Every winter, Ballenger Park was the place to be, so much so that our anticipation and excitement would start building just after Halloween. In our neighborhood, Thanksgiving Day had dual significance; Northern and Central squared off down at Atwood Stadium, and there was ice at Ballenger Park. As an adult I’m overwhelmed with the strong memories of all the things that took place on that simple sheet of ice spread across three tennis courts.
The memories are as diverse as they are endless. I was actually in Flint a couple of years ago and drove to the Park. I immediately saw that the tennis courts, the fence, the buildings, the sidewalk… they are all gone, the entire area now covered with grass. No matter, getting out of the car and venturing onto the grass was like stepping into a time machine. Closing my eyes, I “saw” the green boxes near the street, I heard the music, I smelled the popcorn. Looking through the fence I saw (and even heard) the hundreds of kids, young and old, circling the rink, laughing, playing tag, standing in the middle. I recalled the smiling face of a beautiful young blond girl named Brenda whom I absolutely adored, yet to whom I probably never spoke more than a single word in four years. I think I might have stammered out “Hi” to her a couple of times (we fellas learn young that some girls are simply unapproachable because they are just too pretty, or more accurately, we are just too nervous).
Turning, I heard the announcement to clear the ice, and saw many of the “regulars” lining up at the gate by the small brick building and grabbing snow shovels to help clear the snow from the surface of the rink. Then came the Ice Monitors using special shovels, the “fine-scrapers” to remove the last bits of ice shavings. Of course now the REAL show would begin. All of us kids watched with rapt amazement as a man wearing unbuckled goulashes pushed the small, red “Zamboni” with steam coming out of the front around the rink, resurfacing the ice to a brand new shine. We were never able to figure out just how in the heck did hot water make cold ice??? So many powerful memories.
Never did you get to know so many people so well. It was almost like going to a junior high dance every night for four months. Though I don’t remember anyone ever getting hurt, I do remember experiencing just about every emotion possible, joy, fear, happiness, anguish, elation, grief, rejoicing, sorrow, euphoria, torment, relief, exuberance, tension, love, hate, lust, sorrow, confusion and delight, often all on the same day.
Ballenger Park during this time holds an almost magical place in my memory. As a teenager it was the premier social experience, complicated by the fact that too much of our time was devoted to the pursuit of two of the most important adolescent objectives; look cool and avoid embarrassment. Spare no expense, and go to any lengths necessary. I sincerely believe that if teenagers back then were asked to rewrite the Ten Commandments, we would have shortened them to just those two, look cool and avoid embarrassment, that’s it. And yet, being teenagers, we could never understand why something that seemed so simple would be so incredibly difficult.
All day long we skated, and laughed, and chased each other around the ice. The Park regulars were there almost every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the entire winter. And though the temperature occasionally dropped below zero, I don’t remember ever being cold. That is, until the end of the night when it came time to venture out onto the Dupont sidewalk for the long walk home, with my sister Nancy either two steps in front, or two steps behind me.
At that time in her life, my sister wasn’t much of an athlete, but she sure could skate. Looking back, I recall secretly admiring the way that it seemed to come to her so naturally. She had long hair then, and I remember it flowing behind her as she skated around in her windbreaker. Regardless of the temperature conditions, it seemed like she always wore a windbreaker. Windbreakers were cool, and she was cool. In my big heavy winter coat, I was not. Every winter at the Park we made lots of new friends, fell in and out of love a few dozen times (not with each other of course), had lots of fun, and learned absolutely nothing that might someday benefit us as adults. Given the chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
I would imagine that everyone from that time has their own collection of special memories about Ballenger Park. In addition, I also believe that the Park I remember may be quite different from the one many others remember, and that’s absolutely fine. These are my memories, and I have very much enjoyed exploring and sharing them after more than 45 years. It is my sincere hope that by publishing this collection of memories, I will help others to re-visit their own special (hopefully good) memories about Ballenger Park during that time in THEIR lives.
I sincerely appreciate your taking the time to read this, I hope you enjoy!
This is dedicated to Mom & Dad, Benji, Hobbie, Brenda, Clifford, Danny, Danny Ray, Donnie, Jeff, Kathy, Nancy, and Sue. My deepest thanks to all of you for helping to shape that period of my life.
Ballenger Park was surrounded by traditional blue-collar neighborhoods, and practically everyone who learned to skate at the Park started out by renting skates. Figure skates. 75 cents for brown, $1.00 for black or white. For an additional 25 cents, you could be spared the ridicule that was common to the wearers of the horrible brown skates. Before I earned my own skates, I remember spending the first 10 minutes of many days looking around the clubhouse hoping that nobody cool was there that day so I could save a quarter. Of course then you spent the entire day worrying that somebody cool might show up, and you’d be standing there looking stupid in your brown skates. This in fact happened every day.
