DISCLAIMER-The following contains some elements which did not happen exactly as described. Playland Amusement Park DOES exist (Google it, Mr. Smarty-Pants) and the altar boys from my church went there every summer. The roller coaster is indeed called the Dragon and there was a HUGE thunderstorm one year when I tried to ride it. I managed to get on the ride, but not due to assault and battery of the ride's mascot. Each of the people in this story are real, but I've changed all their names. I apologize for it being so long (c'mon, you know want to say it: "That's what she said"). Sometimes, I get carried away. Look on the bright side. It actually was included with April 1st's entry on altar boys. So, you have THAT going for you. Which is nice. To help avoid falling asleep while reading this and bashing your head against the keyboard, I've included some pictures. So, without further adieu, I give you...
Once Upon a Time at Playland
Boasting a beach, miniature golf course, picnic pavilions, and an indoor ice-skating rink, Playland Amusement Park in New York was a yearly orgy of fun for the altar boys of Saint Stanislaus (hmm, probably don’t see “orgy” and “altar boy” in the same sentence much, huh?).
But, as much fun as whacking an orange golf ball at a stuffed gorilla was, it was its 45 rides which drew millions of visitors from throughout the tri-state area. And the best of those was its huge wooden roller coaster, the Dragon.
Reaching a height of 85 feet, the Dragon flung its petrified riders over a myriad course of drops and corkscrews along several thousand feet of track. Then, just as its wide-eyed passengers were starting to regain a grip on their stomachs, it hurtled headlong into a long, dark tunnel made to look like a dragon’s mouth before whipping back to the station.
“If nothing else, I’m riding the Dragon,” I vowed to my best friend, Tommy Spagnoula (“Spags”) as we watched the yellow school bus pull into the parking lot the morning we were going to the Shrangi-La on Long Island Sound.
Father Karl, standing at the curb, tried to rein us in as the bus approached. Even though it promised to be above ninety degrees that afternoon, he wore his usual black trousers and shirt with starched white collar.
He looked like a skinny string of sweaty licorice.
I looked behind me and frowned when I saw out the pimply Freddy Dubyk standing in the back.
Spags said, “Hey, look, it’s Freddy-”
“Doofus. I know.”
“What is it with you and him?” Spags asked. “I know he’s a spaz, but...”
“Nothing,” I snapped.
Before Spags could say anything else, I heard Father Karl clear his throat.
“OK, listen up, I’ve got a five dollar book of tickets for each of you along with a lunch voucher. When I call your name, come on up, take them, then get on the bus.”
When I heard my name, I grabbed my tickets and stepped aboard our luxury ride.
One of those old yellow buses from the Blue Bird Company, it had seen better days. The rubber floor mats looked as if they’d been manufactured in a leper colony and the seat cushions as if they’d been gnawed by a family of badgers. Light fixtures dangled limply by their wires and a funk like cabbage and socks hung in the air.
Picking a seat in the back, I tried to open a window, but it jammed a third of the way down. As I struggled to free it, I got a blast of exhaust from the rusty pipe underneath the bus. Great, I’ll be dead of carbon monoxide poisoning before we even leave the parking lot.
Despite rattling like a cement mixer any time it went above 45 miles an hour, our bus finally reached our destination. As it lurched into Playland’s parking lot, we pressed our faces to the grimy windows, excitedly planning which rides we’d hit first.
It was a no-brainer. As the bus rumbled toward the rear parking lot, I beheld the Dragon. Its intricate wooden framework stretched into the blue sky like the skeleton of a prehistoric beast. I knew which ride I was going to go on first.
I watched one of its trains clank to the top of the first hill. It hung for an instant, just before plunging down the slope accompanied by the shrill screams of overjoyed passengers. The cars plummeted to the bottom of the track before arching back upwards into the gaping mouth of the famous dragon, its eyes flashing and wooden nostrils billowing steam.
“Oh, that is just too cool,” I heard Freddy Dubyk from several seats in front of us.
My attention diverted, I flashed an irritated look Freddy’s way.
When the Blue Bird ground to a halt, Father Karl stood from his seat.
