It opened in 1910. It sat on a narrow peninsula that jutted into Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey. Originally a bathing beach, it soon added rides and amusements and expanded over the years. It lasted seventy years, finally closing in 1983 and the land was developed into townhouses. It had a bit part in Woody Allens Purple Rose of Cairo in 1985 and to watch it deserted and alone was painful. It had a distinct personality catering as it did to the middle class vacationers and homeowners that surrounded the lake. The people that frequented the park were laborers, store owners, desperate for a few hours of entertainment and release; an evenings escape from their hard working everyday lives. And of course there were the teenagers from the local High Schools out on a cheap date, waiting in lines for the Lost River or the Spook House, desperate to spend a few moments in the darkness with their dates. The place smelled of cotton candy, lake water and young sex; of rotting wood, of grilled sausage and cheap perfume; of lost dreams and the promises of second chances, of summer itself and the inevitable end of innocence; all the scents of life in Hopatcong in the 1960’s. It was a trip no less hallucinogenic than what we were to discover in another decade. It invited you in and stayed with you after you left; for a week, a month, the season, a lifetime. There isn’t a Saturday night in the summertime I don’t think about it, hoping it still exists somewhere in another dimension of time; it was simply too special to cease to be.
Don, Mom and I would stay at the house in Hopatcong the whole of July and August. Dad would spend the first two weeks of his vacation with us and then come on weekends to be with us. And there wasn’t a week that went by that Don and I didn’t whisper our hope to each other that maybe this Saturday, when Dad came with the car, maybe, just maybe we would get to go to Bertrand Island. We knew that Dad would be busy all day with chores around the house, but maybe after a dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, he wouldn’t be too tired to spend a few hours in fantasy land.
We would sit at the table as Mom cleared the dishes, and Dad sighed contentedly having polished off seconds of everything, kicking each other under the table, anxious, not wanting to just come out and beg, but to let it be Dad’s idea. And there were those Saturdays when he was too tired and we certainly understood, but then there were the ones when he sat back and looked at the both of us and he would say:
“What do you think boys? Want to go to Bertrand Island tonight?” and we would scream our approval. He would smile that smile; he knew he had scored big time on the super cool Dad meter.
We would pile into the Desoto or the Rambler and off we went. The entrance was off a road that circled the lake. We passed suburban homes and bungaloes, and then off to the left, a small road intersected, a big gateway entrance sign telling us we had arrived. We would go down the small road which ended at a parking lot directly behind the old wooden roller coaster; we would hear the screams of the riders get louder as we approached. We would park, Mom would check that we all had jackets or sweaters in case the night turned cooler, and we would enter the brightly lit gates. Don and I of course would already be having a serious discussion of what rides we should go on first, what should be last, which ones Mom would go on with us, which ones she wouldn’t, what did we want as a treat? Cotton Candy? Nah. Roasted peanuts? Maybe. Smooth ice cream with sprinkles? Bingo!
For the most part, Dad and Mom waited as we went on the rides, Mom being sure to tell Don for the three hundredth time to watch out for me, and not to let anything happen to me. I wasn’t sure what dangers there were, but Don always assured her he wouldn’t let me out of his sight, and he never did. And then, the rides. The Lost River was one of our favorites; basically a Flume ride, where you sat in a row boat attached to an underwater track that plunged you into the darkness of a wooden tunnel. On one side of the boats there were little dioramas that were, I guess supposed to frighten you or at least make you feel you were on a boat on the Amazon; there were a lot of headhunter scenes. Even at my young age, we all were too cool to be taken in by those little affects, but it was pretty atmospheric to be on a boat on the water in the dark as it made it slow ascent to the top of the ride. Of course most of the boats were filled with those High School teenagers making out, not caring a bit about any ambiance besides darkness. I always felt a little bad for my big brother, just having me as his companion; I am sure he would have wanted to be with one of those girls with the long blonde hair wearing nothing more than a skimpy bikini, but he always was a good brother, so if he was disappointed, he never let on. Predictably, the boat came out into the night sky, leaving the tunnel behind as it was about ready to plunge down into the lake water and drench us all. And it did. And we loved it.
