Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Now I know what “hell on wheels” really means.
I took a ride on the world famous Cyclone roller coaster today and having survived this experience I can you two things: this was my first time on this attraction. And it was probably my last.
I was part of a select group of just four people who had been given a special ride on the Cyclone and while I was quite honored by this star treatment, I am really happy to be alive.
If there is a record for screaming the phrase “Oh my God” repeatedly in under two minutes, I smashed it to pieces.
Now, you may be wondering why a man who is afraid great heights and excessive speeds would willingly climb aboard a roller coaster knowing full well that he would have to deal with, well, great heights and excessive speeds.
I had been contacted by Ariel Kaminer, a New York Times columnist who is doing a story about the Cyclone.
She had come across some of my blog postings where I wrote about visiting my father at a Coney Island nursing home a few years ago. She asked me about some of my memories of the area and I made the mistake of telling her that I, a native Brooklynite, had never been on the Cyclone.
That’s one email I wish I could’ve taken back because Ariel quickly shot me a response suggesting that we meet up and take a ride on the renowned roller coaster. And I actually agreed to this.
But I don’t blame Ariel for getting me into this predicament. The person I’m really angry with is Henry Hudson, who, according to the mural on the New York Aquarium’s wall, landed on Coney Island in 1609. If that English bastard had just kept on sailing I never would’ve gotten into this mess.
In doing my research I learned that the Cyclone opened on June 26, 1927. It was declared a city landmark in 1988 and a National Historic Landmark in 1991.
Wikipedia tells me that in 1948 a coal miner with aphonia visited Coney Island and, according to legend, he had not spoken in years but screamed while going down the Cyclone's first drop, saying "I feel sick" as his train returned to the station. Yes, folks, that's the Cyclone—it’s good for what ails you.
I arrived a half-hour early and strolled around the boardwalk. There were some signs of life in the amusement area as shooting galleries and other attractions were lifting their shutters and getting ready for customers. The Nathan's clock informed everyone that it was 95 days until the July Fourth hotdog eating contest.
I tried psyching myself up, recalling how I had survived Space Mountain in Disneyland just a few months ago. How could a significantly older ride compare with that modern monstrosity? I’m going to be just fine, I told myself.
I walked by the Cyclone and my nerve began to fade. The thing looked...old. Inside my head I shrieked it’s dilapidated!— and that's a word I don’t use lightly.
A sign told visitors they had to be at least 54 inches tall to take the ride and I actually did the math on my own height, hoping I might have somehow shrunk during the night. But, no, I met the height requirement with ease.
I kept hearing this strange wailing noise, like lost souls looking for away out of purgatory. It turned out to be the wind blowing up through the Astrotower across the street, but it didn’t make me feel any safer.
This roller coaster ride came close to not happening at all. Astroland owner Carol Hill Albert told us that the heavy rains that we’ve been having recently had caused the tracks to swell and high winds were slowing down the cars.
Okay, I thought, that’s a wrap. I came down here ready to ride this bugger, but the people in charge said it wasn’t going to happen. See you in July.
Ariel was insistent, however, because she had a story to do, but I was a little unnerved. It was kind of like arguing with a pilot when he tells you it’s not safe to fly. You stay on the ground.
Along for the Ride
Seeing the car get stuck on a curve and watching the roller coaster crew climb down the tracks really had me going. I could just see myself in that situation--only in my version I'm screaming my lungs out and the SCPA has to shoot me down with a tranquilizer gun.
I must credit Ariel with giving me every possible opportunity to bail on this thing. It was her story, not mine, she said, and it would be perfectly okay if I remained on Planet Earth.
I really appreciated her concern, but…I couldn’t. Call it pride, call it stupidity, call it denial, call it whatever you want, I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t go through with the ride. Of course I wouldn't be able to live at all if something went wrong, but I wasn't thinking that far ahead.
I didn’t want to give into my fears. People talk about the threat of homegrown terrorists; well, I have an ingrown terrorist, a screaming berserker inside me who sees death, mayhem and destruction lurking behind the most mundane acts. If I didn’t ride the Cyclone, that terrorist would win.
Before our ride, we met with some of the people who are planning to build a new amusement park on the Astroland property. It's going to be called Luna Park and it turns out the company's president and CEO is named Ferrari, which was my grandfather’s name. Maybe we're family?
Luna Park, of course, was the name of a Coney Island amusement park that opened in 1903 and closed in 1944. My mother used to tell me about being at Coney Island the night Luna Park burned down.
Years later I was speaking with a friend of my uncle’s who told me that he had been a reporter on the old Brooklyn Eagle and he had covered that fire in Luna Park.
Miss Cyclone 2010 graciously agreed to join us on the ride and she gave us some useful tips. Don’t strain, she said, don’t squeeze the bar. Just go with the ride and enjoy it.
I didn’t actually believe I was doing this until that bar came down in front of me and we began the slow ticking ride up to the first drop. I'm on the freaking Cyclone, I thought. There's no turning back now. I was seated next to Jen Gapay, owner of Thirsty Girl Productions, a lovely woman who did her best to console me, but it was hopeless. I clamped my eyes shut and began reciting the Hail Mary.
We reached the top...and then…we fell. They say the first drop is the worst and they are so bloody right. I began the “Oh my God” chorus and kept it up for next 110 seconds—the longest near two minutes of my life.
I stopped worrying about the car stopping and began to freak out about the thing flying off the tracks and landing somewhere in Carnarsie.
“It’s okay…” Jen said as we whipped around the track. “This next one’s not so bad…”
It was bad enough. I was thrown from side to side like a cork in a tidal wave. Why did I ever agree to this? Space Mountain was indoors; it was a controlled environment. The Cyclone is up in the sky and it’s made out of wood.
I opened my eyes ever so briefly as we slowed down and finally came to a stop. I staggered out of the car, apologizing to everyone within earshot for my gutless behavior. I told Miss Cyclone that I tried her relaxation thing, but it didn't work. She assured me that it takes several rides to get this down.
All right, so I didn’t see much of anything. But I did conquer my fears long enough to actually get on the damn thing. I got a really cool Cyclone hoodie and a hug from Jen, which is more than Henry Hudson ever got. The only Coney Island ride I haven't tackled yet is the Wonder Wheel, but I may wait on that one for a little while.
I came home that night and learned that my former sister-in-law’s aunt had died that very morning. She was being cared for at the same Coney Island nursing home where my father had been. I was just a few blocks away, but I had no idea she was there.
She was such a sweet, gentle lady and I feel badly about her passing. It's another reminder that life is brief, that you should do things that scare you, and don’t ever surrender to your ingrown terrorist.