For more than fifteen years, best-selling author and historian Hampton Sides has traveled widely across the continent exploring the America that lurks just behind the scrim of our mainstream culture. Reporting for Outside, The New Yorker, and NPR, among other national media, the award-winning journalist has established a reputation not only as a wry observer of the contemporary American scene but also as one of our more inventive and versatile practitioners of narrative non-fiction.
In these two dozen pieces, collected here for the first time, Sides gives us a fresh, alluring, and at times startling America brimming with fascinating subcultures and bizarre characters who could live nowhere else. Following Sides, we crash the redwood retreat of an apparent cabal of fabulously powerful military-industrialists, drop in on the Indy 500 of bass fishing, and join a giant techno-rave at the lip of the Grand Canyon. We meet a diverse gallery of American visionaries— from the impossibly perky founder of Tupperware to Indian radical Russell Means to skateboarding legend Tony Hawk. We retrace the route of the historic Bataan Death March with veterans from Sides’ acclaimed WWII epic, Ghost Soldiers. Sides also examines the nation that has emerged from the ashes of September 11, recounting the harrowing journeys of three World Trade Center survivors and deciding at the last possible minute not to "embed" on the Iraqi front-lines with the U.S. Marines. Americana gives us a sparkling mosaic of our country, in all its wild and poignant charm.
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The Birdman Drops In
Las Vegas, Nevada
The groms press forward, inching eagerly toward the arena entrance. Mullet-haired rampheads, bescabbed halfpipe urchins, scuffling along in their clompy skate shoes, their laces tied with a precise looseness. Eight thousand zitty faces lit with incipient testosterone, waiting to be shown revolutionary ways in which Newtonian physics can be warped, postponed, and dicked with.
They've come to the Mandalay Bay Area in Las Vegas for a new kind of entertainment, a show that pumps the raw crude of male adolescence, a hormonic convergence of phatness and sweetness and straight-out sickness. These young acolytes have come for amplitude, for stunts and biffs, for grinds and grabs and serious air, for loud music and fumy motorcycle farts.
They've come for the Boom Boom HuckJam.
Once through the doors, the grommets come face-to-face with the thing itself. Behind a scrim of netting lies a baroque installation of giant stages, jumps, and ramps glinting in a swirl of strobe lights. Soon the chanting begins-toe-KNEE, toe-KNEE, toe-KNEE-the whole arena surging with raw skate-kid wattage.
Tony Hawk is the mind and wallet behind this unprecedented show. It's his private experiment, designed as a two-hour adrenaline extravaganza, a busy amalgam of motocross, BMX, and live music, with vertical skateboarding taking center stage. Tonight is the live debut of the HuckJam. It represents a huge financial gamble for the thirty-four-year-old skateboarding venture capitalist; nearly $1 million of Hawk's own money is invested in this modern vaudeville act, which he will take on the road this fall.
To my immediate left, sitting with his dad in the VIP section, is Jonathan Lipnicki, the bespectacled twelve-year-old child star of Stuart Little and Jerry Maguire. Lipnicki has been a Hawk fan for as long as he can remember. "Oh yeah, Tony's, like, the greatest!" he says.
Now the circus-barking announcer starts whipping up the crowd: Las Vegas! We need a little thunder!
A few aisles over sit Hawk's mom, Nancy, his wife, Erin, and his sister Pat, who manages the business that is Tony Hawk Inc. Near them is Sarah Hall, Hawk's publicist, who used to work as a tour assistant for the singer Michael Bolton back when he had long, curly hair and lived at the top of the charts. "Tony's bigger now than Michael ever was," she confided to me earlier at the rehearsal. "Even at his peak, even with 'When a Man Loves a Woman.' He's that huge."
C'mon Vegas-we're not with you yet!
In front of me sits an executive from Hansen's, the beverage company. They're poised to inflict a new energy drink on American youth called Monster. The exec says she's been negotiating with Hawk's people to strike up a sponsorship deal. "Tony's hard to walk away from," she says over the roar.
Energy drink? Like ginseng, ginkgo-that sort of thing?
"Caffeine, mostly," she shouts. "And sugar. We use lots of sugar."
Las Vegas, let's hear some more noise!
Now the houselights go out and a bevy of fembots-jiggy young models in silver lamé body stockings, white Lone Ranger masks, and platinum-blond wigs-come out holding signs that signal the start of the HuckJam. From the far stage, swaddled in a dry-ice haze, the punk band Social Distortion cranks up.
C'mon, people, let's DO this!
Here come the skateboarders-zipping down, one by one, from a thirty-foot-high perch in the scaffolding. Like buzzy, looping electrons, Bob Burnquist, Andy Macdonald, Lincoln Ueda, Bucky Lasek, and Shaun White-five of the preeminent vert skaters in the world-power through the massive bronze bowl of the halfpipe and launch high over the lip in a dervish of spins and kickflips, ollies and McTwists. And then-
Ladies and gentulmennnnnnnnn . . .
