June 21 may be the official first day of summer, but everybody knows summer starts the day after the last day of school. Most schools are out by now- so let the fun begin! Today, summer for most families may mean a patchwork of day camps, classes, lessons, sleepaway camps – what’s a working parent to do? It doesn’t matter, because summer is still fun. But when I was growing up, while there might have been a week of day camp or vacation Bible school, summer was wide open for all-day play. And we took full advantage of the time.

In the St. Louis suburb where I grew up, we started off summer with a full-out joyous celebration of the season. The day after the last day of school, a Saturday, we had a school parade in the morning. Each class marched through the streets with students carrying hand-made banners, the high school marching band played, parents cheered, and I imagine the superintendent of schools rode in an open car and waved. I’m not sure about the last part because I was always too concerned with holding up my banner.

But the parade was just the prelude to an amazing day! After that, everyone in the school district was off to the local, much revered amusement park, the Forest Park Highlands, for the whole day. Families packed huge hampers of food and the parents and grandparents sat at picnic tables in a shady pavilion. BUT if you didn’t have a ride, or if you were too old for that nonsense – say Junior High or High School age – there were buses to take you there and pick you up.

The picnic area was  home base for us kids. We pretty much roamed freely with our friends (after a certain age) but regularly reported back to the family for more tickets, more cash, something to eat, something to drink, Sno-Cone money. The parents came along on some rides or for a trip to the Penny Arcade to play Ski-Ball (I loved that game – especially with my grandfather) or watch old Nickelodeons.

I don’t think it cost much and if you ran into a member of the school board or some other exalted person, he or she might just present you with a bounty of free ride tickets.

There were rides for really little kids at the front near the ticket booths. I don’t recall ever riding those.










I usually hit the Bobsleds first since it was near the front of the park. Fun but short – it left you wanting more. Next to that were the bumper cars . I waited until later to ride that. I remember “driving” my grandmother on that ride. She was completely unruffled throughout the ordeal. Grandma didn’t drive, so other people’s bad driving didn’t bother her.

A little farther in was the Ferris Wheel – oh the joy of getting stopped at the top, especially if there were cute boys or even non-cute boys involved – and the Tilt-A-Whirl was always a favorite. I think my mom liked that because I remember riding with her. And there were the airplanes – always an exciting choice.

There were also two “fun houses” – one riding and one walking. I don’t remember much about the riding one – it was on water, a traditional Tunnel of Love.

But I’ll never forget the walking one. Outside, there was a mechanical laughing clown straight out of a horror film. Just as you were about to go in – there he was, laughing hysterically at your foolishness at thinking you could possibly endure the horrors awaiting you. For several years running, I actually got to the door with my ticket, and changed my mind, turning back. I was a coward, but at least I was alive.

Eventually, however, I made it – thanks to my neighbor, Joel. Just mentioning Joel and his two brothers, Dave and Jim, brings up a world of memories. They lived two houses up the street from us and our families were the very best of friends. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that they are like brothers to my sister, Janet, and me.

Joel is the oldest. Dave is close to my sister’s age and Jim is a tiny bit younger than I was. He was  my best friend as a child. They didn’t even go to our school – they went to Lutheran school. But they came along (just as we were included in many of their family and school events) – thank goodness.

I vividly recall what  was probably my third year of chickening out. Once again,  I reached the laughing clown. My stomach churns just thinking about him.

I really wanted to go inside but once again, I froze. What to do? Walk past the clown and face unimaginable terrors? Or admit to being a coward once again?

“Here, just hold on to my belt and follow me,” Joel said.

I don’t think I’ve ever been given a more generous gift, because I REALLY wanted to walk through the fun house. I closed my eyes to shut out the clown, grabbed onto Joel’s belt and started walking.

The walking funhouse was classically cheesy. The 1950s effects were definitely less than special. Some mildly threatening neon faces and ghosts lit up along the walls. At the end was one of those rooms where you’re all off-balance and gravity-challenged. The whole fun house was a total piece of cake… but I was still tightly clutching Joel’s belt at the end.

I survived! It was a rite of passage! The laughing clown never bothered me again and soon I moved on to a much bigger challenge: the iconic Highlands roller coaster called The Comet.

—– to be continued!



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