When I was in third grade, I wore my skate key on a red shoelace around my neck. It was 1976, and a skate key was a badge of honor: It told the world I'd mastered the knee-skinning, elbow-bruising skill of roller skating. The key, which I would suck on absentmindedly in school while practicing my penmanship, also represented a promise. Soon class would be out, and I would clamp my skates over my size 3 Keds and tear up the roads. When the adjustable roller skate gave way to in-lines, a culture disappeared.
The skate key had a hold on other imaginations as well. In 1971 Melanie's suggestive hit Brand New Key ("I got a brand new pair of roller skates, you got a brand new key....") topped the charts. The Peanuts gang was also smitten. I remember our chorus teacher, Mr. Johnson, handing out the lyrics to Happiness, from the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown: "Happiness is two kinds of ice cream, finding your skate key, telling the time."
Sadness, of course, was losing the key, which happened the day my red shoelace came untied. Usually my key dangled on a row of nails on the garage wall. One day it was nowhere to be found. I spent hours glumly watching the other kids roll by until I explored a pile of old sports equipment in a corner of the garage. Beneath a tennis racket and a hula hoop I glimpsed something red. I didn't know how it got there, but I didn't care. Minutes later I was back on wheels.