To the Roller Rink!
When I was a teenager growing up in our sweet picturesque little town, I spent a lot of time in a newly built long building that was located at the southern edge of town. We called it the road to the Mayo Trail. A little community of businesses was located just a quarter mile before a southbound
vehicle would reach a sharp turn we called ‘dead man’s curve.’ The subject building was located next to the Flat Top Inn and the Pannell’s Pontiac dealership. It was run by the Pannell family and may still be in operation as far as I know. I haven’t gone down that road on any of my visits to town, but I have heard that the Flat Top Inn has been torn down. I remember that the rink looked relatively normal, much the same as any commercial building, but when you went through the door it was clearly different. It was a long deep and open structure with hardwood floor that was well maintained and polished. It was built elevated above the little bottom between the railroad and Mayo Trail. It was clear that this structure had an unusual purpose. The shape generally could have been used as a bowling alley, something that at the time didn’t exist in the area, but the fine, hardwood floors were obviously designed instead to function as a roller-skating rink.
It was only a short two block walk from my house, so I often traveled south on Clay Street until it the street ended at a marshy low-land that could have been pasture, but sometimes instead was used for carnivals. The small creek that ran through the basin was non-consequential. A path led across that bottom land and up the rise to the level of the highway at the base of town hill. When the bottom was muddy or flooded, I was forced to walk on city streets to bypass the low valley. During my early teen years I made the trip to the roller-rink maybe once or twice a week.
They rented shoe skates in case you didn’t have your own. I think that if you had your own skates the entrance fee was smaller, but I couldn’t afford my own skates back then. Parents and other non-skaters could watch from the break area at no charge. The skates we used had wooden wheels (Chicago) and was very different from those aggravating metal things meant to be used on sidewalks and city streets. I remember having a pair of the street models that mom had bought from Western Auto, a store downtown near the flower shop. These skates were meant to clip onto the soles of our shoes. Nearly every time I used those things one or the other came loose from my shoes sending me flying and then rolling on the hard street. This resulted in painful elbows and knees and sometimes gravel would embed under the skin. I became very acquainted with every bump in the street, or crack in the sidewalk for that matter. Because of the flaws in the street skates, I had met each bump personally and really up close. The downtown sidewalks in those days were too crowded with people to make skating safe, so only side streets were used. Few of those had sidewalks so we had to try to skate while looking out for traffic. In the process I suddenly discovered that skates don’t roll on dirt or grass. Who would have thought?
The shoe skate rental section of the roller rink had long rows of skates lined up on shelving with the heels facing back. Big numbers were painted on the heels to show the size. Knowing the size and color needed made it easy for the worker to grab them and transfer them to the counter. The black ones were for men and the white ones were for the ladies. Once or twice they were out of black shoes in my size and I was offered whites. Having some pride and being fearful of the remarks I’d get from others, I chose to simply not to skate that night. People’s opinions and comments mattered to me since, after all, I was a teenager and I needed to feel I had peer approval. I knew I would be ridiculed by fellow males if I was seen sporting around in white shoes.
Each of the rentals skates had a big rubber disk on the front to be used for stopping. That took a little skill, but was soon enough learned. Once we had slipped into the skates it was only a short distance to the painted pipe fence that separated the skating floor from the ‘waiting/watching’ area.
Skating took place in an oval pattern running the length of the hardwood floor. Usually the direction was counter-clockwise, but at some point in the night the announcer gave notice of ‘reverse skating.’ Now that was an unnatural switch for me and took discipline to comply and not fall. The wear on the wooden rollers was such that the shoes wanted to go the normal direction. Later, after building up my skill level, I hung out in the middle doing spins, turns, etc., to avoid the awkward kid going the wrong way while fighting for control.
Beginning skaters were called ‘wall huggers.’ Those guys and gals tried to move along without falling by holding onto the railing or cinderblock walls. Frankly, to make it to the other end without falling was a trick for beginners, and a sometimes bit comical. The more experienced skaters avoided going anywhere near those walls lest they be tripped by falling bodies. The faster folks, usually older teenagers, skated near the very middle. Now, this was a restricted area that was patrolled by a whistle-blowing, very skilled, king-of-the-rink, type of guy. They sometimes wore a basketball referee’s striped shirt to identify their importance. They had a whistle on a lanyard around their necks they used when they spotted someone breaking a rule, or to warn other skaters of a pileup. The referee continually skated in small circles, often backwards, to watch out for safety issues. When he saw a collision or pile up of people he immediately went to the rescue, helping the struggling skaters to their feet. He stopped any horseplay or ‘whip-line’ skating that could cause harm to others. What a hero!
