- Associated Press - Sunday, April 30, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - At the end of the second-to-last adult skate at Lincoln’s last remaining rink, Skate Zone’s DJ, Georgio Hildreth, pulled out an old trick.

“I just want you to know this is probably the last song,” he said into the microphone, the one he’d earlier wheeled around the rink with during his jam, Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.”

He cut the volume, played an Alicia Keys tune and confessed that he was fibbing.

“Then I’ll bust ‘em out and say, ‘We’ve got time for one more,’” he said.

On April 20, the rink was filled with skaters who knew that they were running low on time. Skate Zone’s owners, Dick and Shirley Hartsock, announced last July that the rink would close at the end of this month.

“The roller skating rink which has served children of all ages for many generations has been sold, making April 30, 2017, our last day of business,” the owners wrote in a message posted on the business’s Facebook page.

“Thank you to everyone here in Lincoln and surrounding communities for making us a part of your family for so many years. It has been a privilege and pleasure to serve you.”

While the advance announcement offered Lincoln residents nine months to get that one last skate in, the place has been packed in its closing weeks. On what should have been the final adult skate night, cars crawled through the parking lot in search of a free space before doubling back to the overflow lot beneath the glowing Skate Zone sign. It read, “Countdown to end of era 1 month.” The signage’s “1” was the only character that wasn’t colored black, but rather an urgent red.

By the time October rolled around, the adult skate nights that for ages took place every Thursday had winnowed to the first and third Thursdays of the month. But a couple of lifers, members of the Rolling Relics Facebook group, put up the cash - $400 per night - to revive adult skate for a few final even-week Thursdays. April 27 will be the last hurrah for the 18-and-up crowd thanks to them.

“This is what we’ve done — what I’ve done — since I was 4,” said Darren Knudson, 51.

A speed-skater who jokingly described leisurely rollers as “human pylons” that he must dodge, by skating is his method of release. He never worked here, not even when it was called Holiday Skateworld back in the day, because he wanted the rink to be the place to get away from his job.

It is where in junior high he met his still-best friend and a few ex-girlfriends. He got in all of one fight here, in high school, and can’t remember what it was about other than something stupid. He does recall that it was in the parking lot as opposed to the rink.

“If it would’ve been on skates, I would’ve killed him,” he said, laughing.

That scrap is but a minor, distant blot at a place that has brought him and his friends decades of good times.

“It’ll probably bring a tear to my eye when it’s done, because it’s something I’ve always done,” Knudson said. “And the thing that really stinks is, it’s a good activity for kids. It gets them off the streets, teaches them to socialize with other people, gets them away from their cell phones, their screens, gets them exercise and stuff.”

But the land and property is assessed at $1,023,200, or about 341,066 ICEE concession stands. And the retail shops and restaurants surrounding it foretell to Skate Zone patrons and staff what the space will likely become. So on April 20, the rink was packed with people getting their last or second-to-last spins in. Some just came to sit in the concessions area booths and take in the place once more.

“I see faces that I recognize that are 30 years older than when I knew them,” said Jane Koch, who once worked at the rink. “I stood in that window, and watched them tear down that old motel out there for the Target. So whatever year that was. And I loved working here then.”

A goodbye message written by her son and former rink employee, Ron Koch, was prominent on a south side wall near the bathrooms that had been Sharpied over by scores of Skate Zone patrons during the final New Year’s Eve skate.

“Home!!” he wrote. Beneath the “O,” he added, “Enough said.”

While attendance is not near what it was during the peak years of the 65-year-old institution, as evidenced by the bygone photos taken by Rolling Relic Gary Brakhage that now cover Skate Zone’s walls, the rink became a home for skaters of younger generations as well.

Ariel Jennings went into open-heart surgery when she was a day old. Born without a pulmonary artery, doctors placed limits on her physical activities early on that she still adheres to at 25. Running was out. But she was cleared to roller skate, and she has at Skate Zone since she was 6.

“It was something I could do with my sister, and she wasn’t, ‘Get away, get away.’”

She found that she was good at it, and stuck with it. Same for Shelbi Darnall, 20, who started coming to Skate Zone when she was 5, volunteered to wipe off tabletops at 14 and got hired at 15. She’s one of the longest-tenured employees on staff. Asked what she’ll miss about Skate Zone, Darnall, who has among her many jobs at Skate Zone sprayed the insides of the skates behind the rental counter, said the scent, and meant it.

