I was 15 the day my classmate made history by standing in a bobsled. The version I heard was that he unbuckled his seat belt to show off for a girl, and before she cracked a smile, the tunnel cracked his head.
Mark Maples wasn’t a particularly close friend. But he was the first person I ever knew who died. He also was Disneyland’s first casualty, and his 1964 death after an accident on the Magic Kingdom’s Matterhorn Bobsleds became the stuff of legend. For me and my schoolmates, it marked an end to childhood innocence in the same place that, for many of us, our sense of wonder first began—The Happiest Place on Earth.
Thinking about it now, it’s hard to imagine the wondrous beacon of possibilities that Disneyland was for us back then, before young people engaged in daily conversations across oceans via social media. Think of an experience so special that you would literally dream of it for weeks before it happened, like a long-planned vacation or once-in-a-lifetime cruise. It’s no exaggeration to say that for a kid growing up in Orange County in the 1950s, this was the lofty status that Disneyland held.
Walt Disney himself predicted as much in his dedication at the park’s opening ceremony in 1955: “To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.”
For me, childhood’s symbolic beginning came not long after those words were uttered when my parents took me on a first visit. We’d just walked through the front entrance and were strolling across the town plaza when a train slid into the station and screeched to a halt. We turned in time to see a jaunty man with a cap pulled over his eyes jump from the engine and walk briskly toward the fire station.
My mother was the first to recognize the significance. “Oh my goodness,” she said, “I think that’s Mr. Disney.”
Though we didn’t know it at the time, he was walking toward the tiny apartment he kept above the old-fashioned firehouse. The apartment’s most prominent feature was a large picture window. The man affectionately referred to as “The Boss” was said to often gaze out from it over the busy town square.
“Let’s go say hello,” my father ordered, grabbing my arm. Before I could object, the park’s dark-haired founder stood looking down on us. “Hello young man,” Disney said in the familiar grandfatherly voice I’d heard on my family’s TV. “What’s your name? Are you enjoying the park?”
I have no idea how, or if, I responded. What I do remember is that Walt Disney hurriedly scribbled his name on a piece of paper we had proffered. It was the stub for an E-ticket ride. Had I kept it, I could have retired early.
For me, that day marks the start of a time when I learned to expect miracles. If a man I idolized on TV could suddenly jump off a train and shake my hand, well, just about anything was possible. Perhaps, I began to believe, there really was some magic in the world. But on the day the bobsleds stopped, my boundless childhood faith in magic came to a halt.
Mark Maples had a ready smile and lots of friends at our junior high school. Like me, he also had a gaping susceptibility to Walt Disney’s dream.
So it wasn’t surprising to see him on the Mad Tea Party ride with his girlfriend at our Disneyland grad night that spring. He waved at me and I suppose I waved back. Two hours later, I was in line for the Matterhorn Bobsleds when suddenly they shut down. Gradually the news filtered back; something had happened, something bad. Disneyland’s official statement differs only slightly from my recollection, saying Mark “unbuckled his safety restraint and stood up on the bobsled as it was entering the summit. He fell onto the tracks and died of internal injuries.”
In my copy of the school yearbook bearing Mark’s final graduation portrait that June, I crossed out his name without leaving any comment. I sensed an important passage, but didn’t yet know how to name it. It’s only in retrospect that I see clearly how two events eight years apart marked the beginning and end of my childhood, like bookends.
I still believe in magic, but I think of Mark on lazy afternoons at Disneyland, when delighted screams waft through the summer air. On days like that I pull my young son closer in a silent prayer. Everyone’s innocence must one day fade. My hope for my boy is that it won’t happen too soon.