By John Montague
CEO & Founder of Maku
Amelia Island is North Florida’s last barrier island, curving to the north-east, wedged between two other islands, which remain largely uninhabited state parks. Amelia is a docile, sleepy beach town. Amelia and its actors were some of the main factors in shaping my childhood, and ultimately, my shadow.
When we first moved to the island, my father witnessed a car hitting and killing our beautiful mutt of a lab named Gourmet, on Amelia’s A1A. So he moved us to a quiet gated community on the south end of the island; yet, it was here that I experienced a microcosm of the slowly creeping opioid epidemic, amongst my ostensibly benign and well-meaning parents. Indeed, my father had carved out a small slice of suburban paradise; we settled into a weathered, shingled house on Amelia Island Plantation (a gated resort community); but I found out that gates can only keep out so much.
I grew up on Amelia as a 90s kid with a relatively tight crew in the backdrop of the surfing and skateboarding culture that peaked in the late 90s and early 2000s. I had gotten my first skateboard sometime in the early 90s: a NASH Skateboard that said “HEAT ZONE” on the bottom of the deck. My skating game was pretty bad until around 1996 when my friends Ricky Crawford and Brian Deal showed me what an ollie looked like.
Unknown to us then, we were witnessing the renaissance era of street skating, inspired by Toy Machine’s “Welcome to Hell” - Jamie Thomas’ part was set to Iron Maiden’s “hallowed be thy name.” The bells ringing amidst the metal harmonics sparked his career, inspiring a small army of baggy-panted, puffy-shoed, rail-hungry kids seeking to make their own mark in skateboarding.
But that was not the only revolution in middle-class America. Simply a year prior, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) approved a new formula of the drug opioid Oxycodone under the trade name OxyContin. Perdue Pharmaceuticals pursued an “aggressive” campaign, promoting the use of opioids in general and in particular the non-addictive, extended released, OxyContin. However, unlike Toy Machine, Perdue Pharmaceuticals didn’t just release a video: they were evangelists.
From 1996 to 2001, Purdue spun-up more than 40 conferences that peppered resorts in Florida, Arizona, and California. An all-inclusive vacation and a beautiful mantra: the new, extended-released, non-addictive Oxycodone. How could it be addictive? It’s extended released… More than 5000 physicians, pharmacists, and nurses attended these all-expenses-paid forums and so they now chanted that same mantra; they were recruited and trained by Purdue's national speaker bureau. This wasn’t a revolution, this was a religion. Who wouldn’t want to kick back some piña coladas and toss around a frisbee that said: “Get in the Swing With OxyContin?”
I suppose around the time that I had learned to ollie a skateboard, my father had been prescribed OxyContin for “chronic back pain;” a local physician shepherded my father into the new era of extended released opioids. Pretty soon he was singing the same mantra as Perdue and the physicians, enjoying some extra distance on his runs.
Meanwhile, we kids were watching the vast progression being made in skating in Philadelphia, L.A. and New York City. But Amelia was off the skating map. We had some feeble stairs, ledges and bulkheads: they were certainly dangerous enough for us to properly hurt ourselves (I dislocated my shoulder working on grinding a park bench after school). But not a lot of options for young, aspiring street skaters. The holy grail, the Mecca, however, was right down the road: the historically iconic KONA skatepark in JAX, FL.
Kona had a special place in our hearts: the famous “Snake” run, a “vert” pipe, and a small street park with a variety of interesting ramps and ledges. I was a pretty timid skater and would casually drop in on a half-pipe from time to time, and would causally edge up the small ramps, trying a variety of flip-tricks; but I was pretty proficient at the flat-game (kickflips, varial-flips, hardflips, ect.).
When you are twelve or thirteen, skating with grown-men boosting massive airs and shredding pools, KONA was a fairly intimidating place. But it was an excursion away from the island and a place that I learned to grow comfortable skating, if only in the shadows.
Ironically, while I was attempting to embrace skate culture, my dad was embracing well, drug culture. He told me that he bought pills from a guy named “bad-back Jack.” Our family excursions began to include guys from the other realm - handymen - out on disability and trying to make ends meet by selling drugs on the black market. While my friends and I were the dedicated hellions and ostensible "alt kids" working hard - and innocently - at skating (a lowbrow venture), little did we know that a completely alien and far more radical “revolution” was underway within the adult world of middle-upper class America: the opioid crisis.
If skating at KONA left a profoundly positive impact on my life, it was perhaps simply the ride into the park with my father and friends that’s done more to shape me as an adult. At this point in my life, my dad was a high-powered stockbroker for Merrill Lynch. He was in great shape and ran every day. He drove a Silver 911 Porsche and took me fishing every weekend. But even as a kid, I would notice something amiss about my father: my friends and I could sense it. He often fell into silence or spoke erratically to the point where we didn’t even understand what he was saying.
On occasion, he would pull out some pills-crush them up-and snort them (so much for the time-released component...). When I asked him what he was doing, he said in a casual voice “it gets into your system quicker.” Some of my friends thought that my dad was doing drugs, and when I asked him, he responded “no,” that these drugs were prescribed to him by a physician for his back pain and he took the Ritalin to help him focus. He coolly explained that he would sometimes buy prescription drugs from “bad-back Jack,” because he didn’t want to fuss with going to the doctor. Of course, he was a busy, businessman, providing for his family and paying his mortgage: time was limited.
I don’t know if he knew or I knew the path that we were going, crushing pills, driving to work, bad-back-Jack – and shuttling my friends skating. At some point, it became abundantly clear that my dad was a drug-addict. When he was clean, he did not lie. Walking the tight-rope of being a father, managing his client’s money, and sustaining his drug addiction proved to be too challenging and he checked into a rehabilitation facility at UF Shands. He was gone for a long time and my mother drove me into KONA. I didn’t hear about bad-back-Jack or my dad’s other friends for a while. I can’t exactly remember how I felt when my dad was in rehabilitation, but I feel like it made me happy knowing that he was getting the help that he needed: I knew I would get to see my “old dad” when he emerged.
To be continued...
1 “OxyContin Marketing Plan, 2002.” Purdue Pharma, Stamford, CN, 2002
2 The Promotion and Marketing of OxyContin: Commercial Triumph, Public Health Tragedy. Am J Public Health. 2009 February; 99(2): 221–227
3 Prescription Drugs: OxyContin Abuse and Diversion and Efforts to Address the Problem. Washington, DC: General Accounting Office; December 2003. Publication GAO-04-110