“It’s like stinky feet, but it’s probably one of the best smells ever,” said Darnall, 20.

Some skaters shared some of their gnarliest roller rink injuries.

Devonna Edstrom said it was her knees. A thrill-seeking speed skater, the longtime patron and former employee now wears knee pads because she hit the concrete floor so hard once she couldn’t walk for two months. Nevertheless, she started a Gofundme page last year to try and raise money to build another rink in Lincoln. It cost her her job at Skate Zone, but that’s all. “I never stopped coming,” she said. “The staff here is still my family.”

For Shawn Pospisil it was a broken left wrist suffered during a backward speed-skating session. The recovered bone still looks a bit knotty.

In nearly 50 years of skating, Knudson has had a few lasting floor and rail burn scars, one concussion and two broken wrists on his resume. Both the wrists stayed intact into his 40s. “Yeah, one of ‘em I was going backward and tripped and put out my wrists like an idiot,” he said. Not bad considering the amount of miles on his blades.

They joined dozens and dozens on the rink nonetheless. Styx’s “Too Much Time On My Hands” blared as skaters rolled counterclockwise around the rink beneath cutout cardboard cassettes and LPs and an array of party lights hanging from the ceiling.

“I love this job,” said Hildreth, the DJ who’d queued up the song. “I finally found something I’m good at. I’m gonna miss it, believe me.”

Hildreth, 52, had skated here since his single-digit years before getting a job at the Zone.

“DJ didn’t come one day,” Hildreth said. “They threw me in here, gave me a shot.”

He was taught the functions of the four important buttons on the sound system, and that was about the extent of his training.

The music that powers Skate Zone is stored on a desktop PC in the DJ booth rather than by any of the methods represented among the ceiling decor. But Hildreth receives the skaters’ song requests the same way every DJ before him did, via handwritten notes scribbled on a pad posted along the rink rail.

“Funkytown,” ”Uptown Funk,” ”Sweet Child O’ Mine,” ”I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “Take It On The Run” were among the genre-spanning Thursday requests. Some skaters brought with them torn strips of notebook paper with their suggestions pre-scribbled on them. They were among the 20 or so regulars who Hildreth can point out mid-skate and name their songs of choice. Knudson’s in this group. Two of his jams, “Foolin’” by Def Leppard and AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” helped propel the evening.

“I got your songs in,” he assured a woman who braked in front of the booth to say that she’d be leaving soon.

“Thank you,” and she was gone.

Along with the official duties of a roller rink DJ, on Fridays and Saturdays, Hildreth said teens and tweens often wheeled over to his booth not only to put in song requests, but also to vent about school or boyfriends or whatever. A father and a grandfather, Hildreth offered an understanding perspective and occasional advice. He was not the first DJ to do so. Jennings referred to one of the previous Skate Zone DJs as a “second dad.”

Jennings’ brother-in-law, Pospisil - one of who knows how many patrons who first met his spouse at the rink - said the toughest part of Skate Zone closing is that his kids won’t be able to frequent it.

“It was something to go to and not get in trouble,” said Pospisil, 29. “There ain’t nothing to do on the northeast side of town for kids.”

Jennings has 5-year-old twins, Sawyer and Elijah. She’s taken them up to Omaha to skate at rinks there a few times, and imagines that the frequency of those trips will increase substantially after Lincoln’s last rink closes.

Knudson’s been making the Omaha drive, too. He and six or seven of the lifers caravanned to Skate Daze there once Skate Zone started closing every other Thursday. The floor’s nice, Knudson said, bigger.

“Music’s a little bit different, but they’ve grown to tolerate us some,” he said.

After the Lincoln rink closes on April 30, those who’ve spent so much of their time there will have a few months to think about what they want from Skate Zone when its contents go up for auction on July 22, the Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/2oBkQel ) reported. Edstrom said she’s got her eyes on the cotton candy machine. Ron Koch promised his mom he’d saw out the counter window from the wall and give it to her.

“I suppose a piece of the floor,” Knudson said. “Lord knows I’ve hit it tons of times.”

But if he doesn’t bring home a chunk of the concrete, or the varnished oak beneath it, he’s got what he wants to remember the place.

“The most important thing I’m going to take out of that place is all of the memories, all of the people I’ve met through there,” Knudson said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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