Closed for the Season

I came into the world just as neighborhood amusement parks were closing for the season, and closing for good. In various towns and cities lied cemeteries for twisted steel, dilapidated roller coasters, weather-torn wood planks, and old bumper cars driven into the weeds. Before the mid sixties, Ohio alone had about 50 now defunct amusement parks a little reminiscent of Chicago’s Riverview and New York’s renowned Coney Island. For some, these cemeteries were treasure mines. For others, it meant another remnant of youth untimely ripped from the narrative of life. From the sounds and looks of things, I had missed the golden age of the great amusement park.

I have come to understand the nostalgia for these old places. In my youth I attempted to recapture the splendor of that once-a-year, one-day excursion to Ohio’s Cedar Point. On a wintry Sunday afternoon when the parks were closed for the season, you would have seen me sketching myself into coaster cars midway through their descent or painting elaborate haunted hallways with decayed and tumefied pirates. Some of my favorite rides are obsolete. How could they compete with the 400-foot drops that make you think you’re free falling from the Hancock?

One summer, I tried to build a rollercoaster in my back yard. I knew little of physics, but stubbornly assembled stray sticks in ways that might stand up to the pull of gravity. I set them up, turned around, and faced them again, now nothing but a pile of kindling. I shook my fists at God for allowing this natural disaster, a mere breeze, to destroy hours of handiwork. I must have had some trivial sense of how the builders of great cathedrals felt when the walls collapsed before the invention of the flying buttress.

It was a long wait, but the day finally arrived. I drew up plans, a mind map, of where my friend and I would start and finish, which coasters to ride first, and which ride deserved seconds just as the setting sun spread its ribbons across Lake Erie. Between the thrills, we would stroll down Frontier Trail where I could indulge in a bit of history, drive an old-fashioned car or see a show at the Red Garter Saloon. We would stop by the small farm and feed a braying lamb, and step into the little village where a frontiersman would hypnotize us with his art. He would grab his blowpipe and puff lightly into its end, making a bubble, and then, after spinning and twisting, turning and blowing, he’d heat it again. I could have meditated on this for hours if it weren’t for the warm, buttery fudge boiling in the loghouse next door. When we had enough, there was the whistling coal train running through Boneville where mechanized, happy skeletons moved within their tableau, workin’ on the railroad and putting out indomitable fires. It was all kitsch, but it gave me the sense that, between senseless stimuli, I had a curious mind and a romantic imagination, that there was a thing called the frontier, and that I might one day look into it.

I was my father’s daughter, for I had successfully imbibed his love for the old-style amusement park. The work had been done long before I was fully conscious. Fast asleep in my crib, the squeezing, pumping, bright and brassy melodies of his favorite carousel band organ played upon my brain. Its cells took the shape of little merry-go-round horses impaled by brass poles, and it was not long before my sensibilities were, more or less, set in their molds. Sometimes I can still see a stray horse floating across my cornea.

He kneeled before the carousel every Saturday, faithfully sound recording the musical wheel of ringing bells and singing pipes, his nerves and fibers galvanized into feeling, and his eyes reflecting the shiny, revolving ornaments.

Believe it or not, my dad was not alone. Countless Clevelanders are still obsessed with the one amusement park their progeny are forbidden to forget. Euclid Beach is stamped into everything: the streets, the ice cream parlors, the archway on Lakeshore, and in the Ohio history section at bookstores. Occasionally you can glimpse a motorized rocket ship on wheels rolling through town (a model of what they call adaptive reuse). Once suspended from a twirling string, it is now a rental vehicle for birthday parties, a commodity for your future aviator. You can come face-to-face with Laughing Sal at a local supermarket, a bobbling life-sized doll with a pumpkin head and a waxy freckled face. You can land scores of websites devoted to the old stomping ground and purchase a library of videos that tell its story; walk through any grandpa’s house and you can find nailed to the basement wall any number of old signs: “Put tickets in Chopper,” or “This way to Sleepy Hollow,” or “Humphrey Popcorn Sold Here.”

