Folks who read what I write on a semi-regular basis know how much I love time machines. You know, the places and things that exist all around us that transport us to another time and another era. They might take the form of an old-fashioned drive-in restaurant, or a vintage car, a small-town square, or an out-of-the way tourist attraction. The only real requirement is that they be authentic, unassuming and on my path as I travel some of the two-lane highways, blacktops and backroads that still abound in this country if you're only willing to abandon the interstate highway system for a brief drive through a kinder, gentler, cooler time.
It was my sharp-eyed spouse, also known as the grandma-lady, who spied it one day when we were visiting Topsail Beach, the tiny, old-fashioned beach town that lies at the very southern tip of the North Carolina island where we spend a sizable portion of our lives.
"Stop the car," she exclaimed.
Now, some husbands might find this kind of front-seat driving a little off-putting, and I admit, I'm sometimes a little startled when she suddenly shouts out directions while I'm aimlessly puttering along. But she's usually right to call my attention to the things she sees, as she has a keen eye and a deep appreciation for the kinds of unusual sights and attractions that trip my trigger.
So I stopped.
"What?" I said. "It's just a post office."
"No," she replied. "Up there!"
She gestured, not to heaven nor even the top of the nearest tree, but to the upper floor of the low-slung, cinderblock building that houses the local post office.
There it was.
The Topsail Beach Roller Skating Rink.
Now, you might say that roller rinks are nothing really rare or special, even. While they may be past their heyday, skate centers still exist in plenty of burgs, usually featuring huge skating surfaces made of composite materials or even hard, smooth carpeting; a wall or two of clanging video games; party rooms for birthday celebrations; and an ear-busting cacophony of shrieking pre-teen girls, loud-loutish adolescent boys and the inexplicable music they all love.
But not the Topsail Beach Roller Skating Rink.
Walk up the outdoor staircase and into the the place, and you get the feeling that the owners built it and decorated it, then looked around and said, "good enough," and left it just exactly that way for the next 49 years.
In fact, that's pretty much what happened. If you don't believe it, you can ask the nice lady named Doris who often mans the cash register when the place opens for business every night from seven until ten. After all, she and her husband are the ones who built the roller rink back in 1964. They imported the wooden floor from Japan, and bought their rental skates from the Chicago Roller Skate Company, which was the only game in town back then. They hung black, cardboard cut-outs of women and men in skates on the walls. They bought a record player and speakers, and--over the years--gathered a massive collection of stackable 45 rpm records that included hits from artists like Michael Jackson, Elvis, the Bee Gees, the Rolling Stones, and Neil Diamond, along with the ultimate skating rink tune, "Brand New Key, by Melanie.
"Well, I got a brand new pair of roller skates
You got a brand new key
I think that we should get together and try them out you see
I been looking around awhile
You got something for me
Oh! I got a brand new pair of roller skates
You got a brand new key"
And then they added a finishing touch that still remains a highlight of every evening skating session--a smallish silver disco ball suspended from the high ceiling overhead. Over 30 windows line the upstairs hall where the rink is located, with a box fan in each to cool the warm Carolina evenings.
Nope, no air conditioning, either. And not a video game in sight.
From first glance, we knew we had to bring our grandsons to this iconic 60s monument and mecca. And so, we did.
The grandma-lady and their dad, our son Patrick, laced on skates to join the young lads on the floor, while yours truly--the old grumpa--paid homage to a pair of rusty knees and stayed back on the benches where skaters put on their skates, then rest and recover after a few dozen hectic laps around the scarred old board floor.
Young Cyrus, who combines an indomitable spirit with an absolute refusal to consider the possibility that there might be something he can't do on the first try, stepped right out on the floor and promptly sprawled into a bone-jarring heap. He got up again. He fell again. And again and again and again.
The other adults around the rink were beginning to look concerned as poor Cyrus gamely fought his way through one cataclysmic fall after another.
"Gee," I muttered to the grandma-lady, "We're gonna get arrested for child endangerment it he doesn't get the hang of it pretty soon."
Our younger grandson, John Patrick, exhibited the essential difference between him and his big brother by proceeding with more caution. He hung around the benches with me, and tried his skate-legs in a small railed-off area intended for that purpose. A pretty little blond-haired girl was also in attendance, which gave him ample reason to stick around the beginners' pool while big brother took his lumps on the big rink. Eventually, though, she moved on, and he, too, took the big step onto the main floor under the hen-like protection and tutelage of the grandma-lady, who had been blithely displaying the skating skills she had honed as a girl on the mean streets and big-city rinks of south suburban Chicago Heights.
He clung to the outside railing and shuffled around the floor, while Cyrus, who had finally been beaten into some kind of compliant submission by his continuous contact with the floor, grudgingly accepted some help and instruction from his dad, and finally began to get the hang of the whole skating thing.
I knew something was about to happen when Doris, who is a spring chicken at 75, stepped out from behind the counter and onto the floor, displaying a pair of white skates with red wheels and a sleek, well-muscled pair of legs that would be the envy of a Parisian runway model.
The needle dropped.
The strains of "Brand New Key" filled the air.
The lights went out and the disco ball began to spin, casting a dazzling display of light and color throughout the cavernous room.
John Patrick slowly released the railing and rolled towards the grandma-lady.
He took her hand.
"Come on, grandma," he said. "Let's skate."
And so they did.
Just like 1964.