“It’s noon, boys,” he said. “Back on the bus by seven sharp for the ride home. Don’t be late.”
With that, the driver swung the door open, discharging a frenzied horde intent on hitting every attraction possible before time was up.
I grabbed Spags by the arm. “C’mon, let’s get to the Dragon quick. I don’t want any of these guys to beat us.”
We leapt from the main door and were immediately confronted by a grinning Freddy Dubyk. “You guys gonna hit the Dragon?” he asked.
Spags began to speak. “Sure, we’re just going to-“
Jumping in, I shot Spags a look and said, “Go to the bathroom. Spags has to go.”
“You had a Coke on the bus.”
“I didn’t have a Coke on the bus.”
“Then, back at St. Stan’s.”
“That was a Pepsi."
"But, I still don't have to go."
"Yes, you do."
“No, I don-oh. Ohhhhh.”
Freddy stood there, his head swiveling like he was at a tennis match.
“So, you see, Fred, we’ll have to meet you there.” I lowered my voice. “Spags is always in the bathroom. He’s like an old man.”
“Oh, okay, Al. I’ll see you guys there?”
“Uh, sure, Fred.” I answered, “Don’t wait for us, though. Who knows how long we’ll be.”
As we watched Freddy head off to the main entrance, Spags jabbed me. “What do you mean, old man?”
“Well, you kind of are,” I watched Fred disappear into the crowd. “Besides, I don’t want to be stuck with that guy.”
“Man, you really don’t like him, huh?”
Ignoring him, I announced, “Let’s get going.”
My mouth hung open. “Wha-? Why? There’s people on it right now!” I sputtered, pointing to the cars clanking up the first hill.
“Yeah, I know,” said the apparently unmoved ride operator, “Brian from New Rochelle!”
"So, why are you closing it?"
"We have to do safety checks. You don’t wanna go flying into the Tilt-A-Whirl, do ya?”
“How long’s it gonna be closed?”
“Don’t know. These things don’t take much more than an hour, though.”
Deflated, I turned back. An hour. No wonder there was no line when Spags and I sprinted up to the turnstile. I knew it was too good to be true.
I heard the clanking abruptly stop and turned to see the rollercoaster poised at the top of the hill. There was a hush as the riders paused, their hands raised in anticipation, clearly ignoring the ominous “Hands Inside the Cars at All Times” sign.
I watched the backs of their heads disappear as they dropped over the edge, their screams chasing them like the Zowines after a second-grader and his lunch money.
“Hey, wasn’t that Freddy Dubyk in the back?” Spags shouted.
“Yep,” I said. “Sure was.”
Since we couldn’t ride the coaster, we had to content ourselves with the park’s other attractions.
Playland had all the rides you’d normally expect in any respectable amusement park, starting with the merry-go-round.
Set in the middle of the park, the merry-go-round was a natural magnet. With its dazzling lights, raucous organ music, and delighted squeals of happy patrons, this spinning whirly-gig was usually the first stop for any park goer.
Pooh-poohing the merry-go-round as being for sissies, Spags and I headed for its bad-ass cousin.
The Derby Racers was like a merry-go-round on speed. Dispensing with bright lights and goofy circus tunes, this ride blasted music from Steppenwolf as its wooden horses zipped around the track at a comparatively dizzying rate of twenty-five miles an hour.
Like the merry-go-round, these horses moved up and down as they raced around a circular track. But, instead of a center pole to grab, they were propelled by a thick piston which thrust up from the floor into their wooden bellies.
The only thing preventing the rider from being flung off was a thick leather set of reins. Or the faint of heart could always grab the animal around its neck and pray for a quick end of the ride.
Spags did pretty well on Playland’s version of the rodeo. Although, I’m not sure he was supposed to hang off the side like he did. I was also surprised at how hi-pitched his screams could get.
Another staple of any amusement park is the Round-Up. A sadist’s dream, this ride consists of a rapidly spinning metal cage which pins you against its inner edge before flipping on its side. The outside world disappears in a colorful blur as your cheeks are pushed back to your ears and your stomach desperately hunts for the ‘Eject’ button.
Just before it was our turn to jump aboard the “Spin ‘N Puke,” I heard an unmistakable clanking.
