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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Kennywood's Open

Those words summon two ideas to the mind of a kid. One is that your zipper is down. That's a Pittsburgh area euphemism akin to "Your barn door is open." While that might not conjure magical thoughts, well perhaps it does, but in any case the other meaning of that phrase means that a local amusement park is open for another magical season. One that means cotton candy, funnel cake, and French fries are yours for the taking. Opening in 1898, Kennywood has become a familiar setting of schools' and businesses' annual picnics and just recently was a filming location for a new comedy called, Adventureland. As a kid, living that close to an amusement park is utterly awesome. There is something amazing about the sound of the coasters and the calliope music piping. Smelling the aroma of funnel cakes and cotton candy while you gawk at the amazement of the grandeur of the midway sends a child spinning in his bed the night before his trip to the park. Come sun up, you want to be at the park extra early so that you are first in line for your favorite ride. You have every intention of riding it again and again, no length of queue is enough to deter you from your task. You plan on eating your weight in junk food and spending every last dollar on trying to win a stuffed animal. And you can not leave the park before the lights come on at night. That's when the real magic happens as the midway is illuminated by different colored lights chasing each other into infinity.

Of course, something happens when you grow up. The park seems small and dirty. The food turns your stomach. You can't look at the Pirate Ship or The Enterprise without wanting to hurl. You want to leave five minutes after you arrive. The crowds that filled the park now become bothersome and the mentality of the average amusement park going person is reduced to that of a zombie from Night of the Living Dead. I should know. I worked at an amusement park for four summers in college and as employees we all thought the same thing. "When you enter the park, you must have to check your brain at the gate." In short, you are now an adult and the magic of the midway is now just a memory. You don't know when it happened but at some point in your maturation you turned into a recluse who hates to leave the house except for food. Gone is that child who once had the felt jester's hat that he won because he put three pounds of gravel into his pocket in order to fool the "Guess Your Weight" guy. Replacing him is the grumpy middle aged man who will hold a neighbor kid's wayward football hostage if it should land in his yard.

I guess, for me, the switch over came after I graduated high school. Every year I spent in school until that point was a year I went to Kennywood. We lined up in the gym of our school to buy tickets. The night before we had begged and pleaded with our parents to chip in another few dollars for ride tickets. You see, in those days, there was no such thing as an "All Day Pass." You bought a general admission ticket that allowed you into the park and then purchased tickets for rides. The more thrilling the ride, the more tickets it required to ride it. This was back in the day when you could take an entire family to the park and spend less than a hundred dollars. Now, even if you don't care to ride or if you are a parent who plans to take their child to "kiddieland" you must pay full admission. It's a bit of a scam, really. This is probably another reason why I'm no longer a die hard. Since graduating high school, I've managed to make a trip every so many years and since starting with my current employer I am willing to go for free every summer. Although, now I go to eat more than I do ride. However, in my youth I was a ferocious rider and at the age of 15, I once rode The Rotor five times in a row just because my girlfriend at the time wanted to. This premise of this ride is that you stand in a drum, against the wall. The room begins to spin faster and faster until centrifugal force holds the riders against the wall while the floor is lowered beneath them. Imagine that scene towards the end of TRON where all the programs spin around inside the MCP and you'll understand. If you haven't seen the movie, shame on you. Go rent it, now. I'll wait. Finished? Good, get it? At 33, that kind of assault on the vestibular system would have me hurling on the first trip yet at 15 I could withstand the urge to purge.

While Kennywood may have lost its luster in my mind, whenever I go to another amusement park I take full advantage of their rides, especially coasters. These behemoths of engineering and physics are to me what drugs are to rock stars. I wouldn't go to a park that didn't have one. I first became enthralled with coasters before the age of ten. Even though Kennywood was practically in my backyard, I had to go to Virginia to ride my first coaster. Until that point, I had been deathly afraid of the things. They were loud and fast and went real high, something I still have problems with in my adulthood. On a family trip to Busch Gardens I had decided that I needed to conquer this fear and picked an easy target to tackle, The Big Bad Wolf. Kind of fitting that I should face a fear that should be named after a fairy tale creature that embodies fear. The Big Bad Wolf is a suspended roller coaster that has the seats hanging below the track. This allows for a more suspenseful ride as there is no barrier between you and the ground or the river as the second lift hill drops you directly over the water for a 90 foot plunge. I was pumped. I wanted to take on the world or at least another mythical creature and so I graduated right up to the top by riding The Loch Ness Monster, next. The gimmick behind ole Nessie was the double loops that interlock allowing two trains to circle each other if the timing is perfect.

Returning home, I decided to feed my coaster addiction by going to Kennywood to hit all the coasters there. Knowing that these mean machines were no match for my new found bravery, I went right for the juggernaut, The Thunderbolt. The coaster itself maybe considered tame by today's standards, but it still provides a thrill as you immediately drop down a hill right out of the station. Following it was the Racer and The Jackrabbit. These coasters boast legendary merits as being the only remaining continuous track or moebius loop coaster still in operation and one of the few operational wooden coasters with a double dip hill. After these beasts were slain there was only one coaster left to tackle, The Laser Loop. This short track with one single loop in the middle shuttles riders backwards and forwards along its track and it scared me shitless. To this day I never got to ride it as was taken down and moved to Mexico in 1991 in order to make way for The Steel Phantom. Truth be told, I did intend to ride it but when I had finally found the stones to do so, it was always non-operational, constantly closing during my trips to the park.

