Friday, January 15, 2010

Holiday Hill

clownchild

In that summer before I started elementary school, a family friend offered by mother a part-time position as a ride operator at Holiday Hill. My mother, as a rule, did not work out of the home and so this was something of a novelty for our family. And what child, even in his wildest fantasies, could dream of a spending the entire summer at a free amusement park?

My mother strictly refused to operate the larger rides. With her vivid imagination, she could envision young skulls cracked open like ill-treated melons, and could imagine the crisp sound of leg bones splintering. For this reason, she was dispatched to the "kiddie" rides.

Holiday Hill, when compared to the sprawling amusement parks that would be built a decade or two later, was a fairly tame establishment. A mini-train wormed it way around the park, barely faster than an elderly senior. The modest roller coaster didn't make one scream hysterically, but back then, we seemed to need less adrenalin in our daily lives. Being breathless and dazed was usually more than enough for the average person.

There was only one major ride that could compare to the "death stunts" that are standard amusement park fare today. "The Pile Driver" towered above mortals like two swinging blacksmith arms, calculated to rattle all your organs and gyrate your brains. Only my older brother was permitted to ride that.

A rink for Bump 'Em cars. That exciting smell of ozone and the flash of sparks at the ceiling suggested something dangerous was happening. The collisions, however, were never as exhilarating as they should have been. No matter how hard the impact and no matter how much suppressed hostility was expended by the blow, there was that embarrassing clumsy moment of trying to move off and change direction.

Not far from that was a small booth where the Spin-Art lady worked. She wore a Prussian blue smock, had flaming red hair in a bouffant, and smoked Camels. In a round basin, you could put a canvas on a shelf which, when activated, would furiously spin. Customers would splash tempera paints of various colors onto the canvas and the centrifugal force could create mysterious patterns. In the first weeks I was fairly intoxicated by the heavy scent of the tempera mixed with the sickeningly-sweet smell of cotton candy.

The House that Jack Built was a fun-house of sorts. Twisting hallways passed rooms sectioned off with chicken wire where normally inanimate objects would twitch and spasm. Built into floor were pads that triggered an effect when stepped on. As the unsuspecting visitor passed down the corridor, a face of Frankenstein or The Wolf man bathed in a yellowish light would suddenly appear. Admittedly, it wasn't much of a thrill but back then, the general tolerance level to shock was much lower than it is today.

I recall causing a small panic one summer afternoon when I decided that I'd stay at The House that Jack Built and live there. I had decided to claim land rights. Sitting myself down in the tilted maze area , I began to watch as visitors filed past. The strangest part, I quickly noticed, was that nobody stopped to ask me what I was doing there, or whether I needed any help finding my way out. The perplexed guests would stare down at me without comment. Perhaps they figured that I was some kind of effect that had malfunctioned.

That afternoon, I somehow lost track of time and when a frantic worker burst in and saw me there on the floor, I learned that the entire staff of Holiday Hill had been desperately searching for this dear lost child. My mother managed to contain herself admirably while we thanked all the searchers, but in the station wagon, her first words were "Don't you ever...EVER.."

Then there was the clown, Mr. BoBo. For a clown, he wore a very traditional costume. A bald wig with a tiny hat, very white face makeup, ruffles and pompom buttons, painted-on smile and the classic red nose. His ill-fitting outfit was held up with red suspenders which matched his floppy red shoes.

His act consisted of standing near the entrance and taking long sausage balloons and twisting them into shapes of poodle-dogs or snowmen. Chills would run up and down my spine at the squealing and squawking of the balloons as he feverishly twisted them back and forth.

I recall how I once tried to converse with him on a slow day but he would have none of it. Apparently he didn't like children all that much. Perhaps he just didn't like me. Perhaps it was this rejection that impelled me to hatch my plot.

It began innocently enough. I began asking my mother every day for a couple of coins and, although I had told her that this loose change was buying some candy or whatever, instead I tucked it away. You can see how focused on a particular mission I was.

My aim was the purchase of a transparent-green water gun. Bit by bit, I collected enough money and bought it. I had an intention and a target and I could not be stopped.

