bowls and half-pipes. There was always some new challenge, some new trick to learn. We loved skating the parking towers downtown. We would set up skate ramps at USL, and for some reason the “Pecan Patrol,” our pet name for the USL police, would just drive between the ramps. We’d roll over the hood of the car, grab our boards and skate away.

Savoy: Me, Vance, and Rocky Jackson started building ramps and draining pools. We’d grab some “donations” from construction sites or look in the newspaper for houses for sale with a pool. Then we’d quietly show up. Since nobody lived there, we’d pump out the water in the pool and skate it. The first pool we drained was on Rena Drive. It was a blast. Incredible memories. Then we built a 22-foot half pipe in Rocky Jackson’s back yard. It had 6 feet of vertical on each side. It was huge. We got good, riding that ramp.

Vance Carlin & Rocky Jackson

Two rambunctious teens, Vance Carlin and Rocky Jackson, quickly gained regional reputations as the “rock stars” of skateboarding for their fearless skateboarding, defiant attitudes and random mischief.

Vance Carlin, '79

photo by Robert Howard

Savoy: Both Vance and Rocky were extremely talented — just incredible athletes. These dudes could blow anybody away with just their feet. Their balance and coordination were just phenomenal. Rocky was already a flat-track motorcycle champion, and Vance was the same with motocross. They were crazy but talented. And they both had no fear whatsoever — none at all. First time I saw Rocky ride a motorcycle, he was doing a wheelie down the street going about 60 mph.

Carlin: The first day I met Rocky we did ’shrooms and skated the banks under the Cade overpass where the hobos hung out.

Howard: Vance and his crew had long hair and were kind of sketchy looking, but they were always incredibly polite to my parents. The first time I saw Vance was at a skateboard contest in 1977 in the parking lot of Raccoon Records. There was a freestyle and slalom competition. Vance was way ahead of everyone. He knew how to pump his skateboard through the slalom cones like a surfboard to get speed. I had never even seen that before. He placed first in everything except freestyle, which they gave to me so Vance wouldn’t win everything. His tricks were way harder than what I was doing. The local TV news even showed us skating that night.

Starr: Vance had the best front-side airs out of everyone back then. I would be working the shop at Cajun Skatepark, and Vance and Rocky would come in and own the place. They would bang the pinball machine to make it rack up more games, steal stuff, and then they’d roll joints and smoke pot outside.

Rocky Jackson, '79

photo by Robert Howard

John Maak, 38: Vance was just a fearless skater. I met him a little past his Lafayette heyday when he’d come back from California. He would just hit the lip hard and as fast as he possibly could doing grinds that you could hear down the street. He would come in every other year or so. Show up out of nowhere from wherever he had been … when his resources ran out.

Savoy: Vance, Rocky, and me once surfed Port Fourchon in 1978. Nobody was doing that back then. We took turns riding these 3- to 4-foot waves. It was great. Other times, we’d sneak into a fiberglass pool company and ride their pools. The owner eventually began shooting at us with a pellet gun.
Al Gibson, 39:** Rocky and Vance were like rock stars — they’d have ice chests full of beer on top of the vert ramp, skating with no shoes. We had a skate contest in New Iberia. Vance showed up out of nowhere, got out of a car with all these girls and started ripping tricks. After he won the contest, he threw his trophy up in the air, jumped in the car with the girls, and drove away.

Lake Charles I-10 Bridge

A persistent rumor making the rounds in the late ’70s detailed the alleged attempt by Vance Carlin to ride down the Lake Charles I-10 bridge on a specially modified skateboard.

Howard: I heard the rumor back then that Vance tried to skate down the I-10 bridge in Lake Charles. Never knew if it was true.
Martin:** Just the rumor that he did it is a legacy in itself. I’d heard he went early in the morning when the traffic was slow.

Savoy: Vance decided he wanted to skate down the Lake Charles bridge. He had an old slalom water ski. He mounted trucks and big wheels on it.

Carlin: The board was a 47-inch long modified water ski with huge wheels. I had some friends follow me down in a truck so I wouldn’t get run over from behind. I was stoned out of my gourd and slid out the first couple times. It was fast. But then I was, like, “No, if I’m going to do it, then I’m going to do it.” I put all my weight on the front of the board and put my hand on the back so I wouldn’t get the speed wobbles. I finally made it down, but I was shaking pretty bad when it was over.

