Cedar Hill Roller Rink sits in a rundown tin building, hidden on a quiet corner just north of the city’s small down town. The parking lot is mostly grass, but it’s packed tonight, and full of trucks that have driven over curbs and parked between the old oaks. A line of people, with ice chests and lawn chairs in hand, snakes up to the door.
Tonight is roller derby night.
The crowd has come to see the Arlington Derby Avengers take on the Hell on Wheels crew from Fort Hood. For them, the sound of old-school quad skates racing around a highly varnished hardwood rink is the next best thing to NASCAR. And, at $15 for a ticket, it's a lot cheaper.
They’ve come to cheer on their hometown heroes, like Bella la Brawl, Terrin 2 Bit and Anna Mosity. They’ve also come to see the infamous Strawberry Deathcake in action.
Strawberry Deathcake — aka Rebecca Caruso — is skating as a ringer for the Avengers tonight. She’s come to put the hit and the hurt on the upstarts from Killeen, just as she does as a ringer for a half-dozen other all-star freelance teams throughout the region. She’s been a power player in North Texas for more than a decade, and her fan club has shown up with poster boards to cheer on their own favorite rink hooligan.
The instant the whistle blows, Deathcake pounds from her position behind the pack through the wall of bodies and out onto the wide-open wood beyond. She is the jammer, the designated skater who can score points by passing opposing players. Bent over like an Olympic ice speed skater, she manages a leaning skid through the first corner, and then goes to vertical for the straightaway. Her Avengers have blocked the other team’s jammer, so once Deathcake laps the pack she’s racking up points, one point per skater she passes. As she tears through the tight cluster of blockers, her face is fixed with a smile. She’s having fun now, clearly in her element.
The opposing team’s jammer attempts to squeeze through a crack between large bodies. Skaters trip and fall. The old wooden floor quakes and shakes as one tanker tumbles in the middle of the pack and another slides headfirst into the first row of fans seated right at the rink’s edge. Fort Hood’s jammer finally makes it through. But Strawberry Deathcake has already lapped the track and racked up another five big ones. Putting her hands on her hips, she calls off the jam. By halftime, the score will be 85-20 in favor of the Avengers, who will be the victors of a 120-46 rout.
After the bout, Deathcake clomps off the rink like an Imperial Walker from Star Wars. Wearing skates, she’s shy of 6 feet tall – a good 3 inches taller than she is in shoes. She’s bulky with the muscles of someone who skates at least several times each week. At age 49 she’s not the oldest woman skating derby in America, but she’s definitely an unusually experienced derby veteran.
She slides into the old orange-red form-fitted seat of a table. “Sorry if my kneepad stinks,” she says. (It does.) “I have to wear it to hold my knee together after I tore it up about a year ago.”
Roller derby has given her two separated shoulders, a broken ankle, five broken ribs, several broken toes and one twisted pinky finger, not to mention the occasional minor concussion. She lives in a perpetual beat-down. “It gets tougher and tougher to get through these things the older I get, but I bet it’d be a lot worse for me if I quit,” she says. “I know that one day I’ll have to give it up, but for now derby keeps me living. It’s saved my soul.”
After picking up the night’s MVP award — she has a room full of them at home, she says — she skates her own private victory lap as the other girls sit on the sideline. She’ll appear at several dozen roller derby bouts this year, but she doesn’t want the night to end.
In the 1980s, long before Strawberry Deathcake existed, a mild-mannered girl named Rebecca Caruso attended Lake Highlands High School. She ran track, played soccer and raced barrels on the school’s rodeo team. And then her mother bought her a pair of roller skates.
She used these through her early teens, spending Friday and Saturday nights on the maple floors of White Rock Skate Center. The rink banned the teen after catching her smoking cigarettes in the parking lot, she says. “Yeah, that was pretty shitty,” she says. “Like I was the only one?” It wouldn’t be the last time she’d face sanction from a rink.
The skates would stay in a box in the closet for 25 years until Rebecca witnessed her first derby bout in Austin in 2005. That year, the Texas Roller Girls sparked a nationwide explosion in interest in the sport, and Caruso found herself caught up in it.
She found the old skates and tried out for Dallas’ Assassination City Roller Derby the next day. “Funny thing was, my mother bought those skates too big for me so I’d grow into them,” she says. “Now they were way small and hurt my feet. I’ve been wearing out new pairs of skates ever since.”
Like any roller derby star, she needed a morbidly fun moniker. Her son Holland, who works in Austin, came up with Strawberry Deathcake.
