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"Tales of the Bobs"

"Tales of the Bobs"
Frank Lurz
Riverview Park Rideman, 1958 - 1959

The Ride

The Bobs was, without a doubt, the premier ride of Riverview Park. It was also the most notorious and young kids growing up in Chicago looked forward with a mixture of eager anticipation and secret fear to the day they would be old enough to prove themselves by boldly facing the sheer terror of the legendary ride.

Located at the rear of the park, next to the Hot Rods, the Bobs was a classic wooden roller coaster comprised of 17 hills, the first of which was 87 feet high. [Editor's note: The blueprints say it was just under 57 feet.] The first turn was steeply banked and one of its hills descended to within mere feet of the midway. Park goers would often stand behind the iron fence that separated the coaster from the midway and wait to see the trains up close as they came thundering by.

The ticket booth and entry way to the Bobs was situated between two tall, white columns, resembling those one might imagine seeing in the ruins of a Greek temple, standing next to beautiful beds of deep green grass and brightly colored flowers that were always well tended. A steep ramp extended from the ticket booth that allowed riders to reach the boarding platform. For a kid riding the Bobs for the first time, the walk up felt like the march of the condemned up the infamous 13 steps of the hangman's scaffold. I remember how, as a young kid, my knees wobbled as I ascended that ramp for my first ride.

Housed under a large roof, the boarding platform was similar to that of a railroad station. On the floor was painted a line behind which the public was to wait until the trains (we called them trains) arrived for boarding. It was often a difficult job because people were so eager to get their "favorite" seats. Usually cooperative, they sometimes jumped the gun and tried to get into the cars before the trains had come to a full stop.

The People

Like all the park's rides, the Bobs had a new cadre of ridemen each season, save for the few regulars who worked at Riverview Park year after year. One of these, the ride's manager, was Carl Jeske, a man of immense proportions who daily took his place on a chair situated in a position that allowed him to see everything that was going on. He was a man of humor, sometimes a bit on the crude side, who was easy to work for.

One of the crew, and a protégé of Carl's, was a kid named Arnie, who had the bluest eyes and blondest hair I've ever seen. Seldom working the boarding platform, Arnie spent most of his time either on break, or working in the "crow's nest," a little wooden box positioned in the air directly over the tracks that passed through the boarding area. It was from the crow's nest that the ride was operated.

Working the Ride

While I wouldn't use the word "violent," the Bobs was certainly a rugged ride that would hit its tightly banked turns with such speed that the centrifugal forces generated would quite abruptly throw its riders from side to side, alternately pinning them, one against the other. Often, loose change, wallets, keys, glasses, and other items carried in one's trouser or shirt pockets were often worked loose. When a train reached the end of the ride its giddy passengers would often disembark, dizzy, breathless, and still excited, unwittingly leaving their lost possessions behind them. Of course, Bobs ridemen knew only too well what was likely to be found wedged in the train's seats or loose on its floor, so as the empty train was allowed to roll forward to the boarding area for its next run, they would quickly inspect each car for "loot." I used to think of the loose change I found as "tips."

Of the many sorts of items lost on a daily basis, one of the most interesting was earrings. Carl, the ride's manager, began saving them, and over the years had eventually acquired literally thousands, of which no two were alike. His collection eventually became so huge and so unique that it appeared in a feature of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not."

Loose change and earrings were not the only things lost on the Bobs. On some occasions passengers whose stomachs were unable to tolerate the wild ride also "lost their lunch." If the unfortunate individual was situated at the front end of the train, the rapid stream of air generated as the train rushed along carried his or her "lunch" along to everyone behind him. It was not a pretty sight. Of course, when the train pulled in, it was up to us ridemen to clean up the mess.

When the volume of passengers was fairly low, the load was easy enough to handle, but as the crowd grew it eventually became necessary to run out another train which was stored in a small shed at the rear of the platform where riders disembarked. As long as the volume wasn't too high, riders were encouraged to take a "second ride" at a reduced fare, by an announcement delivered over a public address system operated by the man in the crow's nest.

"Second riders" would remain in their seats after the others had disembarked and wrestle the money out of their pockets. A rideman with a coin changer mounted on his belt would then move among them collecting the fares, making change for patrons who didn't have the exact amount. I recall being told, most likely by a ride manager or another rideman, of a certain breed of park employees known as "spotters." I never met one, but it was said that their job was to surreptitiously observe the ride to keep track of the number of second riders, and then compare their count with what was actually collected by the rideman who collected the money.

When operating at peak load, the Bobs could run three trains at a time. When we did, the pace was so fast that second rides couldn't be allowed. The routine was to release a freshly loaded train as soon as the one immediately behind it was emptied of its passengers and ready to roll forward for fresh loading. While this was going on a third train was already out on the course, somewhere in the middle of its run. As the freshly loaded train was released onto the course, the emptied train in the debarkation area behind rolled forward for loading with a new set of passengers. Within a few moments, the train that had been out on the course came in right behind for unloading. It was a wonderfully choreographed ballet that required considerable nerve and very close timing.

Brake Tests

If some unforeseen event disrupted the careful timing of the Bobs' operation, something had to be done to prevent the trains from crashing into one another. In anticipation of such an occurrence, at strategic points along level sections of the course the tracks had been built with a braking mechanism, operated by the man in the crow's nest, that could bring a train to a full stop. It's been so long since those halcyon days that I can no longer recall exactly how many of these brakes there were on the Bobs; my best guess is around three. Of course, safety demanded that the brakes always be in good working order, so each Thursday morning a team of ridemen would assemble at the "Silver Flash," the coaster to the immediate right of the main gate, and begin conducting a "brake test."

After we had boarded, train would climb its initial hill and then plunge into its run, racing along until brought to a dead stop by the first brake. High in the air, the ridemen would then climb out of their seats onto the narrow catwalk bordering one side of the tracks and begin pushing the train toward the descending slope. The train was quite massive and demanded a good deal of strength to get it moving again. As soon as it would begin to roll forward of its own accord the ridemen would then have to hurry to jump back into their seats before the train picked up so much speed that it left them stranded. It would then thunder along to the next brake, and the process would be repeated.

Once finished, we would then move on to the next coaster until all the roller coasters in the park, including the Bobs, had been tested. At the young age of 16, I found that part of the work at Riverview very exciting, and great fun. It was by far and away the best overtime I ever
clocked on any job I ever had. God, how I miss the Bobs!
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