In Praise of Tabasco Sauce

This post is cobbled together from a couple of different entries at my Livejournal back in 2009

Leigh Callaway, wherever you are, I owe you dinner.¹

The year was 1965, I was 14, and it was my senior year at Camp Wildwood in Bridgton, Maine.²

In this my 4th year at camp, the pinnacle of the year was, prophetically, travel. I sucked at team sports – still do – but loved traveling, camping, the woods and individual challenges; in short, I lived for tripping. Not that kind. Shut up.

My yearbook blurb quoted, “However unorganized his body of knowledge may be, he still is a source of many bits of information and despite his mere 85 lb. bulk, was one of our most energetic and determined trippers.” By the dessicated skull of Mogg’s grandfather, how prophetic was that?

After a 5-day canoe trip to Rangeley Lake early in the summer, six of us, accompanied by several counselors, took another 5-day trip in canoes from Lobster Lake down the Penobscot River to Chesuncook Lake in Maine. It was a trip never to be forgotten.

The Rangeley Lakes complex in western Maine

What does all this have to do with Tabasco Sauce? Hush. We’ll get to that.

The year, as I mentioned, was 1965, and inland Maine was still pretty untouched in most places. It was five days of canoeing, camping, 20 miles of river, camping, 4 miles of rapids, camping, portages, camping, woods, camping, absolutely glacial pools and waterfalls which we reveled in as a test of manhood, more camping, and breathtaking scenery.

Are you starting to see a pattern?

When you camp, you cook whatever you have along. That means a lot of dehydrated chicken soup and noodles carbonara and canned stuff and interesting stuff and things you might never fix at home.

One of the counsellors that accompanied us on this trip was a young man named Leigh Callaway.

Now to a 14-year-old, all our counselors were ageless. If they were counselors, they were adults – so I can’t tell you how old he was at the time, but he was probably not much more than a kid himself. So all I can tell you about him was that he was extremely kind to me (huge points!) and had a BMW motorcycle (more huge points), and that I worshiped the ground he walked on. And he could cook.

One night, whether out of inventiveness or desperation, Leigh fried up a huge cast-iron skillet full of rice until the grains were golden brown, and then filled the pan with water. When the rice was cooked soft, he threw in a can of tuna or three, sauteed it up a bit longer, and then seasoned the whole thing with Tabasco™. Lots and lots of Tabasco™.

Now my mother, bless her soul, took me to many ethnic restaurants in New York while I was young, and one of our favorites was this little Aztec-Mexican hole in the wall called Xochitl.³ They had a hot sauce there that would rival much of what Blair offers (certainly not their 16-million scoville pure capsaicin insanity, but highly effective nonetheless.) I remember that a tiny drop of this stuff on a toothpick, applied to the tongue, was enough to bring tears to the eyes. So I was no stranger to odd and savory foods. (Hm. How that I’m thinking of it, perhaps I should give Mom some credit at my Banquet from Hell.) That said, cooking at home was pretty basic meat-and-potatoes fare, and there wasn’t a lot of exotic stuff around, so I had never used Tabasco™ before.

Well, anyway. When you’ve been paddling a canoe for 12 hours, and you’re exhausted and starving, it doesn’t matter much what’s on the fire. I think if Leigh had fried up a beaver tail, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. As it was, we had fried rice and tuna with Tabasco™ – and I tucked in like a trencherman. Mogg’s teeth – it was so good. It would be easy to say that my enjoyment was born of famine, but given that I have prepared this concoction and many others like it many times in my life thereafter, I can discount that theory. Simply put, I was hooked on Tabasco™.

Now, I like Frank’s Original Red Hot too – it’s got a nice flavor, and I always keep a bottle of it handy, but there’s something about Tabasco™ that just can’t be matched.⁴ Yes, I’m well and truly addicted.

So Leigh, wherever you are, know that you made a huge impression on me that summer, and your influence is still being felt *mops brow* 44 years later.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

PS – I still remember the taste of black coffee sweetened with maple syrup, too…


Footnotes

¹ Leigh, bless his heart, saw this post and actually responded with a bit of information about his subsequent experiences. He recommended that since I loved Tabasco I should try Sambal Oelek, an Indonesian chili paste that apparently puts Sriracha to shame. I was grateful for the recommendation, but would have loved some hint about how to contact him. Which he did not provide, the rascal. I would have loved to renew the acquaintance and catch up in person.

² Camp Wildwood is a superb boys’ camp run – at the time – by Leo Mayer and Ed Hartman, which is still operating in Bridgton, Maine, although it has passed through other owners since then.

