Those who know me very well are likely aware that for three consecutive summers in the mid-70s, I operated a roller coaster with four other guys in a huge New England amusement park called Riverside. Spread along the banks of the Connecticut River in Agawam, MA, the place was a teeming, humid metropolis of neon, sticky pavement, Saturday night stock car races, halter tops, endless screams, vomit and blasting music. Working the Wildcat coaster remains to this day the most fun job I’ve ever had. At roughly $2.20 an hour, it’s a good thing that it was.
The Wildcat wasn’t a traditional “train” coaster, but a smaller, speedier one, five individual cars making hairpin turns and drops that had to be stopped manually with two sets of hand brakes. The lines were enormous and endless, the job unbearably repetitive and tedious, but the worker camaraderie and packs of cute available women who visited the ride made up for that.
Forty years ago this August I was fired, along with my foreman friend Paul, by our idiot of a boss for reasons I won’t bother to elaborate on, but I can still feel what it was like to work those hand brakes and empty the rolling cars as if it were yesterday. The job left a massive impression and played a huge part in building the character I have today (quick-thinking workaholic wiseass), and it ran so deep I wrote a coming-of-age screenplay based on the experience called The Madcat about ten years later. Finding no takers, I turned it into a novel twenty years after that, attracted a good New York agent and nearly got it published.
As for Riverside? The park was never the same after I left, soon getting sold and warping into the more sprawling and corporate Six Flags New England. New rides were added, old ones jettisoned, with the Wildcat being one of them. It was German-made, so I imagined it was easy to disassemble and transport—or toss into a junkyard. After spending so many hours working the Wildcat, and riding it at least 200 times in three years, I almost didn’t want to know what became of the thing. Hell, I had even filmed a short Super 8 movie on it starring my younger brother! Something I never owned but was a big part of my life had seemingly vanished from the earth.
Surfing Google Images for possible artwork for a company newsletter article on our first summer jobs, I did a search for Wildcat coaster Riverside and linked to this year-old blog on a Six Flags New England Website. Eureka! The Wildcat was gone from Riverside and sent to Rocky Point Park in Warwick, RI in 1982, where it was renamed the Cyclone. Rocky Point closed in 1995, and the “Cyclone” along with it.
But it refused to die. Sandspit Cavendish Beach Park on Prince Edward Island bought the ride, moved it to Canada, and it’s still in operation today! There it is in the background, nestled against the pines, lording over what looks to be a fairly relaxed, family-friendly spot. As I sat mesmerized watching the YouTube video below, it was obvious the ride has become a bit slowier and clankier in its 45 years, but the first drop is still spectacular, the climactic metal whirlpool of track dizzying.
It was like discovering an old friend you thought had been lost in Vietnam decades ago was alive and well and living in a forest cabin. It made my day like nothing has in quite a while, and one thing is certain: a little road trip up to New Brunswick and across to Prince Edward Island may be in the near future. I’ll bring along a plate of cookies or a big tube of hand moisturizer for the operators, and maybe they’ll even let me work the brakes.