Naturally my aunt had an itinerary for my father and me. We’d be in Southern California 13 days, she knew, but we’d see “everything.” “Everything” to her meant the recently opened Disneyland, Marineland of the Pacific, and Knott’s Berry Farm. This seemed reasonable. Someone says vacation means showplace visiting, and, at 18, you go along. But I didn’t trust my aunt because, right off, I didn’t like her.
There’s a fiction in the East about dry heat: That it doesn’t feel as hot as the thermometer says. Well, our Disneyland day was hot — at 10:00 a.m., 98 degrees in the shade. The roadside dust in Anaheim, what would be dirt in New England, looked like talc. And my aunt’s Ford had no air conditioning.
My father loved to sweat. I remember summers down at his used-car lot, him Simonizing cars bare-chested, dripping, kinky red hair streaking his balding crown. Me, I hated the heat. Just before our flight to L.A., I had taken it into my head to acquire a Coppertone tan. Back then Coppertone came only in oil, a thick, rich-smelling, buttery fluid, looking as if under it you would actually be toasted brown. But after three consecutive eight-hour days out from under the lifeguard tower umbrella, lacquered with my Coppertone, I got a sudden-coming case of heatstroke. There’d been the ambulance, the St. Luke’s emergency room. All that. Even an ice-water bath rendered by a candy striper. But heatstroke, once you get it, has lasting effects — as if your body recognizes the sun for an enemy. Bright sunlight means blurred vision. Bright sunlight, plus intense heat, means dizziness. Bright sunlight, intense heat, plus being scared equals collapse.
My aunt insisted that the best way to see the Disneyland park, to get an overall view of its “basic theme” — she actually talked that way — was “to commit a morning to the funiculars.”
“What are funiculars?” I asked my father.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But Bessie does.”
To me, the funiculars looked goofy, a lot like their name. Lines from a song of the early ’50s kept running through my head. “Funiculi, funicular. Joy is everywhere. Funiculi, funicular.” We stood in line, my father and me, waiting to be ushered aboard the next pot with a parasol. I remember a woman at my elbow. She wore, in the fashion of the times, white capri pants — three-quarter-length slacks designed to show off full hips and slender calves. She was sweating, we all were, and perspiration had dampened her pants in a “V” on her behind. Without the sweat, I’d have only lusted after her, as my parish priest would have called it. But the sweat made me feel sorry she too — with her little girl grabbing incessantly at her thigh — was suffering for this ride. For some reason I thought of the contraption my father and I had ridden a few years before, one summer night on the Coney Island Ferris wheel. It was a box, as I recall, about the size of an elevator, and it swung on rails like the weighted movement of a self-winding watch. With the smell of urine and stale vomit in there, it’d been hard on that ride to keep the famous hot dogs down.
My first adventure aboard the funicular was a pass through the “Matterhorn,” a scaled-down reproduction of the famous mountain done in some form of plastic that looked, from a hundred yards away, for all the world like rock. My father, reading aloud from the fold-up information guide they’d handed out at boarding, informed me of the history and significance of the Matterhorn. I remember its reputation lay in its shape, and I tried to see why. I considered the “horn” part of the name. I pictured the horns I knew of. The trumpet I’d tried to learn in seventh grade; the trombone my mother’s favorite, Glenn Miller, had played; the tuba the skinniest kid in school had played in the high school band. I thought of a shoehorn, then Cape Horn from maps in geography, even the shape of the electric fender horn I’d unscrewed from a ’38 LaSalle and had marched around my father’s lot with, pretending to play. Then I thought of “Matter,” “mater,” “mother.” But what could a mountain be mother to? The Matterhorn, I concluded, couldn’t have been named after a horn. Or have anything to do with mothers. My father said it was on the Swiss and Italian border. ” ’Horn’ must mean something else,” I said.
For me, the Matterhorn at Disneyland had one thrill. Not a thrill, exactly, but at least a focus of interest — a gaping hole in its side that our funicular, like all those that went before it, would pass through. My father had put those information papers aside, and he too, looking over his fine Roman nose, which I inherited (except mine is twisted by a septum bent badly to the left), eyed the aperture. It’s all illusion, his face said to me. It’s only a silly kids’ ride. And yet I heard him, as we entered that plastic mountain and the heat subsided, and the sounds of splashed water — some sort of submarine-shaped cars carrying four or five people each, were crashing, regularly, into a slough about 50 feet below — say, “For God’s sake, Anna.” That was my mother’s name.
Soon enough we were out on the other side of the Matterhorn and headed, in that gentle swaying motion of the car, traveling slower than I’d walk, toward an artificial lake outlined by shrubs planted just yards back from the marsh. I remember two things on this lake. A gray plastic — I now assumed everything was plastic — submarine, and young women in two-piece bathing suits treading water, occasionally breaking into a crawl, or posing, waving, perched on huge plastic rocks. As I watched, that submarine began to move, and the mermaids — I think some actually wore bottoms with fishtails — thrashed about trying to climb aboard. Here we were, my father and me, moving past this spectacle. Young women, so far as I could tell, beautiful women, climbing aboard this “one-half scale replica of the Nautilus — the first atomic submarine,” and me waiting for that contraption to dive. But instead the Nautilus floated a circuit of the shore, the mermaids waving, arms stiff overhead, moving just their wrists, the crowd, fenced in by a waist-high railing, cheering as if they were at a parade.