Photo/Courtesy of the National Park Service
Bumper cars at Glen Echo Amusement Park.
“Let me hold your ride tickets”, the boy stood directly in front of me blocking my way. “Huh, what…?” I didn’t understand what he meant. He said it again, slowly this time, “Let-me-hold-your-tickets, gim’me your tickets”, he held out his hand, waiting as if he knew I had no choice. I clutched my ride tickets in my hand, “I ain’t giving you my tickets”, he was a lot smaller than me, so I wasn’t afraid of him, even though he looked a couple of years older. As many fights as I’d gotten into with Donnie Carter, I knew he would be no problem for me to handle. “You saying no to my man?”, he gestured as though there were someone standing there with him. I looked around but didn’t see anybody. “What are you talking about?”, I asked puzzled. He spread his arms open wide like a bird about to take flight, then he repeated, “You saying NO to my man?!” He said it sternly, but not loudly, we were standing in the middle of the park. Yes, we were standing right smack dab in the middle of Glen Echo Amusement Park, in Glen Echo, MD, just outside of Washington, D.C. I was there with my church, Providence Baptist and as far as I was concerned, Glen Echo was “The Greatest Place On Earth” bar none. The church sponsored a Sunday School trip each year. At first we’d take cars to nearby beaches or parks, then as more money was raised through bake sales and the like, we were able to hire tour buses to travel further away from home. I had just gotten off the “Jungleland” it’s referred to as a “Dark Ride”. It’s one of those old ride-through dimly lit, haunted attractions based on a mixture of painted African savages, jungle beasts, ghosts and ghouls. Jungleland was my favorite ride, second only to “The Whip” and this guy was taking away from my ability to savor the moment. I wanted to enjoy that ‘I just got off a great ride’ feeling. “I don’t see no man”, I said as I looked around, he’d have to more than this if he wanted these hard-earned tickets. Just then, from around the corner of the building came this gigantic hulk of a boy, he must have been at least fifteen years old, six feet tall, two hundred pounds. I was only ten years old at the time. The big guy just stood back and never said a word. He just kept tapping his hip, kept tapping his hip, drawing my attention to it. That’s when I noticed that strapped to his hip was a hawk-billed knife. All the tickets I had were in my hand, I looked back at the smaller boy as he held out his hand knowing I had run out of options. I gave all my ride tickets to him and watched as they turned away laughing, heading for the JungleLand.
We’ll get back to those guys in a minute, now jump forward two years. My class was taking the annual seventh grade field trip and we had decided to visit Washington, D.C. and Glen Echo. While in Washington, we went into the Washington Monument, visited the Smithsonian Institute and also got in a few hours at Glen Echo. That day, when I arrived at the park the first thing I wanted to do was ride the “Whip”. I had been coming to the park since I was nine years old with the church and had been on this ride so many times by then that I had to show off for my classmates who were visiting the park for the first time. I had already been on “Jungleland” with Carolyn Washington, my supposed girlfriend at the time. In between screams I sneaked in a kiss or two and I was sitting on top of the world. So when it was time to ride the Whip I got in a car alone, the cars could sit three people, but I got in by myself. I propped my feet up on top of the front rail and leaned back in a relaxed pose. The safety bar was supposed to latch (the sign read, “Keep the Safety Bar Latched at all Times”, I pulled it to me but I didn’t lock it. The ride operator didn’t seem to mind so away we went. I was as cool as cool could be, known to my classmates as “The Walking-Talking Dictionary”, “Mr. Dictionary” and then by the infamous name, “Pete-The-Pimp”. I remember when they nick-named me that. We, being country bumpkins that we were, decided that if we were going to take a trip into Washington, DC, we needed nicknames so we’d appear cool to the city folk once we got there, so we all picked names for ourselves. I was given the name “Pete-The Pimp”. When I went home that day and told my mother what my new nickname was, she kept prodding me as to how I acquired such a title, then she asked me, “Do you know what a pimp is?”. I said “sure, it’s a guy who walks cool and talks cool and walks around like he he’s bad”. My mother said “That’s not what pimp means, maybe you’d better find another nickname”. I didn’t understand her concern so I kept the name, at least for the duration of our bus trip.
So there I was sitting on the whip, laid back relaxed, ready to show everyone how nonchalant I was about the whole thing. Everyone else was holding on for dear life, but I was way too smooth for that, I leaned back with my arms stretched out, as though I were relaxing on a park bench. As the cars began picking up speed and began being whipped around the grease caked, stainless steel floor, (the grease kept the wheels cool and made the whipping action even more jerky and rough), the ride operator began pointing down to the bottom of my car each time I made a revolution past him, trying to get my attention. He would cup his hands and yell something to me. I sat up erect trying to hear better each time… “Your wheel’s coming off!”… What? I panicked, “What?”, as I passed again… “Your wheel’s coming off!”, he was pointing frantically to the car’s wheels. I threw back the safety bar and a split second before the next whip of the car came I jumped off the ride and slide the entire length of the steel floor with my arms outstretched like a high wire walker trying to keep my balance as I slid through the thick grease. I rammed full force up against the guard rail, gathered my bearings and turned around to see the ride operator bent over laughing at how gullible I was… “You idiot, if the wheel was coming off, I would have stopped the ride!”. He laughed even harder. Unaware of how close I’d come to being injured or killed, I limped off the ride, still in shock and found some grass to clean off my greasy shoes. I felt a lot less cool after that incident. But that happened in the seventh grade; now let’s back up to the fifth grade and the problem with having had my tickets stolen right of my hands.
