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If I close my eyes, I can almost see them … the rows and rows of bedraggled roller skates lined up in their little wooden cubbies. I can recall the pungent smell of thousands and thousands of sweaty feet. The faint aroma of buttered popcorn. And most of all, I can hear the sounds … hundreds of school-age kids using outdoor voices, muﬄed by the ever present rinky-dink organ music. It’s 1972 at Gay Blades Roller Rink, and I’m at a school skating party.
As a student at St. Petersburg’s Canterbury School from fifth through eighth grade, a skating party at Gay Blades was one of the highlights of the school year. As I recall, we all made fun of the name (LGBTQ awareness was not exactly on our radar).
I’d ride one of the mini buses Canterbury employed and arrive with my classmates, tickets in hand, eager to rush in, get our skates on and start whirling around the smooth, shiny rink. I had learned to skate on those ancient metal skates that clipped on to your shoes and required a key (shout out to Melanie’s iconic song) in my friend Pam’s driveway. So I was prepared to hit the rink in the Gay Blades-issued skates, and to actually see them as an upgrade. Sure, they were ridiculously heavy and scuﬀed up and smelly, but when I put them on, I felt so powerful, so free, so cool.
Unfortunately, I was decidedly not cool. I was a nerd before it was cool to be one. I got straight As, and to make matters worse, I was a skinny redhead with glasses, braces and zits. I wasn’t known for my athletic prowess at school (kickball, volleyball, dodgeball, pretty much anything involving a ball was not my forte) but I could hold my own on the rink.
The majority of time at the skating parties was considered “free skate” when nerds, cool kids, teachers and parents could all be out there together. The little kids, and the less capable ones, clung to the wooden rails like barnacles, and the hot shots showed oﬀ by skating backward, doing twirls and generally being a pain in the butt to the rest of us. I seem to recall that we all skated in the same direction … right to left. It was always a challenge to go around the corners without mowing someone else down.
The soundtrack to our skating parties featured the hot hits of the day, everything from Donny Osmond’s “Go Away Little Girl” to Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” to Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a -Ling.” That was about as risqué as it got. The DJ would occasionally break in and announce it was “race time,” and thankfully the races were divided up by boys and girls, and by age group. I always raced, and usually ended up in the middle of the pack, which was fine with me. Nobody wanted to be the poor fool who fell in front of everyone, or who came across the finish line last.
Another highlight of the parties was the games. We played “red light, green light” and we all joyfully did the Hokey Pokey. There’s something so unifying about a bunch of people in roller skates, putting their arms and legs in and out and shaking all about. Maybe we should try it at the next United Nations meeting.
By far the worst part of the skating party was the dreaded “Couples Skate.” Of course you didn’t dare skate with a same-sex friend, so I ended up sitting on a bench, trying to look alluring and failing spectacularly. I’d watch all the other couples gliding by, wondering when my eight-wheeled prince would finally come.
Thinking about those Gay Blades Days is bittersweet. It truly was a more innocent time for kids, and for the world in general. I’m just grateful I have the memories.
Even if Bobby Jenkins never once asked me to skate.