Darien Lake – Summer 1987


It’s another sub-zero morning here on the Front Porch. Driving in to work the manhole covers, and every man made object was steaming like fumaroles in some alien city. It is an inhuman sight, and one that the elixir of hot black coffee alone can not wipe from my memory. So come along with me to the Summer of 1987 and let’s leave winter behind for a little while…

Darien Lake Fun Country

Darien Lake Fun Country

Here at 20 Prospect, the family love for amusement parks has been well documented. So it was no big surprise when I returned home from my first year in college in the summer of 1987, and was in need of a summer job, that I took my Mom’s advise and applied at Darien Lake Amusement Park. Not only did the 20 Prospect clan make visits to various amusements parks a staple of their summer vacations, but we also ran the games booth at the St. Joe’s lawn fete. The second weekend in June, for every year I could remember, Mom and Dad had staffed, and run the game booths at the lawn fete. So it was not a big stretch when the staff at Darien Lake reviewed my resume, took my request of working rides into consideration, and assigned me to games. Yeah, I was a bit disappointed, as my big sister had run the rides during her summer job years at the Lake, but I adjusted to the idea quickly enough.

The night before my first day on the job I went out with a friend of mine who had just returned from college. We spent the night catching up by drinking a six pack a piece, and downing a good portion of a bottle of gin. Apparently, one year of college had not raised our IQ level high enough to figure out that might not be the best idea. I can remember Mom pounding on the bathroom door, around 2 am, as I lay face down over the toilet, yelling “Your not planning on doing this all summer are you?!?” Oddly, enough, the thought had not occurred to me before that, but to be completely honest, yes. Yes I was.

On the drive to work for my first day on the job, I had to pull over along the side of Route 33 to throw up again. My eyes would not focus, and for the first 6 hours I could not have even told you what my co-workers looked like. I had been assigned to the Balloon Dart game, at the end of the games building, facing out at the midway. The game consisted of popping three balloons, with three darts, and winning a piece of crap. OK, not a real piece of crap, just a faux-mirror, or poster mounted behind glass. It was 1987, and we had all the cutting edge posters a Western New York kid could want. Motley Crue, Led Zeppelin, Harley Davidson, kittens hanging from a branch “Hang in There!”, and the ubiquitous Spud’s McKenzie. Work amounted to filling balloons with an air compressor, tying them to a nail on the cork board, and calling in the rubes. “Hey! How ‘bout it now! Bust 3 Get yer Choice!” etc.

how 'bout it, bust three, get yer choice!

how 'bout it, bust three, get yer choice!

The booth supervisor, Donna, a 20 year old veteran of 3 summers, showed me the ropes, while my other co-worker, Lori, a high school senior from Alden added color commentary. The games booths were all attached, in one long building. We had a small doorway  way between our booth, and the Peach Basket game next door. In the back, behind the booths, was a long warehouse room, with bins full of cheap stuffed animals, and other assorted inventory fresh off the boat from Asian sweatshops. As the afternoon progressed, we began alternating breaks, and spelling the folks in the other games, that had only 2 kids working. 2 workers per booth was the norm. We were only flying with 3 because it was my first day on the job.

When Donna was on break I confessed to Lori, that I was so hung over I couldn’t see straight, and apologized for being so catatonic. I shared the story of pulling over to throw up on the way to work, and by the time I had returned from break everyone in the games section knew the story. I was welcomed into the games family quickly. It was a tight knit group of kids ranging in age from 17 to 21. Donna and Lori spent the rest of the day filling me in on all the dirty secrets. Who was sleeping with who, and who had gotten caught the previous summer with their pants down going at it in a bin of stuffed animals. (I have to admit, it seemed like a logical place) Donna, being a whole year older, and in a steady relationship with the assistant games manager, took me under her wing in a motherly fashion. She warned me to be careful of the two blonds in the peach basket game next door. They were notorious party girls, who liked to make the rounds of all the new boys in the games department. It was at that point that it began to occur to me that this might be a good summer job after all.

