As I watched, its head tilted
back and forth almost inquisitively, as if it were trying to
figure out what I was. Whether I might be worth eating. I had
turned five years old a few months before that early summer
evening and I don’t remember what I thought of Kennywood in
general at the time, other than the fact that it was fun to
watch the bright lights and the grownups spinning, laughing
and screaming on all the colorful rides that seemed to me so
big and scary. Also that I was scared of the ponies, one of
which had made me cry because it seemed to me that he kept turning
his head to look at me as I clung so desperately to the saddle
horn. Four feet would be such a long fall!
Over the next several years as
I turned six, then seven, I inevitably got braver and ventured
closer to what I could now read was the “Ghost Ship”. Of course
I made sure my mom or dad was with me when I did. I wasn’t that
brave! Now I could look under the overhanging roof. I could
watch the little wheeled boats with the two-seater benches in
them buzz along their track. In a set of doors that opened with
a “crash!” to the left and out again way down to the right.
I could look up and see the ancient, rotting fish nets hanging
like filthy spider webs from the ceiling. Hanging amongst them
were little grinning white human skulls. Toward the back of
this portico area was what looked like a very old seawall made
of moss-covered stone pilings. It extended most of the building’s
length, with small cave-like recesses here and there. Beyond
this, the open sea with rock jetties extending out away. This
was actually a very detailed painting, rendered in various shades
of stormy dismal gray that covered most of the building’s façade.
You could see what looked like the broken masts of ships wrecked
long ago on these outcroppings.
On a raised platform beyond the
weather-worn sea wall were two deep, dark caves. My mom pointed
toward the one on the left--“See the old fashioned ghost?” That
phrase would stay with me through the years, so simple and descriptive
it was of what I was watching emerge from the cave on the left:
A sheeted and definitely “old fashioned” ghost, gaunt and skeletal
and blackened with age wheeled out of the cave in a simple plank
boat. His bony fingers clutched the sides of his craft and his
empty eye sockets gazed out past me--past us all--into eternity.
He navigated to his left and disappeared into the other cave.
A Flying Dutchman, he and his boat both rotted to the same color
by the centuries, condemned to circle forever.
they see him inside?” I wondered. “Probably something like him,”
my mom said ominously. Well, not me! No sir! Not tonight! But
I did try hard to see into the mystery as I stood just outside
the railing and peered as intently as I could up the tunnel
the little boats buzzed into before hitting the crash doors.
Not easy. Two sets of doors it seemed. The first almost closed
by the time the boat reached the second. But maybe…maybe…something?
Something glowing with unearthly greenish light?
Late one evening when I was maybe
seven and it was almost time to go home my dad told me to pick
one last ride. I was riding quite a few of the grownup rides
now, and I was very brave. Even the ponies didn’t scare me anymore.
I looked right back at them!
“Can you take me…on the Ghost
Ship?” There! I’d finally said it!
“Oh, not tonight okay? It’s all dark
and stuff jumps out at you where you don’t expect it. Another
“Okay.” Safe. But oh, the next
year… My end of year third grade class Kennywood picnic. My
cousins came to join us at the park around lunch time. My cousin
Cindy came running toward me. I was big and brave at eight.
She was bigger and braver still at thirteen. She’d never dared
the Ghost Ship either. Not yet. First thing:
“Will you go on the Ghost Ship with
me?” “Ummm…I…” But I really had no choice, did I? Any and all
delaying tactics were only temporary. I didn’t eat much at lunch.