What Goes Up
“It’s seventy feet tall, Maya! It goes forty miles per hour!”
I don’t really have a concept of how fast forty miles per hour is. I do know that I’m not forty eight inches tall yet, so I can’t go on the Blue Streak or the Gemini. Dinesh is, this year, though, which annoys me. He also just got his bedtime moved back to 10 P.M.
We’re crowded around the computer, watching videos of what it will be like to go on a roller coaster.
“It’s going to be so crazy! Do you see that drop?”
I see it. I get caught up in his excitement, too, bouncing a little as I stand next to the computer, hunched over. I get jealous of how tall he’ll be, seventy feet in the air. I don’t know what it’s like to be that tall.
It’s June or July, mid-summer in Ohio. I smell like a citronella candle. I head to bed, an hour before Dinesh, full of anticipation not for me but for him. I imagine the stomach-lurching fear that I know he’s going to experience while I, forever the little sister, wait on the adjacent spinny ride. Cedar Point tomorrow.
Cedar Point is a peninsula that slices into Lake Erie. In 1870, shortly after the peninsula became accessible by rail, a beer garden and dance hall opened, attracting tourists from the surrounding area for summer amusement. Northwest Ohio became a center of industry, with manufacturing plants popping up and spurring the economy. Ohioans had a disposable income they could spend on the reasonably-priced offerings at Cedar Point.
In 1892, the first roller coaster, Switchback Railway (modeled off of Coney Island’s) was built, rising up 25 feet in the air and reaching a whopping ten miles per hour. This roller coaster was built based only on the physics of gravity–no electricity or outside power. It relied on momentum. It wasn’t dizzying or overwhelming, just stable, like the Ohio of this time. It was the perfect coaster for this railroad era.
The McCoys have strong roots in this railway tradition. My great-great-grandfather, Clayton McCoy, was a section foreman on the C&O Railroad. My great-grandfather, Cecil, after completing about eight years of school, took to the railroad as well. He was a cook, making meals for other railroad men. My grandfather, Orville, was a train engineer. At various times during childhood, I also heard about Uncle Ernie. Uncle Ernie worked on the railroad, too, and once he got squished between the couplings of two train cars. He survived, although not all of his internal organs did. Before that, Uncle Ernie’s ship was sunk by enemy gunfire during World War II. He floated in the ocean for days, many of his fellow sailors killed by sharks. Uncle Ernie, years later, died peacefully in his sleep. My dad was the first one to switch the railroad tradition, to go to college, to leave Ohio.
“Bye now, you two!”
My Grammie stands on her porch in Woodville. My boyfriend and I are borrowing her car for a few days, fresh off the airplane from Florida. We have a few weeks before we part ways and return to college. On this day, I’m wearing a shirt printed with roosters because I think she’d like it–her kitchen is rooster-themed, after all.
Grammie and Dad watch us as we drive off, smiling and waving. Grammie refers to Alec as my “friend” and I’m never sure if she knows that we’re dating or if she’s just not about labels or if she saw When Harry Met Sally one too many times and is saying “friend” in an ironic way because men and women can’t just be friends.
“Cornfields are kinda beautiful,” Alec says as we drive toward Lake Erie on what can only be described as a country road, complete with a view of a farmhouse and barn. The interior of Grammie’s car smells so strongly of her perfume, Red Door. I’m hyper-aware of the fact that everything here–the exceedingly-normal of Northwest Ohio–is being viewed by him for the first time. I sense that my initial context, the place where I was born and lived until I was ten, isn’t that normal to this person. He tells me later that this trip made him understand what people mean when they talk about the American Dream. I can’t tell if that’s a good thing.
It’s mid-August. I sweat right through the rooster-print shirt, also hyper-aware that we’re two brown kids driving through Sandusky County, Ohio. I realize that what I think of as “quaint,” what I associate with car rides to the local ice cream place with Grammie and my cousins, Alec might interpret as just too white, too boring.
I suddenly feel grown up in this place where I remember being so little. I’m nineteen going on twenty, driving to Cedar Point of all places, with this boy who I love next to me in the front seat. He plays with the radio while I tell him about all the other times I’ve been there, about the time my friend puked after we rode Ocean Motion and the time we went as a fifth grade class and I didn’t want to go on the Power Tower but a boy I had a crush on did, so I went. We didn’t end up sitting next to each other. Power Tower isn’t a very romantic one, anyhow.
