Friday, March 12, 2010

It only takes one bout to get hooked on roller derby

Actually, my first bout was a double header. But I was sold in the first ten minutes.

After getting and watching a copy of Blood on the Flat Track, I find myself thinking back to my very first roller derby bout.  It’s the summer of 2007, and I’m planning a visit to family and friends in the Seattle area, and I get an e-mail from my friend Rich.  Rich says, “I got season tickets to Rat City roller derby. Wanna come? You can’t go wrong with girls on skates!”  “Oh, okay,” I reply. 

At this point, my only knowledge of roller derby consists of some photos from Daveed’s Noise to Signal blog and some fierce-looking photos of Rettig To Rumble in half-skull-face makeup from flickr or the Rat City website.  I only have the vaguest of notions about 70’s era Kansas City Bomber-style roller derby.  I don’t know that roller derby wasn’t (or that some say even now isn’t) a sport.

We arrive at the parking lot near a hanger; I guess it’s left over from some sort of cold war purpose.  Rich gives me my plastic season ticket placard to hang around my neck.  I feel a little giddy, like Garth with an Alice Cooper backstage pass.  I have a season ticket placard around my neck! I am secretly an important man!

Our passes are inspected. We gain entrance into the hanger. I get a program.  Girls are skating and fans are cheering on the other side of the hanger, as we’re about 10 minutes late to the semi-final round of the Rat City inter-league playoffs (season three).  Derby Liberation Front vs. Sockit Wenches and Throttle Rockets vs. Grave Danger. Rich leads the way to the merchandise table.  Behind the table is Skelatora with her wispy white hair sticking straight up and she’s wearing full skull-face makeup.  I’m a little taken aback because she looks like a real zombie!  Rich plays it cool, and asks for a pack of trading cards.  Skelatora turns to me and says, “How about you? Do you want to buy a T-shirt?”  Now, if you’ve ever had a close encounter with the undead, you know how your brain kind of turns to mush.  I remember saying something like, “No that’s okay, zombie woman.”  But, I recently found a black Rat City Bumpershoot T-shirt under a pile of T-shirts at home, so maybe what I really said was, “Yes, whatever you say, zombie woman.”

We head over to find our seats where the important people sit, in some bleachers a little back from turn two. The track in surrounded by people in the “suicide zone,” sitting on the track with a little rubber barrier separating the fans from the skaters. The teams sit in the middle of the track and the action starts on the other side of the track, where the blockers and jammers line up to start each jam.  Rich explains the basics of the rules.  The jammers, with the stars on their heads, chase after the rest of the pack.  The first jammer to pass the pack is the lead jammer and can call off the jam.  If there isn’t a lead jammer, or if the lead jammer doesn’t call the jam off, the jam lasts two minutes.  Jammers score points for passing the other team’s skaters after passing the pack the first time.

The first bout is Throttle Rockets vs. Derby Liberation Front. All the skaters have crazy names. Ann R. Kissed! Miss Dismember! Sybil Unrest! Jowanna Ass Kickin! Andromeda Sprain! Astroglide! Ninjit Su! Pia Mess! Crash Gordon! Darth Skater! Skate Trooper! Drew Blood! Valtron 3000 is all celebratory jerky robot moves after one particularly good jam as the crowd shouts approval.  Some of the skaters even have crazy numbers. I point out Meg MyDay, who’s wearing DLF’s army green skirt (and red underpants!) to Rich, “Is her number i, the imaginary number?” I ask. Rich says yes.  I make a math joke, “Ah… that means she’s complex.” Meg MyDay gains lead jammer status and instead of calling off the jam, she presses her advantage hard and fast for the full two minutes, then crashes into the seats in the middle of the track, pulls out her mouth guard and pants at the end of the two minute jam.   And that’s when I’m impressed with the athletics of roller derby, translating what I’ve seen to a sport I’m more familiar with.  She’s just skated the equivalent of running a hard 600 meters on the track, all while trying not to get knocked down by the opposing blockers…. Damn!

In the documentary, Blood on the Flat Track, Rat City announcer Randy Pan the Goat Boy explains that 99% of guys see beyond the sexiness and spectacle, and see roller derby as a sport after about 3 or 4 minutes of watching for the first time.  I was a little slower than average.  It took me about 10 minutes. Actually, I guess I’m in the 1 percentile.

put your hands together Seattle!
Randy Pan the Goat Boy in put your hands together Seattle! by nocklebeast

Rich points out three blonde sisters, D-Bomb, Femme Fetale, and Blonde An’ Bitchin’ (the Tamaccio sisters).  If I remember right, it was Blonde An’ Bitchin’ who was injured, with a cast on one leg?  She’s holding Femme Fetale’s two month old baby. Baby Fetale is watching his mom skate in a derby bout for the very first time.

