For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

The Skate Key

by Ken Thompson


ome of the things that were great when I was a kid in Brooklyn were the "seasons".

I don't mean like spring and summer but things-to-do seasons. Each one had a set timing and duration and they all just seemed to happen. They weren't written down anywhere but they just happened year after year.

There were seasons for kites, chalk, yo-yo's, football, skelly, Ring-O-Levio, bike riding, stickball with a true Spauldeen, Johnny-on-the-pony, beach, etc. Some lasted longer, some shorter but they had a time of emphasis. You could do yo-yo's anytime but it seemed to peak in September and October when the guy from Duncan would show up out of nowhere to give displays with only a Duncan Yo-Yo, conveniently sold at the store right there. Maybe you could do a walk-the-dog with another brand but it wasn't right unless it was a Duncan, a wooden Duncan Super Tournament Yo-Yo to be specific.

My best season was the spring and skating. I knew someday I'd have a bike but until then I had my set of wheels. They were adjustable in length to accommodate kid growth, had metal toe caps to accommodate shoes or sneakers, leather ankle straps, and a small tool called a skate key that allowed you to make all the adjustments and to allow you to replace the ball-bearing steel wheels when they actually went flat… strange as that may sound. That skate key was my Leatherman of 1955. It was not just a tool; however, it was a key to travels and adventure.

My friend Jimmy and I were friends from the apartment house on Avenue C. We would go everywhere on our skates. We would ride down the Ocean Parkway bike path to its end just before the Belt and Coney Island Hospital. We'd go throughout Prospect Park to the Zoo and the Botanical Gardens. We'd go all the way around Greenwood Cemetery. Trips to Flatbush Avenue, along Church Avenue, weren't as frequent ‘cause of the traffic but if we wanted to, we would go. The trip along Beverly Road or Cortelyou Road was safer.

The trips were a full workout for our senses. We had to watch out for obstacles including trolley tacks and stones, listen for car horns and kids coming up on us on bikes, feel the tingling effect on our feet of the pavement through the skates, smell each neighborhood and place and, lastly taste the local foods… usually pizza by the slice. I wasn't as keen on this as Jimmy but if he thought it was good I would do it. We were travelers and we were friends… he was my best friend.

I think it was that year 1955 that the Parks Department had a skate rodeo and race on the Park Slope side of Prospect Park. Jimmy and I knew we were the best and that we would win. When the big day came we skated through the park to the site and there were kids all over in skates and they were all going fast, faster then I thought we went.

At the time of the race we skated in groups of ten in a single elimination with only the winner moving on to the next round. Jimmy and I were in the seventh heat and when the whistle blew off we went like rockets. The hexagonal pavers flew by as we stretched for distance; we leaned into every turn for momentum, and we pushed back when the going got tough. We were about half way through the race with Jimmy in the lead when he reached back for my hand so that he could whip me through the next turn and get me up with him again. I reached out, grabbed his hand and pushed off with my right leg as a kicker. We made our move and it all looked good till the nut on the axel of my right skate came off and the ball bearing wheel flew into the bushes.

I tumbled but yelled for him to go on. He didn't. He pulled off the path, onto the dirt and when it was clear came over to me. I was crying. Not because I was out of the race, I knew I wasn't the best. Not because I was hurt, scratches, yes, but nothing broken. Maybe a little because I was embarrassed or ashamed but mostly because I let him down and he was my best friend.

He had come back to me ‘cause I was his friend. The race just wasn't that important. We took off our skates, found the wheel, but couldn't find the nut, and started walking home. For the longest time, till we got to the start of the Ocean Parkway bicycle path by the Park Circle Rink, we didn't talk. Finally, Jimmy told me that our skate keys were kinda useless if you don't have a nut. That broke the ice and he kidded me and I kidded him. I got home late and missed supper. My mom made me a fried Taylor ham sandwich with relish and I went to bed early. Jimmy and I never spoke of the incident again.

A few years later, after we had moved on to bikes and our travel distances increased, Jimmy's family moved to Hempstead. I gave him my skate key ‘cause he was my friend and you could never know when you would need one out in the sticks. We stayed in touch… barely. I went out to visit him once on the LIRR from Atlantic Avenue and he drove in once when he turned 16 and had gotten a license. When I graduated from high school his mother brought him in for the party and he gave me the skate key and told me I would probably need not just one but two. We laughed and joked but we were growing further apart. When one of the girls asked who he was I told her, "That's Jimmy, he's my best friend."

In my heart I knew we were both moving on.

When Jimmy went off to ‘Nam after graduating college we got drunk together and I gave him a skate key ‘cause I was sure you couldn't get one over there. That night I cried again ‘cause I was afraid, not for me but because I didn't want anything to happen to him. Too many guys I knew didn't come back. Jimmy was my friend and he was going in harm's way.

Jimmy did come back in 1968 but he was different and things were not the same between us. We had a few beers at Buckley's and he said he had to go to LaGuardia to get a plane for California. I drove up Flatbush Avenue and took the BQE and Grand Central to the airport in silence. I had the skate key and wanted to give it to him but couldn't. At the American Airlines terminal he was gone before I could get around the car. I wanted to shake his hand, hug him, give him the key and sorta tell him I loved him. When I got home my wife knew I was shaken and asked where I had been. I told her, "With my old best friend."

That night we stayed up sitting at a Formica table in a small attic apartment on Argyle Road and had a bottle of Lancers wine. I told her Jimmy stories including the skate rodeo incident. We both cried and I gave her the skate key. When we went to bed she held me till I fell asleep.

Through the years I would think of him from time to time. My children love me but they tire of "Do you wanna hear what it was like growing up in Brooklyn?" stories. They kid me that "the longer it's been the better it was". They haven't heard all the Jimmy stories and I don't know if I could tell them. Someday I'll buy some old skate keys someplace and give them to my kids but I don't know what I'll say to them. The keys will probably end up at the bottom of a drawer.

The skate key is my life, not theirs.

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