At the Concession counter hot chocolate was 15 cents. Even during the most trying economic times, most kids would try to make sure to always arrive at the Park with at least an extra 30 cents in their pockets. Sadly, since our parents never really explained to us that just because your hands are cold, and your face is cold, and your feet are cold, that doesn’t mean the inside of your mouth is cold. As a result, by arriving at the park with 30 cents, you effectively doubled your chances of scalding your tongue. The burns usually healed by Wednesday.
No matter who you were (even the cool people) you spent the month of December with blisters on your heels. To avoid embarrassment, some of us would put on our Band-Aids at home, only to find them nicely pressed flat in the bottom of our shoes after the walk to the Park. Otherwise, your only option was to put them on while balancing on one foot in the Clubhouse bathroom. For some unknown reason, if your blisters became public knowledge you were not cool. However, there was one exception to this: If your blisters got really bad and started to bleed and you continued to skate as though nothing was wrong, even shrugging your shoulders like “Hey, no big deal” well… you were really cool. Except of course if the blisters became infected and you had to go to the school nurse on Tuesday, then you were just plain stupid.
The Transition Area
The Park is located at the corner of Dupont and Flushing, two busy streets, potentially a dangerous place. However, the MOST dangerous place in the entire Park wasn’t near the street, it wasn’t even out on the ice. It was the Transition Area, where the rubber runners from the Clubhouse met the ice. In order to get on or off the ice you had to navigate the dreaded Transition Area. This was often complicated by the fact that there were usually anywhere from five to fifteen people (most wearing brown skates) either standing around or moving about on a dark wet rubber surface which sloped downhill away from the edge of the rink. I think more people fell in the Transition Area than fell on the ice. The worst part was that no matter what happened, whether anyone was around or not, whether you totally wiped out and fell on your face, or just slipped a little and grabbed onto the railing or the fencepost, by the time you made it into the Clubhouse, everyone inside had somehow already heard about it and was laughing at you.
Though falling down was bad, falling down in front of someone that you had hoped to make out with someday was even worse. However, the embarrassment of falling down was inversely proportional to whatever it was you were doing that led to you falling down. Fall during a double axle toe loop, no problem (except that NOBODY ever even tried that in all the years there was ice at the Park). Fall while walking around in the clubhouse carrying a full box of popcorn, big problem! Fall while skating around trying to impress your idiot friends, small problem. BUT… as a guy, falling down while skating, holding hands with the girl of your dreams… right, HUGE PROBLEM. In fact, if that happened you should just call it a year and wait until next winter to come skating again. Who knows, maybe you’ll change a lot in nine months and nobody will recognize you. Better yet, maybe over the summer your family will move to another state where they don’t have skating, like Brazil.
Tricks – Jokes – Fool Your Friends
As previously mentioned, like all adolescents we spent great amounts of energy trying to “look good.” Of course, as enterprising young Americans we quickly discovered that the most expedient way to look good was to make somebody else nearby look… bad. After all, if everyone else consistently looked really stupid, you could just stand there doing absolutely nothing, and by comparison, look great!
Inside the Clubhouse near the fireplace there was a door. Behind the door was the “secret” office. Inside (a place were only royalty ventured) there was a reel-to-reel tape player that played the same music every day and every night, a mixture of 60’s rock and Motown. The same tapes, in the same sequence, over and over and over again. Nowadays they call this mind control. You could always tell who the serious skaters were, because by Christmas, they knew all of the words to all of the songs all day long. You even got to know their order and it became sort of a way of telling time: “Hey man, we’re gonna leave around Sugar Pie Honey Bunch or Cherry Hill Park, but don’t worry, we’ll be back by Incense and Peppermints.”
There was often as much action on the sidewalk between the Clubhouse and Dupont Street as there was on the ice. People coming and going, throwing snowballs, checking out who was there, and saying hi and bye. The sidewalk also tested one’s ability early on in life to make tough choices. Suppose your “girlfriend” had to leave early, would you go in to take off your skates and put on your shoes just to walk her from the Clubhouse to the street? Or would you settle for a goodbye through the fence? (Of course goodbye through the fence meant risking being seen in the Beginner Area – more on that later.) For a thirteen-year-old these are tough choices! I mean, you came to skate, not to walk. And besides, usually her parents were waiting for her, and you had to sort of try to sneak in a quick kiss about halfway there, hoping they wouldn’t see you. This was especially a problem if you were glad she was leaving. However, the nightmare really spun out of control if the person that maybe you were hoping to skate with later on (or her friends) just happened to be on the ice and looking toward the sidewalk at that time. Your night came to an end in more ways than one.