The day of my attack was a Friday. This, I am sure. It was mid-afternoon. Biding my time and lulling my prey with a false sense of security, I stood with my hands behind my back, pretending to be rapt with fascination as Bobo worked the crowd. Then, at a moment when he was focused on creating some balloon ballerina, I attacked, squirting him directly in the face. It was much more satisfying than I could ever have imagined. His shocked expression. The children leaning back in awe and mortification. A second in which the world and Time, itself stood absolutely still. And a second later, having taken in every last detail, I fled into the stunned crowd.

However, as I darted away, I felt a huge hand come down on my left shoulder. I was spun around and with a single movement, the squirt-gun was snatched from my hand. The clown's manatee face pressed near mine. His yellowish teeth churning and grinding. His bulging blistered eyes working hysterically. He turned the water gun on me and let me have it. This was, of course, something I had not anticipated. I was, in fact, too shocked to cry or cry out.

All I could do was to stand there, absolutely speechless. He then turned and walked away, up the grade toward the mobile home. (A angry clown stomping off into the sunset is a very impressive scene for a sensitive child.) In my mind, I can still see the little tufts of dust that rose up from his flopping shoes. I expected him to return with his balloons the next day. But, to my disappointment, he did not come the next day nor ever again. As the weeks passed with no sign of Mr. BoBo, I became quite repentant and remorseful.

Of course, who would have ever thought a clown would be so sensitive and- well, humorless?

8 comments:

  1. That was a great story! I felt like I was there, holding the squirt gun, looking into the eyes of the clown!

    I love reading your stories, you have incredible writing skills!
    I feel like such a blogger junior, LOL!

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  2. Thanks, man. You made my day.

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  3. I just read your Holiday Hill article. I too grew up going to 'The Hill'. My family owned rides there, my mom ran the ticket booth and my grandmother was the Spin Paint Lady! Your description of her is spot on EXCEPT the Camels. She didn't smoke! I spent many summers there riding the rides for free and playing lots of Ski Ball. It was a great place.

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  4. Remarkable. Thanks so much. So for the sake of honesty, I should change that smoking reference. No slander intended. (I was about 5 and quite honestly I was relying only on that fragment of memory.. so I hope I am forgiven)

    I wonder if you or your mother would remember my mother. Do you recall The House That Jack Built?

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  5. You know, thinking back, there was a booth behind the Spin Paint that sold all the novelities, probably your squirt gun. The lady that ran it also had very red hair, her name was Marie and SHE smoked! I bet that is what you are remembering. My mom and grandmother are both deceased so I can't ask them about your Mom. My uncle also worked there so I will ask him.

    I was contacted by a guy that I met on an amusement park web site that wants to write an article about Holiday Hill. I got in touch with some old friends of the family that also worked there and they led me to your article. I will ask them if the remember your mom also. Is she still living?

    Boy do I remember the House that Jack Built - I was always scared to go in.

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  6. I haven't been back in.. something like 25 or more years. My parents are also both gone. So many things I would ask them now.
    As you go around asking about Holiday Hill, I do hope you don't run into a disgruntled retired clown. :)

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  7. Home movie footage of Holiday Hill Amusement Park (Near Lambert Int'l Airport, St. Louis, Missouri) from the Summer of 1968:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TCb-fZXqJY

    No flouting of copyright intended--just trying to make a connection betwixt your work on this site and the movie makers.

    My grade school held class picnics at HH, the old Highlands Park, just south of Forest Park, and the old Chain of Rocks Amusement Park just south of the MO/MS Confluence. (If I remember correctly, it used to be the Ferris wheel at CoR was the only public view of the Confluence during my childhood.)

    Salt

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  8. Thanks so much,Salt. I changed my post background color and hadn't realized it left my post in a snow bank. :)

    I checked out that clip and WOW! Thank you so much for it It was taken a few years after I was there I suppose because I must have been only about 5 or so. I admit thought I was searching myself or my mother in those home movies. It's amazing how it looked the same as I recalled. Come back and stay awhile, Salt.

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