Those nights were met with much anticipation. I’d force down dinner hoping that 7:00 would come quicker, yet it never did. Just before heading to out the door, I did a quick check to confirm that my socks were matching, then I climbed into the passenger seat and headed into the cold night darkness. My parents dropped me off at the front door to Overlook Activities Center and, after I waited in line for the eternity that is 2 minutes to a 14 year-old, paid my hard-earned cash and got my tickets. I was in. Welcome to the Junior High Rollerskating Party!

Handing over the admission ticket to the taker, I walked up to the skate rental window mustering all the swagger a pubescent child could. With the authority and confidence of John Wayne, “Size 9, please!” somehow squeaked out of my mouth, my voice leaping over octaves with all the gracefulness of a gymnast with a broken femur. Slipping silently across the cool concrete floor, leaving sweaty footprints from warm stocking feet, I found a place on the bench and laced up the eyelets of the brown buckskin beauties. It was show time!

I always found it best to arrive to these parties not fashionably late, but early. This decision was forced not only by a complete lack of fashion on my part, but primarily due to the added benefit of a smaller audience for the first minutes spent on roller skates. After several minutes clinging desperately to the outer wall of the rink with a nonchalant air, I would eventually wait for a break in traffic. The first several breaks weren’t good enough, since the cool kids were still heading my direction and hadn’t made the turn yet. Finally, a properly timed entrance onto the wooden surface of the rink led to rolling freedom.

Skating rinks are interesting places, each floor having a personality of its own. The one at Overlook was made up of narrow strips of blonde wood with a thick varnish protecting the surface, save for some thin spots on the exits of the corners. That particular floor also had two subtle dips on the far side, near the end of the straightaway. While not particularly dangerous, they always instilled a sense of unease into a growing boy as they would make me feel as though my cool cruising stature was suddenly interrupted by two involuntary curtsies. In general, the Overlook flooring was in pretty good shape. It was far better than Starlight Skating, a half-hour away. Starlight seemed to have been built in the 1940s, and the floor was badly warped. Everything would be just fine until an outside wheel would catch a warped board, sending me veering hard-right and over the outside wall, if it were not for the chicken wire holding you back. It was far more rustic than Overlook, but in some wonderful ways.

Music is the lifeblood of any skating rink. It defines an era more than anything else. At Overlook, I did my laps listening to the soothing sounds of “61 Seconds” by The Outfield, “Kyrie” by Mr Mister, or anything by Paula Abdul. (Though she was never quite as timeless. Or nearly as sane.) Up at Starlight they never adopted the idea of popular music. They would spin a few 45s of older ‘Rock ‘n Roll’ such as Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” or, preferably, “Happy Organ” by Dave Cortez. The organ theme continued at The Starlight with an older gentleman climbing up into the booth and taking the reins of an old Hammond console to play live music to skate to. I wish someone would have told me how special that was back then.

No matter where you skated, what music was playing, or what color of light was reflecting off the mirror ball, there was always one constant: the rink referee. Every rink had one, and they were to be feared for several reasons. They had a skating prowess that allowed them to pass anyone else at any time in any direction they chose. They had a whistle, and they weren’t afraid to use it to lay down the law. If you were found guilty of a violation of rink ethic, he (never she) would skate up beside you and tweet in your ear. You knew. If you made multiple offenses he would slide right in front of you, turn around, and continue to lecture you while completing laps skating in reverse. It also seemed to be referee code to sport the wickedest mullet possible. I’m not sure the official reason, but any ref seemed to take great joy in flicking his thick neck mane out from the collar of his striped shirt. He earned those stripes and that hair and you’d better not forget it.

It was inevitable. At some point during the night it would happen. While a great song was playing (i.e. “Died in Your Arm” by Cutting Crew,), the lights would dim and the announcer would make the announcement: “Alright, it’s Ladies Choice! Fellas, clear the floor. Ladies Choice!” All the boys would shuffle off the rink and attempt to kill the next several minutes of time. It was agony. We would retire to the gameroom or snackbar and try to act like we didn’t notice the girls, let alone be bothered about not being picked for a slow skate holding hands with one. But oh, how we noticed. Our young hearts yearned to be asked out onto that floor, rolling along in 16-wheels of harmony, yet we were so often disappointed. I was asked out onto the floor one time during my six years of Junior High (at least it seemed that long), and it was every bit as wonderful and awkward as I had imagined it to be. We made quite a few laps throughout the duration of “Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh. Heather was actually wearing all grey, but I didn’t care. My mind was too preoccupied with all sorts of logistics that I hadn’t even considered until that moment. Questions raced through my mind. “How fast does one skate when in the company of a lady? How far apart? What is my apex of the corner? Is it wrong to drop hands to wipe the sweat from my palms? If she falls, do I throw myself under her to cushion the impact? Who’s watching us? Does this mean anything after this song is over?” And before I knew it, the song ended and the lights came back on. “All Skate…….All Skate” was announced and the rink returned to relative normalcy. (This was Junior High, after all.) No one needed to tell me how special that was back then.

After 2 hours of social awkwardness, the skates would come off and get sprayed by the rental guy. My own shoes brought back the welcomed security of walking and the unwelcomed return to my original height. Coats were pulled off hooks on the wall as everyone slowly trickled outside to look for our family cars to take us back home. I welcomed the safety and serenity that my home provided, yet still had an inward yearning for the discovery of all this world had to offer, awkward or not.