Cajun Skatepark**

A short-lived skatepark located at the corner of Eraste Landry and Bertrand opened in 1978 and then abruptly closed a year later.

Howard: We couldn’t wait for this park to open, and when it did we saw that it wasn’t built correctly. The concrete had sagged on the best parts. The snake run was barely skate-able, and the bowl pitched to less than vertical at the top. The concrete was rough. The owner gave us sanding blocks to try to smooth down the concrete, but it didn’t help. But still, we had a blast. Vance could do the longest, fastest, most insane one-footed bowl transfers I have ever seen. Falls at the park meant “road rash.” The first bounce — pads came off. Second bounce — skin came off. I lived with huge scabs on my elbows and knees the whole time that park was open. I remember the sheriff’s deputies would get us to turn down the music at the park, because we were annoying the mini-golf patrons across the street. We’d turn down the music, they’d leave, then we’d turn it back up.

Carlin: We drove the owner nuts. I’ll never forget when it opened they had all these rules. We weren’t into wearing the pads and the helmets. When we’d show up, we’d take over the park. Everybody would move out of the way like it was our park. They’d just stop and watch. Me and Rocky would sneak in at night and ride our mopeds down the snake run, leaving tire marks all over the concrete. Then I was thrown out of there for skating off the roof.

Starr: I worked there until it closed. Someone broke into the park one night and stole everything. It may have been Vance, I don’t know. It closed right after that. By 1980 skateboarding was dead, and it just bummed us out.

’80s Underground**

Skateboarding popularity rapidly declined and entered a punk-outlaw phase characterized by insularity, backyard ramps, harassment from the public, and a pronounced anti-corporate/mainstream ethos.
George Brown, 42:** Skateboarding had just blown through its ’70s phase and become this underground, rebellious sport. It was like the only approved sporting activity for punk rockers. You couldn’t be a basketball player — that was not cool. So we listened to Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and The Dead Kennedys and skateboarded all the time.

Shannon May, 36: I got started skating in ’83 because it was something different to do besides team sports. I was always looking at the alternative side of things — early punk rock, (Black) Sabbath and skateboarding. I couldn’t handle team sports with coaches yelling.
Martin:** I moved back to Lafayette in ’85. I was never really a great skater, so I got involved in the design and manufacturing side. Because of the strength of the scene in Lafayette — Al Gibson, Greg LeBlanc, Sal Barbier, Kurt Bustamonte, Donnie Landry — I got into designing skateboards. Dread Skates became my company. We had a warehouse in Carencro. I bought a blank and cut it out myself. We made Al an amateur model and started selling them. Then I invented an aircraft grade bolt for skateboards. Tony Hawk, Gator Rogowski, Jeff Phillips — all those guys started using our stuff.

Gibson: Skateboarding in the ’80s was all about being yourself. It was the one place where your good looks, your money, and your family didn’t help you. That got you nowhere, and if you tried to use it, you were branded an idiot. The sport went underground. People built ramps in their back yards. Rednecks would show up and try to burn the ramp down, calling you a fag. We’d have to fight them all the time.

Charlie Thomas, 35: When I got into skating it was such a small and underground sport, at least in Louisiana. It was definitely not considered cool, and I can’t count the number of times that I got heckled or given a hard time from everyone but fellow skaters. For being such a small town Lafayette had quite a few ramps. There was Sugars, 84 Lumber Ramp, Doug Lormands’, Scott Bumpus’, Mount Taco, and The John Wayne Ramp.

The Sugars Ramp

Attempting to reignite interest in the sport, a massive half-pipe was built along the McKinley Strip.

Brown: Danny Hall somehow convinced Libby Bumpus of Radical Dan’s skateshop to spend some godawful amount of money to build this huge ramp on the McKinley Strip. It was this really weird scene with a ramp in the middle of a crazy crowd of people at the strip, trying to get lucky with their girlfriends. That was a great ramp. It had 1 foot of vert, 10 feet of transition, 11-feet tall, and it was 20-feet wide.

Savoy: I was going to school in New Orleans and moved on from skating, but when I came home and saw the Sugar’s ramp on the strip, I was blown away. It was huge. And there was a whole new generation of skaters who were ripping it. They’d jumped it to another level. The first time I saw John Maak my jaw dropped. It was unreal. He was blasting massive airs, just flying out. Al Gibson and Greg Leblanc were killing it, too. I just couldn’t believe what these guys were doing — from where we started to that. It was the next evolution.

