Monday, September 28, 2009

Childhood Should Never Entirely End

Chicago's (well Melrose Park's) historic amusement park playground, Kiddieland, is closing. A cute little summer site, it has lasted 81 years. Opened in depression era times, it shutters (ironically) after a successful season when we again face serious economic concerns. Chicago once was host to several venues like this all around town. Some more grandiose (such as the legendary and oft talked about Riverview) others more parochial with their smaller settings and/or activity aligned in drawing from area neighborhoods. Kiddieland is the last of its kind around these parts. And, while there are certainly some of similar sort around the country, it's truly such a shame that this treasure is soon to be lost in quite as important a city as Chicago. Yes, there are the Six Flags' of the Earth. But they don't especially cater that well to the tiny tyke audience. Kiddieland was right sized for just enough to please small to medium sized kids (and the grown ups who accompanied them) very well. It will be significantly missed.

This, then, was the final weekend for the public to come visit an amazing, magical place.

I made it there Saturday night!

Given, I arrived later than one would have hoped. But I had to be in attendance. Honestly, I had no idea whether I would even get in. With an expected full house and then some, along with talk of an hour long wait to enter in recent weeks, my thought was that the best I'd get could be no more than to hang in the parking lot and watch it all unfold. Instead, the wait at the ticket stand was short and I entered straight away.

My instinct was to head for the Merry-Go-Round. But I knew that there were at least two things which I absolutely had to ride: the train and the roller coaster. So in line for the train I stood. It took about two trips around before I was finally in place to perhaps be on the next ride. The tried and true diesel unit which I rode so often as a child pulled out of the station. Then, out of nowhere - what was this? A sweet smelling (well to me, anyway) stack of smoke rising fast and furious. Yes, it was the steam unit which I first rode and hadn't seen in decades that was headed our way! I got to ride in the rear seat/observation car. Looking along the track back towards the tunnel, I saw the setting sun; its twilight piercing through and coating with warm gloamin' a last orange array onto the northern interior. How appropriate it appeared. Now, there's a bright white light coming our way. The diesel train was headed back around its final curve and approach. With a whistle, off we went through the parking lot, crossing again in the back section of rides, via a short underpass (I screamed) with vistas of other rides everywhere. Then around the landscaped section, past the statue bear, and into our last, long tunnel before returning home. I love trains! And this little thing helped to foster such a romance as a boy.

Alright, so a little trip down memory lane. Some things have changed over the years. A few of my favorite rides and games were updated to similar affairs with another spin contemporaneous. Such as the helicopter ride. It was this open egg shaped object with a spinner on top. When you pushed the rail in or out it went up or down. Now, it's flying elephants. And I don't know if I could possibly ever fit in.

Though, indeed, it must have been part of the fun back in the day for adults who weren't necessarily allowed to ride certain attractions alone. But if the child who there was with wasn't tall enough to qualify, the adult could accompany him.

I did manage to sneak into the Whip. Thank goodness my frame is not too oversized. I practically needed to contort to fit. But am I glad that I did. It is just as thrilling as so long ago.

Walking past the boats (which don't do much but float guided around in a controlled circle pond) was almost overwhelming. All the kids ringing bells onboard, just as I used to do. What beautiful music to my ears! And the tiny ferris wheel for little tykes. Unlike any other I've ever seen. I don't think anyone over two feet tall or thereabout could even fit in it. Nor does it go high. Barely above adult heads. But it is right sized for someone that small. Yes, we must be able to think like little children and put ourselves into their miniature shoes in order to relate and connect.

Ah, there it is! The Little Dipper. Kiddieland's classic wooden roller coaster. Just like I recall. Only it appears smaller since I've grown tall. Still, it is a joy. One of the longest lines for it, also. With only a few cars and one train on the two minute ride, our trek towards its track moves fast, but seems so slow. This just builds the anticipation. "Will it be worth it?" I wondered while approaching. Indeed, it was. Even on a ride which isn't the kind of wild grandiose which might be found at Six Flags, the dips get you screaming with fear and joy while your stomach drops. (I'm glad I didn't stop at the pizza stand like I thought about.)

What else to do? Tilt a Whirl? Bumper Cars? German Carousel? So many things, so little time. First, a little walk through the arcade. Maybe a game of skee ball? Hey, there's the CLOWN! No, not one in real life. But the picturesque carving of a beautiful whiteface which has graced this park for so many years. You know, I thought, Mark Renfro (noted Ringling makeup man) would be thrilled at seeing such a face!