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The work was slow before Memorial Day, but once the schools began to let out, the hours picked up. Weekend work was required, and we typically had just one day off a week. But pulling in less than 8 hours a day, it was good to pick up the extra shifts. I needed the money to last me the whole way through the school year. I quickly found the rhythm of working the games, calling in the drunk concert goers, and obnoxious Canadian’s who were camping at the park, and separating them from their money. A $1 per chance, it added up quickly. I figure the prizes cost the park less than a buck a piece, and usually only one out of every ten people won. Not a bad profit margin. On a busy day things could get crazy, especially on the night of a concert. I always worked concerts. They had a rule not to leave two girls working alone with the drunk and stoned concert goers. On the night of a metal concert, or say, George Thorouhgood & the Destroyers, or any act that brought out the white trash, and degenerates from under their rocks, the park could get a little crazy. The manager was always close by, with cops to back him up, to get the cash out of the booths before someone tried to pull a knife on us. Some nights when the State Police were being called in to break up fights they closed us down early and sent us home. I was always thankful for that.

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But mostly the days were long, interspersed between periods of busyness, and long slow hours with nothing to do but talk. For anyone who has ever worked a job like this, those are the moments you prize most. Dull, and boring, but with a ratio of 4 girls to every guy working games, I really didn’t mind. At college, the ratio was the opposite, and a guy literally had to wait in line to talk to a good looking girl at a party. But here at the lake, I felt like a sultan with his harem. They came in all shapes, and sizes, and colors, and all a guy had to have was the courage to talk, and a sense of humor to entertain them. But that is not to say I was promiscuous. Far from it. I had always been more comfortable talking with girls than boys. For some reason, they could sense that I was a “nice guy” (i.e. harmless) and felt comfortable around me. The park wasn’t a bad place to be. At night, with the lights of the rides and the midway lighting up the sky, and the noise from the games, it felt like I was working inside of a pinball machine.

Life from the perspective of a pinball

Life from the perspective of a pinball

Two weeks after I started, one of my friends from high school applied. She too was home from her first year of college. I was glad to have her close, but it was complicated. I had a crush on her for 2 years running, but had been in a steady relationship, and had never acted on it. At first the attraction had been mutual, but eventually she had come to the conclusion that nothing would ever happen between us. I had broken off my relationship during freshman year, and now I hoped would be my chance to win her over. The only problem, I had begun to fall for the doe eyed, 18 year old Lori.

There was no way I could have them both, and in the end I would get neither. But that didn’t stop me from trying. Lori was due to graduate early, and her steady boyfriend was away in Ohio, attending Ohio Diesel Tech, to become a diesel mechanic. Lori and I had hit it off since the first day. She had a dry sense of humor, and a quick wit. She could crack me up, and she enjoyed that I appreciated her on a different level. I think she was used to guys who came on strong, and being a “nice college boy” I took my time.

Fate took a strange turn when my friend was placed in the same games booth as Lori and I. My friend very quickly picked up on the attraction between Lori and I, and she encouraged it, I think half out of friendship, and half out of a desire to see me pre-occupied with someone other than herself. Yes, I will admit it. I was a bit of a puppy dog, and would follow a girl around wagging my tail until they hit me on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.

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One night every two weeks, they kept the park open after hours, and let the employees ride the rides. These nights just about made the job worthwhile. Imagine an amusement park over run with hormone addled teenagers, and no one to supervise. It could get a little crazy. Following one of those nights, the blonde’s from the peach basket game invited me out to an after party. They definitely were true to Donna’s word, and it was quite the party, but they had little interest in me. I was far too safe for their tastes, and they had other more exotic men in mind. Crisis hit in July, when Donna announced she was pregnant. Her boyfriend the assistant manager, followed up by proposing to her, but her parents threw her out of the house anyway. They moved into a little motel room, on Route 5 outside of Batavia and made plans for what to do when summer ended.

