Arriving at the county fairgrounds youth exhibits building in Marietta Saturday, March 22, I had no idea that I was about to enter a whole new culture.
Laid out on the concrete floor in tape were two long ovals, one inside the other, chairs lined up inside the smaller oval. More chairs were arranged in rows outside the larger oval, at each end of the building. Tables at one end offered T-shirts for sale, beer, and opportunities to play a game called "bra pong."
My friends and I arrived early, but over the next minutes people would show up: women, who typically had tattoos and bruises, and men who in many cases sported short hair and long beards. All greeted each other warmly, even the ones who a little while later would effectively be trying to beat the stuffing out of each other in the space between the two ovals.
The people were the Appalachian Hell Betties and Hades Ladies and their supporters.
I was at roller derby.
Over the years I had been vaguely aware of the sport, though it was thought of as sporting in the same way that professional wrestling is, and it occupied similar times and places as wrestling on the television dial, back when televisions had dials. I assumed it was scripted and phony.
This was different from that impression, though it took a little while to realize it. Wrestling is a real sport. Roller derby is, too, though it's a more colorful one.
It would be easy to be misled. The team names, for instance, suggest a theatrical approach, as do the names sported by the players: "Luna Killjoy," "Cupquake," "Pimp Malady," "Addy Hominem." Add the dramatic commentary that came in this case from the excellent skate-by-skate announcer, called "Bear." The enthusiasm of regular derby fans - it is universally called "derby" on second reference - contrasted with the puzzlement of first-timers like myself, there to cheer on their friends and try to figure out what it was all about.
The Athens County-based Hell Betties have been around for five years now, and they are in a kind of perpetual formative stage. They have weekly recruiting and tryout sessions at the roller rink in Nelsonville, and those sessions as well as other activities are announced on their website.
You hear about them from time to time and see posters when they have games or matches - "bouts," as until recently they were called. You would have heard more about them if they had a local venue in which to skate.
"We need a benefactor," said Dazey Lovedirt, who has skated with the Betties for four seasons. "It could be someone to help us with a building. There are portable floors that are put together like a jigsaw puzzle, and with one of those we could even play in the Convo. But they cost about $10,000 and we don't have that kind of money."
The players have in common only that they love the sport. They include students, moms and businesspeople. Some drive considerable distances to participate in both games and practices. It is a small and affectionate community, with players being best of friends before and after - but not during! - the games.
Ah, yes, the games. I was afraid you'd ask about that.
Best I can tell, derby can be summed up like this: two teams of five women each take to the track, which is the space between the two concentric ovals. Each team has a player with a star on her helmet. She is the "jammer." The teams both move counter-clockwise around the oval. The goal is to let your team's jammer lap the other team while preventing the other team's jammer from lapping yours. It is done on roller skates (the kind with two sets of two wheels next to each other, not trendy roller blades).
There's more to it than that - "like the 47 pages of rules," the Bettie called "Pimp Malady" said - and the scoring system is maddeningly non-intuitive: every so often the announcer gives a score based on what just happened ("what just happened," by the way, is called a "jam") but for the first-timer there's not necessarily any connection between it and what seems to have just happened.
But that doesn't matter. It's perfectly satisfying to watch. One comes to have favorite players on each side, with the sense that when she is the one with the star on her helmet (did I mention the "jammer" position can switch around among players, even during a jam? I guess not), things are going to be exciting. Figuring out the maneuvers employed and how well they are executed is part of the excitement.
There is also a penalty box. When a player is there, it can have a devastating effect on her team's fortunes, especially if that player is the jammer. Sometimes, both teams' jammers are in the penalty box at the same time. Not much happens until one, the other, or both get out.
As you can tell, I have not quite mastered the subtleties of the game.
In the bout I watched, the Betties were in the lead - sometimes far in the lead - until late in the second half (did I mention that the game is divided into halves?), when Hades Ladies pushed ahead, ultimately winning by three points. The victory was bittersweet for them: their star jammer, "Karmabal Lectur," was playing her last game with the team. She has been recruited by the professional team in Columbus.
This is one of those games that transports the spectator to a whole new world, where nothing else exists for the time it's underway.
I look forward to watching and photographing another one. Though I despair at ever figuring out how it's scored.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. His column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at email@example.com.