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RAMP 48 is a low-budget affair, 25,000 square feet of raw commercial space that used to be a West Palm Beach indoor flea market. Now, with the aid of many unpainted two-by-fours, plywood, and industrial-grade, mesh-metal fence, it's separated into several distinct zones of skateboard topography including ramps, platforms, and pipes of varying degrees of difficulty. It's the largest indoor skate park in South Florida.
The action on a recent Monday night is in the two main arenas, where skaters launch themselves down long walls of curved wooden embankments, across a landscape of graded risers and platforms, and up the opposing wall's pipes to a ledge, where they turn around and start the potentially bone-breaking process over again. The best skaters manage to angle themselves and their boards into the air along the way, with flips, fakies, slides, grinds, and other maneuvers that have names too jargonistic to remember. Watch closely; there's a lot of How'd he do that? to admire.
The crowd is typical of the skate scene; it includes a few girls, but adolescent boys, ages 10 to 14, dominate. Most are in full skate-punk gear: logo-bearing sweatshirts, baggy pants, charge card-busting designer sneaks, back-flipped baseball caps. They delicately balance upon slender strips of wood on wheels and determinedly throw life and limb into the air over hard-edged surfaces and around metal stanchions like there's no tomorrow.
Enter two older guys: Kent Green, age 43, and Jimmy Grosz, age 38. The whirs, clatters, and clumps of the 100 or so young skaters gradually wind down as word gets around that it's Bible-study time. That's the Monday-night deal at RAMP 48: One hour of Bible study gets you two free hours of skating.
Green, who works here part-time, is tall and solid, with close-cropped graying hair. He's wearing blue jeans, a blue polo shirt, and sneakers. His full-time job is as a lay minister with Palm Beach County Youth for Christ, part of a national, nondenominational ministry formerly headed by Billy Graham.
He calls the kids to order, but they aren't particularly orderly. They're sprawled all along a 40-foot-long quarter pipe, some with knees tucked up under their chins, a Bible in one hand and a crash helmet in the other. No one talks or fools around. The study session begins with a game of "find the verse." Green calls out chapter and verse numbers of a Bible passage, and the first skater to find it gets to stand and read it aloud. Prizes of soda, candy, and skateboarding posters sweeten the pot.
Green seems comfortable with the kids but a little stiff of manner for a skate park. After 15 minutes or so, he hands the floor to Grosz, whose baggy black Nike shorts, black slip-on sneakers, and long blond ponytail are much more down with the scene. Grosz's rap concerns: What else? Salvation. "Sin travels through our bloodline," he tells the kids. And, he says, "Our acts have consequences." There's no fire and brimstone, however. While the Ten Commandments are meant "to keep us on track," Grosz says, "they're not there so that we don't have any fun."
The kids listen attentively for half an hour longer, then it's back to skateboarding; another former citadel of adolescent rebellion has fallen to the faithful. Similar skate-and-prayer groups have sprung up in Southern California and along the New Jersey shore, where, as in South Florida, surfboard culture breeds skateboard culture. But Broward and Palm Beach counties are in the movement's vanguard.
Reaching an unconventional flock requires unconventional means, according to Mike Pechonis, the central figure in the scene and owner of this RAMP 48 and its sister park, the original location in Pompano Beach. Pechonis is a wiry guy of average height, slender but muscular, brown as a nut, and without an ounce of body fat, with a pleasantly poodle-y, goateed face. Even at his most fervent, he exhibits not a trace of self-importance and addresses everyone as "bro."
A self-described walking Christian (as in "walk it like you talk it," he explains), Pechonis, who's been skating and surfing for more than 20 years, admits his own spiritual growth was "a progressive thing.... I think everyone has this God-shaped void inside," he says. "I was trying to plug a surfboard into that void."
RAMP 48 grew out of another offbeat, Christian ministry called S.U.R.F. (Surfers United for Righteous Fellowship), a Broward County group that took shape around the late Kirk Cottrell, the founding owner of Island Water Sports. A charismatic figure, Cottrell was a dedicated surfer and partier who turned to Jesus in the late 1980s.
As Pechonis recites it, S.U.R.F. held its meetings in the Cottrell home. Sometimes members rented a municipal hall to screen surfing films before the sermon. In 1989 they linked up with Fort Lauderdale's Calvary Chapel, then a storefront operation with roots in Southern California's beach culture. "The surfer is kind of a loner," Pechonis says, explaining why Cottrell's approach struck a chord. "He's intrinsically cool. The mainstream church turns him off."
S.U.R.F. lasted into the mid-'90s, but its character changed, Pechonis says; it was flooded by wannabes drawn to the surfer mystique. "We started getting these college-age, career, single types," he says. "The surf core dropped out."