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By February 15, 2006 No Comments
Louie’s 1939 Ford with its teardrop design and V-8 engine really kicked gravel. But everyone knew that Louie had earned his nickname “Speed” from roller skating, not from his fast car.

At fifteen and a year short of his Illinois driver’s license, Burt Kley envied Louie intensely. He had everything–a car, a showman’s reputation with a matching nickname, and a gorgeous skating partner who mirrored perfectly his rolling, bobbing, weaving dance across the sluggish current of once-a-week skaters like Burt.

Burt, stoop-shouldered, watched to keep his feet untangled, while Louie and Lisa threaded their way through the crowd. Chins tilted to the lights, they mouthed the lyrics of the electronic organ’s swinging tunes. Onlookers could read their lips: “Roll out the barrel/And we’ll have a barrel of fun.”

Lisa wore bows–on her shoulders. Belt-sized white straps to secure her scoop-necked blouse were tied in bows with long tag ends to ripple in the wind. Accompanying the gyrations of the fox trot, they bounced and fluttered like butterflies. Imagining how those bows might be undone in the privacy of Louie’s V-8 was an impossible fantasy, because Lisa always returned to her Thornton Road home with her parents, serious Catholics who kept North Prairie’s Holland Reformed boys at bay. Occasionally Louie picked her up on the way to the rink, but he never drove her home.

Despite their graceful routine, they were an odd couple linked almost exclusively by their skills. No other girl or boy could compete effectively enough to invade their partnership. Several friends from Louie’s high school tried–and he encouraged them–but they usually gave up in fits of exhausted laughter. One really beautiful girl took the test too seriously and left the floor sobbing. Louie followed to offer her some comfort but she escaped into the women’s lounge. At that moment Lisa had just finished lacing her skates and, as she rolled out onto the floor, Louie caught her hand and their routine sprang to life. It was dazzling.

Later, when the organ’s last notes faded, Lisa’s parents were waiting. They were friendly to everyone but rather stolid–not seeming to appreciate Lisa’s performance. Louie’s explanation, repeated several times, “They’re dancers. They think skating’s dangerous.”

That’s so. Skaters could and did break wrists, fingers, and even get concussions–things rarely attributed to dancing. The skating-dancing difference hinted at a larger cultural rift. Catholic parishes sponsored dancing regularly while North Prairie’s Christian schools only sponsored skating parties.

Dancing, the Dutch believed, permitted too much physical contact leading to heightened passions and sexual misconduct. Burt knew no Holland Reformed people who could dance even a simple two-step. Catholics appreciated their parish dances supervised by sisters and priests who were even more vigilant than parents.

Burt’s gang, a cluster of high school juniors, met at the roller rink on Tuesdays–their night out after catechism class.

The skating-dancing difference hinted at a larger cultural rift. Catholic parishes sponsored dancing regularly while North Prairie’s Christian schools only sponsored skating parties.

With his friend Pork, who owned a car, Burt and his buddies huddled together on the rink’s benches, telling jokes between loud belches of rowdy laughter. They skated during the “all skate” gigs and hoped they’d be chosen for a “ladies’ choice” skate. Louie and Lisa were on the floor almost constantly, but separated, of course, during the “ladies only” segments. Burt’s gang watched obliquely until a waltz or fox trot brought them to attention.Then one Tuesday neither Louie nor Lisa showed up. Colds, Burt figured, or the flu. Someone cracked, “They finally got close enough to give each other the flu.” Burt grinned and forgot about them until the following Tuesday. They were gone again.

Someone heard that Louie was grounded. Couldn’t go out until he caught up on two book reports in English class. Burt often wondered how Louie could skate so much and still do his homework. But Burt wondered even more how Louie got permission to skate four nights every week. Dutch Reformed people approved of skating, but once a week was enough. Perhaps Louie’s folks were finally putting their feet down. But, Lisa was gone too.

