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Skateboarding News

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Jim Fitzpatrick interview: Part V. Food for thought: Vietnam, Politics and Education

Part V “Extra” Food for thought: Vietnam, politics and education

Christian Hosoi. Photo Ted Terrebone
People (i.e. non skaters) consider the skateboarding scene and its punk rock corollary, as violent and anti-establishment. Until recently, many skate videos still glorified vandalism and violence. But skateboarding is the second fastest growing sport in the country, only behind snowboarding and has lost a lot of its fierceness over the years. Skateboarding has now become a mature sport. And with over 12 million potential customers, the former pariah street sport now means big greenbacks for corporate America. Even if the violence behind skateboarding was just an image, behind the image, skateboarders in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s were definitely pioneers, rebels and had a revolutionary message to relay to the society and we the people are listening to that insurgency, even in a state as liberal as California… What is good for California is good for the world!

After talking about his surfing experience, the recollection of the first (1957-1969), second (1972-1987) and third waves of skateboarding (2000-onward), this is the last part of Jim Fitzpatrick’s interview. That conclusion shows another aspect of the multi-faceted ex-Makaha member, ex-Bones Brigade writer, ex-IASC director…

1 – The rebel years

 isTia: How do you place yourself in relation to youth protest movements that emerged in the late 60? Were you politicized?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
I threw rocks at Richard Nixon when he motor-caded past our college in Santa Monica. Actually, I met Nixon before he was president; he lost the California governor election, and suggested he might retire from politics, but he didn’t. After that loss he visited the home of local Republican Party organizer, Mr. T. Roach, who lived at Topanga Beach. I was trotting up the beach with my surfboard under my arm and Mr. Roach called out, “Hey, Jimmy come meet Vice-President Nixon. Nixon was wearing wing-tip shoes in the sand, and I suggested ‘you might want to take those things off if you’re coming out surfing with us.”

isTia: Were you interested in the May 1968 movement in France?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
I was aware it was taking place. 68 was the year I lost my student deferment from the selective service and I was suddenly eligible to be drafted into the army. I spent a great deal of time arranging things and investigating my options so I could avoid going to Vietnam, and then in December my father died suddenly, and my whole world changed.

isTia: The surf also saw a revolution. The drug made its appearance; there was the emergence of a strong counter-culture in many circles. How did you experience this move?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
My entire family was living a form of a counter-culture life simply by living on the beach. Our world was about two dozen families and groups all living on a beach where sex, drugs, and rock and roll were all being investigated by three different generations. My parents and their group of fellow parents were all in their 30s-40s, and there was a little bit of cross-over into the college level group; the 20s-25s (Cleary and his roommates numbered about 15 during the school year); and then the “kids” from 12-20 years.

Each of those groups was busy with their own activities, and then there was the occasional group thing that happened too. And we would all surf together when there were swells.

There were people living at the beach who were truly Bohemian; there were artists; painters; writers; actors and actresses...Malibu in the 1950s and into the 1960s wasn’t fashionable as it is now, during the 50s and 60s it was populated by people who were escaping much of the city existence. It was low rent and not easy to live in the same time it was part of LA County and didn’t have police, there were at times of the day or days of the week when there were less than 3 patrol cars and officers for more than 25 miles of coastline...we were living in the wild wild west!

isTia: Have you experienced community life?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
At some point it might be possible to consider the situation at Topanga Beach almost like a commune. There wasn’t a focused philosophy, but there were drugs and there was surfing and by 1970 most of the people living with a very small radius all seemed to share a common belief of rejecting the status quo, and living a care-free existence that included very open lifestyles.

isTia: Did you become interested in Eastern philosophies?
Jim Fitzpatrick: Reading Herman Hesse was my early introduction.

