Friday, August 2, 2013

Time Marches On

The paved bicycle trail along the Des Moines River was a beautiful ride. We had just moved to Des Moines from the Iowa City area. Bicycling was something that we enjoyed as a family with our three boys. At the time, they ranged in age from eleven to seventeen years old.

It was early fall. The summer humidity had ended and air was fresh and crisp. The leaves of the trees had not started to turn yet.

Aerial view of Riverview site 2008
There was something vaguely familiar to me about this area along the river. Then a flood of childhood memories deluged me with a stirring mix of emotions. I stopped and stared at the skeletal remains of the site of childhood memories.

“What are you looking at, Dad?”

“I’m looking at what is left of good times from thirty-plus years ago.”

“What do mean? That just looks like a junk yard.”

My son couldn't identify the remains of a merry-go-round long since fallen off of its axis and torched by vandals. He couldn't see what I could see. He didn't have the video to playback that I had in my memories.

* * * * *

As our new red and black 1956 Ford crossed the over the bridge, my sister and I came to life after our one hour long ride to get to Des Moines. The sign over the entrance read RIVERVIEW. We couldn't read but we were familiar with the sights and the sounds of the park. A motorboat sped by under the bridge. Speedboats were one of the amusement park rides at Riverview.

This was a big day for me because I was five-years-old now. The rules of the park required that children must be, at least, five-years-old to ride the huge roller coaster. The frame of the roller coaster track was visible from the gate as my dad drove through.

Just inside the gate to the left were the kiddies rides consisting of the merry-go-round, pony rides and a train that circled the park. Had we turned to the right we would have come to the bumper cars and games of most amusements parks and carnival midways. None of that drew my attention on this day. I was going to the big time because I was five.

We passed the Rock-O-Plane where Dad had, many times, delighted himself in scaring the wits out of my sister and me by locking the caged compartment to turn us on our heads. Then he would unlock the arm to throw us forward and staring directly at the ground coming up at us as the ride circled back toward the ground.

Aerial View Riverview in 1954
We passed other rides that we had been on before but they held no thrill for me today. The mirrored funhouse was kid stuff to this five-year-old. A young man was picking up the big mallet to show off to his girlfriend. I would not have heard the bell if he had been able to ring it. I could see the ticket counter for the roller coaster now.

The hulking wooden structure loomed high over all of the other attractions. It was all painted white and trimmed in red. The red-lettered sign over the ramped entrance to the boarding platform displayed the ride’s simple but apt name of COASTER.

The ticket seller sat on a raised platform behind her window to put her at eye level with standing customers. She was a pudgy-faced woman with red cheeks who didn’t smile. When my father asked for two tickets, the woman took notice of my baby sister in my mother’s arms, my sister, who was a year younger than me, and me.

“Who is riding?”

“My boy and I,” my father told her.

“He’s too small.”

She made a show of leaning forward to look down at me. My heart sank. I was on the verge of crying. The anticipation of riding the roller coaster with my Dad was going to overwhelm me if I couldn’t ride now. What was even worse, as soon as I started crying my dad would “give me something to bawl about.”

In contemporary times super moms drive mini-vans or SUVs with soccer balls and stick families on the rear window. They take work careers outside of the home while still taking care of the home. One has to wonder how contemporary super moms sustain the energy required to do all of these things.

 In 1956, super moms were she-bears that roared if you messed with their cubs. The she-bear would cuff those cubs hard enough to roll them across the room and tell them, “No, because I said so.”  If anyone else even looked at the cubs cross-eyed, however, they were certain to suffer the she-bear’s wrath of pent-up energy.

I don’t remember exactly what my mother said to that ticket seller and, if I did, it probably wouldn't be suitable for print anyway. All that I know is I had my father’s hand and we were running up the ramp to board the roller coaster.

We boarded the roller coaster about midway in the train of cars. My adrenaline flow was nearing toxic levels at the sound of the tunk, tunk, tunk as the coaster climbed to the first and steepest peak. When the coaster cleared the peak it was an unimaginable thrill for me to hurl down other side. My dad watched my face with delight.

The next peaks, though not as high as the first, were almost as fun. We finished through the smaller hills and curves until the ride ended with the operator braking the coaster at the platform. I was on top of the world as went through every detail of the ride with my mother and sister.

Before the day was over at Riverview I had two more rides on the roller coaster with my dad. We went once in the front car so that I could see the blur of the tracks disappearing beneath us and feel the weight of the train behind us. Last, we went in the back car to feel the whip effect of the train’s weight on the last car over the hill. We did other things at Riverview on that day but the only thing that mattered was riding that roller coaster because I was five-years-old.

* * * * *

“Dad, are we going to go now?”

The lights, sounds and smells of Riverview faded and were replaced by the reality of time passed by as my eyes refocused on the charred and rusted remnants in the weeds below the asphalt bicycle trail.

“Do you remember the section of Adventureland called Riverview?”

The boys only had vague memory of what I was talking about. In 1978 the new Adventureland Amusement Park opened a roller coaster that they called the Tornado. It was, at the time, the largest wooden frame coaster ever built and one of the top ten coaster rides in the world.

The boys knew of the Tornado and other coaster rides that were added to Adventureland in the later years but Riverview, which was closed in 1978, had not made an imprint on them. In 1978 the oldest of them would have been able to ride the roller coaster at Riverview, had it still existed.

The owners of the modern Adventureland Park, built within view of Interstate Highway 80, bought Riverview with intentions of keeping it operational. Its ancient urban location and lack of modern rides to compete with the newer park made it impractical. Sixty-three years of family fun at Riverview Park ended in 1978. The consolation prize was a Riverview Park section at Adventureland Park but the Roller Coaster was gone forever.

I threw my leg over my bicycle and looked away from the remnants of Riverview and to my boys.

“Let’s ride!”

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