Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sander Street Summers: Coney Island Babies

The absolute funnest day of the year, besides Christmas, the day we waited for all year, was St. George Day at Coney Island, Cincinnati's version of the famous New York’s amusement park.  Our Coney Island was on the Ohio River, in the neighborhood of California, about 10 miles from downtown Cincinnati.

When you're a little kid, that 10 miles seems like an entire state away.


Coney Island Day started the night before, when Mom and Aunt Vera began frying the chicken, baking the beans, and Aunt Vera upstairs fixing her German potato salad and Mom downstairs mixing up the creamy mayonnaise version.  We'd lay our sundresses and sunsuits out for morning, and go to bed early and try to sleep, mostly drifting off in the early morning hours just before daybreak.

After our normal breakfast of cereal and hot tea and toast, Dad and Uncle Norb picked up the heavy picnic baskets loaded with the cold fried chicken lunch, and the cooler full of iced pop and beer, and carried them up the block to the school, where everyone in the parish stood outside waiting for the three city buses assigned to haul the families out to Coney Island.  

The bus ride was a good way to start the celebration with singalongs, usually my father as song leader for our bus.  He and the other men harmonized “The Old Mill Stream,” and a few more old songs of our parents’ era.  

We’d eventually get to “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on The Wall,” and usually never got to "no more bottles of beer on the wall," before we arrived at the bus parking area at Coney.  Once the bus doors opened, yelping children swarmed out onto the covered picnic grounds, the first stop on the way to our version of the Magic Kingdom.  

While the moms spread the flowered and checked cotton cloths over the long wooden picnic tables, the men dug their first beers out of the coolers to whet their appetite for the feast, while the revved-up children yelled to go immediately to the Midway rides.  

We never, in all the years I remember, pursueded the adults to give in on this point.  It was lunch first.  No discussion.  No amount of pouting won out.

After properly fed, we'd run ahead of our fathers in the direction of the tall roller coaster tracks and ferris wheel, while the moms stayed behind and enjoyed a few extra minutes of clean picnic tables and peace, while they sipped a cold Coke or Pepsi.  They'd join their husbands in due time to enjoy the children's fun and excitement.  

Parishoners were able to buy tickets at our school prior to Coney Island Day, and I remember Dad and his big roll of tickets, about the size of a 33-1/3 record, an album – remember those?   Dad got many laughs when people saw him walking around the midway carrying this giant roll of perforated tickets.  

We got to ride everything, and Dad rode the older kids' and adult rides with me after Mom joined him to supervise my younger sisters.  

He was fearless. He talked me into the front seat of the Shooting Star roller coaster, where we let go of the steel restraining bar and held our arms straight up, and I screamed until I was hoarse.  

Then we joined all my classmates on the “Rotor.”  I had the only parent  brave enough to tackle this strange ride.

Interior of the Rotor at Luna Park Sydney. The ride is in mid-cycle, and the riders are stuck to the wall of the barrel by the force of friction due to centrifugal force. The yellow lines on the barrel wall indicate the level the floor is at during different points of the ride; the higher line is level with the floor when the ride begins. ~ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotor_(ride)

I remember the year the Rotor was new at the park, and Dad positioned himself upside down against the wall, and all the coins and keys in his pants pockets fell out.  My friends were screaming and laughing and trying to unstick their hands from the spinning wall to point to him.  

I also remember not realizing at first that the floor would disappear from under my feet as centrifugal force took over.  My breath literally got taken away.  But I rode again.  And again and again.  And so did Dad.

Since one of my brothers inherited all of the family pictures, I don’t have any to post, but Dad took his camera every year and snapped shots of the little ones riding in miniature cars, the airplanes and tiny Jolly Roger boats. 

Strange as it seems, my mother only enjoyed one ride, the “Lost River,”  also referred to as the “Tunnel of Love,” where boats would coast gently through a dark, cool tunnel, gently bumping against decorated walls until the tunnel's light at the end, whereupon the boat you sat in plunged straight down into a small lake, drenching you in a giant splash.  

For someone who was afraid of roller coasters and such, Mom and Dad always rode the Lost River while I watched my sisters, and I wondered if this took my mother back to those carefree years as a young girl, perhaps drifting  through the tunnel with a romantic beau, perhaps my father, before all the children, the work, the bills, heartaches.  She never said, but her eyes would mist over when she talked about her favorite attraction on the Midway. 

Some years we’d go swimming in the "Sunlite Pool."  The year I’d passed my beginner’s swimming class at the Friar’s Club in Clifton, Dad picked me up and tossed me into the 10-foot end of the pool so he could, as he said, see if I could really swim.   Lucky for me, I could.

At day’s end, when the St. George parishoners began loading onto the buses  to carry us back to the school, the whining children protested leaving magical Coney Island land, but allowed themselves to be ushered  onto the leather bus seats, where sleepy eyes gazed out the windows and hands cradled small glass bowls of prize goldfish or Kewpie dolls, while their parents wiped sweat from their foreheads, commented on the humidity and longed to get home to the front porch or stoop and a cold glass of beer.

There will never be days like St. George at Coney Island again.  Some things in life linger only for a while and never return.  I am blessed enough to have it as a well-kept memory.  

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful memoir. I wish you could post some of the pictures your brother has.