I immortalize that day with an Instagram of Alec in front of the Iron Dragon, the first big kid roller coaster I ever braved, the caption reading, “day 1 in Ohio: this New York City boy rides the best roller coaster in America and tells me cornfields are beautiful.” Look everyone, this place that I care about? This place I grew up? It’s cool! It’s not all bad! I got a stamp of approval, straight from the Big Apple.
We drive away that night, full of deep-fried, cinnamon-sugary elephant ear and bodies aching with that specific ache of having been upside down. Alec falls asleep in the car when I need him to be directing me. That evening, even my irritation with my boyfriend feels grown up. I feel like it’s a rite of passage to be frustrated with someone you love after a day in a place you’ve loved.
It might not be an Ohio-specific thing, but after the long winter, the woke-up-on-a-Saturday-morning feeling of summer lasts weeks. Days, during childhood, were shapeless or centered around something light–the whole family walked to Mr. Freeze after dinner for an ice cream cone. Dinesh and I dug a hole in the backyard for no reason. The cousins set up a lemonade stand. I was less interested in selling lemonade than I was in poking the hot tar on the driveway with my big toe. After the lemonade stand, we had a cannon-ball splash competition in our cousins’ pool, and when we were hungry enough, Rohan Mama “threw some hot dogs on the grill.” I loved when my uncle did this almost as much as I loved hot dogs. I imagined him, arms flailing, catching fresh-off-the-grill-a-little-too-burnt hot dogs on plates like a juggler.
After a series of these shapeless days came the big day, the Cedar Point trip. Usually, it happened once per summer, an annual treat. Cedar Point was only about an hour and a half away from home, far enough to feel like a destination and close enough to feel like a local treasure.
In addition to our railroad past, the McCoys have a history of military service. Grampie went off to Korea in 1946, part of an occupying American force after the end of World War II. Great-Grampie had previously served for thirty two months. He sent letters home during the war that my father has diligently stored away in our family’s cedar chest, brought out on Memorial Day or when I ask him, “what’s our World War II connection again?” Great-Grampie was stationed, as his letters are labeled, “Somewhere in New Guinea.” Like so many Americans, so many Ohioans, in the 1940s, their letters speak to a quiet urgency and desire to return home. What strikes me is that so many of the letters between them are about the somewhat mundane– Boy Scout badges and the weather and grades in school and hunting season.
May 27, 1945
Just a couple of lines today so you will know that I am well and am thinking of you all at home so far away. As usual it’s hot here today altho I do not go to work until late tonight when it will not be so hot. What are you now since school is out? Your mother said in her last letter I received that both herself and you boys was disappointed when you got my letter from here. Well now since the age limit has been lowered I think I will sure enough get home about in time for hunting season if not a little before. If we can’t get shells to hunt with we will have to make us bow and arrow. How about it? I will close so write soon.
I often overlook this part of my own family history. I wonder if, during this time, any of the McCoys could ever have imagined having a woman of color related to them. I am embarrassed, sometimes, to be connected so deeply to something that I have probably talked about to my friends as “problematic.” It’s strange to be so close to this America of patriotism and duty when, often, I don’t feel any sense of responsibility, and in fact I most often feel shame, toward this America that the McCoy men represented.
The way I can understand their commitment to country is through the lens of duty. What mattered then was the expectation to participate, not to ignore what was happening in the world around him. I may feel disconnected from the world in which they lived and the lens through which they saw it, but I understand the desire to meet expectations and to serve when needed. I often feel like I’m not serving enough, now, in this tumultuous time. Beyond this sense of duty, in their letters, I find something else I relate to deeply–a commitment to the everyday and the happy ordinaries, despite what is happening in the world around us; a commitment to those shapeless, summer days; a commitment to family.
No rides were added to Cedar Point between 1939 and 1945, the war years. In 1946, amid celebrations of men and women returning home to their families, the Midway Carousel was built–“a family favorite.”
The Blue Streak, the oldest roller coaster still standing at Cedar Point, was opened in 1964. The coaster was named after a local high school’s mascot. The construction of the Blue Streak was the pinnacle of an era of prosperity for the park, after amusement parks all over the country struggled financially through the Depression and World War II. In the post-war boom, the park’s finances improved and spurred growth, in the form of french fries stands, games, and new rides, like this one.
