Interview by JIM MURPHY Photos by KARIM GHONEM, COBURN HUFF, JONATHAN MEHRING, RHINO, JOE HAMMEKE, RYAN FLYNN AND BEN KARPINSKI
Gnarly skater and guerrilla artist, Chet Childress, is an East Coaster who has always stayed true to his roots. Growing up at the Ramp House in Carolina Beach, NC, at the end of the vert heydays in the ‘80s, his dedication during the lean times paid off with sponsors that encouraged his individuality and a worldwide road tripping addiction that has continued through the years on asphalt across the country. The more random the better, and it’s that spirit of discovery that drives him. For Chet, being a pro skater doesn’t mean training for contests – quite the opposite. His vision is pure exploration – searching out graffiti-laced, outlawed pools and obscure monoliths aside a brushed out ditch. Chet’s thirst for the unknown ultimately defines what a skateboarder’s quest for adventure is all about. Just get out there on the road and discover. Sounds pretty cool, huh? Well, that’s Chet’s life, and he is wearing down the tires on his Volvo with endless road trips and the odometer maxing out!
Ground control to Major Tom.
[Laughs] Okay, first things first. Name, rank and serial number.
Serial number, mistakes times 1,000. [Laughs]
Sick. Where were you born and raised?
I was born on a farm in Abingdon, Virginia, in the Appalachian Mountains. My dad did my mother wrong and my mother moved us to the beach when I was seven years old, which was Wilmington, North Carolina. That’s where I consider home, when your brain starts ticking and things start moving. That’s where we found skateboarding, so that’s where I consider where I grew up. I actually grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Skateboarding started to take off in ‘75. Were you skateboarding in the late ‘70s?
In ‘74, I came out of my daddy’s dick, so I didn’t even know. I just saw tractors, cornbread and cows. I didn’t have a skate coach dad or any of that. Once my mom moved us to the beach, obviously, the surf culture transcends into skateboarding and we were playing war in a ditch in the woods and these stoner kids had this U ramp. It was an eight-foot wide, eight foot tranny, with four feet of vert, no flat and no drop in. These dudes were like, “Come here and check this out.” They put us on boards and pushed us on the ramp and showed us how to get momentum and we started fakie-ing, and then we went home and burned all our toys. It was like, “This is what we’re doing.”
No way. Did you skate before then?
There were some times where we had someone’s plastic Tonka truck skateboard. I remember a little bit about it, but that was the first time we skated a ramp. We were little hell raisers, with a single mom. She was a nurse and she had to raise two hellraiser kids, so there was a lot of free time for us to fuck shit up. After we found out about that ramp, that was it. My mother only made so much money and she raised us singlehandedly so, when it was the right time, we got a Nash skateboard. Those dudes put us on really good boards, and then we got the Nash skateboard, so I tried to take it apart like 15 times, or maybe a 1,000 times, and tried to make it ride like their boards. You know when you’re a kid, you’re bored, so when your mom’s alarm clock is there, you take it apart and try to put it back together and you mess everything up. Then there was my brother, Clint, so it was a two combo. He was three years older than me and, at first, we only had one skateboard and we had to share it, so it was crazy. My brother, Clint, is so awesome because we just had one board and pads, and my brother made me who I am. My brother is so punk. He would be like, “Chet, you wear the pads.” He would drop in on the ramp and eat shit padless. My brother was the reason I had older friends, so I could always bum rides to ramps and stuff. My brother was pretty much killing it in life. In the ‘80s, when he was in high school, he had a PVC bong hanging out of his backpack. He was just going to class and the teachers didn’t even know what the hell was going on. I was a good kid until my brother was in high school and he was ditching class and going skating and going to Swinson park. My brother is a renegade.
Describe what Swinson was.
Swinson park was a sick spot. If it was here now, it would be an obscure spot. It was like a snake run built through the woods, really banked out slalom, and there was no path. It was a path between banks, bank to bank, so you had to go up one bank and go through a sliver and go up another bank. Those times were so sick. No one knew what skateboarding was about, but we went there looking for it. It took us eight hours to find it because there were no maps. We were like, “Where is this spot?” People were like, “I don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about.” We were like, “We’re looking for the skate track! Where is it?” Luckily, we found it and my brother spent every week of his life skipping school and ripping it. I was a good kid and I hung at home, but I’ve heard the stories.
This was the mid to late ‘80s?
Well, we used to skate it in 1984.
Were you and your brother aware of the skate magazines and the skate culture outside of North Carolina?
No. We were just meeting random characters, like Jim Rees. Surf culture transcended into the skate culture because of surfers that were into punk, so that’s what brought punk tapes into it. We were lucky enough that the surfers got into skating, and there was always a vert scene in Wilmington. There was always some weird, obscure vert ramp going, so we always had that. We looked at mags and hid porno mags under our beds. I think we saw TransWorld and, as things went on, we got Poweredge and Thrasher, but it was more about what was going on in our neighborhood.
Was your brother taking you on any road trips out of state?
No. That wasn’t even in the books yet. When I was 13 years old, my buddy, Thomas Lawson, who is a really good person that my mother trusted and was part of the Dog Bowl in NC with all of those guys, took me to the Farm Ramp. The Farm Ramp was my introduction to ‘holy shit’ skateboarding. There was Reese Simpson, Fred Smith, Ben Schroeder, Blaize Blouin and Morris and Brian Wainwright. It was a heavy, heavy skate scene. I was like, “Wow. Look at these dudes.” These dudes had an over vert pipe, and people were grinding pool coping and it smelled like Bob Marley.
I remember. I was there.
You were there. To this day, it was the sickest vert ramp ever. I would love to take a time machine back and be part of that vert ramp because those dudes were so ahead of their time – Morris and Brian. They were like, “We need over vert. We need hits. We need pool coping across both sides.” No one ever talked about how progressive that was. I had seen some shit, but that was it. Those dudes were going crazy. I looked over and Ben Schroeder was doing a rock n’ roll revert and I didn’t even know what to call it. Blaize was slob planting across the ramp with an afro and no helmet, making people look stupid, like Casual Cuz-ing it. Guys were going backwards. Bernie O’Dowd was skating switch. You had Brian on rollerskates and Morris doing frontside ollie to trucks. It was wild shit.
Yeah! There was all kinds of craziness going down that weekend.
Yeah. Ross Goodman was there. There were so many heavy vert people and the thing that was sick was that the vert scene was on. No one got a flight there. Everybody there, got in a car and drove there. That was punk. I got third place in the contest because I don’t care. I was in the little ginger kid category, and I tried to do a kickturn over vert and went fatty to flatty over the falls. There was so much good skating there, it was crazy.
After you were on that scene, did that make you want to travel more?
No. I was only 13, so traveling hit me at a later age. We traveled around North Carolina, but skateboarding had so many ups and downs then. The vert ramp got torn down and all we had to skate was a three-foot mini ramp, and then we had to street skate because that was it. Then we got a vert ramp again. What got handed to us made us want to be all terrain skaters.
Oh yeah. I remember one of the times I saw you at the Ramp House. Groholski and I were skating there. Do you remember how that bowl evolved?
Yeah. The Ramp House got built and I got the job as the janitor of that skatepark, so I could skate. My mom moved into a condo that was half a mile away, so I could just ride my beach cruiser to the park. Jim Rees laid it down. That was my stomping grounds. That’s where it went. The Ramp House was the number one thing that happened. That’s how I met you and a lot of people. At that time, skateboarding was small and that was a big thing. Jim Rees built this weird, obscure bowl and we had mini ramps and that was our hang out.
Yeah, back then if we heard about a vert bowl, we were driving to it. No questions asked. I remember seeing you and you were still super young and I was talking to Tom and saying, “That kid is ripping. That kid is the future.” You were the next generation coming up and we could see how you were being bred to rip. It was sick. You were like a mini Science.
I was lucky that I had those guys to show me how to carve roundwall, instead of going back and forth, so I got the roundwall and I got the mini ramp and I got the vert. I got everything. We were in the playground. It was like our clubhouse, and I got to skate there every day for free.
Were you surfing then too?
