“Our memories keep yesterday alive.”—Author unknown
Roller rinks. Not so long ago, every small town had one. Facebook discussions last week about the “good old days” of roller skating in my hometown of Mount Pleasant, Texas, gave new life to lots of great memories. The smell of leather rink skates, the sound of skate wheels on wood floors and music by Bill Black’s Combo.
Invented in 1863 and popularized in the late 1800s, roller rinks boomed after World War II. Roller skating birthday parties became a rite of passage for children from the 1950s through the 1980s. Changes in the 70s with the disco craze boosted skating’s popularity as many rinks became roller discos. Replacing staid lighting, organ music and aging clientele, teenagers were skating under mirror balls to disco beats.
The skating rink was my primary hangout as a youth in the 60s. Owner J.B. Hall lived across the street from us on Redbud Lane, and I enjoyed time spent as his semi-sort-of employee riding to the skating rink with him to help open up for business. This entailed opening large wood “barn doors” over the screen windows and turning on evaporative coolers in the summer, or leaving the windows closed and lighting gas heaters in the winter. Dust mopping the floor performed on roller skates was next, followed by ensuring that stacks of 45 r.p.m. records were ready to spin.
Best part of the job, however, was that I was also the “bouncer” on some nights, a job that rotated between a number of guys. That meant wearing a whistle and pointing at anyone skating recklessly, too fast, or in any other unacceptable fashion.
My pay? Free ride to the skating rink, free admission, free snacks, and a free ride home. Oh, and the coolness that came with being a bouncer.
I wasn’t the best skater, but do anything often enough and you eventually get the hang of it. I was fair on wheels, held my own with most of the crowd. One of the crowd, however, stood out as “the pro.” Bobby Rhea moved with the fluid motion of an Olympic ice skater, turning circles, spinning on one skate, forward or backward, never faltered. Made it look easy.
The most amazing thing he did was strike a match on the floor while holding it in his teeth. I could attempt a description of the rolling acrobatics he accomplished to pull this off, but mere words are weak short of seeing someone do it. To every young guy wanting to skate like he did, and to every young girl he impressed, Bobby personified cool on skates.
The Halls purchased the rink from the McMahans, then later sold it to the Henry’s who owned it for a long time. By then, my skating days in Mount Pleasant were fading away as high school faded into college.
I never completely left roller skating behind though, accomplishing two “comebacks” since those early days. One in the late 80s when with my children, daughter Robin and son Lee, we started skating at the rink in Nacogdoches, the nearest one to home in Center, Texas. Despite a 20-year absence, old skating skills returned with a few laps around the floor. To ensure an authentic atmosphere for a respectable return, I even worked a deal with the rink manager to play my 60s Bill Black combo music.
The last comeback was just a few years ago in Longview, Texas, when my wife’s nephew decided a skating party for his birthday would be the bomb. As I had 20 years before, I calculated about 20 fingers and toes since the last time I had rolled on a rink—and this time I was in my 60s. None-the-less, I laced up my skates and rolled out on the floor one more time with “the other kids.” Within 15 minutes I was 16 years old again, even without the aid of what I termed proper music.
Perhaps there will be other comebacks before I hang up my skates for good, at least as long as Bill Black’s Combo music is still available.
(Photo: Author’s 60s vintage Chicago Trophy roller skates still doing time, these days as a reminder of the “good old days” displayed in the back seat of his 1955 Ford Crown Victoria at vintage car events.)