One of my closest friends has a cottage in Ontario. Every summer, she nags my wife and me to come visit her and her family, sit on the beach, drink beer and relax. (I know. The horror.)
The last time we did, while all around us people were laughing and screaming and having a grand old time, it was all I could do to not start crying. Because every time I looked to my left, I saw a housing development where my childhood is supposed to be.
It has been almost 30 years since Crystal Beach Amusement Park closed. I guess I still can't get past it. To borrow a great newspaper transition cliché, apparently I am not alone.
We published a gallery last week of old photographs taken at Crystal Beach over the years, and the volume of responses was both predictable and incredible. Given the chance to post a comment on Facebook, hundreds of readers who looked at the photos kept using the same two words in their responses: "happy" and "memories."
Although Crystal Beach operated on the Canadian side of Lake Erie for a century, it was a Buffalo place as much as it was a Canadian place.
It also was a shared experience without comparison. Generations of children in Western New York grew up hearing tales from their elders about going to the very park they themselves went to every summer. The older folks may have gone on water by way of the Canadiana ferry, while we went on land by way of the Peace Bridge and the family car, but the sentence "We're going to Crystal Beach!" evoked exactly the same joy in this 1970s kid that it did in his parents, his grandparents and even his great-grandparents.
And there was something else: universal appeal. I never heard of anyone who didn't love Crystal Beach. I can easily imagine two people screaming at each other about politics today but still finding common ground on the question of whether Crystal Beach was awesome.
The more time that passes since that terrible day in 1989 when we heard it was going away, the harder it becomes to explain to a person who never experienced it why some theme park with rides and food and amusements in Canada still matters so much to Buffalo.
But I'll try.
It wasn't JUST that it had rides: It had THE ride, the Comet, a roller coaster that was too intimidating to consider when you first saw it and too thrilling to describe every time you rode it, with a view of the lake to your right as you climbed the first hill and a host of terrifying dips and turns straight ahead. It had the Giant Coaster, which most called the Yellow Roller Coaster, thanks to its color, and which went from being a Comet consolation prize when you were little to a nice tune-up for the Comet when you were older. It had Laff in the Dark, a car that jerked and juked through a haunted house that was more cheesy than scary or funny, but you always rode it. It had a whole section devoted to rides for little kids. It had rides whose very names had personality, like the Sky Ride, the Texas Revolver, the HeyDay, the Wild Mouse, the Flitzer. It had cars and boats you could really drive and a train that was really a train.
It wasn't JUST that it had food that was bad for you: It had food whose aromas were as intoxicating as their tastes – suckers and sugar waffles and ice cream and saltwater taffy and French fries soaked in vinegar, and there was always a prescribed time in your day when you got them. (In my family, ice cream always made you feel better after the ride that made you sick, and suckers always came at the end.)
It wasn't JUST that it had amusements: It had carnival games in which you always won something, even if that something ended up broken or forgotten on the car ride home; it had an arcade before any mall had one, with newer games and older ones that you never saw anywhere else; it had a statue of a giant holding a sign asking if you were "having fun at Crystal Beach" (Uh, YEAH!); it even had a fun garbage can, a lion's head that roared "I eat paper."
Crystal Beach was the rare place that excited all of your senses and you didn't even have to be there to experience them. Even today, I can hear the Laff in the Dark car clicking along the tracks and smell the motor that powered it.
It probably goes without saying, but it's easy for longtime Western New Yorkers to fall into the trap of romanticizing the past. That's not only because our memories are a sure thing, while the present can be anxious and the future even worse; it's also because we really have lost some great stuff. (A moment of silence, please, for the Buffalo Braves.)
Crystal Beach was different. It wasn't something your family did; it was your family. And it seemed like it would be around forever because it felt like it had been around forever.
But it's not. All we have left are photos, happy memories and an affirmation of a simple idea: Nothing hurts quite so much as losing something that is irreplaceable.