No. All my friends were surfers, but I was just skating. If I could take that time machine back, I would kick my ass 15 times because I should have been surfing too, but once you get involved with skating and you’re good at it and then you try to flounder out at the beach and you’re trying to catch a wave, it sucks. Your friends are Ralph Macchio-ing it, and you’re like, “Dude, I can’t do this. Get me back on a ramp.” I wish I had surfed though because I want to be a 70-year-old man catching a wave. It’s going to be a whole new life lesson. With the subcultures, that’s what it is.
You had a killer scene in Wilmington. I remember getting together and skating with you guys when not many people were skating vert and pools, and street skating was taking over. At that point, were you looking to get sponsored?
Well, Morris and Brian had kind of hooked me up and taken me under their wing. People just came to the Ramp House and, next thing I know, I’m on Dogtown, and I’m on my first skate trip. My first tour was insane. I was 16 years old and I was in a van with Wade Speyer, Karma Tsocheff and John Cardiel on a Dogtown tour. Brian Drake drove me to Atlanta, and Karma and I got on it.
Yeah. My first trip was a Dogtown tour. You know what was sick? We were all young. I was 16, and all we did was go to spots. No one drank. Cardiel and Wade did chew. We just skateboarded and shot fireworks off and just had havoc. It was such an eye-opening experience.
Going on tour with Wade and Cardiel, how gnarly were those guys?
It was the sickest thing. I got to see Cardiel skate. It was so rad. God bless those dudes because I was the nerd, four-eyed kid. They were probably like, “Who is this cracker in the van?”
[Laughs] What was the vibe? Everyone else knew each other, so was everyone cool or were they kind of heckling you?
I think everyone was actually sick. It’s hard to remember. I’m 42 now, and I was 16 then. I remember being in the van, and who knows? Those guys could have been, “This cracker ass, gingerbread four-eyed dude is insane.” I don’t know.
[Laughs] But he rips, so he’s with us.
Yeah. ‘We’ve got to deal with him, because RedDog says so.’ It was Karma, Cardiel and Wade. I didn’t even know half those cats. I just knew when we got to a spot, it was on, just the action. I knew that was the deal. Dogtown went out of business so many times, but I swear we put Dogtown out of business on that tour.
How many cities did you hit?
We only went from Atlanta to three or four places and then back to where I live and they dropped me off and they kept going. We slept in the van and got hotels. It was a Ford Astro Van. It was crazy.
Were you hitting skateparks or street?
It was skateparks. We went to the Hangar and we went to a skatepark in Greenville, South Carolina and we went to the Ramp House.
Do you remember the Hangar session that went down with Cardiel and Wade?
I just remember Cardiel. We were skating the street shit because the street shit was kind of obscure at the time. We were hitting all kinds of stuff. It was on and it was rad. You know what was crazy? My mom lives in this condo and we were going to my mom’s house and she was making us spaghetti. I went into my house and they went up the other set of stairs into my neighbor’s house. They were sitting on the couch and the neighbor came out and was like, “What the hell is going on?” I played a joke on them. I was like, “Don’t look at my mom’s feet. She’s crazy.” So they all came into my mom’s house looking up. I was just playing with them, playing a little game.
[Laughs] Yeah. Did they know you were joking with them?
They found out. I just remember Cardiel doing fakie nose blunts and grabbing his tail and smacking his tail and being a wild man. I remember Wade talking the whole time and having the raddest Nor Cal stories. I was with a bunch of Nor Cal dudes and they were on the East Coast, so they were probably tripping like, “What’s going on?”
They were stoked on the terrain, right?
Oh yeah, back then, there was nothing going on, so they were juicing.
After they took you back to your place and dropped you off, what was the vibe?
I just remember Red Dog calling me and saying, “Dogtown is over. I have to close the doors.” Karma just had this slick bottom board come out and it was really sick. Wade and those dudes got me hyped on no rails and shaving your trucks down, so we had no riser pads and no rails. I went to just having trucks, which was not how I ride. I got rid of all these things. Rails were coming back, but they were like, “Check this out, Chet. I grind my baseplate down and I make my shit low.” They taught me all this shit, so I left the trip hyped and I went to the Ramp House and used all of the knowledge they taught me on the road and I just kept skating.
