Jacksonville 1966. Way out Fort Caroline Road, before the highway department cut it down to size, there use to be a place called “Thrill Hill.” On the other side of town, where I lived was a section of town called Dinsmore, way out in the boonies. My two cousins Linda and Cindy were from Arlington, a more modern part of town. It really would brighten my day when they would come to visit.
They found me in the middle of making my own skateboard. I had seen the Beach Boys on TV, they were hip, the newest craze. I wanted to join the new wave, so I made my own “surf skate.” Since skateboards weren’t available at K-Mart yet, if you lived on the east coast and wanted a skateboard, you had to make your own.
My cousins arrived with their boyfriends riding in a ‘56 Fairlane coupe. They suggested we go back to their side of town to find a steep slope to test out my new “skate.” Our first choice was the Matthews Bridge. This was before the newer Hart Bridge was built. On a Sunday afternoon, with light traffic it seemed like a good choice.
I began my test run at the top, just below the edge of the grates, heading towards the toll booths.
Glenn Lackey, Linda’s boyfriend and eventual ex-husband, drove his Grandpa’s hot rod Ford right behind me, to clock my speed. If I remember right, they told me I was doing 35 mph, straight down hill. The scenery swept by me so fast that I can’t describe it but I can remember burning a hole in the toe of my tennis shoe when I drug my foot trying to slow down.
The toll booth tender shooed us off, “enough of that stuff,” he said. Aw, it was all in good fun, in the mid 60’s, you could get away with a lot of stuff back in them days.
The bridge was okay for a trial run, no one else in the car wanted to be next, so I asked them if they knew of another place with a downhill run. “Thrill Hill” popped up immediately but before we went there, we stopped on the way at the entrance to the Ravines Country Club. It was downhill, turning and twisting, just right to simulate dry surfing. The “Ravines” as it became known later on, became a popular spot to surf skate. Eventually, they put up “No Trespassing” signs.
Our final destination was “Thrill Hill.’ It was located way out Fort Caroline Road, past where there is a convenience store located now where the road to the river forks. Not many houses on Ft. Caroline in those days. It was a lonely stretch of road. We drove past a spot where some one had nailed up a board and painted on it was a “MIOAK” (Mystic Insignia of a Klansman) or better known as a “Blood Drop Cross.” It was near the entrance to a secluded dirt road. To me, seeing a red circle painted on a board with a white cross in the middle, nailed to a tree in the middle of nowhere didn’t mean much. Heck, I had just learned to ride a skate board that morning, what did I know about anything?
My cousins Linda and Cindy both filled me in. Back in those days the signal for a meeting spot of a Ku Klux Klan rally, was a Blood Drop Cross. It made sense to me I guess, a better spot couldn’t be found. We talked about it for a few minutes. It really wasn’t any of our business, but back in those days, entertainment was hard to find and it just made us curious. Kids being kids, we couldn’t just drive off and leave this potentially dangerous and exciting discovery behind. The thoughts of the upcoming mystic ritual weighed heavy on our minds. I had seen civil rights protest on TV and newsreel pictures of Klan Rallies, but this was different, those riots and marches were hundreds of mile away, this was right here in front of us.
We found Thrill Hill right where it was supposed to be. Golly it was tall and steep, breathtaking. When I built my skate board, I used a 2 X 6 about 18 inches long. Then I took one of my roller skates and flattened the shoe guards with a hammer until the top of the skate’s surface was flat. Then I used 8 penny nails, driving them halfway into the board, then bending them over to hold the skate in place. This was probably an okay contraption to wheel around the front porch of our house. When Cindy and Linda showed up and offered to take me to a much better place to skate, I never thought about how secure it was. When they offered to take me to find a place to surf skate, I just said “hell yeah!” Now after a successful run down the Matthews Bridge and a couple of passes down the “Ravine,” the prospect of shooting down the steep slope of Thrill Hill started me to have second thoughts. The road wasn’t smooth asphalt, oh no, this road was gravel rock sprinkled over wet blacktop to form a hard surface. Once I saw just how rough the roadway was, I could almost visualize the scabs on my elbows and knees if I fell and busted my can. Glenn didn’t get behind me to clock my speed on this trip. The crew was waiting for me at the bottom. I almost knew they expected to see me bust my butt. My first run was a little shaky going over the rough road. To say I was scared, would be putting it lightly. I earned my merit badge though. I was thinking once was enough, but once Cindy started clucking at me like I was a chicken or something, I just gritted my teeth and did it again. I had a few falls back at the Ravines but I managed to master the course on Thrill Hill. My chest puffed out, full of pride on my home made skateboard, I felt like I was good a skateboarder as any boy alive.
