BY KEVIN WILLIAMS
“This used to be my playground. This used to be our pride and joy. This used to be the place we ran to
That no one in the world could dare destroy….” Madonna, “This Used To Be My Playground”
My first real job was working the Fool-the-Guesser booth at a local amusement park. This fantasy land of old wooden roller coasters, spinning carousels, chugging trains and lazy picnic groves was the working man’s alternative to the much larger, sprawling Kings Island over in the next county. Kings Island had their speedy steel coasters, splashy log flumes, headline entertainment and $40 admission prices (okay, adjusted for inflation). Americana Amusement Park – where I worked - was the place companies or unions held their annual picnics or families went to enjoy a few thrill rides without having to take a second mortgage out on their house.
CAPTIONS: Scenes from my years in the guessing booth.
There were two “guessing booths” inside Americana, one in back by the swinging “Viking ship” and the other in front by the aging, arthritic wooden roller coaster, the park’s signature attraction. My brother had put in a full season guessing peoples ages and weights and in the steamy last gasps of August, one of the guessers quit to move on to greener pastures. In a pinch, my brother turned to me and asked if I’d like to fill in for the final few weekends of the season. I was a shy, quiet, awkward 14, almost 15-year-old with little to say. But once I had a booming microphone I found my voice and I really haven’t been quiet since. I christened myself “Professor Guesser” and eagerly jumped into the job.
One wouldn’t think guessing ages and weights (we also did months of birth) would be considered a hazardous occupation, but it was.
The heaviest person to ever visit my scale weighed in at 409 pounds and he stepped on my toe on the way up to the scale. One irate woman kicked me in the shin when I guessed her age as 8 years older than it actually was. Another woman’s boyfriend almost strangled me when I guessed his girlfriend’s weight 20 pounds higher than it was. And a woman splashed beer on me when I thought she was a grandmother to the child she was with (she was the older sister). It didn’t take me long to – no matter what gender – realize the safest route was to guess low on everything. It was a cheap way to make someone’s day and kicks turned to tears and high-fives. I remember a woman looking at me, her eyes dewy because I guessed her as 38 instead of the 53 (or may be she just had dust in her eye from the passing steel-yard trains that rumbled just outside the park). One portly African-American graying grandmother locked me in a bear hug and wouldn’t let go after I guessed her weight 70 pounds lower than it actually was. I have to give customers credit, it took courage to step on the scale for the whole world (at least the world before YouTube to see).
There was never really an escape from this job. Some weekends I would end my shift at 11 p.m. and then spend the next 7 hours dreaming I was guessing. It was an unpaid shift.
I would spend the following two summers working the Fool-the-Guesser booth, sending away happy customers with their stuffed animals and roach clips (the owner was ahead of his time) a reward for stumping the hapless guesser (oh, but I knew their real weight). There were warm Junes and Julys with cotton candy, summer romances, and low wages. It was a poor man’s park, but it was rich in decency and wholesomeness, a throwback to another era when people didn’t always need the biggest, fastest, or tallest to be entertained. Granted perhaps the years have tinted the fog of time with a blush of unrealistic rose. The owners of the park ran a tight ship and workers were rewarded with minimum wages and disciplinary write-ups. But there was still an air of innocence about the place, a carefree carnival where one could escape for a few hours. In one of the above photos, I'm wearing a wrist-watch, something long ago displaced by the constant time-piece of my cellphone. Of course, when these photos were taken in the late 80s, cell phones hadn't yet stormed the world. So I would leave my house for a shift, and there was no checking in, texting, just the unfettered freedom of a still disconnected world. I'm not sure that was a terrible thing.
I was preparing for one last summer at Americana before going away to college, but a journalism career came calling suddenly.
Today, Americana sits empty, neglected and decaying. The park is on my mind today because it was featured not too long ago on the History Channel as an example of what happens to such a place after being abandoned. The park closed its doors for good in 2002. The rust and rot will one day reclaim the last of the park, but the vibrant memories of a simpler, sweeter, slower time will remain. For me, it was the last gasp of a world untransformed by the internet and adulthood and a chance to hone a rare skill. Remember, if you ever see me at a book-signing or a talk, I know your weight.