Saturday, October 30, 2010

Our first longboarding tragedy

We always knew something like this might happen. The Ontario longboarding community is mourning its first death. It is a vicious, devastating tragedy, and we are all in profound shock. Rest in peace, Hilton. You fool, you character, you beautiful kid. Now I'll never get those Bennetts off of you.

Original graphic by Luis Bustamante

Longboarding is a sport where measured risks are often taken. We play in traffic -- at high speeds. What did we expect? When you get enough participants engaged in an activity like this over a period of time, eventually an accident is going to occur. Yet until it did, I don't think any of us truly envisioned it.

Have we been naive? When joyful innocence is broken, it strikes you down to the core. It is a bitter, bitter loss that we must now endure.

We had an ominous foreshadowing earlier this summer. A young woman was killed in Vancouver when she failed to negotiate a turn on a steep hill. Most of us didn't know her. We observed the event from afar, sent our regards, and went on skating.

Sure, we've had serious incidents and close calls before. Spills, tumbles, breaks, sprains, collisions, cheesegratered sides; a litany of mishaps is endemic to the sport. One of the best skaters I know broke his femur a couple years back. The defiant team logo for a hardcore group of skaters among us even sports a grinning skull, gangster style. But it's meant to be brash, attitudinal. Not representative.

Everybody always made it through, got better, lived to skate another glorious day in the sun. That's not the case this time.

Oh Hilton!

The young gentleman who passed away this afternoon was a highly active and visible member of the skate community. I wasn't a close personal friend, but everybody knew him; he was part of the landscape. We have an online forum in which he was a top ten poster and the #3 topic starter, out of hundreds and hundreds of members. And of course he skated with all of us at some point or another. He was unfailingly helpful, and kind, and decent, and all the qualities you like to see in a young man about to enter the prime of his life.

A few days ago -- an eternity ago -- I paid a visit to the ICU ward at St. Michael's (which coincidentally is opposite one of the most enjoyable night garages in downtown Toronto). Hospital waiting lounges are criminally dour and oppressive places. But the room was lit up by his family, which was full of hope and caring and desperate strength. I marvelled at their tenacity, and took solace in the depth of their love. I felt like a voyeur to their exhaustion. They were on a private journey of attrition and I had intruded on their camp.

You can't say this was preventable. Serious longboarders pay attention to safety and skating safe. Helmets and other equipment are de rigeur, particularly for dedicated skate sessions. It just happened. It just happened, and it's brutal, and we will never be the same, and yet we won't ever change. Our capering has not ended. There's a session tonight at which tears will flow freely. The thrill is overpowering, the feeling of freedom is incandescent. In our bitter grief we will only skate harder for you, Hilton, and damn the consequences. Losing you is piercing and astonishing.

Rest in peace. My condolences to that proud, loving family and to everyone that Hilton touched.

[Addendum: A memoriam written by Penny Hounsome, Hilton’s mom, that appeared in the Winter 2013 Concrete Wave]