Stories from the Midway

Fun Without the Family

Kennywood Park, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, is probably the only place my entire family ever went to have fun together. It happened in the summer of 1982, between first grade and second. That was before Uncle John and Aunt Robin divorced, and Uncle John transformed from a working-class son of Slovaks into a faceless Chicago corporado, and mom's descent into her angry lunatic phase. Over the years, the family has come to dislike me -- I don't believe in Hallmark cards -- and the only person left to talk to is my dad.

In the past few years, Dad has visited me by himself, leaving mom with the two angry Dobermans and her Glass Plus. During a visit two years ago, when I still lived in Pittsburgh, we began talking about the pre-Zoloft days, times of familial cohesion and picnics. With nothing to do, we decided to revisit Kennywood to see what it would be like as two adults. We hadn't visited the place since that nice warm family day, when I dragged the congregation onto the Jackrabbit coaster 16 times in a row.

Dad and I got in the car and headed toward the 'Wood, on the way passing the line of isolated smokestacks salvaged from the steel mills, now mere decorations for a strip mall. At the entrance, park security made us empty our pockets and prove that we weren't bringing guns to shoot anyone from the roof of the haunted house. The weapons detectors were new, as were the "Don't touch!" and "This Way!" Fun macht frei. But some things remained untouched: The Pirate ship, Aladdin's magic carpet, the double-coastered Racer. We didn't buy ride tickets because we're both stubborn cheapskates, and besides, we knew those dizzying thrills were fleeting and unnecessary.

We didn't eat any kitschy ice cream pellets, or try to win any purple ponies. We just walked around and talked to each other and looked at the other families, who we all judged pretty quickly because we're judgmental people. Those families were nuclear, with a mom, dad, and child or two, and a camcorder. Then the family would trot off, seemingly looking for something, while Dad and I didn't know where to begin looking for what we wanted -- neither of us has ever figured that out.

We both understood why Kennywood had changed, and though we couldn't change it back, we fessed up and continued walking. We got our positive family experience -- without the family. These days, that's the only way it can be.

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