Surfing & the Viet-Nam war... Explosive mix to say the least...
isTia: How did the Vietnam War affect you?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
It focused so much attention upon something that was so very very wrong. I had friends who enlisted and others who were drafted. It affected so much because many of us went to college with the singular purpose of keeping a student deferment. I think I would have gone to college anyway, but it focused that aspect of my thinking. In 1965 I graduated from high school, and a few weeks later was working on a television production in Africa. While in Africa I received a telegram that I’d not been accepted at UCLA, and that I had been accepted at San Diego State College. I had a first class return ticket from Johannesburg to Los Angeles, and one option for me was to take the value of the ticket and fly coach to Australia, through the pacific, and return home to California when I wanted to, BUT...had I done that I’d likely had shown up in CA with a 1A classification and would have likely gone right to Vietnam,. That’s an example of how it affected some of the decisions I made during that time.

When my father died in 1969 I thought I’d be reclassified as a “sole surviving son” as the last male in my family; but the Selective Service changed the circumstance to only if the son’s father had died in combat...”But, I’m still the sole surviving son, how does that make sense?”

I’ll never know if the officer in charge of my case did it on purpose or not, but he had my file, he understood my concern, and he explained, “You’ll be reclassified, and you should plan on being drafted in the next 3 months.” I never heard another word. I was never re-classified, I was never notified, and I’ve always believed he did something with my file.

But more than me, the Vietnam War separated our generation from every other generation; it drew the line. You either identified with the patriotism of the past wars and our parent generation—You went to war I guess I should too—or we were left to reject that approach and by extension then accept the critique and ridicule of being ‘a chicken,’ of being less, of being anti-war and anti-American.

In 68 when I was in Africa (I was working as a sound-mixer on my father’s production company) he and I talked at length about Vietnam and his experiences in WWII. He was very clear, “Do whatever you can do to avoid going to Vietnam, there is NOTHING about warfare that is any good, whatsoever.”

Vietnam tore families apart, it tore the country apart, but it did show us, the upcoming generation, that we had a voice and we had power. That we could go into the streets and make a difference. And then there was Kent State, which showed the entire country how bad things were.

isTia: Surfing and Vietnam are linked by the fiction with the movie "Apocalypse Now". Coppola used surfing as a metaphor for the recklessness of some of America for the rest of the world and his sometimes selfish desire to enjoy whatever the price. What do you think of this vision?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
Coppola and John Milius’s script as a stretch, and I hesitate to say it but Milius, like so many others, was NOT a good surfer, and was not part of the real surf culture in Malibu—he was on the outside and recognized the whole impact of what was going on, and I’ve learned that’s an important position to be in as a story teller—as a writer. Sometimes it’s better to not be a participant but an observer, on the outside while recognizing what the characters are involved with. If one is involved in the action it’s difficult to tell the whole story unless its auto-biographical.

Was Milius on the outside looking in? Was his view tainted by his misconceptions and his want to be included? Hedonism takes many forms and is not necessarily an American phenomena, BUT, remember, there were those in the surf culture (including skateboarding) who weren’t busily projecting it upon anyone else. There was NO business, there was NOTHING being sold; it was what a few, a very few, wanted to do; hang out, surf, enjoy what we were doing and that’s it.

It was as if there were those saying, “Please, please don’t come do this, we don’t want you to do this, it’s not right for you!” and those on the outside were saying, “Look at this! These guys are happy, they have beautiful chicks all around them, they sit on the beach and do nothing! Who doesn’t want to do this?!?”

Surfing was a secret not to be shared, and especially not to be understood. That may have been some of the difference between Hawaiians and Californians. Hawaiians, aside from being territorial, celebrated surfing; it was an essential aspect of their culture. As long as you traveled to Waikiki and stayed in hotels and rented surfboards and surfed at Waikiki the Hawaiians loved you.

That opportunity didn’t exist in California. In the early 60s there were so few surfers we all wanted it for ourselves. When the movies began, Gidget, and the Beach Blanket movies were produced we were happy to be hired as extras. Miki Dora was happy to take money for his opportunity to be in the movies, but the impact of the films ultimately was more people in the water surfing, and that was not part of what we’d hoped for.

