October 25, 2004
from Paul Dini
And I only am escaped, alone, to tell thee. Job 1:17
Now is the Halloween season, when people young and old take on the likenesses of monsters. This is both fun and therapeutic, for one way of showing your mastery of fear is to dress as something that scares you. Kids understand this, which is naturally why there are so many devilish and destructive creatures (Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, Dick Chaney) sprinkled in with the more innocent cowboys, firemen and fairy princesses on trick or treat night. Many believe that impersonating or mocking the demons of our childhood prepares us for dealing with the real-life fears well face as adults. That said, I wont be dressing up as a scary image from my childhood this year, but as the Flash. And if the sight of me in red spandex doesnt qualify as scary I dont know what does.
Anyway, back to childhood, that is to say, my first one. When I was a kid the two things that scared me the most were hypodermic needles and Moby Dick. Yes, that Moby Dick, the famous great white whale. The needle thing is easier to understand after all, kids get a lot of shots and shots hurt. Of course it only added to my phobia that my pediatrician had decorated his examining room with big framed prints of realistically rendered kids comically wincing as they got injections. No rainbows or Winnie-the-Poohs for that sadistic sawbones office. As a result, I still have to psych myself up a few days in advance to get my annual flu shot, and when my current Doc needs a blood sample I always ask him to wait until I skin my knee and then collect it in a Dixie cup.
As for my irrational fear of Moby Dick, I trace that back not to Herman Melvilles classic sea-going novel, nor to any movie or TV version of the tale, but to a long-defunct Boston area amusement park called Pleasure Island. In operation a mere eleven years between 1959 to 1969, Pleasure Island was to be the Northeasts answer to Disneyland, a theme park simply fraught with 19th century New England nautical imagery. Everything from an old Massachusetts whaling dock to a dark ride chronicling the Wreck of the Hesperus was lovingly recreated on a hundred or so acres abutting a couple of natural and man-made ponds in Wakefield, MA. The park also threw a nod to the then-popular TV Western craze with a small frontier area including a petting farm, a pan for gold area and an indoor ride down The Old Chisholm Trail.
The showpiece ride at Pleasure Island however, was the Moby Dick Hunt. Here a crew of hearty whalers set sail on a round the world voyage in search of the legendary white whale, who actually did appear at the rides finale. I had heard much of this ride from the other kids on Mt. Vernon St. in Needham, and I was anxious to experience it for myself.
As luck would have it, the Saturday my dad promised to take me to P.I. was the same weekend the Three Stooges were to be making a live appearance at the park. Now at age four I was all about the Stooges, and the prospect of seeing them in person just added to my aura of glee. As we set out on the freeway I saw a couple of colorful cartoony billboards depicting the fun to be had at Massachusetts largest family amusement spot. They even showed an image of a guy riding a giant smiling whale. Hey, maybe Id get to ride the whale, too! What the hell did I know? I was four and believed everything.
Upon entering the park, I remember being greeted by none other than Popeye the sailor, who happened to be the officially sanctioned walk-around costumed cartoon character mascot of Pleasure Island. At that young age I was already familiar with the black and white Seegar-inspired version of Popeye from the old Max Fleischer cartoons (I liked him, he grumbled under his breath and beat people) and I knew the less funny, less animated white uniformed Popeye from the then-current television cartoons. Only this live mascot was unlike any version of Popeye I had ever seen. This grotesquerie wore a spongy mask that made him look more like a tragic victim of acromegaly than the beloved one-eyed sailor of my TV Saturday mornings. Also, his trademark Popeye forearm muskles were merely overstuffed sleeves in a badly-fitting costume. Hey look, Dad remarked. Theres Popeye. Lets get a picture. Sorry, dad -- at that point I was darting around a soft drink stand, determined to put as much distance as possible between me and the creep in the worst Popeye costume ever.
Once I ditched Creepeye, Dad and I made our way to Pleasure Islands tiny Show Bowl (think of a gazebo with delusions of grandeur) and though the area in front of the stage was thick with people, I was relieved to see the show hadnt started yet. No Stooges in sight, just a couple of ancient, sickly men moving things around on stage. Then to my shock I realized Wait, those ARE the Three Stooges! Moe looked terribly old and wrinkled, like one of those dried apple face dolls. Larry looked lost (at least he was consistent) and Curly Joe DeRita, well, who the *&% was Curly Joe DeRita?!? At that point in my young life I had seen very few shorts with the original Curly (God of all Stooges) and didnt know this Curly Joe imposter at all. Besides, at four I thought Shemp was the money Stooge. And where was Shemp anyway?!? I wanted to hear his wacky Hee-bee-bee-bee! as he stuck a fountain pen through Larrys forehead, just like that short where he comes back as a ghost to get even with his brother Stooges. Little did I know that Samuel Shemp Howard (NE: Horwitz) had passed away some seven years before while riding home from watching a boxing match, making my tiny cries of Shemp! Shemp! all the more pathetic.