The girls wanted their boyfriends to try it, but they refused, not saying they were chicken, no, I think they just had better sense. Cindy though, she was game. She had to give it a shot, she always had that adventuresome spirit. Instead of starting at the top though, Cindy started off from the “Ladies Tee,” about two thirds of the way down the slope. Oh yeah, she busted her can a couple of times, skinning both knees but she got up and tried it again, the third time she was successful, only busting her butt when she tried to stop.
As the sun started to set in the west, our afternoon was drawing to a close. I think it was Cindy that dared everyone else to “Let’s go sneak up on that Klan rally and see what they’re doing.” To tell you the truth, I believe it was the first time I ever heard a live conversation about the KKK. I had never seen anything like it in person. Once the girls told me that it was a bunch of white men wearing sheets, parading around a giant bonfire, it piqued my interest. I was game, this I had to see.
Darkness was soon upon us, as Glen parked his grandpa’s blue and white Fairlane under some overhanging tree branches, just off of the highway. He and Linda turned the radio on and volunteered to stay in the car, to keep an eye on it. In our absence I think they were planning on doing some spooning, but that’s neither here nor there. Me, Cindy and her boyfriend, I think his name was Ronnie, trekked down the road in the dark until we came to the bushy entrance with the Blood Drop Cross sign attached to a nearby tree.
Before we took off down the dirt road to check it out. We looked at each other’s eyes in the twilight to make sure, without actually asking, “Is this really we want to do?” With a hug and a reassuring glance, there was no longer any hesitation on our part. We walked under the tree branches hanging over the seldom used path, using them for cover. We found a clearing off to one side big enough to park a couple dozen cars. Big Buicks and Oldsmobiles with their chrome shining in the moonlight, the darker Chevvies and Pontiacs with the Indian Chief emblem on the hood. There were so many cars parked there that I almost wanted to look for the valet.
In the hot summer weather, the myrtle bushes surrounding us were in full bloom. Ronnie started a sneezing fit. Guess who had hay fever? You can’t just shssssh some one who has to sneeze, not once they get started. He sneezed so hard, that he lost his glasses in the dark. Every time he tried to stifle a sneeze, Cindy would squeeze my hand, like she was trying to hush me up. The humming and chanting noises that we heard in the background, suddenly stopped, ominously, almost forbidding, the silence that followed was almost unbearable.
No sense waiting for the other shoe to drop, we got up in a hurry and took off running through the trees. Following Ronnie’s lead, almost blind and in the dark, instead of going back to Ft. Caroline Road, we took the fork in the path that led us in the opposite direction by mistake. I can remember it now. All those trees and scrubby branches looked the same in the dark. We hurried down a path that seemed like it was heading in the direction we wanted to go. It led us to the edge of a large clearing with a large bonfire; in the middle of this fire was what looked like a burning cross. There were a dozen men standing, arguing among themselves in the smoke coming from the fire. Their silhouettes on the trees behind them, made them look twenty feet tall.
I almost wanted to just walk right into the crowd and act like I was lost and wanting directions (which was true) but Cindy held her arm in front of my chest barring the way, with a finger to her lips, signaling me to be quite and hold still, Ronnie rushing up behind us, knocked us both into the clearing.
Then pandemonium broke loose. The Wizard or Grand Dragon, what ever he’s called started pointing fingers and barking commands. (Cindy later called him the “HNIC” what ever that spells). Some of the men rushed towards us while others turned to run. We were surrounded, in the dark. I didn’t see any means of escaping, but I guess Linda and Glen must have gotten impatient for us to return, because then I heard a car motor start up and a car horn started honking. In the confusion it seemed like a “Chinese Firedrill.” The crowd started milling about, right in front of us. We took advantage andtook off running, hauling our asses right through the middle of the camp, right back down the road that had led us up here. In the dark, I didn’t see who, but someone grabbed Cindy by the neck of her blouse. She kept running and her blouse ripped away. Ronnie without his glasses must have taken another path, because when we got to the car, it was just me and Cindy, both of us out of breath.
Glenn must have had an idea that we were up to our necks in hot water, because he had the front door opened and the engine racing. Our escape looked like a scene from “Mason County Line.” The spinning tires were kicking up sand and gravel once we got going but before we got 100 yards, we had to stop. There was Ronnie in the middle of the road with a deer in the headlights look, waving both arm for us to stop.
I have been out Ft. Caroline Rd. since then, I think it’s a shame they cut it down to a safer size. No, its not the same trying to tell the story to my grandkids. I’m not sure if they believe me or not, after all there’s no way their grandpa could be cool enough to be one of the first skateboarders in Jacksonville.