³ Another one was “La Fonda del Sol”, a very upscale place which I loved eating at. Now gone. *snif* But there are some memories here.

⁴ In fact, as I was typing my earlier post at Livejournal and thinking about a nice dish of fettucine with tuna and hot sauce, my ears were burning and I was experiencing all the symptoms of a good solid capsaicin flush. Which confirmed my theory. I love hot food; there’s nothing like a good capsaicin burn. The last two times I had prepared spicy foods, though, I had a very unusual experience – the flush to the face began as soon as I had opened the bottle of hot sauce – and hadn’t even eaten it yet. The first time it happened, I thought I was “imagining things.” But it happened again… as I was liberally lacing some burritos with Tabasco, I started getting the burning and vascular dilation that I always experience with certain peppers – very much like a Niacin flush, if you’ve ever experienced that. And, what’s even stranger, I experienced a repeat as I typed this. Just thinking about it was sufficient to recall the physiological response.

Now that’s just weird. Maybe if I salivate enough, I can get my doorbell to ring. 

New York’s Chinatown Fair and the Animated Dragon

I grew up in New York City in the ’50s and ’60s. Much has gone since that time, but my memories include hings I deeply miss about New York in my early days:

  • The myriad small businesses instead of brass-and-glass
  • Little Italy full of Italians, and the Feasts of San Antonio and San Gennaro
  • Yellow Cabs with huge back seats and those little jumpseats (Yes, unsafe, but they were so fun)
  • Air-conditioned movie theaters with giant screens and velvet curtains where you could stay all day for 50¢ and watch a cartoon, a short subject, a newsreel, and the main feature over and over again
  • the 42nd Street Subway Stations with Red and Blue lights guiding you to your line of choice, IRT, BMT, or IND, or the Shuttle
  • Underground OJ bars and other odd little shops in the subways such as Al Stevenson’s magic store (otherwise known as the Wizard’s Workshop)
  • Hole-in-the-wall pizza joints where you could order pizza by the “Slice!” for 15¢.
  • The Staten Island ferry for a nickel
  • Christmas trees up and down Park Avenue, and the stars that would twinkle on the 666 building
  • the Lord and Taylor Christmas windows
  • And so many more…

But one of my most indelible memories is from Chinatown, where my mother would take me on occasion. There were myriad stores and restaurants selling the ubiquitous Chinese back-scratchers, finger traps, and wonderful puzzle boxes, some of which I wish I still had.

Alamy stock photo of a Chinese puzzle box, very similar to one I once owned.

But the most wondrous thing to my young eyes was the Chinatown Fair.

Before it became an electronic game arcade, it featured dancing chickens, tic-tac-toe chickens (you can read about these at Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York), and the amazing animatronic dragon.

8 Mott Street, Chinatown, New York, New York, USA — Performing Chicken in New York Arcade — Image by © Adam Woolfitt/CORBIS

Sadly, no photos of the latter wonder appear to have been saved to the Internet as of this moment, but who knows? Perhaps someone will come across a picture in their old archives and post it in the future. If you happen to stumble across this blog post and have such a photo, please let me know; I would love to feature it here.

At any rate, you would walk up to this row of little windows, each with a coin slot for quarters; drop one in and your window would open, and below you was this most amazing animated dragon which would move and roar at you. Commenter “Donald” at the website Scouting New York had this to say, which syncs with my own memories perfectly:

Yes!! The dragon peep show…. why doesn’t anybody ever mention the dragon peep show? I thought that was the most bizarre “game” I ever saw… you’d drop a quarter in and a sliding plastic window would rise, exposing a glass window underneath (similar to a peep show booth) and literally laying on the basement floor – you’d see this huge animatronic dragon moving it’s head and tail – and from a speaker would blare the soundtrack from an old Godzilla movie… that familiar Godzilla roar. Now the dragon you were looking at and the Godzilla you were hearing of course had nothing to do with each other – but that just added to the cheezy entertainment value of the whole thing. I thought it was great… but nobody ever mentions it. I ALWAYS hear about the Tic Tac Toe Chicken… but never my old dragon friend.

A later photo of The Chinatown Fair at night, from The Chinatown Fair Archive.

