By Tim Hayes
There we stood, my buddies and me and about 60 other kids, on the corner in front of the elementary school on a Saturday evening in January, somewhere around 1971 or ‘72. Shivering, stomping our feet on the pavement to keep warm, our breath wafting out as steamy billows hitting the frigid air, while we waited most impatiently for that rickety old bus to arrive.
At last, somebody shouted, “I hear it!” And “it,” at long last, appeared. An old school bus, painted red, white, and black, with big block letters on the side: BETHEL ROLLER RINK – Roller Skate…It’s Great!
The roller skating party had begun. A twice-a-year treat for the kids in my community where we got transported what felt like the whole way across town (now I know it was only about eight miles from my house), and left unattended for four hours of non-stop roller skating, boy-girl drama and befuddlement, lousy cold pizza, and the ever-present risk of public humiliation on a grand scale.
Only in America. We loved it.
In the run-up to the skating party, we’d try to find our mojo, strapping on those metal-clip roller skates that attached to the bottoms of your Converse All-Stars. We’d put on our gear and work on our moves in the front street – a hillside with about a 20-degree pitch. Skating up the hill? No sweat. Skating down the hill? Well, starting out was no problem. Stopping, on the other hand, well…at least we got good practice falling down.
Once on the bus, the temperature didn’t change much. We still froze, but at least the scream-singing for the next half-hour took our minds off it. “Three Cheers for the Bus Driver,” always a hit. “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” lasted for about 20 bottles. Road rage may have been born on those skating party buses, now that I think of it. The driver, seething, disappeared into a nearby tavern for some well-earned self-medication while we all ran into the rink.
You got your skates and started lacing them up. These were the good kind – black leather for the guys, white for the girls. Four wheels on each skate, with that big knob in front to help you stop. The big time, my friends. You put on those skates and suddenly you were Somebody.
Then you stood up and immediately fell on your butt. And you hadn’t even set skate on the actual rink yet! Oh, you still were Somebody, all right. Somebody Flat On His Ass, that is.
My personal survival technique called for a slow workup to the real action in the center of the counter-clockwise circle of skaters. At first, the railings along the outer walls got hugged pretty hard, while I got my legs under me and figured out how to turn left for the next 240 minutes. Eventually, confidence would build and I could fake it enough to skate near the big dogs in the middle.
“All-Skate” of course was every guy’s favorite, but the girls seemed a little more partial to the “Ladies Choice” announcement for some reason. At age 11, the very notion of holding a girl’s hand while trying not to wipe out and drag her crashing down to the hardwood with me sounded like way too much responsibility. So as the announcer smoothly intoned “Ladies Choice,” I’d go and take a leak in the men’s room. I know, what a little chickenshit. But hey, I did it while on roller skates! Doesn’t that count for something?
The most fascinating person on the floor, however, had to be Willie. Willie worked there and served as a combination cop-bouncer-referee-and-all-around-showoff. The man could roller skate like an Olympian. The problem was, he knew it. We admired him. We emulated him. We hated him.
In his crisp white security-guard shirt and patrolman’s hat, Willie ran the Limbo contest, tooting his whistle in grandiose fashion if you touched the floor or knocked off the stick. Willie policed the Hokey-Pokey, charging over and getting in your face if you didn’t put your right foot in or out on cue. Willie escorted any hooligans off the floor and scared the rest of us out of our wits, barreling down on us from behind and zooming by so fast it made your hair flutter in his backdraft. What a skater. What an authority figure. What a jerk.
A roller skating party promised four hours of bumps and bruises, sore ankles, stomach aches, the flames of romance blazing like the sun then snuffed into charred remains in record time – and some of the craziest, wildest, most joyous fun any of us would ever have. Ever.
Later that night, as the bucket-of-bolts bus dumped us back at the school, our dads came around and drove us home. We had Sunday to relive it all again in our heads, and when Monday morning rolled around and classes began, the nuns knew they didn’t stand a chance of teaching us anything at least until after lunch.
Sister, don’t you know? We’d been to another legendary roller skating party last weekend.
Copyright 2016 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting