They say that people come and go from our lives, some leaving deeper marks than others. Some are bound by blood, some by choice, and some by a memory of a time or place. Walking Chester at the end of summer inevitably draws my mind to a memory of a place that owned all that summer is, and the adventures of eight random people that worked there.
I was a tutor in a high school during the school year. But in 2005, when my children were old enough to be on their own over summer vacation, I got a job at Geauga Lake Amusement Park. If you grew up around Cleveland, you know Geauga Lake. If not, I’m going to take you there but from the inside. Geauga Lake used to be across a lake from Sea World, and it was a hometown version of Cedar Point or Six Flags. By that I mean it was smaller, fewer rides, not the really high coasters, but essentially all the fun. Truth is, it was one of the nearby places that had seasonal jobs that paid decently. I was only there for two and a half months. In and out, make a few bucks. Little did I know.
When I started, one of the first things they have you do is to get a uniform. The uniform consisted of a white collar shirt with khaki pants. These clothes were not made for women who are short and chubby. It was awful. I had to get pants to fit my waist and hem them about six inches. The shirt was fine but we had to wear it tucked in. Oh, and don’t forget the nice ascot. No matter. Misery loves company and we were all in it together.
My job was in the rides department office. My hours were from 7:00am until 2:30pm. It was about an hour away, so I left home at 6:00. When I pulled in the gigantic parking lot, nobody was there. The rides building was a little yellow and brown squatty building down a sidewalk outside of the park. I’d go through a side gate and there I was. The sidewalk was sandwiched between a big wooden roller coaster and a creek. 7:00 am was early, and I could see the maintenance workers still with their lights on, working on the ride, checking and double checking. Every so often an empty car would careen past being tested. On the other side, I smelled the creek. To this day, I can’t tell you what it smelled like except that if I smell it, it takes me back. The frogs would still be singing when I arrived; rain or shine it seemed. I’d punch in with my badge and it was off to the races.
The park itself was empty of guests at 7:00am, but workers are there 24 hours. Most of the employees are in high school or college. Some are international and come to the US only to work there. These are the ones that work all night, then all day, then sleep for a few hours and do it again. I honestly never saw anyone work as hard as they did. The rides office was a beehive of activity each morning. My job was payroll; entering and fixing errors in ADP. I learn quickly and became good at it. I learned that the lifeguards made the most money. They had the skill and responsibility and were kind of on another plane. The rides operators (and us) considered rides the best department in the park. We were the thrill seekers, the cool ones. There were eight of us in the office. We all had to fill in if we were needed—I usually didn’t have to because, well, people want to get paid. But besides doing payroll, one of my jobs was an hour or so on dispatch.
Dispatch was the heartbeat of the rides. We had a manager, Andre. His code was 201. We had codes for every possible scenario. I don’t remember most of them but I think 18 or 19 was the code for an irate customer holding up a ride line. There was one for a storm and the closing of the rides, one for vomit on a ride, and our favorite, code 37. The script was, “Base to 201, Mr. Hyde’s is 37.” Mr. Hyde’s was a ride that slowly went up, and then dropped passengers down quickly. Mr. Hyde’s was perpetually broken. Did you figure out the code? Yep…37 meant broken. Actually it meant broken without customers on it. 38 was not so lucky. We uttered that phrase probably 3 times an hour. At one point maintenance opened a secondary office at the base of Mr. Hyde’s. One of them was stationed there waiting for the inevitable code 37. At the end of the season we got shirts with the top ten reasons to work in the rides office…Mr. Hyde’s was number 7.
One of my best memories, outside of when the log ride leaked and flooded the midway, was when my kids came to visit after work one day. I was able to get a sizeable discount, and of course I got in free, so it was fine to go in the afternoon. We rode the water ride about ten times since my daughter loved it. We ate fries and junk, and the kids went on the bigger coasters. We ended the evening at the water park. I don’t think they realized how much that night meant to me.
I could go on with stories forever; the lake that must be half full of passenger items from the ferry, the operator who sprayed water on his ride and told Andre it was wet from the rain so he could just sit there (even though the rest of the rides were up and running…nice try),. There were the storms when everyone piled into the office sitting on desks laughing and talking. I could tell you that for the international students who stayed in the dorms, there were midnight movies in the water park, with popcorn and snacks. There were carp as big as dolphins (maybe not, but you get the idea) that we could feed with fish food for 25 cents. Most of all there were people laughing with their families and friends. I used to walk at lunch just to see them. There was an excitement in the air; a fantasy world of fun. I was a part of it.
Geauga Lake closed two years later in 2007. The water park stayed open until 2016 but it’s gone now too. It was bought, and now sits vacant. Last night I watched a video of a drone flying over the now overgrown park. I literally cried. Usually I like abandoned buildings and sites, but not this time. The structure was there without the heart, the people.
I know things change. My elementary school was torn down, and soon my children’s probably will be. Our favorite restaurants change hands, stores come and go. I think what bothers me about Geauga Lake is that some of the coasters are still there. It’s like they are waiting for someone to send a car down to test it…for Mr. Hyde’s to be code 37 again, and for the girl who loved the water ride so much she went on it over and over. One summer it was all mine. I shared it with seven strangers, Katie, Greg, Michelle, Melissa, Jennifer, Patrick, and Carlita. We were rides, we ruled. Number one on the shirt? Without dispatch the park doesn’t run! Two and a half months can form a lifetime of memories. Sometimes that just has to do.