Little dudes schooled by skateboard vet

Posted: Friday, August 18, 2000

Sonny Pittman twists in the air, 12 feet over the cement floor, one hand directing the skateboard that flies with him.

A row of kids watch as he slides back down the ramp.

"Do it again, do it again," they cry.

Pittman obliges. "They're my little dudes," he said.

At 18, Pittman is young enough to remember little dudedom. An older boy gave Pittman his first skate board five years ago during Fine Arts Camp in Sitka. Pittman learned by watching, feeling, and sometimes skinning knees or elbows.

That was before Pittman and other high school students led the community in building Pipeline Skate Park in 1997. Back then skateboarders competed with tourists for space at Marine Park.

"That was our skate park because that was the only legal place to skate," Pittman said.

Now Pittman dispenses chips, soda, Band-Aids and advice from Sonny's Snack Shack at the Pipeline Skate Park entrance. A sun mural illuminates the wall behind him. All profits from the snack shack go back into the park to maintain the ramps. Pittman is paid from a Seven Circles Coalition grant through the Juneau Parks and Recreation Department.

"What keeps the youth involved is having a youth out there who's a strong advocate with the parks department and myself and any other adults," said Kristi West, recreation manager for the parks department. "Sonny's got a following out there with people. He works out there. He has respect out there and he has respect here with me. He spans that gap between what would usually be this break in communication."

The grant requires an adult to work in partnership with a youth. For three years West was the adult working with Pittman, but this summer he became the adult working with a younger skater, 14-year-old Jason Brooks. Seven Circles has similar grants in nine Southeast communities, but Pittman is the first to make the switch from youth to adult.

"He's my boss, but he's one of those cool bosses you hear about," said Brooks, sitting beside Pittman at the Snack Shack.

Pittman is also the skate park guard, in charge of laying down the law when necessary.

"We have to tell some of our friends they can't bike in here," said Pittman. "And just some little kids things, like playing with lighters. We have to tell them they can't do that. It's all wood."

For the most part the skaters obey. Pittman knows them all by name. He taught many of the younger kids how to skate in park department-sponsored clinics.

"It's amazing when you have a chance to skate with people who've tried something over and over and over and fallen to accomplish that trick," West said. "They can look at you and say, You need to lean more to the left.' "

Pittman enjoys working with the younger skaters.

"They have a lot more energy, so you kind of feed off that a bit," Pittman said.

More young kids have started skateboarding, and stuck with it, since the skate park provided a place to practice the sport year-round, out of the rain, Pittman said. He sees 50 to 100 skaters in the park, depending on the day.

Even more show up for competitions and events, including the contest Pittman organized and deejayed on a school-free Monday last April. He's planning another one with Boarderline skate shop for Aug. 26, just before school starts.

"I kind of like putting on events," said Pittman. He's planning another one for later in the fall - the premiere of a skate movie he's been filming all summer.

"I'm going to be in it, in my accident," said 11-year-old Ryan Cortes, part of a passel of kids gathered around Pittman.

The film premiere also may be Pittman's good-bye.

In October Pittman will move to Seattle to take a job with Alaska Airlines, a job that will allow him ample opportunity to travel. While there he hopes to ride his board onto the amateur circuit.

Currently he's sponsored by Boarderline skate shop in Juneau, which provides him a new board every month. That's as long as a board lasts when you skate hard for three hours a day. The $50 boards flatten out or sometimes break, Pittman said.

In a few years Pittman plans to enroll in a film school.

His little dudes are surprised to hear Pittman will be leaving them.

"It won't be the same without you," Cortes said.

West agrees, which is why she nominated him for the Community Education Youth Program Volunteer of the Year award he won this spring from Juneau Community Schools.

"He's somebody you'd want as a good friend dependable and trustworthy. (That) sounds like a Boy Scout, and nobody would relate that to a skateboarder," recreation manager West said with a laugh.

Pittman promises to be back next summer, then asks: "Is there any way we could get all the kids in the picture?"

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