Many Clevelanders above the age of sixty deem Euclid Beach the nursemaid of their youth. Old postcards show young women in Victorian dresses clutching their ponderous hats as they dipped and turned on the Velvet Coaster. They wore almost this much on the beach and must have boiled in their own sweat. But they looked happy; these respectable ladies had fled their mothers’ courting parlors for the newest in modern commercial amusements. It was the boys’ turn to play the host, and, within three or four decades, the modern amusement park had permanently displaced mother as the perfect liaison between a young man and his sweet sixteen. All it took was one ride on the Flying Turns and he’d be in Heaven. She would thrillingly clutch his arm, or just happen to brush his side on a sharp turn. She might even settle into his protective arm as they rounded the summit of the first drop. If she wasn’t so daring, they could melt together on the dance floor with the help of Glenn Miller or roller skate, hand in hand, to a waltz pumped through an old rococo-styled Gavioli organ.

The laments of the faithful, dead and alive, must have sounded through the smog when, in 1969, The Thriller, loosed from its foundation, wobbled briefly in the wind and crashed to the earth in a mass of giant splinters, the generous agent of forty years of memories now a bone yard from the Mesozoic Era.

So it did not take long before my dad met with another prodigy of Euclid Beach band organ music. The two of them erected their sound systems on the same temperate day on the same side of the carousel. Richard was kind and delicate, with a banjo-string body and coke bottle eyeglasses. The two of them stood on either side of the monkey banging two cymbals together.

My father was never the all-American boy of American Graffiti who cruised half the night and shamelessly necked at the local drive-in. At three, he was discovered with perfect pitch and was handed a beautiful cherry wood cello. At seven, he snuck into the mausoleum after hours to play the organ. Deep in the basement, the director had just burned his last body when he heard the measured tones of Glow Worm bouncing off the marble walls. The man was rightfully chilled at first, thinking he had just released a happy spirit from the prison of an ailing body. Not knowing what he’d find, he tunneled his way to the source, a mere dwarf in a sailor’s uniform happily tapping teeth in the mouth of a great Hammond.

At ten, my dad was nearly run down on his bike crossing Euclid Heights Boulevard. The lanky man slammed the heavy door of his shiny black Cadillac, headed briskly for the boy, lifted his arm sharply, as if lighting upon the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, and heard, “You’re George Szell, the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra!” Beethoven’s dark fury melted into Mozart’s melodious laughter, the blaring brass horn now a lightly warbling flute.

While other children played baseball and skidded hands-first into the field dust, you could find my father engaged in unusual hobbies. He most often passed the hours with Wagner’s Ring Cycle. He rode the crescendos with elation, just as he did on his old Raleigh over the crest of Cedar Hill, an only child soaring with bombastic reverie and dreaming of the voluptuous Brünnhilde in the happy suspension of his bedroom.

This was his dreamy and idyllic life. Not long before the demise of Euclid Beach Park, he stood by helplessly as the wrecking ball demolished his childhood home on Euclid Heights Boulevard. Everything was desecrated with sacrilegious blows: its cherry wood fireplaces that warmed his grandparents’ legs and the beautiful leaded glass windows that kept the sun from shining too brightly on his cherub cheeks. In its place went several square, functional boxes made of pallid concrete and cheap fibers, designed to last thirty, maybe forty years. He and his mother had already lost the house after the sudden death of the family matriarch. But this was too much. Euclid Beach was now the only remaining monument to his youth, and that, too, went out with the old.

And so when he heard from Richard that he might catch a glimpse of an old-style amusement park that was still untrammeled, he didn’t question; he jumped. This would be our next family vacation. By all accounts, Russell’s Point was still open for business and boasted a fantastic carousel with a band organ like none other. The rest of us caught the excitement. If we weren’t headed for Cedar Point this year, it should be another amusement park. The plans were made, the motel was booked. I grabbed my favorite pillow and we were off.

