Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Learning to Fly

Note: I am very pleased to welcome my friend Rob Ascough to the Wildwood 365 team, and to present today the first edition of his new regular column, “Coastin’.” If you are interested in contributing to the site in any way, or have an idea that you think we can use, drop us a line anytime at wildwood365@gmail.com.

Thanks and enjoy, everyone!

-- AA

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There are few things that would convince intelligent people to make a trip to the Wildwood Boardwalk on a January afternoon with bone-chilling winds, and the Golden Nugget proved to be one of those things.

To be honest, I was trying to find a way to avoid starting this column by discussing the obvious - something that has been discussed ad nauseam over the past few months - but what better way to promote the Boardwalk's ability to create memories than talking about ones created recently? After all, those that paid tribute to the Nugget a few weeks ago will surely verify how the the Moreys touched their hearts by doing something entirely out of the goodness of their own hearts.

Photo Courtesy of the Wildwood Historical Society

As the winds threatened to blow us into the ocean that was likely a bit warmer, it was often necessary to perform a reality check and remind ourselves that we were saying goodbye to an old friend instead of making a new one. There were so many gifts and pretzels and cupcakes that it was hard to imagine the event was a funeral of sorts. In the end, it really was a ceremony because there was optimism in those January gusts that bit like piranhas.

But what were we celebrating? The loss of a Wildwood landmark? Absolutely. The loss of a great ride? I would like to think so, but the opportunity to reflect has given me reason to ponder certain things... things that might be considered blasphemous. Such as, was Hunt's Pier the incredible place filled with incredible rides as our memories insist? Or has time and maturity caused us to look upon something as more than it was? And if so, is that really such a bad thing?

Photo Courtesy of the Wildwood Historical Society

Over the next few weeks, you are welcome to join me on a trip down memory lane as I visit Hunt's Pier while waiting for the spring to arrive and rescue me from the winter doldrums once again. Don't worry, you're free to walk with me even if you don't have any Hunt's Pier memories. It will be my honor and pleasure to show you around. If that's the case, don't get upset if I seem as if I'm gloating. Yes, I feel special for having been able to experience Hunt's Pier in its glory days. One day you'll be able to talk about something you experienced but no longer exists, like Yankee Stadium, K-Mart or the thrill of renting an underpowered Chrysler PT Cruiser.

All Hunt's Pier experiences began with the Flyer. It was one of the first rides constructed on the pier when it started to rise from the ashes of Ocean Pier, and for more than three decades it stood as a landmark on the Wildwood Boardwalk, drawing attention to a treasure chest of fantastic rides and attractions that could be found only in Wildwood. Well, for the most part. But there is bound to be more on that as we continue our journey in the coming weeks.

The Flyer wasn't a large roller coaster, not by any stretch of the imagination. It stood a mere 36 feet in height and its first drop was likely about as large as the Great White's speedy little dive beneath the Boardwalk before the massive climb into the Wildwood skies. But the Flyer seemed absolutely huge in my eyes. Perhaps it was because I was a little kid and a regular living room Christmas tree seemed like a towering sequoia. Perhaps it was because there were no other tall rides on Hunt's Pier and the Flyer really was huge as it stood above the Whacky Shack, Keystone Kops and Jungleland. Whatever the case, the Flyer was a gigantic little ride.

Photo Courtesy of the Wildwood Historical Society

It was 1987 and after nearly a week of constant nagging, my father finally convinced me to join him for a ride on the Flyer. I was nine years old and had no idea what I was getting myself into, but my father was a good salesman and obviously didn't leave his special skills at the office. At the time I had no idea what the Flyer did, other than making grown adults yell and scream bloody murder.

If such a ride terrified them, what was it going to do to a kid like me? I was nervous beyond belief, but was also proud of myself. Taking a spin on a serious ride like the Flyer seemed like a rite of passage into adulthood. Never again would I be able to look at the kiddy-sized cat and mouse bumper cars on Morey's Pier in the same light. I was going to be so far beyond that silliness in a matter of minutes, leaving my younger brother behind in childhood. Or so I thought.

The Flyer ended up scaring the living hell out of me, but I tried to keep my composure and casually declined a second ride when my father offered. At least my memory tells me I was casual as could be. "Too much else to do tonight", I probably suggested. The truth is, I didn't ever want to go near the thing again. The next morning we took one last stroll on the boardwalk before heading home and passed up a ride on the Flyer because my stomach was upset. That was my story and I stuck to it, even though the trust was that I could have lived a happy and complete ride if I never had to deal with the Flyer again.

Photo Courtesy of the Wildwood Historical Society

The annual Wildwood family vacation was supposed to be a refuge from stress, and that timber nightmare threatened to change that. But somehow my father convinced me to give the Flyer another chance the following summer, and I ended up loving it. I loved it so much that I rode it 13 times that summer. When vacation had come to an end once again, I was going to miss Wildwood but I was really going to miss the Flyer.

All I could think about was the Flyer as our Wildwood vacation approached in 1989. On the way down the Parkway, my father jokingly quipped, "Maybe the Flyer won't be there this year." It was a ridiculous statement because it was so unbelieveable. The Flyer had been there for an eternity, and it was sure to be there long after we were all gone. But it was the Flyer that was gone, along with much of Hunt's Pier. It had all been cleared to make way for the Kamikaze roller coaster, which was part of sweeping changes by new owners meant to modernize the pier.

I didn't understand nostalgia and the associated charms at the time, but I knew enough to realize Hunt's Pier wasn't what it used to be. All week, I mourned the loss of the Flyer. I cried when an old man on the pier told me how he spent months helping to build the ride and had to watch it get pulled down by a bulldozer in a matter of minutes. The thought of the Flyer - my Flyer! - getting shattered into splinters was too much for me to ponder. Sometimes it's still too much for me to ponder.

Photo Courtesy of the Wildwood Historical Society

At some point in the near future I will surely have ridden about 300 different roller coasters since that first ride on the Flyer. I've ridden twisted contraptions that should include an adjustment with a chiropractor. I've ridden coasters that shoot people hundreds of feet into the air at upwards of a hundred miles per hour. I've ridden ones that have flipped me upside-down in ways I can't even comprehend.

The Flyer surely wasn't the best roller coaster I ever experienced, but that doesn't matter to me, not even today. Sentimentality dictates the way I feel about the Flyer, and that makes it my favorite roller coaster. Nothing I ever ride will compare.

Would I want to ride the Flyer today? I could easily do that, as a copy of the ride still operates as part of the Columbus Zoo in Ohio (see pic at left). It's more or less the same ride, designed by the same person (John Allen) and opened the same year (1957), meaning it would offer an experience more or less identical to the one that began my love for roller coasters. But it simply could never be the same.

It won't be standing on Hunt's Pier. It won't be absorbed by a salty ocean breeze. It won't be part of Wildwood. And even if all of that were true, maybe my rides on the Flyer are best left in my memories. In my memories, the Flyer is safe from comparison to other experiences. In my memories, the Flyer is perfect. Can that be said for the rest of Hunt's Pier? That's another discussion for another time.

Right now, I'm tired from all the walking...

In addition to being a fan of all things amusement-related, Rob Ascough is a life-long Wildwood vacationer that considers it his second home. While he often laments some of the changes that have taken place throughout the years, he loves to look back on days gone by while looking forward to what the future holds.

4 comments:

  1. man, that gave me goosebumps! My 1st roller coaster ride ever! with my Grandmom. I will never forget.

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  2. Great blog Rob... I too thought it was a huge coaster as a kid. Was shocked to find out years later it was only 36 feet high!

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  3. Bud Hunt was a class act and a man of great vision.

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