Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Rocky Springs Park

In an earlier post I mentioned the carousel at Rocky Springs Park near Lancaster, PA.  I said that it was an old park even in the '50s when my family went there nearly every Saturday night.

The place held an enchantment for me.  The parking lot was on the top of a hill.  The parallel front line for parking were rails from the railroad.  The first building you saw was the dance hall, which always had country dances, from square dances to two-steps to reels to whatever else there might be.  When we entered the park in late afternoon, the music was recorded; by the time we left, a live band played.  It wasn't my favorite music, but it was clear folks enjoyed themselves.

The park had lots of trees and lots of earth.  The path from the parking lot to the park itself was the only paved part of the hill.  I recall picnic pavilions -- they probably had cement floors -- and glider swings that most definitely were secured to the ground, especially since some of us assumed they were there to see how fast you could go back and forth.

The park started at the halfway point of the hill.  Water from the springs was available through drinking fountains in a small building with no walls.  As far as I know, the water was untreated...one of those things you never gave a thought to.  A Ferris wheel turned there as well, and it turned the way I liked:  up on the back and down on the front, so you had the feeling of being pushed out from ride when you cleared the top.

Just beyond that was the center of the park.  There stood a brick house, probably the office, although I couldn't imagine a better place to live.  To the right, the walkway with games of chance, the amusements pavilion, and some food stands ended with a roller rink open all year and boasted a rather good pipe organ, although mostly pop records were played.  The amusements pavilion:  imagine the sound of zillions of pinball machines clanging, zapping, thumping, and binging all at the same time, and almost all of them played by greasers and hoods and other dangerous, fascinating, attractive young men.  (So David, how did you know you were "different"?)  It also had several moving picture machines...put in a penny and a light would go on and you'd crank the crank and watch cards with pictures flip by.  As I say, the park was marvelously old even in the '50s.

To the right of the house was one of my all-time favorite rides, even now.  The Cuddle-Up consisted of round cars that rode four circles.  When it got up to speed, the cars spun by themselves or you could make them spin even faster by working a center wheel.

Most exciting of all was what lay before you, an assault on the senses, the park proper.  Laughing Lena was a huge doll that rocked back and forth in ceaseless laughter.  She was in an alcove over Laff in the Dark, the ride-through fun house.  There really was something scary about her, even more scary than the displays inside.  But she was part of the atmosphere, and the first thing I remember hearing.

Then was the most wonderful combination of sounds ever:  the sound of the roller coaster hurtling downhill and clanking up the next and the Wurlitzer 185 band organ in the grand carousel.  I'd forgotten how much I loved that sound until I visited Knoebel's.  On one side of an open area is the reconstructed coaster Phoenix and on the other is a Wurlitzer band organ...not a 185, but enchanting (and deafening) nonetheless.  Pure heaven. I was not allowed on the Wildcat for several years, so I tended to run to the carousel to listen to the music.  Everything about it was magical.  Painted horses, of course, as well as an ostrich, a lion, a giraffe, a rooster, and lord knows what else chased each other.  Bright lights sped by both within the carousel and on the top, where odd pictures were painted.  The building itself seemed primarily window with wood support.

One of my rites of passage was riding the Wildcat.  Nothing -- nothing -- adequately prepared me for it.  I watched as much of it as I could and thrilled to the sounds, but you don't get G forces and air time by watching.  My father rode with me.  The brakes were released and gravity took you downhill into a tunnel that actually had little hills and angles that threw you side to side.  I've never ridden another coaster like it -- all the other tunnels are just dark and kind of a waste of time.  The tunnel ended with a sharp, banked left turn and the clanking of the chain began.  The top of the lift hill was a curve.  I remember seeing Lancaster from there and not being at all afraid...kind of impressed with the view, actually.  I turned front in time to watch us plummet what seemed like thousands of feet toward the earth.  We then rocketed into space via the next hill.

Rumors were that people rose out of their seats at the top of that second hill, flew out into space, impaled on tree branches or killed on earth impact.  And keep in mind that this was before seat belts, before the lap bar locked into place, before any safety precautions whatsoever, save for the sign "Do Not Stand."

At the top of that second hill, I literally flew up out of my seat.  I hung onto the bar, but it was wrapped so thickly with some kind of tape that I couldn't get my hands around it.  I clamped an elbow on it and, with my other arm, clung to that elbow.  The speed threw me to the side as we rounded the top and then we plummeted again.  This time we went back to the first hill, perhaps two thirds as high.  Scared shitless, I was also hooked on roller coasters forever.  By the time we returned to the station, I was screaming with delight.  No doubt this embarrassed my father (we never rode it together again); it was neither the first nor last time that happened.

Target shooting, ball pitching, and other Kewpie doll games lined the path to the Conestoga Creek.  There, The Whip clanked along its metal oval.  It gave a bit of a centrifugal thrill on each corner, but having ridden it once in an evening, I didn't feel the need to return to it.  Sometimes there would be a boat ride on the Conestoga, but that area led to the big Test of Strength tower, which I don't think any of my family ever bothered with.  Beyond that, and starting the path uphill, was the train.  The train was like most others, except the ride seemed to last at least 15 minutes and was the perfect respite from the excitement of the evening so far.  It trundled out into a cow pasture, sometimes complete with cows, circled and returned.

Beside it was the world's best Bumper Cars ride.  I think I was always allowed to ride it, accompanied by my mother, who was maybe the most aggressive rider they'd ever known.  She taught me well, however, because when I finally was allowed to ride it by myself, I became something of a terror and we'd love to bump each other and gang up on other riders.  

The airplane ride's planes were bi-planes.  It was a circular ride, of course, and the start was signaled by the start of the propeller.  Wind blew over your face and the plane actually did a slight nose-up.  Then the rotation began.  You could fly it a little, but the fun part was flying through the trees, cut out just enough so the planes could get through.  The ride ended with the cutting of the propeller and the planes falling back against the station.

As we walked up the hill, you could hear the Wurlitzer again and see the carousel spinning away.

Rocky Springs was small and perfect.  When an attempt was made to revive the park, they erected a Mouse rather than repair the roller coaster.  As a Mouse, it was all right; as a Wildcat substitute, there was no comparison.  I understand the carousel is safely stored in an undisclosed location.  The park site itself is now a gated community.

There's no going back, of course.  There never is.  Yet I can still ride the Wildcat, swirl madly on the Cuddle-Up, gallop on the horses, hear the Wurlitzer 185.  And it is perfect.

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