Brown: Danny Hall was probably my most favorite person ever, a great skater and a mad scientist. Danny and his best friend, Ricky Williams, were like the original Jackasses, challenging every social convention in every way.

Maak: Danny was one of the most interesting, fun and strange characters I’ve ever known. He was considered the prime ramp builder/skater in town. The level of intensity and theatre with Danny and Ricky Williams was off the scale. One night Danny staged a fall from the top of the main stair at Metropolis in the middle of a Skatenigs concert. From the top, he fell all the way down the stairs, rolled dramatically into the middle of the pit, and then proceeded to spazz around on the ground. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen.

Gibson: Danny Hall, Ricky Williams, Wes Bennet, and all those guys built that ramp. It was the biggest half-pipe Lafayette had ever seen. Danny Hall was a super smart, perfectionist. He really thought it out and did a good job. It was huge. I remember being totally scared of it, afraid to drop in. But that’s where I first learned how to do airs, handplants on that ramp. But the location was a hassle. Boards were flying out into the people, hitting girlfriends in their shins. Then their boyfriend would want to fight you. Drunk dudes would throw beer cans at the ramp. There was always some craziness. So I guess they got sick of it and moved it to behind the mall. By then we had built new ramps and moved on.

The John Wayne Ramp

After the demise of the Sugars Ramp, a half-pipe located at Chad Simon’s home in a trailer park off John Wayne Boulevard became the new ground zero in Lafayette skateboarding.

Al Gibson, the John Wayne ramp, '89

photo by Scott Starr

Gibson: After the Sugars ramp got carted off, we started skating the John Wayne Ramp. It started out as a little homemade ramp at Chad Simon’s house. His dad was 100 percent supportive — let us drink beer, make fires, hang out. It was a blast.
Ryan Pankratz, 34:** Chad ran the trailer park. If somebody’s A/C broke, he’d be the guy they’d call to fix it. He was like a skater/maintenance man.

Maak: It was in a trailer park off John Wayne Road and made of wood with metal sheeting. It was the fastest ramp I’d ever ridden, and it stayed that way for about four or five years. On cold dry days you had to mop the ramp with sugar water so it wouldn’t be too slippery. Otherwise it was sure death with that metal surface. The sugar water gave it a sticky film that kept your wheels from sliding. The metal was a lot harder and less forgiving, but nothing I’ve ever skated compares to that ramp. At one point Chad built a little hut under the deck of the ramp. Al Gibson lived in it for awhile — basically a plywood shed. It was a little more than a ramp in that regard. I mean, we all lived out there, skated it from early morning until the next morning.

Carlin: It was insane. I thought it was going be just another little wooden ramp in somebody’s back yard, but it was this massive steel ramp. I was amazed; all these Lafayette skaters were shredding it. I couldn’t believe how much the scene had advanced. John Maak and these guys were blasting 6-foot airs out — off the top — and doing footplants. I was just blown away. It was a new era, for sure.

Brown: That was a whole new crew of guys coming up; Chad Simon lived in a trailer next to the ramp. By the time the John Wayne Ramp popped up I was still skating, but I started going to college and was doing other things. So my star was fading as theirs was coming up. Now you had guys like Al Gibson, Chad Simon, Kirk Bustamonte, and Shannon May coming in and just ripping.

Transition to the Straight World

As the old school skaters grew older, so did the pressures and demands of adult life.

Brown: When I started college, I skated less but kept at it any time I had the chance.

Pankratz: I still skate but not as much as I should. I will always have a board set up and ready to ride even if my body isn’t up to the job.

Gibson: I had my car packed the day I graduated from high school. From 1987-1991, I traveled the country and did nothing but skate ramps, pools, and go to punk rock shows. Then my dad died. I had to come back home, work offshore, and help my mom run the family business. She gave me the news. That was the beginning of my adult life.

Howard: While I was in college at USL, I dislocated my shoulder and had to have surgery, so I pretty much stopped riding ramps in the early ’80s.

Martin: Dread Skates existed from ’85-’92. There was a lot of trends in the industry once the ’90s hit. Wheels, clothes, pants; it was a weird time, especially frustrating for a manufacturer such as myself. So I sold the company and moved on.

