Do I really want to go? How long does roller derby last? What will the crowd be like? Questions I was asking myself up to 2 days before the event. I could not argue with the price, $9 a ticket plus fees. I skipped a rock across Facebook to see if it would create any waves. Nothing but flatness, oh well, why the hell not go? As a kid from the late 60’s, early 70’s–my mom, brother, and sister would stay up past midnight on Saturdays and watch Roller Derby. If Mom couldn’t sleep, we got the green light.
We watched prime time television, NBC, ABC, CBS, KTVT (local independent), the news, then Johnny Carson highlights or a b-rated film usually horror or Sci-Fi. At midnight, the local NBC affiliate covered live, local wrestling. Mom would pop popcorn and open a few bottles of RC-Cola. A special late-night treat was roasted red skin peanuts, MoonPies, or Cherry Mash. If Dad stayed up, he would funnel a handful of peanuts down the narrow throat of a bottle of RC then chew them down with cola. We all cringed, but when I tried as an adult, it was delicious.
Before Pro Wrestling went Hollywood with Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Rowdy Piper, Rick flare “The Nature Boy,” and “MachoMan” Randy Savage; before extreme production values, character gimmicks, and fireworks, the personalities were usually 40, 50-something year old men in black tights or just a large Speedo with grandma sensibilities. Effects amounted to cheers and jeers from the crowd and a loud single chime bell. I can still hear it, especially when things got out of control and an excited scorekeeper chimes in with desperate and syncopated, random J.P. Sousa. The talent wore black lace-up boots. The strings almost reached the knee and the wrestlers punctuated stomping with a double apostrophe. On occasion, the ticket would have a masked visitor or guest from another city federation, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Miami.
The local hero or villain (POV) was Fritz Von Eric. He wore the black tights. His bulbous nose reminded me of Karl Malden’s on The Streets of San Francisco, but bent far to the right, an obvious flesh-medal of honor. He was in his fifties, 6 ft. or so, heavy set not fat but svelte, with a deep raspy voice. He talked fast, and at low volume, I could only catch every 3rd or 5th word. The interview was always the same, a description of how he was going to maul a rival next weekend. Fritzy would call them out, and occasionally (probably during rating sweeps), the opponent showed up in a suit that barely fit, a conservative tie, and in a mask or not. Inevitably the opponent would steal the microphone, and they would trade epitaphs. Von Eric’s signature move was the Iron Claw. He would grab an opponent by the skull above their eyes and squeeze them into submission with his thumb and fingers. He had enormous hands. We knew it was coming, and anticipated it with wide eyes. Of course bigger names from around the country could break free and reverse submission on Fritz, but it was rare. We all wanted Von Eric as a neighbor, coach, or uncle.
After wrestling, if Mom was up for it, or we were still awake, NBC broadcasted Professional Roller Derby from around the country. Fort Worth didn’t have a hometown team, so my favorite was the Bay City Bombers. We didn’t have rollerblades or even neoprene wheels. Our skates clamped onto a shoe with a key, and road rough on eight, side-by-side, metal wheels. Watch out for those rocks. They were slow and loud, but that didn’t stop my brother and I from imitating blocks and fakes that we saw in the derby. We didn’t have safety gear either, so we only mimed falls and over the ring tumbles. As boys, if frustration led to anger, it was common to suffer blood-rash abrasions or large black and blues from surprise bumps or revenge shoves.
I’d never witnessed a live Roller Derby bout until 35 years later. It was a pleasure to watch my childhood favorite, the Bay City Bombers skate against the L.A/San Diego Firebirds. Kezer is a small stadium in Golden Gate Park seating about 5000. A third of it was blocked off for a rescue dog demonstration between bouts, but the place was filled to the brim, 3500 first-timers and long time fans turned out. The event announcer said it was a record crowd.
The teams skated onto the 45-degree banked, wooden oval with exciting fan fare, screams of joy and elation for the Bay City Bombers; and jeers and boos of spite or spikes for the LA/San Diego Firebirds. The pros are not young tattooed wonder-kin punks, bobbing and strutting their feathers to impress the alpha mob sensibilities. No, the pros are tough 40, 50-year old men and women with paunchy guts and grey hair. ”HOLY ABEC-5, thrashers, how they can skate.” I hope I am as nimble, engaged, and can take that level of abuse when I catch up to them.
Anticipation heats up the small stadium, so fans strip-off coats, sweaters, and shirts. The bleacher style seats are hard wood, and synchronous stomping is an acceptable, even encouraged form of appreciation. The rules are simple. Two teams of women, 5 each, skate two rounds then the male teams skate two, and repeat. Two skaters on each team are Jammers. Each wears a stripe helmet and starts at the back of both teams’ packs skating together. The jammers attempt to break though the pack then lead it. If successful, the Jammers chase the pack’s tail, and for every opposing member they pass and lap, their team scores a point. The first jammer to score controls scoring for the rest of the jam, and can call it off anytime by putting their hands on their hips, signaling to the refs that they are done. Penalty points are possible in extreme cases and penalties can include time out on the bench.
