When word came down from the big wigs at YoBeat that I was to be sent on a special assignment to investigate the future of snowboarding I should have said no and walked away, but I couldn’t help myself. I needed cash and quickly. I needed to pay my rent, alimony, child support, and some big bribes to the Guatemalan government to cover-up the fallout from last special YoBeat assignment. So I took the job. Or it took me, I should say, to a place so dark and twisted, so evil and corrupt most people don’t even believe it exists.
I’m talking about Project KY-XY. The Burton Genetics Lab located 19 stories deep underground beneath the BMC plant in Williston Vermont. Or at least that’s where it was at the time I broke this story. I’m sure there’s nothing down there now but an innocent looking stockpile of broken bindings and autographed photos of long since forgotten pros. Even as I write this they are probably building a new and even bigger lab somewhere in Eastern Europe… but that’s the way it goes. And now I’ve gotten ahead of myself. So, let me start back at the beginning.
It took every bit of planning and every complicated technical gadget available in the YoBeat arsenal to defeat the various security programs running between ground level Burton and the hidden complex deep underground. I’d like to make it sound cool and tough like Christian Bale in “The Dark Knight.” I’d love narrate how I snuck past the guard dogs, how I crawled under barbed wire, and took out several armed guards with my bare hands. But it wasn’t like that. I knew Burton’s Achilles heel was an over-confidence in technology. The fingerprint scanner was set to recognize half-pipe gloves instead of fingerprints! I also timed my visit with the first Saturday night of the US Open so if discovered I could pass myself off as the newest member of the Europe team.
Finding the exact location of the secret elevator was the biggest challenge. But we had an inside man. I spoke with him in a chat room only once. He sent me plans of the entire facility and I memorized them. I knew it could all be a trap, and yet I trusted this mole when he said that it was time to blow the whistle on Burton. He wasn’t looking for a bribe, he said. He just needed the truth to be known.
The elevator was oddly small and the door closed behind me more quickly than I expected. There was only one button on the elevator console and it responded instantaneously. I could feel my stomach quiver and my heart beat as the elevator plunged several hundred feet into the earth in just a few seconds.
The doors slid open silently. I stepped out and found myself in a massive underground labyrinth of computer displays and complicated medical looking devices. Every bit of the walls and the floor gleamed in purest white. To my right looked like a waiting room in an expensive and private medical clinic. To my left was a long corridor interrupted by doors at regular intervals. Evenly spaced on the walls between the doors were pictures of the most successful and attractive young snowboarders on the planet. I noticed they all wore the same vacant expression. Though the faces differed, the pictures were identical. Identically framed, identically shot, with an identical aperture setting.
My head felt light from the sheer prospect of my discovery. I couldn’t believe that I was standing where I was standing. I felt like I was looking down a rocky cornice into a deep crevasse. Here it was — the undeniable truth that could tear this entire sport apart: This was project KY-XY where snowboarders were genetically designed in a laboratory, to be cheerful, soft-spoken, outgoing and charming with just the right amount of modesty. This is where children were created for one single diabolical purpose: to perform on snow and by doing so help promote and sell product.
I started down the central hallway to the left, but thought better of it when I heard the sound of voices and footsteps approaching from around the corner. I tried the nearest door and it opened. It was pitch dark and seemed empty so I quickly closed the door behind me and waited for the footsteps to pass. When it felt safe, I pulled out my iPhone and from the dim glow of my Twitter client application I looked around for a light switch. I slid the dimmer up just enough for a dusky glow to emanate from the overhead lights.
This room didn’t feel right. Comfortable looking leather chairs ringed the walls and in the center was a clinical surgery table with uncomfortable looking straps. Mounted on the ceiling above the bed was what looked like a flat screen TV. I found a remote in one of the chairs. I turned the screen on and pressed a button marked “play.” It was a snowboarding video. Music blared out of hidden speakers pumping ferocious indie rock with crystal clear fidelity.
“There’s a pound or two of flesh on my chest yet…” sang the lyrics of the song and I recognized them instantly. It was the hit “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” by the indie rock band “Ghost Ghost.” I liked the song, but I was beginning to get just a little tired of hearing it and reading about it in every snowboard video, music magazine and amateur blog. I hit pause on the remote and the last note reverberated in the room.
I looked at the figures on the screen dropping into a massive quarter-pipe. Then I looked down at the table. I looked up again and there was an instant flash of recognition: Really? This was too much. I had to stop myself from laughing aloud.
I knew just enough about genetics to know that any serious stem cell harvesting happens in very controlled conditions with scalpels in a laboratory. There was DNA being harvested in this room, but not in the usual way. This was a clinical spank tank. The music and the video were mood setting. This was obviously where the sperm of talented boarders was harvested for research purposes. I’d heard of the hazing that goes on with junior members of the Burton teams. My hypothesis is that this was played off as some secret ceremony in the hazing process. I shivered thinking of the drunk snowboarders brought down here with blindfolds and asked to “drop-in” (so to speak) into a dixie cup.
I’ve seen some dark shit in my time, and though I suspected I would see even more evil before the day was out, I was beginning to think that this was a story better left untold.