May: I went up and down the East Coast, winning amateur contests for a few years. Then I turned pro from ’91 to ’95. It was exciting — sponsors, all expenses paid, flying to Europe and Canada. I was making about $1,300 a month, doing what I love to do. After that, I kind of backed out of skating and came back home to Louisiana. But I’m still ripping.

State of the Sport

Since 2000, skateboarding’s popularity has been at an all time high with the X Games, and local skateparks like Skatespot and Buck Nuttys, and the new public park on Johnston Street.

John Maak, '89

photo by Scott Starr

May: There’s lots of money in it now. It all came from doing our own thing in the street. Some of the initial innocence has been lost, but I’m happy to see where it is.

Carlin: It’s awesome where that sport is today. It’s great for the kids, but don’t make skating something that it isn’t. There’s always going to be a rebellious aspect to the sport. I think what they’re doing at the Skatespot is the ultimate. They’re keeping the kids off the streets, and it’s giving them something to do besides bar-hopping and getting in trouble.
Howard:** My sons Ian (19) and Joseph (12) are both much better skaters that I ever was, and my daughter Laura (9) skates at the Skate Spot, too. The last time I saw Rocky was in 1986, I think on New Year’s Eve at the Loose Caboose. A bunch of huge bikers walked in, clad in jeans and leather. I was sitting at the bar with my wife in my tweed jacket. All these bikers stood around me. One of them put his hand on my shoulder. I thought “Uh-oh.” It was Rocky. He had just rode into town off some long bike trip. He couldn’t believe that I had gotten married.

Martin: The new generation of skateboarders has figured out how to use their feet like their hands. I thought skateboarding had peaked at least five times in my life, and it just keeps growing.

Brown: The way it is now is so unbelievably great with the free concrete skateparks. That’s the way it should’ve always been. And the kids are pretty badass skaters.

Where are they now?

Vance Carlin is serving time in a Florida penitentiary for drug trafficking. After he gets out, he plans on getting back to a simple way of living — skating, surfing, living off the land, and winning back the respect of his family.

Rocky Jackson still lives in the Acadiana area, races motorcycles for Fast Coonass Racing, and is a purported member of the Banditos motorcycle club.

Mike Savoy lives and works in Grand Coteau and spends his free time hunting, fishing and snowboarding.

Edwin Howard lives in Lafayette and works for Fugro Chance, writing computer software and offshore testing. He and his wife of 22 years have two kids in college, two in high school and two in grade school.

Scott Starr is a surf and skate photographer living in southern California. In 1990, while working for Thrasher magazine, he shot the most published skateboarding photo of all time — Roger Muller skating a pool in Los Angeles. He has never had a 9-to-5 job and claims he never will.

Al Gibson lives and skates in Lafayette and owns his own business, designing and building furniture and antique cypress kitchens.

Ross Martin lives in Austin, Texas, with his 14-year-old son. Owner of Lafayette’s first skateboard company, Dread Skates, he now works in the oil and gas industry.

John Maak lives in Lafayette and is a partner in the Arceneaux Group design/build firm, which did the conceptual design for both Tsunami restaurants here and in Baton Rouge. He’s been married for 19 years, is a father, and still skates.
George Brown** is married, owns a wholesale wine company, still skates, and lives in New Orleans.

Shannon May is married, owns a plumbing company in Lafayette, and still skates. He also plays guitar in The May Family Band and Couchemar.
Ryan Pankratz** is a graphic designer for 3D International in Lafayette. He has a common law wife and still skates two to three times a week in addition to playing bass in the band The Devil and The Sea.

Charlie Thomas lives in California and has traveled the world, working as a team marketing manager for top-notch skateboard companies like Tum Yeto, Hurley, Crimson, and currently World Industries. He’s still an avid skater.

Danny Hall (1966-1995) was a much-admired member of the Lafayette skateboard and underground music scene. He died in his sleep in 1995. In addition to building some of the most legendary half-pipes in Lafayette, he was a filmmaker (Vini Vidi Vici, Trauma Ball), wholesale distributor, inventor, founding member of the synthesizer-less industrial band Otis, and an all-around Renaissance man of the highest order. He will be missed. This article is dedicated to his memory.