A DAY AT THE RACES
Remembering Steeplechase Park
By Shaun Costello
When I was nine years old I lived at Nine Elderberry Lane, in the suburban subdivision of Green Acres, a delightfully park-like, child-friendly community, in Long Island’s Nassau County – about a forty minute car ride from midtown Manhattan. I’m not sure if this effected my lunar alignment, but during my short, ill-fated liaison with the Cub Scouts that year, I was assigned to Den Number Nine – the third in an inexplicable series of numeric coincidences that would connect me to this ninth digit throughout my life.
We lived in a two story brick house that was identical to every fourth house in the community, Green Acres offering four designs to choose from. This meant that on Elderberry Lane, which had a total of fourteen houses, our house was repeated three or four times, pretty typical in post World War II cookie-cutter subdivisions. Our house design was shared with the Coopers, the Ainbinders, and one other family whose name escapes me. The Calise’s house was identical to the Lupo’s, and two others, whose occupant’s identities have long since disappeared, along with most of my memory cells. The Noke’s house was duplicated by the Kelly’s, who lived across the street from my family, and two others who lived on the North end of the street. Sounds a bit like Baltimore, but people seemed to find their way to their own houses unaided, with the exception of my philandering father, who was often accused by my mother of spending just a bit too much time offering domestic assistance to neighboring housewives, which was the cause of many interruptions in our familial tranquility. Virtually all of the streets in Green Acres were cul-de-sacs, which meant no through-traffic, or paradise to a kid on a Schwinn. Sections of the community were separated by small parks, so that you could walk from one end to the other without crossing a single street, allowing our extremely eccentric Dachshund ‘Ronzoni’ to wander freely about the neighborhood, sometimes for days at a time.
Our house had a finished basement, which was the location of extremely noisy New Years Eve parties given by my parents, and the family television, a large black and white Dumont, which thrilled me with episodes of Flash Gordon, Davey Crockett, The Wonderful World of Disney, and sporting events like the World Series, and the Kentucky Derby. There were two bedrooms on the first floor, one for my parents, and the other for my little sister. The second floor however, was all mine, and I reveled in the privacy of my domain. My room was filled with the typical accoutrements of masculine childhood: my Rawlings Stan Musial baseball glove, a junior-sized Louisville Slugger bat, assorted books and box games, my comic book collection, a fairly large Emerson radio on which I listened to serials like The Green Hornet, The FBI In Peace and War, Gang Busters, and Sergeant Preston of the Mounties and his dog Yukon King. In drawers and on shelves were lots of little metal soldiers, painted appropriate colors, some of which defended my model of Fort Apache against the heathen redskin, in the never-ending battle to tame the frontier. In my closet was a large box containing my Lionel Electric Trains, which I took out and assembled whenever I was overtaken by the need for a railroad experience. Lost amongst the kiddy-clutter, unless you knew where to look, was a small, metal statuette of a tower, not quite six inches tall. This was a souvenir of my greatest childhood experience. A replica of the tower from which I had taken a leap into the great unknown, floating almost weightlessly through the air, slowly descending toward the dense crowd of bathers that covered the beaches of Brooklyn. It was the day I took the Coney Island Parachute Jump, just a few years before they finally shut it down.
I’m not sure how many times my family made the ritualistic trek to Coney Island, but it had to have been at least once a year since I was five. I say ritualistic because the day’s activities developed into a pattern that never changed. Our family of four would pack ourselves into our freshly washed Nash Rambler Station Wagon, my father at the wheel, telling stories of his own childhood trips to Coney Island from his family’s home in the Bronx, as we left the suburban confines of Green Acres, taking the Belt Parkway past Idlewild Airport, and following the Atlantic coast of Queens and then Brooklyn, until arriving at the bastion of exotic entertainment possibilities that was Coney Island. Oh, what joy.
My father was tour guide, and pretty much supervised the day’s agenda which, after parking the car, always began at The Cyclone, the world’s largest wooden roller coaster. My father mainly served in an organizational, as opposed to a participatory capacity. He would watch while we went on the rides, but The Cyclone was different. Maybe it served as some conduit to memories of his childhood, or possibly a challenge to his masculinity, but riding The Cyclone was always first on my father’s Coney Island agenda, and he always rode with the rest of us. You waited on line for the coaster cars to come a halt, the attendant releasing the safety bars that allowed the dizzy, exhausted, riders to stagger to their feet, and make their woozy exit. You jumped into one of the empty cars (the first was best), and waited for the safety bar to lock you in. The cars began to move slowly forward, until you found yourself in a dark tunnel, suddenly bombarded with blaring horns and flashing lights, meant to tantalize those of us to who confused mortal terror with fun. And then we were in the light again, as the car-train began the ascent to the inevitable, gravity-driven plunge into five minutes of thrill-ride that you hoped could be accomplished without the occupants of the car ahead of you losing their lunch.
