The Best Ride

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I know nothing at all about Kevin Randazzo, except that three summers ago he was eighteen years old and had a job taking tickets and helping children onto the wooden horses at Nunley’s Carousel and Amusements in Baldwin, Long Island—and that when, at the end of the 1995 season, the owners felt it was time to sell the merry-go-round, he said this to a New York Times reporter: “So many lives have been on here. The only consolation I can think of is if, like, everything lasted forever, it would have no value. If it never came to an end, I guess it wouldn’t mean so much.”

This seems to me succinct and beautiful—and, of course, true. We do value things in their passing; often, indeed, we don’t understand what something meant to us until it’s gone. Fifteen years ago I saw Rocky Springs Amusement Park in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, auctioned off. Everything went in a weekend—arcade games, kitchen equipment, Skee-Ball alleys, the Dodgem and the Whip, the Cuddle-Up and the carousel, and a rollerskating rink. The auctioneers walked from ride to ride, accompanied by a small knot of would-be buyers, while hundreds of people who had no interest whatever in acquiring the furnishings of a fun house wandered around the park. They had come to bid it good-bye, and most of them seemed subdued, as if they’d only just realized what a part it had played in their lives. “This is beautiful,” I overheard a middle-aged man say to his wife as they passed by under the tall old trees. “Why’d we stop coming here?”

Sooner or later most of them seemed to be drawn to the Wild-Cat roller coaster and stood there staring up into its high scaffolding, smiling and shaking their heads and remembering that first drop. It was no surprise to me to see them congregating around the narrow platform. After all, a roller coaster is the Gibraltar of any amusement park, always the most memorable ride and, no matter how much baroque gorgeousness may be lavished on the carousel, the best looking. And unlike other amusement-park rides with their punishing centrifugality, roller coasters have a narrative. Or so it seems to me. I like amusement parks and have been to a lot of them, many a long time ago now. But the coaster rides remain firm in my memory, whether clattering through the treetops in little Waldameer Park in Erie, Pennsylvania, or surging into the Flying Turns at the noble, vanished Euclid Beach Park in Cleveland, Ohio, a ride put up by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company that precipitated the train off its tracks and into a great wooden corkscrew so superbly carpentered that you might have been rushing through the hull of Donald Mackay’s Flying Cloud . I don’t have quite the necessary dedication to the creatures to get married aboard one, as did David Lindsay, the author of the story on roller coasters in this issue; but to this day I’ll gladly drive a hundred miles out of my way to feel that moment when the chain takes hold and the train begins to ratchet its way skyward.

Of course, the Wild-Cat didn’t sell, and it’s gone now, along with the rest of Rocky Springs. Little amusement parks were flickering out all across America throughout the 1980s. But what is surprising and heartening is how many remain. These parks were built, most of them, by the traction companies to fill streetcars on weekends and were designed to divert a generation that had access to neither movies nor automobiles. Indeed, part of the parks’ thrill was the lavish application of a commodity we’ve had a century to get used to: electricity. They rarely, if ever, attract the attention of preservationists (the only amusement-park preservation project I know of just now is the revivification of the oldest wooden coaster in the world; see page 76), but scores of them keep doing something well enough to stay alive for another season. Kevin Randazzo may have lost his carousel, and Cleveland its wonderful Flying Turns, yet everywhere in the country this Labor Day people will stand for a moment, just as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did, caught by the beauty of that instant when the pale dusk turns to night and the electric lights come cascading on. And then they’ll go ride the roller coaster.

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