No, she says, the strawberry part isn't a reference to her wild mane of blonde hair. “I like strawberries,” she says. “So we landed on Strawberry Shortcake, but who would think that’s mean?” With a simple tweak, they settled on Strawberry Deathcake.
The derby star works as a mortgage banker at Capital One, a job she’s had for 20 years. At work she covers up her palette of tattoos and keeps what she does on the rink out of daily discussions. “Nobody knew about the derby me for the first five years on the job, and I wore a jacket around the office until just a couple of years ago,” she says. “I think I’ve always come across as somebody not the status quo, somebody outside of the norm, whatever that is, but I do my work well.”
But there’s still Deathcake inside there; on at least one occasion coworkers have asked her to dial things back. “I was asked to use my indoor voice," she says.
Caruso is sitting with husband John at White Rock Coffee on Northwest Highway. “Angry John,” as he’s known to friends, and Rebecca seem the happy couple. They were married in 2004. John loves motorcycles and raced the cross-country circuit before a devastating accident in 2010 left him paralyzed from the chest down.
He spent a week in ICU at Baylor, then several months in rehabilitation, and now goes regularly to the VA Center in Oak Cliff. Five vertebrae have been fused with a rod to allow Angry John to sit up straight — one vertebra was completely destroyed in a burst fracture during the accident.
Several months ago, Angry John was among the first to test a new bionic exoskeleton for the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation. “Once I was able to stand in that thing, I felt that everything would eventually be OK for me at some point,” he says. “I still do what I’ve always done, it just takes more time. But technology is a very cool thing.”
Out and about, they complement each other; she orders the coffee while he rolls up and gets his own door. He’s focused on his passion for building custom motorcycles, including a new three-wheeled version he plans to use with his wheelchair.
And he seems to accept her blunt nature, the Deathcake that is lurking inside Rebecca. “She could tell me not to ever think of riding again, and I appreciate that, but I will anyway,” he says. “People don’t like that she says what’s on her mind. But that’s the way she is.”
"Some chick is yelling, ‘stinky pussy! I smell stinky pussy!’ Strawberry Deathcake says, laughing at the memory. “Just about the time we all look around to see who’s yelling what, the other team clotheslined us. Down we went.”
She’s telling a story from the glory days of derby, a tale from a match in Phoenix a decade ago against a team from Minnesota. This is the way things were before the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) changed the rules to slow things down, clean things up and make the sport family fare. “Yeah, derby was a lot different a decade ago,” she says.
The big change in derby came five years ago, when the WFTDA changed its rules to help reduce injuries. From fast skating around the track with lots of blocking and cross-rink takeouts, bouts turned into something more resembling a group of women on skates standing in the middle of the track, while the two fast jammers tried to punch through “the wall” of opposing blockers.
New derby puts more focus on the jammers, who get to showcase their running-back-like prowess and athleticism, but many skaters and longtime fans think it’s lost something. “Used to be, the crowd would come out to watch a good fight and a little derby would break out,” says Randall Dryk, owner of Dad’s Broadway Skateland in Mesquite. “That’s how derby was, and the crowd just loved all that.”
So did Deathcake. As eager to keep the crowds happy as she was to stand up for perceived slights, she once skated onto the rink during the second half of a double-header to take out a rival skater who’d talked a bit too much smack. “Oh, yeah,” says Dryk. “There was blood involved in that one — lots of hair pulling.”
Deathcake is a repository of arcane lore from roller derby’s past, stories of leg sweeps and human torpedo maneuvers. Deathcake talks in reverence about the infamous “punch heard around the world” in 2009, when officials ejected Rocky Mountain Roller Derby’s DeRanged from a tournament after she popped Texas Roller Girls’ Angie-Christ.
Then there was the bench-clearing brawl between Ass City’s Lone Star Assassins and the Deadly Kennedys at Garland’s Texas Skatium. Nobody says one way or the other whether Deathcake had anything to do with starting it, but she does say that she weathered the melee by hiding out with the fans in the stands.
The kinder, gentler roller derby scene didn’t sit well with Strawberry Deathcake, and it cost her venues. The new management of Assassination City banned her from skating with any of their teams and also with any of their league members. “They’re wussies,” Deathcake says. “I think I called one of the girls a pussy or made somebody cry or something like that. I mean, c’mon. … it’s fucking roller derby. Grow a pair.”
Her hometown rinks were not welcoming, either. At White Rock Skate Center, Caruso-cum-Deathcake had become a hometown hero, and groups of kids would work to keep up with her on the rink. A long snake of youngsters would skate in a line through groups of other skaters.
