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170508 May 8, 2017


The Fireball

The Fireball
Tommy Towery
LHS '64

    Time was on a bobsled run, stealing my youth from me at a breakneck speed, and forcing me to face my fast approaching future whether I was ready or not. An eminent participation role as a member of the first graduation class of Lee High School was demanding me to tie up some loose ends in my life and do so in short order. It had already been foretold I would leave my home on Webster Drive in Lincoln Village the day following graduation and move to Memphis, the new city where I would begin my college life. It was a trip of six hours and several hundred long miles away from my past. It would be a permanent change in my life which I dreaded. 

    One of those loose ends needing my attention was retrieving my roller skates from Carter's Skateland on Traylor Island, the skating rink where they were stored to be used on one of my frequent past trips to the establishment. My skates were special to me and too expensive to leave behind. Unlike the rental skates available at Carter's, my black-booted Chicago skates had precision wheels and were much more maneuverable than the house skates. They were part of the reason I could skate as good as I did. The skates were an unexpected gift from Gene Bales, one of my older brother Don's best friends who had given up skating. Carter's would allow people to leave their skates at the rink for free, so it was not necessary to haul them back and forth between visits.  

    Roller skating had been my obsession for many years and often I had gone to the local rink as many as four or more times in a week. I was a student at Huntsville Jr. High and about 13 years old when I first got bitten by the skating bug. I lived on East Clinton at the time, and when we could afford it, my friend Mike Thompson and I would share the cost of a Cresent Cab ride to the rink. More often we walked the two-mile route, making a short cut over Pinhook Creek to come up in the field behind Carter's.  It was a treacherous route when the creek had risen, and sometimes we arrived at our destination with soaked tennis shoes and soggy pants legs. At first it was just the anguish and then fun of the sport itself before I eventually realized I finally found my calling. My brother, Don, had always been an athlete, and was good at all the high school sports. I was much smaller than him, not athletic at all, and living in his shadow most of my life. It was on the skate floor at Carter's where I found I had a natural talent hiding inside me, and the much-required balance needed to become a master of roller skating. I felt inspired by the 1950 Mickey Rooney film I had seen at the Center Theater on one of my early trips to the 10-cent second-run movie house. “The Fireball” was a film in which Mickey portrayed a roller derby beginner who rose to fame as a skater. Perhaps it was because Mickey Rooney was small like me that the story moved me, I’ll never know for sure. I would tell myself “I’m the fireball” as I circled the roller rink. Unfortunately I shared this secret with Mack Yates, a Boy Scout friend, one night and to my regret he replied, “You’re not a fireball, you're more like a butterball!” He would still call me by that nickname, even today, if we met.

    It was in the music filled, spotlight lit, kid infested arena where I first started noticing girls. Eventually I built up the nerve to ask a girl to skate with me. In the beginning, following normal rink-accepted protocol, I just held a girl’s hand when I first skated with her.  As skills progressed the simple hand holding was replaced with me taking her left hand in mine and me placing my right hand on her curved waist. Once I mastered skating backwards I could face her and place both hands on both hips while she put her hands on my shoulders or neck. The close face to face contact was exciting for a teenager exploring puberty. 

    It was always a thrill when I got there early and waited on bated breath to see if a particular girl would show up, and a thrill of relief to catch the sight of her at the window buying her ticket. That was long before I had the nerve to make a phone call to find out in advance if she was planning on coming. Over time I always seemed to get a crush on some particular girl and my hormones raced at the sight of her. It would take much more nerve and several more years to eventually build up the courage to actually ask a girl for a date.

    I remember a faithful New Year's Eve I spent at Carter's with my crowd of friends including someone for whom I had particular feelings. There was a special New Year's Eve party after the normal skating session that night.  There were hats and noise makers, and I and my best friend at the time were enjoying the merriment.  It was an exceptional night, with a live band instead of the normal 45-rpm records spinning.  As the midnight hour rolled near, we all stopped skating and huddled in a large group in front of the band.  I was standing with my best friend, the girl I liked, her friend, and a whole crowd of other nameless faces.

    I had planned my actions for the moment well in advance.  As the clock struck midnight, I would take my girl in my arms and kiss her, right on the lips. It would be a first.  I had never even had a real date with her, much less mouth-to-mouth contact.  I had just been with her at the skating rink and we skated most of the couple’s skate sessions together.  I knew she felt the same way about me as I did about her, but also was aware she was just as shy as I was.  That night, we would be given the perfect excuse to elevate our relationship.  Anticipation built up inside of me as the countdown to midnight and the new year started.  

    I positioned myself near her. We all counted down from ten, just like on television. Five, four, three, two, one, Happy New Year!  The shouts went out. The noise makers filled our ears. I turned toward her.  I gathered all the nerve I could muster inside me and prepared myself for the big moment.  As the celebration exploded, she made a move. She turned. Then she threw herself into the open arms of my best friend standing beside me.  I stood in silence.  Wait a minute.  "Is this a country and western song?  What's going on?  This isn't really happening.  Things like this only happen in movies, not in real life."  My best friend stood there and kissed my girl.

    The crushing experience left an impact on my young mind.  I felt like a fool, dazed beyond words.  I just stood there, with the two of them together.  I didn't even get a second-place hug.  I was so embarrassed by the event that I didn't stay long enough to see if she would hug me when she finally let go of him.  I didn't really want to know.  I dropped my head and must have looked like Eeyore as I skated off feeling sorry for myself, as the band played "Should auld acquaintance be forgot ...."

 Don't miss the next thrilling chapter of "The Fireball" appearing in this publication next week...!


        Memphis, TN - My creative writing group wanted me to write a little more about my roller skating experiences, so I whipped up my "The Fireball" story to appease them. Most of the stories I have written for the group are too long for one issue of Lee's Traveller, so I have to break them down into two parts and run them for two weeks.


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