One by one, with scarred shins and graying goatees, the N-Men drop into an empty, peanut-shaped pool at Granite Skate Park.
Sporting black baseball caps and ragged T-shirts, the skateboarding crew has taken over a corner at this concrete-covered park along Power Inn Road just south of Folsom Boulevard in much the same way certain biker organizations will claim space at the Sturgis motorcycle rally. The younger kids, trying to master the latest flip tricks on their Popsicle-stick-shaped boards on the adjacent street course area, largely keep their distance from these older guys.
Most of the 20 or so N-Men clutch wider boards with thick wheels designed for pool skating. As the summer sun sets, they take turns carving around the smooth concrete walls on their skateboards, grinding against the edges and occasionally skidding out and slamming into the sides.
They dont fly as high as they used to, but they still skate hard.
Its been this way since 1975, when the N-Men were just a ragtag crew of teenagers skating around Sacramento, hopping backyard fences and hoping to score a few runs in an empty pool before getting kicked out.
Many of the N-Men are now in their 50s, but they still feel an insatiable need to skate.
While men their age tend to relive their competitive pasts through golf or rec-league softball, the N-Men fountain of youth can be found in drained swimming pools or skate-park bowls. At their recent Tuesday night session, the sounds of wheels sliding and wood slapping against concrete competed with the classic rock blaring from a boombox as they bombed around the park.
Its the speed, said Randy Katen, 53, a co-founder of the N-Men and the crews figurehead. Carving is a great thrill, and grinding and hitting the lip. Its just flowing. But when you get older, (skatings) a little different. Now, its a brotherhood.
Pool skating can be a bruising, bone-breaking activity. It isnt for weak-hearted boys, hence the name N-Men, which stands for Northern Men. Think of it as a fraternity on urethane wheels, complete with longstanding nicknames and war stories of gnarly injuries and renegade skate sessions.
Membership has been a defining element of many of their lives. Katen has N-Men inked on his shoulder, above the image of a well-skated pool and the words 100% Skateboarder.
Over the decades, the N-Men have earned a reputation as one of Northern Californias pioneering skateboard crews, especially when it comes to skating in pools. In a sport thats synonymous with youth culture, these elders command respect when they show up to a skate spot, even if they dont roll the fastest, catch the most air or execute the latest tricks.
They paid their dues back when skateboarding was dangerous, sometimes dodging the law or braving barbed-wire fencing that stood between them and a skate session. As the N-Men aged, their techniques for finding the perfect backyard pool expanded to chartering helicopters and placing classified ads in publications, claiming they needed to borrow pools to film a skate documentary.
Bryce Kanights, a veteran photographer whos documented skateboarding for 30 years, helped capture some of these N-Men exploits for Thrasher magazine in the early 1990s.
Theyre definitely about being burly and having a good time on a skateboard, said Kanights, in a phone call from Portland, Ore. If theres an empty pool, you can bet your bottom dollar the N-Men are going to skate it. They skate hard, party hard and wake up the next morning and do it again. Theyre a little slower now, but theyre still doing it.
Rolling back then
Before the era of city-run skate parks, the N-Men had Old Sacramento.
That was back in 1975. Skateboarding had yet to become a multibillion-dollar industry, spawning internationally known superstars such as Tony Hawk and Ryan Sheckler. It wasnt on prime time and wasnt the star of ESPNs X-Games, nor was it a part of a packaged culture you could just co-opt at the local shopping mall. Skateboarding was geared for rebels and outcasts who didnt mind flying in the face of authority, the ultimate anti-team sport.
The N-Men scouted public property to find their fun, and Old Sacramento was one amazing obstacle course. Theyd gather at the top of a concrete ramp and roll into the tunnel that leads into the K Street Mall. Racing down the steep grades of the nearby parking garages was also part of their game.
Wed push and go down, and that was like our wave, said Thomas Bix, 52, reminiscing by the side of Granite Skate Parks peanut bowl. Wed be out there until 6 in the morning, just skating.