There was a Spook House with its pretty lame attempts at scaring us. There was hanging rope that would graze your face in the dark, I guess meant to feel like a spider web; a cackling witch, a dapper Satan; after one time on the ride, you knew when everything was going to happen so it became more of a “well we have to go on the Spook House ride… I mean.. we’re here aren’t we?” than a real frightening ride.
One of the most unique and interesting amusements to me was a variation on the old three balls for a quarter to knock down milk cans challenge. This one, instead of stacked milk cans was a bit more surreal. Sure you still got three balls for a quarter but you stood in front of a cheap set of doorways, and mannequins on tracks would be moving quickly in and out of the doorways, wearing hats. You got it. The idea was to knock the hats off the mannequins as they moved in and out of the darkness. Pretty cool, and hard to do. But it had the added quirk of having each of the mannequins named, and designed to resemble the most obvious of ethnic stereotypes. There was Big Red, an Irishman with stunning red hair painted on, Luigi the Italian with his bushy mustache and paunch, and of course given the times there was Leroy, the black mannequin with a frizzy Afro and huge lips. Looking back on it, I would never patronize such a thing now, but then…well I guess it was unfortunately the norm. And given the clientele from towns like nearby Sparta where they once had a KKK rally, you can guess which mannequin was the target of the crowds more often than not. Shameful I know, yet a snapshot of our society at a given time.
Anyway, Don of course was the pitcher in the family and he would religiously smack down his quarter for a shot at knocking the hats off these dummies as they sped around in front of him. Most times he left frustrated as the game was probably rigged like a lot of barker attractions were. He would hit the hat squarely and it would stay on the dummy’s head as if it weren’t just wailed on with a baseball. But being Don, he never gave up and one Saturday night he again smacked down his quarter and confidently gathering his three baseballs. There were plenty of others around him, throwing drunkenly at the moving figures. Don stood there calmly measuring the timing, and when Big Red came out of a doorway, he did a Sandy Koufax and launched a fastball the envy of any major league coach. The thing was so perfectly timed and aimed that it hit its target dead on. But what Don had figured out after countless times of being cheated was to change the rules a bit. He didn’t aim for the hat, but for the dummy’s head itself. There was an audible crack as the baseball came into contact with the wooden head. It was thrown with such strength and power it spun the wooden head around sending the hat it wore flying off into the darkness beyond. The crowd erupted in cheers; I stood in awe (and of course full of pride), as the barker looked dumbfounded at what had just happened. He knew the game was up. Everyone who saw “the pitch”, as it became to be known, would now aim not at the hats but at the heads of the mannequins; the fix was no longer in. Don won some stuffed something that night for his feat, but that was just dressing. The real win was beating the system and throwing a perfect pitch. To any kid who loves baseball, that is the Holy Grail. And my big brother did it. Dad was clapping, Mom was dabbing her eyes, I was just content to re-live the moment in my mind. A perfect throw. Wow.
They had to stop the action for a moment as they re-attached the dummy’s head and glued the hat back on, but it was all different after that. Small town history had been made, and we had made a mark on Bertrand Island history.
The night of the perfect pitch.
And the reasonfor the large split in Big Red’s wooden head. I always imagined after that, a customer would question what was with the broken head, and there would be someone there who would say “you mean you don’t know about the night of the perfect throw?” and on it would go into Lake Hopatcong lore.
Maybe. Maybe not. Didn’t matter really. We were there that night.We saw it.
Years later, when visiting Dad one time at the house, Les and I stopped by Bertrand Island on the way home to Brooklyn. It was closed down by then, but still there. I parked the car and we walked up to the fence with its No Admittance signs. I pointed out the rides and the food stands to Les, and we spent the better part of an hour there. There is nothing as haunting as an abandoned Amusement Park. But my memories were locked in there, behind that wire fence, and I rambled on about the food, the crowds, the rides, the dummies with the hats on. I didn’t want to leave because I knew the next time I came it would be all gone, and indeed when we went back a year later it was. Construction was underway for the condos to be built there, and everything had been razed to the ground. Just dust remained. As I turned the car around that second time and headed back to the river road for the trip back home, I hit the brakes, certain that I had heard the roar of a rollercoaster, the screams of a happy crowd, and the distinct cracking sound of a perfectly thrown baseball hitting solid wood.
Les didn’t hear a thing. I knew she wouldn’t. I knew it was only in my mind. And that is where it would stay.
There and in my heart and memory to this very day.