“Let’s go!” I urged Spags.
“But, we’re almost on this ride.”
“Nope,” I pulled him from the line. “I’m sick of waiting.”
We raced to the Dragon. Drawing near, I saw with dismay that close to a hundred people had already beaten us there. The line snaked through a series of chained poles before ending at a four foot tall cutout of a cartoon dragon which said:
“You must be this tall to battle the Dragon. The wait from this point is approximately two hours. Have a great day!”
Stubbornly, I wedged past the little dragon.
“No way,” I argued. “This is the only ride I wanted to ride and I’m going to ride it.”
Spags, figuring anything was better than the Round-Up, relented, “OK, may as well keep you company.”
Despite my initial cheerfulness, I began to wonder if the wait really was worth it. The sun beat mercilessly down on our heads and our shirts began to stick to our bodies. I felt as if I was inside of a gym sock.
Worse than the heat, though, was Brimstone. The dumpy, green dragon mascot patrolled up and down the line of impatient patrons, teasing this one or ripping the ballcap off that one.
Whenever Brimstone glanced our way, I flashed him a look of contempt which promised I would personally feed him his purple shoes if he dared tousle my hair. I think he got the message because he gave Spags and me a wide berth.
The wait was agonizing. I genuinely hoped that two minutes of airborne terror would be worth two hours of tedium in line. Eventually, though, my spirits brightened as we found ourselves poised at the threshold of the loading platform.
Finally, we were next. I broke into a wide grin as a line of cars rolled down the tracks. I was scarcely able to contain my excitement.
Looking at Spags, I said, “See, this wasn’t so-”
I was interrupted by a low rumble.
Glancing at the sky, Spags asked, “What was that?”
Hoping it was just one of the derby racers crashing into a cotton candy cart, I nonetheless looked up. The sky didn’t look very-
This time the rumble was accompanied by a quick flash of light.
Suddenly, the air turned to liquid as sheets of water cascaded from the sky. A sharp gust swirled in from the sound, sucking up empty popcorn boxes and firing them like shrapnel at our line. A cold torrent drenched us and all complaints of being hot vanished.
“Oh, this isn’t so bad,” I said as the several dozen people behind us chased the soggy Brimstone into the Dragon’s gift shop. “It’s just a passing shower.”
The sky blackened and we saw jagged bolts of lightning ripping through the clouds while thunder rattled the buildings around us.
“Yeah,” Spags began to shiver, beads of water hanging from the tip of his nose, “dry underwear is overrated.”
With a loud clatter, a train of cars screeched to a halt. Soaked riders immediately jumped from their seats and fled down the exit ramp.
Brian from New Rochelle leaned from his covered enclosure. “Ride’s closed, guys.”
From behind a wall of water, I stammered, “Wha-? Why?”
Battling the thunder, he said, “You gotta be kidding, right?”
“It’s just a little rain,” I gurgled.
Looking at me like I had lost my mind, Brian answered, “Yeah, and lightning. Give it a rest, kid. Everyone else has.”
“No,” I protested, “my friend here has-”
Spags was nowhere to be found. When I scanned the area around me, I saw him waving from inside the gift shop.
Turning back to Brian, I said, “Well, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Your choice, man.” With that, he disappeared into his little office.
The wind and rain continued for thirty minutes. Trash cans were tossed like toys down the empty streets, their contents spilling out in drenched clumps. Puddles formed into small lakes which collected into little streams that nudged trash against wooden fences.
For a half hour, the happy sounds of excited riders and the busy clatter of dozens of attractions were replaced by the whistling roar off the beach and the thunderous clash from the sky.
As I stubbornly stood in the deluge, I began to wonder if riding the Dragon was meant to be. With water filling my sneakers and my clothes hanging off me like a sponge, I decided that maybe I should just hang it up.
Just as I decided to join Spags, though, the storm broke. Like a switch being flipped, the wind fell to a whisper and the rain abruptly halted.
Off to the west, I saw the clouds begin to break. Little patches of blue struggled through the gloom.
Oh, boy, looks like-
Startled, I looked over my shoulder.
Straight into the face of Freddy Dubyk.
“Wow,” he said, “you really wanted to be first in line, huh?”
What was he doing here?
“I was way in the back when the rain started. Lucky for me, everyone else-but you-took off. So, when the storm stopped, I was able to hurry up and join you. How lucky is that?”
I grunted, “Yeah, lucky.”
He continued to babble, “Well, it’s sure worth the wait. You haven’t been on yet?”
“No. But, this time, I’m gonna get there.”
“You mind if I ride with you?”
As I spotted Brian from New Rochelle emerging from his office, I knew even Freddy Dubyk couldn’t ruin my good mood. “Sure. Whatever.”
Brian whistled. “Jeez, kid, you sure are stubborn.”
I smiled. “Yeah, that’s me.”
“That’ll be four tickets.”
Finally, I thought, as I reached into my front pants pocket.
My fingers closed around the few tickets I had left. But, instead of paper, I withdrew a sodden lump of pulp. Looking at the grayish mass in the palm of my hand, my heart sank.
Maybe he won’t notice.
“Uh, four tickets. Not a gumball.”
My face began to burn. “But, they’re all here. See?”
I began to pull them apart like wet leaves from a rain gutter, but Brian shook his head. “I can’t tell those were tickets. You’re gonna have to get some more.”
My shoulders slumped. This was it, I thought. All day long and all I had to show for it was a chunk of paper mash. By the time I got through the already large line again, it’d be past time to head home.
As I turned to go, I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, Al.”
I looked down and saw four crisp tickets in Freddy’s hand.
“But, you were waiting, too.”
“Yeah, but I’ve been on it already.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“No, seriously. I’ll wait for you in the gift shop. Go on.”
Not believing my luck, I reached out to take them.
“There you are!”
A drenched Father Karl-who probably wished he brought an umbrella-stood on the other side of the fence.
“I was looking for you two during the storm. Since it’s close to closing time, I figured we should just go.”
“What? I was just getting on this.”
“Not anymore you’re not.” He tapped his watch. “Tick, tock, Mr. Penwasser, let’s go.”
Figuring I had no choice, I dejectedly pushed past the people behind me. So close...
Suddenly, I was shoved aside by Freddy Dubyk. Bellowing, he sped past the folks standing in line. As he reached the end, he stopped, crouched, and searched the entrance to the shop.
Spotting what he needed, he leapt at the shocked Brimstone, who had just poked his head outside to see if the storm had stopped. Tackling the mascot, he ripped the creature’s huge head off and-hmm, whaddyaknow, Brimstone was a girl-jammed it onto his own.
Head firmly in place, he whirled about and roared at the flummoxed Father Karl.
“Freddy Brimstone” waved his arms and jumped up and down. With a final holler, he spun around and took off towards the bumper cars.
Father Karl, shaking off his surprise, sloshed after him in pursuit, shouting, “Get back here, Dubyk! This isn’t funny!”
“So, are you riding or not, kid?”
Still gripping the tickets, I realized Freddy had bought me some time.
Handing them over, I said, “Yes, I am.”
Father Karl didn’t say much on the ride home. Steamed over having to chase Freddy, he sulked the whole trip back to Stratford. That was okay with us because then we didn’t have to sing his bus songs for ninety minutes. A little bit of Ninety-Nine Bottles of Holy Water on the Wall goes a long way.
As far as Freddy Dubyk, he was fired as an altar boy. I didn’t know that was even possible, but Father Karl forbade him from ever again serving Mass.
Since that included 6:30 on Saturday mornings, I’m thinking that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
By the time we returned, it was dark and the parking lot had already emptied after Friday night Bingo.
With a subdued “See you Sunday, boys,” Father Karl squished toward the rectory.
“See you guys next week!” we heard from the other end of the parking lot as we headed to Martin’s Variety.
I waved, “Yeah, see you, Freddy.”
Spags snorted, “Doofus. Right, Al?”
Stopping, I stared at him. “Jeez, Spags, what is it with you and him?”
Some people are just mean, I guess.
Oh, and as far as the ride on the Dragon?
OK, you can relax now. The blog entry for 'Q' is very short.
OK, you can relax now. The blog entry for 'Q' is very short.