They never came back. Louie dropped out of school, and church too. His folks were tight lipped, and he didn’t have brothers or sisters to talk. Reverend Vroom had no explanation, and Louie’s friends were also in the dark. Speculation blossomed. Roller ShoeEvery Tuesday the roller rink gang crafted new pieces for the puzzle, but no clear picture emerged.

Almost every night kids saw his car on his yard’s turnaround; during working hours it was gone. Someone actually followed him to the Standard Oil Refinery in East Chicago and saw him pass through the parking lot gates. That was no surprise. His father had worked there until he retired. But why stop skating? His evenings were free.

One rumor had it that both Louie and Lisa had taken up dancing and were meeting at her home on Thornton Road to practice. Kids said they’d seen his car in Lisa’s driveway late in the afternoon. He’d probably turn Catholic at that rate.

“I’ll bet,” someone said, “he hangs out in Hammond now–at that dime-a-dance palace across from the Goldblatt’s Department Store.” Burt and his gang crammed into Pork’s car and drove there to look around.

They found the Dance Palace easily and stormed up the wide stairway to a lobby but couldn’t get beyond the ticket window without paying fifty cents–the same as roller rink admission. But this ticket was good for five dances. They huddled over that dilemma because none of them could dance.

Pork and Burt decided to pay up and promised to report back to the others in an hour. Pork left his car in a parking lot and the other guys decided to look around Hammond. Inside Pork and Burt joined a group of about ten guys lined up along a railing which separated them from a dimly lighted dance floor. About twenty couples were moving slowly to big band recordings of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” It, along with other hit tunes like “Linda” and “Sincerely,” was a down-tempo version of the roller rink music.

It was quickly evident that neither Louie nor Lisa was on the dance floor. The dancers, especially the men, were much older than the roller skating crowd. And these guys were better dressers too. Some even wore ties. At a distance it was hard to tell the women’s ages, but they seemed pretty enough. Their skirts hung just below the knees, and their sweaters hung rather loosely–a bit like those that high school girls wore.

A fellow standing on Burt’s right, about his age, took the cigarette Burt offered, and they shared a match. “You a regular here?” Burt asked.

Viewing Burt rather warily he said slowly, “Yes.”

Then Burt went into a description of Louie–about 5′ 6″ with blond wavy hair, thin but not skinny, and usually in jeans with a short-sleeved white shirt. The fellow didn’t remember anyone like that.

There was no point to asking about Lisa because she could only have been present as an employee, a dance girl.

“Dancing seems easy–easier than roller skating. You sure get a lot closer to the girls. Some of those guys just pulled them up tight. No wonder we canÕt have school dances.”

Highly improbable. Pork asked around too but drew only blanks. They watched long enough to learn how the Dance Palace operated and gave their tickets to guys who’d been somewhat talkative. Downstairs the guys were waiting in front of Pork’s blue Plymouth.”D’ya see ’em?”

“No,” Pork answered, “and no one there saw them either. Not ever.”

“Anyway,” Burt explained, “it’s really only open to guys. The girls work for the Dance Palace.”

“How’s that go?”

“Well, you know about the tickets. They use them to dance with a girl–one ticket for a dance. The girls line up across the floor and a guy walks over. He gives his ticket to a girl he likes and she dances with him.”

“Dancing,” Pork said, “seems easy–easier than roller skating.” He laughed, “You sure get a lot closer to the girls. Some of those guys just pulled them up tight. No wonder we can’t have school dances.”

“Do they know each other?” someone asked.

“Some do,” Pork said. “I noticed one guy gave ten tickets to one girl. Didn’t dance with anyone else. The Palace could stop that, but they didn’t.”

“Louie’s not dancing–at least not here,” Pork concluded.

“While we were walking,” one of the gang said, “a car passed on Homan Avenue. It was a dead ringer for Louie’s.”

“Even the fox tail on the aerial,” someone added.

“You didn’t follow him? No,” Pork answered his own question. “I guess not. Not without a car.”

He turned left at the tracks heading east on State Street.