The Fair later became a video arcade, but closed in 2011. Some other great memories are archived at Scouting New York, The Gothamist, Ganker, and Huffpost; apparently the arcade featured in a 2015 documentary called The Lost Arcade; in its later years it “the arcade became a shelter to a community as diverse as the city surrounding it and changed lives in doing so.” (IMDB)

According to The Verge, the arcade re-opened in 2012, but the reviews were mixed. Apparently it’s still there, but without that amazing dragon it will never be the same for me.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

For the Ward Clerks out there

If you happened to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the ’60s and were ever called as a Ward Clerk, or one of the assistant clerks – Historical, Financial, or Membership – you may remember the old Adler 200 typewriters.¹

Long before the advent of computers or word processors or even IBM Selectrics or Daisy-wheel typewriters, Adler was the go-to brand if you wanted a typewriter with an unusual font. I don’t know how many Adlers the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints purchased over time, but I’d bet they kept a lot of factory workers and typewriter repair personnel in business for decades.

The LDS Adler had a specific keyboard layout, as well: you didn’t have to shift for numbers (because they were used mostly for entering financial records) and symbols were on additional keys.

The font that came with these machines was OCR-A, a font created in 1968, in the early days of computer optical character recognition, when there was a need for a font that could be recognized not only by the computers of that day, but also by humans.” (Wikipedia) It looked like this:

In the case of financial donations, members would fill out donation slips (being admonished to always write their names the same way each time):

and clerks would painstakingly transcribe these slips onto a ledger sheet on the typewriter, which was then sent by snail mail to headquarters where the records were scanned and entered into mainframe databases. Other information was also recorded using these machines, which were built like Sherman tanks, and like a Timex watch they would “take a lickin’ and keep on tickin.”

Ward clerks often served for extended periods of time; whereas service callings in the Church today generally only last a few years, back in the day it was not uncommon for a clerk to serve for decades, especially if he did a good job.

The Ward Clerk

He kept the minutes, typed each note,
And put them in the file.
The membership he knew by rote;
He labored with a smile.

The ordinations, births and deaths
He faithfully recorded
For forty years, until at last
He went to be rewarded.

The people he had known so well
Turned out to shed a tear,
And pay respect to this good man,
Gone to another sphere.

But as the choir rose to sing,
They saw with consternation
The good man from his coffin step
To count the congregation!

-Author Unknown

It is said in the navy that the Captain may command the ship, but the E-7’s (Chief petty officers) keep the show running. Much the same could be said about a ward or branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the Bishop or Branch President may be in charge, but the ward clerks keep the wheels greased and everything running smoothly so the leaders can focus on ministering rather than administering.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Footnotes

¹ The typewriter photos used in this post are from typewriter hunter Jake Fisher at the Typewriter Database.

The Italian Feasts of New York City

The New York City I grew up in is gone. It has been replaced by a new city, different in many ways and with ongoing challenges, but not without an endless variety of vibrant neighborhoods and ethnic influences.

But I have to say that I deeply miss what “Little Italy” once was. It was the home of my ancestors, two wanderers from Italy who came alone from Calabria and Tuscany, met in the Big Apple, and raised a respectable family on the basis of hard work, faith, and thrift. And the Italian enclave of New York was a perfect place for them to live the American Dream.

Mulberry Street in 1900, Colorized. This is about the time my grandparents arrived from Italy.
Little Italy in 1962

The neighborhood as I knew it was busy and vibrant, full of local bakeries, pizzerias, streetside stalls, cigar stores, candy stores, stationery stores, butcher shops, and anything and everything a thriving community transplanted from the “old country” would need or want. But even then, the slow downward slide toward gentrification had begun.

Anyone who has seen “The Godfather, Part II” is familiar with the street festival during which Vito Corleone assassinates Don Fanucci. This is a portrayal based on the Festa di San Gennaro (The Feast of St. Januarius) which was brought to New York by immigrants from Naples in 1926 as a continuation of the celebration of their patron Saint. Originally a one-day celebration, the Festa continues to this day as an 11-day extravaganza (except in 2020, when it was cancelled due to the Covid outbreak); activities include Italian street food, sausages, zeppole (fried dessert balls otherwise known as “Italian doughnuts”), games of chance (often dishonest¹), music, cannoli-eating contests, vendors, parades, and the grand procession honoring the patron saint – the tradition of attaching money to the statue continues, with the funds designated to be used for the poor. In the past it has been a major tourist attraction, and hopefully it will be once again when the pandemic madness has passed.

The Feast of San Gennaro

But known to fewer people is the fact that there was a second Festa which took place along Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village during the ’60s: The Feast of St. Anthony of Padua. St. Anthony’s was established in 1859 as the first parish in the United States formed specifically to serve the Italian immigrant community. (Wikipedia)

St. Anthony’s Church

I know of this because the celebration happened right under my window when I was living right on the corner of Prince and Sullivan, at 186 Prince Street.

