On Route One, in Saco Maine, just before you reach the border with Old Orchard Beach, there is a theme park. The last time I was there, Funtown had exploded from the small-time collection of carnival rides and amusements I grew up with to a multitude of attractions including New England’s largest wooden roller coaster, its own internal water park, a drop tower, and a full size go-cart course.
Of course, they still have my favorite ride, my first ever grown-up ride: The Astrosphere.
It is a hot summer evening in July, 1976 and I am ten years old. This is my family’s first trip to Funtown! I have in my hand the requisite four 25cent tickets for the ride that everyone has been talking about, and I am finally going make myself get on it. I turn the corner past the giant swings and there it is: the great white dome.
There is a long line that snakes around the monstrosity. Everyone is fidgeting, some smoking cigarettes, others sort of swaying to the occasional rumbling sounds that we can hear over the loud motor that blew hotter than the night air on us. One of the teenagers in front of me gestures at me to his friends, and then, laughing, offers me one of his Winstons. I turn him down. His friends laugh even harder, and the whole line moves closer to the huge black doors that hiss each time a group of people were allowed into the inner chamber.
After what seemed like hours, it is finally my turn, although I am stuck with the jerk teenagers. I try to get in front of them, but they push me even further to the back. We are all crowded into a dimly lit white corridor. I am glad I am short; everyone else has to lean over because the ceiling is slanted. I realize the room is shaped almost like an octagon. That is kind of neat. The music starts up again, so loud next to me that I can not hear anyone else talking. I hope this is not the whole ride, because it would be sort of a letdown.
The music finishes, and the other end of the tunnel we are in opens onto a huge, nearly pitch black room. A man with a small flashlight takes small groups of people off into the darkness. I decide to wait until last.
“The exit is over there,” he motions, jerking his thumb. I shake my head no and he pulls me into the room. Ahead of me I can barely make out a yellow monster dripping with green phosphor. The man turns off his flashlight and straps me into a single seat. “You hang on, and close you eyes if you get scared.” He leaves me there, in the dark.
The my chair begins to move below me, first up, and then forward, around and around. I recognize the ride; it is a Scrambler. What a gip! I got sick on one of these last month at Old Orchard. They are not scary, even riding one in pitch da-
There is some strange talking… I can not quite make it out. I listen more closely.
The music and the images start simultaneously.
Skulls look down on me. Centipedes slither across the inside of the dome. I want to look away but I can’t. Worms. Mice. Skeletons. I try to block it out with my hands and I slide all the way out to the end of the Scrambler seat. I am terrified. I can’t get out of the ride. The music is too loud. The pictures are scary. There are flashing lasers and strobe lights. The ride is too fast and all I want to do is …
Someone else is screaming.
The ride ends and I didn’t scream once. I didn’t close my eyes either.
I am looking for my dad. I know he will give me four more tickets if I ask him pretty please.
This ride no longer terrifies the adult me. I ride it every time I visit this amusement park. But now I let myself scream, just a little, to honor the little girl who was so scared the first time she rode it, but bravely didn’t make a sound.
I invite you to listen to Fire On High by the Electric Light Orchestra in this YouTube video. Turn the base up, while you are at it, and imagine you are ten years old, hearing this for the first time, alone, with scary monsters racing over your head…