Like-minded skaters from around the city found a burgeoning community at the now-defunct Cal Central Skateboards, a small shop on Freeport Boulevard near McClatchy High School, and the former Skateboards Etc. shop in North Sacramento.
Skateboarding was just entering its second resurgence, following an initial fad that waned after the mid-1960s. Skateboarder Magazine had resumed publication in 1975 after a 10-year hiatus, capturing an outlaw approach to skateboarding that was springing up around California. The pages captured skaters conquering empty pools and a slash-and-burn style on the streets that looked a lot cooler than the sidewalk surfing from a decade before.
We read Skateboarder magazine to know who the pros were, Bix said. There was a cover showing Gregg Weaver skating a pool barefoot on a wooden board, way under the lip. We can do better than that. So we went and searched for pools, man.
Southern California had its Z-Boys, a Santa Monica skateboard crew with such emerging superstars as Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta.
But the skaters up north wanted to carve out their own identity, not as the stereotypical surfer kids on skateboards, but as men.
The name N-Men was coined by former Sacramento skater John OShea, and the guiding principle was to seek out all that was skateable around Sacramento and beyond. They started with a core of about 15 skaters who shared an us-against-the-world ethos. Drainage ditches, pipes, parking garages all were to be sought out and stamped by the N-Men.
It was the adventure of hiking two miles out to a ditch that I would never think of going now, Katen said. But it was so exciting. Back then, there were no maps. Thats what kids now are going to miss.
Salivating for pools
Of all skate terrains, the empty swimming pool produces the strongest Pavlovian response from the N-Men.
Its the same way snowboarders fantasize about fresh powder or surfers thirst for a perfectly breaking 6-foot wave. A pool is perhaps the ultimate test of a skateboarders ability. The boarder must manage its curves and skin-shearing concrete, all with speed and style.
And every pool is different, a challenge to be conquered on a wooden board and four wheels.
This wave breaks 24 hours per day, bro! shouted Emile Janicot, 40, describing the appeal of pool skating.
Drought of the 1970s was good to California skateboarders, leaving an abundance of empty pools to explore. They sought out vacated homes overseen by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which required that the pools be drained.
They would also wait impatiently for March.
Thats when all the public pools got drained: Southside, downtown, River Park, Katen said. There would be a half-dozen to hit at night. Wed go full-on commando, throw a blanket over the barbed wire. Part of it was the adventure, waiting for the lights to go off and be ready to go.
Thats to say the N-Men tapped into some of the punk-rock spirit that meshed with skateboard subculture in the early 1980s. Fences were merely a state of mind. Do not enter signs were dismissed. If an empty pool was sniffed out, whether it was at Park Terrace or Tennis South in South Land Park, the N-Men found it their duty to skate it.
By the 1990s, they were using a helicopter piloted by John Wiggins, a fellow N-Men skater and helicopter instructor, to hover over neighborhoods and clue in to the perfect skating pools. These exploits were captured in a Thrasher magazine video. Katen and a fellow N-Men skater also invested in a $700 pump that could drain any pool in three hours or less. They drove around in a white truck owned by N-Men member Gary Cross that displayed an N-Men Pool Service sign on its side.
If people were out there watering their lawns, it looked like we were an actual pool service, said Katen, who works for a company that installs cash registers and credit card swipers when hes not skating. Wed get out of the truck with a pump and a broom.
Back to the fold
Becoming one of the N-Men doesnt require a hazing ritual or include a secret handshake but you have to be able to skate and you have to be invited. Katen estimates that about 100 people can claim N-Men membership, a fairly exclusive club.
You show up, skate with the group and youve got to respect the fact weve been skating for 35 years and still going, Katen said. We give you a hat or a T-shirt and thats your colors.
The N-Men havent spawned any major skateboarding superstars, but theyre respected in the industry. Katen has a signature skateboard deck with Pocket Pistol, a Southern California company that also creates the official deck for skate legend Duane Peters, and sponsorship from Independent, which makes skateboard parts. An N-Men documentary is scheduled to start filming later this year.
Veteran skaters get their own division at some skate contests, and websites such as www.middle-age-shred.com keep the skater fire burning. The N-Men is still the rare group thats continued as as a hard-charging, cohesive unit.