186 Prince Street, seen in 2009

Saint Anthony’s feast was not as big and grandiose as the one for San Gennaro, but it was more intimate and more homey. The noise and the ruckus and the celebration would last far into the night, and the sounds and the smells of Italian food was tantalizing.

Feast of St. Anthony, 1960s

Even kids got into the act. It was not uncommon to see a number of boys sitting along the street inviting others to play the “shot glass” game, in which pennies were dropped into a slot at the top of a large jar of water, with the aim of getting them into a shot glass at the bottom. Winners collected 10¢; those who had the knack of holding the coin by its edge and giving it a spin straight down could usually clean out their competition in short order, while others simply watched their coins gently float down to land outside the sweet spot.

Shot Glass in the Bottle Game

Sadly the festival for St. Anthony has largely died out; efforts have been made to revive it, but due to the changing demographics of the Village and the reduction of Little Italy to a shadow of its former self, interest has waned and there has not been enough social momentum to bring it back to its former glory.

The St. Anthony Procession in 2015

From what I am told, Italian festivals continue to be a big deal in other cities such as Boston, but these were the ones that I knew, and I miss them

The Old Wolf has spoken.


Footnotes

¹ I say this from personal experience. One game involved a long track in front of the stand, in which a shiny metal car was pushed; it would bounce back and forth between springs at each end (kind of a flat variation of the “wheel of chance”) and a pointer on the car would land in a given zone when it stopped. The very small center zone was highlighted for a major prize; others were smaller prizes or nothing. I gave it a shot (probably 25¢ a play) and watched the car land dead center in the grand prize. That was before the ride operator gave it a shove with her hand, which I saw very clearly. I walked away with a set of colored glasses which I gave to my mother, but I should have won something much better – can’t remember what it would have been. I was only 12 at the time and complaining would have done no good.

Can I afford pie today?

I loved comics as a kid. No shame, I learned a lot. Loved things like Strange Tales, Creepy, Weird Science, along with the standard DC and Marvel fare.¹ And over the years, some things just stuck in my mind. Tales like “Tim Boo Baa,” “The Mask of Morgumm,” or “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I’ve been able to recover quite a few of these and revisit them in all their glory.

But there was one memory I was never able to recapture, although it popped into my mind frequently… until this week.

It was about this poor inventor, Alphonse Orr, who was taken advantage of by a hideous, bullying con-man of a boss. Finally his name popped up in a comic database, and I was able to score a copy of the issue that the story appeared in.

I was ten when this comic went on sale in 1961, and somehow that last panel, the image of this little man wondering if he could afford pie impacted me profoundly,² as did the idea of the injustice perpetrated upon him by his evil boss – and stuck in my mind for over half a century. Kids have an over-developed sense of injustice at that age, and I was no exception.³

So you’ll pardon me if I found the ending to the story immensely satisfying, and re-reading it after all these years I find that my feelings haven’t changed one whit.

You can read the entire story from “Forbidden Worlds, Issue #98 here as a pdf download.⁴

It’s nice to be able to put memories to rest.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


Notes:

¹ I could have put my kids through college if I had kept all the first editions I bought, but that’s another story.

² Never mind all the abject poverty and true starvation and famine in the world; at that age I was not aware of what was happening in third-world countries or even of food insecurity in America, but at that time the thought that Alphonse was so poor that he couldn’t afford pie deeply saddened me.

³ Those impressions have never left me. I have found that when it comes to the injustice and cruelty and stupidity of corporations, there’s always a relevant Dilbert.

Strips like this infuriate me. I’m not sure why I keep reading them.

Edit: If you do read this story, keep in mind that it’s the ’60s and that it’s fantasy; the Challenger Deep is 6.85 miles below the surface, whereas Edgar W. Simmons claims to have taken his new submersible 120 miles down. Just as a matter of curiosity, the pressure at that hypothetical depth would be 19,259.37 atmospheres, or 250,371 pounds per square inch, or roughly 42 Humvees stacked on your thumbnail. Science? We don’t need no steenkin’ science!

Booty from Christmas Past

Cross-posted from Livejournal

Booty!

Shut up, you deviants. I mean Jack Sparrow-type booty. Arr…

In 2010, a chest o’treasure arrived in me mailbox from a pretty wench in a far-off land. A whole bundle of silly, fun things: most useful, all appreciated.