Photo/Courtesy National Park Service
Glen Echo Park Main Gate.
I found my mother and didn’t bother telling her what had just happened to me. She asked how I could have used up all my tickets so quickly, but forked over more money without waiting for an answer. I bought more tickets, jumped on the whip and was coming off the ride when the two boys approached me again. They blocked my way. “Let me hold your tickets”, oh no, not again, I thought. I looked first at the little guy then over at his big body guard, I handed over my tickets without saying a word. By now, you’d have thought I would be walking around without the tickets visible to the world, but no, I wasn’t that smart, I had them out for all to see. I decided that this had to stop, so I ran to the park entrance and found two security guards sitting at the gate, one was munching on a banana, the other looked like he was sleeping. “Hey, two boys just stole my tickets!” they just sat there and looked at me, “Two boys a big one and a small one just stole all my tickets”. The guard who was eating the banana was holding onto the gate with one hand and looked up and asked, “Do you see them now?” He waved his hand out across the park and I turned and sure enough, you could just about see the entire park from where we were standing. “No Sir, I don’t see them”, I answered. “Well if you see them again, come and get us and we’ll kick’em out of the park”. All of a sudden I felt lost and alone. Since we were at the park with the church group, I started looking around for one of the older boys. I saw Frank Banks walking toward the Whip. I ran up to him and told him about my being robbed twice today. He confidently said, “Give me your tickets and stick with me, they won’t bother you no more.” All of a sudden I felt great, as though a heavy weight had been lifted off me. Frankie would take care of everything.
We’d been hanging together for a good fifteen minutes, when we decided to ride Jungleland together. We rode the ride, we had some laughs, we got off the ride and just like clockwork those guys were in front of me at the exit again. It was as though they were watching my every move. The big guy stood about ten or fifteen feet back from the little dude while he stuck out his hand, “Your tickets, lem’me hold ’em”. I quickly said “I ain’t got no tickets”, with a knowing smirk on my face and thinking to myself, man are you in for a big surprise. He said, “Where they at?” He knew I had tickets, I always had tickets. “My Man’s got’em!” I said with pride, “I got a man now”. I had a man backing me up now, just like he did. I pointed to Frank, who was standing right beside me. The little guy turned to Frankie without missing a beat and held out his hand, “Let me hold your tickets”, he looked right up at him never changing his expression.
“Naw, you ain’t getting my tickets”, (My hero, good old Frank). Frank stood right up to him. And again, “You saying no to my man?” You had to give him credit, this guy had his script down pat, and he was sticking to it. Frank looked around and said, “Yeah, I’m saying no to your man… I don’t see no man, so yeah, I’m saying no to him”, Frank knew the scoop and I had prepped him for what to expect, but he hadn’t gotten a look at the little guy’s man yet because, according to plan, he stayed in the background until just the right moment, then appeared in all his bulkiness to get the full effect. “So you saying no to my man, here’s MY man right here” and he pointed over to the big guy. Frank got his first look at the humongous giant of a boy, looked over at me and without uttering a word, struck out running across the park as fast as he could. In what seemed to be cat-like reflexes, the big guy caught up with him, moved in front of him and blocked his path. He grabbed Frank by the scruff of his shirt and escorted him back to the Jungleland exit ramp where we had been standing all that time. The little fellow snapped his fingers and gestured for Frank to hand over his tickets. Frank reached into his pocket and dejectedly handed him my tickets AND his. I hung my head down in disgust, Frank walked off in the opposite direction never saying another word, I didn’t see him again in the park that day. I didn’t ride anymore rides after that, I’d learned my lesson. I spent the remainder of the day trying to track down Buster to extract my revenge on these guys. I knew that if anyone could handle these guys Buster was the guy for the job. I never did locate him that day, the day I got robbed three times at Glen Echo Amusement Park, a day that will live in infamy.
Blacks weren’t always welcomed at the park. There were marches and protests in 1960 which led to the integration of the park in 1961. I would be remiss if I did not mention all the struggles that took place which allowed me and my friends and family the opportunity to enjoy Glen Echo. As I recall, even though the Promo from WPGC mentions the pool, the pool was closed down once Blacks were allowed in the park, just to avoid having blacks and whites swim together. At least whenever I was there, the pool was chained shut. When Marshall Hall Amusement Park integrated, they actually cemented over the swimming pool.
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Revised: Sept. 2013