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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Dowden Brake

We went to Kennywood last week.  I think I thought it would be easier than it was.  I mean, I always stress out about Lily getting in and out of Kiddieland, and getting on and off of rides, and potential potty accidents and/or meltdowns or whatever, and not having Leslie with me, I knew that stuff was going to be harder.  I psyched myself up, stressed out, but ultimately felt mentally "prepared" for it. 

And instead of Emma's friend's mom going with us (as was our tradition), her dad attended, and idea that Emma's friend's mom had so as not to rub in the...momfulness of her friends and her...momlessness (my words, not hers).  It's something Emma and I have talked about.  It concerns me that she might pull away from friends whose mothers are really active and involved in their daughters' lives in favor of those who are less pervasive (not a big deal...everyone parents differently) or not around at all in their kids lives (more of a big deal for me) especially her core group of friends whose mothers are, like Leslie was, very..."visible".  Caring Place starts next week...

So anyway, the dad and I are friends, and the girls mostly ride by themselves anyway, so I felt like I was about as prepared as I could be.

But not emotionally, I guess.  This was to be the first Kennywood visit without Leslie.  I was going to write this whole preachy "firsts/lasts" post about how all these..."events" are occurring now that Leslie's gone, and each one is the first (insert event) since she passed.  First mother's day, first birthday, first vacation, first Christmas, all these "events" that I'm dreading because each one just shoves Leslie's death back in our faces and makes us confront her absence instead of just enjoying the event itself.  And the post probably could have been summed up in a couple paragraphs (like these), but I'd probably have drawn it out to five pages because that's what I do.  But I'll just cover it briefly here.

A friend of mine said something about how we had an awful lot of events like that lately, and I know what she meant (mother's day, Leslie's birthday, memorial day, first day of summer visit to kennywood, beach vacation (in a week and a half)) but I was just like..."No escaping it.  There are never NOT events."  Every day has some new thing that we're doing for the first time without Leslie.  And it sucks.  I mean, I spent damn near literally every day of the past 20 years with her.  We did a lot of shit in that time, today might be the first time...making tacos without her, or first time going to the pediatrician, or some other seemingly trivial ridiculous thing...but it's going to take a while to exhaust all those shitty little milestone "firsts" and certainly much, muuuuuuch longer before we stop mourning the "last" time we did (insert event) with Leslie...

But I had sort of forgotten about the Kennywood thing.  And Kennywood..well...Kennywood was very special to Leslie.  And the more I started preparing for it, the more memories crowded for space in my brain and started to press against my heart...

It started with the last time we went to Kennywood together, which, I think I probably blogged about.  Lemme find the link and I'll come back to write more...*hold music plays*...

Okay...I didn't.  I wrote about the first trip to Kennywood here:  "The Amusement Park".  And it references the Dowden Brake (the story of which will follow in THIS blog, in Leslie's own words, with embellishment from me) and has tons of pics.  It was three years ago.

Then I wrote about it the year before last here:  "Summer Is Coming".  Leslie was in remission then.  We thought.  Her hair was growing back in.  She was starting to look more like "herself" again.  It's actually kind of hard for me to look at and realize that the final cancer shitstorm was on its way.  But I have to compartmentalize that stuff and just revel in her joy at the park.

Back to the now (or the...last week)...and the weather forecast called for rain, and so I was looking for rain ponchos because last year at this time, Emma and Leslie were making a day of it, and Lily and I had headed for home (and her bedtime) while the adventurers stood in line for thrills.  Leslie bought rain ponchos because it was raining on them, and she stashed them away after they got home. 

I...get rid of crap.  Leslie...kept crap.  So a couple of $3 plastic rain ponchos?  Possibly I threw them away.  But I had to first look in all the usual places...her car (side pockets, glove box, center console), her "office" (all over the effing place), and finally...the coats in the coat closet.

And the first coat I reached into the pockets of maybe had a bit of change and a receipt for gas or something and...a tissue.  A wadded up used tissue.  Ugh.

And I stopped and thought and remembered...she always reused those fucking tissues.  She'd blow her nose, wad it up, and stuff it in her sleeve, or her pants' pocket...or her coats.  And I was like "Leslie, throw those in the garbage, they cost like...a cent per tissue...we have more, just get a clean one." and she would ignore me and continue doing it just as her mother had (and continues to do) before her.  So four coats into my search for a rain poncho I had four wadded up kleenexes in my fist.  Four for four.  And I showed it to Emma and we remembered how she always had a tissue...clean or used...in her pocket, and I stood there, tears in my eyes...over a fucking kleenex.  (In the end I found one poncho, in the bin where we keep gloves and hats and stuff...it makes sense.  I probably should have started there)

That was the first sucker punch, and honestly the day was really great, and Lily was good, and she had fun, and Emma had fun, and we ate awful food and rode for hours, but throughout the day there were many little aftershocks...so many Kennywood memories, watching Leslie ride with the girls, taking pictures of them together...and listening to her re-tell the story of the Dowden Brake.
so awful i barely finished it in five minutes.
 And I thought...I'll never hear that story again.  And it was one of the few she always told (because I'm the story teller guy) and I always laughed at and enjoyed...but somehow never really quite understood well enough to tell myself.

So I was talking to that same mutual friend, Bec (who talked to me about events) about the Dowden Brake and the story...and lamenting the fact that I didn't really KNOW the story to tell it.  She and Leslie corresponded via email daily, and Leslie had told HER the story, and she offered to share that and the other emails with me.  And...well it's just such a gift, these previously unheard words exchanged between friends...it's like being able to hear her voice all over again.  So I thought instead of trying to recreate the story of the Dowden Brake I'd let Leslie do the talking, providing only a little color commentary here and there. 

"The Dowden Brake"

From Kennywood's website:  "The park was designated a national historic landmark in 1987. One of the most popular additions to the park was a new steel-looping coaster the Steel Phantom in 1991. The Steel Phantom's top speed was 80 MPH, its longest drop was 225 feet and it featured 4 loops."


From their discussion June of last year:

Leslie:  Our kid's school went on strike in the beginning of the school year, so they get out late...June 17th.  We celebrate by taking them to a local amusement park the day after.  I love it...not so much for Jim.  He is not much of a rider.  

Bec:  Oh is that Kennywood that you go to?

Leslie:  Yes, it is Kennywood!  It is a huge family tradition with me...went every year.  Once out of highschool I went there to work for the summer.  It was a blast!!  Jim is not as big of a fan of riding.  Emma so far loves it, and Lily does pretty well.  I have not really pushed her much beyond the Kiddie Land.  She is just so tiny. I will be sure to send some pics.

Bec:  You worked at an amusement park?? That would be so much fun! What did you do there? 

Leslie:  It was so much fun to work at Kennywood!  We worked like everyday and worked very long hours...it was great!  I worked a laugh in the dark kind of ride - Noah's Ark; the Turnpike cars; and then I was on the inaugural team for the Phantom's Revenge roller coaster.  That was their baby!  Then one evening during a major thunderstorm, there was an incident where I somewhat broke their multi-million dollar baby...so I was demoted back to the Turnpike Cars.  It was fun none the less!!

Bec:  I'm laughing so much at the thought that you broke a multimillion dollar roller coaster! How on earth did you do that??

Leslie:  I figured that would make you laugh!!!  I didn't actually break it...it is a roller coaster.  I did not set a brake appropriately (much longer story), and the coaster did not make it through a loop and it went backwards.  Now I need to mention that there was no one on the coaster at the time.  Ultimately, it kept going back and forth till it ran out of steam and it finally stopped on the tracks in a huge ravine...so they needed to get a crane and take it back up one car at a time.  They were not happy!! 

Yeah...the way she told it to me, the head engineer or maintenance guy commanded that she be fired on the spot.  Like...in her presence, with spittle flying and angry jabbed finger-pointing.  They demoted her instead.  To "The Turnpike".

Picture the scene in Nemo:

NEMO:  Dad, dad...can I go play too? Can I?
MARLIN: I would feel better if you go play over on the sponge beds.  (insert video of baby fish crying on a soft bed of sponge) That's where I would play

That's the turnpike...the sponge beds of Kennywood.  So Leslie's days at the Steel Phantom came to an end.  THE INAUGURAL TEAM!!

Some additional color commentary...

During a thunderstorm, they had shut the ride down.  The policy was to run empty cars through after a shut down to sort of test it out prior to starting the ride back up again.  But the brake had to be set differently to run the cars empty than to run them full.  Meaning, I believe, the extra weight of the riders meant having to set the brake a little more aggressively so that the ride didn't run too fast.  Leslie left the brake in the position you'd have it in for riders...and it was too much brake!  The loss of momentum through the loop was enough to get the empty cars caught in the bottom, slowly rocking itself to immobility and uselessness with no means of removing the car from the track...except to bring a friggin' crane in to pick it up and move it.

They had to redesign the brake system...to...forgive me, my love...idiot-proof it.  And when they completed the redesign it was informally dubbed the "Dowden Brake" to memorialize the "idiot" who had prompted its...proofing. 

She told that story every year.  And I miss the sound of it.  And laughing with her about it.

Cross another first off the list.  First Kennywood without Leslie.

At the end of next week we're going to Myrtle Beach to the exact same condo that we spent last year's vacation in.  But this will be the "first family vacation without Leslie".  We'll have fun, but I expect it will be sad as well.  For all of us.











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