The tie was the most interesting of all. To look at, it’s just a nice Christmas-themed cravat (since I only have one other, this will be a fine addition next Yule season.) But on closer examination, there are bits and snatches of words running through the candy canes.

I could tell the writing extended through the candy canes onto the blue background, but it was impossible to see in normal light, especially with the reflection from the shiny silk. So I scanned it, hoping to bring out a bit of detail.

With a little contrast and gamma manipulation, I was able to get the words to come out a bit more (this is just a small section, and my working image was much larger):

What jumped out at me was “The Christmas Joy”, “around the year”, “spot”, and “frozen”. Doing a Google search on these words came up with one – and only one – hit, a poorly-scanned copy of Down Durley Lane and Other Ballads by Virginia Woodward Cloud, published in 1898(!), and illustrated by Reginald Bathurst Birch which included this poem, “Old Christmas”:

It’s a long way round the year, my dears,
A long way round the year.
I found the frost and flame, my dears,
I found the smile and tear!

The wind blew high on the pine-topp’d hill.
And cut me keen on the moor:
The heart of the stream was frozen still,
As I tapped at the miller’s door.

I tossed them holly in hall and cot,
And bade them right good cheer,
But stayed me not in any spot,
For I’d traveled around the year

To bring the Christmas joy, my dears,
To your eyes so bonnie and true;
And a mistletoe bough for you, my dears,
A mistletoe bough for you!

What a delightful, hidden, and serendipitous message!

Miraculous it was that these words were even clear in the transcription, because it was a raw optical-conversion, and much of the text came out as garbage. What’s more, Virginia Woodward Cloud is a rather obscure poet, not unlike Grace Noll Crowell, (whose works I had hunted for over a period of 40 years, only having success last year thanks to another deep internet search). So the odds of finding one of Cloud’s poems on a Christmas tie are pretty slim.

A bit more digging found a beautiful online, zoomable copy of the book – “Old Christmas” is on page 99.

And all this because I gave the wench a stale crust of bread…

The Old Wolf has spoken

Russ Delmar’s Magic Center

I have written about my Journey Into Magic, in which I mentioned my love of hanging around the Magic Center on 8th Avenue. I was delighted to find an old New York City tax photo from the 1940s which clearly shows the Magic Center at 741 8th Avenue (I believe Russ later moved his shop next door to 739).

Click the image to enlarge it; the Magic Center is clearly visible on the right.

Edit: Now, thanks to commenter DS below, we have a lovely photo from a Magic Cafe catalog:

This is pretty much how I remember the store.

Edit 2: Some lovely memories of Russ and his magic center were provided by reader Gary; you can read them at Judge Brown • Magic.

Russ used to advertise various tricks in magazines of the day, including Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and the New Yorker:

The next thing I need is for someone out there in the wide world of the Internet to come up with a good photo of Russ himself.

Edit: A few additional pictures for history’s sake:

The 739 building awaiting demolition
The 741 building to the north is gone, and the 739 building is being torn down
Google Street View of what replaced the old buildings. Time marches on, but memories remain.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

♫ You can’t get there, the road is under construction ♬

Mad Magazine™ was wonderful back in the ’50s and ’60s. I seem to recall that as I grew older, either my sense of humor changed – I started appreciating Harvard Lampoon’s work in the late ’60s – or the quality of the writing diminished.

At any rate, some of the early stuff was priceless, and still relevant to today’s challenges. One example that keeps surfacing in my mind every time I hit a detour is this gem, written by Tom Koch and illustrated by Bob Clarke.

Peeved at Obstructions
(Sung to the tune of “Eve of Destruction” Barry McGuire)

You save up all year long to take a nice vacation.
You make a lot of plans to drive across the nation.
You dream of all you’ll see with great anticipation.
You’ve only got a week to reach your destination,
But that seems like enough, you feel no consternation.
Then they tell you over and over and over again, my friend,
That you can’t get through; the road is under construction.

You’ve never been to Maine or Utah’s scenic section.
You call the auto club to help make your selection.
You pay to get your car a thorough trip inspection.
So you can drive afar and feel you’ve got protection.
Then, when you’re almost there, you seek a cop’s direction.
And he tells you over and over and over again, my friend,
That you must turn back; the road is under construction.

Vacation here at home, our president keeps sayin’.
Don’t spend your dough abroad, he fervently is praying.
So you head for New York do do your summer playing;
Or maybe to the west a travel plan you’re laying,
To see those snowy peaks and geysers wildly sprayin’.
But the signs warn over and over and over again, my friend,
That you can’t get there; the road is under construction.