Summer rolled along, and the shifts with Lori became fewer and farther between. With 4 of us in the booth, Donna preferred to keep Lori working opposite shifts from her, as she had the most street smarts at handling the customers. Finally, I had to fess up to Donna and tell her I wanted more shifts with Lori. Like a Mother Hen, she thought it was so cute, she obliged and began winking at me whenever Lori wasn’t looking. In her break time she had taken up knitting, and talked constantly about the morning sickness, and how the smell of the cotton candy made her want to puke.

We worked so many nights it was almost impossible to have a date with Lori, but finally our schedules coincided, and I drove up to Alden to take her out. Her Mom met me at the door, clucking away, and positively tickled pink to have a college boy calling on her girl. Lori was working class, as we all were, but college was something her Mom wanted her to pursue more than anything. Lori was pretty ambivalent towards it, and her Mom rightly saw that she was headed for marriage and pregnancy with the Diesel Tech guy by age 20. I had wandered right into this little family squabble in my puppy dog naiveté.

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I took her to a movie, and out to eat afterwards. She picked a sub shop in Alden, where she had friends. Standing at the counter ordering, I could see one of the guys behind the counter pointing and me, and making a slashing motion across his throat. I asked her what that was all about, and she shrugged it off, saying “Oh, he thinks my boyfriend is going to kill you when he finds out.” Well, that was a first for me. I had never been in a situation like that before, and I have to say it gave me a bit of a rush to think of me fighting over a girl, but only because I knew he was in Ohio. Honestly, he was studying to be a diesel mechanic, and I was reading Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe on my break time. He would have killed me. We kissed a little in the driveway when I dropped her off, before her Mom peering through the curtains prompted her to say goodnight. There was no doubt about it, I had fallen for her.

Driving home late that night in the fog along Route 33, I was lost in reverie, with the windows down and the radio blaring tuned to CFNY out of Toronto, when suddenly something appeared in the road right in front of me. I swerved to avoid it, and lost control of the car. Back and forth across the highway, the car lurched, and I wrestled with the wheel before I finally spun out, clipped the guardrail, and ended up on the shoulder of the road in the opposite lane, facing back in the direction from where I had come. My hands were shaking, and sweat was pouring out of me. I got out and walked around the car to check the damage, but other than a slight crack in the bumper, there was none. I never knew what had been in the road, a possum probably. When I got home I lay awake thinking.

Summer had been passing quickly. My nights at the Lake, were interspersed with hanging out with my buddies in Batavia. They were washing dishes at the Engine House, and had ready access to sassy 20 something waitresses, and stoner cooks, who would willingly buy them beer when we needed it, which was always. A night out amounted to drinking at the end of a deserted road in the countryside outside of town. Our favorite spot was out past the county dump. There was a dead end on the dirt road about a quarter mile past the dump, and an overgrown driveway that led down into an old sand quarry, where we could park the car, and sit out on the hood, drinking, talking and watching the swallows dart through the evening sky.

Where was this relationship with Lori going? Summer would be ending for me in just a few more weeks. She would continue on working through September with Donna, while the college kids went back to school. Would she write to me? Would she visit? Clarkson was a 5 hours drive away, and neither of us had a car. What would happen between her and the Diesel Tech Guy once he was back in Alden. And what about my “friend”? I still had feelings for her, but it was clear she had none for me. Would she ever? And would I ever find a girlfriend to keep me warm those long winter nights in the frozen North Country? I sought relief from these thoughts in the bottom of whatever bottle or cans I could get my hands on that summer.

As summer came to an end my friend surprised me by inviting Lori to spend the night at her house, around the corner from 20 Prospect. She would be here in town, within my reach. That answered some of my questions, clearly my friend was desperate to have me seeing another girl so I would leave her alone. And clearly, Lori must want this “thing” to continue.

The night was uneventful. Lori had baked a going away cake for me and my friend, and they brought it over to my parents after dinner. We sat on the porch talking and goofing around. Eventually my friend wandered off so Lori and I could be alone, and we went for a long walk in the darkness. I pressed her with questions about if we could still see each other, but it was clear, the holiday break seemed like a lifetime to wait for her. She told me she would write. We spent the rest of our time together kissing and holding hands, before I walked her back to my friends house.