The Blue Streak opened May 23rd, 1964. Less than three months later, North Vietnamese submarines attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. Just like those throughout the country, thousands of Ohioans were drafted and sent abroad for military duty. While, in many places, the sense of patriotic duty reigned, many morally opposed the war. In 1970, 90 miles from Cedar Point, four student protesters were killed by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University. This was also the year that my Ammah’s family moved to the United States, from Sri Lanka via Sierra Leone.
In 1975, The New York Times published an article headlined: “Ohio Town That Lost 7 Men in Vietnam Now Worries More About Economy.” The opening line reads, “Beallesville has perhaps more right than most places to speak its mind about what’s happening in Vietnam.” This war didn’t stand for what the heartland was built on–the American values of hard work, family, and prosperity for all. The article continues:
Here in this lonely country about 100 miles southwest of Pittsburgh and about the same distance southeast of Columbus, George Washington once surveyed the hills and hollows. This is an America of patriots. Once, back in 1969, after its seventh son had been killed in Vietnam, it did ask the Defense Department to spare the rest by bringing home the four remaining there and not sending any more to fight. As usual, Beallsville lost, but it didn’t complain, or question the purpose, or join the spreading antiwar protest.
I’m struck by the language in this article, the way that the writer puts these people on a moral pedestal. I can hear echoes of the conversation I had with my dad, more recently, the day after President Trump was elected. I can hear the lamentation of the fact that we don’t listen to the white working class, that if only we had listened, things would be different, better. I can hear the same idea–that these people are the political and moral bellwether for when something has truly gone wrong in the country.
I don’t know what to do with this analysis. The McCoy family is so deeply rooted in this “white working class” that everyone seems to be talking about, but the other part of me is rooted in a different American narrative–that of an immigrant family. I think I understand the frustration of being overlooked and underappreciated, and each time I return back to Ohio I mourn the small losses–the restaurant we used to go to every Sunday after church, out of business like the rest; the mall where I used to ride the carousel, knocked down completely. I understand that it must be hard for a lot of people, and I recognize that I left there when I was young, so my perception is skewed. I don’t know what it feels like to be let go from a manufacturing job that was outsourced or to be left behind time and time again by the rest of the country.
I do know what it is to live as me–someone who is brown, but who grew up surrounded by whiteness. I know what it felt like on that Wednesday morning to wake up and realize that “President Trump” was something I would have to get used to saying. I didn’t know how to feel about the fact that my swing state swung what I thought was the wrong way that year. I hate how much this complex place that was my home has been reduced by many to be singular. I want to acknowledge the complexity of my feelings toward Ohio and my past–the nostalgia I feel for “simpler times” that I might not even have lived, and the guilt I feel for sometimes being thankful I’m out of there. I want to understand why some people would be so frustrated that they would vote someone so unlike Ohio–so obsessed with image–into office. I feel tossed around, up and down, like I’m on my own roller coaster.
My dad was two when the Blue Streak was built. By the time he was of coaster-riding age (and height), Cedar Point trips were already an established part of the summer routine. He, my grandparents, and my aunt would get together with the church group, or the neighbor group (pretty much the same as the church group), the moms would pack up picnic baskets for lunch, and they’d be off. The kids were set loose, given a time to meet back for lunch, allowed to get lost and loopy in the park. My grandma tells me that she rode the Blue Streak once, and that was enough for her.
“My gosh, Maya, I rode that rolly-coaster, the Blue Streak, ya know, the new one they built, and gosh I didn’t know what I was on!” I love the way she says “rolly-coaster.”
A general nostalgia for simpler times is apparent when Dad talks about these days. It was a different time, he tells me, without the hold of cell phones or the paranoia we have now, spurred by constant news cycles. There was a freedom, especially during the summer, that perhaps was forfeited long before I was born.
In 1976, Cedar Point opened the Corkscrew, the first roller coaster in the world to have not one, not two, but three inversions, where the track flips fully upside down. This feat of engineering prowess drew crowds to the park, waiting to be flipped and teeter off the ride with the slight feeling of blood rushing to the head.