The Beginner Area
Along one side of the ice rink was an area separated from the main rink by a rope tied to metal poles set inside metal rims mounted with tires. (Sidenote: this set-up would not exist today since it would generate an OSHA fine equivalent to the entire city operating budget.) This area was the Beginner Skater Area. One was simply not seen in the Beginner Area for any reason! Heaven forbid you should fall while skating near or toward the Beginner Area. Regardless of how you twisted, turned and clawed at the slippery ice, your own momentum carried you underneath the rope and into the Beginner Area. Moments ago you were the fastest, coolest, most styling guy around. Now you’re just a pitiful dork, laying on the ice, in the Beginner Area. Standing over you is some goofy seven-year-old kid wearing 30 pounds of mismatched winter clothing (and brown skates) looking down at you and saying “What’s the matter, can’t you skate?”
For months I suffered through brown skate anxiety. I didn’t want to be a committed figure-skater, learning jumps and spins (and I really didn’t want to wear pastels and sequins). I had hockey skates for a while, and those were pretty cool, but a hockey skater who isn’t a hockey player is a hockey poser (poser = not cool). So… I decided I just had to have speed skates. Fast, sleek, distinctive… cool! My Dad and I went downtown to All Sports and bought a new pair of Planert Winners for $21. Of course then I had to have skaverts, and a skate sharpening jig. If you’ve ever seen a speed skate sharpening jig then you know it was designed by the same guy who later invented Rubik’s Cube. However, the jig puzzle was only the beginning. I also needed two sharpening stones, and a burr stone, and Three-in-One oil. And rags, lots of rags. Then I needed a gym bag in which to carry around all of this stuff. You’ll recall the original objective of looking cool? Well… while anyone who showed up at the Park with speed skates was sort of cool, if you showed up with speed skates and a jig, AND could put it together right there in front of everyone, well, you instantly became the Teen Idol of that era. Sadly, I have to admit that for some reason it never quite worked out that way for me – I think maybe it was the Longfellow gym bag. Anyway, I thought all this equipment would result in me going faster, which was partially correct. This also enabled me to spend hundreds of hours at home, alone in the basement, sharpening my speed skates.
There eventually came a time when everybody, and I mean everybody who was anybody (even the macho hockey guys) had fluffy colored balls (with bells in the center) tied to their skates. I think then they were called pom-poms. Now they’re called cat toys, and mine were orange and black. Each Ice Monitor had their own distinct color combination, and all of us minions demonstrated allegiance by wearing our idols’ “colors.” Back then our proud parents were happy that we were “fitting in.” However, I’m reasonably confident that today local social services workers would express their alarm at this, calling it “ritual gang behavior.”
“Its Race Time at Ballenger Park Race Track!!”
Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, it was Race Time. The music would abruptly stop, Mrs. Benjamin would make the announcement over the PA and four things would simultaneously unfold: The regular race “fans” would head for the green boxes; the non-fans would collectively groan and head inside for popcorn and hot chocolate; the ice monitors would start setting up the “track;” and the “racers” would instantly start warming up by tearing around the rink as fast as they could while everyone else was screaming and trying to get the hell out of the way. This “warming-up” was really just posturing and showing off, but the immediate result was basically an on-ice Chinese Fire Drill. Fortunately, after a minute or two of dangerous pre-race chaos, things calmed down and you ended up with a bunch of people standing around waiting for Mrs. B to call the first race.
There were all manner of races, beginners race, boys race, girls race, different age groups, etc., and races were anywhere from 1-6 laps. However, be advised this was NOT the sleek pace-line racing we see today on TV. No, this was more like roller derby on ice, without the helmets. I think the sports term “full-contact” was originally coined at the Ballenger Park Race Track. There was even a backwards skating race, and to the best of my memory, that category was OWNED by a guy named Mark, who eventually left the ice to go onto liquid water fame and fortune.
Anyway, after a while the hockey skaters got tired of always losing to the speed skaters. Since most of the Ice Monitors were hockey skaters, they changed the race course from the typical 4-cornered oval to the 6-cornered “Christmas Tree.” For a while, no speed skater won a race, but that was ok because we got to stand around and watch all the hockey skaters crash head-on into each other trying to negotiate around the inside cones. Once the number of hockey skate racers declined due to bruised knees and concussions, the 4 corner oval returned. All this effort for the hope of winning so you could proudly swagger inside the Clubhouse to collect your Grand Prize: A free small box of popcorn (with extra salt).
