A couple years after we moved to the farm I went to a roller rink in Kent, Ohio, as part of a church outing. Within a half hour I had become enamored of accelerating down the floor smoothly and nearly effortlessly and bending into the corner turn, laid out nearly parallel to the floor... despite the occasional fall. Once I gained some confidence, I decided to really pour it on. Pumping steadily and with increasing speed, I swung into the far turn, lifted my trailing (right) skate, and felt the left skate's wheels simply lose all bite. I fetched up against the waist-high wooden rail that surrounded the floor. In falling I sprained my right wrist and left ankle, but I was determined I’d be back.
Since I could no longer skate that evening, I hobbled around in street shoes, and wound up at the skate rental counter. The teenager working the counter gave me a printed schedule, and I discovered that the rink was closed Monday, open Tuesday and Thursday nights from early evening until ten p.m., Fridays until one in the morning and Saturdays from two in the afternoon until two Sunday morning. The rink was open Sundays from two in the afternoon until the school night parent-approved hour of ten p.m. Wednesday night was... (remember, this was in Kent, Ohio, in the early ‘50s)... Negro Night. I was still in grade school, and it meant nothing to me at the time.
The rink became a regular part of our lives. At first the Old Man would pack us all in the old ’42 turtleback Oldsmobile on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon, and we would make an evening of it. At the time we had no television, an appliance that didn’t enter our world until 1953 when my fifth grade class went across the street to Tuggy’s house to watch the Coronation. Tuggy’s family boasted a black and white cabinet TV of perhaps nineteen diagonally measured inches. It was a “cabinet set,” consisting of a cathode ray tube (the “TV tube”) which, with all the other tubes and wires was encased in a wooden cabinet that sat alone upon four spindly legs.
The Larlham household did not include a television until at least two, perhaps three years later. The Old Man called one Saturday morning and said he’d be late. Mother was sure he was working overtime. The Old Man worked nights, and since he had a good forty-five minute drive home she always worried about him. She knew well that night work was not good for sleeping. A twelve-hour night shift had caused him to fall asleep a year or so before we moved. He drove through a stop sign and got hit by a Model T, causing damage but not wrecking the big Olds. The Model T... didn’t fare so well.
On this Saturday, the Old Man showed up followed by somebody in a pickup truck. In the bed of the truck, lashed upright and blanket wrapped, stood a mystery.
“Dick, whatever did you bring home now?” Mother stood arms akimbo at the kitchen door.
“Give me a few minutes.” The Old Man hoisted himself into the bed of the pickup and began removing straps. The blankets, which turned out to be moving pads, remained wrapped around the object in the truck. He bent and pulled upright a two-wheeled dolly. The stranger tipped the object to one side and the Old Man shoved the blade of the dolly under it. They strapped it to the dolly and wheeled it to the rear of the truck. After some struggle, they had it safely aground and the Old Man headed for the door to the south wing’s giant room. The stranger followed, pushing the dolly down the narrow, crumbling sidewalk (building a new one became my job a few years later). At the door there was another struggle, but eventually the pads stood in the front corner, surrounding...
“What is that thing, Dick?” Mother had been about as patient as she intended to be.
“Just another minute, Darlin’, and you’ll see.” The Old Man smirked and turned to unstrapping the pads and their contents from the dolly. Even then, he was careful to make the front the last part revealed. The last pad dropped away, revealing a polished wooden cabinet. The Old Man opened the center panel of three, revealing a dark gray glass square. It took a few seconds, but suddenly Giles figured it out.
“A TV!” he crowed. “Daddy bought us a TV!”
Lyndella squealed and clapped, and Mother asked, “Is that what it is, Dick?”
He opened the two other doors and lifted a lid. “Oh,” he said, “it’s a bit more than that, Pat. It’s a radio... and it’s a Hi-Fi... and it’s a TV.” He pointed to a long slender package that had been strapped to the side of the cabinet. “We just have to put up the antenna, and we’ll be all set.” I have since come to heartily dislike the word “just” in such a context.
It didn’t take the stranger, who turned out to be the appliance store technician and delivery man, long to install the antenna, but it took much of the afternoon to get it properly directionally tuned. And a year or two later it took even longer to retune it when CBS Cleveland moved from channel nine to channel eight. All difficulties aside, we had a television; a nine-inch (diagonal) black and white, low resolution television, but a television nonetheless. Still, we were not yet a television culture. Television viewing was limited for the first few years. We watched Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons and evenings, but only in the worst of winter weather. In good weather we continued our family outings to the skating rink.
