OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

THE STREETEAGLE

``My rider of the bright eyes,
What happened you yesterday
I thought you in my heart
When I bought you your fine clothes
A man the world could not slay.''

From ``The Lament for Art O'Leary'' by Dark Eileen O'Connell.

As I sit here staring resolutely at the screen, I know that there is one last chapter I must write, one more relationship I must detail, one more set of events that I must describe however painful it might be. Even now, fifteen years later it is excruciatingly difficult to face the memory, almost impossible to know how to proceed. I have completed all the other chapters that have meaning to me, boasted of successes and confessed to many of my misdeeds. I have reformed the rest of my life, forged new relationships and found new ambitions and adventures. But the events of this chapter still defy my ability to understand and accept them. Perhaps the only way is to lay down the words and hope that they elicit some sort of compassion, some empathy and understanding.

***

Patrick Edward Theodore Brennen was born on May 9, 1973, in the Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California. He was our only son, the only native-born American in our immigrant family. He grew up a healthy, vigorous boy, truly the apple of his mother's eye. He was one of those young people for whom the conventional educational system was not well suited for he would become intensely interested in one particular activity and would focus on that to the exclusion of everything else. Until he was gone, his mother and I never really appreciated what he had achieved, much to our great regret. This singular focus meant that he went his own way, had to make his own judgments in worlds of which we had little knowledge and for which we had little advice or guidance.

   
At a BMX competition (photos by John Earls)

Most of the activities into which he dived with energy and abandon were physical and involved individual participation rather than team games. Early on he showed unusual skills on the baseball diamond and on the soccer pitch, but his interest in these team games waned after a couple of seasons. He became intensely interested in bicycles and in BMX racing and I often accompanied him to competitions at the BMX tracks in Azusa and elsewhere. Accidents were frequent and I remember one example that was illustrative of his determination and drive. Arriving at the last, banked turn in second place during one race he spied a narrow opening to the inside of the race leader and drove into it with vigor. Unfortuntely it was not quite wide enough with the result that both of them tumbled down an embankment in a heap of dirt and dust. Though he was disqualified, it was clear he intended no foul; I was proud of his spirit and grit. As the trophies for all these activities mounted his grades declined causing him to lose further interest and to devote his energies to those areas in which he excelled.

Flying high

Flying high

Then, sometime around 1982, he became interested in skateboarding and this grew into an even more singular passion than those previous activities. He endlessly practicised skateboarding tricks in the concrete driveway of our temporary home on Holliston Avenue in Pasadena. He and some friends tried building a wooden half-pipe in the backyard, a structure that became so ramshackle that I had to step in and build something that would be safe. The friends also constructed portable ramps that could be temporarily moved to the driveway to provide a long and smooth enough run-up in order to launch themselves high into the air. Not that these accessories were enough for they often found their way to various malls and school playgrounds (after hours) where they would practice tricks on the benches and other fixtures. Soon Doreen and I would find ourselves escorting him to local skateboarding competitions. Instead of the half-pipe events that had attracted much public attention a few years earlier, Patrick would compete in the street-style competitions. The relatively new "street-style" involved launching the rider and his/her board into the air (sometimes from a flat surface) after which they would perform airborne manoevers before landing again on the travelling skateboard. With all this practice his skill became quite extraordinary. The height he could achieve from a ramp became amazing. Even from a flat surface he could launch himself and his board to such a height that he could clear a fire hydrant or continue atop a picnic bench. These skills required intense attention to detail and singular physical ability and conditioning. They also called for considerable daring, especially those tricks that involved mounting a railing and sliding down its length to a controlled dismount. Competitions at least required the skaters to wear helmets but I rarely saw them worn during practice sessions and there were many horrendous falls before the tricks were perfected - and even then the tumbles were inevitable.

