Friday, June 9, 2023

Insight: Conquering an irrational fear

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

When I was a small child, my family would spend time at an amusement park by Lake Ontario called “Seabreeze.” The park was legendary in the Rochester, New York area for its thrill rides, but one ride stood out for me over all the others, and it was a roller coaster called the Jack Rabbit.

Billed as the oldest continuously operating roller coaster in America, the Jack Rabbit ride opened to the public in 1920 and featured seven dips, a helix that twists while you remain stationary in your seat, and a tunnel. With 2,130 feet of track and a 75-foot first drop, the wooden roller coaster propelled entirely by inertia has scared children and adults for more than a century.

One of those who was terrified of the Jack Rabbit was my mother, Harriett. She went to school not far away from the amusement park and would go there with friends for birthday parties and on Friday nights during the 1930s. Even during the coldest winter months when the Seabreeze Amusement Park was closed, she would describe in detail to our family how frightening the Jack Rabbit roller coaster was to her and why she would always refuse to ride it whenever she visited the site.

She told us a story once about how one of her cousins, who had been drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, was home on leave and everyone went to the amusement park for fun one weekend. The story goes that this cousin asked my mother to go on the Jack Rabbit ride with him and she refused citing her fear of the roller coaster. The cousin then asked another girl to accompany him on the ride and when it was over, she said he felt dizzy and passed out, throwing up all over himself. My mother said her cousin experienced dizziness for weeks and was reassigned from Army training as a paratrooper to the mess hall because of the condition. She said afterward, he always blamed the Jack Rabbit roller coaster for ruining his military career.

Somehow through all of this, I too developed an aversion for the Jack Rabbit ride. It was totally irrational because when my parents would take my brother and I to Roseland Amusement Park in Canandaigua, New York, I had no trouble riding The Skyliner roller coaster there, featuring 2,400 feet of wooden track rising to a height of 60 feet looking out over Canandaigua Lake and an insane vertical drop of 45 feet.

But my fear of the Jack Rabbit persisted during my teenage years and into adulthood. Whenever friends or family would go to Seabreeze, I’d go with them but would always decline an invitation to join them for a ride on the Jack Rabbit.

One time when I was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Arizona, I had to fly in a helicopter that had no doors and the passengers sat on benches strapped down by rope as the whirlybird dipped and hovered over the crash site of an F-16 training flight taking off from our base. I felt unsettled as the helicopter pilot tilted back and forth so the crash recovery team that I was part of could get a better look at what was left of the aircraft on the ground.

After we landed back at the base, I was glad I didn’t have to do that every day. But I did get through it and thought to myself that if I could experience riding in an open-air helicopter high in the air tied to a seat by only a strand of rope, maybe I could overcome my fear of the Jack Rabbit.

In 2001, I traveled to Rochester for my 30th high school class reunion. I joined some friends for dinner at a restaurant near Lake Ontario and later, they wanted to visit Seabreeze Amusement Park to see what had changed through the years. As we entered the park, I felt a chill come over me and started breathing heavily as we took a spin on the carousel and then played some carnival and arcade games.

Coming out of the arcade area, we turned south and there I found myself standing directly across from the Jack Rabbit ride. I made the decision right then and there that to defeat my fear for good and to move ahead with my life, I had to ride that roller coaster and put an end to years of apprehension, dread, and phobia.

I purchased a ticket, sat down in a Jack Rabbit car and off I went. As the cars slowly pulled away from the starting point, I thought of my mother, and how for 60-some years she could not fathom the adventure that I was about to experience. The cars dropped suddenly, and I was jolted back to reality. The Jack Rabbit cars roared through all the twists and turns and spins, and I held my breath as we approached another steep drop and then into a tunnel before coasting to a stop.

I had overcome my silly fear of the Jack Rabbit roller coaster and was free to live my life. <

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