An orchestrated commotion runs the length of Circuit avenue playing the music of summer. Strolling clusters of tourists plan their days as they negotiate the narrow sidewalks, crowd open-air eateries and ice cream shops, hold debates over T-shirts and people-watch from storefront benches. All the while cars crawl up the street stopping and starting.
But in the old red barn at the street’s entrance an old fashioned summer still resides. You won’t hear the sound until you near the open wooden shutters — the bell clanging to signal the start of the old 1912 Wurlitzer that cranks out calliope music. Then the platform holding 20 painted wooden horses and four carriages begins whirling around.
The Flying Horses, in its 138th year, is the country’s oldest continually operating platform carousel and a National Landmark. Built in 1876 by Charles Dare, it was moved from Coney Island to Oak Bluffs in 1884, and first installed on the site where the Steamship Authority building now stands. In 1986 the carousel was bought from the Lucas Family for $650,000 by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust. Close to half a million dollars were spent on renovations and repairs, and yet it remains essentially unchanged.
Imani Foster, a regional high school student, sits smiling and calm, selling tickets ($2.50 for a two to three minute ride) behind the counter. “It’s a great place to work,” she says, adding a plug, “and I love working for the Preservation Trust. I think they do a lot of good for the Island.”
Parents and their children are crowding against each other in the line bordered by white picket fencing. Despite the back and forth shouts, it is a mellow scrunch of grinning parents and children with mouths agape as they watch the carousel spinning around.
Even in this age when young children hold push-button access to the world in their little hands, the carousel continues to make yesteryear irresistible.
Brian Murphy from Connecticut waits in line with his children, Molly, 4, Christopher, 7, and Emma, 9. He explains that this experience is a tradition. He remembers when he first tried to grab the brass ring.
Ramona Ausubel and her family have Island roots, and come from New Mexico where they live for summer vacations. Her husband holds their almost two-year-old son Clay, who seems to be studying the horses.
Time for the next ride. Guided by Zachary Lincee who handles the crowd, everyone scrambles on to the platform. There’s a quick pell-mell run this way and that before everyone claims a horse. Parents stand alongside — one hand on their child, the other on the pole. The inside horses are closer to the ground — a natural choice for the youngest riders — while the horses on the outside are grabbed up by older kids. They examine their choices, touching the real horsehair manes and tails.
Tickets are collected as an amplified voice says, “Good morning. Welcome to Flying Horses Carousel. Before we begin, I’d like to make a few safety announcements.” The adults who stand next to a child are told to hold on to the pole, and riders are told not to switch positions. “No sitting sidesaddle or backwards... And remain in your position until the ride has stopped.”
Clang, clang, clang. The Wurlitzer — with leather bellows run by the pulleys of the carousel — pumps out an indeterminable melody. No matter. It’s just background music to the waving, calling out and picture taking as parents preserve the moment.
The rings roll down the chute and stop just a stretch within reach. For the seasoned riders, it’s all about getting the gold-painted brass ring. Timing is key. There are only two gold rings included for each two or three minute ride — one on the outside chute and one on the inside. Getting the gold ring and winning a free ride adds a something-to-shoot-for edge. Arms stretch out into the air and one after another the plain brass rings are snatched. One very determined mother makes a lunge every time she passes the chute. No winners yet.
The sign on the wall next to carousel manager Robin (Rebello) Meader’s office door reads: “Nobody gets to see the Wizzard, No Way — No How.” She has been watching these goings-on for the 26 years that she’s worked at Flying Horses. Her vantage point used to be at the ticket counter, but now she spends most of her time in an office under the rafters above the carousel. Just climbing up the scaffolding, maneuvering the narrow twists, and ducking under the pipes, is worth a ticket.
“Everything is basically the same,” she says, and almost verbatim, repeats Imani Foster’s sentiment about working for the Preservation Trust. In fact, everyone on the carousel staff seems to share the same opinion.
But it all comes to a stop for yet another year after Columbus Day. The mares and tails, tacks and bridal stirrups, will be removed for safe keeping until next summer. The original panel paintings will get touch ups from John Anderson and Bob and Peggy Schweir, then put away in archival boxes. The Wurlitzer will be taken apart piece-by-piece, and any mechanical repairs will be done by Michael Fuss of Offshore Cycle.
This morning, however, the music plays on. Laughter. Shouts. Smiles for the camera. And suddenly a whoop. Someone has grabbed the gold ring. Everyone applauds. Happiness all around.