FORT BELVOIR, Va. (May 31) -- I have been in love with riding skateboards since I first discovered the sport way back in 1973 at the age of seven. For such a simple piece of equipment, I was amazed at the sense of freedom and mobility a skateboard could provide and I became immediately smitten with the sheer joy of carving back and forth along a smooth stretch of asphalt with the wind in my hair and a spellbinding sensation of fluid motion and gravity defiance dominating every thought.

It is also a very pleasing thing to see that skateboarding is still alive and well, continuing to develop from its humble clay-wheel and roller skate axle beginnings. It is not very hard to spot a group of skateboarders making their way around the Belvoir area and every time I see them, I'm flooded with memories of my own treks across the pavement. Some of those recollections are dear; some are downright frightening, because I see that today's generation of skateboarders appears to be just as contemptuous of safety as I was.

The fact is there were no such things as dedicated skateboarding helmets and pads in the early days. No one ever thought of it really; none of the guys on the covers of the skateboarding magazines ever had them on. What it essentially came down to was, it's just not cool to wear all that stuff (some motorcyclists have the same thin-ice disregard for preserving their brains in the name of experiencing individual freedom and spiritual exultation at high speed).

In all honestly, it scares the daylights out of me to think of the things I did back then. In the absence of video games, computers, texting, cell phones and the Internet, there wasn't much for my friends and me to do, besides being outdoors and going fast. I can only attribute getting to my 40s to sheer luck.

It is a cruel irony that no one appreciates the value of caution until they have a lot of time to really consider it, like from the bottom of a ditch or the gravel on the side of the road, or worse, from a hospital bed. I have to wonder how many people have suffered a severe head injury simply because they were not wearing a helmet.

Quoting injury statistics is pointless. In this modern, informed world, we all know that wearing a helmet infinitely improves the odds of avoiding a brain injury. This is more about rediscovering the instinct to survive, and common sense, taking just a moment to imagine what happens to the human brain when it impacts a solid object with scarcely a quarter-inch of bone separating the two. The worst part is that such occurrences are yet another cruel irony as there's no way to predict or time them. They just randomly happen and then there's an outcome. That outcome can be (and generally is) so much more palatable if you take the time to add another couple of inches of high-strength plastic and foam cushioning on top of that quarter-inch of skull. That improvement to the odds is just simple physics.

While few think about it, the brain is what life is all about. Everything we see, hear, taste, smell, feel, walk, talk, believe, think and dream is given to us courtesy of our brain. It's hard to imagine being without any one of those (and countless other) abilities. But in spite of its awesome power, complexity and ability, the brain is a fragile organ made of delicate tissues that rely on an infinite number of chemical and electrical processes just to move one foot in front of the other. I've personally developed a real affection for putting one foot in front of the other, as well as for seeing and thinking and feeling and a bunch of other things that grey matter does for me, from the safe confines of my intact coconut.

Of course, it's easy to be led to believe that taking gambles is part of the fun, at least if you watch enough MTV programming showing professional skaters (and reality TV stars) doing insanely acrobatic tricks with no protective gear whatsoever. Such individuals even take a certain amount of pride (and camera time) showing off the damage they've done to themselves. I wonder, however, if they realize how fortunate they are, that it's just their arm that's bleeding and not their cerebrum. Of course, in that case, I doubt they would have the motor skills or speech capability to be glorifying their "radness" for the cameras and the ratings folks.

Sometimes, life altering injuries are unavoidable, and those are indeed tragedies. But so many others can easily be sidestepped, just by taking one extra precaution -- namely, protecting your brain (also known as your life). I was very, very lucky to have managed to stay in one piece when I was a kid. Luck is a funny thing, too. It picks random times to operate, and any streak of it always ends, usually with a rather dramatic effect.

Hospital and rehabilitation wards all over the world are filled with sportsmen (and their family members) who are still experiencing that drama. Since the brain is the one part of the body that doesn't heal, the effect is there to stay.