That Saturday afternoon, the traffic was almost nonexistent as four very bored kids gathered in front of 110 Flamingo Street.
We had accounted for everything. Big Brother James, Older Brother Richard, and even Twin Brother Mark said it would be safe. No one could possibly get hurt, or so they thought.
Once past our house, Flamingo Street dropped sharply off before finally ending in a cul-de-sac. It was perfect for ice sledding during the winter, but in mid-August you couldn’t buy a snowflake with all of Preston Weston III’s money. So we had to improvise and invent the skate sled.
At the crest of the hill, one more courageous than all the rest sat atop our homemade skate sled with hands gripping the steering ropes and feet resting nervously on the front axles. He had hopes of being the first to survive the trip down Suicide Hill without injury — injuries that never would’ve happened if Dad hadn’t taken away our skate keys.
For you young folks out there who don’t know what that a skate key is, welcome to Skating 101. School is now in session.
When we were kids, skates were nothing like the hi-tech ones of today. Now they’re plastic boots with high carbon wheels permanently fastened to the bottom, all set in a single row with a built-in brake on the heels. Reaching speeds of over 30 miles an hour is not uncommon, but they’re still inferior to the skates of yesterday. Here’s why.
Ours were made out of an adjustable metal frame that clamped onto the bottom of your choice of shoes. With two wheels in the front and two in the back the design was simple and stable. Metal wheels, metal clamps, and a leather ankle strap. No brakes. In other words, these were real skates. And each pair came with one important item that if lost, would render them useless – a skate key.
Dad only allowed us to use tennis shoes while skating because he didn’t want us to destroy our Sunday-go-to-meeting shoes.
Ever try to clamp metal skates to the bottom of rubber tennis shoes? Even using a skate key and tightening the leather ankle strap as far as it would go, it still didn’t work.
Skate five minutes, a skate came off. Put it back on and skate another five minutes, the other one would come off. On one foot you’d be skating, and on the other you’d be walking – while dragging the skate behind you still connected by the ankle strap. That’s why we used our Sunday-go-to-meeting shoes. Once tightened, skates didn’t come off, but it wasn’t the only reason. We needed a brake.
To stop or slow down, you’d simply drag the shoe toe on the ground. And it worked out great, but holes in Sunday-go-to-meeting shoes are why Dad took away the skate keys, rendering our skates useless. Or so he thought. Adversity, or in our case boredom, is the mother of invention. So invent we did.
James and Richard nailed some boards together into a giant “I” frame, the front of which swiveled. On the front they nailed two skates and on the back two more — something you can’t do if you have those hi-tech skate boots.
Mark added a trash-can lid for a seat, a couple of ropes tied to the front for steering, and we had the Flamingo Street Racer. Now all they needed was someone to test it. Guess who?
James assured me again that it would be safe. When I asked how I would stop, he nailed a small piece of wood to the side for a hand-brake. He said it couldn’t fail. All I had to do was pull back; it would pivot down, drag the street, and slow the racer.
On level ground this worked great, on Suicide Hill – not so much. Halfway down the hill, I engaged the hand-brake that couldn’t fail. It did.
After 10 feet it was worn down to a nub, then it fell off. Last thing I remember was hitting the curb at the bottom of the hill. Launched into the air, I crashed into the middle of Old Mrs. Crabtree’s sticker bushes.
I know what you’re thinking. Don’t worry; the Flamingo Street Racer was unharmed.
For the rest of that day, us four kids from Flamingo Street rode down Suicide Hill, crashed, got hurt, and then did it all again. We created fun memories and a few scars – both of which have now lasted some 40 years. And none of it would have happened if Dad hadn’t taken away the skate keys.
So for all you dads of teenagers out there, let this story be a warning. Just because you take away keys to punish your kids, it doesn’t stop them from having fun. Or even, unfortunately, from getting hurt.
[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, has been a firefighter for more than two decades and a columnist for The Citizen since 2001. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]