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Derby Demo: Two skaters roll with the crunches at a Bay City Bombers game.

Roller Boogie of Doom!

Metropolitan's Harmon Leon takes on the Bay City Bombers

By Harmon Leon

Hayward, California, is home to the Bay City Bombers, formed in 1954. Many derby greats were spawned here. Hayward is to roller derby what Texas is to serial killers. A banked oval metal track lies in the center of the Hayward High gym. Several skaters zip around. Others sit on the bleachers, putting on skates. Collectively, this is not a pretty bunch. Big in the '70s, the game's still populated by original cast members. I'm younger than some players by a good 20 years.

A red-haired boy on Rollerblades leans over the rail. He's the son of one of the derby queens. (That sounds like a schoolyard insult, "You're momma's in the roller derby!")

"Are you a skater? Are you on the team?" he asks. Normally I'd lie, but I'm surrounded by skating thugs.

"Maybe. If I practice enough."

"I'm going to knock you down!" threatens the little boy. He reminds me of the hillbilly kid with the banjo in Deliverance, foreshadowing the danger to come.

A large guy smashes another into the rail, then playfully puts him in a headlock. Another skates under someone's leg. As a scrappy lad growing up in Minnesota, I used to play hockey. Maybe I'll be naturally adapted to the roller derby. This could be my true calling!

I put on my borrowed "quads" and pads. Though Rollerblades are faster, the four-wheel skates I'm used to add stability--important when slammed into a rail. Unfortunately, I've only skated on Rollerblades.

"How do you stop?!" I whisper to a man with a clipboard. He looks at me like I'm a complete idiot, telling me to drag my back foot.

"Behind!" screams a fast-approaching voice. What does this mean, I wonder?

"Behind!!" screams the voice louder. A very angry, frizzy-haired amazon woman whirls past. I almost got leveled by roller-derby legend Sherry Erich, known in her prime as "The Very Pretty Sherry Erich," whose Bomber career began in 1971. I act unfazed by my major roller faux pas. If I show intimidation, I'm done. Instead, I make my angry war-face.

On the track, two skaters lock arms, then hit the metal as another skater plows through. Our training is led by a woman with the skating handle "The Queen of Mean." She's known for being the "meanest woman" not only in roller derby, but "in all sports." The Queen of Mean looks like Fred Flintstone's sister.

"Cut high," shouts The Queen of Mean as I skate by.

My ankles kill me. Sweat inhabits my brow. The whistle blows. The lead skater sprints around the track to the back of the line. Other skaters get cheered. I get complete silence. I have to work harder or else I'll be labeled "new guy."

"Are you tired yet?" whines the annoying red-haired kid. I wish I knew a flying body block.

A contingent of old-time roller-derby stars from the 1950s sits by the side of the track. The women have beehive hairdos. The men have short, gray, slicked-back hair. This is a reunion.

"Dig! Dig! Dig!" screams an old-timer with a cane. He signals me over, pointing where I should cut my turn. Good advice--since this man was responsible for training almost every skater here today. He is Burgess Meredith to my Rocky Balboa.

"Watch that cane," shrieks a speeding skater whose wheels almost get accidentally taken out.

I finish practice. An old woman in a wheelchair tells me I did good for my first time. She is a former roller- derby queen. During the '50s she skated across the Bay Bridge for her derby tryout.

Roller derby began in 1935 during the Depression. In the era of dance marathons, the idea was to hold these contests on skates. When the first elbow was thrown, roller derby was born. From the start, more than half of the derby audience was comprised of women. It was also the first sport where women got paid to compete. With the advent of TV, skaters became instant celebrities, as in other "entertainment" sports like the WWF. It's kitsch! It's camp! It's retro!


Mission Accomplished? The man, the plan, the 'Harm-A-Lator."


The Game

I'm kinda sick of roller derby by the last day of practice. There's a large, painful, bloody blister the size of Rhode Island on my foot. Each crossover feels like a large nail being driven into the side of my foot. The thrill is gone, baby. I walk around like Lost In Space's Dr. Smith.

"Oh the pain, the pain!"

Fortunately, today is the game against the Orlando Thunder. I assemble with the Bombers on the bleachers an hour before roll-off time, hoping to get called into action.

"Don't hurt anyone and don't hurt yourself," advises the man holding a clipboard. Very wise advice. He also suggests locking up belongings because things get stolen every match. Also very wise advice.

"Wait for your musical cue, then come in and smile," he directs for rink entrance.

The Orlando Thunder team arrives. Look out! They're dressed in "fancy" clothes, pulling roller-suitcases. Their most notorious skater is "Icebox." At 6 foot 3 and 420 pounds, Icebox looks like Fat Albert--his most devious move, the "Deep Freeze." Essentially, it means jumping on top of a skater.

Roller-derby fans are a piece of work. They filter into the gym. It's an older trailer-trash crowd with gland disorders. The packed gym is very hot. It smells like warm Spam. Night Ranger blares in my head. A guy wearing a "Wrestling Is Hardcore" T-shirt spits tobacco juice on the floor. Others look hardened like they've done prison stints. A core group of ladies with beehives sits center. I'm in a time capsule, a game out of time, transplanted into a modern world.

"I've seen you skating," says an English guy working with a camera crew. "Do you have ambitions to make it on the Bombers?"

"I AM the future of roller derby." I puff out my chest with mock-confidence, pointing to a woman with a sign saying "The Future of Rollerderby ... Dan Phister!"

"Ladies and Gentlemen. Please welcome America's team, the Bay City Bombers!" There's huge whoops and hollers. Fans go to their feet. The Bombers skate onto the track to Neil Diamond's "America." The World Champion Bombers' uniform looks like dated Burger King outfits: brown and orange, tight stretch pants with small, tight shorts over them. The Thunder's uniforms are superior.

Roller derby consists of eight 10-minute periods. Women and men alternate. The team has five skaters. Two "jammers" in striped helmets are at the rear of the pack. When jammers burst through and lap the pack, a 60-second clock starts. Points are given for each opposing skater passed.

The women skate first. A fight breaks out on the rail. Cool! It's a catfight. There's hair-pulling. Sherry Erich hits someone with her helmet.

"If you want to pick on somebody, you pick on me!" she screams.

The old woman with the walker goes up to the rink yelling abuse. Then she shakes her head, smiles and sits back down.

The male Bombers are up.

"Icebox has just informed the crowd that the Bombers will not push his team around," states the announcer. Icebox throws himself into the Bombers' team bench. Icebox is the clown prince of whoop-ass. Another team brawl breaks out. Skaters are being hit with chairs. Why all the fighting? Can't we just get along? Surprisingly, no blood. The fans love it.

"Anyone else?" states the announcer when the fighting ceases.

I've been training all week. Not once did we learn how to hit someone with a chair. Maybe I showed up late for the chair-hitting lessons. I question the legitimacy of any event with chair-hitting. If this were real, wouldn't people hit each other with an array of things? A hammer. Rocks.

In the end, the World Champion Bombers lose 45 to 48. Outside, Icebox is smiling, arms around two little kids, having his picture taken. Icebox is a very complex man. This evening he's displayed two of the three sides of Freud's stages of psychological development: The Id and The Ego.

I limp quickly back to my car. Nothing can be uglier than a Saturday night post-roller-derby crowd in Hayward, California. A large truck burns donuts in the high school parking lot. Driving home, passing cars, I have a desire to smash into the sides of other vehicles, overtaking them with speed around corners. That night, I have gliding dreams about cruising around tracks. The dream abruptly ends by an elbow to the head. Long live the Roller Derby!

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From the October 11, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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