The N-Men are kind of a rogue, renegade crew, Kanights said. Theyre not going to be the guys that support soft skateboarding.
Skateboarding has meanwhile gone corporate, with $200,000 cash-prize contests and Xbox video games featuring the latest superstars flipping boards down stairs and sliding on steep handrails. The N-Men, though not as nimble as the young pros, have used this popularity to their advantage. Katen once placed a classified ad stating that a film crew was looking for empty pools to document a skateboarding session. The ruse worked famously.
There was Tony Hawk fever after the X-Games and my phone rang every day, Katen said. We skated 45 pools one summer. We couldnt even get to them all.
The N-Men usually meet once a week, generally on Thursdays, to hold forth at Granite Skate Park. The days of hopping fences and helicopter missions are mostly history for the aging N-Men. The public skate park holds plenty of thrills, bringing once-absent members back into the pool.
Life happens with a wife and stressful job, you own a home, then the kids are off to college, Katen said. Then all of a sudden youre buying another board to hang out on Thursdays with the old crew. Weve kept it going long enough that people are coming back in the fold.
Beat up and jacked up
Their bodies are in various states of beat-up after decades of falls.
David Moorhouse, 57, can only watch from the sidelines as the crew skates around him at Granite Skate Park. He sports N-Men tattoos over ankles wrecked from a pool-skating mishap. But skidding wheels remain a sirens song.
I just want to feel it, just that once, Moorhouse said. It makes me crazy that I cant.
The N-Men who skate regularly feel aches earned over the years. They talk about a skater walk, a kind of waddle that develops from their lower back and knees getting blasted regularly. Theyre not trying to keep up with the young guns tearing around the adjacent street course. Satisfying a need for speed and hanging out as bros works just fine.
Im jacked up all over: Two knee surgeries, one shoulder surgery, said Marty Radan, 52, whos known as The Rat and works as an information services analyst. I do a lot of yoga to stay flexible. I dont go much beyond what my skill set is and what Im feeling on that day. Im glad to still grind. Thats good enough for me.
Many of the N-Men look fit. Jamie Hart ranks as the oldest N-Men at 62, and he rides more than 7,000 miles a year on his bicycle. The former owner of a Peterbilt truck dealership is training for Octobers World Championships of Slalom Skateboarding, where he expects to hit speeds of more than 50 mph.
Hart said his wife thinks hes a little nuts.
She says theres no fool like an old fool, said Hart.
Maybe so, but being one of the N-Men means living a kind of endless summer. Unlike the golden-haired skateboard stars of Southern California, the N-Men perpetuate an ageless, blue-collar aesthetic.
Age 5 to 60, we all dress the same, said Janicot, whos a partner in the skateboarding company Blood Wizard. Vans (shoes), black socks, hat on backwards, dirty T-shirt, plaid dress-up shirt.
Janicot might as well be describing Steve Brockway, whos 52 and known as Steve-O in the crew. He powers around the skate parks peanut bowl in a sleeveless plaid shirt, his buffed arms hinting at his career in construction.
The N-Men see their future in skaters such as Brockways 14-year-old son, Ezra, a fearless ripper in his own right. Cody Horan, 21, also represents a new generation of N-Men. His father, Tom, started skating with the N-Men in the late 1970s and the two scout pools together.
N-Men can approach anything, from pools to parking lots, with smooth, consistent style, Cody Horan said. Its about skating confidently, and pools: find them, drain them, skate them and not get caught. Its 100 percent skateboarding.
By 9:30 p.m., most of the N-Men have headed home, toward families and looming day jobs. The ones who remain start packing pads and gear back into their duffel bags, some walking with slight limps. The lights at Granite Skate Park then shut off automatically at 10 p.m., an unceremonious farewell to the nights skate session. But the N-Men will soon be back, for an empty pool holds endless potential.
I love it just as much as I did when it was 1975, Katen said. Ill be doing this in a decade: Cruising around, grinding, the same thing. And theyll all be wishing they were me.
Call The Bees Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias