I originally wrote this article for Slidell Magazine, but most of my personal content was cut because it wasn’t central to the story the editor wanted to tell. So below is my uncut story that was not published.
I think it is safe to say that music is the number one thing that brings back memories of the days at the skating rinks, and everyone has a different memory for a different song. I’m listening to some of those songs as I am writing this and I can see it clear as day, as if I am right back there again. You wouldn’t think so for all of the trauma I’m about to describe, but all of my memories of going to the skating rink are very fond ones.
I’ve never been graceful, I’m so clumsy my dad teases that I could trip over a cordless phone. Be that as it may, it never stopped me from getting really excited for a trip to the skating rink. I’d lace up those old heavy leathery skates (completely oblivious to the musty feet smell lingering in the air) and take a test glide to figure out which way the wheels pulled me. If I was lucky (I’m not), they’d just go straight. Most of the time, however, aiming directly for the entryway to the rink resulted in me kissing the dark wooden panel wall (or if I had really angered the skating gods for some reason, I would find myself headed straight at a table). My awkward clumsiness and demoralizing lack of grace, to any spectator, must have looked like something right out of a cartoon. There I was, frantically trying to just stay upright, but I could never quite figure out how to balance.
I was certainly apprehensive about trying to skate by myself, but the floor looked so inviting. No one else seemed to be having the trouble I was experiencing. Everyone out on the floor looked graceful and well acclimated to the techniques necessary for an enjoyable skating experience. It looked even more magical with the black lights and disco balls scattering and dispersing their illumination rhythmically across the floor and the skaters upon it.
Before I was ready to make my way out onto the floor, I tiptoed around on the brakes on the front of the skates. I felt like everyone was staring at me as I clack, clack, clacked across the cold tile. But it was still better than the clacking thud I’d be making if I was trying to walk on the wheels. My mom, seeing my apprehension, gently grabbed my shoulders, facing me toward her, “Your center of gravity is here,” my mom informed me, pointing towards her own lower belly and hips (I started wavering as she let go). “Just lean forward a little and you should be fine.” And she gave me a gentle nudge onto the warped boards of the skating floor.
Her advice was lost on me. I had no idea what she meant by center of gravity, and every time I leaned forward, I knew for sure I was just going to fall. What in the world was she thinking? I wobbled onward, wavering this way and that, wildly flailing my arms around, not unlike a windmill. I was tense, anxious, and rigid. I sought stability via the railing on the wall. I clutched it, desperately trying not to fall. I tried pulling myself along, gliding only for a second at a time. Then I made the fatal mistake of trying to stop myself. I just wanted to stand still for a moment, but my feet didn’t quite translate the message properly to the skates which rudely continued forward without the rest of my body. Next thing I knew, my little butt met with that hard, unforgiving skating rink floor. The fall knocked the wind out of me; I landed right on my tailbone.
I sat there, dejected, thinking, “I’ll never get the hang of this.” I looked around, wondering who noticed my spill and met eyes with my mom who was smiling and motioned for me to get off the floor. I awkwardly tried to pull myself back up, noting how sore my tailbone was (you couldn’t have convinced me that I didn’t break it). I grasped the wooden railing and attempted to balance myself so I could stand. The skates slid forward and back, making my attempt at balance quite futile. Bambi’s first attempt at standing was practically an Olympic figure skating ensemble compared to my attempt at gaining sure footing on skates.
Eventually I got back upright and even felt comfortable skating without holding on to the railing. I got the hang of it, or so I thought. I had just found myself in what I thought was a groove and I could have sworn I was flying. It was exhilarating.
But then I had to turn.
I got a little too excited and leaned too far forward.
Before I even knew what happened, the floor rushed up to greet me. My knees and the heels of my hands stung with protest of the mistreatment. My mom rushed out to help me up, suppressing a chuckle, “I said just a little” she continued on to try to reassure me that I would get the hang of it. I wasn’t too sure that I believed her, and I objected “I’ll definitely fall if I lean forward.” She just shook her head.