Watching the septuagenarian Stooges fumble about, almost coming to near-blows (albeit in what looked like slow-motion) was the first time I realized the importance of trick photography and sound effects. It also dawned on me that if I really wanted to see old men fight, I could go to my grandfathers restaurant (Dinis, 90 Tremont St., Home of Bostons Famous Scrod dont go, its not there anymore) and watch grandpa yell at his fellow paisanos. To me at that age, watching a bunch of angry Italians smack each other up beat the Three Stooges any day.
Then it was onto the rides, while still trying to elude the creep in the worst Popeye costume ever. Too late! I accidentally made eye contact with him as he rounded the Wreck of the Hesperus entrance! He started toward us, waving his fake padded forearms from side to side in an exaggerated parody of Popeyes confident seaman strut. Uncomfortably awkward costumed character contact was imminent, then a miracle! The old salt veered away suddenly to hug a little girl who had unwittingly strayed into his path. With the wails of the terrified child still ringing in my ears, I grabbed my dads hand and pulled him toward the whalers dock and the Moby Dick ride.
Ill tell you right now, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. Oh, the ride started innocently enough with our cheerful captain engaging us in scripted banter, and as I was the kid sitting closest to him, he asked me if Id like to man the harpoon. Okay! I enthusiastically nodded, reaching for the barbed prop. The captain quickly yanked it away and said hed give it to me when the time came. For now he wanted me to keep a weather eye peeled for old Moby. Then Captain Bob, or Mike or Greg (I forget the actual name, but it was one more befitting to a Boston teenager working a summer job than Ahab) guided our motor launch out into Pleasure Islands wide main lake. But the funny thing about that ride, it actually was in a small lake. At Walt Disneyworld and most other theme parks, rides of that sort are done in completely man-made settings and the boats are on tracks. Here, you had a real guy driving a real boat on a real lake (well, pond actually, but still) and the distances and sizes were in full scale. No cheats thanks to miniatures or forced perspectives. Somehow the rocking of the boat, the daylight and cool air, and the wide expanse of water in front of us (that also harbored a restored clipper ship and several pirate crafts) made the experience all the more real to my tot mind.
Our captain told us we were leaving New England for the tropical waters where Moby Dick was last seen. Suddenly, a roar and a rumble to my left! A rhinoceros was charging us off the port bow! Quick, everyone lean to the right! We all leaned and the captain veered the rudder away, putting us well out of the mechanical herbivores striking range. Lucky for us that the rhinos rails only went down to the waters edge. (Years later this childhood image would flash briefly through my mind when I encountered a real rhino by a river in Sumatra -- a story for another time.) No sooner were we out of rhino country than we were in cannibal country. Fortunately the fearsome plastic natives were too busy lunching at their stew pot to do more than wave their spears at us.
We turned away from the cannibals hut, but wait, what was that in the water off their canoe dock? Could it be
bubbles, drawing closer to our boat? To the starboard! Diving porpoises, heralds of the great beasts arrival! Then a sudden swell of water as precedes the breach of some massive marine mammal! And there, rising out of the lagoon directly in front of us, the snow-white head and toothy jaw of Moby Dick himself! In stark contrast to the billboards I had seen earlier, this whale was not smiling, he was horrifying! Five hundred feet high! Three thousand and eighty feet long (I was four, remember) and rushing torpedo-style toward our boat with but one goal in mind, the complete and utter consumption of one Paul M. Dini! I had never seen anything scarier in my young life and I doubt I ever will. I can still feel the boat pitching as my fellow whalers craned for a better view. Still see the spout of water as it shot up from Mobys blowhole (curiously located more toward his back than his head) still hear that shrill, teen-aged voice calling The harpoon, mate! as it cut through my cloud of fear. Uh, wha? I stammered to the grinning Captain Phil or Clyde or Biff. I told you to keep a weather eye peeled! Give me the harpoon! The skipper scolded. The harpoon, of course! Where the hell was that harpoon?!? I fumbled for it, desperate to ram it in that wicked monsters eye and save us all! But Capn Crunch had reached the weapon first and by the time he was ready to throw, Moby had once more sounded unscathed into the depths of the pond. The boat made it back to port safe and sound, and I crawled my way shaking onto the deck. Never in my life had I faced such terror, such soul-searing trauma -- until I looked up and saw the creep in the worst Popeye costume ever leaning down to enfold me in a reassuring hug. A child screamed, a dad snapped a picture and somewhere in the depths of his lagoon a whale laughed.
