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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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On track at home
Erin Oswald might be Joan of Ache when she’s on the jam during a roller derby bout, but to her two girls she’s mom.
By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published June 29, 2006
[Times photos: Melissa Lyttle]
|Erin Oswald plays with her daughter Chase, 5, in front of their St. Petersburg home. Chase is learning to skate and loves going to roller derby practice with her mom, a jammer with the Black Widows.
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In six hours, she’ll become Joan of Ache:
||Erin, as Joan of Ache, picks up speed on her pink skates as she rounds the turn to score a point for the Black Widows during a recent Tampa Bay Derby Darlins bout at United Skates of America in Tampa.
||Larger QuickTime verision of video
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The jammer who busts through packs of pierced, tattooed blockers on her quad roller skates. The Black Widow who vows not to shrink from a fight if one of the Vice Grip Vixens elbows her in the ribs. The Derby Darlin in fishnets and a miniskirt who buys the first round of shots at the Hub.
But right now, midway into a Tuesday afternoon in late May, she is just Erin Oswald:
A 34-year-old single mother with two daughters, a businesswoman making ends meet with her day job, which happens to be running a Largo cosmetics company she owns with her mom. At the moment, sitting among blush samples and vintage Vogue covers, she is wearing a tasteful white T-shirt and khaki cargo pants. Her hair is in a ponytail.
Erin has been in the beauty business since she was a teenager who helped her mom at trade shows. Erin doesn’t wear a lot of makeup, but she likes designing the packaging for other companies’ products. Marketing cosmetics gives her a chance to create. Putting on her skates, and transforming into Joan of Ache, gives her the license to tear things up.
Her team, the Black Widows, practices twice a week at the United Skates of America, in Tampa. One of those practices starts later, at 9 p.m.
In the hours between now and then, Erin will be busy with her daughters. Her 5-year-old, Chase, just got dropped off after a day at grandma’s house; Caitlin, the 11-year-old, is waiting to be picked up from St. Jude’s Catholic School. Before Erin heads for practice, she has to take them to the grocery, make dinner, supervise homework. A small funeral is also on the agenda. This morning, before school, the girls discovered a dead baby bird in the front yard. When they find a quiet moment, they’ll bury it.
“Single moms,” Erin likes to say, “make the best derby girls.”
Before leaving the office, Erin checks the Tampa Bay Derby Darlins league Web site one last time for updates, trash talk and derby strategy from the four teams: the Black Widows, plus the Vice Grip Vixens, the Cigar City Mafia and the Switchblade Sisters.
Erin signs off, gathers her younger daughter, heads for St. Jude’s. When they pick up Caitlin, she has some news: She just got an A on her religion test.
* * *
At Winn-Dixie, Caitlin lingers in the aisles, looking for ground beef and tortilla chips. Because of her A, tonight’s dinner is her choice: taco dip.
“Yo Mensa,’’ Erin hollers, hurrying her up. “This way.”
Chase, the 5-year-old, squeals inside the shopping cart as her mom races her through the frozen food section.
Chase is wearing bright red lipstick. Like her mom, she loves makeup. Like her mom, she loves speed.
Out in the parking lot, the kids help Erin load the groceries into the trunk of their Toyota Solara. There’s not much room, beside Caitlin’s backpack and the bag that holds Erin’s skates and the rest of her derby gear.
“We look like homeless roller skaters,’’ says Erin.
* * *
When they pull up to their St. Petersburg bungalow, Chase runs to retrieve the cardboard box where they’ve stowed the dead baby bird.
“Don’t open it,” her mom warns. Chase grins.
Before the burial, they’ll need a headstone. They want to pick something from Erin’s collection of Sacred Hearts that line the living room wall.
The one with the wings, they decide. Erin takes the heart off the wall.
It’s no accident that when she was choosing her derby nickname, Erin anointed herself Joan of Ache. She immerses herself in symbols of her Catholic faith. The Virgin Mary is tattooed on her right arm. Her house is adorned with rosaries, crucifixes, a statue of the virgin. She keeps a church pew in the living room, along with a book of saints. Sometimes, she reads stories from the book to her daughters, telling them details from the saints’ lives.
The girls keep the faith on their own. When Caitlin was little, she would ask nuns for their autographs. Chase, without being prompted, makes everyone stop to say grace before meals.
When they’re ready for the ceremony, Erin and Chase walk into the back yard. Mother totes the shovel; daughter carries the box with the deceased. Together they assemble under an oak tree in a corner of the yard that serves as a mini-cemetery for family pets of the past: two hamsters, a lizard and two turtles. Each grave is marked with another Sacred Heart.
Before she digs the grave, Erin tests the ground with the shovel, making sure she’s not about to exhume another creature.
“Poor birdie,” says Chase.
Once the box is buried, Erin and her daughter fold their hands and bow their heads. Chase offers a quiet prayer, then makes the sign of the cross.
* * *
In the kitchen, Erin cooks the ground beef. Caitlin, cramming for her sixth-grade finals, looks up facts on medieval life for her social studies class. Chase puts on her quad roller skates — she prefers the old-fashioned kind, like her mom wears — and heads for the front sidewalk.
If she could, Chase would live on wheels. She skates outside, in the house, wherever and whenever her mom lets her. Erin says the 5-year-old is faster than she is. When her mom allows it, Chase loves watching derby. She has attended most of the Black Widow scrimmages and is not shy about speaking her mind. Once, she surprised Raven Lunatic — another Black Widow — with a critique.
“Don’t worry,” Chase told Raven as she rolled off the rink. “You’ll do better next time.”
As dinner simmers, Erin steps outside to watch the girl practicing her moves. Chase skates up to her mom and kicks her in the shin. In other families, this would be a cause for discipline. In this house, it’s one more proof that Chase was born a derby girl.
“You’re like the red team,” Erin says holding her back. “You get thrown out for kicking!”
* * *
Inside the house, Caitlin and Chase eat their taco dip. Erin sits on the front steps with a cigarette, her shin still throbbing.
Erin had Caitlin when she was 22, but divorced her first husband soon after. She remarried, had Chase, then got divorced again. Her kids, she says, have always come before everything else.
Except for derby nights. These are hers. It’s the only time, she says, she gets to be herself. The only time she gets to walk away from being a mom.
Chase steps outside to ask her mom if she can be excused from dinner. “One more bite,” her mom tells her.
* * *
After dinner, Erin lies with Chase on the couch in the family room and closes her eyes, just for a minute. Chase watches Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and strokes her mom’s hair.
Most nights, Chase and Caitlin sleep in bed with their mom. But tonight, when Erin heads for the rink, the girls will sleep at their grandparents’ house.
“Don’t go to derby tonight,” Chase whispers to her mom.
It’s almost time for practice.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at (813) 226-3354 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified June 28, 2006, 16:47:50]
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