Especially on the tour, the fans come in large groups, often whole families, in station wagons or even campers. One irate fan once hurled her infant at Toughie Brasuhn. Luckily, Toughie caught the baby. "And it was so young it was still wrinkled," says Joan Weston, the blonde captain of the Bombers' girl squad. Joan, a warm, intelligent tour veteran, is probably the object of more adoration than any other female athlete in the nation. Her fans react to her as others do to movie stars. In many towns she has to put on kerchief and sunglasses if she wants to walk around without being harassed by admirers. When they know Joan is coming to town they write and invite her to spend the night at their homes. They draw diagrams of the bedroom she can have—"Please, Joanie, say you will. Please." She is sent money to pay her fines, and flowers and candy are often waiting when she arrives in town. She receives fan mail from children and from one gentleman who is 97. "Men don't write fan letters between the ages of 20 and 60," she says.
But they are there when the arena doors open—lean men, sunburned to the neck, T shirts peeking above open-collared shirts. Their women are often large, carrying children in fleshy arms. These are the Derby fan stereotypes, but in affluent times—like now—middle-class audiences predominate, and TV sponsors have discovered that they tend to be good consumers and sound credit risks. The Derby tour even goes to college campuses, and in some places it actually has the image of an In thing. "It is all cycles, good and bad," Hal Janowitz says stoically. "The new people come along, a whole new generation of them, I guess. There have always been cycles with the Derby."
On tour, though, the Derby still resembles an old tent circus come to town. The arena swells with a cotton-candy spirit and the sparkle of a real Night Out. It is hard to pass by Don Gist, the concessions man, without making a well-considered purchase. A program? Pennant? Glossy pictures? Derby programs are rarely discarded after an event; they are taken home, filed away and referred to regularly.
When the Derby arrives the men usually head straight for the arena to build the track, while the girls take the boys' laundry with their own and go off to a laundermat. As soon as the game is over and the men have packed the track into the truck, Jimmy Pierce is ready to take off for the next stop. The others leave in the morning. The skaters seldom see anything in any city but the motel, the arena and the laundermat. But, then, they have little interest in where they are, exactly, or where they are going. They might know, for instance, that they are in Chicago and the next stop is Richmond, but this specific trip has no real relation to the whole tour. New Mexico, Georgia and Rhode Island might as well all lie side by side. The idea is just to get to Richmond from Chicago, and many manage this strictly by the numbers—you take Route 35 to 267, take a right to 54A, left on 42 to 175 and then the Main Street exit till you see the Holiday Inn. Janowitz, a fantastically organized man, usually dispenses such route guides. Joan Weston, methodical and interested in travel herself, can also be relied upon for information. Janowitz and Weston are referred to as "Ward and Wanda Bond," after the late TV wagonmaster.
To most of the players, though, distance is measured by the 9� a mile they receive. Cliff Butler, then a mature 18 and just out of Berkeley High, was a top Derby prospect last season. He was touring for the first time and proved to be a prodigious driver. He rode with the tour's only couple among the players, the Larry Smiths, who had been married very recently. The petite bride, Francine Cochu, had been Rookie of the Year the previous season in her native Montreal, and the three took a side trip there to see her family. Right afterward Butler drove 1,030 miles straight. Another time, out of Camp LeJeune, N.C. and headed for Washington, the car came to Route 301. A sleepy Smith said something in the back seat, and Butler turned left and drove merrily on, all the way into South Carolina, until he had to stop for gas. Luckily he also casually inquired at that point how much farther it was to Washington.
It is all very loose. "Hey, I left a guy in Dayton last week," O'Connell said once, as if he had forgotten his toothbrush. Lou Donovan, who usually rides with O'Connell and his boxer dog, Duchess, took a left turn onto a narrow, icy path one night, and the car was stuck under a railroad trestle when O'Connell finally awoke. "It said left," Donovan explained, getting out to push.
"At the road, you crazy sonuvagun," Charlie replied. "You only take the lefts at the road. It says left, you just don't turn left wherever you happen to be."
Donovan, as always, was not fazed. He is one of the more charming people in this world, usually smiling agreeably. When he is on the track he smiles at the other skaters. When he is resting in the infield he smiles at the fans. "Ignore him, just like we all have to," Charlie says. Donovan also is indefatigable. "I love work," he says. "I like any work that's hard, I guess just because that's my work—I'm a laborer." Married to a very pretty blonde whose name, Sally, is inscribed on, his forearm, Lou has three towheaded young children, all beautiful enough to be models. The tour ended in Duluth with a Saturday night game, and on Monday Lou was back with his family in California. Tuesday morning he was at work as a foreman on a construction job.
Not all the skaters are so industrious. Some even pick up unemployment checks in the off season, whenever that is. It is rather difficult for the unemployment bureau to find skating jobs for unemployed Roller Derby players. Most skaters, however, like Donovan, appreciate getting the extra money that comes from being a member of the track construction crew. A rookie Derby skater starts at a little more than $4,000 a year, and most of the good ones are just into five figures.
Skaters are hard-driven people, but they are not hard. Many are almost gentle. They are playful and easily diverted, but they are sincere and direct. About the nicest thing they can say about someone is that he is "good people." So, on their own terms, most players in the Roller Derby are good people. If there is a contradiction to them it is in their ability to suspend their normally high sense of decency and fair play. "You just learn," says Buddy Atkinson Jr., who skates in "the other outfit." "You learn that there are two sets of rules. Let's face it, the things you do out on the track you can't walk down the street and do this. Now don't get me wrong, I don't think you should hurt people all the time, but you can do anything if you're going for a bundle. There's no feelings then. Besides, the big thing in this game is fear. If you can get someone afraid of you, you got it made."