At one point late in the evening (I don’t remember which teams or which skaters), a jammer skates the outside of the turn by herself and a opposing blocker comes from nowhere, makes a beeline for the jammer.  The blocker launches herself at the jammer in a flying slide tackle (which is it nocklebeast? Sliding or flying? It was flying!). It was a flying, skates-first, shin-knee-thigh-hip-check that sends both skaters flying into the fans, lifeless limp bodies bouncing off the little rubber fence to the track floor. Miraculously the jammer isn’t dead.  She gets right back up and starts to skate away and then smacks right back down on the floor.  Now, I don’t know what happened.  Did the jammer merely trip over the dead blocker’s skates? Or maybe the blocker isn’t dead after all, and purposely moved her legs so the jammer would trip over them. In any event, the jammer is pissed and she squats down near the blocker who took her out and starts wailing on her.  And these weren’t little girly punches either.  These were repeated fast fully-cocked punches to the blocker’s arm.  Finally the head referee, who’s probably 6’ 4’’ without skates starts to skate over.  The jammer stops punching. More referees skate over to help the blocker up (she’s not dead after all). There’s a second round of punches that don’t land as the refs struggle to keep the girls apart.  The noise of the crowd overwhelms the music and the announcers.  Finally the jammer is expelled and escorted off the track and out of the hanger as the announcers explain that the jammer wanted to send the blocker a message.  Rich comments, “We know what the message is.  We can read lips.” Later Rich comments, “I’d don’t like it when they get that angry.” I think to myself, “Do they fight a lot?”

Later Rich explains to me that roller derby is the only sport that doesn’t have big corporate sponsorships.  I look around, and sure enough, there are no Budweiser or AIG logos anywhere in the hanger. I tell Rich, “I see these posters around town in Santa Cruz. I think someone’s trying to start a league there.”  Rich lectures me, “You got to support your local roller girls.”

Everything I ever needed to know I learned at my first roller derby bout.

Let’s recap.
  • Girls on skates are awesome.
  • They keep score. They skate to win.
  • Roller girls are athletes.
  • They have crazy names.
  • Some roller girls have crazy numbers.
  • Sometimes roller girls get injured.
  • Sometimes roller girls have babies.
  • When roller girls fight, they get expelled.
  • You got to support your local roller girls.

That’s not quite totally true about learning everything at my first bout. I’ve learned a few things since then.  Sometimes roller girls retire from skating.  My head understands, but my heart is in denial.  Why can’t they skate forever?

I’ve also learned that sometimes blockers and pivots are rock stars too.
take that!
Shamrock N. Roller in take that! by nocklebeast

Everything in life is available to experience in roller derby 

Back in 2005, Daveed said that Burnett Down was the sweetheart of the league if there was one. In the special features section of the Blood on the Flat Track DVD, there’s a section called “Where are they now?”  Girls are interviewed at the start of the fifth season in 2009.  They’re not playing in the hanger anymore. They’re playing at the Key Arena where the Seattle Supersonics used to play basketball.

They interview Burnett Down (she retired at the end of league play in 2009).  She’s not so keen on the Key Arena and misses skating at the old hanger.  She’s a little sad about the mainstreaming of roller derby.  She misses the fighting and the cussing. She wishes the refs would just let the girls skate. She hopes roller derby remains entertaining. My Seattle friends still speak with wistful nostalgia for the days when Burnett Down  skated.

Also in the “Where are they now?” special feature are two still photographs by Calamity Strange… one is a team photo of the fledgling Santa Cruz league and one is of Robin YoLife (retired from Rat City, helped found the Santa Cruz league, and retired again) and Kicken Red Vixen (retired last October).

Until now, the only time I’ve ever teared up watching roller derby is for concussions and knee injuries.  But that leg whip at the end gets me every time.


nocklebeast said...

Burnett Down is skating for Tilted Thunder Rail Birds!

nocklebeast said...

The curious thing about these two photos for me is they don't quite synch up with my memory... but they are from this bout: Rat City Season 3, Bout 6 (Rat City semifinal double header).

Mark Nockleby said...

more photos!