Thursday, March 28, 2013

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines...

I’ve written before about my family’s relationship with the New Jersey shore -- specifically Ocean City.

My parents rented the top floor of a ramshackle shore house, and Mom's sister and brother-in-law, my Aunt and Uncle, took the bottom.

My cousin Mike and I were close anyway, but this opportunity to vacation together brought us even closer. During those shore trips, Mike and I were virtually inseparable, hitting the beach, the boardwalk, the arcades, the pizza shops, and the playgrounds together, on the move from early morning until we dropped in bed at night, tucking sandy feet into clean sheets.

Those trips remain some of my fondest memories of growing up, and when Mr. Peabody’s WayBac machine is finally invented for real, I will return to those halcyon days, defined by the scent of donuts from the Dutch Oven Bakery in the morning, oily suntan lotion in the afternoon, and sticky salt water taffy in the evenings.

The Ocean City Boardwalk was a favorite destination, and it was a guarantee that during our time on the island, we would all pile into our cars and “hit the boards” for a night or two of entertainment. At the very north end was Wonderland Pier, which really wasn’t a pier at all in the traditional sense of jutting out into the ocean itself; it was more a structure built on the beach side that housed a variety of vomitous rides, scattered among tamer kiddie fare.

Reaching Wonderland was an odysseyIt was against my Mother’s religion to pay for parking, so we would scour the streets for a free slot in which to tuck the car. This meant a walk of several miles to reach our goal. Ever so slowly we’d proceed, slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y, passing dozens of tchotchke shops, candy stores, ice cream booths, tee-shirt emporia, and yes, even a thinly veiled headshop along the way.

Once we reached Wonderland, it was another wait in line for tickets, but once purchased, they were quickly doled out and we were free to scatter to the dizzying thrills that lay before us.

As a nod to the past, we would ceremoniously ride the carousel, mainly because it still featured an arm that dispensed rings, including a golden one that bequeathed a free ride to its capturer. Riders were required to deposit the rings in a basket as the carousel rounded down to a halt, but several times I remember pocketing one as a souvenir. Where they have gone since is a mystery, lost in the detritus left behind as boys grow into men.

The crème de la crème for Mike and me was a racecourse that took up almost an entire side of the pier. I believe this was called the “Indy 500,” and in today’s terms, it was a go-kart arrangement in which each rider with the requisite number of tickets was assigned a car. At the start signal, the cars raced around the track, with the kid-drivers taking responsibility for steering and accelerating.

This was an actual race car, not some dopey klunker whose route was determined by a slot-and-pin arrangement common to rides like this designed for the preschool set.

The issue with the Indy 500 is that there was a height requirement. I don’t remember what it was, but I do know it was strictly enforced.

And I know of the adherence to policy because of the number of times Mike and me were sent away disappointed, too short to ride.

This was doubly frustrating: Not only did we eagerly anticipate riding this thing and had to deal with the disappointment of being turned down by some teenager with a yardstick. But as the youngest of all the sibs, we also had to endure the sight of older brothers -- well above the height requirement -- riding in our stead.

Each year, we’d race to the Indy 500.

Each year, we’d not measure up.

Finally… one year… after what must have been a spurt of pubescent growth, we lined up with the correct number of tickets jammed in our fists, stood for our measuring…

And were okayed to ride!

With hearts thrumming in ecstasy, scrambled for an empty car. Ignoring the stench of gasoline, motor oil, and exhaust, Mike found one and thumped down in the seat. I grabbed a model nearby and slid in, clasping the wheel with sweaty palms.

This was it!

We were finally going to race the Indy 500 for ourselves.

After hearing a mumbled safety speech that we wouldn’t have paid attention to even if we could distinguish the words, we were off!

I jammed my foot to the floor, and the car lurched forward with the others.

We went around. And around. And around. And around.

A circle.

And another circle.

And yet one more.

And it was over.

I exited my car and searched the crowd of exiting racers for Mike.

His face said the same thing mine must have.


The lesson learned has stayed with me after all those years, and I bring it to mind when considering a purchase that I “have to have” or a vacation I “can’t wait to take.”

The anticipation of getting something is almost always better than getting it itself.

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