Steve Jaeger takes you back to his last summer in Coney Island, when he was finally tall enough to ride the Parachute Jump.
When I was a boy, the highlight of my year was our annual late summer trip to Coney Island for my birthday. I can still remember the sights and sounds of the place fifty years on. You could smell the cotton candy and hot dogs a half mile away from the big seaside park. My family had a long connection with the place. My grandfather had been a mounted New York cop and one of his early beats was at the park. I have a picture of him on his horse on Ocean Parkway which was not paved. My mother was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn overlooking the Island and she remembered going with her grandmother for hot dogs at Nathan’s when she was a tiny young girl, probably around 1920. I had pictures of her and my father in the early days of their marriage on the beach there. By the time I came along the beach was so crowded with people you couldn’t see the sand.
We’d make all the stops, Steeplechase, the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone, the rickety old wooden rollercoaster. One thing I could never get on though was the Parachute Jump, a tall red structure moved there at the end of the 1939 World’s Fair. There was a wooden cut-out of a clown holding a yard stick and every year I would rush up to it hoping I’d grown enough over the past twelve months to get on that ride and every year I’d leave disappointed. I could go on all the rides in Steeplechase, the massive indoor amusement park that had been standing for more than fifty years. Inside there were amazing rides. A huge wooden slide where you sat on a straw mat to keep you from getting a friction burn on your way down. The slide emptied into a huge wooden bowl where people crashed into one and other. There were the mechanical iron horses that ran around the outside of the building giving the place its name. As you exited from the ride you had to walk out onto a moving floor where the hand rails had a slight electrical charge running through them. When you got to the end a large fan under the floor would blow up the ladies dresses and there was a demonic looking dwarf dressed as a clown who shocked you with a low volt cattle prod. Today there would be lawsuits galore but back then everyone just laughed about it. The prospect of walking out of that dark wooden corridor both terrified and thrilled me.
Finally in the summer of 1964 I made the cut, I was big enough to ride the Parachute Jump. My best friend Richard was along and as we moved up the line we could not stop laughing and joking as to who would be the first one to chicken out, a huge mark of shame in our crowd. We got to the front of the line and a skinny weather-beaten old guy who smelled like an ashtray hoisted us up on the seat which looked like a padded park bench. He strung us in with a cloth belt that was made for much bigger people than a couple of grade school kids and with a jerk the benches started rising. Richard and I were crossing ourselves like we were at mass as we got higher and higher. We rose to about two hundred feet and then just sat there. You could see over the entire park, out over Brooklyn and way out into the Atlantic. Then without warning the seats dropped. Richard and I may have screamed but we were drowned out by the women on the ride. I was holding on to the side rails of the bench with my stomach pushed up into my throat. We were falling faster and faster when the chute above us deployed and with another upward jerk the bench slowed and began to drift slowly downwards. I noticed then that the only thing keeping us from drifting out to sea were a couple of thin guide wires.
The bench bounced down onto springs and Richard and I hopped off and made our way to the exit. My mother and father were waiting for us. My mom asked if we had been terrified and my old man was laughing saying we were as white as the parachutes. We made our way down the boardwalk where I was thrilled to go to a shooting gallery that had Thompson sub machine guns that fired a clip of beebees at a paper target. We went to Nathans, played some more boardwalk games and went home. Sadly it was the last time I’d ever go to Coney Island but I did not know it at the time. The following year I asked my mother when we were going and she said we’ go somewhere else, maybe Palisades Amusement Park over in Jersey. She told me the Steeplechase had shut down and they were concerned about race riots (whatever they were). I’ve been to amusement parks since but nothing has ever measured up to that amazing place at the edge of Brooklyn. I still see pictures of the boardwalk with the Parachute Jump rising up into the sky but it hasn’t run in decades. I can close my eyes and still feel that bench rising up into the summer sky and looking out into the vast Atlantic ocean. I’ll never forget that day.
Image credit: Kristine Paulus/Flickr