There were a number of things on the road leading down to the river there in Sellwood. Old wooden buildings that had held boat building works and immense empty warehouses that had once held ice cut from the frozen river in wintertime. An old sawmill was falling to ruin on the left, and the blackberry was clawing it down into damp and rust and ruin. Here the drive split, and on a little grassy traffic island in the middle stood a small cupcake of a chapel that had been floated there from upriver, a popular wedding venue, perfectly maintained. To the left was the boat ramp. And finally, to the right was the entrance to a place I knew well and loved.
First you entered a huge gravelled lot, and in the center was the concrete and glass-block building that housed Radio KWJJ, topped by a tall, tall tower that was guyed to the hillside and the grounds. It was sea green and shed roofed, a product of the nineteen forties, and was an on-again off-again outfit. It’s last incarnation had been Country Western and news. Now it stood empty, waiting for someone to come along and plug it back in. That might never happen, though.
The legend ran, a dj had broken up with his girlfriend. He went on the air and said “This one’s for you,sweetheart,” and put the record ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’. It played all night long. Over and over. When the morning newscaster came in, he found the dj hanging from the overhead pipes in the sound room, dead and staring. He was still there, too, haunting the place so insistently that nobody would agree to take the night shift. That was the story. They said it’s why the station went out of business. When I was a kid I would peek in the window from our car, wanting to see a ghost.
All the way around the gravelled lot ran a white picket fence. Behind that fence were small yards, shrubs, and small hip-roofed houses, a little neighborhood set back in the trees. It was strictly off limits. There were No Trespassing and Do Not Disturb signs posted. At one time, it was where the park staff lived full time. Now it was overgrown and the few folks who you saw in their yards didn't look very friendly.
Up ahead was the parking lot, and now you were facing a grove of immense oak trees. Huge oak trees with straight trunks and broad, spreading canopies and a lawn beneath it all. There were roses, walkways made of brick and all around the borders of that center lawn were placed little lattice niches, set into a surrounding hedge of laurel, rose and hydrangeas. They were enchanting places. Imagine a restaurant booth, a semicircle of a seat with a central table.. That was the general arrangement. But these were framed, roofed and gated with lath lattice and woven withes and Victorian gingerbread ornaments, and at the back a special figure made of incredibly wrought wood. One niche would be a rustic fantasy, all natural wood found on the riverbank, with smooth irregularities formed to join into curious shapes. Another would be a lathwork Eastern pavillion with a balloon roof capped with a little finial, like a small Taj Mahal. The next would be a fairyland, and the ornaments would be bees, butterflies, and in back, perhaps a large, beautiful dragonfly, all picked out like lace. One I remember was a spiders’ niche. All the sides were made of joined small webs. It was so very, very Victorian you could imagine the women in their morning glory dresses and piled-up hair, shirtwaists and plumed hats, the gentlemen with their bowler hats and canes, the children running and playing.
In the central lawn among the trees were other picnic areas dotted around, full pavilions open on the sides, big enough for eight people to sit around a table. Each one wore a different type of roof. An onion dome, a steep, Munchkinland eight-sided peak, a round shallow cone like a Chinese hat, one that rose in a half twist, the shingles spiralling up to the central peak.
I remember the big bandstand in the very center. It was open on all sides. If you’ve ever seen an Andy Hardy movie, you’ve seen this octagonal building, a raised, roofed open space where bands would play. Sousa had played here. So had Glen Miller.
There were bronze cast water fountains here and there that looked like stumps with vines clambering on them. Each one had a small basin at the base so that dogs and birds could have a drink too.
And now we come to the midway. The bally games were first, and they were amazing places - and they were all closed, silent, dark, no more. Just peculiar fantasies and quaint lettering, faded colors and strange faces and huge glass gems and curious shapes. Each building was finished in the same Victorian attention to silly, beautiful details, and it was all worn now, dimming, paint peeling, green shingles blowing away.
