We did not typically take big vacations when I was growing up. My mom’s family lived mostly in Michigan so once a year, in the summer, we would take a trip up there for several days. Other than that, we pretty much stayed put – busy with farming and going to the pool and hitting the library for entertainment. But every summer my parents made a point of taking us for an entire day to Adventureland in Des Moines. It was one of the most anticipated outings of the year for my brother, my sister and I.
The drive to Adventureland took less than 2 hours, but it felt like an eternity to the three kids packed into our white Lincoln Continental. We would sit there and try to concentrate on the car activities we brought along. But inevitably, our jittery consciences would cause our eyes to dart out the window – searching the skyline for those faintest glimpses in the distance of the highest roller coasters. The level of excitement and anticipation rose tremendously when one of us would spot the big ferris wheel.
Adventureland had roller coasters, water rides, a giant ferris wheel, bumper cars, and all sorts of other rides. We loved many of them. Adventureland also had many carnival type games. I was always a little (or a lot) jealous of the girls who were there with their high school or college boyfriends. Their guys would march confidently up to all those games and win all kinds of nifty stuffed animals. I thought they were nifty, anyway. My 12 year old brain did not seem to understand that giant California raisins and neon colored birds were not exactly beautiful stuffed animals. It was impossible for me to see how woefully ugly many of those prizes were. I did not care what it was really. Anything won from one of those booths had to be just the greatest possession of all time.
Every single year, we would try our own small hands at some of those games. Basically we threw away money. The only game we ever really won was the duck pond – where you were guaranteed a prize every time. Sure there were a few moments of glory here and there where we got a small stuffed animal. But those big stuffed animals were always literally and figuratively out of our reach – out of our ability. There was one game, however, that seemed to be especially designed to rip us off – the ring toss. Simple in design and execution, it was rows and rows and rows of glass bottles. Each sucker…or customer…would receive 7 small plastic rings for $1. Seemed like a good deal until you had spent $10 on 70 rings – not a single one landing on one of those goofy glass bottles. And that is all it took – one small plastic ring on one glass bottle and you won.
Boy did you win. See, this booth always boasted the largest prizes in the whole park. By large, I mean life-size panda bears. They were the greatest most amazing stuffed animals I had ever seen. I flat out coveted those bears. Dad would let my brother and I try a couple of dollars worth each. Sometimes he would try too.
And so it was when I was 12 that the three of us were standing there – seemingly wasting our money a dollar at a time. My mom and sister were just feet away where my sister was riding in some little boats that went in a circle. I was busy throwing my set of red plastic rings when it happened. My Dad standing beside me quietly said in disbelief, “I got one.” I was the only one who heard. And then he said it louder, so the kid running the booth could hear him, “I got one!” My brother and I pretty much lost our minds. We sprinted to our mom and breathlessly declared, “Dad won one of the giant pandas!” My mom looked at us and then shook her head. “Great,” she sighed unenthusiastically. We ignored her rather dull response and sprinted back to find Dad. Dad who was now carrying a giant panda stuffed animal wrapped in plastic. We jumped for joy.
Dad and I decided we would have to carry it out to the car because there was no way to “enjoy” our day at the park with this giant bear dragging along behind us. So the two of us carried it out of the park. Yes, it took two of us. As we walked through the park, people stopped and stared at us as we carried our giant prize. It was probably one of the single greatest moments of my childhood. Finally, it was my turn to win the stuffed animal. And did we ever win THE stuffed animal! The thing didn’t even fit through the gate to get out of the park and had to go through a special employee gate. Awesome.
It was all fun and games until we got to the car and we realized this creature did not, would not, could not ever fit in our trunk. Might I remind you we had a Lincoln Continental. There is not much you cannot fit into the trunk of a Lincoln Continental. It became clear that we would have to find a way to stuff our beloved bear into the back seat. For over 30 minutes, my Dad and I worked like fools to smash the bear in the back. One of us was inside the car pulling; the other was outside the car pushing. After a few minutes we would trade places. It was hot that day. People were walking through the parking lot. Many of them would see us, and stop and laugh. “Look at those people trying to smash that bear into their car!” We would stop and laugh too. It was funny.
That night, for the first time ever, we were happy when it was time to go home. My mom, dad, brother and sister squished into the front seat. Dad wedged me underneath the bear in the back. It was still hot and humid, and the plastic wrapped around our prize stuck to my legs. It was a long ride home, but it was a happy one. That day one of my greatest childhood dreams came true in a huge way. That day I finally felt the glory of walking around the theme park carrying a big stuffed animal prize. That day was full of euphoric excitement like we had never known. That day my Dad was my hero. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last. He fulfilled his little girl’s dream and gave her one of the best memories of her life.