Familial smash hit: Bumper cars drive father-daughter joy

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The good news finally came after weeks and weeks of waiting: Our favorite room, the Safari Room, was available the nights we had requested at our favorite bed-and-breakfast a mere stone's throw away from our favorite amusement park -- Knoebels Amusement Resort.

After sharing the glee with my young daughter Gabriella, I asked her what would be the first ride we would take at the park. The Ferris wheel, as in the past? Her first thrill ride, the Froghopper? Or maybe The Rockin' Tug, which became a new favorite last year?

"The bumper cars," she said quickly and resolutely. And the answer made me smile again, this time inside, and remember the root of her response.

Three years ago, at the same amusement park across the state in Northumberland County, Gabriella summoned up her courage to try the Skooter, the adult bumper cars. I was happy to oblige her -- I always had enjoyed them at Kennywood Park as a young boy. Now, with the grown-up parent goal of enjoying the ride with my 4 1/2-year-old daughter, I was more inclined to avoid jarring collisions than when I was a determined, 14-year-old Mad Max crasher.

So we counted out the tickets, and Gabriella picked out a green car best to her liking. We settled into our seats, the klaxon blew and the cars lurched into action. It seemed to me it was 1966 all over again.

Gabriella let me take the wheel and was content to laugh and point out the passing scene. And as we glided in that noisy circle -- occasionally nudging a beleaguered, trapped patron or cutting off a testosterone-fueled teenager to Gabriella's squeals of delight -- I found myself in a calm, relaxed state. I was in the zone.

When the ride ended, we dashed down the ramp and my daughter yelled happily, "No one touches us when my daddy drives!"

Later that night, it struck me that it was not 1966 redux. I realized that the bumper car arena drew sharp parallels to my experience as a war correspondent driving in Sarajevo in 1992-93. Some of us dubbed our method of driving there "the Bosnian weave," the seemingly haphazard and unpredictable manner of accelerating and slowing, swerving and darting, all designed to keep moving forward. No matter what.

The goal: never get boxed in; always dodge the snipers; avoid anything fired your way. It worked quite well back then, and I seamlessly adopted it as an unspoken mantra of my motoring skills back in this country. Some colleagues here marveled at my ability to "see the whole board." Other passengers found it terrifying.

But it is a long way from Titova Street in Sarajevo to the bumper cars of Elysburg, Pa. Thanks to Gabriella, I now understand how lessons learned from one of the darkest, most challenging periods of my life have sunlight and purpose down the road -- a road without snipers or bodies, but dotted only with merry folks on holiday.

The first year we rode the cars I noticed another guy around my age, quiet, wearing a wonderful straw hat and a slight, inward smile. He had no child and merely sailed around the circle of fun. No one got near him.

I was curious but didn't ask. I suspect I knew.

My daughter now brags about our bumper car driving prowess to her friends -- a badge of honor I cherish. It is something she and I share and look forward to doing again. A ride we take together. Fun for both of us.

The park has become a place where she and I have preserved one outpost of father-daughter bonding. Together, she and I went on her first roller coaster, navigated her first haunted house, got soaked by her first water ride. She was afraid to do all of them, but gradually she found her courage. We were a team.

And we still are. There will be other marches of time -- other challenges -- with Gabriella at the park. I suspect on the next visit she finally will be tall enough to seize a ring from her perch on the Grand Carousel merry-go-round. She will no longer need me to do that for her.

But there will be at least one more lesson for Gabriella. I will teach her how to master the "Bosnian weave."


Tom Squitieri of Glen Echo, Md., a writer, teacher and communications consultant who grew up in Lower Burrell, can be reached at tomsquitieri53@gmail.comThe PG Portfolio welcomes "Warm Nostalgia" submissions about interesting summer experiences, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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