As my personal skills improved I learned to do the circles, leaps, and almost always skated backwards around the rink. Sometimes I learned new techniques from those ‘kings of the middle.’ Considering how tall, boney, and skinny I was, it must have looked comical when I ‘showed off.’ About the time that I really got in the groove, an announcer often would come out with another command. “Ladies Only.” Well, okay. I took my seat and watched the pretty little things go around the course in circles. Some were as skillful as me or better, but most traveled with one eye on the wall, one eye on the traffic and somehow a third eye on the floor. Well, a good spill was entertaining as long as no one was hurt.
“All Skate,” was the next command. It seemed as if the homestead land rush had begun again as the guys flooded onto the floor. The poor girls were in the middle of a swarm of speeding fellows with varying skills headed right toward them. Conversely, the girls were heading off the floor if for no other reason than to save their lives or to gain composure. Then “Couples Only,” came blaring out over the speaker and the music changed to a waltz. Guys scrambled to get a partner, something they were slow to do at school dances, but quick at the rink. Go figure.
I loved it when I was skillful enough to skate with a girl. Sometimes they weren’t all that confident, but I could actually hold them up if they tripped slightly or got a little off-balance. One arm went around their back to hold their hand and the other held their free hand. Good couples skated as if in a ballet, often swaying to one side and then the other. It was actually romantic to me. The lights were dimmed and it was a magical moment. The overall pattern we skated was a big figure eight. After turning one corner or the other the better skaters swept out toward an outer wall, traffic permitting, and then back to the middle section only to swing back toward the wall prior to rounding the next corner.
Skating this way with the vibration of the wheels against the floor invariably raised blisters, even on the feet of the better skaters. A solution was thought to be to wear two pairs of socks. I certainly did that and found it did help, but spending too much time on the floor was also rough on the feet. Worse yet was when it was time to walk back to the rental area to turn in the skates and reclaim my regular shoes. My feet were now accustomed to being further from the floor. The loss of the skates including their heavy weight made sure I couldn’t walk easily. I had lost several inches in height. I stepped toward the floor but it wasn’t there to meet me. Wow! In time I learned to expect that feeling and actually thought it interesting that my body could be fooled like that.
There were skating parties, spotlight skating, and other games that were enjoyed by the crowds. This was a really good diversion for the youth of our little town. It wasn’t particularly expensive, but still it did take some money. I saved up for a long time to buy a good pair of Chicago shoe skates, but I never had enough money to buy them before I left for the Air Force. I’m sure part of the reason was that I had started dating and was distracted from my goal. I guess goals change sometimes. When I was in the Air Force I did buy a pair of skates and went to some local rinks a few times. It just wasn’t quite the same because my friends were not there. I sold my skates and took up bowling.
Many years later my then teenage daughter was invited to go to a skating party. I was asked to attend as one of several accompanying chaperones, so I told her I would go. She began to tell me that I really didn’t have to skate because, after all, I could hurt myself and she didn’t want to be embarrassed. I didn’t response, but keep my peace and put my rented shoe skates. I frankly didn’t know if I was going to remember how to skate. I took one careful tour of the floor and Kendra was amazed that I hadn’t fallen. While she was proud, she was still skeptical that I would survive the evening. When skating with her, holding hands I decided to try something, so I circled around in front of her and began skating backwards, pulling her along. Her eyes were like saucers. I showed her that her old dad wasn’t entirely the clumsy man that she had thought.
I went through the same scenario later with one of my sons, but what I showed him was that dads make a loud noise when they fall! Yep, those old skills were forgotten, gone, totally disappeared. With egg on my face and several more falls, I took a welcomed seat in the spectator area. Sometimes you just ‘have to give it up!’
Yes, skating was a big part of my life for a time, and was tons of fun for a lot of us kids. Many of my friends spent time at the rink, especially during our early high school years. As I mentioned, dating replaced skating when we were upper-classmen, but I still remember those special times going ‘round and round’ in those many sessions at the rink. Maybe I saw you there.