We stopped at 12 o’clock and I inhaled deep. Spread out below me, as far and as wide as I could see lay The Scrambler, The Tilt-A-Whirl, The Cages, The Bumper Cars, The Merry-Go-Round, The Rockets, The Round Up, The Rock-O-Plane, and The Wild Mouse.
The Ferris Wheel was my ride. I liked it because it felt safe and tame and just a little bit scary. The problem was that I was riding it with my brothers and was sandwiched between them – Brian to my right and Kevin to my left. My favorite ride was about to get real scary.
Brian and Kevin looked at each other, smirked and nodded to get their timing right, like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid about to hit a bank. In tandem, and with all their might, they grabbed the safety bar and pushed their body weight forward, making our car tip backwards. Then they straightened their arms and pushed backwards against the bar, making our car swing upwards.
We were 60 feet up in the air and our car on the stopped-dead Ferris Wheel was rocking and swaying. My whitened fingers gripped the bar in front of my soft, frozen belly.
“STOP IT!” I screamed. “STOP ROCKING THE CAR!” I was full-out crying, which is exactly what my brothers always wanted. Somehow, my contorted, tear-drenched face brought them immediate satisfaction and they stopped. Once again, they had ruined my fun.
Brian’s favorite ride was The Rock-O-Wheel. I was his riding partner every time we went to Crystal Beach Amusement Park, our Canadian fun spot right over the border from Buffalo. We got inside the circular cage, took our seats across from each other and harnessed ourselves in. The Ride Guy came by to lock us in to the cage itself and, as soon as he walked away, Brian shot a devilish grin in my direction. I knew what was coming and I was ready!
Each caged wheel had its own lever which, once pulled, caused the wheel to revolve a full, 180 degrees on its circular track. After a couple of upright warm-up rounds of the track, Brian grabbed the lever and yanked on it hard. In less than a second, we were upside down, turning round and round, over and over again.
After a couple minutes of non-stop rotations, I screamed, “BRIAN! WAIT! WAIT A SECOND! I’M GONNA PUKE! JUST WAIT ONE SECOND!” So he waited one second and not one second more and when that one second was over he pulled the lever again.
By the time the ride ended and I stepped out of that cage, I was dizzy and so nauseated that I had to sit down for a good while so my guts and my brain could find their way back to their original locations.
We boarded The Scrambler next – Kevin’s favorite. My brothers positioned me at the inside spot as to guarantee my maximum crushing experience, which was okay with me. I held tightly to the safety bar as they threw their arms in the air, yelping and reveling in my giggle-grunts from the impact of their big-brother bodies smashing into mine.
Sweating and red-faced, I was already well on my way to becoming overheated. “Hey, let’s get some French fries,” my father suggested. He loved the Crystal Beach fries. Thick-cut, crispy and smooth on the outside, they were served in a white-paper cone. I liked how the cone looked and how it fit into my hand. The fries bulged over the top of the cone and poked out in all directions, like excited children vying for attention.
Unlike my brothers, my father and I liked malt vinegar on our fries, along with the ketchup. This meant that I got to share with my father while my brothers got their own cone of fries. This also meant that I’d actually get to eat some French fries. Sharing with my brothers meant that maybe I’d get one or two and even getting those would prove difficult.
I had just wiped the last bit of ketchup from my chin when a clown sauntered by carrying a bouquet of cotton candy. He stopped in front of me and I smiled, pointing to a pink one. “This”, I smiled, “is all for me.” Thankfully, my father wasn’t interested in cotton candy. I didn’t have to share with my brothers, either, because everybody understood that this was my treat and my treat only. The clown handed over the beehive and I plucked off a hunk of its crown.
I took a seat on the wooden bench in front of the French fry stand and got lost in the sensation of spun sugar disintegrating on my cheeks and tongue. In a surprise attack, Brian snuck up from behind me and tore off the whole top of my sweet, pink cloud, exposing the opening of the white paper cone underneath. While recovering from that ambush, I found myself once again under siege when Kevin, acting as if he were a stranger on his way somewhere, ambled by in front of me and snatched the whole cotton candy – paper and all – out of my hand and started circling the bench to taunt me.
Enraged, I wanted to chase after Kevin and kick him in the shins and pull his hair. But I knew that my brothers had no restraint. Kevin would think nothing of punching me in the stomach so hard he’d knock the wind out of me, even in public. So I sat quietly next to my father and, with my eyes filling with tears, watched Kevin do his demon’s jig while smirking at me like a madman. Before handing back a nearly- threadbare paper cone, he tore off one, final hunk and jammed it into his mouth right in front of my face.
“Hey you guys!” I yelled. “Let’s go through the Haunted House!”
“Naw,” Kevin scoffed. “That’s a baby ride.”
“It’s not a baby ride!” I defended. “It’s dark and scary. Unless you’re afraid of the dark, BABY! That was all it took. Nobody called Kevin a baby. Next thing I knew, we were handing over our tickets to The Ride Guy. We jumped into the first two seats. I rode in the front seat with Kevin. Brian rode in the seat right behind us. We were the only ones in the whole section of seats. The cars started moving slowly and, as soon as we crossed the curtain separating the outside from the haunted house, we were delivered into total blackness.
