The day was bright and just the right amount of hot and somehow, I had managed to drag my carcass out of bed before noon. With all that going on, you could just tell it was going to be a splendid day. 

Old Orchard Beach. Is there any place like it? 

That’s a trick question. Of course there isn’t. Old Orchard Beach is a magical place, a sandy Xanadu where the glorious ocean meets $4 flip-flops, lip-scalding pier fries and some chubby kid vomiting all over the Matterhorn.  

I said it was magical. I didn’t say it was pristine. 

Every time I think of OOB, I think about it from the perspective of a 6-year-old kid. I can’t help it. When I was 6 years old, Old Orchard really DID seem like perfection, a place that was pure joy and mystery from end to end. 

They got an ocean there, you know, and to a small boy, an ocean is as fantastic an enigma as the star-spangled universe itself. There are giant waves to surf, there’s hot sand to sculpt into vaguely castle-like forms, there are seagulls to chase and girls in bathing suits to develop weird feelings about. 

And that’s just the beach, which at OOB is kind of an afterthought. While that 6-year-old was out on that sandy expanse breathing in salt air and the creamy smell of Coppertone, he was surrounded by a delirium of pleasures too numerous to count. 

The hotel pools, the cramped stores with maze-like arrays of trinkets (I was partial to the plastic sword with the red ball on the end,) the pier that seemed to stretch five miles out into the ocean and which was sweaty-shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder crowded with people gobbling drippy fried dough or grabbing up souvenir T-shirts, sea captain’s hats and delicate blown-glass knick-knacks that would break into shards before you got them back to the room. 

Everywhere that kid roamed at OOB, his whole body pumped with the energy of the place. There was rock ‘n’ roll music blasting from every corner. It came from the strange dark bars with their blacked out windows. It throbbed from the cars and motorcycles creeping along the strip. The music was particularly loud coming from the rides in the wonderland known as Palace Playland. If you walked by the Himalayan, in particular, chances were good you’d be hearing Foghat’s “Slow Ride” played at full volume, every other note punctuated by the delighted (mostly) screams of the riders. 

In the Playland section of the beach, you’d be met at every turn by creepy yet somehow exotic carnival barkers challenging you to shoot out a paper star with a real, by-god BB gun or to blast water into a clown’s mouth to inflate a balloon and win big prizes. 

That kid would be enticed by the bumper cars where people from exotic places would try their hardest to give a complete stranger whiplash. The hot rubbery smell of the bumper car track is one that would stick with that boy for the rest of his life. When someone mentioned Old Orchard Beach decades later, that smell would return to him, a painful mix of memories with it. 

Don’t even get me started on the arcades, man. I still get a spark of glee when I think of the sound the “Killer Shark” made when I shot him with that console-mounted spear gun. 

The games were primitive then, but a boy walking through those vast places would feel like he’d blasted off into another world entirely; a world of electronic boinks and bonks that would render kids from all over the world utterly hypnotized while their parents rested over rum and cokes in the bar next door. 

I don’t have the space to write about all the wonders of OOB from the days of yore, but you get my driftwood. As a 6-year-old kid who grew up in Anywhere, USA, a two-day vacation in the middle of July wasn’t anywhere near enough to even scratch the surface. You’d need to spend the entire summer there, and maybe part of the fall, to appreciate it in full. 

So, on that sunny Sunday afternoon as a full-grown adult, sort of, I couldn’t wait to get to the beach. 

We approached from the north side, or possibly from the west. From that direction, you could already see twisting portions of the roller-coaster and you spot the familiar peak of one of OOB’s central buildings. 

You could tell already that this was going to be a splendid experience, a true dive into the beautiful past. And the excitement showed itself at once. 

“What? They want 20 bucks for parking at this time of day? Screw that, let’s keep driving and look for something cheaper.” 

Pro tip: There may be something cheaper, sure, but you’ll be back in Scarborough when you find it. 

But ah, who cares. Let’s park and be done with it so we can race along to all the bacchanalian pleasures that awaited. 

I got out of the car anticipating an assault from all the familiar OOB sounds. The screams of the riders making the downward arc of death on The Pirate Ship. The rushing sounds of roller coaster cars blasting along their tracks. The rock  ‘n’ roll music coming from all over the place and including Foghat’s “Slow Ride” by local law. 

But there was none of that. Not a single ride was in motion. The Pirate Ship sat still and silent, looking flaccid and harmless in its little cradle. 

Likewise for the cars of the Himalayan, which is now called something else. Likewise for the Drop Zone, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Electra Wheel, the Wave Swinger. 

Sitting still and abandoned, the normally fearsome rides looked like sad relics of another age. 

“What’s going on?” I asked nobody in particular. “Why aren’t the rides moving? Why aren’t people screaming as the fillings fly outta their mouths?” 

These days, for reasons that were not clear to me, the rides don’t start until 4 p.m. Staffing problems, likely. And without the rides to pump its mad energy, the rest of the landscape seemed somehow inert. 

These days, the carnival barkers don’t really bark. They might politely invite you to try flipping a ping-pong ball into a floating cup, but they won’t loudly question your manhood or deride your athletic abilities to stir you to action. Mostly they just stand behind their little platforms, fiddling with their phones, barely noticing the temptable souls who wandered by. 

These days the pier is more of a . . . Well, I don’t know how to describe it. It stretches about 20 feet into the ocean now and somewhere along the years, some genius decided to put up walls on both sides so while you’re up there, getting a henna tattoo or whatever it is you crazy kids do, there is no sense at all that the sprawling sea is around you. Ocean? What ocean? I thought I was in a strip mall in downtown Lewiston. 

The pier fries are still good, especially if you bring your own gallon jug of vinegar. The smells are largely the same — sweat, greasy food and Coppertone — and the bumper cars still provide that spark of nostalgia that cause you to drift off into fantasies of that time you knocked the eyeglasses off that skinny kid from Tulsa. 

But the magic of the place? The energy? That feeling that, if you just ditched the people you came here with, you could live here, happily, forever? 

Gone like a soggy french fry into the maw of a bold seagull. You wait for those old feelings to come back and even wish for them, but nope. Something is just too different now. 

Maybe a person is simply required to surrender those giddy feelings of youth during that hazy point where you pass from childhood into the great unknown of the grown-up world. 

To a 6-year-old without memories to foul up his perspective, Old Orchard Beach is probably still a grandiose wonder that will render them almost psychotic with joy. I envy the hell out of that kid, because viewed through the lens of a cynical adult, OOB is just a sad reminder that nothing lasts forever. 

Something is just too different now, and it’s probably me. 

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