And next, as always – Nathans. The men in the family wolfed down a few hot dogs, while my mother had something called a Shrimp Boat, and my sister, always a picky eater, had to be cajoled and persuaded into eating anything at all – probably something disgustingly sweet like a candy apple. Once properly satiated with junk food, we took the short walk down Surf Avenue to the entrance of the building that housed the most extraordinary assortment of sensory pleasures since man discovered fun – Steeplechase Park.
Steeplechase Park was the brainchild of George Tilyou, who saw the ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and decided to build a bigger wheel back on Brooklyn’s Coney Island, where his family had restaurants. Tilyou’s enormous Wonder Wheel quickly became Coney Island’s biggest attraction. He surrounded the Wonder Wheel with many other rides and attractions, including a mechanical Steeplechase ride, that raced around the borders of the park, giving the popular amusement venue its name. Steeplechase Park was swept by fire in 1907, and almost totally destroyed. The morning after the fire Tilyou posted a sign outside the park. It read:
To enquiring friends: I have troubles today that I had not yesterday. I had troubles yesterday which I have not today. On this site will be built a bigger, better Steeplechase Park. Admission to the burning ruin – Ten cents.
The park reopened for business in 1909, and contained a “Pavillion of Fun”, an indoor venue that covered five acres. At the close of the 1939 World’s Fair, Tilyou purchased the Fair’s Parachute Drop, and moved it to Steeplechase Park. The ride, which was originally a training device for paratroopers, became popular until the end of World War II, and wound up outliving the park itself, operating until 1964. Too expensive to tear down, the tower was finally declared a “Landmark” in 1977, and added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it is the only remaining artifact of Steeplechase Park.
As I remember, and this reminiscence is mainly from memory, tickets to Steeplechase Park were purchased at the entrance, and entitled the bearer endless and repeated participation on any of the attractions in the park. The popularity of an attraction would limit the number of times you could participate. The most popular ride was, of course, the Steeplechase itself, the line for which could sometimes take two hours, so it was a ‘one time’ attraction, and worth the wait. The smaller, but still exciting attractions inside the building, had lines that might be as short as ten minutes, so you could repeat the experience until you dropped, or until your parents lost patience with your hunger for thrills. Almost everything inside the five acre ‘Pavillion of Fun’ was made of wood that, over the half century of use, had become the smoothest, softest surface imaginable. My favorite interior ride was a tower that was accessible by a long stairway, and contained a circular slide inside itself. You entered at the top, and by the time you reached the bottom you were moving fast enough to be propelled out onto the surface of an enormous wooden disc, some seventy five feet in diameter that was rotating clockwise. The disc contained on its surface, many smaller discs that were rotating both clockwise and counter clockwise, spinning its delighted victims from disc to disc, in many directions, until finally dumping them into a surrounding pit. The trick, of course, was staying on as long as possible, until too exhausted to stay on, you slid off into joyful oblivion.
The Barrel of Fun was another favorite. A hollow wooden cylinder, about twelve feet in diameter, and fifty feet long, that slowly revolved, dumping squealing thrill seekers all over each other. The Human Roulette Wheel was a raised, round, wooden platform, maybe thirty feet across. About fifty thrill riders would climb aboard, and the platform would begin to revolve, slowly at first, then faster, and faster, until the centrifugal force dumped the last passenger out into the smooth wooden circle surrounding it. This was a ‘last man standing venue’, and the last one off was given a prize. My father watched me try most of the more adventurous rides, while my mother accompanied my little sister on the smaller, slower slides and merry-go-rounds.
We were now about half way through our allotted five hours at Steeplechase Park, and thought had to be given to the two hour line for the Steeplechase ride itself, which was always the culmination of our day at the park. Usually, one parent and one child would take a place on the line, to be replaced by the other parent and child, in shifts. It was cheating of course, but not a serious enough breach in the line code for anyone to grumble much about. My father suggested my mother and sister taking the first line shift, while the men of the family walked about. This happened during every visit to Steeplechase, and I knew what was coming.
We wandered in the direction of the exit, my father suggesting that he needed a break. This was just another familiar element in the agenda of the day. Exiting the cacophonous thunder of Steeplechase Park, out into the bewildering quiet of Surf Avenue was always a shocking transition. My father led the way, like a man who knew where he was going, without necessarily having been there before. But, he knew what he was looking for, and within a few blocks, found it. We entered the darkened, smokey room, and my father’s pace noticeably quickened, like a man drowning in a churning sea of self-doubt, and entirely too much familial contentedness, who had been thrown a rope, that dragged him toward safety, and, arm over arm, he pulled himself closer and closer until an understanding face with a knowing nod silently enquired as to the brand of assistance he might need. “A VO Manhattan, on the rocks, and a coke-a-cola for my uncle here”, answered the familiar voice that was lost, but now was found. I had accompanied my father to many bars like this one, and they all seemed the same. Silent people, mostly men, sitting on bar stools, staring down at glasses filled with dark liquid, or at a soundless, fuzzy television screen, seeking salvation from their daily drudgery amongst fellow passengers who had all boarded at different stops, but seemed headed toward the same destination.