After Dogtown was over, where did you go from there?
It was so heavy. I went to ride for Jim Gray at Acme, and Mark Oblow.
What was that like?
It is what it is. The sickest thing ever was that, when I was 18, I went to the NSA finals. I jumped in some surfer dude’s van to get there, and I got third in the vert contest at the NSA finals in Encinitas, and I did pretty good in the mini ramp competition. Then Jim Gray sent me, Matt Reason and Clyde Singleton home on a Greyhound bus. He had four Mercedes Benz in his driveway, and he put me on a Greyhound bus with no money.
What is he driving now?
Shit. I don’t know. You’d have to ask him. Call him collect. I don’t give a fuck.
[Laughs] I’m going to call him right now.
[Laughs] It sucked at the time, but I’m glad now that I rode a Greyhound bus for four days from LA to North Carolina with no food money. It was pretty sick, bro. Thanks. I appreciate it. He hid us in the back of his house. I was in a room with Matt Reason, Clyde Singleton, Ricky Oyola, and Jim said, “You guys stay here and don’t come out.”
What the fuck was that all about?
I don’t know. He’s just got his own thing going. He did give me boards and wheels but, to this day, that was jacked. I’m stoked it happened now though. That’s sick.
Wasn’t Remy Stratton over at Acme then?
Yeah, but Remy and those guys were the shit. Maybe even Jim Gray is awesome but, at the time, he wasn’t so awesome. I know Jim Gray is a skate nerd and a skate rat. Good for him. You know what? I’m 42 and I’m not burning bridges. I don’t care, but it happened. I asked him for some money and he said, “Do you have change for $100?” I swear to god. I was broke.
Then I got home and I was like, “I’m not doing this.” Then I ended up skating with Navarrette and he hooked me up and took me under his wing and put me on Creature. I rode for Creature and that was sick and that’s who turned me pro.
Rad. How did you meet Navarrette?
I was skating vert at Eastern Skateboard Supply. I was working for Reggie Barnes because I had to get a job after I graduated high school. I graduated in ‘93 and I got my one girlfriend impregnated. I graduated in June and I had a kid in July. It was a great way to start 18. Reggie gave me a job at Endless Grind mail order and building the vert ramp and Navarrette came by with good times. I ended up going to Woodward and I was getting paid as a visiting pro as an amateur, so we were skating vert all the time. Then Navarrette hooked me up with Creature and I was stoked. Shit was going crazy in my life. I was 18 years old and you shit a kid out of your dick and you figure that you’re not ready for this world. You’re kind of ignorant and dumb. I would love to be a parent again, but if I was going to be a parent again, I would love to be an adult. Then my mother died in 1995 of cancer, so shit went haywire. I’m working at Eastern and my mother died and I had a kid and I’m not getting along with my kid’s mom. The mom is awesome, and she’s still awesome. If she reads this interview, Amanda Mercer, thank you very much. We weren’t getting along and then my mother died and that sucked and I was losing my mind. I was working in the skate industry and that was driving me insane. It was ruining the one thing I loved. I was working around it every day, so it was just overkill.
Describe to kids who are thinking they want to be in the skateboard industry, what it’s like.
I don’t know. I just realized that I had a chance to be a risk taker and I was so engulfed with it and I’m still engulfed with it. That’s the disease. I actually want to get away from the disease. I don’t really want to know what people are doing anymore. I just want to skate and be with my friends. If there is somebody radical, I want to watch them, but it’s like a disease. It’s like you pay attention to everything and it’s overkill and you forget about what you’re supposed to be doing. It takes the fun out of it. It’s supposed to be like the first time you lose your virginity. When that feeling goes away, it’s time to make a decision, you know?
Yeah. I know it well, man.
So I lost my mind and I told baby mama that I was going to move to Santa Cruz and try to chase skateboarding down. NHS was super radical. I moved into this dude’s garage in Santa Cruz for $100 a month, and NHS took me on a whirlwind of radical shit.
They started putting you on the road?