Cab. Just because Cab is Cab and will always be our hero... Photo Steve Potwin 2008
isTia: The American society has a very big chunk that is extremely conservative (at least to the eye of the Europeans) but at the same time, other Americans are really creative and reckless in their thinking. We have given birth to some amazing lasting new trends: Jazz music, Rap, Surfing, Skateboarding, computer, the internet… Do you think those trends would have arisen in another country or is it that the U.S. is just at the right place at the right time?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
American culture is steeped in the spirit of the pioneer. The pioneer knows no bounds, knows few rules, and is always looking toward the horizon for what the future brings. Is that not ture in Europe?

In a general sense, the mentality I feel while in Europe, is the presumption that this is it. It’s been good enough for those before me, and it’s good enough for me now. It was fine for me dad, and his dad, and it’s fine for me. And that’s for centuries. For millennia.

Whereas, the USA was founded by pioneers, developed over two centuries because of those willing to take risks, and despite an ever-growing conservative base (a scary scary development!) there is a whole majority, as it turns out, who are willing to risk and change and do things differently.

Interestingly, it’s not an “American” spirit today, however. In Silicon Valley, in the hotspots of development and newness in the US there is nothing “American” about these accomplishments. Whereas, when I’m in Scotland, people are proud of being Scots. In Ireland, despite today’s financial collapse, etc., people are proud of their Irishness; Italians, too; French, too.

2 Education in America

Knowledge is Power! This implies that knowledge and/or education increase the abilities in life by improving one's reputation and influence, thus power. Knowledge is Power is also used as a justification for a reluctance to share information when a person believes that withholding knowledge can deliver to that person some form of advantage. The people that have the knowledge can easily manipulate others, something that is used all the time in the workplace or politics. Another possible meaning for this phrase can be found in philosophical idealism - if the world exists solely as the content of consciousness, then knowledge itself can be used to directly manipulate the content of reality.
But the real problem is not that people with knowledge can manipulate others but that people without knowledge can be manipulated ad-libitum…
Just think about it: can you really afford to be uneducated and unworldwise?

isTia: What did you study?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
Literature takes up much of my time. Physics is the area I’m most intrigued by, it seems to answer every question.

But really it’s human development as a result of my Montessori career. There is so little known about learning, acquisition of culture, and the process of how best to create solutions.

After 40 years I believe more than ever that Maria Montessori recognized something in learning, in humans, and especially in children, the benefit of an outcome based approach to life. Her methodology for learning and development for children is without question a very healthy approach. It’s too bad that the military industrial complex captured the educational process after WWI and trapped schools into being patterned on a model developed hundreds of years before.

Maria Montessori was a pioneer.

isTia: Again there is a total dichotomy between Europeans, for which a person is as good as its study level, and Americans for which a person is as good as his personal success or business acumen regardless of its education… Having created the Montessori school, I know education is important for you, but do you think that we Americans give to education the same importance as you do? Or is it that Europeans got it wrong with their obsession over education?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
It’s changing, though. The recent financial collapse has shown the world how bad it was, still is, and will continue to be until we change things at the bottom. Political power and control has been allowed to run amuck, and because of recent US Supreme Court rulings regarding political campaign financing, it will be worse before it gets better.

But that’s the result of a developing democracy, I hope. There are so many schools of thought being paraded in our current culture. Euro footballers now earn millions for a season of kicking a ball, how does that now affect the children holding them in adulation?

It’s great to look at skate culture. In the 1990s anything US was the best. The skaters, the equipment, the lifestyle, the whole experience was perceived by those in Europe as being better in the US. Not so anymore. I can remember being at the Marseille bowl in Valmante with Cab and Guerrero on that 1989 trip. Big round transitions. It must have 10 meters in diameter, or bigger ? There was nothing above ground, just the pool, and it wasn't a swimming pool type pool, but more a big bowl. There were no fences around it, nothing that would make you think it was anything other than a hole in the fanfare, just this place to skateboard. The day was stormy and we only spent a short while there, but Cab said, “This is rad, why don’t we have this in the states? Why don’t we have this in SF?”

