Tucked into a quiet corner of Pennsylvania lies what used to be a gem, a treasure, a fun-filled and exciting destination for so many Western Pennsylvanians and Eastern Ohioans that throughout its long lifetime it has evolved into an iconic symbol of the natural beauty and majesty of Northwestern Pennsylvania. That historic, shiny, colorful, noisy, sometimes messy, but always extraordinary place was Conneaut Lake Park.
I say “was” because the last time I drove past the park, it was a shadow of its former self. The Blue Streak was still there, but little else recognizable remains, or rather, little else was visible from Route 618 the last time I drove past. In my youth, driving through the park with the radio on CKLW (800 on your AM dial) was a summertime Friday night ritual—the late 70s version of cruising. And, yep, I was quite the badass in my dad’s 1975 red and white Ford Maverick, later traded in for a 1977 beige Maverick—and when I say beige, I mean the ugliest shade of beige on the planet. Think oatmeal.
Never mind that the boy I was chasing at the time drove a black Trans-Am like Smokey’s and the boyfriend I was supposed to be going with had jacked up the back end of his car, added chrome wheel covers, and attached some gadget to the exhaust that made it loud when you revved it.
We were young.
Before that, I remember boogie nights (not those kinds of boogie nights) in the Dreamland Ballroom dancing to Les Wheeler’s collection of Donna Summer, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Gloria Gaynor, and the ever-popular Commodores. The disco ball rotating in the center of the dance hall’s ceiling illuminated a floor full of giggling girls only because the boys were too cool to get up and join us—maybe because they were only 13 or 14 and girls, to them, still had cooties.
But the Conneaut Lake Park that I remember best, and the Conneaut Lake Park that I long to see again was the Conneaut Lake Park that sponsored Ride-a-Rama every spring. Ride-a-Rama meant that you bought a bracelet—the kind that could only be fastened to one’s wrist by an adult and would never come off, ever—that granted its wearer unlimited turns on any of the parks thrilling rides—from the Tilt-a-Whirl to the Blue Streak (even though only babies rode the Tilt-a-Whirl). But you could only ride the Blue Streak if you were a) this tall, and b) courageous enough to do it “hands-free”.
As kids, we lived for each spring’s Ride-a-Rama.
My mother died unexpectedly in the early morning hours of Friday, May 10, 1974. Later that morning, as my father sat in a stupor and my brother and sister lay crying quietly in their rooms, I watched as one of my mother’s friends swept through the house, readying it for the company that would soon be coming in from out of town. She began by cleaning out the refrigerator to make way for all of the beige, oatmeal-colored casseroles and Jello desserts that would soon be arriving, and then she proceeded to clear out my parents’ bedroom of any trace of my mother—her clothes, jewelry, shoes, accessories—of which there were many—and perfume (the 17 full bottles of Chanel No. 5 she never wore and the nearly empty bottle of White Shoulders she always did).
She also snagged my Ride-a-Rama bracelet for the next day’s event, purchased well before our family had any inkling of how our hearts would be destroyed by the gut-wrenching pain of losing a wife and mother. Mum’s friend told my dad that since I wouldn’t be needing the Ride-a-Rama bracelet that she’d take it into town and sell it.
Thankfully, in a gesture that has been long remembered and has endeared her to me forever, another one of Mum’s friends, Mrs. Ferraino, bought back the Ride-a-Rama bracelet for me, just like a young bride’s wedding ring that was hawked the day before and sat bereft and all alone in a pawn shop window. Having four children of her own, she knew that the next day’s Ride-a-Rama at Conneaut Lake Park— that seemingly endless day of being loose in the park with your friends and riding every ride as many times as you wanted—was exactly what this little eleven year-old girl needed to soothe her aching heart.
So for a few short hours on Saturday, May 11, 1974, I was able to table my grief, if only for a little while, be outside on a warm, sun-kissed spring morning with two dollars in the pocket of my jean shorts, run around like a wound-up maniac with my fifth grade friends, and for a little while pretend that I was just like them—that in the late afternoon I’d be going home and my mother would be waiting there to ask me about how much fun I had at the park.
And that’s my best, my very best memory of Conneaut Lake Park. It is a memory, a snapshot, if you will, of what I hope the park may yet become.