The applause is thunderous. But not from hands clapping. Instead, skateboards brought by fans are smacked against the hardwood floor again and again. The raw sound of wood pounding against wood resonates around the skating rink. Primal. Especially when laced with the dark throb of heavy metal music and the sight of hundreds of spectators, pierced and tattooed, spilling onto the floor. The hammering of spears against hard-packed dirt in a distant jungle would be no more surprising.
The young man receiving all this attention had just hurled down the length of the rink, banked off one ramp, flew into the air above another large ramp, landed on the curve of an even larger parallel ramp, held onto his skateboard, and . . . survived. And now he was hanging up in the rafters having flown right into the announcer’s booth. Why not?
“Raaaaven Tershaaaaaaaay,” blared the announcer over the music pounding at Skate South in Des Moines. “Increeeeeedible.”
Raven Tershy. From Santa Cruz, California. Yup, just another one of those pesky relatives of summer that show up in Des Moines on their way to someplace else. You know what I’m talking about. You get that call from Cousin Bernie or Grandma Peg or Aunt Regina that your fourth-cousin-once-removed is passing through Des Moines on such and such a date, and do you want to look him up and get together? Uh, sure. Now who is Raven again and how are we related?
“Stay Flared” is the name of Raven’s tour. Twenty skateboard stars including Raven, traveling across the U.S. doing demos. Fans, with their skateboards in tow, showed up at Skate South to see the pros perform. And perform they did — banking, turning, flipping, flying, you name it. Impossible? Perhaps. Did they just do it? Yup.
Nursing a new bruise on his knee, Raven, going on 23 years, was nonplussed after the show. “Ah, just fell that one time.” He smiles like a twelve-year-old. “But people coming out to watch us was awesome. We started in Washington D.C. and have been traveling west. This one tonight was cool. I love the skating. You know, I’ve wanted to skate my whole life.”
Sure you did, but aren’t you terrified when you’re hanging up in the air in the middle of nowhere? And what do your parents think of all this?
“My parents love this. They’ve always supported me. Even my grandma.” Again, Raven gives that smile.
And that’s enough. He gives us a hug, hops in the van with the other stars, and off to Denver for another show.
“Stay flared,” I yell. Unsure what it means, but I’m a new fan nonetheless.
Two nights later, the applause is thunderous. Fists pumped in the air. Cheers resounding off the low ceiling. Babies and moms and dads and toddlers and teenagers are everywhere. It’s a family affair tonight. With a twist, of course. Adult women, with dark eye makeup, tattoos, and hard looks, skate past in a whirl of motion. Smiling as they bank the turn. They are the center of attention at Skate West in West Des Moines.
“Roller derby night. BEST OF THE MIDWEST. Des Moines United versus the No Coast Derby Girls out of Lincoln, Nebraska. Are you reeeeeeeady Des Moines?”
The announcer can barely be heard above the din of shouting, yelling, and the joyful cries of kids.
Yup, another pesky relative of summer has come to town. This time, I’m supposed to go to Skate West to watch her derby team. Uh, sure. What exactly is a “derby team”?
“I love roller derby. I started five years ago when I lived in Santa Barbara, California. I just wanted to do something for me — not for the people at work, or the guy I was dating. I saw an ad and said, ‘I could do that.’ I haven’t stopped except for injuries. I was a terrible roller skater when I started. I broke my finger in the first month because I just tripped.”
And Caitlin “Bash” Mohnike gives me one of her big smiles with just a glint of “I’m-up-to-no-good” in her sparkly eyes. Ah, my wife’s relative again.
Caitlin is skating for the No Coast Derby Girls tonight — with the slogan, “no coast no mercy.” She is 30 years old. Now living in San Fransisco for a summer engineering program, but with roots in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she has her permanent job, her friends, and her roller derby team.
“The derby culture has changed a lot. It used to be very much a party scene. Everyone would wear a costume. But now it’s become very athletic. If you are one of the top teams, you practice three or four times a week.”
Lincoln is ranked number 40 in the world. They are a good team. Des Moines United is even better, with a ranking of 21, which is why Caitlin returned from San Francisco to compete in this game.
It wasn’t enough. In a bruising bout that was close through the first period, the Des Moines club turned it on during the last 30 minutes and put the game away.
Caitlin is unperturbed. She loves derby and thinks more women should play.
“People say they aren’t tough enough. Yes, you are. People say they can’t skate. Well, then you’ll learn, right? You’ll be fine. As an adult woman it’s hard to find something to be a team in, that is what I love.”
Then she gives us a hug and heads out to the team’s cars to return to Lincoln, then back to San Fransisco.
“No coast no mercy,” I yell. Unsure what it means, but I’m a new fan nonetheless.
So, what do you think? Do you have your own relatives of summer coming through town? And, more importantly, are you staying flared to new adventure? And are you mercilessly refusing to coast through life? Yup, you get it, relatives can be challenging. Even the pesky ones of summer.