The challenge is real. In preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, UDOT undertook the I-15 corridor reconstruction project.

“The project involved the reconstruction of 16.2 miles of interstate mainline and the addition of new general purpose and high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes through the Salt Lake City metropolitan area. The project also included the construction or reconstruction of more than 130 bridges, the reconstruction of seven urban interchanges, and the reconstruction of three major junctions with other interstate routes, including I-80 and I-215.”

While the project was sorely needed and the end result was beneficial, for four years, the commute from outlying areas to Salt Lake City was a major pain in the patoot, with commuters searching out and jealously guarding favorable and secret bypass routes.

But wait, there’s more!

In 2009, UDOT undertook the I-15 Core reconstruction project, rebuilding 24 miles of I-15 from Point of the Mountain to Payson in just 35 months. The design-build strategy meant that the entire stretch was torn up at once, instead of doing a few miles at a time. The inconvenience was so significant that I was moved to memorialize the experience in video:

In retrospect, I really shoudn’t complain at all; nowadays our nation’s crumbling infrastructure could use a bit of help, and I think subsequent generations would appreciate our putting up with some inconvenience if it means that their bridges won’t collapse underneath them. But when you’re behind the wheel and trying to get to work (or to a vacation destination), the aggravation can certainly raise one’s blood pressure.

Bonus Section

Since I happened to be on the subject of MAD Magazine, another extract from the same article is precisely the reason our family threw out all our TVs over 20 years ago (the kids were absolutely devastated, but somehow they survived):

The TV Victim’s Lament
(Sung to the Tune of “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan)

How many times must a guy spray with Ban
Before he doesn’t offend?
And how many times must he gargle each day
Before he can talk to a friend?
How many tubes of shampoo must he buy
Before his dandruff will end?
The sponsors, my friend, will sell you all they can.
The sponsors will sell you all they can.

How many times must a man use Gillette
Before shaving won’t make him bleed?
And how many cartons of Kents must he smoke
Before the girls all pay him heed?
How many products must one person buy
Before he has all that he’ll need?
The sponsors, my friend, will sell you all they can.
The sponsors will sell you all they can.

How many times must a gal clean her sink
Before Ajax scours that stain,
And how many times must she rub in Ben-Gay
Before she can rub out the pain?
How many ads on TV must we watch
Before we are driven insane?
The sponsors, my friend, will sell you all they can.
The sponsors will sell you all they can.

Full disclosure: My mother single-handedly raised me on the income from commercial advertising, so I feel a bit sheepish about this, but the onslaught of advertising, much of which has now moved from the airwaves to the internet, still rubs me the wrong way.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Memories of Lagoon

Cross-posted to WordPress, 2-16-2019, updated

In the summer of 1969, when I came out to Utah from New York, my first job was working at Lagoon, Utah’s No. 1 amusement park. As a child, I had visited Lagoon many times beginning in the 50s when I would come to Utah to visit my mother’s family there.

Lagoon’s Official Website
Lagoon at Wikipedia
The Lagoon History Project

Still going strong, the park is small but homey, and although it gets more expensive every year, they do make improvements all the time, and it’s got some really fun rides. I had a season pass in 2011 before I moved back East so I could go with the my granddaughters as often as opportunity allowed.


A post on another forum about Coney Island got me going down memory lane, especially when I saw this picture of Coney Island’s “Human Roulette Wheel” from 1908.

Library of Congress

I can’t count the number of times I got flung off of Lagoon’s Roulette Wheel, suffering skin burns along the way… and I don’t think anyone ever sued lagoon for so much as a broken arm – people knew what risks were in those days, and lawyers were fewer.

Lagoon’s Roulette Wheel by the Giant Slides

The Fun House and the Haunted Shack were, without question, my favorite locations. Both as a child, from the late 50’s onward, and then as an employee one summer in 1969.

Fun house main entryway, top of the giant slides visible.

In the Fun House, the first challenge was getting in. The entrance was a mystery room, with several doors. One held a witch – not especially frightening, unless you’re 7 – and I don’t recall what was in the others, but the one you wanted, of course, was the broom closet – and you had to push the false back wall to get out.

