childhood, Culture

The Summer of ’61

July

Is there any event in our lives which doesn’t come back to remind us later? As I dressed yesterday morning, I recalled an evening in my youth, back in Delhi, my hometown when I was 12. It started at summer camp, but ended up at the Delhi rink.

Leading up to the moment, we had just burst out of 8th grade for the summer, and were headed off to our various pursuits. For some, it was the pool, for others, baseball, yet still others would go to the fields to hoe tobacco or run chains for the marketing board.  These days of promise were interrupted by sunny visits to Long Point and Turkey Point on Lake Erie for a stretch of beach and hours of breathless, soaking fun in the waves.

For me, I was packed into a bus, and sent to a YMCA summer camp on Georgian Bay. Many Delhi kids went there, so it was a familiar setting. My counselor was from town as well.

Every year the camp hosted a World Service Day where we chose to portray a United Nations country which would qualify as less than fortunate on the world stage. We dressed up like natives of the country, and prepared an exhibit for all the campers to visit. We charged admission, and all the money was sent to the YMCA to contribute to the World Service program, Canada-wide.

Charcoal for World Service; getting into the role.

I can’t remember the country chosen, but our cabin of 12 campers elected to strip down to our skivvies and cover our bodies in charcoal. We were attempting the native look.   We coated up in black, grimy wet fireplace ashes.

The day went well, and money was raised, just another activity for a community of young guys, followed by a serious wash up to remove the charcoal.

Obviously, the underwear never came clean.  And it went back into the suitcase, and came home in August to our laundry where it hung on to its coal black tones despite many washings.

August

Home from the forest.  The summer was in full force, and while tobacco harvest was underway, we looked for diversion, knowing school was just a month away.

“Let’s go roller skating at the rink,” offered my creative friend.  “It’s open every weekend. You can rent skates, there’s plenty of music, and girls too.”

Neat!  The rink was a booming business in the winter with hockey, curling and figure skating.  In the summer when the ice was out, the smooth, polished concrete floor was a platform for boxing and wrestling matches, magic shows, even bike races.  But the big draw was roller skating.

The prospect of an evening out at the rink was exciting.  Even more, was the opportunity to see girls again, after four weeks of boys camp.  I excused myself from dinner, and went to shower and dress for the evening ahead.

Prepping for an evening out was pretty much unknown territory for me, but basically, I wanted to look sharp.  I pulled out my favourite patterned, cotton short sleeve with button down collar, and placing it beside my slickest pair of khakis on my bed, it looked swell.  No t-shirt required, but yep, I need “gotchies” all right, and I pulled the next in rotation out of the drawer, which was the same grotty pair I wore on World Service Day a month before.

Holding them up, I inspected the dingey grey briefs.  Clean, no question, but not the “tighty-whitey” white one would expect.  I mumbled to myself, “what the heck, nobody’s seeing ’em,” so I stepped in, and completed the outfit.

A little Brylcream, Right Guard, teeth brushed and a fresh stick of Doublemint and I was out the door, hopes high, and to the rink.

Every weekend hundreds of teens and wannabes like me would swarm the rink and course counter-clockwise around the immense, dry, warm, barn-like enclosure to the broadcast beat of rock and roll  ’45s played by a pimpled DJ in the corner.  The rink sounded like a large dance hall submerged by the steady, grey drone of thousands of plastic wheels rolling on pavement.

Seeing the groups speed by–some laughing, others with serious, non-communicative expressions studiously ignoring the onlookers, but privately inviting the stares and furtive glances of others in their pathway–my heart revved up with the thoughts of what might come next.

I stepped off the doorway, and strode into the current of skaters, tentatively rolling on the clip-on rentals.  It was easy, and before long, I was rounding the circuit, feeling the wind on my face, and the crazy buzz through the soles of my shoes, all the while to the tunes of Ricky Nelson, Del Shannon, Patsy Cline and Gene Pitney.

There are girls everywhere.  Not a well-practiced pursuer, I am focused on a pretty, smiling blue-jeaned skater, her pony tail swaying behind her as she swung around the rink. She had beautiful white roller skates, tied above the ankle, just where the rolled up cuffs revealed an inch of exquisitely tanned shin.  I am conquered.

The best I can do is come up from behind, draft in front of her and keep ahead. Oh nerve, where are you when I need you?

Gene Kelly of the roller rink.

Meanwhile, there is a lone skater who stands out in the crowd. He is tall, pompadoured, and twirling about like Gene Kelly on fancy black lace-ups with red toe brakes. He’s big and muscular, with his short sleeves rolled up an inch to show off his biceps. Throughout a Dee Clark number, “Rain Drops”, he is tangoing and swinging through the moving groups, spinning, skating forwards and backwards, cutting a crazy path. Everyone moves on as he navigates the openings for a pirouette on one skate.

I have just completed another “fly-by” in front of the attractive miss who has captured and numbed my thoughts. She seems oblivious, but I have to keep at it.

Then, Boom! Out of nowhere, I am crushed by a jumble of legs and skates as Gene Kelly backs into me. Down we go onto the unforgiving concrete, and he lands on top.

“Jeezuz! Watch where you’re going creep! Ya little wiss! Get off the (**$%^&#$) floor. Ya wanna fist??”

Looking up, I stare at his hair which has come undone like a wilted bouquet of dead flowers. He sneers at me while he combs it back, and with a final dismissive hand signal, he is on his way again, spinning through the crowd.

Rolling over onto all fours, I push myself back onto my feet. I have a sore butt, but otherwise intact. I skate on to continue my approach to pony tail who seems to have missed my floor event. She smoothly circles the floor as I catch up from behind.

I am intent on coming up and saying hi, but at the last moment I chicken out, and pass by, crossing in front of her. I have serious, craven doubts about taking the final step in greeting her. In a moment she is off again and I am left to cruise around in my desperation.

A couple more circuits around the floor, and I have now glided in front of her yet again. Somewhere in the middle of “Calendar Girl” I slow down, turn my head and say, “Hunh.” Or “Hi”. Or, “Oh”.  It’s stupid, and dumb and I’m speechless. Looking at her, my head spins in a mixture of emotions: delirious, mindless, giddy panic.

Miraculously, she responds. “Hi.” She has a grin on her face and giggles as she looks at me.

“Yeah, hi,” I counter.   Idiot. Twit. Moron. I can’t talk. My mind is a tub of Jello. My tongue is towel dry.

“Are you hot?” She asks. Odd question, but here goes.

“No. Yes. Not really. It’s hot, no.  What?”   Why don’t I just shoot myself right now? And then she responds, laughing.

“It must be hot if you don’t need pants.”

“What?”

“Your pants. The seat’s gone.”

At this moment, the bottom drops out of my world as I feel back there, and find nothing but shreds. The neat khakis have atomized into a collection of torn scraps like a ragged, tattered old flag. Then the realization hits me, just like Gene Kelly did when he took me down onto the treacherous concrete.

Busted!

I look at her, with my mouth open big enough to chomp a Tootsie Roll. And then she makes another comment.

“Nice underwear. Seeya.”

And with that, she skated away on those spinning wheels, ponytail swinging behind her, as I peeled off to the exit, heading straight for the men’s room.

I never saw her again. In time, like by the next day, the whole event was behind me, just another fateful insult in the long education of growing up.

But it’s the one lesson I have learned, and it still holds, whenever I get dressed: if I am ever hit by the proverbial bus, I am prepared.

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