This is a little slice of nostalgia about my first visit to an amusement park. (It was published in our daily newspaper in its special section commemorating the 350th anniversary of the founding of Montreal.)
Back in the innocent fifties, in pre-La Ronde days, there was Belmont Park. Remember?
It’s 1951. You’re six years old, fidgeting with excitement as you ride the #17 streetcar with your parents. You’re crouched on your knees on the seat, staring out the window at the unfamiliar landscape whizzing by. You twist around to obey your father’s request to “sit properly,” and you notice the criss-cross pattern etched on your kneecaps by the hard basket-weave bench. “Cartierville!” bellows the conductor, as the streetcar reaches the end of the line.
Your parents lead you to the entrance gate. You barely glance at the “Admission: 35¢” sign; you are bedazzled by the din, the people, the gaiety, the laughter… the crazy laughter! Who is that?!
You enter the grounds, your father and mother clutching each of your sweaty little hands. You look about in awe; you can’t even see where it all ends, the crowds and colours seem to go on forever. Oh—now you see who is laughing so loudly: it is a woman, but not real, no, she is a huge sort of puppet, laughing uproariously, head bobbing, trying to catch her…breath?? The big sign under her, which you can read, says THE LAUGHING LADY. You walk on, her guffaws trailing after you.
The first edible treats you spy—and beg your father for—are those glistening honey donuts. Plump donut balls soaked in honey are served to you in a little cardboard carton, complete with toothpick. M-m-m-mm… bliss in a box.
As you meander through the maze of children, grown-ups, and various whirling contraptions called “rides,” you and your parents come upon Kiddieland. Your father joins the queue at the ticket wicket as you hop alongside, pleading, “Get lots of tickets, Daddy! I want to go on all the rides!” A big spender can buy long strips of tickets at once. Some “amusements” require only one ticket, others two or three. But you don’t have to worry about all that; your father will take care of it. The cost—15¢ per ticket.
You find the ponies, boats, train, bumper cars, and carousel rides thrilling—but wish they lasted a bit longer. Soon you’re ready for lunch. Your mother claims a shady picnic table, and lays out tuna sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs and celery sticks, along with thermos, grapes and purple plums. Your father supplements this simple fare with a treat from a concessionnaire: crispy golden patates frites, in the familiar cartons, topped with toothpicks.
Your stupendous day continues with more rides, and gritty pink puffs of cotton candy. Your father tries his luck at one of the midway booths. It costs him a dime for his vain attempt to win a panda bear for his precious daughter, but that’s okay—he seems to have fun trying.
The man with the broken front tooth guesses your weight wrong, so you win a kewpie doll. You love her! She looks so glamorous with her red lipstick and feathery plumes. True, her “skin” dents a little where you squeeze too hard, but you’ll just be more careful from now on. What does “kewpie” mean? Your parents don’t know.
The Haunted House is not really so scary, because your father insists on informing you that the skeletons are made of cardboard, and that the music comes from a record player. You’re actually more frightened on the short boat trip on the “Back River”—you prefer to have your feet on solid ground.
On the way home, the clickety-clack of the streetcar lulls you to sleep. Your merry-go-round dreams will fade in your memory, but never disappear.
In 1971, you return to Belmont Park with your own children. Somehow, the magic is tarnished. Your teeth hurt just looking at the honey donuts—now 75¢! Wasps plague you, litter is everywhere, and look! The park has shrunk! You can easily see the river which marks the northern boundary. You feel disillusioned.
It’s 1991. Your kids are grown. Belmont Park has vanished, a victim of condo-mania. You think back on that Cartierville amusement park of your childhood, the clamor, the enchantment, a wondrous place that stretched to the ends of the earth, the endlessness of your imagination. You prefer to remember it that way.