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Skatepark a subculture all its own
The sound of wooden boards slapping concrete is in constant repetition at the Ceres skatepark. The cacophony is punctuated by liberal eruptions of the F-bomb after one of the under-18 crowd of skateboarders fails to land the right way and takes a bone-pulverizing jarring of elbow, knee, back or head into the unforgiving concrete.

Day in and day out, this is life at the Ceres skatepark.

Depending on your station in life you'll either respect these kids for their brave feats of soaring off the 9-foot high concrete structure dubbed "The Giant," or shake their head at their collective brazen attempts at killing themselves.

It's close to 4 p.m. on Thursday at Smyrna Park and about 36 skaters are moving, sliding, jumping, rolling.

Brandon Lee, a 15-year-old from Ceres, lands wrong coming off of the Giant and comes down on his right elbow. The obscenities are only subdued by the pain. Cursing, it seems, is a rite of passage for these adolescents willing to try these bold moves only to endure the impact. But then again, they're 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 - the age at which the body can endure things better than, say, 30, 40, and 50. Despite the bruises and broken skin, they come back and do it again and again and again.

"It's a passion," said Lee. In seconds it appears he is over the pain because he's going back for more. No trip to the hospital this time. Approximately seven months ago Lee shattered his ankle while skating at the park in Riverbank where he lived at the time.

A friend, Tony Lugo, 14, comes over to see why I'm out there and if I was a sponsor. These kids live for sponsors so they can compete in skating competitions, like the Central Valley AM JAM, set for this Sunday. He's shirtless, his chest beaded in sweat from the skateboard workout from the "kick-flips off the six" - that's skateboard lingo for launching off the six stairs leading down into the north end of the pit. He's been skating since he was 8 or 9.

"Once you start you can't stop. It's like an addiction," Tony said.

It took years to muster the nerve and build up confidence to try sailing off the Giant into a bed of hardened rock, he promises.

I couldn't help but wonder if the "no fear" machismo exhibited out there on this late spring afternoon is due to the feelings of invincibility - or the young ladies perched there, their eyes taking in the chaos of their surroundings but their ears plugged with iPod tunes.

Honesty Roberts, 14, winces occasionally at the self-imposed physical punishment. "I feel bad but sometimes it's funny because they get all mad and start cussing at their skateboards," she said.

Brenna Lopez's brother, Alex Lopez, broke his leg at the park about two years ago. She remembers her parents getting mad because he walked all the way home on a broken leg.

The girls say they don't like hearing the foul language of their peers, saying it's much worse than what they hear at school.

"It's bad here," said Honesty.

I believe it. I can also believe that the longer you're out there, the less shock value it has.

The skatepark is like a microcosm of life. It has its lessons and trials. You see the same rules of society at work in the skatepark. You have your rule breakers and you have its rowdies on one extreme, the polite and courteous on the other hand. There are conflicts but all seem to understand that a degree of cooperation is needed to ensure the park stays open. As far as anyone can remember, the city has not had to dump the bowl with sand as a punitive measure for rowdiness.

There's occasional skirmishes between the skaters and the bikes.

"The bikes are 'gay,' " said Lee as his way of 'dissing' them. "They get in the way a lot."

Bikes technically aren't allowed inside the bowl but someone long ago scratched that off the metal sign posting the park rules. It's generally accepted that bikes won't go away and collisions do happen. That's life, I guess. As in real life, the skaters realize there's not enough adults or police to enforce the rules.

Off in the distance, a tough cookie of a grandmother is watching to make sure that her grandchildren - whom she drove in from Crows Landing 10 miles from Ceres - get to ride bikes without harassment.

"I don't see why the bikes can't be in there," she repeated more than once. "They're good kids."

Rules were made to be broken, they say. I suppose police have more important things to do - like chasing gang members and dope dealers - than crack down on those rebel bike riders.

The park is a mix of good and bad, battles between cultures, too, a pull and tug of good versus evil. Noah Postley said confrontations happen all the time. He occasionally sees standoffs between those who smoke and do drugs and those who know better. The good kids try to police the bad kids for fear that the city will bring in a dump truck of sand as a temporarily punitive measure.

"There's seventh- and eighth-graders out here smoking," said Noah, who is one of the few kids who have a helmet strapped to his head. He seems genuinely outraged "Where do they get that stuff? Steal it from their parents? Do their parents even know about it?"

Noah must have come from parents who care, I tell myself. Now this is a good kid.

The park was built back in the Louis Arrollo days at the request of the community of teens who said Ceres had nothing to offer. The city used about $350,000 in redevelopment funds to build the park.

I get the feeling that most kids either have learned to like the park or stay away from it. Adults, well, tolerate it.

"We always have problems out there," commented Deputy Chief of Police Mike Borges. "It's a park that is heavily used and wherever you have people or young adults gathered you're gong to have issues. Unfortunately they often settle disputes with their hands."

But Borges, who is a parent of grown kids, knows that sometimes you have to let your kids live life.

"Kids are kids," Borges said. "I'd rather see them out their skating than sitting in front of video games shooting people."

Only two parents are stationed off under shade trees to keep an eye on their kids. I'm not surprised. Trina Hendricks of Modesto prefers the Ceres park over Beyer's. "At least this one as steps into the bottom," she said, pausing from paperwork in her lap.

Another mom I know refuses to let her son be exposed to the crowd of "punks" and fears what might happen if he plays there.

The city has itself covered liability wise by posting the park rules, some of which were scratched out long ago. It's a "play at your own risk" facility.

I guess that's what life is all about in the first place.