HISTORY

Milestones: Residents share their armory memories

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 24, 2008 

For some people, the old Bellingham Armory on North State Street brings back memories of military service. For others, it’s memories of dancing, listening to music, watching professional wrestling, or roller-skating with friends and maybe stealing a kiss afterward. Here are a few stories.

PARADE-READY

Bill Wegley was 16 when he and his father, a World War I Army veteran, joined the Washington State Guard. The guard had been re-established when Washington National Guard units were put on active duty as the United States readied for World War II.

The Wegleys became part of Company I, Fifth Regiment, an infantry unit assigned to the Bellingham Armory. They practiced close-order drills each week and used .22-caliber rifles during target practice in the basement firing range. They marched in local parades to show they were ready, able and willing to help, if help was needed.

"If something came up, we were available," said Wegley, 82. "But it never got that far."

Eight months after he turned 17, Wegley joined the Navy.

HAVING A BLAST

Art Reynolds, 88, went to several dances at the Armory when he was in high school, back in the late '30s. Teens and older people danced to popular tunes played by five- and six-piece bands, he said.

Reynolds recalled one dance where a friend was dancing with two sticks of dynamite in his back pockets.

"He stole it from the railroad company," Reynolds said. "He was just trying to show off, I guess."

OLFACTORY MEMORY

Don Hilton, 69, hung around at the Armory when he was a kid because his father, Ralph Hilton, commanded a military unit there.

"I knew almost every nook and cranny," he said. "I've always been kind of a military-minded brat."

Among his many memories was the smell associated with keeping the Armory’s wood surfaces military-clean.

"You could smell Murphy Oil Soap all over the place," he said. "It has a smell of its own."

COURTESY SPIKE JONES

Carl Akers was a young taxidermist in the late 1940s when he heard band leader Spike Jones on a local radio show talking about his upcoming show at the Armory.

Akers boldly called the radio station and said he'd love to see the show but he and his wife, Nickie, didn't have enough money. Soon after, some members of Spike Jones and his City Slickers visited Akers' business in Old Town.

"They came down to my shop, invited us up, let us in," recalled Akers, 83. "They even gave me a plug during the performance."

Afterward, they all dined at the Horseshoe Café.

GORGEOUS VIEW

Marilyn Mastor was about 15 when an uncle took her to the Armory to watch professional wrestlers. It was the late 1940s or early '50s, she recalled.

"I really didn't like wresting, but it was a big deal," Mastor said. "I remember dressing up and feeling very grownup to see Gorgeous George."

SNEAKING IN

Garey Vodopich and a friend, Larry "Canute" Knutsen, found a free way to see wrestlers at the Armory in the early '50s. They climbed a drainpipe and went through a window to the men's restroom.

"We did manage to startle a few dudes in the restroom as we dropped upside down," Vodopich said.

COUGHING OUT

Larry Knutsen, now a resident of Nevada, lived a half block from the Armory.

"I snuck in when they were training troops for Korea," he recalled in an e-mail. "They threw tear gas in the building; troops all had gas masks on. … I came out of there coughing and snorting, to the great surprise of the troops who didn't know I was in the building."

FIRST KISS

Sarah Neugebauer, 42, grew up near the Armory and loved to roller-skate in the 1970s.

"I just went there to hang out and skate almost every weekend, every Friday night," she said.

It was safe, inexpensive fun, she said, and the operators kept the kids under control.

"You couldn't be dressed too risqué," she said. "If you had behavior problems, they'd boot you out."

Kids weren't allowed to kiss inside, but some did outside the main entrance. That's where Neugebauer experienced her first kiss.

"There were two guys I kissed there," she said.

UP AND DOWN STAIRCASE

Lance Lindell also roller-skated at the Armory in the '70s.

"Radio hits blared over the sound system and everything smelled like teenage hormones (plus whatever it was they sprayed into the rental skates)," he wrote in an e-mail. "Songs like 'The Loco-Motion' by Grand Funk and 'Outta Space' by Billy Preston were perfect for skating fast and showing off.

"At closing time the action usually shifted outside, to the stone staircase near the entrance. There seemed to be a pecking order for where you could stand and who you could talk to.

"As a rule, the farther you were from the door, the cooler you were. My friends and I always ended up watching for our ride from the top steps while the cool kids were down below the staircase, smoking."

ONE LAST SKATE

Carol (Van Brocklin) Barber met her husband-to-be while on wheels.

She skated competitively at a rink in Ferndale, then shifted to Bellingham when Ted Bruland closed the Ferndale operation and opened his Rolladium in the Armory.

Bill Barber had also skated in Ferndale and knew Jerry Bruland, a star skater and Ted's son. Barber served four years in the Navy, and when he returned to Bellingham he’d go to the Armory to see friends. That's where he and Carol met.

The Barbers and other past and current members of Whatcom County Skating Club came together for a reunion on July 29, 1989, the day the rink closed for good.

"People came from all over the U.S.," Carol Barber said. "The East Coast, and all over the place."

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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