Footnote: Even though no race “participation ribbons” were EVER given, we all somehow managed to cope with our psyches no worse off than before. I guess we were just a lot tougher than kids nowadays, which, as Park Kids, we already knew!
I will use the word “relationship” with some trepidation. On any given Saturday, it was not unusual to start a relationship at lunchtime, break up later that afternoon, and have a new relationship that night. Well, for me it would’ve been unusual, in fact having any relationship would’ve been unusual, but for the normal kids it wasn’t that unusual at all. But truth be told, we really didn’t have relationships back then. If you were lucky, you were “going with” someone. Again, in many cases, these relationships often lasted mere hours, or at best, days.
“Hi there, I was wondering if you would like to skate with me?”
“I don’t know, aren’t you going with so-and-so?”
“What? That was yesterday!”
A long-term relationship was one that lasted from one weekend to the next. And if, for some miraculous reason, you managed to sustain a relationship for two consecutive weekends, you were no longer going together, you were married.
Even more interesting was the way these relationships began and ended. Early one evening, you’re just skating around minding your own business when out of the corner of your eye you noticed three or four girls huddled together looking at you and giggling (“oh great, they’ve seen my brown skates!”). You try to smile back, but due to your 2nd degree hot chocolate burns, you’re only able to manage a grimace. Finally, one or more of them comes over to you and says “so-and-so likes you.” By simply saying “OK” you and so-and-so were now “going together” and could avail yourself to all of the associated benefits (and anxiety). That is, of course, until later that night when those very same friends came up to you and said “so-and-so doesn’t like you anymore.” I’m quite certain that each of these “friends” grew up to become attorneys.
One of the anticipated benefits of “going together” was that maybe, just maybe, the two of you might go out back! Out Back. Two words that set every hormone-laden male teenage heart racing into the triple digits. Sadly, I was never fortunate enough to get out back. Oh I heard a lot about it, and there were many rumors and unconfirmed reports of how so-and-so went out back with so-and-so and what happened. In fact, one of my buddies said his older brother knew a guy who had pictures! It seemed that by the end of January, everyone had been out back at least once. Everyone that is, except me. That’s OK though, because I’m sure that had I ever attempted to take someone out back, I would’ve been the one person that winter who got caught, or even worse, I would have somehow managed to hurt myself.
Battle of the Bands
Next to the ice rink was a small enclosed structure made of plywood with two picture windows facing the ice rink. Occasionally this “room” would house that night’s contestants in Ballenger Park’s “Battle of the Bands.” Two local rock bands jammed into an unheated wooden box the size of your kitchen. The “bands” would take turns playing “songs,” usually trying to see who could commit the least amount of three-chord malpractice. The winner was determined by whichever band collected the most “votes” from that night’s skaters, votes being that evening’s ticket stub. You voted by giving your ticket stub to one of the two girls standing with a coffee can outside the box in front of each band. As such, the quality of music didn’t really matter much. Regardless of which band played the best (or least worst), the band that had the prettiest girl collecting their votes ALWAYS won. This phenomenon continues to occur today, although it’s no longer called “Battle of the Bands,” now it’s called “politics.”
When the sun went down the floodlights came on. Depending upon how many were burned out, there were anywhere from 12 to 18 colored lights spread around the perimeter of the ice rink. Orange, red, green and blue. The result was that at nighttime on the ice it was DARK! Hundreds of crazy kids careening around on ice wearing sharp metal blades on their feet, in the dark. What a great idea. This must’ve been prior to the creation of Child Endangerment laws. Of course, if you stuck around until the end of the night, there was enough light for you to either get a good start on your Spring Break tan or possibly develop cataracts. Directly overhead hung what had to be six or seven hundred thousand watts of bright white lights. When these lights were turned on at the end of the night, everybody screamed, and, the Ballenger Park ice rink could be seen from outer space.
The Worst Possible Thing
As with all good things, we must recognize that no fun endeavor is without risk. Among the Park regulars, it was generally accepted that THE worst possible thing that could possibly happen to any poor, unsuspecting, innocent teenager was… to have one’s parents appear on the ice… wearing skates! OMG! Even now just the thought of it still sends shivers down my spine. You’re only salvation was that, in time (like over the summer) everyone usually forgot about it… and, well… almost everyone.
Finally, at the end of night, you go into clubhouse and while taking off your skates, you make the mistake of putting your foot down onto the clubhouse floor. Congratulations! You now get to experience the joy of walking all the way home wearing a cold wet sock.
See you next winter.
David M Wilson, November 17, 1998 Copyright 1998, 2016, 2017.