I had a bit of a slow afternoon yesterday, so I clocked out early and joined my family at our little Oaks Park.
I suspect that most cities of any size and age have at least one of these old carnivals, leftovers from the turn of the last century when "entertainment" was something you had to leave the house to find.
This particular one opened in 1905 as "The Oaks" - you can see why in the picture to the left. The oak trees that forested the river island bar still stand over the little park.
The story is that The Oaks had a serious rivalry with the "other" entertainment game in town in 1905 - the Lewis and Clark Exposition rising in what had been the swamps of northwest Portland. According to the Portland History website I linked to above "The Oaks" won, opening a couple of days before the Exposition.
I have a real affection for these old amusement parks. I spent a good portion of my childhood several miles away from something called Lenape Park, a similar old carny as close to the Brandywine Creek as The Oaks was to the Willamette River. The late Victorian carousel and the ginormous wooden roller coaster seemed gothic and exciting to me, child of the pre-electronic age that I was, and my love for the turn-of-the-century parks has stuck with me to this day. So I appreciate the lingering small-town, slow paced feel of Oaks Park for the ghost of the past that it is.
My kids, however, could care less.
They like Oaks Park because they like the bumper cars, and the carousel, and the kiddie rides (yes, even the Boy, who is really too old for the tiny rides his little sister enjoys). We spent the better part of three hours there yesterday riding the rides, eating hot dogs and curly fries, and dodging the showers that scudded past like unhappy memories.
The Boy measured himself against the go-kart scale again. He's so close. He said that he thought his next growth spurt would put him over the bar, and so he's even thinking about eating a vegetable if that will help.
I doubt it'll happen, but you never know; he REALLY wants to drive those go-karts.
They both loved them some bumper cars. I honestly don't recall how many times they rode them, but it was a lot.
Little Miss even conned me into riding; she wanted to drive and her brother, in the way of big brothers everywhere, wouldn't give up the wheel. She needed a co-driver, though, because her little legs couldn't reach the pedal. So I pushed and she steered and the whole macguffin was vastly entertaining. There's something truly primeval about the instincts aroused by bumper cars. When the lights come on and the sparks start to fly from the tin flag at the top of the long pole even the gentlest heart is gripped with an overwhelming urge to ram and destroy. Something about seeing the gleeful expression on your little daughter's face as she accelerates and slams some stranger backwards into the wall makes even the most doting daddy skeptical about the whole "sugar and spice" thing.
So we whiled away the afternoon at the silliest of diversions; going fast and spinning around,
Behind us the gaudy lights and carny noises faded into the spatter of rain. But climbing the hill away from the old oak grove I could still see the cotton-candy glow against the darkening sky, like the faint corona of a carnival crowd a hundred years ago looking then for the same foolish pleasures we had just found and left behind us.