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Her first letter arrived about the 3rd week of school. I was deep into my studies by then, and the first exams were already looming. My work habits had become positively monastic that fall. I had little interest in beer, and parties, and spent most of my free time in my room studying, or listening to music with the lights off. In her letter, she told me that Donna’s parents had let her move back in with them, but she had lost the baby. She had a “miscarriage” while mowing her Mom’s lawn. I wondered about the truth of that story, and decided it was better not to know.

Lori had decided to graduate in January since she had enough credits, but had no plans to go to college. Her Mom was pushing her to apply to Geneseo State, but she hadn’t yet. The Diesel Tech boyfriend was back in town, and wanted her to move to Ohio with him. I wrote her back, immediately, and waited for another reply. I called, and left messages, but she never returned them. The weeks passed. When I finally did receive a letter it was from her Mom. She begged, and pleaded with me to keep writing and calling Lori. She told me that Lori was seeing the Diesel Tech guy, and saying no to college, and if only I would write her more, and encourage her she would come to her senses. Sigh… the picture was clear. As my roommate summed it up succinctly, “what girl our age is going to go out with a guy her Mom likes?” What girl indeed.

Winter had begun. I tried a few more times to get in touch with Lori, before I gave up. I felt like such a sap. The story of losing out to a guy from Ohio Diesel Tech was a source of amusement for many in my dorm. In the end, I just studied harder. Hours turned to days, and weeks to months, and my GPA creeped higher. My one outlet, besides the occasional binge drunk with friends, was a weekly 11-2 am shift at the college radio station. I would send music out in waves into the sub zero darkness of the North Country, and then crunch my way back to the dorm over the fresh fallen snow, wondering if anyone was listening. My GPA the second semester topped out at 3.8. It would never be that high again. Spring came, and when finals were done I knew what I wanted. I took a job with the Power Company mowing lawns for more money than I could make working at the Lake. I began to look ahead to finding an Engineering job after graduation, and getting out. I didn’t know where I would end up, but I knew it would not be Batavia. I never knew what became of Lori. I forgot her soon enough, and chased after other similarly unattainable girls. I don’t even remember her last name anymore, and I am sure she doesn’t remember mine.

I could say that life is a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, but that wouldn’t tell the story.

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I could say that life is a Ferris Wheel, spinning us round and around, but that too would fall short of the truth.

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So instead, I will say that life is a carousel. We spin around in circles, always alternating between ups and downs. The lights flash, and the calliope plays, and we are lost in the moment. Anything seems possible, but life does not offer golden rings easily grasped from a wooden horse. Life requires real work, and real sweat, and sooner or later the ride ends, and the park closes for the season. It was a lovely summer in 1987, and I have fond memories of working at the Lake. I like to think those days made a difference, but they seem to me now to be oh so many trips around on the carousel. Real love, and real loss were waiting for me outside the gates. When the ride ended and the music stopped, I knew it was time to go in search of something more. To get back in line for another ride was just postponing the inevitable.

Summer love is always stillborn…

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Photo Images for most, but not all photos Copyright dalboz17 @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/dalboz17/32615760/
The rest I downloaded from a few different places on the intertubes but lost the reference links. Mea culpa

15 thoughts on “Darien Lake – Summer 1987

  1. Pingback: Experiments in Napping « 20 Prospect

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  4. I had to make my way over here through the smoke from the bonfire I lit with all the stuffed animals we’ve ever won on the boardwalk. Thanks for the image of a thousand horny teenagers going at it on a pile of stuffed dogs and monkeys.

  5. I was all excited…..thinking of you as Michael Cera and the pretty young vampire loving Kristen Stewart as your leading lady……anticipating some lost virginity and some pervy old Adventureland employee…….oh wait…..wrong story…..

    Yours was good too…..😉

  6. Was going to be super lame commenter and say once again how much I love and envy your writing and storytelling skills. Should I just use the 5 star rating system from now on and shut up and not waste your comment space?

    This one is really good. I enjoyed reading it very much.

  7. Pingback: Roller Coaster « 20 Prospect

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