Once inside, you would walk into the challenge area, which included the rotating barrels; I was so thrilled when I was finally big enough to pin myself in the barrel like Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man” and be carried all the way around. Other courses included boards that swung up and down like a wooden wave pattern… a meshed bridge… a set of boards that shimmied back and forth like a huge pair of skis, among others… and everywhere throughout the fun house were the air jets, operated by a human who sat in an observation booth above the front entrance, watching for cute girls in skirts to step over the airholes. Psshhhttt EEK!! A maze after these items would drop you off in the back of the fun house close to the giant slides.

The rotating drums

There, you’d pick up your canvas slide, with a pocket in front for your feet, and climb the stairs to the launch platforms – there was one midway up, and one all the way at the top. You were admonished to sit with your legs straight, and off you’d go. There was never any limit to how long you could stay.

The Giant Slides
Loading area at the top of the slides

At the bottom of the slide, you’d find the Roulette Wheel – a big pink disk with a yellow center, which is where you wanted to be if you didn’t want to get flung off. I think there were more injuries from people rushing to get that center spot than ever happened while being ejected. People would sit on the wheel with their backs to the center, brace themselves with their feet, and wait for the ride to start. Invariably everyone was hurled off except one or two in the middle. The outside of the platter area was surrounded with a large, padded rim. (This was Lagoon’s version of the “Roulette Wheel” shown above).

Then there was the “whirlpool”. This was a large wooden drum – different from the washtub with the drop-out floor – that would effectively allow you to stand at about a 45-degree angle if you could fight the centripetal force. This ride was one of the first ones to go that I recall.

Lagoon’s “Whirlpool”

Interestingly enough, there were probably countless chipped teeth, friction burns, broken arms, split lips, and a dozen other injuries on a regular basis… and for decades nobody sued, and the fun just kept on happening. We can thank the zeal of the legal eagles, hungry for billable hours, for litigating us out of such wholesome entertaintment today.

[Edit: An article in the Deseret News of May 4, 1957, describes the attractions in the Fun House thus:

   “Opening of a new fun house, the first to be build in the United States in 28 years, will be one of the main attractions at the pre-season opening of Lagoon this weekend.     Built at a cost of more than $100,000 to meet the requests of thousands for a fun house to replace the one that burned in the 1953 fire at the resort, it was designed by Ranch S. Kimball, president and general manager of Lagoon.     Fifty-foot-high slides are among features of the modern building. There are slides of lesser heights for the more cautious.     Another device of special interest is the Whirlpool, a new circular device which revolves at a terrific speed.     Other of the 40 features within the fun house include: a skating floor, shuffleboard, crash bumper, lily pads in a tank of water, Sahara Desert, a rolling log, twisters, teeter boards, electric air valves, a moving floor, a whistle trap, roller inclines, a dog-house crawl-through, a jail, revolving barrels, the roulette wheel, tilted room, ocean waves, the camel back, and a new cage maze, which is a maze to amaze anyone.     An eight-piece animated monkey band perched above the entrance will greet customers. A balcony, featuring special seating for spectators, has been built to permit a general view of the entire fun house.]

I was tickled that my memory of the Whirlpool was not faulty, and this article reminded me of a number of features that I had forgotten about – the rolling log, the roller incline, the twister floor, the lily pads, and several others.

The “Haunted Shack” has been described in other places, but I loved it. A walk-through “dark ride”, it sat above a cotton candy shop, and the year I worked there, a buddy of mine who was responsible for that attraction took me up into the attic where you could watch the people go through the mazes. The haunted shack included a mirror maze, which, when it was kept clean, was pretty challenging to get out of.

The Haunted Shack was featured at the Lagoon History Project. It was one of my favorite attractions, and I was sad when it was finally removed to make room for the Carousel and other attractions.

The year I worked at lagoon, what was formerly the Penny Arcade had been converted into a skating rink. That’s where I spent most of my break time and free time if I ever came back on a day off. It didn’t last long, but it was a great place. I do recall seeing the first Pong game there. At that time, the rides were ticket-based… I recall you could get into the Lagoon Opera House for only two tickets, and watch silent movies in an air-conditioned environment. They were always making announcements over the PA system in this deep, growly voice that told people about the attractions they were trying to promote. That was also a popular place to take breaks on hot days.

At that time, the employee kitchen was this dingy little place on the back of the East side of the midway, but hey, that’s where we could get lunch, and it seemed fine.

I worked the games. I was most often stationed in the Shooting Gallery (machine guns with bb’s, and you had to shoot a red star completely out of a sheet of paper to win a prize). It was much, much harder than it looked – even the tiniest scrap of red would disqualify you from winning a prize – but again, not impossible. Located just south of the Fun House, that’s where I was stationed when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon – people were taking rotating shifts that day to watch the landing and EVA’s, and there were TV’s set up all over the park. I recall running to the Fascination room to watch the event during a break.

