Thursday, May 15, 2008

I Never Caught the Brass Ring

For some strange reason last night, I began to think about the beautiful carousel I used to ride as a child. I suppose all this doom and gloom has triggered a defense mechanism in my brain.

I grew up in a totally secular Jewish extended family in a neighborhood called Logan in North Philadelphia. I lived in a row house at Eighth and Rockland Streets. A short walk from our home was Hunting Park (which my younger brother and I mistakenly called Honey Park for most of our childhood). We spent many Saturday afternoons picnicing there and feeding the birds with stale crumbs of bread from the White Palace Bakery where my grandfather worked. The park was large and beautiful back in the 1950's before the Schuylkill Expressway Extension cut a large swath through.

A very large gazebo of stone and concrete stood beside a small lake at the heart of it. I was told that once John Philip Sousa's band played his marches in the gazebo, but that was before I was born in 1950. I don't ever remember listening to a performance of musicians in the gazebo. I do remember my father swimming in the lake. It was my first encounter with anyone swimming in water altogether and I remember being amazed that it was even possible and that my father had this skill. On my mother's side, I am convinced that there is an inborn genetic fear of water. Those genes, I inherited from my mother. On the fourth of July, every year, we would carry folding chairs and blankets down to the park and watch amazing fireworks displays that seemed to go on for hours.

The park had the most beautiful carousel imaginable housed in a special pavilion. In the winter, large window openings would be covered with boards to protect it. The horses and other animals were intricately carved wood with glass eyes. I especially remember the silvery armored horse and an ostrich. The elaborate trim was painted gold and flowery scenes from the bygone Victorian era were hand-painted and reflected in large mirrors. The booming music was like a calliope. The ride cost a nickel, and if I was lucky and persistent, my mother and father would sometimes allow us to go on twice. I really liked the horses that went up and down. The armored horse was on the outside and was stationery. When it was crowded, my sister, Adele, who is seven years older than I, would stand at the pole next to it to try to catch the brass ring.

The brass ring is probably a true thing of the past, most likely because owners were sued over broken fingers, wrists, or falling-off accidents. “Catching the brass ring” used to be a common idiom for getting a lucky break. As the ride began, an employee of the carousel would load a stack of silvery metal, approximately 1-inch diameter rings into a slanted metal holder. The one brass ring would be randomly inserted among the others. After the carousel had made a few rotations the holder would be swung out within reach of the riders. If you were a tall teenager, which Adele was, and a little bit skilled at it, you would be able to sit on a horse and reach with a finger to grab a ring out of the holder each time you went around. If you were lucky and caught the brass ring, you received a free ride when you returned it. I remember at least one occasion when Adele caught the brass ring. Needless to say, I could not wait to be old enough and tall enough to reach for the rings.

I never had the chance. One summer, the boards did not come down from the windows and we were told that the carousel was under repair. It never reopened and to my dismay several years later, I found that it had been sold and transported elsewhere. At the time, I had no idea where. After that, every carousel or merry-go-round (one goes counter-clockwise and the other clockwise) would be compared to the treasured one of my childhood. I think I remember learning that it was the third oldest carousel in the country.

A couple of years ago, I saw a story in a local newspaper about the carousel and learned that it had been transported to an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. Since then, I have harbored a desire to travel there to see it again. I have also harbored a secret thought that if I ever won the lottery, I would buy it back, restore it to its full glory, and make it available to children in a park where I could visit it regularly. This morning, I resolved to Google it to see if there are any photographs on the net or videos of it in action. The first armored horse for which I found a photo was definitely not the one I remembered. The second one seems to be the one I remember but painted in bright colors instead of the silver armor I remember. From what I have been reading today, my carousel seems to have been dismantled and the pieces scattered among various no-so-grand carousels and museums all over Sandusky.

I did get to catch the rings a few times, though, before they disappeared. When I was in my late twenties and early thirties and took my young children to vacation in Ocean City, NJ, Gillian's arcade on the Boardwalk had a carousel with rings and I rode it as much as I could without seeming like a complete lunatic. The memories of all that are so sweet! If I ever do win the lottery, I might try anyway to reconstruct the whole thing for my grandchildren and their friends, park included.


sabasenders said...

I so sorry that you did not get the opportunity to get the brass ring. But you did get the gold ring. You have been riding the merry go round of life. I feel the gold ring is a wonderful substitute. By the way I too rode the one in O.C. NJ. and was fast enough to catch several rings at one time, but, alas not the brass one. Maybe this summer we'll check it out agaim.

Anonymous said...

What about all the carousel horses at the House on the Rock that we visited in Wisconsin?

Anonymous said...

I got to this page by accident.
:) thanks.
Thousands of miles, countries, oceans and generations apart, we're all kids who know how it would feel to catch a brass ring. I know how sun beams would feel on my eye lids when I, with eyes closed, would explore the ring with my fingers, to get a good feel of it, a great treasure, which, without hesitation, I'd trade for 3 minutes of the counter-clockwise dance with lights.
Thank you for the story. From Russia with luv, Lulu.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I also grew up near Hunting Park and went on lucky summer evenings with my Dad to the Merry Go round in the pretty green house. Oh what a treasure in my memory. I thank you so much for the chance to share this memory with you.
I also went swimming in the lake and saw the fireworks. What a special time for us to have a safe and beautiful park in walking distance.
Have you been to the new Merry Go Round on Race St near the bridge. It is also nice and kids are going with there schools to see it. Thanks Fran

Marilyn said...

Thanks for your tip, Fran. I lived at Eighth and Rockland. I will check out the merry-go-round on Race Street first chance I get. You might want to check out another of my blog posts about a restored one very similar to the one I remember which I discovered about a month ago at Glen Echo Park in Maryland. It is worth the trip!