I’ve written a few stories that mentioned our local west side Hamiltucky skating rink. The stories mentioning early interactions with my wife and with my then best friend Terry represent important memories for me. If I’m comparing to today’s teens, for a lot of us high schoolers, the skating rink was our ‘mall’. It was THE place for social interaction, whether it be friendship, love or a number of any other dramas. Friday and Saturday nights had to be spent at the rink if you wanted to get away from the boring adults and wanted to be a part of that weekend’s kid drama.
The big sign out on the street just said SKATE in big letters. (They made it simple for us – we weren’t always the brightest bulbs in the lamps). Facing the front of a rectangular brick building, where one of the short sides was the front, you had double glass doors on the right hand side. They opened up to a hallway that ran the width of the front. When they unlocked the double doors, we kids piled into the hallway, forming as straight a line as could be expected from a hundred kids, awaiting our turn to pay our way inside and to get our hand stamped with the infamous fluorescent ink that showed up well under a black light (you had to have it to get back in if you left the building). This hallway was a coveted place to be when it was below freezing outside.
Once beyond the hallway, you were inside. To the immediate left was a small set of offices. This is the left side of the longer side of the skating oval. To the right of the offices were where all the rental skates were kept. Most kids rented skates, but if you attended on a regular basis, eventually you saved up your money or your parents bought you your own pair of skates as a birthday or Christmas present (it became a simple financial equation for our parents). Most of these were pure black. A lot of girls would get white skates. Girls who got black skates were making a statement – “I’m a serious skater, white skates are for sissies”. All the really good girl skaters had black skates.
Moving farther down the left side of the rink then you had an eating area, then a few video games, (pinball typically – which by the way made no sense at all to me because everyone was always bumping into them), and then the restrooms were located at the end of the left side. In front of most of all these areas then were located fixed wooden seats, old theater style. We’d typically sit in these to strap on our skates and if you were unfortunate enough to have your parents there with you, right there is where they’d plop themselves down so they could watch you (yuk).
Facing all of this left side was the rink which was oval-shaped. The floor was wooden. I’m not sure what type of wood was used in the construction, but it felt just like a basketball court to me. At one end of the oval, (down near the restrooms), was a small walkway guarded by the rink rails. At the other end of the oval in one corner was a small elevated stage-like area which was used for playing the music and making the announcements – “couple skate, everyone else off the rink”. By the way, the music was played via vinyl records – man, I’m old!
The only section left to describe is the narrow area bordering the other long side of the skating oval. In that area, there was additional single row of seating. This seating was handy because a person could use these to gain a tiny bit of privacy. This is where all the asking steady and the breakups occurred. Naturally everyone could see you if you were seated in there, but no one could hear your conversations due to how loud it was anyway with the music and the noise from all the skates. The only bad part about this area was that if you were seated in this area when one of the special skates were announced, you would be stuck there for the duration of the special skate.
My very first introduction to skating came from a babysitter named Carla Withrow. Carla was 3-4 years older than I and lived directly next door to us, making her the shoe-in candidate for the babysitter job when my parents were divorced and my mom went back to work in the evenings. Carla and her sister Joann both loved to skate and were good dancers and skaters. I must have been 12, maybe 13 when we were first taken to the rink but I clearly recall me and my brothers Steve and Mike holding onto the rails as we navigated our way around the oval for the first time. Steve was more coordinated than I so he was the first to let go and soon was able to make it around the oval without busting his rump on the hard floor.
The evenings always had a regular process which the owners followed. Most of the skating was “open skate”. Open skate meant anyone could be on the rink. Music was played the entire time and everyone traveled in a counterclockwise direction, either frontwards or backwards. If you were skilled, (or just wanted to look cool), you might skate backwards. Within the main oval was a smaller area where more experienced skaters could practice fancier moves. I was always on the outer oval, nothing fancy here.
War the world is a ghetto – great song
Nothing has changed about the importance of music. It was just as important to us then as it is to today’s teens. When we teens want to rebel or just differentiate ourselves from the dumb adults who are screwing up the world, there’s always been music. Music was vinyl then – all of our tunes were played on a record player from the stage area. Naturally, certain songs were crowd favorites. Songs like Stevie Wonder’s Superstition would get the crowd speeding! There was always 1-2 employees acting as rink ‘referee’ and would have to blow the whistle at us if we were moving too fast. Apparently, speed kills in the roller rink too. Other songs like War’s The World is a Ghetto would bring out the rhythm in our skating; even a goofy white boy like me could bounce to War’s songs. It was the early 70’s and we had our share of great music.
Within the weekend skating schedule, there would always be one “race skate” and usually two “couple skates”. The race skates were devised as an opportunity for us all to ‘get it out of our systems’ and in fact if we were whistled for speeding, we often heard those words – “save it for the races”. An announcement would be made, calling a temporary end to open skate and the beginning of a race. Boys and girls races were separated. I would usually get in the race but never won one. Winners would get a free Coke, yippee! Not too many white skates in the races. And then when the girls raced, we’d cheer for our favorite. When Kim raced, she was usually in the hunt.
The height of the evening though for most of us pimply faced teens had to be couple skates. It was our one chance to have a reason, an impetus, an excuse for being able to muster up the courage to ask someone to hold our hands. Couples always held hands. Occasionally if we weren’t 100% aligned, (or if our hands got too sweaty), we might get temporarily separated around a turn, but if we wanted to one day procreate, we’d very quickly get our hands rejoined. Yes reader, I used the word, procreate. No man not able to skate in time with a fair damsel had a chance in hell of ever making it to the make out benches, let alone being chosen as a mate in the future. Now you understand why the skating rink was so important. Had I not been able to keep pace with a girl on skates, I wouldn’t be a granddad today.
Open skate, couples skates, races, make out benches, weekend drama – it all paled in comparison to the absolute height of the evening. The height of the evening? The owner’s version of Rockin’ Robin. No, we didn’t get Bobby Day or Michael Jackson; we got the owner. Every night he was at the rink, at some point he would walk over to the music area and sing the lyrics for the Rockin Robin song. The owner was a round bellied Italian American, much like my step father Joe. His rendition was goofy, it was off key but it was tradition and as goofy as it was, I don’t recall thinking it was stupid or ridiculous.
I’m nostalgic and a sentimentalist at heart, like a lot of people when they begin the later decades of their lives. Perhaps like the drive-in restaurants where they had car hops when our parents were teens, the skating rink for me represents only the fondest memories. The local old folks home now owns the property and will be tearing down the rink….perhaps a bit of poetic irony, huh. It doesn’t matter where I am though or what I’m doing, when I hear certain bands or songs being played, bands like KC and the Sunshine Band or songs like Stevie Wonder’s Superstition – I am quickly whisked back into time with a pair of black skates, laces wrapped up around and over the ankles, flying around a turn at the skating rink, bouncing in time to the tune with my whole life ahead of me.
This song always got us flying in 1975 and was as about as close to classical music as we kids would get