Powell Peralta Memorabilia

Pat Brennen Skateboards

It was not long before his skills became evident to those who made skateboards and the various equipment that went with the sport. He first became sponsored by some smaller manufacturers like Motobilt Airtool and was then recruited by Alva who sponsored a team of skateboarders who gave demonstrations at which they sold their products and videos. With them he went off on tours of the western states, performing at gatherings and at skateboard shops. However, he really joined the big-time in 1991 when he was asked to join the Bones Brigade, the team sponsored by the premier skateboard manufacturer, Powell Peralta. He was now a major professional skateboarder. Stacy Peralta made a number of skateboard movies that incorporated segments demonstrating Patrick's skills; several of these videos became classics including "Celebrity Tropical Fish" and "Hot Batch", the first being the most remarkable not only for the amazing tricks but also because it was set to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata". Powell Peralta also made a number of skateboards decorated with graphics featuring Patrick, as well as other paraphanalia. Patrick received some royalties for his role in these sales but I never discovered how much money was involved. Initially he used to take the train to Santa Barbara where Powell Peralta was headquartered. But once he earned his driver's license, he purchased a used VW van for a very modest sum from Jim Fitzpatrick, one of the managers of the Powell Peralta team.

Transworld Skateboarding Magazine Extracts

Transworld Skateboarding Magazine Advertisements

Celebrity Tropical Fish:     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpUchxkciL0
Powell Hot Batch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4B4r4Kms_pU
Powell 8: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ey3ACAGRUoM
Firm Promo Clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZerpRG2xvk

Another feature of this professional activity was that he was increasingly asked to pose for various magazine ads, particular for the premier publication of the genre, Transworld Skateboarding Magazine. His good looks and style were a powerful asset in this regard. As he pursued his body-building pastime, he became even more popular as a model. But he was not enough of an extrovert to promote this aspect of his career and so this interest also faded.

Michele LandiMike Landi & PatrickPatrick with Marcela Medina

One thing that provides some small comfort is that during his short life Patrick did enjoy two special relationships. From a very young age Michele Landi and he were close friends; Michele's family represented a second (and perhaps more forgiving) home for him and he spent a great deal of time in that loving environment. Michele's father, Mike Landi, was like a second father and I shall always be deeply grateful to Mike for all he did for Patrick. Later in his life when he and Michele drifted apart, Patrick formed a close relationship with another lovely young woman, Marcela Medina. After his death, Doreen and I helped Marcela graduate from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles and she went on to a successful career in the fashion industry.

Some post-skating activity

About 1994 his interest and involvement in skateboarding began to wane. Though he was briefly energized by an association with friends in a new company called The Firm for whom he appeared in a promotional video and on several skateboards, his earlier single-minded focus had abated. His interests began to shift to body-building, to golf and to his new car, a Honda he acquired after the engine in his VW van burnt out. He still lived at home, in the large room above the garage in the rear of our property in Sierra Madre. And he still occasionally participated in family activities. I remember taking him on a special father/son trip to England and Ireland where he visited family (and the grave of St.Patrick). He and I hiked to the top of 10,000ft Mount Baldy in the San Gabriel mountains. And we frequently played golf at which he was much better than me. He began to take classes at Pasadena City College (PCC) in order to catch up on his lost schooling; he even tried out and briefly played on the PCC football team though only until he refound his dislike for team sports. His life seemed ready to assume a more adult existence though he continued to acquire speeding tickets and was involved in an accident at a street-racing event that ended in a hospital stay (in 1996).

***

In the early morning hours of Feb.1, 1997, we were awakened by an insistent knock on the door. A policeman asked us to be seated and I remember the trepidation with which Doreen and I sat side by side on the couch in the front room. Without further delay the policeman and his female partner told us that Patrick had been killed in a single vehicle automobile accident on New York Drive, just about a mile away. I simply could not believe it and insisted that it must be someone else. As the appaling news sank in, I stood up in a trance unable to absorb it. Doreen seemed beyond words. I cannot be sure how the next hour or two passed. I had to have called Dana and Kathy. We wondered where Marcela was, only to realize that she must be asleep in their bedroom above the garage. I knocked on the door until she woke and then brought her into the house before telling her the news. Other details are lost in the haze of shock and grief. Eventually Kathy and her then husband, Samer, came to the house. I then did something I deeply regret. I asked that they drive down to the scene in New York Drive to evaluate the situation. This was very cruel to Kathy and I can only make the excuse that I was not in my right mind. They came back with a gruesome description of the scene. Apparently Patrick had lost control of the car while driving at a very high speed on an empty stretch of road in the middle of the night. The car had struck a concrete light pole with such violence that the car was literally sliced in two, one half ending up in a parking lot beside the road. In the process Patrick had been thrown from the car and died instantly from a head injury probably incurred at the moment of impact.

Obituary in Pasadena Star-News, Feb., 1997.

The hours and days that followed remain a nightmarish memory. My brothers and Doreen's sisters flew all the way from Ireland to help us with our grief. We chose a burial plot high on a hill in the Rose Hills graveyard in Whittier. I made a trip alone down to the Los Angeles Coroner's office where I had to identify the body, an awful duty that will remain in my mind forever. The body was then transferred to the Rose Hills mortuary where we arranged an evening viewing prior to the day of his funeral. His friends all came and deposited little mementoes in his open coffin. After they departed Doreen and I had a minute alone with him before leaving. I will never forget the morticians starting to close the coffin as I shut the door to the viewing room. At his birth I had been the first to see him as his head came into the world and I was the last to see him as they closed his coffin. The next day we had a memorial service in a local church at which a number of his friends spoke, including Marcela. Their thoughts and willingness to voice them were a great comfort to us. There followed the burial at Rose Hills at which a Highland Piper played Amazing Grace and ..... (who spoke?). Huge bunches of flowers had been left by the casket, that Doreen, Dana, Kathy and I kissed as we left. The next morning was probably the worst for me. Doreen and I drove back to the Rose Hills where we found a pyramid of flowers above the gravesite. With no-one else present, Doreen finally lost her composure and collapsed into the mass of flowers, weeping uncontrollably. It must have been an hour before I could get her to her feet and take her home.

Only a few scattered memories remain of the weeks which followed. I had to go to the Pasadena Police Station to recover the belongings they had collected from the scene of the accident. Though I was not required to do so I went to the wreckers yard to inspect the two halves of his car and to collect a couple more mementoes. We sifted through all his belongings as a way of maintaining some small connection of comfort. Brothers and sisters returned home to Ireland and Dana and Kathy went back to their children and their work. In this time there were a few pleasant surprises among the grief. My friends and colleagues at Caltech were incredibly generous in setting up a memorial fund for Patrick at the Caltech Credit Union; these monies were ultimately used to put Marcela through her degree course at FIDM. I visted Rose Hills almost every day and cried every time. Often red-tailed hawks would soar overhead and I would think of them watching over me to ensure that I took care of those he loved. His friends also started an impromptu memorial at a lamppost in the parking lot where his body had come to rest after the accident. I also visited that site on a regular basis and even attached a little brass plaque to the lamppost which, quoting the words of the poet William Wordsworth, read "Patrick Brennen, May 9, 73 - Feb 1, 97, ....there hath passed away a glory from the earth". This lamppost memorial came to have greater meaning for me than the gravesite at Rose Hills, at least until Doreen's death and burial.

Eventually, Doreen and I settled into a kind of twilight existence though her health continued to decline until her untimely death. Patrick's memory was kept alive by his remarkable skateboarding accomplishments during his life. To this day, there are Youtube videos and magazine articles extolling his feats. And wherever we would go in the world, kids on skateboards and people in board shops, some as far away as Perth, Australia, would remember his name and his deeds. It is an extraordinary legacy; his legend will live long after the rest of us are forgotten.

***

So now, fifteen years later, I finally try to put this, the most difficult, most heart-rending chapter down on paper. The hope was that it would bring some solace, some easing of the pain. Yet rather than facing my own feelings, I seem to have evaded the most brutal introspection by busying myself with this collection of articles, photographs and videos, recounting the facts rather than embarking on a thorough description of my own thoughts and feelings. Maybe this is because such an honest self-evaluation is simply not possible without serious emotional and psychological repercussions. It would be like tearing great scabs off my heart and leaving me to bleed to death. This is what happened to Doreen who never came to terms with the tragic events and died of a broken heart. I think that, quite unconciously, a very basic self-preservation reaction turned me to other thoughts. One such that I voiced in vain to Doreen was that Patrick would most have wanted us not to indulge in self-pity but to do all that we could to help those whom he loved, Michele and Marcela, his sisters, and his friends. I will always believe that there were many things I might have done to save his life and that of Doreen. I could have insisted that he raise the chassis of his car (he had lowered it close to the ground in the fashion of the time) so that it would not contact the ground. I could have done more to improve our relationship and done more to appreciate the great skill he had developed. I could have made Doreen visit the doctor earlier despite her reluctance to do so. Ultimately, for my own well-being I had to come to terms with this self-recrimination. And so, eventually and painfully, I moved on, knowing that there would always be a hole in my heart, but also knowing that there had to be more life to live, more to do for my daughters and their children, more relationships to value, more emotions and adventures to experience. But the streeteagle will always have a very special place in my heart.

