My ninth year, 1960, was one of the greatest of my life. In the summer, my father took my brother, Andy (one year my senior), and me away from our daily Pacific Ocean swims to Cooperstown, New York, to see the Baseball Hall of Fame, and then to Manhattan to see the New York Stock Exchange in action, followed by lunch at Fraunces Tavern, where General Washington bid goodbye to his victorious troops. Later that same year, I deviously calculated the incubation rate for contracting the mumps, intentionally exposed myself to a victim of that malady, and, because I was blessed with the arithmetic gene, correctly came down with a good case of the disease so as to be excused from attending school on the first day (and each subsequent day) of the greatest World Series in history, the New York Yankees versus the Pittsburgh Pirates, viewing gleefully every televised pitch.
Creating just one of these memories would have made for a very good year indeed, but when my maternal grandfather, Sam Morro, took Andy and me for our first visit to Coney Island, well, that was just chocolate fudge icing on an already overwhelmingly delicious cake. As a boy, Sam had emigrated with his mother and brother from Odessa in Russian Ukraine, moved to San Francisco in time to experience the great earthquake and fire of 1906, and then traveled with his family to Brooklyn, where he made his home. And while I’m told that his performance as a father and husband was never a work of art and he was ineffective at consistently making a living and supporting his family, he was one of the most entertaining human beings who ever walked this earth and, most important, enjoyed his role as grandfather-playmate as much, if not more, than Andy and I reveled in his company. Grandpa Sam, at age 70, was more fun than I ever was or shall ever be, and for his wonderful memory, this story must be told.
Our entourage to Coney Island consisted of the three of us plus my great uncle, Lou Imershein (Sam’s brother-in-law), and my two first cousins from Long Island, Bill and Rick Frankfort (sons of my mother’s sister, Naomi), who were only a couple of years older than Andy and I. We arrived at Steeplechase Park of Coney Island in the morning, walking and singing with Sam on the way; my brother and I dressed in matching shirts and gray woolen slacks. Our wardrobe in those days was more appropriate for a business meeting than a playful outing; my father insisted that, in Manhattan, one must never wear jeans or, as he called them, “dungarees”. For me personally, there would be no hand-me-downs; my mother’s slavery to fashion infested my wardrobe simultaneously and identically with Andy’s. Then, as was the accepted practice when serving as our shepherds, Sam and Lou gave us some money and then proceeded to nap outside on a Boardwalk bench while my brother, my cousins and I frolicked within the indoor Steeplechase building which housed many rides and carnival games. We all purchased circular paper multiple-ride tickets to suspend from our necks (a clown picture in the center, with sections on the circumference which ride stewards would punch out), and laughed and screamed the morning away.
One such ride was a huge, circular slide of dark, polished wood, which we all rode down multiple times. The slide was a vision of handcrafted artisanship, almost like a mahogany aqueduct, not only smooth from a high gloss varnish but further lubricated with wax, occasionally added by the ride steward. At the bottom was a spinning wooden turntable to catch the sliders and throw them further into dizzying euphoria. Rick and Bill competed with Andy and me as we raced each time from the turntable to the top of the ride, hoping that the ride steward would choose one of us to throw the next supply of wax beads down the slide. Each time we rode down the slide, we all achieved that glorious state of childhood fun: total abandon based upon sensual overload. Even today, I’m surprised that each of us didn’t pull facial muscles from over-smiling. The only unfortunate development of these many excursions down the slide was the increasingly dense deposit of wax permeating the fibers of our woolen slacks, which would play significantly in our experience on Coney Island later that same day.
At this heightened state of existence, we returned to awaken Sam and Lou for lunch, and they promptly took us to Nathan’s Famous restaurant, at the corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenues. Although Nathan’s hadn’t invented the hot dog on a bun (such innovation has often been attributed to Charles Feltman, of Feltman’s Gardens, just a few doors down Surf Avenue), we were about as close to the hallowed birthplace of the tube steak as one could get.
I have often found that my experience of taste is measurably enhanced by the emotional state with which I greet a meal. For example, my memory of the skirt steak that I ate at a run-down Cooperstown bar just after our visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame was that of a glorious feast, but Andy tells me that the meat would have served better as material for bulletproof vests. Similarly, I cannot help but believe that the hot dog I had at Nathan’s that day would have been suitable for (and enjoyed lovingly by) God himself (with apologies to vegetarians). The only “grace” which I thought at the time was to give thanks to taste buds.
As we savored our mustard-laden comestibles and washed them down with perfect lemonade, I stared out at the sparse clouds rolling across the sky, above the silhouettes of three of the most famous amusement park rides of the time: the Cyclone Roller Coaster, the Wonder Wheel (an enormous Ferris wheel) and a magnificent steel girder edifice, the Parachute Jump (sometimes referred to as “Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower”).
Standing about 260 feet, the Parachute Jump (purchased from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where it was known more appropriately as the “Parachute Drop”), appeared on the Brooklyn skyline like an unfinished and overzealously constructed Erector Set mushroom. At the very top of the thin tower was the umbrella platform which held the cables for twelve benches upon which would sit its victims.
Looking from terra firma, I watched the riders on the benches of the Parachute Jump rising slowly until they reached the top girder umbrella, at which point they reversed direction and began their descent, whereupon their parachutes opened in slow-motion splendor. The romance of this vision was certainly not lost on me, and the die was cast when Andy, my trusted protector, and champion (the consummate salesman when it came to risky endeavors for the two of us), suggested that we try the experience.
