Untold Story of My New Dreamland Roller Skates During World War II

by Nat Bodian


In the years leading up to my entry into World War II, I was a dedicated roller skater.

In an earlier "Newark Memory" I recalled Vic Browns' New Dreamland Arena, and spending the night of November 16, 1942 at the Frelinghuysen Avenue rink. It was the night before I reported for induction into World War II.

On that November 16th night in 1942, as I skated on the New Dreamland rink floor, about to go off to war the following morning, I couldn't help but wonder whether I would ever be on those skates again, what with the uncertainty of war.

As fate would have it, before the end of World War II, I did find myself on those very same skates one more time, but not in Newark -- rather on a wooden floor near the mouth of the Amazon River in South America.

If you think this sounds like the start of a story, you guessed right! This is the story:

As part of my duties in the Army Air Force, in 1944, I found myself stationed at Val de Cans Field, a U. S. Army air base just outside the city of Belem, the main port for the Amazon River in northeastern Brazil.

Our air base was a refueling spot for American military aircraft bound to and from the various war zones in Africa, the Middle East, China, Burma, and India. Its address was APO 603.

As my earlier New Dreamland Arena memory states, before entering military service, I had established a warm friendship with Vic Brown, owner/operator of the New Dreamland Arena, and head of the RSROA (Roller Skating Rink Operators of America).

In the course of my work at the Val de Cans air base, an abandoned and unused airplane hangar, that had been occupied by the Germans before the War, had been turned over to me to use for recreational purposes.

I came up with an idea, which I proceeded to carry out.

I convinced my superior officer that we should install a smooth wooden roller skating surface on the concrete hangar floor. I told the officer that I had a strong friendship with Vic Brown, a rink operator in Newark, and that he had connections with other rink operators throughout the United States. I said I was confident that if we built the roller skating floor for the men of the base, that I could get Brown and his fellow rink operators to contribute some roller skates for it.

Putting the Idea into Reality

He like the idea, especially since we had a recreation fund, and he saw an opportunity to put it to use in a creative manner.

I signed a contract with the carpenters union in the City of Belem who supplied the labor. We had to agree to pay the prevailing daily wage for skilled carpenters, 10 milreis (10,000 reis) which was the U. S. equivalent of 50 cents.

We hired 50 skilled carpenters to build the floor for a total cost of $25 a day in labor. The base agreed to furnish the floor materials.

Getting Ready for Operation

As the skating floor was being erected, I did two things. First, I wrote to Vic Brown, told him about our on-base skating rink -- possibly the first of its kind in South America -- and told him how much it would mean for the morale of the airmen at the base.

Then, I wrote home to my parents at 29 Montgomery Street in Newark and told them I would like to have my "Betty Lytle" Chicago rink roller skates mailed to me in the metal carrying case that held them.

Brown Sends Me Bad News

Vic Brown's answer came back first. He told me that the Chicago Skate Company, that supplied all the roller skates and parts, was totally in war work and that no skates or parts had been supplied to roller rinks since the start of the War...that he had no replacements for inoperable skates at his own rink, and that he couldn't spare a single pair.

He said that other rink operators around the country were in the same fix, and that he couldn't ask anyone else to donate roller skates to us either, as they were all struggling to stay in business.

I had better luck with the request for my own roller skates. They arrived in the mail just as the skating floor reached completion.

What I Did With My Own Skates

At a quiet time, when there was no one else around, I opened the case, donned my skates, and took a quick spin around the newly completed floor. It was as smooth as glass.

I then put the skates back in the case, relabeled the carry case for a return trip to 29 Montgomery Street, Newark, and put it in the mail.

I couldn't allow any implication that I, a mere Army Air Force corporal, had built a private roller skating rink for myself in the middle of a war. I knew I had to get rid of the skates quickly.

What Happened to the Floor

Though built to be a skating floor, the installation was not a total waste. We set up volley ball nets, we held basketball games on the hangar floor, we staged a New Years Eve celebration in the Hangar, and we even held carefully chaperoned dances on the floor with busloads of young ladies and their minders bussed in from the City of Belem.

That's the end of my story about my New Dreamland Arena roller skates, and their round trip to the Amazon. I still have those skates in the same metal case. Though untouched for more than half a century and resting on a remote shelf in my backyard garage, the case carries in it a treasury of joyful skating memories of my early years.

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