Cigars? I don’t need no stinkin’ cigars to tell a story.
I had a great gig at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, CA back in my teen years. My best friend worked there already and got me the gig.
I had applied earlier at the main personnel office but since they didn’t hire Jews or any other ethnic group, I was turned down.
My buddy, Skip, worked across the street where John Bircher Walter Knott had erected Independence Hall. There was also a big lagoon, merry-go-round, miniature train, row boats, and the steamboat: the Cordelia K..named for Walter’s wife.
Knott’s began as a berry stand in the 30’s and blossomed into a fried chicken restaurant and then ol’ Walter built a cool looking western town and ghost town. It later had all kinds of western themed rides.
The lagoon side had rides owned by a subcontractor, Bud Hurlbut. It was he that hired me giving me the distinction of the first Jew ever to work at Knott’s. Walter was a real SOB. He hated anyone not white. Or not Christian. And by the time I went to work there, he was ancient.
I got hired to be the new steamboat captain. I was thrilled when I found out it wasn’t like Disneyland. No track. I actually drove the boat.
I spent a week in training and then she was all mine. The boat sat around 40 people. And it cost 25 cents to ride. In fact, all the rides were 25 cents.
I had to wear this stupid captain’s hat that made me sweat. So I took it off a lot. And I got in trouble a lot.
The steam boat was not run by steam; but rather, a big engine that looked like a steam turbine. And my back was up against it the whole time I drove the boat. And since it was So Cal, it was usually warm all the time.
I learned how to run the merry go round and the train and sell tickets and send people on their way in a rented row boat. But the captain thing was my main gig.
I got really tired of kids asking me if the boat was on a track when they saw me struggling to turn it at times. So I told them, “No. The boat is not on a track…the water is.” I always got befuddled looks and the questions stopped.
The lagoon wasn’t that big. And it had duck island in the middle of it. My job was to do two turns around it. One was a wide berth and the second was close to the island. That’s what you got for your 25 cents.
But that 25 cents gave people the impression that I would give some sort of narrative and shoot at rising hippos as we rode along the black water.
They were always so disappointed that all I did was keep my mouth shut and drive.
One of my passions was to ram row boats. People would get into them without the slightest hint of how to row a boat so they would be in one place turning the boat in a 360 degree arc. So I aimed for them. I would grab the megaphone and yell at them to get out of the way and they would start screaming in panic. Good times.
I would then pull back the throttle, let the boat slow down to near still and I would climb out of the front of the boat and on to the bow. I grabbed a long aluminum gaff and would push them out of the way. All the time thanking me for not killing them. It broke up my day.
One Easter Sunday, chaos showed up dressed for the prom. The Farm was packed and so was the boat. I had a sharp turn to make to get out of the dock and turn to the left. Sometimes, I couldn’t make it because there were too many people on the boat. And I pulled and pulled that damn steering wheel. And on that day, the steering cable broke.
The boat then floated free. I pulled the steam whistle over and over which was the sign for an emergency. I then got on the bow of the boat. Employees ran over and I yelled the steering was broken.
No one knew what to do, and then one of the guys just started walking into the lagoon…that nasty, smelly, black water. With no filtration system and 2 feet of muck at the bottom.
My head dropped in resignation and I leaped into the water. The people on the boat applauded.
By this time, the boat had drifted about 40 feet from the dock. There were four of us in the water trying to push it back to the dock. I moved to the stern. I leaped up to grab the back of the boat and was swiftly hit in the chest with the steering system that looked like two ladders…running horizontally about a foot and a half below the water. The water was so black, you couldn’t see them and I didn’t know they were even there.
I completely submerged. Yuck! I came up covered in muck. This was a bad day. Me and another fella pushed and two others pushed the bow and after 30 minutes, were able to get the boat back to the dock. Once locked at the dock, a huge applause filled the air…as hundreds and hundreds of onlookers heard what had happened and lined the shore.
The owner, Bud, showed up and sent all four of us across the street for new clothes. Mind you, no shower, but new clothes. We had to work the rest of our shift doing other things, stinking to high heaven. We were young.
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