Whoever designed the park must have had children in mind. It was absolutely unavoidable. No matter which path your father took or how sneaky your mother thought she was, you had to pass it on your way out.
The glistening red cotton candy caboose stands immediately before the exit tunnel of Kennywood Park. With the sunlight of the dying day painting the clean shiny windows of the caboose brilliant shades of orange and gold, the wind tosses the sugary scent from the mouth of the cotton candy drum, out the open front and onto the breezes where its slightly cloying candy fragrance assaults most adult nostrils and nauseates many grown up stomachs. But to the still snub-noses of those four feet and under, the sweet sensation that even in the air sticks to the back of our throats tantalizes, and like a Pied Piper of Perfume, it beckons us from the four corners of the park.
I can clearly remember how the aching in my feet evaporated once that smell hit my nostrils on those summer nights as my parents literally dragged us from the park. Somewhere around the Jackrabbit, I would catch the scent and no more pulling was necessary. Instead, I propelled my parents toward the exit and that beautiful caboose. Even now, my mouth waters at just the thought of that ubiquitous aroma, like a fog of fluff blanketing the area. It didn’t really matter which parent I pushed, though, because at the end of the day, Mom was immune to whining, and Dad was aggressive toward anything standing between him and the car.
“Please! Please!” I cried. I was never very good at grabbing the sympathies of my parents, but I could alert my sister to begin begging. No one ever refused my sister.
Without ado, my sister turned her big brown eyes on my father. Her eyes are the spitting image of his mother’s and his sister’s eyes, and my father could never tell one of them, “no,” either.
“One.” That was my mother’s final word. Just one bag of cotton candy, rationed very carefully to three small children once they were safely in the backseat of the car.
Every time I heard that word, my watery mouth went dry and my heart, which had been in my throat with anticipation, plunged into my stomach where it attempted to fill the area that would never get enough cotton candy.
Every year, my mother carefully handed two puffs of the fluffy stuff to us over the back of the seat. Two meager mouthfuls apiece.
“Later,” she would say. “You can have some more tomorrow.” I think she hoped we would fall asleep in the car if she limited our sugar. You would think that the fact that I never fell asleep in the car even once after the age of six months would have cured her of that hope (and maybe even convinced her that she could avoid whining with more cotton candy), but she never gave up.
We never got that cotton candy the next day, either. Without fail, our dogs would get it. Suzy, our small standard black poodle would greet my mother at the door and follow her every move until she put down that cotton candy. My parents locked that dog in a cage every night, yet she managed to unlatch the top and jump out, squeeze through the bottom corner, or exact some other form of escape. Again, you would think Mom would give up. But she didn’t.
The morning after Kennywood, the crystalized strips cotton candy would be on the floor, stuck to the linoleum in front of the counter. Even when Mom scolded, “Bad dog!” there was a gleam of satisfaction in Suzy’s eyes. She was not sorry.
Yet the point of this story is not about my childhood but about my children’s. Last week, as we walked out of the park and my little one whined, “But we didn’t even have a chance to have fun yet!” as if he had forgotten that I had just given him a piggyback ride from the Log Jammer to the arcade where he was so tired that someone had to wiggle the butt of his motorcycle while he raced it, we passed the cotton candy caboose.
\My big one stopped dead in his tracks. His eyes filled with longing. The sweetness was so stuck in his throat he couldn’t even make words.
“Do you want cotton candy?” I asked.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” shrieked the little one, revived by the prospect of sugar. The big one just nodded.
With the very last money I had, and just to spite my mother who never once bought me my own bag of cotton candy, I paid for three bags—one each for my two sons and their cousin who went to the car with Daddy. They went home with sticky chins and sugar shivers, but they were happy.
In spite of my spite, though, I discovered Mom was right. Ten days later, I still have bags of cotton candy (and no poodles to feed it to).