Alright, the old Octopus Ride (which I never really liked) doesn't have too many people in line. That's the ticket! Oh, and it's made to look like a frog. One woman told some children before the ride began that she first rode it when she was about their age. "Now I'm 50!" It jumped right up and down making me feel all ribbitty!

It was in this line where I struck up some conversation with the others around me. How sad it was that we were losing this treasure. Why couldn't someone save it? How good it was to see these women with their children (of a good variety in ages) there on this important family outting. Another lady got behind me in line for my next ride (the Scrambler - a long time favorite.) She had her young son (about 4 perhaps) in tow. They had been at the park earlier in the year and returned for this final foray of play. All afternoon and now well into the evening they spent together. She related how she was just trying to give him the best of memories. They rode a couple of the thrills numerous times. He even insisted that he wanted to ride a certain train with which he was well acquainted. I assured her that he would appreciate it all in the years to come and recall such a wonderful day when he grew up - just as I now do.

This latter thought got me a bit melancholy, however. I remembered the times I was taken there as a child by family and friends. Some of the closet of them are now deceased. Indeed, just this summer my grandfather passed away. I can still see him standing nearby, probably taking those same sort of photographs. Or even riding certain attractions, too. Similarly, my mother and her friend (both gone) who drove us there one summer night. I even recall the late model used Cadillac and music on her pal's car radio. I'm misty at not having a child of my own in tow today, then, to share the experience and pass it along to yet another generation in true familial spirit.

So many people there. Everything from those returning who once came as kids to the fresh faced youngsters on their first visit. Now children of, genuinely, "all ages" 1 to 100 - I saw every decade in attendance. Adults who love theme parks, for instance, wanted video and the front seat on our roller coaster trip. The young boy whom was receiving so much love, attention, and kisses from his mother. The slightly older kids (preteens) who were a bit more mature in their own plan of attack. No first time visitors were these. The girls who chatted on their train ride about what boy would be a good first kiss and where the best place for a date might find itself. The returning adults who reminisced. We all shared this weekend day and night together.

My last ride was another reminiscence, of sorts. When I was little the park had miniature tractors which could be taken around a track. Eventually, these were replaced with classic styled cars on a larger driveway. I kind of preferred the old tractors, but this ride was grander and adult adaptable. My grandfather drove a truck for a living, so I always dreamed about driving like him whenever using these. And I got to revisit it again. My awkwardness on the track tonight was attributable to sightseeing while I drove. Thank goodness they are tethered to a guide rail which doesn't let you get too far off course. Along the stretch run, I passed the train and we all waved to each other.

But it was almost Eight. Rumors abounded as to what would happen when the clock struck. Would everything just shut down? Might those in lines be allowed to get their ultimate ride? Perhaps, because of the large crowd and special occasion, they'd actually let us stay till Nine? Nervously, we waited, wondering, and hoped for an extension of our evening. Before I had a chance to discern, it all seemed to stop. Lines were shut down. I might have been able to jump onto the bumper cars. But I was in a desperate dash for the carousel. No such luck. A young lady positioned at the entrance informed everyone that the ride was closing and only those still in line would be allowed a turn on its wheel. So I sauntered a bit. Saw the crowds disperse, the rides come to an end. "Hey, there's still space for us on this last go round!" I tried to talk my way on (back by the carved horses again.) She wouldn't budge. But we had a nice conversation as I watched it operate one final time. Spinning splendid - it slowly came to a halt. I applauded.

Time to leave. But I didn't want to. Childhood should never entirely end.

Hey, I can still get some ice cream. And a souvenir. They had pins for sale. One was of the lighted sign outside. A candy cane like pole with a boy and girl climbing atop the themepark's name scrawled in neon rainbow across: "Kiddieland." Another (which I just had to have) was a sort of comedy/tragedy scene: the smiling whiteface aforementioned alongside another historic carving of the sad tramp.

Not a lot of other people wanted to go, either. But the once filled grounds eventually thinned. I encountered that lady with her little boy at least three times in just twenty minutes as we all inched closer to the gate. There stood and greeted everyone in gratitude the family owner/operators - signing autographs, taking pictures, shaking hands. I got them to each and all sign my ticket stub. As I left, I told one how much I appreciated all that they have done for so many years. "And thank you for coming," she replied. "You're all part of the family!"

I smiled and spoke: "That feels so good to hear!" For family is truly what Kiddieland has always brought together and long been all about in so many lives.