To walk through that lane of closed games was pure romance. Pure romance. In the evening bats would fly in and out of small gaps, wherever they could find, and it was deliciously scary, a cold draught of mystery blowing past, the rich smell of the river, the sweet smell of the blackberries.
Next came the old mechanical rides, the simp twisters, and they all belonged in a museum. I thought they were absolutely the last word in everything creepy and mechanical, with gold leaf and scrolls and pinstriping, all hand done, all fading. Vignettes and medallions and triumphs wherever such a thing could be painted or cast, like old circus wagons. Each one housed vast engines and creaking metal swivels, cotters, hinges, joints, gears, chains and spars. They rattled when the wind blew. In motion they were all chasing lights and spinning, play-dangerous motion, graceful and swift, scary and breathtaking. Your peculiar, ancient craft would go about swinging and bobbing, with sudden halts, fast drops, screeches of metal on metal, sudden huge bursts of steam, the enormous hiss of a valve opening, the rattle, groan, and jounce of metal on worn metal. Each ride, each engine, each one had its own canvas hose, and those hoses ran down to the river. Steam powered carnival rides, ladies and gentlemen. Imagine it.
One ride topped them all, and I’ve the only place I’ve ever seen anything like it was in an old, old silent movie. This ride was called The Caterpillar. This is its’ story.
The sign that crowned the entrance to the ride showed a nicely rendered, Winsor McCay - style cartoon caterpillar with black shoes and spats. The front of him was reared up, and he wore six pairs of neat white gloves, waving to you, gesturing for you to please, come in. He wore a starched collar, a monocle and a top hat, had a wide, friendly face, and it was all a lie. Mr. Caterpillar was going to make sure you never forgot his caterpillar ass.
Look at it. You have a large round track, and it takes dips and hills, some abrupt, some sweeping, some caster and some camber. The track is made out of strips of hardwood, polished by use. It’s about as wide as a standard lane on a road. Hanging down from that track all around the outside is, of all things, a curtain. swags of fabric, like a skirt. So you have a broad, round road with a flounced skirt on, OK?
In the center of this circle of wooden track a metal mast rose up. It was bevelled, pinstriped, painted, turned and ornamented; and about as round as a steel drum. Triangles of metal bar and pistons reached out from this mast, one triangle to each car of a row of twelve that rode on the track. They were all squashed together when you got on, so that when you looked over at the pillar in the middle, all those rods running out to the cars looked like a narrow fan, a very pretty effect, with the pivot end at the pillar.
You get into a car with some strange kid you don’t know. It’s probably just as well because you are going to make a total freak out of yourself in a minute or so. Now as you get into your car with your assigned stranger, you notice that fastened to the inward-facing side of your car is a fan-like contraption made of metal, like the old folding hoods on baby carriages, and like a baby carriage there’s cloth attached to it. One metal fan in the front of your car, one on the back. You look back and it looks like all those cars have a swag of green cloth hanging from them on the inside of the circle, loop, to loop, to loop.
The ride begins, and you slowly go around the whole circle. Slooooowly. Up and down, in and out. The wheels of the cars are rumbling on the wood deck. You and your stranger exchange “seriously? Thi sis it?” looks.
Then comes an enormous hiss of steam, and as it’s rising up around you, the cars begin to draw apart, and that fan of spars attaching your car to the central mast spreads out and it’s parts gain definition. They are covered in shock springs and swivels, gears and belts.
The distance between the cars begins to widen, and you begin to pick up speed. You can feel the wheels under your car chattering over the boards. You just keep going faster until the cars have expanded to form a complete circle of equally spaced cars, two panicked children each.
Suddenly there is a vast plume of steam! ‘FASH’!