According to census data, Toledo’s population peaked in 1970. Six years later, Jimmy Carter narrowly won Ohio in the presidential election, the swing state forever vacillating between red and blue. The state was prosperous, for a time, but soon the perils of inflation that struck most of the country during Carter’s first term crept inside Ohio’s borders, too. The flipping continued. Reagan won by a landslide in 1980, running against many of the things Ohio voters had previously stood for–union rights and social supports for hardworking Ohioans. To some Ohioans, the deciding factor was that America seemed weak, with the Iran hostage crisis on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
When he was in seventh grade, Dad had an Ohio History teacher named Reverend Crew. Reverend Crew would have the whole class recite the eight largest cities in Ohio–Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron, Dayton, Canton, Youngstown. They would enter the classroom and Reverend Crew would prompt, “Great day to be . . . ” and the students answered, “ALIVE!” One time, Reverend Crew thought that a kid was sassing him and slapped the kid straight across the face. Great day to be alive, I guess. I sometimes feel this whiplash when I think about Ohio history–back and forth between prosperity and downturn, between a great day and a slap in the face.
During his senior year of high school, my dad’s Lake High School Class of 1980 had an unofficial senior skip day to Cedar Point. By comparison, the unofficial senior skip day for my class of 2013 ended up in a “dayger” (rhymes with “rager”) where much of the class got drunk on someone’s mom’s vodka and parents were called but not surprised. I was in class.
Dad’s class didn’t plan very well, though. The same day that they decided to ditch school and hop in their cars to this thrill-packed peninsula, the Lake High School Marching Band was due to perform at Cedar Point. They were caught. Similar to many of Dad’s stories, it sounds like such a sitcom episode–the relatively innocent act of adolescent rebellion thwarted by the unexpected adult presence. How small-town American a story it feels, too–that of course, they ran into someone they knew, and it just turned out to be the wrong someone. All the seniors had to report to the principal’s office, one at a time, to confess. Dad tells me he confessed immediately. He told me this story first, I remember now, when I was in sixth grade and I got a detention. I was crying too hard as I ducked into his van in the carpool line, and I immediately confessed, too. He laughed. “Wanna know what got me my demerits?”
The Magnum XL-200 opened to the bravest riders in 1989. At a peak of 205 feet, it was the tallest, fastest, and steepest roller coaster in the world when built. From the top, riders get a gorgeous view of Lake Erie on one side and the rest of the park on the other. The drop feels as though it leads directly to the shore but turns just before it would dump riders into the lake. Cedar Point’s website boasts, “If it’s a clear day, you might be able to see the coast of Canada.”
By 1989, Rustbelt decline had long been felt in much of Ohio. Population growth dropped, jobs (and people) moved to the Sunbelt or abroad. Unions fought to keep jobs at home, but prices continued to move them away. Much of the area was known for its auto manufacturing. In Cleveland alone, two major auto manufacturing plants were closed between 1980 and 1985. It was the midpoint of a steady decline for some.
In 1984, Reagan again won Ohio by a landslide — only six counties in the whole state went blue. On the campaign trail in 1983, Reagan made a speech at Ashland College, a small liberal arts school about fifty miles south of Cedar Point. A 1983 New York Times headline reads: “Reagan Blames ‘Great Society’ For Economic Woes.” The article says:
The President’s talk was an occasion for him to touch his philosophical roots in a small Middle Western town on his way back to Washington for more battles with Congress over the particulars of his conservative spending and military proposals.
My dad, a forever Democrat, shares a first name with former president Reagan. When I ask him about what stands out to him as Ohio about Cedar Point, he tells me, “I don’t know, I mean I think the fact that, whether you’re talking food or whatever, it was just kind of generic American, I think that’s what Midwest kinda is, kinda generic American. We don’t have like a classic calling card when it comes to our Midwest identity.” And perhaps exactly for this broad applicability, this place full of small town, Middle Western people, somehow began to turn into a place where politicians felt they had to touch their “philosophical roots.” It’s this generalizability that makes Ohio both the most important and the most overlooked.
The thing that strikes me as unlike Ohio about Cedar Point is its flashiness. I appreciate, but find out of character, Cedar Point’s obsession with being the tallest, the fastest, the record-breaking, its constant striving to be the best. What strikes me as the most important piece of Ohio’s identity is its humility. I can’t count how many times people have heard where I’m from and say, “glad you got out of there!” People joke that there were so many astronauts from Ohio (my dad has a sweatshirt signed by John Glenn) because they wanted to get out so badly that they left the entire planet. They’re not wrong–I love my other homes for what Ohio lacked. I love weaving through the bustle of New York City and days on the beach in Fort Lauderdale and how seriously Washington, D.C. takes itself. Ohio, like my dad said, can be thought of as pretty generic. But I think that, even if it’s not flashy, the extraordinary parts of our lives must exist within the context of an important, often overlooked, ordinariness.
