“How'd you like to go to the roller derby tonight?” Karin asked.
I looked up from my computer screen to see if she was serious.
“We have a roller derby in town?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “Nicole just called, and she'll be there.”
This was surprising news. But with our daughter, anything is possible. It was Nicole who dragged Karin and me to our first opera. Her passion for music had taken an unexpected turn, and we found ourselves being serenaded in Italian, watching Nicole, helmet-on-her head, on stage singing. Now she was going to the derby? Interesting.
“So,” I asked. “Is she competing?”
“No,” she said. “She's working a booth for One Safe Place.”
“Oh,” I answered, a bit disappointed but puzzled. “What are they doing at a roller derby?”
“It's a fund-raiser. The Derby's one of their supporters.”
And that was all it took to sell me.
Anyone who helps out our town's shelter is a friend of mine. So we made our plans for later that night. We'd have a roller-derby date.
The thought of roller derbies takes me back to the late '60s when my brother and I ogled over the LA T-Birds on the flicking, fuzzy screen of a cast-off Zenith. The frenetic females fascinated us; they were brash, bold and bigger-than-life, in their way, more bizarre than the Creature From Planet 'X.”
Our TV viewing was rationed, so we were sly, turning the volume down and playing checkers for cover. At the sound of approaching footsteps, the set was snapped off. When danger passed, it took several minutes for the image to reappear. And truth be told, we only caught a few derbies here and there. Despite this, we enjoyed staring at the bleached-blond babes butt-checking one another.
Given the distractions, and the fact that we had the attention span of a gnat, my brother and I never quite caught on to the rules or the object of roller derby. But no matter. The derby, when we could find it, was still better than Leave It To Beaver reruns. My favorite moments came when the refs weren't looking, and a derby-dame would knuckle an opponent. Then, all hell would break loose.
The scuffles were more interesting than the skating.
Small wonder that my parents, when they caught us watching, would make us turn the set off....
I reflected on all this after Karin and I made our derby-date. I had only a few fuzzy recollections and a vague sense of the rules. I knew they wore skates and helmets (always), went in a circle (usually) and slammed into each other (sometimes) and scuffled (not often enough). But I realized this wasn't much to help me fully appreciate the sport's finer points.
I needed a crash course.
So I Googled my way to the rollerderbyhalloffame.com website for enlightenment on all things roller derby-ish.
I was not disappointed.
It seems derbies started during the heart of the Great Depression. They were a publicity gimmick of sports promoter Leo Selzter. He wanted a way to fill the Chicago Coliseum. The 'Transcontinental Roller Derby' debuted on August 13, 1935 and featured teams of one man and one woman, similar to the dance marathons of that period. According to the website, the inclusion of women helped sell tickets, but caused critics to discount the derby as a serious sporting event.
The Hall of Fame also says the activity grew in popularity and changed from 1938-47. It notes:
“New York sports writer Damon Runyon saw the game in Miami in 1938 and suggested more contact and rules. Roller Derby eventually evolved into a game skated between teams of five men and five men, scoring points by lapping opponents. Seltzer's game continued throughout World War Two with two units.”
This tidbit surprised me twice over. First, I didn't realize men skated in the derby, second I was stunned to hear that there are any rules at all. Roller derby always struck me as a sort of Red Rover on roller skates, just without the ball.
When evening arrived, Karin and I deposited ourselves at Redding's Field of Dreams roller-rink. We paid the admission fee, and I immediately focused on the most important thing one does at any sporting event—finding the concession stands. Karin, in the meantime, went to track down Nicole and chat up the folks at the various booths.
Turns out that when you go to Shasta's Roller Derby, the skating is only a part of the activity. The skaters have to compete with many other distractions. There was break dancing in the isles, a weight-loss booth that would help you wrap your midriff in genuine green plastic, and a escapee from a DC comic book terrorizing the crowd with a balloon bazooka.
All of this made it hard to focus on the actual game. While waiting in line, I looked up, and once again, I saw women skating, shoving each other two and fro.
The derby began without me.