The Firebirds took advantage of more than one three-to-five bout. The rules for penalties are like smoke. Not precise in definition, but obviously a fire when the refs smell it. The primary offenses are unnecessary rough stuff or skating against the anti-clockwise flow. Of course, if the Ref doesn’t see it, then it didn’t happen. When the opposing team is sprawled out all over the ring or over the top rail, a maximum score is possible when a jammer laps the opposing team multiple times.
The infield is not allowed to interfere with the jam, but if the 3 Refs are breaking up a fight on the opposite side of the track, anything goes. The coach of the Firebirds, Icebox, meddled on the sly many times. A big man, 6’2, 300 lbs. shaved head and a long reach, Icebox–cool as a cucumber, unconcerned, following the action as it loops round the track–wandered to the inside-edge and pulled down two Bomber blockers. The Refs were busy and saw nothing. The Firebird Jammer scored 10 points.
During a men’s team jam, Icebox jumped into the center of the track, held his arms straight out to his side, so two Bomber jammers, who could not alter course fast enough, hooked their throats on his arms. The close-line is an old school wrestling move. Boos and jeers filled the stadium for several minutes, as the Firebirds scored two points. In a following jam, the Refs were retrieving a Firebird from atop the rail, when Icebox attempted the close-line again on two Bombers. He hopped on the wood too soon, and both jammers jumped into the air arm-in-arm, floating/flying parallel to the ground, and landed 16-wheels to Icebox’s fruit-box. He when down hard with the skaters on top of him, bringing the crowd to it’s feet.
Anytime he knocked a male or female Bomber down, Icebox turned to the crowd or referees and lifted his open palms to the rafters, “what me?” A true showman of the game, he heckles the Bombers and their hometown fans at his fancy. Several chants rise up from the crowd.
“Sit down Icebox.”
“Out, out, throw the whale out.”
“Back to LA, LA land looser.”
Icebox relished harassing the women’s team, but karma will soon smack him. During a women’s jam, the team captain is 3rd blocker with both Firebird jammers closing fast. The Bomber jammers were tripped up and joined the front of the pack to block. The captain, Lall O., looked over her shoulder and forward, over her shoulder and forward, setting up to reinforce a double block for two teammates. Icebox is up on his feet again near the track edge, yelling instructions, and while the referees are following the jammers, he looks away as his foot slyly bumps Lall’s lead skate, then runs back to his seat. She pitches forward and over-corrects, pitching backwards. Her hands roll above her head as she attempts to correct again, but it’s too late. She falls hard and knocks down the other two blockers. The Firebirds score six points. They quickly call off the jam as the rest of the Bomber’s bench jumped to their feet.
As the Firebird Jammers roll around to the Bombers side of the track, they are both tossed over the rail and a melee ensues on the concrete. The referees jump off the track and stadium security braces for the crowd. A mob is up on its feet, moving towards the action, and seeking revenge. At the same time, the women’s Bomber captain, Lall O. is up, recovered, and rolls down into the Firebird infield. She endures a steady stream of put-downs from Icebox. She skates over to him and offers a towel for his bald dripping head. He takes it, but the epitaphs continue. Lall O. leans into his face; “BAM!” her right fist arcs wide from out of nowhere, and lands squarely on Icebox’s cheek. He’s on the ground and out. The referees bring the skaters under control while security and stadium administration admonishes the crowd. The announcer threatens to disqualify the Bombers, if the crowd does not take its seat.
The men skate last. Revenge is sweet, because in the last jam, in a synchronous move with help from the women’s infield, the Bombers shove all the Firebirds to the wood, as two Bomber jammers fly in and out around the pods of flying fists, elbows, and wheels. The Bombers score 20 points and the match is over. Bay City Bombers win and are now half a game out of first place.
It’s hot and my face is red; sweat pours from my forehead, and my black t-shirt is soaked. I catch my breath, I am tired, and my vocal cords are tightening up. I walk down to the track and shake hands with several of the bombers. Icebox passes by, so I pat him on the shoulder and congratulate him for wonderful showmanship and sportsman-like conduct. IMO, even though the Firebirds lost, Icebox deserves the match wheel.
Wow, professional roller derby is more than I ever imagined. Will I attend another game? Bombers 60, Firebirds 40, hard bench no back, spit, thumps, scrapes, hyperbole and pathos, 16 wheels to the groin, screaming your lungs out for 2 hours and 45 minutes = catharsis. And, I am still hoping for a Pro Wrestling, heavy metal opera or musical: how about Rammstein, Serj Tankian, Apocalyptica, Queens of the Stone Age, or Audioslave; or even, the Chili Peppers or the Beastie Boys? David Bryne?
The next Bay City Bombers, SF match is 25 April at 8:00 P.M. against the Brooklyn Red Devils. “Glamour, fishnets, and lace come to the Bombers.” Will call opens at six, doors open at seven, and warm-up starts at 7:30. Get your tickets early, and if Will Call show up when the box opens, because if the turnout is like the last match, you will have to wait at least 30 minutes to get your tickets.