The simple answer I voiced then, and it’s still true today, “Insurance.” As it turned out Europe, the entire continent, was better suited to meet the needs of skateboarders with public skateparks and public skateboarding events (contests; World Cup, etc.) than the US.

Sure, the center of skateboarding, it’s Mecca, is still California, but that’s only a perception, not the actual reality. Skateboarders? The top skateboarders in the world are world citizens, not necessarily from the states.

Which is interesting, isn’t it. Skateboarding has become a world-sport. Much more than some other American sports. Baseball? Dropped from the Olympics because it’s not worldly, but basketball and volleyball...skateboarding is more in that category, but like in the USA are there Euro schools that have skateboarding teams? No. Asian skateboarding teams in schools, no.

Even though it’s a world sport, it’s still skateboarding!

Look what I found: a binominal cube...
isTia: What is the click of your journey in 1971 in Bergamo, Italy to study the Montessori Method of teaching?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
At that time the Montessori center in Bergamo was the only Montessori teacher-training center for teachers who would teach in elementary schools. It was founded and developed by Dr. Maria Montessoiri’s son, Mario, and he was one of our teachers at the center when we were there.

He was very intense, and incredibly intelligent man, capable of connecting experiences and situations with a quick wit and insights that were refreshing. He was a pugilist as a younger man, and still very tough, although a kind gentleman, when I knew him.

isTia: What is the binomial cube ?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
A Montessori material she developed as a sensorial representation of the algebraic equation for the cube of a binomial. It really is the Key to the Universe!

isTia: What role do sports have in your teaching?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
Traditional sports, but soccer (Euro style) is very very popular, now, and we go surfing with the kids from the school, and snowboarding every year, and skateboarding, too. There are several kids in the school who go to the SB skatepark on a regular basis.

isTia: What is your lifestyle now? Does surfing still determine your way of life?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
I’m consumed with running a business; I’m very fortunate to be passionate about what I do each day; it’s very very important. Maybe the passion I have today for helping children is the result of what surfing and skateboarding were able to do for me when I was young? I don’t mind, now, if it’s weeks or even months between surf sessions…I wish I could surf every day, but I can’t surf or play golf when I know there’s something important for me to be doing. I need to be able to relax when I surf, and if I’m in the water thinking about other things, then I might as well be doing those other things!

Having said this, I “surf” everyday in everything I do…I fade, I turn, I trim…I’ve written a book titled; “Live Like a Surfer” and I’m working on one titled “Live Like A Skateboarder.” I worked with a teacher who observed me in different settings and he said, “You don’t look at the world the same way I do, or that other people do…you see the world as a place to play, to skateboard; you see everything differently.”

I think that’s true. Especially in urban environments, not so much my skateboarding, because I’m always on the ground, I’m a flatland skateboarder, but by becoming a cameraman and videotaping others I became much more cognizant of what the urban terrain provides skateboarders…there are lots of places to skate out there! As a skateboard photographer / videographer one can “see” the possibilities, which is almost as good as being able to skate, and it’s a lot safer! hahahahahahahaha

isTia: You honest values of culture Surf / skate in Montessori education?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
It’s funny, because our culture, of surf and skate, there are no rules other than what the culture has developed, right? And that’s very much what a Montessori classroom should be. The culture of the classroom is based upon respect; bottom line, in a Montessori classroom, Don’t cut anyone off! Hahahahahahahaha

isTia: Have there been situations of school failure that your education has not been overcome?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
We’ve been challenged, and it’s become very difficult for non-profits in this down economy, but we’re making it work!

isTia: What is your greatest satisfaction in your career?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
Helping children achieve what they hope for…skateboarding, I’ve had those moments. Simple things and more complex, and certainly in our school setting, I’ve had the experience of helping children to learn difficult challenging tasks, or resolve complex social issues. The effect of having kids come back to the school as young adults, and they look us in the eye and say, “Thank you, you changed my life for the better and I really appreciate it!” Those are good moments.

