“Do you think I can skate?” I asked the burley man with the big smile standing inside Roller Haven’s skate storeroom.
“Everyone can skate!” he replied, coming around to the front of the large, wooden shelves to help fit my skates.
“Just grab the handrail, hold onto it until you get your balance, and slowly move your feet, one in front of the other,” he said, shuffling his feet to demonstrate. “That’s all there is to it.”
Roller Haven, like the drive-in theatre in Wilmington and me, were all 10 years old. Never before had I seen such a big, shiny, wooden floor.
As I sat there getting my bearings, so to speak, a man whizzed by on the floor wearing a large whistle around his neck, skating unbelievably fast. The first time he passed by he waved. The second time, he yelled, “Come on! Everyone can skate!”
It was the first time I had ever worn shoe skates. Up to that point my only experience with skates had been the metal roller skates I used to navigate the rugged sidewalks of Port William, attached snuggly to my shoes with a metal key I carried in my pocket.
That night was my initial trip to Roller Haven skating in Washington C.H. It was everything they had said it would be. Couples glided by arm-in-arm swaying with the soft dance music. The lights had been dimmed, and the mood was set for a “slow skate” that brought many couples to the floor.
As the soft music faded the skating floor was illuminated once again, and an announcement was made declaring it time for an “all skate” again.
It was now or never for me. I hoisted myself up, took a deep breath, and carefully made my way onto the floor. The first time around was fine, essentially uneventful with the exception of my wobbly legs.
The second time around was different. A friend saw me struggling and like a shark in the water smelling blood he flew by me like a demon, dipping at the last minute, acting as though he was going to grab my legs. That was all it took. I went down.
Years later, Roller Haven became a regular destination for my son Greg and his friends from Sabina. We would take a carload of Cub Scouts and spend a great evening circling the big skate floor for hours.
I would take an occasional break, and it never failed, one of Greg’s friends would skate by and say, “Come on, Mr. Haley. Everyone can skate.” I would just smile.
Several years ago my wife Brenda and I were driving past Roller Haven and I was telling her about the good times I’d had there over the years.
“Let’s go skating,” I said, looking at her face for a reaction. It wasn’t long in coming.
“I can’t skate,” she answered with a grimace.
“Oh, c’mon. Everyone can skate,” I said, remembering what I had been told time and again.
“Maybe so, but I can’t,” she said as a look of anxiety spread across her face.
“I won’t let you fall,” I reassured her. “I will keep hold of you.”
We entered the front door and paid our fees. To my amazement, little had changed to the appearance of the treasured skating rink. It looked much the same as it had 30 years prior, although it was obvious improvements had been made. There were new, bright LED lights. The sound system and the lighting were state-of-the-art now.
“This will be fun,” I said confidently.
Brenda only shook her head.
She sat white-knuckled on the wooden bench, watching the skaters effortlessly circle the floor.
Brenda carefully strapped on her skates. Beads of perspiration dotted her forehead, and I could see a drop ready to spill over onto her nose. Her eyes had narrowed and her breathing was quick and shallow.
She stood up. She shook. She couldn’t move from fright. She had a death grip on my forearm, squeezing so hard her fingerprints remained on my skin when she moved to grab my shoulder. Her legs went out from under her as her arms were flailing.
Only after her involuntary shaking ended did I realize how traumatic the experience had been. With an honest but failed attempt to skate, Brenda quietly cast her eyes toward the door.
“Would you like to go?” I asked.
She nodded. Words weren’t necessary.
As we were leaving, we noticed a young couple sitting on a bench close by. We heard the young lady explaining to her date, “Come on. Everyone can skate.”
“Take my advice, son. Go bowling,” Brenda said without a trace of a smile as the door opened and we braced ourselves to the wind and headed back to Wilmington.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.