Friday, August 18, 2006
Modern roller coasters have height requirements and minimally they ask that riders be at least 48 inches tall. It is a good policy and one that went into effect after a period in the 1970's where several smallish teenage girls were killed when thrown from the newly designed metal curved coasters. Safety restraints were also redesigned to keep riders in their seats. Wildwood's boardwalk was home to the "Jack Rabbit" an older wooden roller coaster without height restrictions. The design of these older coasters may have been higher and with a larger vertical drop than the steel coasters that debuted in the early 1970's but were generally safer since the track itself did not twist. The Jack Rabbit was built in 1919 and it's was situated on Playland Pier and extended onto Schellenger Avenue. The sound of the wooden cars creeping up the tracks and the screams as it roared down the other side was the background music for a day at the beach. At night the carnival lights that ran up it's side beckoned riders and watchers on the street and on the boards. My first memory of The Jack Rabbit is 1963 and I am riding to the beach in a stroller. I recall standing up in the coach and screaming for my father to stop so that I could watch the cars as they climb the hill and feel the vibration as it zips past us street side. I want to ride! The whole family explains that I am too small and too young (I am 2 years and 8 months old) to ride a roller coaster. My oldest sister, who is nearly 14 is especially against my plan. Going home from the beach later in the day I make everyone stop again so that I can watch the roller coaster. I begin a chant, "Rollie Coaster", that I continue the whole way home and as the week goes by my dad joins in the song. "Rollie Coaster. Roll...ie. Coas...ter". I am in the midst of my first obsession. I watch the Jack Rabbit for hours, I talk about it incessantly. I sing about it. I wonder what it feels like to be in the cars as they climb slowly, deliberately up the incline and I ask them to push the coach as close as possible so that I can feel the breeze as it flies down the other side. I want to ride so badly. The last evening on the boardwalk the ride operator tells my mother that it would be okay for me to ride as long as she goes along. My sister is nearly hysterical as my mother and I climb into the car and the man wraps the belt tightly around my small waist. The smell of engine oil and damp wood are forever linked to this moment. My mother wraps her arms and legs around me and I am so short that I can't see much in front of me. I hold on tight as the operator releases the brake and the car starts it's ascent. I am many things but I am not afraid. I am amazed by the speed and surprised when my bottom lifts off the seat. I feel the damp salt air more acutely than on the ground and I am bewildered by all the things on the rooftops of the nearby buildings. It is over too fast and I am back on the boardwalk, climbing out of the car, full of news of the experience. My sister is tearful waiting for us and I ask her to come along next time on the "Rollie Coaster". Over the years I rode on hundreds of coasters but I would always return to the Jack Rabbit and held it as my favorite, even after bigger, faster and newer designs came along. In the summer of 1984 I rode my last time with my middle sister Roseann (the oldest one having sworn off coasters for good sometime in the late 60's). It was as good as the first time especially since we decided ahead of time to scream like little girls on all the hills. and it was bittersweet since we'd already heard that it would be torn down in the fall. We walked away laughing, the Jack Rabbit was a really good run.