I took 16 Montessori teachers surfing this summer, and as adults there a few of them who nearly panicked, who became very anxious, and we got through it and they caught waves and they were STOKED!

isTia: California was the best state for the education as a whole, now it is one of the worse of all the 50 states. How do you feel and see the disastrous drop-out rate in California?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
Proposition 13 ruined California in the 1970s, and it’s never recovered. I must say, however, that California’s ruined public educational system is very good for independent schools. I’m not happy about that, and I would very much like to see Montessori educational theory introduced to more public schools, especially in California, but the system is entrenched with unions who strangle the opportunity for changes.

isTia: Is there a way out of this mess?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
Really? That’s a big question. Yes, by educating children in a child-based developmentally appropriate manner the result would be a caring society steeped in wholesome collaboration rather than competitive limitations.

isTia: Is unfettered immigration to be blamed for the underperformance of the state or is it, on the contrary, that without immigration the state could not have achieved what has been done in the past 50 years… I’m thinking about the success of Silicon valley, the aircraft industry, Hollywood, etc…
Jim Fitzpatrick:
It is the immigration that has allowed CA any of its recent success. 10 years ago there wasn’t a restaurant in larger CA cities without Mexicans staffing the entire kitchen. Now, those Mexican cooks are becoming chefs, and they’re emerging from the kitchens to the front of the restaurants and to ownership.

isTia: Is the legalization of cannabis a big concern?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
Legalized Marijuana in California is not likely to happen this year...too many conservatives, and there's no system in place to tax sales; no structure in place to make it beneficial for the state. But, it will happen, I think.

I don't know that I ever changed my mind about cannabis. During the 60s it was there and so was I, during the 70s I started a family and eventually started a business, and the days of getting high, going surfing, and sitting on the beach were pretty much over. And they've stayed over because the responsibilities I have are too convoluted to be high and checked out...I don't even think about it. When she was older my mom became ill and smoking pot was the one thing that relieved her pain, which was funny, to have her telling me she had "some really good pot."

Tarp Surfing with Jim (on the right)
isTia: Finally, a ritual question: when is the last time you're riding a skateboard?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
An hour ago. I skateboard every day around the school, the campus is enormous and it takes a long time to walk around it; I skateboard!

isTia: And on a surfboard?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
A month ago? Six weeks ago? I’ve been recovering from this whole thing that happened when I picked up a virus which ulcerated by stomach and put my heart out of rhythm…it’s taken me 8 months to get back together.

isTia: Something else to say?
Jim Fitzpatrick:
Thanks for this opportunity, it’s been fun to do this…there’s some great memories tucked in here, and you’ve awakened so many others for me, I appreciate that.


No man is an island, entire of itself...
This interview could have not been done without Jim Fitzpatrick, of course, but behind the scenes, a lot of people helped. Claude Queyrel meticulously crafted the questions with his broad knowledge of the history of skateboarding. Claude’s role was instrumental in the success of this interview.
I guess I owe you one board…

Also, thanks to Jim Goodrich, Steve Potwin, Ray Rae for the pictures and Heidi Lemon for the comments.
Visit to see more pictures of the Venice Skatepark.
Feel free to read the same interview translated into French on Claude Queyrel’s site:

Click on the links below to read the rest of the story:
Jim Fitzpatrick interview, Part I: 1948 to 1957. From early Childhood to Surfin’ USA
Jim Fitzpatrick interview, Part II: 1957 to 1969. The first wave of skateboarding
Jim Fitzpatrick interview, Part III: 1972 to 1991. The rise and fall of pool skateboarding
Jim Fitzpatrick interview, Part IV: 2000 onward. From H.R.A. to the rebirth of the skateparks and vert skateboarding
Jim Fitzpatrick interview: Part V. Food for thought: Vietnam, Politics and Education

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I skate therefore I am: skateboard pools, pipes, parks, bowls and vert, daily skateboarding news...
posted by Xavier Lannes @ Thursday, January 06, 2011 

Anonymous Chip said...

This was a fantastic interview. Thank you so much for posting it!

January 12, 2011 at 2:53 PM  

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