“We’re off to the witch. We may never-never never come home. But the magic that we’ll feel is worth a lifetime.”
(Ronnie James Dio)
These words were more than just lyrics when I was younger. They defined my entire life. Dio often refereed to the witch as “the light from the darkness”, For me this meant, seize the moment. Look for the experience where there doesn’t seem to be any. Live life to the fullest. Tonight you may die, but the moments that you live within will be worth a lifetime.
Lion Country Safari was such a darkness. Irvine Meadows Amphitheater was its light. When I was in my late teens, early twenties, there was an amusement park called Lion Country Safari. It was a place where you could drive your own vehicle through on a make shift adventure through an African wilderness. If you were lucky some of the wildlife would walk up to your car and peak in through your windows. Unlucky would be your car over heating half way through, or having an elephant sit on the hood of your VW bug.
Next to the park was concert pavilion. It was a 16,000 seat, half circle arena. It had a grass hill behind the seats where you could spread a blanket out and watch the show under the stars. There was a large chain link fence that closed the entire place in. Security guards would walk the perimeter of the east and west gates. The south fence however was always left unattended to. It was eight feet high and sat on the edge of a ten foot drop down a steep incline. At the bottom of that incline was a small stone wall that housed the rhino pits. The pits held about twenty or so white rhinoceroses. I guess they felt they didn’t need to guard this area because who would be foolish enough to take on an eight thousand pound horned beast just to see some band play. Yet for a chance to see Judas Priest screaming for vengeance, the die-hard metal head never thought twice about it.
There were acres upon acres of strawberry fields that lined the hills around the park and theater. There were usually three to eight of us kids who would hike out to the top of those fields the evening before a show. We would sit and drink cheap beer and swig Jack Daniels out of the bottle. We would eat strawberries and smoke ourselves into a dense fog. The opening bands would go through their sets. The music would echo through the valley. There were always other groups of people up on those hills doing the same thing. You could hear the music pretty well and see the lights from the stage glowing off the trees in the distance. They reflected off the smoke that loomed over the place and created a colorful vision for us to watch.
We would wait until the sky was good and dark. We would wait until the headlining act broke into their first song. We knew the crowed would stand up and push forward. We waited. Then the rush would begin. We hopped the wall into the park, slid down the trail to the rhino pits. Ran as fast as we possibly could to get to the other side. Now the pits had mud holes, lying down trees, watering troves, and of course live rhinos. Trying to run your way through all of that was a challenge enough, but to do it drunk and stoned was another thing entirely. Kids would go down and you would stop to help them up. Like comrades in a war zone.
We would fly over the stone wall, make our way up the incline and over the eight foot high chain link fence. We would drop down behind the trees and casually walk out onto the lawn. Which it was very hard to be casual covered in mud and dirt. For the shows we really wanted to see we would hang out on the grass for a bit, then try to make our way down toward the stage. For the bands we didn’t really care about we would push and shove our way down, hopping over the backs of seats until we arrived at the stage. There we would jump up on the platform and see how long it took for them to catch us and throw us out. Some nights we jumped the fence, got to the stage and got tossed out all in the matter of minutes. I have been on that stage with many half ass bands, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, God I wanted to shove that spot light of his down his throat, Oingo Boingo, Duran Duran, Cindy Lauper. The metal shows were always harder to get to the stage for. That’s because the crowd was always rowdier. They were all shoving and pushing and if you jumped in front of them you were likely to get your head bashed in.
Those were some great times. The friendships that are bonded while experiencing life last forever.
The park was eventually closed. Animal rights activist shut it down. Too many cars being damaged, too many kids wandering into the park after hours. The news came out that they were drugging the animals to calm them down. That kind of took the wind out of our sails. It didn’t seem as dangerous knowing the rhinos were just as stoned as we were.
Once the park closed they started patrolling the fields with ATVs and spot lights. They planted a million thorn bushes where the pits use to be. We would still sneak in but it took a lot more effort. The fence was higher too. We would get about forty kids together and just rush the fence. We would hang on it until it fell over and then just run in. We would be all torn up and bleeding from the thorn bushes. Half the kids would get caught. It wasn’t worth it anymore.
But I’ll never forget those evening up on that strawberry hill. How I loved Summer time in southern California. Being broke yet rich with friends. Always out to find the light within the dark. We might not make it back, but we will live until we die.