There is no panic for a seventeen-year-old like the panic incurred by hoisting and spinning a dozen toddlers eight feet in the air, then leaving them there for so long that they began to cry for their parents and attempt to leap from their seats.
That seventeen-year-old was me twenty years ago this month.
I was mere moments into my first day at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware’s famed family amusement park, Funland. I’d been issued my official uniform (white and green t-shirt for the week, red polo shirt for the weekends), instructed that all game money was to be returned to the office front-faced (that is, in sequential order and facing the same direction), and pointed towards the the northeast corner of the park.
“Please go relieve Dave McCubbin,” Mrs. Fasnacht said. “He’s running The Sky Fighters over in The Kiddie Rowe, and will instruct you how to do the same.”
Only Dave didn’t instruct me, perhaps because he figured I knew, or because I didn’t ask. And so I loaded a fresh batch of toddlers into their cast-iron rocket ships, announced, “3… 2… 1… blast off!” to eager kids and scared parents alike, and set the thing in motion. After a few seconds of clockwise rotation, I flipped the lever and began liftoff. The rockets rose some eight feet off the concrete. The children laughed and waved their arms. The parents smiled and took photos. And I leaned on the controller, confident in my Funlander Authority. After two minutes, I flicked the lever, shut down the motot, and watched a dozen three-year-olds come to a slow stop eight feet in the air.
Funland was born in 1962 when brothers Allen and Don Fasnacht purchased what was then called The Sport Center from Jack Dentino. Dentino began the park, there on the southern end of the boardwalk, in 1939 with a single concession: a game called Spill the Milk in which players attempted to topple a pyramid of wooden milk bottles with a special ball. Three tosses cost five cents.
By the time I go to Funland, it was a vast complex of aluminum sheds packed the the corners with rides and games. Upwards of one hundreds of fresh-faced high school and college students worked six days a week for room, board, and minimum wage. My brother, Chris, had spent three summers there, developing a rebellious, Milwaukee’s Best-fueled swagger that nearly had him fired more than once. Of course, I couldn’t wait to work there, so moved into the dorms above the park straight from Senior Week.
It was a celebrated summer, one filled with firsts: my first summer away from home, my first pair of Guatemalan pants, my first line of coke, and my first all-nighter (presumably on the same night), and my first misdemeanor theft (or it would have been had I gotten caught).
Which is not to say the Fasnacht’s didn’t run a tight, family-oriented ship. They did a terrific job with the crew. True, we didn’t have a full day off all summer (instead, we would work a morning shift then break until the following evening). Still, there was Pizza Night at Grotto, Sub Night, and Ride Night when, after closing, the park was ours.
Though I spent most of my free time racing my silver, two-door, 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit back and forth to Philadelphia to be with my recently-graduated friends, I made friends fast (thanks, in no small part, to being “Chris’ Little Brother”), and was invited to every beer blast and clothesline shopping spree.
By 1989, Jack Dentino’s Spill the Milk had been augmented by games like Ring Toss, Cups, and Derby (a skee ball horse race that drove thousands of dollars of revenue on weekends). Out back, the ageless Paratrooper (whose lumbering motor could be heard for blocks around), Gravitron, and, of course, Haunted Mansion held sway. Those rides were the domain of veteran’s like my brother, guy who squinted through hung-over eyelids. Newbies like me began their tenure on The Kiddie Rowe, which remained largely unchanged from the ’40s and ’50s: Boats, Helicopters, Fire Engines and, of course, The Sky Fighter — where we left a dozen frightened toddlers, some twenty-four scared, annoyed, and increasingly angry parents, and me.
I waved down assistance from one of Al Fasnacht’s brothers who immediately assumed the ride was broken. (And why wouldn’t he? Only a dolt would be confused by the ride’s simple operation). He knelt below the wooden walkway, and yanked on a cable until the rocket’s descended. Parent’s hastily removed their sobbing children, and hurried them all away.
Moments later, a dozen new, blissfully unaware parent’s were queued with their squealing, delighted children. I loaded them into their rocket ships, strapped them in and announced “3… 2… 1… blast off!”
And away we went, around and around, up and down, together.