We weren’t going to see eye to eye. I am not a thrill seeker, and the idea of pain is a pretty convincing deterrent. I really enjoyed skating, but I wasn’t sure if I’d ever learn how to skate without falling. I did know one thing for sure, though. If I was going to fall again, it was not going to be backward. From then on, my hands and knees became well acquainted with hitting the splintering floorboards. Much to my dismay, it wasn’t always possible to fall forward. Sometimes it couldn’t be helped, especially if someone was pulling at me from behind.
Over the years, I went there with my family for more birthday parties than I can count. It was always the same tried and true formula: cake, ice cream, that dice game (which I don’t remember the rules or point of), and the dreaded Hokey Pokey. My utter lack of coordination made it impossible to put either of my legs in, because that required balancing on the other for the duration of that line. It was a disaster waiting to happen. Inevitably, they would make the announcement, “Everyone to the center of skating rink floor for the HOKEY POKEY!” Come to think of it, maybe that’s where I get my distaste for line dances from (I don’t hate the songs or dances themselves, I just refuse to do them).
My mom would giggle a little and try to pull onto the floor along with her, but I remained firmly attached to whatever stable surface I could hold on to. “Come on,” she pleaded, “you can hold my hand!” I responded with a stern and adamant, “No.” and she skated her way out onto the floor alone, shaking her head, with a look on her face that taunted, “oh well, your loss.”
After the hokey pokey was over with, she once again tried to get me out onto the floor.
I gripped her hand so tightly that, had I been a little stronger, I could have broken it. “Quit it! You’re pinching my fingers!” she snapped at me.
“YOU wanted me to come skate with you, but I can’t skate!” I fussed back.
“You’ll be ok,” she reassured me. “Just do what I do.” She let go of my hand, leaned forward slightly, and skated off so gracefully that I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I tried to mimic her, but I just couldn’t figure out how she did it. Quite inelegantly, I bumbled on towards where she had stopped in the back corner to wait for me. I couldn’t maintain my balance. I felt the needle-like prickles of fear all over my skin as I caught myself falling. “This is it,” I thought, “I’m falling again!” Just then, there was a firm jerk on my right arm. My mom managed to catch me before I landed face first. I guess I had made it a little further than I thought.
She conceded her defeat and decided to skate along with me. I was clamping her hand again, but this time, instead of her guiding me, I was yanking her along in my awkward blunder. She started protesting again, “Stop pulling at my arm, you’re going to make us BOTH fall!”
I was frustrated, but I couldn’t find the words to argue back. So I gave up. I let go and angrily demanded that she just go skate by herself because I just couldn’t do it. She looked just as defeated as I felt, but she continued on alone as I clutched the railing again. I fumed as I stood there watching everyone have such a good time when I couldn’t manage to skate in a straight line for more than a few feet. I pulled myself along to the end of the railing, but there was a gap between the end of the railing and the half wall that opened to the lobby. I stood there debating on whether I should just crawl on my hands and knees, because there was no way I was going to make it on the skates.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement not typical of a normal skating pattern. In the opposite corner, at the back of the rink, some crazy people were DANCING ON THEIR SKATES. It blew my mind. I watched, dumbfounded, as they swayed and spun and weaved. Inspired by their incredible display, a burst of confidence struck me and I made a break for it. I pushed myself, with great force, away from the wall and security of the railing. I really thought I had gotten it. Maybe I COULD do this! But I still couldn’t turn. And I had aimed myself right at the wall. Of course, the one time I want to turn, my wheels decided to go straight.
The front of my skates collided with the wooden wall just a few feet from the exit. But I was still standing. I was okay.
I felt a rush behind me, followed by my mom’s voice, “You see (she could be the leader of the world’s “I Told You So” organization)! You just about had it! Come on out with me one more time!”
Reluctantly, I took her hand once more. This time I was a little less frantic. I was still pretty awkward, but we skated along together for a few minutes. I continued to bumble through the turns. I was really starting to feel like I was getting the hang of it, but apparently my mom was lending more to my stability than I thought. She fussed again about me pulling on her arm, but this time her plea fell on deaf ears. I was trying to lead her now.