OK, I thought, maybe it's still not too late to learn how this thing really works. I knew it involved lapping, and that's a start. But to gain a deeper understanding, I looked about and spied an energetic woman who appeared to know what was happening.
She was standing in line ahead of me, cheering on her team. She knew the players without looking at a program. During an apparent lull in the action, I grabbed her attention. I introduced myself and learned that her name was something that sounded like “Billie.”
It was hard to tell over the noise.
“Can you explain something?” I asked.
“The rules. Do you know them?”
She brightened. “Yeah, sure, I used to compete.”
“Great,” I said, pleased to have a mentor. “So why do they...?”
“GET 'EM GOODY TWO SCREWS!” Billie shouted.
“Oh, sorry, what's your question?”
I resumed. “They seem to...”
“HEY, SMELLY. YOU GONNA LET HER GET AWAY WITH THAT?” Billie shook her fist in the air.
I was beginning to get a sense of what I'd missed when the volume was turned down.
Billie shrugged and apologized.
“Maybe you should be out there,” I said.
“Used to. Can't now,” she said. “Bad knees. And Doc says I 'd better not break my leg again.”
“That's tough.” I shook my head. “You must miss it.”
A whisted sounded
“HEY JUDGE DREAD, ARE YOU BLIND?”
“Who?” I asked.
“The ref,” she pointed to a man in a striped uniform. “See, his name's on the back, standing next to Throbbing Whistle”
“So... what just happened?” I asked.
“They put Slappa Ho in the penalty box,” she grumbled. “Bad call.”
I nodded and tried to sound supportive.
“They should have given her a free-throw or something.”
Billie groaned. “You really haven't been to a derby?”
“No. just watched 'em on TV,” I hesitated and added “with no sound.”
“That's weird,” she said.
I nodded. “Yep. It was. But, I'm curious. Who's winning?”
“RUTHLESS REDNECK, YOU STINK ON ICE,” Billie turned back to me and smiled. “The Assault, I think,” she said. “You can check the scoreboard.”
“By the announcer,” she said, “can't see it from here.”
“So how does a team get points?”
Billie shook her head. “OK. Derby 101 time. It's the jammers that score.”
“Who are they?”
“They have stars on their helmets.”
“Sort of like the Sneeches in Dr Suess?” I asked.
She looked at me suspiciously.
“Whatever,” Billie said. “The jammers get points for every person on the opposing team they lap.”
“And the other skaters?”
“The blockers?” she said.
“What do they do?”
Billie looked at me like I'd grown a third eye.
“So they can't score?”
“No, they block.”
“OK, and if the jammer gets in the penalty box?”
“Then her team can't score.”
I pondered this.
“And if both jammers foul out to the penalty box.”
“Then nobody can score.”
“So what do they do?”
“Who?” She asked.
“They just skate around.”
“And do what?”
“Block.” She said, looking at me with a pained expression.
“Can they hold hands and form a barrier?” I asked.
“Really,” I said, disappointed. “I remember seeing that on TV.”
“Really? Well, we don't.”
“It's against the rules.”
Ah, the rules. I guess I still had a lot to learn,
Billie reached the head of the line and bought a couple of tacos while I asked her a few more questions. She sighed, shook her head, seemed to have trouble hearing me, and then hurried off to rejoin her group.
Talking roller-derby must be tiring.
I bought some goodies, and tracked down Karin. I was eager to share my newfound command of the rules. I told her about blockers, jammers, the “pack,” and how each team scores.
Karin smiled as I elaborated all this.
“Thanks,' she said. “I knew that.”
“Really?” I was crestfallen. “How?”
“Easy,” she pulled out the program we'd been given when we entered..
“It's printed right here next to the player's names.”
And so it was.
So for the rest of the evening, I sipped on my drink, munched on my chips, and shouted at the refs when everyone else did.
But, oddly enough, from where I sat, I never got a clear view of the screen, and I left without knowing if the Rolling Blackout had prevailed over the Arctic Assault.
I wonder what distracted me? I can't even blame it on my parents turning off the TV.
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe - "Or So it Seems™" - Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County. He can be reach at [email protected].