When I was in fifth grade the cool thing to do was hit up the skating rink. I was a horrible skater. Like very, very bad. But I’d been to the skating rink for as long as I could remember. Leavenworth is a small town, only about 45,000 people or so. Which means on the weekends there isn’t much for kids to do. The teenagers worshipped The Wheel Thing which was the name of the local skating rink. Having an older, cool, teenage sister I was privy to The Wheel Thing well before it was appropriate for me to be, and by the time I was in fifth grade I spent every Friday night there with all the other pre-teens and teenagers.
The Wheel Thing opened up shop in 1970, and by 1986 had switched owners to Kay and Ron Beaman, who up until last year were the sole proprietors and the iconic pair who sold you tickets, picked out your skates, and made you a kick-ass Suicide from the soda machine. Ron even sometimes ran the mic for a limbo session in his rainbow suspenders and funny mustache.
I started going skating “by myself” (sans my older sister or mother sitting on one of the carpeted benches watching me) when I was in fifth grade, and I skated through most of middle school there too.
The Wheel Thing had a large half paved, half graveled parking lot. My mom would whip her old 1972 Dodge Cornett into the lot at dusk on Friday nights to drop me off. I would hop out, my head down, hoping no one would see me in that old beater. I’d sling my purple and white skates onto my shoulder, and race toward the double doors.
There was one entrance door and one exit door. Depending on when you got there on Friday evenings, there could either be a line out the entrance door, down the front steps, or just a few kids waiting inside the hot, stinky corridor between the outside doors and the inside doors. There was a small window on one side of the corridor where Kay would sell tickets. I don’t remember how much it was to skate on the weekends, but I do remember that my mom would give me a five dollar bill and that covered both my entrance, my speed skate rental (if I got really crazy and wanted to upgrade) and usually one soda for the whole night. Afterward I had to reuse the cup at the water fountain.
The corridor was the worse part of The Wheel Thing. If the line was long you had to wait in that small, smelly area, its carpet reeking with teenage sweat and dirty socks. A smell that only a skating rink offers. Not to mention the fact that the second set of doors were not glass, which meant you had no idea how many people were there, if your friends had made it yet, or if your crush had showed up. You had to wait, your skate laces digging into your shoulder, in that stinky, little room, wondering about all the fun that was going on inside. You could hear the muffled music. You could catch a glimpse of neon light under the cracks of the door, but it wasn’t until your turn to pay at the window, when you could crane your neck around to see who was in there. Usually I would spot my friend Melody, who seemed to live at The Wheel Thing, and my heart would jump up into my chest with relief.
The next few hours were always a blur. There would be couples skate, where you would hope a boy asked you to hold holds and slowly skate around the oval rink, your sweaty hands entwined, while older, much better skaters would skate like they were dancing, the boy even skating backwards. Then there was limbo, which always made me fall by the third round. There was that game where the cute DJ brought out the giant fuzzy dice and rolled them and you had to stand on a number until your number was rolled and you were eliminated. You always wanted to win that one because you got a free song dedication and a suicide at the snack bar!
On one of my birthdays, maybe my 12th or 13th, my friends told the cute DJ it was my birthday. For birthdays they would make all of you go out into the center of the rink and the whole place would sing happy birthday to you. They would scream it. I remember standing in the middle of a bunch of sweaty Virgos, my face red from sweat and embarrassment, my fingers pushed into my ears, and a smile across my face. It was the worst day ever, but also the best day ever.
As we got older, boys became more involved with our trips to The Wheel Thing. We would plan our outings with them at school, but not tell our mothers, who probably knew about our plans anyway. It was a way to “date” before you could actually “date.” To be fair, I did the least amount of Wheel Thing dating, I mainly just watched my friends run into the dark corners with their boyfriends and steal kisses. I was usually the look-out, until the one night I wasn’t. I was so nervous the whole time. My boyfriend and I snuck into the back corner, between two pinball machines. He was just as nervous as I was. It was a quick kiss, just to say we had done it, then I worried for hours whether or not I would have to marry him. I didn’t like him all that much.
At the end of the evening, one of the parent’s would pick us up. Usually Melody’s mom, in her Trans Am with the cool t-tops. We would pile into the backseat, our skates jammed at our feet on the floorboard, too many young, sweaty girls in the back. Melody’s mom would jam music, and we would hold our hands and arms out the open windows so the wind could blow our sweat, and our sins, away.
RIP The Wheel Thing, you are in a lot of fond memories.