“That goes straight into Calumet City,” Pork laughed.

Then they all laughed and said almost in unison, “Hey! The hootchy-kootchy shows.”

“He wouldn’t go there,” Burt said.

“Not a chance. Anyway, it’s on the way home from the oil refinery. He probably just worked late.”

The news, one week later, that Louie had been killed on Thornton Road jolted everyone. No one they knew saw the accident, but they all inspected the site and also his burned-out car in the back of Butch’s Towing garage.

Somehow Louie had hit a light pole which broke and landed on the car. Electric sparks must have ignited gas fumes, and the explosion could be heard for blocks.

Within a day’s time the only evidence of the accident was a new electric pole and a slight dip in the softened asphalt.

Sadly, Lisa’s folks, and then Lisa right behind them, were among the first at the scene. He’d crashed less than a quarter mile from their house.Within a day’s time the only evidence of the accident was a new electric pole and a slight dip in the softened asphalt.

Pork said softly, “Gee, a bump in the road. That’s all there is.”

And that was the truth, but not the whole truth. Lisa came to the funeral service with her parents. They sat far to the back in our Holland Reformed church and seemed to be in deep mourning. Lisa’s mother dabbed her eyes constantly while Lisa sat vacant-eyed, leaning against her father’s shoulder.

Burt had never really spoken with her–a wave of greeting or good-bye or a compliment on her skating, but no actual conversations.

So it was an awkward thing for him to step ahead of the gang and offer her his sympathy. She, and her parents too, seemed somewhat irritated by Burt’s rather intrusive maneuver. Obviously they’d not planned to talk with anyone at the service.

But Burt pushed on, “We really missed you guys at the rink. No one skates like you did!”

Lisa nodded but then swayed toward her father who took her arm.

He said, “We need to keep going.”

Then Lisa’s mother added, “There are a few things you and your friends should know. Stop at our house sometime soon–just one of you. But wait a week or so.”


Burt had never entered a Catholic home before and didn’t know what to expect. He supposed that they hung gruesome crucifixes from their walls and prayed to saints–two seriously evil things. He’d been taught that only an empty cross could properly symbolize Christ’s death because He was in heaven and no longer dead. Sainthood was a vicious lie implying that some people could, by good deeds, merit a special status. Burt knew better. All people were sinners of the lowest sort, but, by God’s grace, they were saints too.

While passing the mail box on Lisa’s porch he discovered for the first time that her last name was Van Hattem–a clearly Dutch name. How was that possible? He knew no Dutch person who was not Protestant. Could these people have turned back–gone from Protestant to Catholic?

Their large U-shaped ranch house was not modest. Set back from Thornton Road, its backyard tennis court and swimming pool were not visible. Shrubby oak trees, which retained their dull brown leaves until spring, hid most of the structure’s east side, where the pool was located. Mrs. Van Hattem welcomed him politely at the door. A long hallway dividing the house led to a den overlooking the pool and tennis court. There seemed to be more books around their house than in a school library.

She directed him to a chair facing the pool and said, “I have lemonade or soda–Coke and Seven-Up–tea if you wish. What’ll it be?”

Burt picked Coke, and she returned with a Coca Cola bottle and a glass that matched the bottle’s shape. She sat down with a very large cup of tea. The Lipton bag was hanging over the cup’s rim. She was, Burt assumed, over forty but did not have the lumpy farm-wife kind of hips and a pouchy face like most of his friends’ mothers.

Mrs. Van Hattem began. “Lisa isn’t well. Hasn’t been for over a month. It’s some kind of fever. Doc Wall’s not sure yet, but it may be rheumatic. She can’t skate, of course, and it’s infectious. That’s why we’re sitting out here in the den.

Burt nodded and muttered, “Sorry. That’s a shame.” And added, “You go to Doc Wall too? What’s he say?”

“It’ll take time, but Lisa should be okay.”

