Grieving, Belated Posted by: Dale Franks
on Sunday, August 03, 2008
Life is change. It's inescapable. Most of the time, we roll with the change, accepting it. And, often, the changes are good, and we welcome them. But every once in a while, a change hits us in an unpleasant way. It affects something we don't want to see changed, something we want to preserve. It can be even worse when the change happens, and we don't even know about it until after the fact.
I was considering the possibility of taking a trip back to my hometown of Houston, Texas. I've only been back there once in the last 20 years, and that was for my grandfather's funeral in 2004. I only got to spend a day and a half there. After the funeral, I went out with my dad, and we looked up some stuff in the old neighborhood, and visited family. I didn't have a lot of time to do much, and I regretted that.
I'd like to go back again, and take a closer look at the old haunts. So, as I was looking around at some places I'd like to see again, I got a bit of a shock, when I learned that there's one place—the repository of many, many memories—that I'll never see again.
I learned this week that it's gone forever, and has been nothing but a memory since 30 October, 2005.
Astroworld opened in June of 1968. it was part of Judge Roy Hofeinz's Astrodomain, and included the Astrodome, home of the Houston Astros and Houston Oilers, seen at the top of the picture above. The huge triangular building in the center, with the candy-striped red and white central roof, was the Astrohall. That was the city's main convention center. Below that, Across the I-610, was Astroworld.
It was a large theme park. So large, in fact, that the Six Flags corporation acquired it from Judge Hofeinz in the 1970s.
Man, I spent a lot of time at that complex.
We used to go to Astros games there. One night, after double header with the cubs—the Astros won both games, and the second game was an 18-3 blow-out—we went around back with a souvenir baseball, and I got signatures of every Astro as they left. I got Joe Niekro's autograph, and for whatever reason, his brother Phil was there that night, although he played for the Braves back then. So, I got Phil's autograph, too. I doubt there's many people who got both Phil and Joe's autograph on the same ball.
I saw Elvis in concert there during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. He wore sequined purple socks. All of the livestock was displayed in the Astrohall, and the Rodeo took place in the Astrodome.
So did the Stock Car demolition derby, motocross races, and much more.
But Astroworld...that was where I loved to go most of all.
We went there a lot. Heck, we had season tickets, so we could go every weekend.
My uncle worked there not long after it opened. It was his high school summer job, so I was there, as a little 4 year-old kid the year it was opened. I watched the Texas Cyclone, one of the largest wooden roller coasters in the world, being built, and I was there to ride it when it opened in 1976. Same with Greezed Lighting, in 1978, which took you from sitting at the station, to 60 miles an hour in 4 seconds, shot you through a 360° loop, up a braking ramp, then back through the loop backwards.
Man! That seemed so fast. 0-60 in four seconds. Took your breath away! My FJR1300 does it in 3.6 seconds, and it seems mundane. Odd how your perspective changes.
To enter the park, you had to cross a pedestrian bridge over the I-610. You parked in the lot adjacent to the Astrohall, then walked or caught a tram over the bridge to the main entrance.
The bridge is still there.
But it's the only thing that is.
Everything else has been razed to the ground. They didn't just tear down the rides and the buildings. The jackhammered up and removed ever bit of asphalt and concrete. Dismantled every foundation. Carted every bit of it away, and bulldozed it level. It's just an empty field now, without even a hint that a major theme park was ever there.
Here's what Astroworld looks like now.
Just a field of straggly weeds. Flattened level. You can see, barely, the evidence of previous occupation, but only from the air. From ground level, not a trace remains.
No more lagoon, from which water skiing tricks and fireworks shows were presented. No River of No Return—from which I must have returned hundreds of times. No Astroneedle, going hundreds of feet in the sky, to lay out Houston in panoramic view. No more hard luck Mine, where you could pan for gold. No more Wacky Shack, where perspective was skewed, and pool balls rolled uphill.
All gone now.
I spent nearly every summer of my childhood there. Spent time there with all of my childhood friends. Ate tiny loaves of fresh-baked bread from the Rainbow Bakery. I visited it the last time with friend I'd grown up with, Tom Burleson, when I was home on leave in the summer of 1985.
And I'll never be able to do it again. The Astrodome is an empty, mostly unused shell. The Astrohall was demolished to build Reliant Stadium. And Astroworld is just a sea of grass and weeds now.
It makes going back to Houston for a trip much less interesting to me now. I haven't been to Astroworld in 23 years, but now that I know I can never go there again, I feel like a little piece of my childhood has been stolen.
I remember going to Astroworld the summer after my eighth grade year. It was my first trip to a large theme park. It seemed so huge, as if you could spend weeks there and not see everything. Since then I have been to many parks, and they were as large or larger. Some much more.
Still, it was always special because it was my first experience.
A bigger shock awaits, if and when you go back several years from now—when you see the nice shiny thing they eventually build on the blank space, and which will have no relation at all to what was there.
What’s just as shocking is walking into or going by some place you don’t recognize, and then suddenly realizing that it stands on the site of some cherished memory from childhood. I once had to explain to a real estate agent that no, I really didn’t want to buy this nice house because it happened to be built almost exactly on the site of the sanctuary of my old synagogue, and I didn’t feel right using a bathroom perhaps five feet away from the lectern where I had given my bar mitzvah speech, and just about as close to the ark where we kept the Torah scrolls.
As a native Houstonian and having lived there until I was 30, I am continually amazed at the changes that are there when I go back to visit family (I am now 40 and go back 1-2 times a year).
When I visit Houston I go to the west side, so don’t get near the Astrodome very often, but on my last visit I ended up taking the Loop, and even though I knew Astroworld was gone and that the area had changed, I was shocked at the amount of change.
Of course the Galleria now looks foreign to me, as do most parts of the city. It’s sort of sad in a way...
That giggle aside, I’m hip, Dale, to the sense of loss. I’ve made such comments when amusement parks and bowling halls... and shoppng centers... have disappeared from our landscape around here. Just last week, our Midtown Plaza closed after nearly 50 years, and we found the largest Bowling establishment in this end of the state is closing. Oddly, that bowling hall was part of an empire that once also contained Olympic Park, which was a sizeable amusement park. The park disappeared about 20 years back. Now what’s left of it will go, too. I’d spent quite a bit of time in each.
My son and I made a roller coaster trip that included Astroworld in either 2003 or 2004(can’t remember which year was our Texas trip). Hot and sticky, with a staff that was somewhat ho-hum about their jobs when we were there.
But the Texas Cyclone was a thrill; as was Greezed Lightning (an Anton Schwartzkopf design;) and the Batman stand-up coaster.
I understand that on the last night, park executives took the last ride on the Cyclone and then had a six-foot section of the track cut out to ensure that their’s was the last ride ever.
Given Six Flag’s current financial health, it is unlikely it will be replaced.
It is always sad to see places dedicated to fun disappear.
Ain’t that the truth. I used to enjoy returning periodically to places I previously lived (I moved a lot) and seeing the changes. As I got older, though, it stopped being so much fun because it became harder and harder to relate to what was in effect an entirely strange and different place. Tennyson wrote, "I am a part of all that I have met...", so when all that you have met disappears, so do you, a piece at a time. Mortality rears its ugly head.