Yeah. I was going on tours to Europe and traveling the world. I went to Europe with Tim Brauch, Ron Whaley and Israel Forbes for four weeks. I just went. They put us on these U.S. trips for six weeks in a van and it was just skateboard anarchy. I was like a virgin. I was such a straight edge kid and that’s where I lost my virginity, being on the road. That’s where I left the wholesomeness behind. These dudes were doing all these fun things and I was like, “Teach me.” I was such a pure kid. They had to teach me how to do the evil things.
Was it drinking and drugs and all of it?
Well, it was more about life and just being a free spirit. I was such a little clammy dude like, “I don’t know if I should be doing this.” I was like, “Fuck, these dudes are having fun!” It was like bringing a cracker into toasted up bread. So I went from Creature to riding for 151 to riding for Lucero, who was the raddest dude ever for 10 years. It was the greatest time. First, I went to 151 with my buddy, Zach Connolly, and 151 was a radical company with Hitz, Navarrette, Hewitt, Chris Swanson and Aaron Harrison. I got on because I rode for Vans. Vans was like, “We like 151, but you have to put these dudes on.” I went to 151 with Charlie Watson. My buddy Zach hooked it up. I learned more in life than I’ve ever learned there. It was punk.
What did you learn?
Nothing that most people would want to learn, but it was everything that I needed to know. I learned van life. I learned how to get in the van. I learned how to empty swimming pools. I learned how to do so many radical, strategical things. I learned a lot of that from Rhino too. Rhino always had my back. Rhino and P-Stone were there. If I could say anything to anybody that helped me out a lot, it was P-Stone and Rhino. They were the shit. Going from company to company was a life experience and it would take 10 years to tell you the whole story, and I have too much A.D.D., but shit was rad. Riding for Lucero was the shit. Lucero is still the shit.
I remember Black Label was on top of the world. He couldn’t put out a board that wouldn’t sell. Black Label was the shit.
Well, the raddest thing is that Lucero and certain people let me be myself and embraced who I was. They saw that skateboarding was going a different direction and I was skating everything and skating obscure shit. Zach Connolly and Rhino got me into skating pools, which kind of made skateparks suck. If you can skate pools, you’re riding obscure terrain. When you go to a skatepark, you’re like, “I’ve already been here. I’ve already seen this.” It’s the same old shit, like the disease. My whole life has been about chasing down insane terrain, like when my buddy, Jai Tanju, and P-Stone and Rhino and I would drive across country hunting down spots. My whole career, I’ve always just wanted to find insane terrain and have photos skating it. If you get a photo in a mag, it’s cool, but I’d rather have a photo in a magazine skating something where people go, “Where did you find that?” Then they can imagine themselves skating it, you know?
Yeah. On those trips you took with Rhino and P-Stone, where were some of the memorable spots you guys hit? Were there any spots that just blew your mind?
Murf, my list of spots is just endless after 20 years of driving across country 30 or 40 times on the hunt for stoke. I can’t pick one, because there is Europe too. It’s crazy. It’s just been an addiction.
Did you hit any full pipes too?
Yeah. We hit those things, but I’ve always wanted things you can grind. A full pipe is sick. It’s a rad whirlwind, surf, boom, boom, boom, but I like weird dodgy street spots. I call it the Great Fuck Up. It’s like a natural quarter pipe that has 15 kinks in it that you can skate.
That’s like places back in the day that we used to drive 15 hours to get to because it was there and you had no other options.
I’m 42 now and I still have this problem. I drive across the country and scurry on the back roads of America in search of shit. I think skateboarders are the most genius of the crowd because nobody looks at the world like we do. We’re geniuses. No one even appreciates architecture. This is the random drug that skateboarding is: Burnside, Marginal Way, FDR, Jesse’s house in Tucson, Tucson pools, banks in Alabama, Sunset Park… My main emphasis in life is that I want people to get on the road. I want everyone to take the backroads of America because you drive by a lot of radical shit in fast motion, and it’s a greater way to enjoy the world if you go slow. You’re always in a hurry to get nowhere. I’m into the backroads of America and chasing down spots.
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