I soon learned my limitations. I could not turn around at speed without falling. Worse, once I got turned around (at ridiculously low speed), I could not figure out the weight shift to skate backward. Giles was a speed skater, constantly being admonished to slow down before he hurt somebody, and he could turn and skate backward from almost the beginning of our skating outings. The Old Man, it turned out, was a secret roller skating dancer. Although Mother had never skated, and refused to try, he badgered her constantly, moving through the crowded floor, whirling and dipping for all the world as if he had a partner. She would not relent, and eventually he mostly sat with her and watched us.
School became more challenging as I grew older, and the opportunities for recreation on the farm were limited and repetitive. At some point, the skating rink began running a bus for outlying skaters. The bus stopped on Route 303 where our road intersected it on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The Old Man and Mother were staunch members of the Baptist, and later the Nazarene Church, both evangelical and both adamant that the Sabbath was for circumspect behavior. Circumspect behavior did not include watching television, work beyond essential animal care, reading other than the Bible and other religious documents... and most definitely it did not include roller skating. But Fridays and Saturdays were absolutely fair game.
The Old Man was just as happy to give up his skaters’ chauffeuring job. Since he seldom skated, it made for a boring evening for him. We would ride the bus when we wanted to go skating. It was three-quarters of a mile to the intersection, and Giles and I would bundle up on even the coldest and snowiest evenings and spend fifteen minutes trudging to the intersection carrying our second-hand skates (with new composite wheels). We always gave ourselves a few minutes to spare, which meant that by the time the bus came we were often chilled to the bone. But we continued to catch the skate bus until I got my driver’s license.
Still, other things took our time and interest, and we went skating less and less often. I’m not sure when we quit going entirely, but I had not been to the rink in some time when a neighbor made a strange request. He was an Auxiliary Sheriff’s Deputy. As such, he could take paid security jobs and wear his uniform on those jobs. One such job was as the security guard cum peacekeeper at the roller rink... on Negro Night. Unfortunately, he had recently been diagnosed with what is called today, “Stage Four” cancer of the bones. There was no effective treatment, and he told me he expected to die within six months. In the meantime, he hoped to keep working for at least the next three or four months (he had to cut that short at the end of two months). What he needed was a second person to help be the presence he felt he could no longer be.
I was, or soon would be, seventeen years old at the time, and I didn’t understand the whole Negro Night thing. Of course, it didn’t last much longer anyway, but the concept bothered me. According to my friend the rink had allowed black skaters not long after the end of World War II as soldiers, both black and white, came home and wanted a place to skate. There was also a fairly large black population in the Kent-Ravenna area, and Kent State University had a sizeable population of black students. But Jim Crow was as de facto in northern states, especially in the Midwest, as it was de jure in the South. The rink decided to designate Wednesday night as Negro Night.
White skaters were outraged. They had lost a night of skating (not that midweek was all that popular for skating with families), and there had been “trouble.” The Sheriff’s Deputies had been there on Wednesday nights ever since. Not to keep order inside the rink, there had never been a problem from the skaters, but to discourage white locals from restarting the old fight. He wasn’t sure he alone could still do that. Since I would have neither badge, uniform nor gun, I wasn’t sure I could either, but I agreed to accompany him.
We stood in a small room off the skate rental/ticket window, watching the skaters through a one-way window. I was astounded. There were couples out on that floor that put some of the competitive skater couples to shame, but there were no black skaters on the competitive circuit in the ‘50s. Over the next two months, I grew angrier and angrier that these kids were restricted to one night a week, and had to be protected to keep that. I had no idea that within a few years, what I was watching would no longer be possible. By the time I came home from the Army in 1965, all nights were open to all skaters.
For two months I stood and watched people skate. Despite their skill and grace, I eventually grew bored. Watching isn’t doing, and I knew I could never do what any really good skater could do. But I had agreed to stay as long as he could do the job, and I was resolved to stick it out. As it turned out, my friend’s cancer was not all that predictable. At the end of the second month he was obviously exhausted at the end of each Wednesday shift, and he had become gaunt over the last few weeks. On the drive home he told me we would no longer be the Wednesday night guard team. His checkup had not been good. I shook his hand when he dropped me off.
I believe it was not much more than a month later that we attended his funeral.
I skated occasionally for a few years, but I never got better. Eventually, I gave it up as a bad job (and an excessive risk to my person). The nine-inch TV with the entertainment cabinet disappeared before long, probably because some of the tubes became very hard to find, and was replaced by a cabinet set... still tubes but more modern by far. Television followed its own version of Moore's Law. Modernization occurred at a rapid pace.
Saturday afternoons became dedicated to bread-baking by Mother and Lyndella, while the Old Man and Giles and I ate hot rolls with freshly churned butter and watched professional wrestling on TV (the Old Man thought it was real and that the referees had been bribed). The reality was far worse.