You begin to rip around that track. You are smashed up against your stranger, now your companion in what is probably going to be death. And you aren’t just going fast; oh no. The cars are also tipping and tilting. Those triangle contraptions that connect your car to the pillar are working hard, gears suddenly slipping around, belts and springs changing length and pulleys whirring. The whole ride begins to rattle and judder like a Texas hailstorm. The sides of the thing are jouncing. The central pillar is jouncing. All the cars are jouncing. You can look across and see that the wheels of the cars are occasionally leaving the track. So you are going in a circle, over hill and over dale, tipping and leaning in and out, when suddenly your car slides out right to the outside edge, and is then pulled in. This same thing is happening to all the cars, and it happens suddenly and looks random, and you are beginning to seriously freak out because you are going way too fast and too many fucked up things are happening at once.
Suddenly, from beneath the track there is an enormous screeching sound, and a steam whistle blows, one long wail, and the curtain around the base of the track suddenly -FOOMP- expands, fills up with air being pumped into it in blasts, so it looks like it’s breathing.
Now it’s only as an onlooker that you get to appreciate that effect. If you’re riding in one of the cars, you are thinking that something just went terribly wrong.
You are screaming. You might be peeing too. Whatever you do is going to be a slave to the laws of physics, and suddenly you know you are mortal and death is real. You are ripping around at the mercy of this whirlwind beast. Sometimes the car ahead of you is far away, sometimes you bump into each other as you close together, and a rubber bumper bashes you back apart.
The Grim Reaper laughs, and pulls a lever.
At your side there is a clatter and screech. To your horror, that swag of fabric on the inner side? Is not a decoration. It is a covering. It works on the principle of a fan. That fan unfolds, comes up and over you, and then down onto the other side, and fastens to the side of the car with a CLACK.
You are in a green canvas tube now. It is dark, it is flapping and snapping, and all around you are the sounds of terrified small humans crying for their lives -
And then the motherfucker lifts off the goddamn track.
You see the car in front of you go up and then it’s you and you’re going up and you have tears blowing off the sides of your face and you are holding on and begging for everything to stop. The train of cars is rising and falling, bouncing off the track hard and then leaping up again, and your vision is actually beginning to blur because your face is being blown into weird shapes by the rushing air.
Suddenly the whole ride leaps. The Whole Damn Ride Bucks Off The Ground! And then the whole covered tube of cars leaves the track!
You spin in midair like a record, silently whizzing around, gasping and snuffling, smashed so hard into your companion by centrifugal force that you feel like roadkill. You orbit around in midair at 3000 miles an hour for a few silent moments, and then BAM you land on the track! FASH! goes the machinery of Hell! Steam rises and blows around you, scented with canvas and fear. All the cars bounce and clatter and leap and bash off the bumps and cambers. You actually leave your seat and then wham back into it with each impact, and it’s serious as a heart attack.
Mercifully, someone puts on a brake. Your motion slows. Finally all the cars are riding around on the track at the same time, the canopy suddenly releases with a CHING-GK! and slooowly folds itself up and over and down to the other side, SNABAP!
This is when you realize that you cannot see anyone who might be standing nearby because you are still going so fast that everything is a blur. You don’t care, though. The ride slows, but gives you a kick every now and then. The cars separate randomly and bash back together. One side of the circle suddenly moves out to the very edge of the track and then is yanked back in toward the center. You hear children crying. One of them is you.
You hear a jake brake being applied, loudly, and blasts of steam come out from underneath the ride and rise around you; then the side curtain deflates and is drawn back up into swags. You slow, until you are just cruising around at a walk, and the rube running the ride is grinning at you as you go past with all four of his brown teeth. Finally, finally, Thank you God, it stops with one last FASH and a plume of steam. Abrupt cessation of motion. It throws you forward.
And the rube goes around and unlocks the little doors of the cars, and children stagger out spattered with vomit and pee, and you wobble down the stairs, and all you want in the world after all that, all you want at that very minute, is to do it all over again.
You were on the thing for close to ten damn minutes! Most of that time near death, and unless you are ever in a small, open plane doing barrel rolls you will never feel that same kind of terror again. Best damn ride in the entire world. Hats off to whoever invented it. It stunted my growth.
Oaks Park was part nightmare and part daydream. It was scary and wonderful, unsafe and insane, the best amusement park that ever was.