The man we've all been waiting for dives down the ramp, lanky and tough-sinewed and-true to his name-curiously avian, with a beaky nose and flailing arms and big, alert eyes. He soars through the air and lands effortlessly on the platform with the other skaters, Quetzalcoatl among mere mortals: the Birdman.
Calmly drinking in the adulation, Hawk hoists his board over his helmeted head and tips it toward the roaring crowd in a ritual gesture of beneficence, as if to say, "Welcome, children of the pipe, your sins are forgiven!"
Now let's hear some Las Vegas thunder for TOE-KNEEEEEEE HAWWWWWWWWWWK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
A few days before I first met Tony Hawk, I was skiing down a chute on California's Mammoth Mountain when I hit a patch of ice. The next instant I was pinwheeling, out of control, for three hundred terrifying yards. I ended up in the hospital with a broken humerus and a messed-up shoulder socket. Alex, the ski-patrol guy who sledded me down to the clinic, kept asking me questions. "Who is the president? What do you do for a living?"
I'm a writer, I said. I'm working on a story about a skateboarder named Tony Hawk.
"The Birdman?" Alex's expression changed completely: no longer was I just another boring casualty. I'd seen the same look of reverence on the face of my nine-year-old son, whose room is pretty much wallpapered with Hawk posters. "Growing up, I worshiped him," Alex told me. "I still do. He's like a god."
Three days later, I'm at the Four Seasons Resort in Carlsbad, California, my arm in a sling, and I'm trying to interview the god himself through a fog of Vicodin. The Four Seasons seems like a weird lunch spot for a skateboarder, a very staid, adult establishment with Haydn pomp-and-circumstancing in the background and, in one corner, a bridge game in full swing. But Hawk suggested the place and raved about its buffet. As we settle into lunch, I have a hard time cutting my prime rib with my slinged arm, and there comes an awkward moment when Hawk is clearly thinking, Should I help the poor wretch? He decides against it.
Maybe he doesn't want to seem patronizing. Just as likely, he's unimpressed by my puny injury. Here's a guy, a professional human projectile, basically, who is intimately acquainted with words like meniscus and arthroscopic. A guy who's knocked himself out a half dozen times, fractured his ribs, broken his elbow, sustained several concussions, had his front teeth bashed in twice, all while collecting stitches too numerous to count. You broke your arm-so what?
But as we sit there, Hawk's initial reserve wears off, and he projects an endearing, youthful innocence. Though he's the father of three boys, though he has three stockbrokers and two agents and rakes in eight digits a year, he still somehow carries himself like a kid, a man-teen in the promised land.
Hawk seems bright in the same way a bright sixteen-year-old does-sharp, watchful, with quick reflexes but little use for introspection. His dirty-blond hair is neat and clipped short, almost to the point of spikiness. His voice still has an adolescent crack to it, and he speaks in a Ridgemont High dialect, the stoner-surfer vernacular of Southern California, in which declaratives are haphazardly turned into interrogatives with a little last-second inflection. ("I don't know why, but I've always had, like, a fetish for watches?") His taste in movies is refreshingly juvenile. (Favorites: Caddyshack and Aliens.) He has a young person's radar for musical infractions by artists he views as "lame" and a hypervigilance for the cool currency of brand names (just now he's down on Swatch, a former sponsor).
After lunch, Hawk tips the valet and we hop into his Lexus sports car. As we glide onto Interstate 5, he steers with one hand and recalibrates his driving environment with the other, his long, bony fingers floating over the dials and buttons in the wooden inlay of his $70,000 ride. He adjusts his Arnette sunglasses, checks his Nixon sports watch, plugs in his Apple iPod, and scrolls through tunes until he finds one he likes, by the White Stripes.
"I can fit eighteen hundred songs on a single disk," he says, with a geek's pure faith in the righteousness of electronics. As we head north, the console's navigational screen charts our blipping progress, as if we're trapped in our own private Game Boy.
The Lexus-an SC430 in a metallic plum color that the sales brochure calls "amethyst pearl"-is a recent acquisition, a product of the phenomenal success Hawk has enjoyed since rising to the status of Zeus (or is it Seuss?) in the pantheon of kids' idols. Nowadays, Hawk regularly commands up to $25,000 per skating appearance and has reportedly earned $10 million in personal income in each of the last two years. Hawk owns Tony Hawk Inc.-a San Juan Capistrano-based company that employs fifteen people-and co-owns Birdhouse Skateboards, 900 Films, Blitz Distribution, and SLAM, an action-sports management firm. Through these he markets clothes, shoes, films, skateboards, gear, events, and even a slightly scary-looking remote-control action figure. Hawk's got a foothold in retail, too, with new Hawk Skate stores in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and Paramus, New Jersey. Combined with the licensing deals he's made-lending his name to "signature products"-his mini-empire pulled in $314 million in 2001.