Some girl and her friends were flanking around and stumbling on purpose attempting to gain the attention of the cute “Rink Ref.” One of them whizzed past me so quickly that it took me by surprise and knocked me off balance. My mom’s balance was no match for her ten year old, 75 lb. daughter tumbling toward her. She was coming down with me. We toppled over in the middle of the floor, and as we hit the ground, I felt a sharp pain on the side of my head accompanied by a CLACK. In her fall, one of my mom’s skates hit me in the head.
“Oh, my baby!” She cried. I suppressed my tears as she helped me up and led me off the skating rink floor and over to the benches off to the side. My face was burning and beet red from both embarrassment and from trying not to cry. I tried to hide my face from the teenaged boy and girl sitting in the corner about ten feet from me as my mom launched a barrage of “Are you okay? Imma go get you some ice. Stay right there, don’t move.” repeating over and over how sorry she was before she skated off to go get the ice for the now golf ball sized lump on the side of my head. And it was pounding.
Self-conscious as I was, I glanced over again at the boy and girl and realized how entirely unconcerned they were with me and my accident. They were far too involved with sucking each other’s faces. “Yuck…” I thought. The darkness of the corner was their cover, and obviously, my mom and me skating up interrupted their private moment.
I slid a few feet further away from them just as my mom returned with the bag of ice. Seeing my preoccupation, she addressed the couple, “uh uh! Get out of here with that! Where are your parents?” Suddenly terrified, they scampered away. My mom rolled her eyes and knelt down to untie my skates. Apparently this was the end of this skating trip. She walked me back to the party table, and spent the rest of the party telling me stories about my uncle and the old Comet Roller Rink.
Rarely do parents and their children have the opportunity to make memories at the same place across generations, but the Comet Roller Rink allowed many to do just that. When talking about this place, some parents recounted how they skated at the Comet some twenty years earlier, and this was in the sixties!
Skating at the Comet Roller Rink was certainly a unique skating experience, compared to what I am used to. The building was down 190, past Thompson Road, three miles before the bridge in Lacombe, on the right. Of course this was before much of anything was even developed out that far in Slidell, so a trip out there felt like a trip to a different country! For my mom and her siblings, though, it was just a short walk from their home in Briar Lake.
It looked and smelled like a barn, and with the pasture for horses and cows behind it, it must have been at one time. The kumquat bush out front provided a nice snack while waiting in line. Admission was only two dollars, HUGE pickles kept in a ten gallon jar sold for only ten cents, soft drinks and candy sold for fifteen cents (everybody loved talking to Maw Maw August behind the candy counter, and I’m pretty sure everyone just called her Maw Maw), and if you wanted something a bit more substantial, you could always chow down on popcorn or a hot dog. All that considered, five dollars at Comet was enough to keep you busy all night!
The air inside smelled like mustard and feet (which I suppose just comes with the territory of a place that essentially hoards a large quantity of used shoes—ew). Without any form of central air, they relied on their big windows that were held open by boards and used huge exhaust fans to attempt to circulate the air. After skating for a little while and getting hot and sweaty, standing in front of the fans was the only way to cool off. When it rained, the smell of the cows (and their manure) and chickens behind the rink wafted through the large open windows. You could also hear the coos of the homing pigeons kept in coops next door.
The roof above the skating rink floor was held up by metal center poles which, as some unfortunate skaters discovered, were capable of causing many bruises, black eyes, and even managed to knock out some teeth. Others just had fun skating from pole to pole (probably what I would have done, just for the sake of stability). Really good skaters would dance in the center of the floor, staying out of everyone else’s way. The floor was quite uneven and worn and there were dips and holes you had to skate around, unless you WANTED to fall (I know I would have become a victim of every single one). Skating around after the rain meant dodging the dips AND standing water because of leaks from the roof.