When the Laser Loop's replacement opened during the 1991 season, I couldn't wait to try it out. The Steel Phantom, at the time, boasted the fastest max speed for a coaster clocking in at 82 mph, a record it kept until 1996. Even though the first hill was a dizzying 160 feet high, it was the second hill that rocked at 225 feet. It used the naturally hilly terrain of the surrounding area and plunged you underneath the first hill of the The Thunderbolt. I had to ride this sucker. I was a sophomore and still had to rely on other forms of transportation to the park. I am ashamed to admit that I rode the school bus for our class picnic that year but had a plan. My friends, who were a year older, had planned to go to the park in the eldest of the group's station wagon. Pete had borrowed his parents' Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser which we had dubbed, the "White Beast For Leprosy" since it was peeling paint rapidly. My parents had forbid me from going to the park with them since every parent in those days had horrible thoughts of their young teenage children being maimed in accidents, more importantly thrown from the back of a station wagon as depicted in old school crash test dummy commercials. If I didn't ride the bus, I couldn't go. What really sucked about that situation was that even though I could meet up with my friends once I was at the park, the busses left at 7:00 pm, nearly two hours before nightfall. I had a plan, though. Since the queue for the brand new coaster would undoubtedly be about an hour I could claim that I was in line for the ride and couldn't make it back to the bus.

It was a fool proof plan. We made plans for a cooler full of stuff the night before and I would synchronize my faux swatch with my buddies to meet them for our first ride at The Thunderbolt. Naturally, that was always the first ride. It was like going to a swimming pool on a hot day and just diving into the cold water as a shock to the system that got the adrenaline pumping. Everything was going like clockwork. I boarded the bus, I met up with friends, we rode our hearts out, ate our weight in food, and at 6:00 pm we got in line for the Phantom. As we boarded it was just past 7:00 pm and on our way up the first lift hill I could see the busses departing the parking lot. "Oops," I thought. We rode ourselves silly over the next two hours and made our way back to the wagon at nearly 9:30 pm. By now, the cooler was sloshing with very little ice and a lot of water after being in the back of the car for over eight hours. While we piled into the seats, all of our belongings were stowed in the back with the cooler up against the back door.

We made our way onto the highway and headed for home. Now, to say Pete was a horrible driver wasn't exactly a correct statement. He sucked at driving, but put behind the wheel of a less than optimal vehicle and his abilities degraded even further. Put simply, this was too much car for him. You almost needed naval experience to steer this boat. We attempted to merge onto a busy highway with numerous other park goers and nearly caused several accidents. Instantly, I had visions of those crash films that plagued my parents' nightmares while their children were out in the world where blood flows red on the highway. Soon, all of our knuckles were as white as the outside of the car. On the last on ramp we had to merge from, a passing truck caused Pete to freak and slam on the brakes. While we were smart and wore our seat belts, all of our belongings flung their way forward into the back of the bench seat. But, that wasn't the best part. The cooler full of ice which had been melting in the hot sun had been flew forward spilling a tidal wave of water up towards the front of the car drenching each one of us. Finding a safe spot to pull off to the side of the road we surveyed the damage. Coming around the back of the car we noticed water just spilling out from below the back door. The entire car was soaked on the inside except for a small spot that contained my backpack and a dry pair of jeans. I had packed them for just such an occasion, although I thought I would be drenched from a water ride inside the park. I changed into the jeans and we stopped at a local fast food chain and walked in asking for napkins and paper towels by the handful. There I was in the middle of May wearing jeans on a warm evening drenched from the waist up asking for paper towels.

By the time I got home it was now nearing 11:00 pm and I was in deep trouble. I came upstairs and could see the light on in my parents room and knew that she had been waiting up for me. I walked in and she asked what exactly had happened to me riding the bus home. Really, she knew exactly what had happened since all parents know what their kids do like it's some sort of extrasensory perception on their part. However, always looking for a good story, she allowed me to explain myself. I told her that I was in line for a ride and couldn't make it back to the busses in time and then went on to explain why I was so late. We both agreed that her early assesment of the scenario was in fact accurate because somehow she knew that a station wagon full of kids driving around the outskirts of Pittsburgh was a bad idea. Unfortunately, I did not have the benefit of her life experience, otherwise I would have shared her concern and avoided the upturned cooler incident. She spared me from a ground saying that I probably suffered enough for one night. I told her it wasn't that bad and that it was actually kind of funny. She understood but said that she wasn't speaking on my ordeal but to the fact that in my rush to get changed I forgot to pull up my zipper and had probably flashed my tighty whities to every single person in McDonald's earlier that night.

See, parents do have a sense of humor, even if they are grumpy.

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