A Fascination Parlor

Parenthetically, Fascination was where I always spent the most time (and money) when I went to the park as a kid – when I wasn’t on the rides, that is.

Basically a bingo game with rubber balls, the attraction for me was the fact that when you won, you’d get these coupons that were worth multiple tickets at the prize redemption center. And if the traveling red light lit up on your machine when you won, the prizes were doubled, I think. I recall winning quite often, and it was exciting to play. Oh, the thrill of winning with five reds…

Tip-em-over, where the point was to get 5 lead milk bottles completely tipped over, and yes, some of them were much heavier than others – we’d put a weighted one or two on the bottom if we were facing some Lou Ferrigno type, or put a heavy one on top if it was a cute girl that we wanted to win. You could say that that particular game was gaffed, but never in such a way that it made it impossible to win. We were instructed to keep our “payout” hovering at about 30% of what we took in, which are a lot better odds than you bet in Vegas or at your average traveling carny. Flukey ball – where you had to bounce a whiffle ball off a character’s nose and into a bucket – was straightforward and just difficult to do, but not impossible – there were no gimmicks there – and the water pistol shooting gallery was a great attraction on hot days.

I recall we’d send annoying kids down to the other end of the park for a “sky hook” or a “counter stretcher”. Everyone knew the gag, so the poor wights would be sent from one end of the park to the other until they got tired.

The redemption center was fun for kids. You pretty much had to have a zillion tickets to get anything worthwhile, but there was always something that you could get with just a few. And there were some very tempting things there, tempting enough to keep the kids playing Skee-Ball or Fascination until their (or their parents’) money ran out.

The Terroride has always been a central attraction at Lagoon, it was located right next to the original Fun House (I have written about that ride elsewhere.)

Terroride exterior
The Terroride original mural

Lagoon was a marvelous place to visit, and a good place to work, for a teenager. After that summer I moved on to bigger and better things, but I won’t forget my experiences there. Robert E. Freed and my mom went to school together, and I knew his family well – it was a tragic loss when he passed away far too early.

Ranch Kimball and Robert Freed inspect the “new” popcorn cart at Lagoon.
This newspaper ad would have been after 1969 when the Lagoon Opera House opened. More vintage Lagoon ads can be seen here.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Gently, Gently Go.

For the longest time, this little plaque has hung by my door, much in the same way as a mezuzah graces the home of the Jewish faithful.

Mahn Mahn Hong

For a number of reasons, it is among my most treasured possessions, those things that have transient value during our sojourn on this pale blue dot, and which often end up in a thrift store or the landfill when they are passed to family who have no connection to them.

The back side looks like this:

This came to me from the effects of my father, who – despite the fact that it was a gift celebrating a marriage that would end 9 years later – obviously treasured it and the sentiment included.

I have already written of Ladson Butler, a man of keen intellect and the heart of a Compassionate Samurai, whom I regret not having known in life. This was a present from him to my parents on the occasion of their wedding.

The hanzi (慢慢行) on the front read “mahn mahn hong” in Cantonese, or “Màn man xíng” in Mandarin. Butler’s translation, “gently, gently go” is accurate – 慢 is “slowly,” and 行 means “go” or “travel.” Other translations have been rendered as “take it easy” or “take care.” The sentiment extended to a visitor who is leaving your home is the same, regardless of how you read it, and brings to mind the gentleness of the well-known “Irish blessing:”

Go n-éirí an bóthar leat
Go raibh an ghaoth go brách ag do chúl
Go lonraí an ghrian go te ar d’aghaidh
Go dtite an bháisteach go mín ar do pháirceanna
Agus go mbuailimid le chéile arís,
Go gcoinní Dia i mbos A láimhe thú.

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

Decades ago, Chase Manhattan ran an investment campaign featuring the “nest egg” as the primary hook:

Charles Addams, the famous cartoonist whose work appeared so frequently in the New Yorker, had a different take on this:

Despite intense effort, it’s still true – you can’t take it with you. Elbert Hubbard, an author and humanist of previous generations, once expressed the same sentiment more poignantly:

“The dead carry in their clenched hands only that which they have given away.”

So this little jewel of mine will remain behind when the bus comes for me, and whether or not someone treasures it after I am gone remains to be seen – I can only hope. But for me it has had immense value.

The Old Wolf has spoken.