She grinned when Burt reported, “Kids at the rink were saying that Lisa was teaching Louie how to dance. That’s why they were gone.”

“I wish that were true,” she sighed, and then went on. “Louie was very special to us. He and Lisa have been skating together for over five years. We knew his parents when they lived in Chicago. We even went dancing with them. North Prairie changed them a lot, but Louie and Lisa stayed friends. They’ve won several first-place ribbons in Chicago. They’re not friendly–romantically. Could have been–I always thought–until a month ago anyway. But there would have been problems. We’re Dutch Catholics and Louie’s folks, you know, are Dutch Protestants. A division as old as the hills–hundreds of years.”

“I didn’t know that,” Burt responded.

“Mr. Van Hattem, Larry,” she explained, “teaches history at Marywood Academy. That’s why we know things like this. Louie was as surprised as you are–about Dutch Catholics. Don’t you teach European history in your Christian schools?”

“Well, yes. But it’s mostly about wars and the Protestants won so many of them–Germany, England, and the Eighty-Years’ War in Holland,” Burt said. “I thought there were no Catholics left.”

“Quite a few,” she laughed. “Probably half of the Dutch population. The Van Hattems go back to Amsterdam in the thirteen hundreds.”

More seriously, with eyes narrowed and lines tightened around her mouth, she whispered confidentially, “We’re afraid that Louie’s death might not have been an accident.”

“How? Whadya mean?”

“He was here that night.

“That night he told Lisa he’d figured his problem out. He was so different that he could just as well be dead. Fifteen minutes later he was.”

Stopped to ask about Lisa. Was in the dumps. Hardly said anything. He left the yard spinning dirt and gravel. Never did that before. Never!”We could hear the crash. Our lights even dimmed so we went out to look right away.

“Lisa came too–even though we told her to stay in the house. She stood out there saying, ‘I knew it! I just knew it.’ “We all knew he’d been going through some kind of crisis. Quitting school last month was a mistake. We told him. But he didn’t care. ‘Can’t go back there’ was all he’d say. And he wouldn’t go skating without Lisa.

“She’s the one who told us after the accident. Louie left our house that night convinced that he’d never have a normal life. It had been going on for weeks. Even before he quit school. He kept telling Lisa that he was odd, different, and not interested in dating girls. She laughed and told him they ought to go on a date. ‘Ask me,’ she said.

“That night he told Lisa he’d figured his problem out. He was so different that he could just as well be dead. Fifteen minutes later he was.”

It was hard for Burt to take in so much new stuff. He looked around the room trying to avoid her eyes and saw, above a side table, a painting of Christ’s crucifixion. And he certainly was on the cross. It leaned to the right with Christ looking down serenely on a jumble of broken crosses surrounded by a mound of skulls. Several timbers were encrusted with ancient death masks and still others bore lively expressive faces–old, young, and even infants. Like no crucifixion scene he’d ever seen before.

Trying to imagine the artist’s intent blurred some of Mrs. Van Hattem’s words, but one of them, “suicide,” cleared Burt’s mind.

“You don’t think…,” he blurted.

“We don’t know. But we doubt it. That crash came from a rage that certainly made him reckless–if not suicidal. The police said that the crash itself should not have been fatal. It was the pole falling and the fire. It’s just so sad,” she concluded slowly.

The session was over when she said, “Well, now you know. A nd I hope you and your friends will respect Louie’s privacy. Ours too.”

“Okay,” Burt said, and then, “we will.”

He got up saying, “I hope things go well for Lisa,” and paused to get a better look at the painting. It was signed, “Lisa Van Hattem.” He was impressed.

“Is that Lisa’s? ”

“Well, yes and no. We do it together. A family project. My name’s Lisa too, and the painting itself is mine, but the family suggests the subjects. If you look again at the last face painted on that timber–it’s Louie. You may recognize others there too. They’re people who, we think, need a special look from our Lord.”

Herb Brinks is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College and works with the Dominican immigrant community in Grand Rapids, Michigan.