An ode to the Pirate Ship, my favorite carnival ride

There’s a song by Jonathan Richman (the singular singer-songwriter and former frontman for the 1970s band the Modern Lovers) called “That Summer Feeling,” that seems to capture something about nostalgia that I haven’t seen captured as well anywhere else.  He sings,

          When the cool of the pond makes you drop down on it
          When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it
          When the teenage car gets the cop down on it
          That time is here for one more year
          And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life.

It’s about a feeling that we all know — a longing for the innocence and freedom of childhood, for those days when there’s nothing ahead of you except for the season, when you’re not thinking of problems and responsibilities because you feel safe and taken care of. In adulthood, this feeling tends to wallop us unexpectedly, like a rush of nostalgia and yearning for something we can never again have. The best we can hope for is those fleeting moments that can take you back, whether it’s an ice cream cone or the smell of sharpened pencils, or the look of wonder in your own child’s eyes.

For me, the thing that recreates these feelings the best is the Pirate Ship.

Created in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1890s, it has gone by many names: Pirate Ship, the Bounty, the Viking, the Sea Dragon, the Buccaneer, Pharaoh’s Fury, the Galleon (the name of my childhood favorite, and I’ve still never heard the term “Galleon” used in a sentence). Regardless of name, it’s a universally recognizable attraction at any amusement park or carnival: a large boat which swings back and forth like a giant pendulum. The Pirate Ship is not the most thrilling ride at any amusement park, and in fact updated versions (Berserker, Phoenix, HMB Endeavor) have been created to make it seem more exciting — typically these are bigger, hang riders upside-down (in my experience, to the point of bruising), and occasionally spray them with water. These rides are promoted as more extreme and exciting, attempting to compete with the proliferation of roller coasters and other souped-up thrill rides. But these updated versions miss the point of the original Pirate Ship, which is not to be scary or death-defying so much as it is, simply, to thrill, a word defined as “cause to have a sudden feeling of excitement or pleasure.” I’ve always liked the tamer rides — your smaller wooden roller coasters, your tilt-a-whirls, your swing rides — because their brand of pure, injury-free enjoyment hasn’t changed much in over a hundred years. They don’t need to change because part of their thrill is, as with many pleasurable things, bound up with nostalgia, both personal and communal.

I can’t remember the first time I rode the Pirate Ship, but it was probably at Knoebels’ Grove, a fantastic, old-fashioned amusement park near my grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania. My family would take a trip to eastern Pennsylvania each summer, and each summer I would head to Knoebels with my grandparents and cousins. For a long time, I was afraid of roller coasters, and while my cousins rode the biggest and best rides over and over, I was the one on the bench with Grandma, holding sweatshirts and purses. The Pirate Ship became a way for me to prove myself, and I proudly chose the bench all the way in the back, the one that would allow us to fly the highest. Knoebels’ will always live in my mind as the ultimate Pirate Ship experience, from my childhood joy at reuniting with cousins I only saw once a year, to an awkward adolescence of scoping cute amusement park boys and trying to keep up with my more popular, outgoing cousin. Then there was the last time we went in high school, when it wasn’t the same but for those few moments after the safety bars lowered, pitched at the top of a boat swinging high over the crowds, screaming our lungs out and letting it all go.

There are other elegiac Pirate Ship memories — notably, a trip to the county fair with my friend Becky in middle school, when we rode the Pirate Ship over and over not even getting off, since the carny seemed to fancy her (the same carny that she came to believe, later in the evening, had stolen her wallet) — but many of these run together in a sea of sticky Illinois summers, of fairs in parking lots, next to livestock tents, surrounded by cornfields; tickets turned over and Pirate Ships boarded with family and friends, both willing and reluctant.

As an adult, I have ridden Pirate Ships in Minnesota and Iowa and Florida and Oklahoma; I have ridden the Pirate Ship at Coney Island, just months before Astroland Park was sold, dismantled, and recreated as shiny new Luna Park (which features no Pirate Ship). We were just out of college, and though my friends were apprehensive I cajoled them into it, and lost myself in soaring high above the beach while one friend yelled, “Stop the ride!” I have ridden the Pirate Ship in Dublin, Ireland during study abroad, a time in my life when every day felt just a little bit thrilling. It was early evening on a long St. Patrick’s Day of bar-hopping, but when my friend Jessica and I stumbled upon a parking lot carnival, a day’s steady drunk was not enough to stop us. I did not get nauseous, somehow.

I have ridden the Pirate Ship with friends and strangers, with drunks and callous teens and nervous children. I have ridden, I have ridden, I have ridden. And it all comes back to that summer feeling, the one that Jonathan Richman sang about, and the one for which so many foolish decisions in life are made. There’s something in the moment the Pirate Ship reaches its peak, when it swings so high you know it can’t get any higher. You raise up in your seat, and look down at the faces below, anticipating their turn at flight. You scream, you laugh, you look over at your friends. You look out on the park/lot/beach/field and it’s the same sight you saw as a child, the same feeling, the same sounds. And your stomach flips and you feel, for a moment, like no time has passed at all.

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