By Jane-Ann Heitmueller
It’s still there on the side of the highway, but unless you were a teen in the early and mid 1950’s you would probably have no memory of the old wooden building, now tumbled down, strangled by kudzu and hidden by massive privet hedges. Today, only the faint remnants of a dirt driveway winding down the steep embankment give any hint that there was once a structure beyond this point. Somehow, we all barely managed to survive the long week of school by holding on to the dream that Friday night would eventually arrive and we could go roller skating at Wamp’s Skating Rink.
Mr. and Mrs. Wamp built the rink on their farm property just outside of town and ran the place like a true family business. Several of their children worked there selling tickets, fitting skates, serving hotdogs and keeping the place clean and tidy. We knew that the rules were strictly enforced and the objective of the evening was simply pure fun and excitement on wheels for the local teens. Friday night at Wamp’s place quickly became the highlight of the week for most youngsters in our small, southern rural town.
Since none of us were old enough to drive, our Mothers would take turns being our weekly chauffer. What fun it was to pack five or six exuberant, squealing, giggling teenagers into Mom’s 1954 Chevy and head to the rink. Anticipation alone was enough to fuel that old grey buggy as it rumbled down the dirt road delivering us for an evening of youthful merriment.
“Your girls have fun and be good. I’ll be back to pick you up at 9 o’clock,” said Mom, brushing my cheek with a hasty kiss.
Grabbing our metal skate boxes, we’d tumble out of the car like a basketful of famished puppies racing toward their food bowl. As soon as we pushed open the heavy wooden door we were mesmerized by the familiar sounds and smells. Music blared from the speakers as we scurried inside to hurriedly lace our skates and join the jubilant crowd already gliding around that glistening wooden floor. Like flickering fireflies on a summer evening, flashing lights from the large silver ball turning slowly in the middle of the ceiling cast eerie shadows against the walls, floor and skaters. This plethora of ingredients, plus the comforting roar and rhythm of fiberglass wheels against wood, united to completely captivate our young hearts.
All the girls had a crush on Bill and thought he was really cool. He was the tall, lean, twenty something fellow hired to keep any rowdy skaters under control. Bill wore a silver whistle around his neck and leisurely skated back and forth in the middle of the rink, keeping an eye out for any misbehavior the festive teen patrons might dare attempt. If you skated too fast, pushed someone or broke a rule, he would instantly blow that shiny whistle, point in your direction with his long, bony finger and you’d immediately have to leave the floor until he signaled your return. None of us dared question Bill’s authority, for standing well over six feet and already a high school graduate, his word was law on the floor and we all respected his discipline without question.
“O.K. everybody, let’s do the Limbo.” Mr. Wamp announced over the microphone as the overhead lights brightened.
It was time for us to line up and see who could skate under the horizontal cane pole without touching it. Two people holding the pole would slowly lower it until the last person making a clean exit under won the prize...a free pass to skate next Friday. Everyone used a different technique for easing under without touching. Most of the girls bent forward in a squatting position, grabbing their knees and ducking their head to glide under the pole. However, in order to exhibit their amazing macho flexibility, the boys did a backbend to lower their center of gravity. It was amazing to see how agile and close to the floor some of the kids could skate in their effort to win that coveted prize.
To the strains of “Earth Angel”, “April Love” and “Little Darlin’ ” the mood would drastically change as the lights began to dim to a faint glow. We’d shyly seek out and clasp hands with our best beau, blissfully swaying across the floor to the gentle rhythm of the music, dreaming that this romantic setting would last forever. The seeds of young love easily flourished on this sleek highway of happiness.
Abruptly, the pace would shift as a rainbow of colored lights began flashing and Elvis would belt out “All Shook up” or Jerry Lee Lewis would pep things up with “A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ on”. Laughing with glee, we’d sing along with the music and break out dancing the Shag or Twostep.
“Chattanooga Choo Choo” was the song that signaled it was time for the whip. A long line would form when we securely clasped the waist of the person in front of us. Led by Bill, this human chain would swiftly gain speed, turning and twisting like a frightened snake, going faster and faster around and around the gleaming floor as the ear piercing screams became more frantic with each lap. The last skater in line held on for dear life and prayed he wouldn’t be slung crashing into the hard wooden walls before Bill finally brought the line to a standstill and we could all exhale in relief.
The main event of the evening would be the races, involving mostly the boys and a few brave girls. Each skater would eagerly line up on a designated spot with his toe stop against the floor, torso crouched, knees slightly bent, fists clenched, heart pounding, eyes straight ahead, nervously anticipating the start of the race. With one shrill blast of Bill’s whistle they’d be off and rolling! The rest of us would gather safely on the sideline, screaming, clapping and cheering for our favorite racer. The winner not only received a free pass, but bragging rights the following week and a fierce determination to defend his title next Friday night.
One of my fondest childhood memories was the day Mom and Dad bought me my own pair of shoe skates. I had always rented skates at the rink, but desperately wanted a pair of my own. Although Dad owned a furniture store, money was tight and I understood that I would have to wait until we could afford them. He made a weekly trip to Birmingham to pick up coal heaters for the store at Birmingham Stove and Range.
“Tomorrow, when we pick up heaters, we’ll stop by Sears and Roebuck and buy you a pair of skates,” Mom promised, knowing how happy that would make me.