So the same rink that kicked out a teenage Rebecca Caruso banned Strawberry Deathcake a decade later for skating too aggressively around the other patrons. “Who kicks a woman in her 40s out of a roller rink?” she says. “I mean, who does that?”
I t’s a quiet Sunday morning out along Highway 290 in northwest Austin. Inside Playland Skate Center the lights are down. There is no throng of teenagers skating hand-in-hand beneath a mirror ball, no dancing the hokey-pokey. Instead, there are a half-dozen athletes – speed skaters – serious competitors skating in long measured strides around the full perimeter of the rink. Playland is the home of Texas Speed, the region’s top competitive national team, and also home to Deathcake’s second wheel-borne passion, speed skating.
This is Deathcake’s other skating world.
With teammate Debra Smotrilla, Deathcake racked up a first-place finish in the veteran’s age group for relay speed last year in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The team will defend the title this summer, aiming to add yet another blue ribbon to Texas Speeds’ already crowded trophy room. Sonny Felton (aka the Quad Father), the team’s coach for the past 16 years, first met Strawberry Deathcake two years ago and recognized the raw talent almost immediately.
“She was down here skating one day with a friend from Austin derby and I saw how fast and powerful she was,” Felton says. “We had her doing laps, learning how to go fast the right way, within a week. And it’s been nonstop ever since.”
By her own admission, Deathcake is derby’s version of ice hockey’s Brett Hull, a guy who never claimed to be graceful on the ice yet always powered his way in to slam his trademarked slap shot. Like Hull, Deathcake simply isn’t built to be graceful. And like Hull, she uses power to do the job that finesse alone can't accomplish.
Felton, who’s been coaching speed skating for 35 years, says Deathcake’s derby aggressiveness translates into speed championships. “She knows how to muscle way down low going through the corners, which is a good thing for derby, and that’s one of the things we work on the most,” he says. “Everyone works hard when she’s here.”
Deathcake says that while speed skating is altogether different from roller derby, the two sports complement each other. “Speed is very low impact and focused on breathing. But it’s also instinctual — you have to be reading the track and the other racers around you and using that to your advantage,” she says. “So that’s where the derby comes into play.”
Tonight the tennis courts at Denia Park, in Denton, are a skate rink. A small gas generator hums against the back fence, power cords reaching out to two small mercury vapor lamps stuck at the top of tall poles. The lights cast interesting shadows as skaters file past, first in silhouette and then in relief. This is derby noir.
Deathcake is here to help train the Crash Test Hunnies, the redshirt team of Denton’s League, the North Texas Roller Girls. These are newbies to the sport. Once they make it through the grueling six-month boot camp, designed to teach girls who’ve never been on skates the art of moving gracefully on skates and the intricacies of women’s roller derby, they’ll be drafted by one of the league’s three teams.
A large student takes a spill, and Deathcake is over in a heartbeat to grab an arm and help the girl gingerly to her wheels, delivering a reassuring pep talk. In this role, Deathcake the bruiser and brawler is more the mother and motivator. You can do this, she tells the girl, who shakes it off and skates ahead.
Strawberry Deathcake is in the give-back mode here, but she has ambitions. She has a derby squad of her own in the works — the Big D Roller Girls. They’ll skate partly old-school rules to skate the kind of bouts she believes are what derby fans want to see. She knows what fans want, she says, and mentions a time back in the day when a fellow skater wore only a jersey, thong, kneepads and skates.
“We’ll pick the best of the best out there — the all-stars — and do it up right,” she says. “We’ll do throw-down fights and smack-downs all day long and then hug each other after it’s all over.”
Deathcake envisions a team that will go anywhere and skate against any team to keep the spectacle of derby alive and rolling forward. “It’s primal, it’s raw, it’s a way to get a rage out and still have a lot of fun — to get out there and do what you need to do.”
Tonight she’s darting in and out of the herd of students around the darkened court. She helps one girl learn to lean into a slow left-hand turn, and another to master the maneuver of using a toe-drag to spin around and change directions.
Suddenly, as if called by some silent cue, Deathcake departs from the pack and begins to pick up speed on the outside edge of the track, outside of the orange Walmart cones. Her blond hair flails in the wind behind her, leaning forward to gain speed until she appears like a slow-shutter-speed photo under the dim lighting. Her wheels grind as she slants into broad, wide sweeps going into the corners.
As she hits the short straightaways, she closes her eyes, smiling from ear to ear, arms swinging front to back and legs pushing back hard with each long stride. She’s flying now, and loving it.
Whether casting off into the future or spinning back into the past, it doesn’t matter. She’s in the moment, for the moment, with her wheels and life rolling on.
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