Ms. Gloria kept those 45s turning, playing some of the most popular songs, but she wouldn’t play anything that encouraged anyone skate too fast! When the lights went down, and the black lights were turned on in the rafters, it only meant one thing: couple’s only skate. The one bit of romance that some had at the time! You certainly didn’t want to be a girl left standing around waiting for a boy to ask if you wanted to skate. While everyone really enjoyed all of the contests and races, it was always really exciting to see who was down to play a game of spin the bottle in the back. Despite being pretty run down, it still drummed up a great deal of business. Some people never missed a weekend.
Starting in the late 70’s, Skaters Paradise was the place to be on Friday nights if you were in junior high. They still went to Comet occasionally but it was farther away. Apparently, my uncle was practically a celebrity at Skater’s Paradise. I didn’t know he was such an excellent skater, but she said he won almost every race. The prize for winning the races was a Frito pie and a coke. My grandpa would give him money for admission, a Frito pie, and a coke, but, since got those for free, he almost always spent that allowance on the games. He took skating pretty seriously too, because he saved up $500 for a pair of high end skates!
She laughed about how, unless you were with a parent, you weren’t allowed to go outside once you got there. So before my uncle and his friends went inside, they would ask adults outside the Time Saver next door to buy them a bottle of Boone’s Farm (she then proceeded to threaten that, if she ever found out I did something like that, she would knock me “into the middle of next week”)
In addition to the many different types of skate (couples skate, all skate, fast skate, backwards skate, and musical skate sections), contests (turtle races and cutest shorts contests), the owners of Skater’s Paradise were very creative in the ways they kept up with trying to entertain their skaters. Around 1982, someone had the great idea to create the “Battle of the Air Bands.” Skilled skaters, my uncle included, dressed up in band appropriate clothes and rocked out to the biggest hits. My uncles band, Virgin Steel, “performed” the popular Van Halen hits “You Really Got Me” and “I’ll Wait,” as well as Kiss’ “Lick it Up.” They were real crowd pleasers, one time going so far as to hand out roses to the ladies in the audience.
Most of the regulars they skated with were between the ages of twelve and seventeen. Not unlike high school, there was a new group of younger kids every year and many of the older ones wouldn’t come around anymore. They called it “graduating.” They would leave the skating rink behind to go to the bars in old town.
My skating misadventures aside, I always loved going to Skater’s Paradise. Lock-ins were great fun! Getting a bunch of friends together and staying overnight (hyped up on sugar the whole time, until the inevitable crash) made for a great weekend and fun stories to talk about at school the next week. Although, apparently not everyone was satisfied with sugar, junk food, and skating. I was astonished when someone got caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom. I thought they’d go to jail!
I was hardly ever allowed to order food there so, usually, my only option was to salivate over the little boats of finger foods ordered by my friends. I longed, with puppy dog eyes, over trays of nachos and bags of popcorn. I coerced friends to make “Suicides” at the drink fountain. We giggled as we mixed every flavor of soft drink together because no other place would let us do that.
I loved playing the arcade games. I always passed on Asteroids, but Pac-Man and Skee-Ball were easy choices. If the game ever stole my money, I would trudge up to the counter to receive my refund in the form of a “red quarter.”
Skater’s Paradise has had major renovations since the last time I visited. The brick walls that used to separate the multiple party areas have been removed. The three bedroom apartment formerly attached to the lobby was completely opened up to expand the modest arcade selection to a full gaming area. Also, the entire rest of the interior has been repainted and redecorated. Where the dated dark wooden panel walls and brown shag carpet made the “built in the 70s” fact obvious, the now yellow lobby and blue skating rink walls and overall brighter interior give a more contemporary feel. The completely refinished skating rink floor is bittersweet for me. It is now polished concrete and no longer the old splintered wooden floor I last skated on. The rink lighting does not appear to have changed much, save the new addition of laser light shows.
I recently revisited Skater’s Paradise, for the first time in over ten years, and it brought back so many fond memories. Although it is hardly the place I remember, I am glad that it is still open. Maybe one day soon I will go back and see if I am any better of a skater now than I was back then. But just in case I’m not, I should probably invest in some protective pads, huh?