Summer's arrival in our house has nothing to do with calendars, temperatures or fireworks. It starts with a steady ascent of anticipation, teases us with a quick dip then throws us a curve before plunging us into the thick of it with a rattling headlong rush.
Summer comes on the Dragon Coaster.
Unlike many who grew up a short trip from this 83-year-old wood-beamed marvel, I have almost no childhood memories of the rollercoaster or the Playland amusement park that surrounds it in Rye, N.Y. That's what makes our annual trip there as special to me as to my two children.
This ritual started a few years ago the way the best things tend to, not out of the need for nostalgia's comfort or the desire to begin a grand tradition, but through the lowered expectations that come with not having to pay an admission fee. The local Make-a-Wish folks had given us a handful of free passes owing to Li’l Diva’s juvenile myositis so I figured, at worst, using them would give us a few hours away from our one true summer ritual at that time: the two kids bickering over who got to choose which Disney Channel rerun to watch for the 47th time.
Everything then went unaccording to our lack of a plan. Six hours flew past. Hopping from the Dragon Coaster to the Crazy Mouse to The Whip and back again. Inhaling cotton candy the size of hay bales. Bathing our outsides in sunscreen and our insides with grease from the funnel cakes. We all left happy and exhausted with both children popping the inevitable question: "When can we come back?"
Come back we do every year, especially after I learned the all-ride wristbands at Playland cost exactly the same as the ones for the carnival that takes place every spring at the Greek church down the road from us.
"I'll pay for one carnival or the other," I told my children in one of my infrequent attempts to lay down the law. "You choose."
They chose wisely. Then they dipped into their own pockets to pay for wristbands to the Greek fest. Someone obviously needs to reassess just how much his children are paid for doing imaginary chores.
This year's trip, which we took on an unusually quiet and cool day last week, found us going a bit beyond the normal twists, turns and wet underwear courtesy of a half dozen rides down the Log Flume. We ventured just outside the amusement park grounds for a change.
We played a round at a crumbling miniature golf course that featured water hazards in the form of a weekend's worth of rain filling several of the holes. We searched the boardwalk for the Zoltar fortune-telling machine that turned Tom Hanks' character "big" in the movie of the same name, only to find a handful of soda machines offering to make us big only around the waistline. And on that note, we ate on the deck of the park's Pier Restaurant, which features a fantastic view of the Sound and the most overpriced burger and beer menu you'll encounter on this side of Manhattan.
However, none of that disappointed us.
When the train car pulled us up the Dragon Coaster for the last time that night, we reached the peak just in time to see the sun setting behind the treetops to the west. It filled the sky, and us, with a popsicle-orange glow -- the kind you only truly know when you're a kid during the summer.