***

Postscript: Article in Transworld Skateboarding Magazine, May 2, 2007:

Moonlight Sonata

by Mackenzie Eisenhour

"For reasons that are difficult to pin down, skateboarding has lost an abnormally large number of its finest practitioners in the most untimely of fashions. People as diverse as Jeff Phillips, Keenan Milton, Phil Shao, Tim Brauch, Kit Erickson, Harold Hunter, Mike Cardona, Pepe Martinez, Justin Pierce, Joe Lopes, Sean Miller, Mike De Geuss, Ruben Orkin, Curtis Hsiang, and so forth-all greats of skateboarding who were lost all too soon. This article will focus on one such loss-that of Pat Brennen-but more so will celebrate what he did bring us during his life on a board in the form of two landmark video parts, most notably his incredible series of lines in Powell’s ninth video, Celebrity Tropical Fish (’91).

After riding for Motobilt Airtool and then a revamped Alva team alongside Ronnie Bertino and Adam McNatt, the Pasadena, California born and raised Pat Brennen wound up on Powell Peralta by early 1991. According to Lance Mountain, “After he skated my mini ramp, I might have talked to someone at Powell. He might have got on through Adam McNatt and the Quartermaster contests, or a little of all of that.”

Almost immediately after earning his spot on the Bones Brigade, Pat made a huge impact with his standout part in Eight (’91), which included a whole Rose Bowl Parade worth of raw street combos, including an impossible over a fire hydrant in a line and a casual manny to 360 flip out. His part showcased his local homegrown spots and stapled him in as one of Powell’s fastest-rising stars and their best hope of fending off the impending war with street-skating-based competitors H-Street and World Industries.

Later that year, with his Eight part still fresh in people’s minds, Brennen put together his masterpiece part to the tunes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and simply drew circles around what was considered cutting-edge street skating at the time. Nollieing up to and noseblunt sliding ledges when most were still on curbs and mixing laser flips, Rick flips, and front-foot impossibles into ten-trick lines involving multiple benches and sets of stairs fittingly to the song-skating for the most part in the dark Pasadena nights-Brennen’s CTF part is a must-see to this very day. Closing out with a banger of a late backside 360 shove, Brennen seemed poised to become the reigning street-tech and ledge champion along with the likes of Jason Lee, Mike Carroll, and later Eric Koston.

Friend and later Firm teammate Keith Gruber sums up Pat’s approach to skating: “Pat was generally very focused in his day-to-day skating. He liked to be pushed and benefited from the camaraderie.” However, by Powell’s next video, Hot Batch (’92), Brennen’s part contained only a dozen or so single tricks, and his dominance on a skateboard seemed to have hit the brakes slightly. Lance elaborates: “After his VW van’s engine burned out, he bought a new black Honda Prelude. Slowly, he started to modify it as his interest in street racing began to develop and as his budget permitted. In the early portions of his ‘transition,’ he just had a modified exhaust. In the later days, he removed the passenger seat to eliminate weight.”

Bitten by the bug and adrenaline rush of street-car racing, Pat gradually spent less and less time on his skateboard. He returned briefly to the public eye in a segment of a Firm 411 Industry Profile section in the mid-90s after joining Lance’s company, but that footage would be the last glimpse the collective skateboard world would get of Brennen’s still-impressive talent.

After suffering a car crash in his Prelude in ’96 that resulted in a hospital stay, Pat crashed again in a new car nearly a year later-this time fatally. At 4:00 a.m. on February 1, 1997, Pat Brennen died of head injuries sustained, and one of Pasadena’s all-time greatest gifts to skateboarding was forever lost. According to Lance, with Pat a hometown hero to nearly every skater and friend in the area, after his passing many now proudly wear an Irish clover “Brennen” tattoo in his honor. Rest in peace, Pat.


Last updated 10/04/12.
Christopher E. Brennen