With the Greatest of Ease
Smitten. That's a funny, old-timey word nobody much uses nowadays. But it's still the best word to describe what happened to Grady Colfax the night he saw her at Skateland. A big, barnlike place in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., Skateland attracted more than a few Camp Pendleton Marines in the years just before the outbreak of the war in Korea.
There were four of us who went to Skateland together that night: Grady, Roy Hale, Stan Zavateski and me. Like most other Marines who went to Skateland we hadn't gone to skate. We'd gone to watch girls. And there she was.
Pard, you never saw blonder blonde hair or bluer blue eyes. If there was an imperfection from head to toe, it was well hidden. I happened to be looking at Grady just then, and when he saw her he all of a sudden looked like a feller who had been rapped smartly between the running lights with a length of cordwood. I ain't sure, but I think his knees buckled a little bit.
We stayed there until closing, and in all that time I don't think Grady took his eyes off the blonde-haired girl in the blue skirt and sweater for more than a second or two. He just stood there with a funny kind of dreamy smile pasted to his face. Any attempt to talk to him got nothing more than a vague "uh, huh" or "um."
Don't you know but what Grady dragged me up to Skateland every Friday and Saturday night for the next four weekends? Just so he could see that blonde-haired girl. It took him all that long before he got up the nerve to speak to her.
Well, he didn't rightly speak to her. What he did was duck his head and mumble "Hi" when she passed him on her way to the snack bar. The smile she flashed him in return would have melted the Greenland icecap. Her musical "Hello" sounded like she'd been saying it up for years until she could use it on somebody special. If Grady wasn't a goner before, he was then. If the blonde-haired girl had smiled real sweet and said, "Fly," Grady would have started flapping his arms.
Grady went through the next week with a goofy grin on his face and a far-off look in his eyes. From "Reveille" roll call to "Taps," everything Grady did was strictly a reflex action. It didn't take a whole lot of insight to see that Grady was just marking time until Friday night.
By the time liberty call rolled around on Friday, I was ready to double-time all the way to Skateland. Shucks, I'd have done back flips up Highway 101 if it would have made Grady leave off pestering me. All the way there Grady's smile kept getting wider and wider, until it looked like he was doing an impression of a happy alligator. That smile vanished as soon as we walked in the door. The light of Grady's life was out on the floor skating...with another feller.
Grady's jaw dropped with a thud that must have been heard in Carlsbad. He'd spent the whole week daydreaming about the blonde-haired girl, and there she was with somebody else. Arm in arm, they were gliding effortlessly around the floor like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on wheels. Smiling and laughing, too. I think that was what really got to Grady.
Well, that and the fact that the other feller was too doggoned perfect. Joe College comes to life he was, all wavy hair and teeth as big as sugar cubes. Expensive grey flannel trousers and white sweater with a big red letter and little gold footballs on it. Grady's face all of a sudden looked like those big dark clouds that come up over the Bitterroots just before a summer thunderstorm.
Grady Colfax didn't rile easy. But him and me had been sidekicks long enough for me to know his look meant something was going to happen. I sure wasn't ready for what it was, though. The last thing I ever thought Grady was going to do was stalk over to the rental counter, plunk down a quarter and rent a pair of roller skates.
Roller skates? So far as I knew Grady Colfax had never been on a pair of roller skates in his entire life. I tried pointing that out to him, but he wasn't having any. If a man could walk, he could roller skate. If the blonde-haired girl wanted a feller who could skate, then Grady was going to skate. He'd show the blonde-haired girl and football sweater both just how the cow ate the cabbage.
"He's going to break his fool neck," was all I could think as Grady tottered out on the floor about as graceful as a little kid just learning to walk. He actually managed to make a few turns around the floor, arms and legs as stiff as one of those wind-up toys that don't bend at the knees or elbows. But he didn't run into anybody and looked to be getting the hang of it. He even managed to skate past the blonde-haired girl and football sweater, earning a smile from her as a reward. Football sweater just glared.