Looming over it all is the astonishing success of Activision's three-game series Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, to which Hawk licenses his name, likeness, and expertise. Since hitting the shelves in 1999, Pro Skater has become one of the most popular video games of all time, generating $473 million, with more than 12 million copies sold. The game's impact has helped make Hawk a fixture on every cable channel aimed at kids. Recent TV triumphs have included stints doing color commentary for skateboarding competitions; an ESPN2 reality-based show, Tony Hawk's Gigantic Skatepark Tour; and a guest appearance on Nickelodeon's hit cartoon Rocket Power. His autobiography, HAWK-Occupation: Skateboarder, which came out in 2000, was a bestseller and has been optioned, perhaps inevitably, by Disney.
Thus the toys have increased in quantity and quality. Cartier watches, plasma screens, Armani suits. Over the summer, Hawk surprised Erin with a new BMW sport-utility vehicle. And then there's the house, practically a zip code unto itself. A few years ago the Hawks bought a home on a lagoon in Carlsbad for more than $1 million. The bodacious five-thousand-square-foot gated mansion has been duly featured on MTV's Cribs. Things have actually reached the point where Hawk has started buying cars for his friends, like Elvis used to do. Because he's a nice guy. Because he can.
Hawk and I speed past signs for Legoland, past the cancerous climb of pink mission-style apartment complexes, past a billboard for a house of worship that says GOT CHURCH? This is Hawk's native turf, a place of beautiful weather, beautiful ocean, and not-so-beautiful suburban sprawl webbed by traffic-snarled highways. Though he travels constantly, Hawk feels at home only here, along this ribbon of coastal enclaves stretching north from San Diego to San Juan Capistrano-the land where he was born and raised.
"Australia's pretty cool," he says, citing a favorite foreign locale. "But I can't imagine living anywhere else but here."
Hawk's Nokia chirps for the third time in five minutes, but the liquid crystal display on the phone reads CALLER UNKNOWN, so he elects not to answer it. "Always suspect," he says, the mild scowl on his face implying that too many strangers have gotten hold of his private cell number.
Hawk, a neatnik, keeps his Lexus immaculate. The only bit of clutter is a stash of DVD games and a PlayStation, which Riley, his nine-year-old son from a previous marriage, uses to occupy himself on long trips. "Those games are awesome," Hawk says. "He never gets bored. He flew with me to South Africa recently, and he was engrossed the whole way. That's like a twenty-hour flight."
One of Riley's favorite games, naturally, is Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. At the outset, players can scroll down a roster of real-life professional skaters and choose to "be" any one of them-Rodney Mullen, or Chad Muska, or whoever. Each one looks strikingly like the real person and has a special arsenal of skating tricks. Riley likes to be his dad.
Riley, as it happens, is our next errand. It's nearly three o'clock, and Hawk has to pick him up at elementary school. But not in this tiny roadster. So we dash by the house and exchange the SC430 for the pickin'-up-the-kids Lexus, this one a roomy sedan. In a few minutes we're idling in the train of waiting moms, some of whom turn away from their cell phones to throw Hawk a smile of recognition. Oh, yeah, there's the millionaire skateboard dad.
Soon the bell rings, and the building exhales a stream of laughing kids carrying backpacks. The traffic is bad- "Cars come through here way too fast," Hawk says-but once there's a gap, Riley crosses over and hops in, a good-looking third-grader with blond hair.
"Hey, buddy," Hawk says, smiling in the rearview mirror.
"Hey, Dad," Riley replies. Then, under his breath: "Who's this?"
Once Hawk introduces me, Riley seems satisfied, if thoroughly bored. He's understandably suspicious of the stream of people vying for his father's time. I make matters worse by telling him that I have a nine-year-old boy who's into skateboarding, too.
"Oh," he says, trying to be polite.
There can be little doubt that Riley Hawk will grow up with one of the most discerning bullshit detectors on the planet. As Hawk informs me later: "Riley's gotten good at telling who really wants to be his friend, and who just wants to come over and skate with his dad. He can weed 'em out real fast."
Way back in the mists of Southern California history, back when the surfboard first sprouted wheels and rolled onto the kelp-strewn shores, in the dark time of teen endeavor that's come to be known as B.E. (Before Extreme), the youth dwelled in a world that was, we now realize, pitifully dull. Gravity was a despot, feared and respected. During these primordial years-the late sixties and early seventies-the skateboard was a pale derivative of its aquatic parent. Skaters, by and large, were surfers who wanted something to do when the waves were flat and junky. They skated like surfers, too, with a hang-five style that was sinuous and cool but fundamentally uneventful.
Then one summer, during an even darker period known as the Late Jimmy Carter Administration, the swimming pools of Southern California went dry. A historic drought was on, and cement ponds were deemed a frivolous waste. In one of those crucial moments of Darwinian advance, packs of kids started sneaking into empty backyard pools to experiment with their skateboards. They discovered that, in a pool with a nicely curved bowl, they could go up and down and up again, almost endlessly, like human pendulums. If they gathered enough momentum, they could soar over the pool's lip, do a little flippety trick in the air, and safely land to do it all over again-in one continuous splooge of adrenaline. And so the board, having shed its fins for wheels, developed wings and broke gravity's tyranny. It could fly.