Not much was said here, the lingua franca of the cocktail lounge being the knowing nod. I sipped my coke, all the while awaiting the crunchy sweetness of the maraschino cherry that now sat at the bottom of my father’s glass, but would soon be passed to me as peace offering, and payment for both my silence, and my company. My father, as always, sat quietly sipping his VO Manhattan, temporarily relieved of the responsibility for having experienced entirely too much of someone else’s idea of a good time for one afternoon.
The line for the Steeplechase ride had surprisingly shortened by the time we rejoined my mother and sister, who were in immediate need of a bathroom break. As I think back on the safety precautions that were taken for the riders of the park’s famous Steeplechase Ride, there is simply no way that this kind of danger would be allowed, much less legally sanctioned, in today’s liability culture. Eight wooden horses, each carrying two riders, and mechanically propelled along a monorail, just fast enough to thrill the squealing riders, up and down manufactured hills, all the way around the outside border of the five acre building, to a finish line off in the distance that came all too soon. Children were allowed to ride, not by their age, but by their height. There was a line drawn on the wall next to the entrance, and if you were tall enough, you got to go, if not, you went back to your family, crying and squealing, having experienced crushing disappointment. The only safety precaution taken was a small leather harness that I doubt would have prevented you from falling to serious injury, not to mention death. By now, I had ridden the Steeplechase enough to understand that boys like me had no shot whatsoever at riding the winning horse. The winner was, of course, determined by the ride operator, who always let cute little girls win at his venue. The
horses all left together at the start, exchanging the lead often to make the whole experience seem more competitive. The Steeplechase was the only ride, other than The Cyclone, that my father liked, so he mounted a horse with me, and my mother rode with my little sister.
The thrill of this experience is beyond description. The course was about fifty feet above street level, and surrounded the entire park, so you’re holding on for dear life while riding over Surf Avenue, and past the fringe of the Boardwalk, and the ocean, and cars with beeping horns, and the constant whirring sound of the mechanics of the equine vehicle you’re astride, and then the thrill of the false finish, and the ultimate disappointment of losing to some cute little girl, who walks off with a Blue Ribbon.
So, we had done it – five glorious, thrill-filled hours at Steeplechase Park, that left you with an exhausted sense of accomplishment, and satisfaction. But, it was not over – not yet. There was one more necessary, although sorrowful element to this saga. One more tearful, groveling, begging, pleading fit of humiliating condescension, dear reader, all perpetrated by me, as I begged my parents to let me ride the Parachute Jump, all the while knowing that there wasn’t a chance in hell they’d let me do it. You can not ride alone on the Parachute Jump, and my father had laid down the law. NO WAY! My father wouldn’t go with me, and they wouldn’t let me ride with a stranger. I knew my begging was folly, but was willing to experience the humiliation, just in case.
So, we found our Nash Rambler Station Wagon, got back on the Belt Parkway, and took the short drive to Sheepshead Bay, the last destination of the day. The last element in our Coney Island ritual – dinner at Lundy’s. Lundy’s was an enormous restaurant, specializing in seafood, that had been open
since my father was a kid, and no visit to the Borough of Brooklyn would be complete without chowing down on one of Lundy’s lobsters. So that’s exactly what we did. My father and I ordered the Lobsters, my mother, as always, had fried shrimp, shrimp being the only seafood she would eat, and my sister, who had to be cajoled and persuaded to eat anything at all, probably had a shrimp cocktail.
So, our day was over, but not this story. I haven’t told you about the tower yet. About my leap into the great unknown. About my most thrilling childhood experience. Let’s play back the day’s events exactly as they happened: the car ride in our Nash Rambler Station Wagon, past Idlewild Aiprport, and our arrival in Coney Island. The ride on The Cyclone, lunch at Nathans, Steeplechase Park, my father’s temporary salvation in the cocktail lounge, and the Steeplechase ride. And finally, dinner at Lundy’s. Let’s do it all exactly the same way, but this time add the element of two additional characters.
My father had a boyhood friend named Alex Mechanic, who I had known all my life, and who worked on the Ocean Liner S.S. United States. I’m not sure what he did exactly, but he was at sea most of the time, visiting exotic ports of call like Southampton (UK), Bremerhaven (West Germany), and LeHavre (France) on a regular basis. And he always brought back toys for me as presents, the best being from Germany. So somewhere along the way, Alex met and fell in love with a French woman named Maurice Plumile, who he brought to America to be his bride. I suspect that my parents had a hand in sponsoring Maurice’s presence in America, because, when she first arrived, she stayed with us for a month or so. Or, until Alex could find them an apartment somewhere in Queens. Most of what I remember about Maurice’s tumultuous stay in our house was her cooking, which drew ooh’s and ah’s from all concerned, causing my mother to have a series of anti-Maurice meltdown fits, that resulted in a ‘her or me’ ultimatum, upon which the woman was resettled in her new Queens apartment. Maurice, insecure on unfamiliar turf, did what most newly immigrated people do, she complained. “Thees ees not like France. Een France theengs are much better. I can not eat thees food. They eat like barbarians here. Thees ees not like France”. This went on until my mother finally exploded. “If things are so great in France, what the hell is this woman doing in my house?” So, off went Maurice with her sailor boy Alex, to their Queens love-nest, and the cuisine at 9 Elderberry Lane sadly returned to burned meat and frozen vegetables.
In time, Maurice found a job as a manicurist somewhere near her love-nest, and my mother’s furious resentment settled down enough to allow Alex and Maurice to visit on a regular basis. At my father’s suggestion, an invitation was extended to Alex and Maurice to accompany our family on a journey to Coney Island, and so we did just that, and the six of us crammed into our Nash Rambler Station Wagon, ready to share the experience.
So it began, this time with six of us; riding The Cyclone, eating at Nathans, doing Steeplechase Park, sneaking off for secret drinks (this time I got two maraschino cherries), taking the Steeplechase ride, and now it was time for my ritualistic fit of crying, begging, and groveling in the off chance that my parents would remotely consider my Parachute Ride. And I got the usual reaction: NO, NO, NO, NO! And then the impossible happened. Alex Mechanic spoke up, “No, wait. I’ll go with Shaun. It’ll be fun. I’d love to do it”. And just like that, my life was transformed. What could my parents do? They had to agree. Alex would go with me, and we got on line. Nine year-olds are fearless, and I was no exception, but the chair that you sat in on the Parachute Jump was even flimsier than the harness on the Steeplechase Ride. A simple wooden chair for two with a wooden safety bar, and leather belt of some kind. Madness! Not that I considered it at the time, but this thing was downright dangerous. The height at which the victims were released was 260 feet. The thought of it now makes me shiver. But, Alex and Shaun were strapped in, and slowly we rose above the hustle-bustle of the beach crowd, silently climbing higher, and higher, the noise of the lift’s mechanism growing louder as we approached the top. Off to the East we could see the Long Island beaches for miles and miles. And to the West New York’s vast harbor, and behind us Manhattan’s skyline, and then it happened. There was a loud cracking sound as our chute was released into a free-fall of about fifty feet, until the mechanism caught us, stopping the fall. The stopping of the free-fall was so abrupt that we were both lifted what seemed like a few feet off our skimpy wooden chair, crashing back into it as we settled into the gradual and mechanically-aided descent. From here on in, the view was the thing, and we savored it. I’m not sure of the elapsed time of the entire event, but it seemed much longer than it probably took. My parents, my sister, and Maurice were waving as we descended, and we joined them on the ground. I had done it. Finally! After years of pathetic groveling, all it took was someone to say, “No, wait. I’ll go with Shaun”.
I bought the statuette of the tower at the concession’s booth, next to the exit, and it immediately found a place of honor in my room – something to boast about, exaggerate about, add adjectives to, until it became another story entirely – told among boys who tend to boast. That trip was my family’s last journey to Coney Island. And the only time I took the para-plunge. As an adult, I visited the rapidly decaying community two or three times a year. Steeplechase Park was long closed, and the whole place seemed smaller with each visit, slowly becoming a haven for drugs and hookers and the accompanying dangers of that element. During a winter visit in the early Seventies I found a starving, abandoned guard dog, in a fenced-in area that contained a ride that was closed for the season. I broke through the fence, and cautiously approached the starving animal, who timidly licked my hand. I carried her, she couldn’t walk, to my car, put her in my trunk, and took her to New York’s amazing Animal Medical Center on York Avenue in Manhattan. She weighed only thirty five pounds. I named her Miss Coney Island, and she remained with me for another eight years, living with me in the country, up in Ulster County, and growing to be a vigorous 110 pound Belgian Shepherd.
As my family’s last Coney Island Adventure came to a close, and we began to walk away from the glorious venue of my one and only para-experience, Alex Mechanic, who had come to my aid, and my salvation, enabling me to take that leap into the unknown for which I would forever own bragging rights, and who was walking just ahead with my father, suddenly stopped and turned around, slapping his hands together and rubbing them back and forth, looked right at me and said, “What do you say, young man? How about some lobster?”
© 2011 Shaun Costello