My brother and I bounced on the back seat of our ’71 Volkswagon. Is there a space needle? Anything scary? Do they have skeletons? After eight summers, I had limited experience with amusement parks. My paradigm was always Cedar Point, though I could remember enjoying Euclid Beach during its last two seasons. Both parks were the best of their kind, with gracious floral midways and shaded bending walkways. Occasionally, I confused them, and thought I could ride the train from Sleepy Hollow straight into Boneville, though the parks were separated by more than ninety miles of Lake Erie shoreline. There was more of the macabre at Cedar Point, but Laughing Sal and her husband had the potential to stop a few beating hearts. I used to stare at them with great intent, secretly willing them to break out of their glass cases and create a hellish scene, a real pandemonium of screaming weenies in Miltonic chaos. I wanted clusters of families to part in a sudden panic while the two of them staggered side-to-side on their waxwork trunks, straight down the center of the midway, laughing maniacally with jiggling hands and bouncing heads. At a safe distance, you would find me conveniently and safely hidden behind a tree laughing demonically at my own hell-forged handiwork.

I cycled through my best memories with delicious anticipation. We were closing in on the sign for the Russell’s Point exit. My mouth moistened, and the peach fuzz on my arms tingled; my eyes were ready to drink in the site of a distant coaster rising above the landscape like Chicago’s big shoulders. The car grew quiet, poised for the grand entrance. We rolled up to a gravel parking lot colonized by weeds. Where’s the entrance booth? Isn’t anybody going to wave us in? We made our own spot in the deserted lot next to a rusty Oldsmobile, stepped into the cruel sun and took a closer look. Apparently, the weeds had colonized more than this. The field grasses had stretched several feet into the air, concealing a small ticket booth; there were vines growing around the coaster tracks; the skating rink was precariously exposed to the shifting elements and littered with sticks; and the famed carousel was gone completely, leaving only a barren dirt crater behind. We approached a young man. The place was still open, but with little more than a single operating ride. And the carousel? Dismantled and shipped off to another park.

My brother and I would not be comforted until we were sufficiently propelled by a motorized chain. They did their best to accommodate us. My baby brother was hoisted into the front car of the miniature train. I climbed in directly behind him. The adults told us that we should be happy; we had the ride to ourselves, after all, and could ride it as many times as we wished. We were very young and wondrously resilient. We trusted them, for the adult’s truth was God’s truth.

The train operator turned the key. We waited.

“Dead.”

He scratched his head.

“Maybe it needs gas.”

He ran to the corner gas station. We waited. He came back and filled the tank. We waited. He turned the key.

“Dead.”

He scratched his head.

“Maybe it needs oil.”

He ran to the corner gas station. We waited. He changed the oil. We waited. He turned the key.

“Bingo!”

“It started!” we chortled.

We were moving happily along the tracks along the radius of a small patch of weeds when the train grew sluggish. Every so often it hesitated, as if desperately forcing itself to inhale and exhale. Then, the thing began to stammer and spatter, as if exhausted from the strain of being jerked out of its coma. It puffed and panted, expelled its last breath, and just died.

In the intimate space of our VW Bug, the mouth of Hell had opened, and terrible confusion, wrath and vengeance poured out in a dreadful gale. Heaven turned away in shame and even the devil himself must have covered his ears. My father was in a tirade. My mother gave him a piece of her mind. My brother and I stiffened and just stared. Poor Richard was going to get it. Later that evening, in the privacy of his music room, my father picked up the phone and, as promised, read poor Richard the riot act.

I don’t even know if he survived.

***

Candace CraigCandace R. Craig was born and raised in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, an underdog city that is the nation’s “armpit” to some, but fertile soil for her.  It was there that she learned to appreciate thrill rides, but also great music, the arts, historic cemeteries, water skiing and summer bike rides alongside the Erie Canal.  Today, Candace draws upon her studies and teaching experiences in order to design a series of “Craig’s Notes” classroom literature guides, while firming up several works of fiction and creative nonfiction. Candace currently thrives in the exalting Colorado landscape with her philosopher-husband and spritely son, King Oberon.  She would like to dedicate her first peer-reviewed, published work of creative non-fiction to her father, Carl C. Craig (1936-2014).