He had on blue jogging pants, a T-shirt emblazoned with "The Americathon Kid," and eight, red, rock-hard polyurethane wheels. He had rolled here from a converted Chevron station on Sunset Boulevard, facing a rattler and delirium in the desert, a couple of trucks that caught him in a squeeze play in Texas, a dead man's curve in Pennsylvania.
He had conquered them all, but yesterday he lost to the Capitol police, who in effect said they didn't care if he was Santa Claus, he Wasn't coming into the House of Representatives on roller skates.
It all worked out, though. Ted Coombs of Hermosa Beach, ex-seminarian and former laser engineer, unlaced his custom flyers and padded in his socks into Tip O'Neill's office, where he stood under a chandelier designed by Paul Revere and not only talked with the Speaker, but with 40 shavers from the Little Flower Summer Camp in Bethesda as well, who wanted to know things like "Are you ever gonna stop?" and "What do you do about the bathroom?"
Maybe it's just the humidity. On the other hand, it may have some atavistie link to Lewis and Clark, those first two cross-country blazers, who were charged by Thomas Jefferson to go out and take note of "the soil and face of the country." At any rate, a rash of transcontinental nuttiness has broken out in America this summer.
On June 14, two college kids from Rockville, Peter Estelle and Peter Moon, pedaled out of Seattle, turned briefly west to dip their bikes in the Pacific, then headed east. They are out there somewhere now, maybe in Pennsylvania, maybe in western Maryland. Last week, their parents alerted their friends they had crossed the Mississippi at Davenport, Iowa. On Aug. 8, they are expected to roll into Ocean City, Md., where they wll solemnyl dip their bikes in the Altantic.
Earlier this summer, 62 cyclists on a "Wheels for Christ" crusade went from San Diego to Florida. The Americathon Kid ran into them in Dallas. They exchanged autographs and tales.
Ted Coombs also ran into another crew a few weeks back: five Tau Kappa Epsilon brothers rolling a beer keg from Boston to San Diego. He came on them in the Arizona desert, in 110-degree heat. He thought he was going mad.
"here I am, rolling along in the middle of nothingness, it's so quiet you can almost hear it ticking, and the next thing I know I see this strange object coming down a hill at me. It's making a weired rumbling noise. Then I see some guys behind it and then a support vehicle. I mean, sometimes I question what I'm doing . . ."
A couple of weeks ago, Coombs talked to his parents, who were avidly following their son's roller derby. "my dad said, 'You know those beer-barrel rollers? They made it.'"
What all this means should be left to wiser heads. The energy crisis must be involved. Maybe we're tapping roots. "America has invigorated the whole human quest for openings," Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin once wrote in a book called "The Exploring Spirit." His point was that all of American history might be read in terms of filling up the special vacancy the Pilgrims inherited. The Manifest Destiny of open spaces.
Ted Coombs, who is 25 and has calves like a 155-pound Arnold Schwarzenegger, isn't thinking in terms of Manifest Destiny. More or less, he is out for a good skate. He wants to inspire young people, if he can. "kids bored with watching baseball, maybe.I want them to say, 'hey, if he can do that, I can do something.'"
Coombs' Great Roll didn't stop at Tip O'neill's ceremonial office yesterday. In fact, he is back on U.S. I now, heading toward Pennsylvania and Jersey. In a couple days, if all goes right, he'll hit the Lincoln Tunnel, where he'll be met with all sorts of hoopla. Officials have been working to secure a permit to get the tunnel closed off for Coomb's skate throught it. There will be a reviewing stand on the other side, then communal skate to Central Park for a rock 'n' roll/disco wheel party.
The New York arrival is being timed to coincide with the Aug. 8 national release of a movie called "Americathon," a comedy about life in the United States in 1998. The makers of the film are the principal backers of Coombs' skate. They have provided him and his support driver with $1,000 worth of gear. Along the way, they issue him Money. So far, the trip has cost $4,000. Mostly, Coombs and his support (the driver stays a respectable distance behind, in a van) have camped. The other night, in Washington, they put in at the Fairfax Hotel.
"i had to call down to the front desk and say to the guy: 'What am I gonna do about dinner, 'cause your man won't let us in the restaurant with sweats?'" says Coombs. (They got in.)
You might think that Coombs would be willing to quit once he reaches Central Park. He has other plans. He wants to make the Guinness Book of World Records. The only way he can do that, he figures, is to skate all the way back to California. (In 1967, a skater named Clinton Shaw turned the cross-country trick; Shaw later went 4,700 miles across Canada.)
So after a rest-up and a change of wheels (so far, he's still on the original ones, though he has changed ball bearings), Ted Coombs will head toward Indianapolis and Gibson City and Las Cruces once again. "THEN BACK AGAIN!!!" is the way his press release puts it.
Coombs' press is being amply handled in every big city along the way by folks who know the publicity value of an earnest redheaded young man skating his way into American hearts.
There is a town in Texas (Sherman) that has informally adopted Coombs. "Ther've been getting dispatches on me," Coombs says. "yesterday, in the Capitol, tourists who had come to sit in the galleries and watch their representatives at work spied Coombs. They came over for pictures and autographs. PR people handed out press kits like candy.
"hero?" says Coombs. "I never thought about being a hero at all."
Basically, he gets three reactions, he says:
"hey, I saw you on TV."
"what a creep."
"all right, man!"
About 98 percent of the drivers out there have been extraordinarily kind, he says. (He has shunpiked all the way; for one thing, it's against the law to skate on interstates.) "But there's always that two percent that wants to run you over."
Outside El Paso, he got caught in a draft between two semi trailers. The current raised him a foot off the ground.
In Pennsylvania, he hit a hill he had been warned about. He figures he was coming down it about 40 m.p.h. "All I could do was put it down like a motorcycle." He had bruises and a gash or two, the next day got an X- ray. "I skated right into the hospital and said: 'Hey, here I am.'"
At the speaker's office yesterday, a photographer thought it would be terrific if O'Neill would slip into one of the shiny new skates Coombs had brought him as a present. "No way," said the speaker. "Too commercial."
Coombs says there is an L.A. podiatrist charting his foot wear and tear. He's lost about 15 pounds. He doesn't think his wind is that much stronger. He hasn't got bored: There's too much to watch out for. Often, it gets loney out there, he says. For awhile, he had a CB radio. Now he carries a cassette player with earphones.
Whatever else comes of his big wheel across the continent in the summer of 1979, Ted Coombs thinks he may have given Webster's a new word: "I got sick of telling people I was doing a cross-country skate. I always had to say, 'And back.' So now I just say, I'm circumskating America." CAPTION: Picture, Ted Combs and "Tip" O'Neill, by Diane H. Walker