I always wished I had one of those door frames with little tick marks to show me how tall I was on which days. I tried to do it once we moved to Florida, but it’s less fun when you’re marking the changes yourself and you’re already twelve. For a while, Cedar Point served a tick-marking purpose for me, not just for height (which was a factor) but for emotional growth. Was I brave enough to ride the Magnum this year? Was I allowed to roam around the park without a somewhat-irritated parent trailing behind? We always got scolded for going on the water rides too early in the day and then complaining about our wet underwear. Was I old enough to drive there alone with friends? One time, Linnea (my best friend since second grade when we both told each other that we liked watching Gilligan’s Island on TV Land) and I went, just the two of us, when she was sixteen and I was fifteen, and on the way home we blasted the Black Keys. “Doesn’t listening to the Black Keys just make you feel awesome?” She couldn’t turn and ask me because her neck wouldn’t move fully after being knocked around on rides.
I was five at the turn of the millennium. I’m pretty sure I fell asleep on a blanket in front of the TV before midnight that New Year’s Eve.
Cedar Point of course had to outdo itself for the year 2000. The Millennium Force, 310 feet tall, opened on May 13, 2000, right at the beginning of the summer coaster riding season. It was voted the best steel roller coaster in the world for six straight years. (It’s also my favorite.) What strikes me about the Millennium Force is how smooth a ride it is– the older coasters, especially the wooden ones, knock you around between the seats and the restraints, making you question for a moment whether they were worth the wait. The Millennium doesn’t. It’s reliable.
The next few years weren’t as reliable. I was in the car on the way home from first grade when Dad told us about 9/11. I didn’t quite understand what the big deal was, until I watched the news that evening, curled up on the carpet at my grandmother’s feet. I never imagined, then, leaving Ohio and living in New York City like I do now. I didn’t know where New York City was. The effects, however, were still felt in Ohio. My brother and I drew an American flag on a piece of printer paper and pasted it to a ruler as a flagpole and put it outside our house. That’s, perhaps, the most patriotic I’ve ever been.
We left Ohio for Florida in 2006. I remember that first night in Florida, typing the 1 before the 419 area code, indicating a long distance call to my Grammie. I cried. I hated Florida. I didn’t understand why everything felt like vacation, why anyone thought that Disney World was good when it didn’t even have good coasters. I went back to Ohio at any chance I got. I swore that at the first chance of independence, college, I would go back. I didn’t. In 7th grade, after spending a chunk of the summer up north, I pasted photos of different Cedar Point roller coasters into my locker at school. It wasn’t until halfway through the school year that one of my friends asked me, “I don’t get it, what’s the big deal about Ohio?”
I’m sitting next to Ammah. I’m eight and forty nine inches tall. Rajiv and Dinesh are in the car ahead of us, and Dad’s alone with a stranger somewhere I can’t see. We’re click-click-clicking up the hill, and with each click my grasp on the seat gets a little looser, my grip sliding off the handles as the sweat build on my palms. The roller coaster operator’s message is ringing in my head– “enjoy your day at Cedar Point, America’s roller coast!” Ammah is looking only at me, with the look that I imagine she gets when, now, I take more than three hours to text back, but then was just a worry for her nine-year-old: “Are you okay?” We reach the top of the hill. I can see the pond below and I think I feel our car wobbling a tiny bit. Then, that feeling overcomes me: falling. I’ve never felt anything like it. My stomach moves to my throat and I feel what I will later learn while watching Mythbusters is called “g-force.” I know that I’m supposed to scream, but instead I laugh. The g-forces kind of tickle.
I’m wobbly when we get off. Ammah is asking, “Did you like it? Are you okay?” I’m fine. I’m still laughing. I trail behind my big brothers, on our way to grab an ice cream cone before heading to the back of the park on the cable cars. I catch up with them, and I chatter to them about how much I liked it. “She’s a pretty fierce little roller coaster rider, isn’t she?” Dad asks Ammah. I pretend not to hear them.
Cleveland.com: Cedar Point’s Millennium Force