By Tim Hayes
It came around every late May or early June. A day of deliverance. A day when school took a backseat, even though it fell on a school day. The annual school picnic.
In Pittsburgh during the 1960s and ‘70s, the public school districts held their annual picnics at Kennywood Park, an amusement park that survives today. But as for us heartier Catholic school kids, we got to go to West View Park – considered by some an inferior venue for rides and excitement, but those people were dead wrong.
West View Park admittedly did not have the size and scope of Kennywood, but for daredevil grade schoolers accustomed to dodging the 12-inch-ruler-powered knucklesmacks of passing nuns, West View had the much better roller coasters.
The Dips, for one. An ancient wooden coaster on a simple straight down-and-back route, the Dips had a first hill that set you up for a hair-raising ride that included at least eight more high-speed, up-and-down mini-hills. Maybe it was 10. Or 30. All I know is that the line to get on the Dips was worth every second.
Then you had the Racing Whippet, a double-track coaster that lived up to its name. Taunts got lobbed over to the kids on the other train before the ride began. Trash-talk before anybody knew what trash-talk was. When one side pulled into the station before the other, dares and double-dares for rematches became fierce.
This was the school picnic, buddy. Bragging rights in class the next day up for grabs, you understand.
My many years of going to West View for the picnic as a kid created some interesting memories. Some really fun, others not so much. Like the time riding the enclosed Ferris Wheel.
I sat in one of those egg-shaped cars that you could make spin head-over-heels as the ride itself rotated in a giant circle. Please forgive my scientific shortcomings, but whether this was centripetal or centrifugal force at work, all I knew was that the kid across from me felt this would be a great time to toss his cookies all over that enclosed space.
As if being scrambled around like eggs in a blender hadn’t been enough of a rousing good time. Dodging semi-digested (and suddenly airborne) cotton candy and fried chicken, while simultaneously hanging on for dear life inside a revolving steel cage? Man, that is really living.
Of course, we had the year when my sister, bless her trusting and benevolent heart, left the day’s worth of ride tickets on a bench while she used the restroom. Now, you might think that in an amusement park crawling with hundreds of Catholic school pupils, those tickets would have remained undisturbed.
Well, you would be gravely mistaken. Some little thief grabbed those tickets and had him- or herself quite a day. They ain’t all altar boys out there, Father. As a result, I had to share some of my tickets with my sibling that day. Ah, the vicissitudes of the school picnic.
West View Park also marks the spot where I first held a girl’s hand. We were walking up to Boot Hill, a haunted house ride. Trying to maintain a sweaty and awkward rookie grip, I smoothly talked her out of going on that ride and picking something better – like the Caterpillar, where the big canvas covering came over you as you rode around and around the track. I never liked haunted houses anyway.
If you drive past the entrance of West View Park today, you’ll see a shopping center and some apartments. The place closed down in 1977, and Catholic kids felt a troubling disturbance in the Force. A huge pillar of our childhoods, gone.
But close your eyes, gang, and remember. There’s our teacher over there in her civilian clothes, walking with some guy and a couple little kids. Does she have a life away from our classroom? Look at Sister on the merry-go-round. Wow, she really can smile after all!
And put your hands up in the air as we hear the cars hook onto that chain, click-click-click-click, taking us up that huge hill, seconds from diving downward for the ride of our lives on those amazing Dips. Thanks, West View.
Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes