The Merry-Go-Round

My father worked at Mountain Park for about 20 years after he retired, and my aunt was there many years before him. He suggested I get a job at the park to earn some money for college. (Little did I know it would become my life.) I was living in Amherst at the time, in a boarding house on a street right next to the UMass Graduate Research Center. I didn't have a car. So every day I'd make the 16 mile trek to the park on my bicycle, rain or shine. This was in June of 1980.

When I first met park supervisor Roger Fortin, he simply asked me what ride I was interested in running. I told him the Merry-Go-Round. He asked my why I wanted to run it, and I told him I loved the music from the organ. Roger smiled and said, "Well, you can have it. Nobody wants to run that ride!"

The ride was set up in the big round pavilion that originally was a dance hall. The front section of the pavilion floor was red concrete. The rest of the flooring was made of red wooden slats and formed the ceiling of the workshop that was underneath the back half of the ride. A thick white line on the floor created a visual barrier about a foot away from the ride platform. Five huge door sections blocked the archways in the front of the building when the park was closed. The doors were made of two sections of wood and corrugated steel, each about eight feet wide and five feet high, and they worked like a standard house window. It took a lot of muscle to raise and lower them. A long pole with a hook was used to grab the doors when they were open. I used to hang in the air holding onto that pole, struggling to pull the door shut. It usually took at least two people.

I was trained by three people. One was Roger, who showed me how to work the clutch. Another was Roger's assistant, Al Munroe, who showed me how to get on and off the ride when it was moving. The other was a woman named Pat, who had been running the ride for a couple of years. She was boisterous and funny, and taught me a lot of little tricks, such as how to manage the entrance gate (lock your foot under it so that patrons can't throw it open) and how to watch for trouble-makers (look everyone in the eye as you take their ticket). On weekends and busy days, there were three people working the ride: one operator, on person at the entrance gate and one person at the exit gate. I enjoyed working at the exit gate because for much of the time I could look out onto the midway and absorb the park atmosphere. When three experienced operators were working together, we'd rotate positions every few rides.

When I started working there, I didn't do any maintenance beyond sweeping the ride at the beginning of the day. As I gained more experience, Al showed me how to repair the leather stirrups on the horses. They'd break often from normal wear and tear. The key to repairing them properly was to make sure the leather was tightly attached to the clasp so it couldn't swing back and forth and wreck the wooden horses. Within the ride's inner scenery was a small cabinet with the necessary tools (an iron block, hammer, leather punch and rivets). All of the jumpers (up-and-down horses) also had a small iron foot pedal, but very few people ever used it. There were also leather reins and seat belts that needed less frequent maintenance.

The only other maintenance was the replacement of the 875 colored light bulbs. When I first started working there, the bulbs colors were randomly scattered about the ride. Pat decided to undertake a huge task: re-arrange all of the lightbulbs so that they had a standard sequence (red-green-orange-blue-yellow). So over the span of a couple months, we used a long metal bulb changer to unscrew the lights. We'd re-order them as we went along, grabbing nearby bulbs to fill in if we ran out of certain colors. (Reds and blues tended to burn out quicker.) I used a long metal step ladder that was stored at the back of the building to replace all the smaller bulbs that surrounded the rounding board sheilds. By the end of the season, all the bulbs had been changed. And it was amazing what a difference that made in the look of the ride. The Merry-Go-Round somehow seemed neater and brighter. The bulbs were all 130 volts, with a heavier filament to help protect against the ride's vibrations. But if the ride was started without first turning on the lights (via a big throw switch inside the scenery), nearly half of the bulbs would burn out the next time they were turned on.

Getting on and off the ride took a bit of practice. Some latino guys worked at the park and loved to show how they could effortlessly do it. One, a big guy named Hector, had an almost balletic style. He would step onto the platform (which flew by at 6 RPM, or about 12 mph on the outside) and gracefully spin his body around to face the opposite direction. Getting on the ride from the inside wasn't a problem, since it moved quite a bit slower. But the outside was really imposing. Al told me to run with the ride, grab a horse's tail and jump on. That's how he and Roger would do it. You had to jump on with your inside foot first. I learned that the hard way. I jumped on with my outside foot and it kicked out from under me. I went tumbling across the floor. After about a month, I was able to run along and jump onto the ride safely. But the way Hector did it looked so cool.... So I worked at imitating how he did it. It took me well into the next season before I could confidently step onto the ride without having to run with it.

Being able to get on and off the ride was important. If you were working by yourself on the ride, from inside the platform (where the controls were) there was no way to stop people from jumping on the ride while it was going full speed. But by standing in the pavilion itself, it was easy to maintain control over the space. If I needed to get back to the controls in a hurry, I could make it there from any point in about five seconds. I would time the ride cycles by the organ, stopping the ride after one-and-a-half songs (which came to about three minutes). The only hazard of standing outside the ride was that I would occasionally get into conversations with the patrons. Eventually someone on the ride would call to me: "Hey! Can we get off this thing?" It would turn out that I had left the ride running for about ten minutes.

The operation of the ride was pretty simple. Philadelphia Toboggan Company's president Henry Auchy along with Chester Albright created one of the most perfect mechanisms for powering a carousel. Along the back half of the inner scenery was a long shelf about four feet high. That's where the operator's station was. A switch below the shelf turned on the 600-volt 16-hp motor. The motor had a thick leather cylinder attached to its shaft. Two 2-inch-wide leather belts wrapped around the cylinder and traveled over to two flywheels that were part of the famous Auchy drive mechanism. One of the belts was twisted into a Moebius strip so that it turned one of the flywheels counter-clockwise (while the other flywheel turned clockwise). The flywheels were each attached to a shaft that ran through the Auchy drive. One shaft sat inside the other with only a few thousandths of an inch clearance. Those shafts ended at leather cones. On top of the leather cones sat the large beveled iron drive wheel. The drive wheel turned a vertical shaft which turned a sisters gear which turned the bull ring which turned the ride. The entire 14 tons of ride rode on a small bronze bearing soaked in oil at the top of the 32-foot-high pine centerpost. The ride also had two oak brake pads, one opposite each cone and above the drive wheel. A large clutch handle at the operator's station could move back and forth, which would raise or lower the entire drive wheel about an eighth of an inch. The clutch mechanism was notched. The handle could be locked all the way forward, which would press the drive against the brakes. It could be vertical, which was neutral with the drive suspended between the cone and the brakes. Or it could be pulled all the way back, which lowered the drive wheel onto the cones (which were periodically covered with talcum powder to keep them slippery).

Running the ride was like driving a manual car; you had to learn how to "feel" the clutch. If you lowered the drive wheel too quickly, the ride would jerk to a start. If you pressed into the brake too quickly, you could damage the ride. It didn't take me long to get the hang of running it. Within a few weeks, I could start the ride so smoothly that people wouldn't even realize the ride had started to move. When the ride was over, I'd shut the power switch off and put the clutch into neutral, allowing the ride to gradually coast to a slower speed. The ride was so well-maintained that it could take quite a while for it to slow down. But once it was down to about 2 rpm, I'd gently apply the brake and bring the ride to a halt. I learned to make the braking process fairly swift, because patrons would always impatiently try to jump off the ride while it was slowly turning. The Auchy mechanism was so well-built that in an emergency I could safely bring the ride to a stop from full speed in one revolution. Luckily there were very few times I ever had to do that; the brake pads would have worn out.

As for all the rides at the park, there was a ticket can to hold the tickets. The can had to be picked up at the office when my shift began and then brought back at the end of the day. If it was a busy day, the can would be at the gate with the gatekeeper. Otherwise, the can was at the operator's station. Before the ride started, I'd walk around the Merry-Go-Round collecting tickets. That also gave me an opportunity to see if there might be any troublemakers or inebriated guests. Then I'd ring the bell at the operator's station, look to make sure everything was secure, and then start the ride. There were always people trying to jump on the ride while it was running. The most common sight was small boys standing close to the ride, rubbing the soles of their shoes on the platform as it spun, trying to get a sense of whether or not they could jump on. I'd usually catch them, and all I'd have to do was hop off the ride in front of them (to their surprise) and shoo them back. They generally weren't a problem. The adults were, usually drunken ones. They come running into the pavilion (when the gates weren't up) and jump onto the spinning ride. The usual result was that they'd be flung violently down onto the floor, tumbling like a log down a hill. Most of the time, before I could get to them they'd get up and stagger out, embarrassed. One of the more memorable incidents was when an intoxicated beach bum with sandy blond hair, cut-offs and no shirt jumped onto the ride. He just barely clung onto an outside horse. He spotted me get on the ride and head for him, so just as quickly he jumped off. The gates were up. They were very long gates, and to make sure they swung properly a long steel cable ran diagonally from the side of the building to the end of the gate. The beach bum didn't know this, however. He made a valiant leap over the gate and was stopped abruptly by the cable and sent flying down onto his back on the concrete. He staggered to his feet before I could get to him, climbed over the gate and disappeared onto the midway. He was easy to spot later on: he was the only shirtless guy with a dark red stripe running across his chest.

On slower days I'd stand at the fence facing the Tempest and chat with Lucky (the Tempest operator) or Mary Ann and Roger from the nearby cotton candy stand. Whether it was busy or slow, I was always accompanied by the old Artizan Factories band organ. The organ had a small microphone inside it that was tied in to the park's sound system. No one could escape its sound. When Roger gave me the signal, I'd flip its switch and the rolls would begin turning, cheerily blaring its tunes though the entire midway, signaling that it was time to open. Late at night I'd stand at the Merry-Go-Round entrance, watching Jay Collins and Roger by the office across from me, waiting for their hand signal to shut the organ down. As soon as I did, all the booths and rides were shuttered and dark. The roller coaster was usually the last to close because it was so hard to hear the sound of the organ from inside the station.

In my second season, Roger began training me on different rides and I eventually operated every one in the park except for the Scrambler and the Flying Jets (and I'm not sure why). The Merry-Go-Round was left in the hands of other operators. Roger eventually made me break man, and I would spend the day walking from ride to ride giving short breaks to the operators. But it was always a thrill to go back to the Merry-Go-Round, where I started. It was like going home again.

In 1993 I rang that bell once again, this time at Heritage State Park when the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round began operation in its new home. It felt as if I had never left. Although my view was Holyoke's famous canal system and not the midway I had grown to love, I felt such joy seeing the elated riders, staring at the colorful bulbs (still in the order that Pat had set) and hearing the glorious band organ that originally led me to the ride.