Maybe Grady could have pulled it off, but the organ player put an end to any hopes of that. Up to then he'd been playing slow, sedate stuff. But then he swung into something with a faster tempo. Grady was in trouble right off, his feet going faster and faster, like someone running downstairs with an armload of chinaware that was trying to get away from him. Once he zipped past the blonde-haired girl and football sweater going backward. It wasn't any newfound talent; he'd gotten turned around and couldn't get straightened out. The girl looked kind of alarmed. Football sweater glared again.
It was "The Beer Barrel Polka" that finished Grady off. He was spinning around like a top now. Ann’s flailing like windmills, feet going as fast as they could, trying to stay under him, he looked like a cross between a pinwheel and a small tornado. When he whirled down the backstretch toward the rear wall, Grady was totally out of control.
Out of control and headed straight for the back wall of Skateland. Except the back wall was mostly a big picture window. With a long, strangled "Whoaaaa!" Grady shot backward right slap-dab through it. That was only the beginning of his troubles, 'cause Skateland backed to a canyon. Grady dropped 20 feet down into a eucalyptus tree. Football sweater was laughing like a loon, all bent over and slapping his thighs. But I noticed the blonde-haired girl didn't look all that pleased with him. She shot him a glare that would have done to freeze glowing charcoal.
What kept Grady from being shredded like cabbage getting ready to be sauerkraut or ending up in a body cast I'll never know. When I got around to the back of the building he was picking bits of glass out of his clothes and brushing eucalyptus leaves out of his hair. He had enough bumps and bruises and scratches to do for coming in second in a wrestling match with a bull gorilla, but nothing real bad.
Wouldn't you know that just when things were starting to get interesting something would come along to spoil the fun. In this case, something turned out to be Korea. Before Grady could get to see the blonde-haired girl again, he and I found ourselves gazing off the stem of old Henrico, watching Point Loma fade into the distance. It wouldn't be until the following spring that we made our way Stateside again, with orders to Marine Barracks, Long Beach, Calif.
Come our first weekend liberty there wouldn't nothing do but what we had to go down to San Juan Capistrano and Skateland. This time we went in style in the shiny new 1951 Pontiac Grady had bought with his Korean combat pay.
Skateland was gone. Where Skateland had been was a big empty lot, trucks and bulldozers and fellers in work clothes, all busier than ants building a hill. Alongside the road was a big sign letting folks know that the Cirinelli Brothers Construction Company was building something called a shopping center, whatever that was.
That should have been the end of it. But one thing I forgot to tell you Grady Colfax could be one of the most determined men you ever came across. For the next three months Grady spent his every off-duty hour playing Sherlock Holmes. He was determined to find that blonde-haired girl. And he did. Don't ask me how he did, but he did. A month after that he married her.
That was a long time ago, and now there are three grown daughters and a passel of grand kiddies. Last year Grady's oldest grandson, Lloyd, qualified for the National Finals Rodeo down in Las Vegas. Grady wouldn't have it any other way but that me and my wife and he and Joan-that's what her name turned out to be, Joan-all traipsed down to Vegas to watch the boy ride.
Young Lloyd did pretty well. Took a second in the saddle bronc competition and won some nice prize money. But he got throwed by the biggest, meanest, ugliest-looking Brahma bull I've ever set eyes on. I had the glasses on him when he got bucked off, and I'll be dogged if he didn't have the exact same look on his face that Grady was wearing when he went through that window at Skateland.
I couldn't help it, I started in to laughing. That got me a hard look from Grady until I told him why, and then he took to laughing, too. Both of the wives glared at us, and we had to explain it all to them. Pretty soon the four of us were cackling and hoo-hawing. Folks nearby thought we were a mite odd. Funny where a pair of roller-skates can take a feller.
Published in Leatherneck Magazine, June 1996