The first time I saw the Pike, my eyes must have been as big as fifty-cent pieces. My mother, my sister, and I had traveled by train all the way from Huron, South Dakota, and I could still hear the clickety-clack of the rails in my head. My red-headed Aunt Edith was full of surprises, and California offered many delights for a twelve-year-old boy. Drive-ins, fishing off the pier, and wax museums were great, but nothing could compare with the Pike.
The Pike was an amusement park in Long Beach, California, located right on the Pacific Ocean. One entrance to the Pike was in front of the Fun House, and a large fat lady was high in the air atop this colorful building. She laughed so loud you could hear her all the way down the Pike, and she continued as long as the neon lights were blazing.
Souvenir shops, food booths and saltwater taffy stands lined the street. I could not get enough of the taffy, and my favorite food was the giant shrimp-on-a-stick with hot sauce. There were rides in all shapes and sizes for all ages, but the one that fascinated me and dominated the skyline was the roller coaster that went out over the ocean. My Aunt questioned me about being sure I wanted to ride it. I told her I didn't want to go home until I road that mammoth beast. I got in the front of the first car and felt the jerk as we started up the steep grade to the first drop. Suddenly we were on our way! I remember thinking, "It's a lot higher and faster than it looked from below!" I was holding on for dear life as the car rolled around the twists and turns and back up for another drop to pick up speed. I was wishing my Aunt had grilled me a little more about wanting to ride, when the car finally came to a stop. I walked over to my family group, and my Aunt inquired, "How was it?" In my bravest voice I replied, "Nothing to it." When I returned to South Dakota, I was able to tell my friends all about the Pike and my thrill-ride on that huge roller coaster.
My next encounter with the Pike was a few years later when I was a sailor stationed on a ship home ported in Long Beach, California. I paid my Aunt Edith a visit as soon as I arrived in town, and her advice to me was to stay away from the Pike with its bars and painted ladies. I thought it was funny I hadn't noticed them my first trip. I couldn't wait to get back there to see what I had missed when I was a kid.
A bar called Hollywood on the Pike became one of my favorite haunts. It was one of the few bars that played country music in the 50's.The painted ladies found it as much fun as I did, and I found that when the paint was removed, most of the ladies were really just down-home girls. I met a girl from North Dakota one night and asked her if she wanted to go get some shrimp-on-a-stick. She replied she would love to. We had just gotten our treat, and I was thinking how much better she looked in the dark bar, when she looked toward the roller coaster and gasped. I turned and saw a flash of white as she cried, "A sailor just fell off the roller coaster!" We tried to make our way, along with crowd, toward what we knew was a tragic death, but were pushed and shoved enough that we gave up and went back to the bar. The next day, The Long Beach Press confirmed what I already knew. The young sailor had been killed in the fall.
I was stationed in San Pedro, California several years later, and on my daughter's sixth birthday I decided there was no better place to celebrate than at The Pike in Long Beach, California. We had ridden on several kiddy rides when Michelle pointed at the roller coaster and said, "Dad, I want to go on that!" I hesitated but then thought, "Why not?" We climbed aboard. She and I laughed and hollered the whole ride. Thanks Michelle for exchanging a bad memory for a pleasant one.
©2002 Maurice Karst
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