I live directly behind an old amusement park. It is still a fully functioning amusement park, but old in the classic sense of Ferris wheels, friend dough, balloons, knocking down milk bottles… It always seemed a sad twist of fate that I was to be born and raised in this spot. I am an only child and this is the house that was my grandparent’s before my grandfather died of lung cancer when I was five and my grandmother was taken to a nursing home shortly thereafter. The doctors diagnosed her with some form of dementia that left her with unusually rosy cheeks and a permanent, glassy smile. There was a vacancy and yet childlike sparkle in her eyes and they found their way in my memory to the same spot where all the smiling faces at the amusement park lived.
For the last ten years of my grandfather’s life, he operated the tilt-a-whirl. He had been a welder at a local machine shop for nearly forty years upon returning from a brief and uneventful stint in France during World War II. He was an excellent welder and was responsible for all of the latticed steel trash cans around the town, in addition to countless other things that nobody noticed. He knew many of the lifers at the park and was welcomed in with an easy job to fill his remaining days. It was perfect for him – he sat on a stool all day, could smoke as much as he liked and walked through a small portion of the chain-link fence at the south end of the park to spend his half-hour lunch break at home, most often forgoing anything to eat to sit in the bathroom for the entire thirty minutes. He came from a different time. He was happy to have a home, happy to have a job and never once cursed this life that landed him directly behind an amusement park.
It is strange when you grow up next to something that is such a “special occasion” venue for most folks. Like any child, when I was young I was enamored by the lights, sounds and prizes. Walking through with my grandfather was the widest my eyes would ever get. I believe my parents saw the park as a nuisance and a brightly lit, loud, circular metaphor that they were stuck in a life that seemed to merely echo their parent’s. Perhaps on some deeper level, the park served to constantly remind them of fleeting happiness, paying for smiles and the mechanized performance of it all, but that is only my inference. But while my grandfather was still around, I saw the park as mainly two things – a giant nightlight that I could look at out my window in the summer months and feel a calming, omnipresent watchfulness, and a place to watch my grandfather as a member of the old guard in town. I could almost see him and all his friends still as teenagers.
When my grandfather died, I didn’t go to the park for the next three summers and was generally angry when it would start up and happy when it would close down. All of my cycles of grief were directed at and through the amusement park, with most of it settling in an existential stalemate of “what’s the point of it all” as I glared at the screaming kids from my judging distance beyond the fence. I cursed the way the park never changed and how my family never changed and how I feared that I would never change. But by the time I was 8, I had all but exhausted my frustrations that the park had come to embody and attended a friend’s birthday party there. Although I was a bit quiet in the beginning, I had a good time.
The summer I turned thirteen I was ordered to get job, but the wages I earned were mine to keep. I figured the park was my easiest option, as I could walk there, it was seasonal and they seemed to have no qualms about hiring young kids. Although it had only been a few years, there seemed to be no one left from my grandfather’s clique and the park had a very subtle undercurrent of adolescent sexual tension that was enough to keep me coming back. My first summer was spent doing any number of jobs – running errands for the office staff, cleaning the bathrooms, literally shoveling shit from the horses of the mounted police and manning the lost and found. The lost and found was my least favorite of my duties, as the endless stream of tear-stained faces and distraught children and parents was brutal. Most often the cases of theft, the cynicism of years before (and soon to follow) was not within me, and I took no pleasure in seeing an anticipated day of pure fun destroyed. I am not sure if I began to become desensitized to it by the end of the summer, but by the final couple of weeks, I had seen it all and had submitted to my helplessness.
I made a few friends that summer, but they were all a couple of years older than me, which seemed like a decade within that delicate span of years. I knew that if I was caught smoking I would be fired, but by late August with the nights growing cooler and the nervous anticipation of school drawing in, a few of us would gather by that southern fence and smoke cheap cigarettes under the bright white moon that pulled close to 11pm. My best friend was a fifteen-year old named Dustin. He lived about fifteen minutes from the park and rode his dirtbike to work. Dustin lived right next to the train tracks, and I felt that gave us a spiritual connection in that we lived not only next to a noisy distraction, but also a thing that brought a constant ebb and flow of people passing through life in our midst. I thought he was a good looking kid with short, oily black hair and a face that always looked like an even mixture of tanned from the sun, sandblasted with dirt from his bike and tobacco-stained from growing up in a small house full of chain smokers. He had a cool name and the girls seemed to like him, although he seemed to act a little younger than his age.
I almost had a girlfriend that summer, too. Again, the girls were older, but they really seemed to gravitate towards the safe sweetness of a boy on the cusp of puberty as opposed to a young wolf on the hunt. They liked to balance the danger of dabbling with the wolves in the evening and confiding with the lamb in the day time. It didn’t stop me from developing an enormous crush on a particularly nurturing soul named Amber. She had dirty blond hair that matched a voice that sounded as though it had been gently roughed up with a light gauge sand paper. She was probably embarrassed by the size of her breasts, and the attention they commanded, but they were the most amazing things I had ever seen and had me to work right on time every day.
Developing that unique infatuation only special to summers, by mid-August we both felt, but never spoke of, that we may actually be falling in love. It all built perfectly to one night at a party in the woods where we made out in the shadows just beyond the firelight. She was a little drunk and I was nervous, yet newly confident enough to not let the moment slip away. Part of me knew that she was doing it to be nice, but I also knew that she really wanted to, even though typical teenage social parameters (age) would never allow us to be an item come school. The following Monday at work, she made sure to take me aside and clarify a bit about our kiss. I understood and things for the remainder of the season were strictly cordial and a little awkward. I should have been frustrated, but I liked her too much. She awakened something in me and there can only be one person like that in your life.
I continued to work at the park for the next four summers in between my high school years, including the one following my narrow graduation. Every season brought a new group of friends and romances, boredom and amusement, provided mainly by those seeking amusement. An endless stream of helium balloons accidentally let loose, or forgotten, into the air. I would watch every one drift and dance sadly into the cloudless sky. It seemed that there were never any clouds when these balloons cascaded into my line of vision, so I was forced to watch their entire journey up into another world that would eventually crush them. Too far away to witness their ultimate demise, it was implicitly understood once they left our limited vision.
It saddened me to watch these objects forced, strictly by their nature, into an atmosphere that could no longer support them. I rooted for each and every one to be caught by a fortunate breeze to land far away in the hand of another child, but I knew this would never be the case. Such realizations frustrated me and left me to submit to life’s cruelty. I would wonder, “If I had a gun, would I have the guts to shoot the balloon and put it out of its misery?” But I do not think I could, on the off, one-in-a-million chance that it would survive its ascension. And finally, there is the fact that the balloon is unaware of the certain doom it faces and merely moves along as its existence dictates. In that sense, the balloon is no different from anyone around me – we are all slowly pulled towards something and ultimately unaware of how or when this will all end. These ruminations would carry me for hours as I unknowingly pushed the same half-dollar sized red and green buttons of the tilt-a-whirl that my grandfather had.