In The Weeds: My First Kiss Went a Little Like This
I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, where not many exciting things happen. When something does happen, it’s usually some unfathomable tragedy that gets replayed for years on National Geographic or Court TV.
Things like this.
So when I say that the story I’m going to tell you today is the story of one of the most exciting moments of my life, you’ll need to consider the actual context of my life.
Stan Nelson was the owner and operator of Wichita’s once iconic but now closed and dilapidated amusement park, Joyland, and he died last week. When I saw the news, a slew of involuntary memories started playing through my mind like a musical montage, kinda like this… except set to Wurlitzer music.
Joyland was an attraction from another time. There were $.99 cent admission nights. There were report card nights where you got a certain number free ride tickets for each A, B, and C. And then there was the most eagerly anticipated of all – school night. This was the night that the park was closed to everyone except all the kids from your school, and you got to run around with absolutely no supervision. I suppose there must have been adults there. But I don’t recall seeing any. There certainly weren’t any grown-ups there to stop the tween passion at the center of this story.
Joyland was no sparkly, corporate amusement park with fancy things like safety inspections and ride engineers. Even at 13, you got the clear sense that things were probably fixed on an as-it-could-be-afforded basis, with duct tape as the probable tool of choice. Therefore, only the kids who listened to grunge music and wished for a dramatic public death rode the rickety wooden roller coaster. It was very, very…..very vintage. And terrifying. There were always stories of somebody’s cousin’s friend’s sister who had died after falling out of the roller coaster. But seriously, I think somebody did die once.
You also couldn’t go anywhere in the park without hearing the ear splitting tunes of Louie, the super creepy clown, who played the Wurlitzer pipe organ. His mechanical body moved in nightmarish patterns that would often change from what you remembered from your last visit, or he would be missing his clown hat and just be bald. Shudder. Since the park closed in 2006, several acts of vandalism have occurred, and it was recently reported that Louie has gone missing. All I can say about that is he needs to be hunted down and chopped into pieces before he kills someone.
The rest of the park included several amusement park staples like the Log Jam, the Scrambler, the bumper cars, and the big pirate ship that swings back and forth. But I have digressed for too long. The exciting part of this story takes place in the infamous Whacky Shack.
The Whacky Shack takes two riders in a coaster-type car through two stories of darkness. There’s the occasional scary scene, like a spider on a giant web, but for the most part, it’s just dark. It was my 7th grade school night at Joyland in 1989 and I was “going with” David. We had never actually spoken to each other in person, but David and I had made it clear through various intermediaries that we found each other cute and were therefore clearly “going together.”
I was 13 years old, and David was in my same grade but seemed to be about 20 years old with a strong five-o-clock shadow and miles of confidence. The details of how we got onto the Whacky Shack ride together are hazy, but one thing remains crystal clear 21 years later. David gave me my first kiss, and it remains to this day the best kiss of my life. A few turns into the ride, David gently turned my face toward his and gave me a gentle open-mouthed kiss that tasted like cotton candy with Drakkar under notes.
The euphoric adrenaline rush that followed has not been replicated in 21 years. After exiting the ride, I was extremely intoxicated with love and had to work hard to simply walk a straight line. Of course, David and I didn’t speak for the rest of the night. We just glanced at each other as we walked around with our respective packs. I felt like Ewan McGregor sinking into the carpet after taking his first hit of heroin in Trainspotting. I felt like Peter Parker after being bitten by a radioactive spider. Lights were brighter, colors were sharper and sounds were in Dolby.
When my mom picked me up, she offered to take me to Dairy Queen for a dipped cone, which before the Whacky Shack would have been a pretty major source of excitement. But now…life had changed. “Meh, whatever, sure Mom. “ Once I was removed from the warm glow of a summer evening and under the florescent lights of DQ, I felt exposed. Moms have a superpower that leads kids to believe they can read their minds. I’m sure she was none the wiser, but my paranoia set in quick.
“So, how was it? Did you have fun?”
“I guess. Whatever.”
“What did you do? What rides did you ride?”
“WHY ARE YOU GIVING ME THE THIRD DEGREE! GAWD, YOU NEVER TRUST ME! THIS IS SO UNFAIR! I’M GOING TO THE CAR!”
Thanks be to baby Jesus that I’ll not be raising a teenage girl.
Even today, when I imagine that night at Joyland, I can feel a small flock of butterflies go through my belly. I suppose I could be sad or forlorn that my best kiss ever was with a slightly-bearded, 13-year-old boy more than 20 years ago. But some things (like your first taste of perfectly cooked filet mignon, your first sip of an expensive Amarone, your first hit of heroin and your first kiss) are supposed to be like that.
R.I.P. Stan Nelson. Thanks for the memory.
Louie the Clown. Please somebody find him … before it’s too late.
Proof that he is neither man nor machine.