Sleep did not come easily to me that night, my friends. And when it did, I saw myself cast screaming over the side of a listing whaling boat by Satanic Stooges and their cohort in villainy, the creep in the worst Popeye costume ever. And as I arced toward the cruel teeth of Moby Dick, I shook my fists at Heaven and screamed: Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale! To the last I grapple with thy rust-spotted plastic hide! From hells heart I stab at thy frozen mechanical eye! For hates spite I spit my last mouthful of stagnant pond water at thy indifferently placed and anatomically incorrect blowhole!
Yes, had someone actually read Melvilles novel to me, Im sure those would have been my very words.
Remarkably enough that was not my only Pleasure Island experience. I did visit a few more times before we moved to California in the mid-sixties, and despite my earlier bad experience, I actually enjoyed the place when I was a bit older. However, each time the whaling boat pulled into Mobys lagoon, the first glimpse of my bete blanc would start those old fearful chills up and down my spine. Years later when I went to Disneyland for the first time, I smirked with smug superiority at the fearful reactions of the little kids to the much tamer crocs and hippos on the Jungle Cruise. Aye, lads and lassies. I drawled in my best sea-faring tones, Thee do not know what real fear be afore thee tangle with Moby Dick! Over the years there have been quantum leaps in the development and execution of amusement park attractions. I image old Moby would look pretty tame himself next to the dinosaurs of Universals Jurassic Park ride or its snapping Jaws shark. Yet, there was something so unsettling about the sight of that seventy-five foot long whale (Mobys actual length) rising out of that murky New England lagoon. It makes the rest of those theme park monsters look like minnows by comparison, at least in my memory.
Pleasure Island closed its doors forever in the fall of 1969. A parade of come and go owners, coupled with the sad reality that the park could not operate during the harsh New England winters, only served to hasten the demise of what was already an overly ambitious business venture. The park stood vacant for a few years, its attractions and fixtures either destroyed by fire or sold off to other parks. Engine #5 of Pleasure Islands Old Smokey Railroad Line is still on display at the WW&F Maine Railway Museum in Alna, Maine, and now and then an aging park goer will report seeing one of the whaling boats being used for décor at a seafood restaurant or some such place.
As to the whereabouts of my old nemesis Moby Dick, accounts differ. Some claim to have stumbled across the whales rusting metal skeleton in an open field in the late seventies, while others swear he was promptly hauled out of the pond and sold for scrap right after the park shuttered in 69. However, many more Wakefield locals aver that old Moby is still there, slumbering in the rusty slime of what once was his tropical lagoon. The park was near bankrupt when it closed and the whale had only risen sporadically, if at all, during the final years of the rides operation. It is more than likely that Pleasure Islands monetarily beleaguered owners, whoever they were at that time, simply abandoned the whale to his watery grave. It is said that on clear summer days one can still see Mobys outline from the top of the office building that now abuts the former Pleasure Island lakes. One local diver even claims to have come face to eye with the great whale when he invaded Mobys domain some years back.
As for me, there is no doubt in my mind that the terror of the deep is still there. Slumbering but not dead, dreaming from time to time of the teeny Dini morsel that got away. Were I so foolish as to visit the pond today, I know what kind of Twilight Zone-like fate would await me. I would invariably trip on a long-abandoned but still live electric cable that would spark just enough to activate the decaying but somehow operative forty-five year old pumps. A sudden surge of electricity and the moribund Moby would spasmodically lurch up from the depths, alive again, if only for a moment. Id watch in frozen horror as the whale rushes the bank, mouth agape, teeth flashing, his baleful black eye locked upon my terrified orbs. Id recoil in slow motion as Moby breaches and hangs for a second twixt Heaven and Earth in all his terrible splendor; and finally Id scream as no man has screamed before or since as the disintegrating cetacean crashes down upon me, splintering my bones like so many pixy stix. Then silence as the monster slides off the bank, pulling my broken body back down into his watery hole for all time.
Aye me hearties, the white whale still lives, and hes waiting. Beware still New England ponds dear readers, for within them dwell horrors. Though I am now safely miles away from old Mobys reach, Im sure hed settle for a substitute. Pleasure Island Road exit off route 128, Wakefield, MA. Park near the biggest office building, at night of course, when few nosey souls will ask what youre up to. With a flashlight as your guide, make your way down to the overgrown lakeshore. Head for the lagoon and go to the hole where the dark water runs deepest. Lean over the bank and say hello from me.
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