“Get your ass out of here, now,” was the phrase that kept repeating in my brain. “No story is worth this.” And I was halfway back to the elevator to do just that when a sense of duty kicked in. I was here to break a story and I needed legitimate proof, pictures of just what was happening here.
So I turned around and made myself walk down the long corridor.
I won’t describe everything I saw that night. Every memo I read, every dark scene that unfolded before my eyes, but there is one room I will never forget. At the end of one long hallway was a massive steel door, with a very narrow plexi-glass window set in the center. When I peered through I saw something that I feared from the beginning, and yet was completely unprepared for. The horrors beyond that door were indescribable. Suffice it to say there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of early failed clones and experiments, living out a miserable experience in the furthest recess of this massive Burton complex. Here shielded from eyes of humanity, hidden even from their creators was a legion of failed Shaun White prototypes. I saw one with three arms, and another whose entire misshapen body was covered with a thick growth of red hair.
I knew without having to be told that beyond this barricaded door was a secured facility within a facility. It was a simultaneous school, orphanage and home to all of Shaun White’s true brothers and sisters. These were the by-products from the early days of Project KY-XY. The not-quite-right formula versions of the eventual child prodigy who seemingly came from nowhere and single-handedly turned snowboarding from a multi-million dollar industry into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Thinking about it now, in retrospect, it’s so obvious that Shaun was the inhuman progeny of a twisted Burton test-tube experiment. We were fed such a sweet story of the ultra-talented youth and his freely indulging family who sacrificed everything so their talented boy could live his dreams. We believed it because that’s what we wanted to believe. The ugly truth is that snowboarding companies have been genetically engineering children, not just breeding them, but building them from the basic building blocks of biology.
I felt bile well up in my throat. I turned away from that door in disgust at humanity and myself. Knowing I wasn’t brave enough to open the door and free those twisted and never-intended human accidents. The fleeting hope I offered at my appearance in the window, attracted dozens upon dozens of the red headed creatures. As I turned away their hopeful moans and pitiful pleas turned quickly into agonized grunts and shouts of anger and distress. I heard them pound on the door even as I retreated back the way I came.
I hadn’t gone far when I ran into Dr. B. (Dr. B is an alias, for I wish to protect his true identity). From the moment I saw Dr. B. I knew he was my man, the whistle-blower. I also suspected that he was the scientist who made this all possible. By what method Burton co-opted him to their evil will I do not wish to know. But if there was any love in the lives of those cheerless White clones I had just left behind me, it was because he provided it. He was their father, if not genetically, then by the fact of having designed them, and bred them from single cells up in test tubes and incubators.
“I have been expecting you,” he said, and then he turned and walked through an adjacent door in response to what sounded like an infant crying.
My heart raced and I followed him into the next room. The nursery was filled with little cribs and the walls were decorated with bright colors. The room smelled clean and there was light classical music coming from a speaker in the ceiling. All of the beds appeared empty as I followed Dr. B. to the far end of the room and through yet another door.
And there they were: The future of snowboarding. Three smiling little babies, cute, clean, and happy-looking. Perfect, is the only word for it. They were perfect little humans. Except for the large Burton imprint on their chubby bellies and the bar code on the back of their necks, they were little bouncing bundles of joy like any other.
Mr. B looked almost happy now as he gazed down at the infants. He smiled and I smiled and let out a laugh.
“Go ahead, he said, pick one up.”
So I did it.
Not accustomed to holding babies, I fumbled awkwardly for a few seconds before getting comfortable. The baby hiccuped and a small bit of spittle dribbled out of his lips. The little shredder looked up at me and giggled.
For a wild moment I imagined running away with him, stealing this gifted future athlete from the hard life ahead of him. The lies, the brainwashing, the private snowboarding academy, then the contests, the sponsorship deals, the attractive and shallow girlfriends, the drugs, the drug testing, the gossip, the fights, then the injuries and eventual retirement. The temptation was intoxicating.
But there was nothing that could be done. I kissed the baby on the forehead and put him down. And I left.
I said nothing to Dr. B as I left and he said nothing to me. There was nothing to say. He was trapped in a web I couldn’t begin to understand. I could offer him no absolution and he could offer me no explanations that could ease the anger that I felt.
And that’s where the story ends. I was there with many others at the beginning of snowboarding. I once wore one of those storied permits that proved I could turn and stop and that gave me permission to ride the lift with skiers and share the same slopes. And the present of snowboarding needs no further description it as all around us. It is a billion dollar juggernaut industry. New pros and new companies appear everyday just as old ones are struck down. But only a very select few have seen the future of snowboarding. It will be brilliant and talented and young and attractive. It will be extremely well organized and regulated and drug tested. It will be marketed well and sold well. It will go to the Olympics it will win medals. It will sell cereal and soup and social networking platforms and candy and energy drinks and energy bars. But it will also spin more than ever before. It will go higher and faster. It will go baggy and flannel again. It will go neon again, it will go ironic again. It will keep changing even as we get set in our ways. Snowboarding will stay the same age and target demographic as we get older. But take solace in this: Somewhere, right now, the future of snowboarding is soling its diaper and contemplating its belly button.