Taking the Roller Coaster Plunge

Or "How I Became a Roller Coaster Fanatic"

illustration by brad fitzpatrick

The other day, a friend and I were discussing our memories of Pine Island Park, a popular amusement park in Manchester that went out of business back in the early 1960s.

I still clearly remember the day when I decided I wanted to be brave and try the park’s most popular ride — the old wooden roller coaster. I was about 10 then, and the only problem was that I couldn’t find anyone who shared my desire to take the plunge.  

Enter my grandmother, a woman of ample proportions, who loved roller coasters — the steeper, the better.

So one summer night in 1959, there I stood in line, waiting to ride Pine Island Park’s roller coaster with my grandmother by my side. The longer we waited, the more apprehensive I became. I felt my hands getting clammy as I heard the distant, terrified screams of the riders every time the big coaster whipped around a curve.

I forced a smile at my grandmother as I silently worried about everything that might go wrong on the ride. Would my mouth fly open from the force of the wind and I’d end up swallowing a bunch of bugs? Would the nails holding the decaying wooden track together pop out when we rode over them?

But my biggest concern involved wedging myself next to my grandmother in the coaster car. I feared that when we soared down the steepest hill, I’d be in danger of popping up like a slice of bread in a toaster and landing somewhere on the ground below with my feet sticking up out of the bushes. 

 When my grandmother and I finally were seated on the coaster, my worst fear came true. I felt like a sardine. The safety bar practically groaned when the attendant locked it down over us ... and that was only after my grandmother sucked in her breath.

I prayed she wouldn’t exhale during the entire ride.

The climb up that first hill was the longest climb of my life. It seemed as if time stood still as each “clickety-clack” inched us closer to the top. 

At the top of the hill, I made the mistake of looking out at the park. I saw the nice, safe carousel with all of its pretty horses. I saw the pond with its peaceful canoers.

And I saw my short life flash before me.

The rest of the ride was a blur. I remember screaming. I remember my neck snapping from side to side. I remember rising up out of my seat on the first hill and thinking my pop-up-toaster fear was going to come true.                    

Within seconds, the ride was over. After all of the waiting, all of the nervous anticipation, I felt cheated. Heck, I didn’t even have a single bug in my teeth.

“Can we go on it again?” I begged my grandmother. “Puh-leeze?”

“Sure!” she said.

So we rode on the coaster four more times that night. And by the time we headed home, a roller coaster fanatic had been born.

There was no stopping me after that. I rode on that coaster every chance I got. And after the park went out of business, I found other wooden coasters to ride, at places like Canobie Lake Park and Salisbury Beach.

And now, even though I’m older than my grandmother was back when she took me on that first ride, and I’ve inherited some of her “ample proportions,” I still want to go to Canobie Lake Park every summer and ride on the good old Yankee Cannonball.

The only problem is, whenever I mention it to my friends, I usually get the same reaction: “At your age? Are you crazy? You’ll end up breaking something!”

Maybe so. But it will be worth spending a few weeks in traction.

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