Today, with amusement parks fearing liability for the injuries sustained by riders of their more fear-inducing attractions, one can only imagine that each seat of a “parachute jump” ride would be encased in a heavy gondola and magnificently cushioned and fortified with hydraulic suspension and dampeners. To the contrary, Coney Island’s Parachute Jump had twelve flat, backless benches, each a mere slab of leather-covered wood held at each end by a 250-foot cable connected to the top girder umbrella. By the time I got my ride, whatever original cushioning had been installed beneath the leather covering of that flat bench had long been flattened by the body weight of millions of buttocks that preceded my own.
In addition, the texture on the leather covering of the bench had been polished smooth by those same derrières, and with the tremendous wax deposits now borne on my backside, I unsuccessfully attempted to position and stabilize myself upon a near frictionless surface. In fact, the only things holding my body to that bench were a flimsy seat belt and my death grip on the cable on my side of the bench. The terror that I felt being buckled into that rickety bench was only exacerbated by the realization that as the bench was raised at the beginning of the ride, I would have a perfect vision of the increasing void between my feet and the ground.
I had expected that; just as we had practiced in the Steeplechase building, on rides requiring two riders, the two sets of brothers would be paired off, Andy and I, and then Bill and Rick. On the Parachute Jump, however, the ride stewards required an adult to share a bench with a minor. So, the visitors from California, Andy and I, were to be the first riders, and Grandpa Sam (ever so willingly) sat with me, while Uncle Lou sat with Andy. Notwithstanding the presence of my white-haired grandfather just inches away, my growing anticipation of horror was taking its toll, and I was desperate for the assurances of my fearless sibling to quell my mounting terror.
Now, being a couple of years older than my grandfather was at that time, I am quite aware that a child’s fear can often be temporarily replaced with distraction or bafflement, the manifestation of which is normally to render the child mute in silent contemplation. Such was the devious ploy of Andy and my grandfather. With the cooperation of the ride stewards, Andy and Lou were placed on the bench in front of mine, facing me, and thus, pondering in confusion why they were placed facing the opposite direction to my own, I was lost in thought until the first jerk of the cables brought me back to the realization that we were being lifted to our deaths.
As we rose, Sam continued to demand that I not look down, and Andy focused on me, yelling repeatedly “You’re okay”, as he did whenever he sensed my fear. Naturally, my gaze was drawn to the shrinking world below me, but moments before we reached the zenith of our climb, my brother released one hand from his grip on his bench cable and extended it toward my grandfather, pointing while looking at me and demanding, “Watch out for Grandpa.” Of course, I thought Andy was directing me to be brave and to care for the ancient, frail one next to me, and he skillfully hoodwinked my ego into thinking I could actually exert control over the situation. Immediately, my gaze shifted from the ground to the face of the old man in my charge.
All hell broke loose when our benches stopped their ascent at the top of the girder umbrella of the Parachute Jump. With a loud snap, our cables were released into greased pulleys so that we would have the sensation of free fall. Fortunately, none of us was wearing eyeglasses, as such lenses would have surely been shattered with my screams. Sam was already going deaf by that time, and I’ve always felt a slight sense of guilt that my shrieks in some way hastened the demise of his hearing.
The parachute, which had looked so enormous from my safe viewing at Nathan’s Famous, was about twenty feet in diameter and so diaphanous that it appeared threadbare at first glance. We were undoubtedly falling to our doom, and the silent faces of Uncle Lou and Andy bore the same bug-eyed, petrified shock that I was vocalizing. But as I looked over at my grandfather, seeing the updraft of wind playing with his perfectly white hair and bushy eyebrows, I saw that he was smiling gently. Yes, this old man looked like he was enjoying himself, and I searched in vain for telltale signs of tension or stress in his face and neck. Was this wonderful man of letters so ignorant that he didn’t recognize that he was about to join his ancestors?
I saw fit to scream for the entire descent, and just as our bench was about to meet the hard earth and convert our bodies into street pizza, the cables held fast and some primitive shock absorption system allowed our bench to stop in mid-air with only enough force to drive my spine through the top of my head.
“We made it!” screamed Andy with glee, as I gasped for air and carefully checked to see if I’d successfully controlled my body’s waste functions. Uncle Lou had done his duty, and he was done, declining another ride, and so, undaunted, Grandpa Sam rode successively with Bill, and then Rick, as if the experience were a hayride. Now, looking back on that day, I’m certain that I, in my seventies, would never have the fortitude that he exhibited that day, at 70. And the silent nirvana he exhibited while, by all appearances, he was about to meet his maker, will forever be my fondest vision of him within my mind’s eye.
As we walked away to catch the subway from Coney Island, Sam explained to us, in inspired words that rivaled the battle speech of Henry V, how our manhood had been tested that day, and how proudly we’d performed. As for me, I was swearing under my breath never again to allow my brother to coax me into risking life and limb for a quick thrill, an oath I’d forgotten by dinnertime. As time converts so many frightening childhood experiences into pillow-soft, smile-inducing recollections of youthful excitement, our trip to Coney Island is now a comforting parcel of the reminiscences of what turned out to be a very, very good year, indeed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Reeve Chudd is a retired trusts and estates attorney from Los Angeles, now residing in Carmel, Indiana. He wanted to become a professional writer, but he didn’t want to sacrifice eating. His four university degrees, when added now to $4.65, will purchase a grande latte at Starbucks. He is on Facebook but no other social media. This piece is a reminiscence of his glorious childhood.