Moaning, creepy-creaking sounds surrounded us and I was suddenly terrified. I reached out for Kevin’s arm. It was so dark in there, I couldn’t even see him right next to me.
Our car made a quick 90-degree turn left and a scary monster face with lit-up, glaring, red eyes popped out right in front of our car. Kevin took a swipe at it and the monster’s lights went out before it disappeared into the void.
In that pitch blackness, I couldn’t see Brian, either. Because he had one time simply gotten up and walked out of this ride, prompting a visit with park security, I wasn’t even sure if he was still behind us, until a hairy gorilla figure leaned in from the right side of our car.
Emerging from the darkness came the sound of material ripping as Brian tore a piece of the hairy beast’s fur clean off. These fake beasts in this fake haunted house didn’t know what they were in for. Little did they know that we came from a real haunted house and that my brothers were the real scary ones.
Our raucous laughter at Brian’s beastly deed overrode the canned moaning and the creaking of our car on the tracks and we pealed off some scary shrieks and screams of bloody murder of our own before sunlight hit our pupils and the ride was too-soon over.
Before leaving the park for the night, we each got to choose one more ride. I chose the flying swings. “Baby ride,” my brothers sang. I didn’t care what their stupid boy heads thought. I loved the flying swings. I took my seat, put my hands on the chain link and sat comfortably, while electric power lifted my feet off the ground. Round and round I went, stretching my legs out in front of me and singing out loud, my glee ricocheting back into my face. I flew through space accompanied only by the wind that bloated my ears and tangled my hair.
Another successful summer evening in Crystal Beach, Ontario.
It was time to head back and, as soon as our feet crossed the threshold between amusement park and parking lot, my brothers began their mad dash to my father’s car in the hope of being the first to arrive at the front, passenger door. They pushed and punched each other all the way, tearing at one another’s shirts and trying to trip each other to the pavement. I stayed behind and walked with my father. Past experience had taught me that, even if I were to race them and win, I’d be punched or pushed out of the way. No. My position as a backseat passenger, right behind my father, was sealed. And that was fine with me.
Before unlocking the power doors to his Buick Riviera, over which my father held absolute dominion, he locked eyes with each one of us. The stern tone of a less easygoing father momentarily hijacked his vocal cords. “On the rubber!” he commanded.
“On the rubber” meant that our feet were not to touch the carpeting of his car. Ever. It meant that our feet were to land – and stay – directly on the rubber floor mats. My father was meticulous about his cars. Just like my mother’s bottled-red hair, my father’s cars were his crowning glory. He bought a new one every year, sometimes twice a year. They were impeccably clean, waxed, polished and spotless. Inside and out.
Right after he started the car, the first thing my father did was turn on the air conditioning. I hated air conditioning. My mother didn’t have air conditioning in her car. I preferred feeling the outside air blowing through and filling up the car.
Our last stop before crossing the Canadian border back to Buffalo was to a custard stand where we kids would all enjoy our final treat of the night, symbolizing the end of our fun evening with our father. I chose the chocolate and vanilla swirl. My brothers got chocolate.
After we finished our cones and got back into the car, my father put the air conditioning back on. Then he tuned the radio to some boring station that played music with no singing, or one with people talking about some dry topic that I never understood.
The other thing I hated about my father’s cars, besides the air conditioning and the power windows (over which he also held dominion), was that they rode too smoothly. I needed to feel the road beneath me, like I did in my mother’s car.
About 20 minutes after our ice cream stop and on the road back home, the food contents of my belly had started churning, in an attempt to translate the raucous movement from just a couple hours prior to this cold and sterile perfection that felt like we were moving through space on a flying carpet.
I called out to the back of my father’s head. “Dad, can you open the window?”
I tried again. “Dad, I need some fresh air.”
Still no answer.
I tried one more time. “Dad, I feel like I’m going to throw up. Could you open the window for a minute?”
No open window.
No fresh air.
“Dad, I’m going to throw up right now.”
And that’s when my father pressed the button that put down my window. At 65 miles an hour, cruising down the Queen Elizabeth Highway in Fort Erie, Ontario, I pulled myself up and forward from my seat. I stuck my upper body out the window, all the way to my waist. Turning my head in the direction of the rear wheel well, I opened my mouth and my belly exploded, spraying most of the contents into the wind. Some remnants stuck to my face or landed on the front of my shirt.
In seconds, it was all gone. My chocolate and vanilla swirl ice cream cone, my pink, spun-sugar treat that was just for me, the hot dog, the loganberry, the peanuts and all those French fries with the malt vinegar that I’d enjoyed sharing with my father.
When I had nothing more to offer up to the winds, I resumed my original position in my seat. My father rolled up the window. I was, once again, humiliated, but at least I felt better. The rising, uncontrollable lump in my throat was gone. And I finally got that fresh air I needed.
Nobody said a word or asked me how I felt on our long ride back home. Not my father. Not my brothers. We completed our journey back to 61 Burch Avenue cocooned in the too-smooth-riding, fake-cold silence of my father’s now-sullied Buick Riviera.
When we got back home, my father parked at the curb in front of our house and we all got out to say goodnight. My father walked to the rear quarter panel of his car to survey the damages. Sometimes he had to go into his glovebox for a tissue.