Last year he had optimistically put cardboard in his shoes but he was still an inch too short and he would have to wait another year. Being the runt of the litter and being “old enough” but just not “tall enough” to ride the coaster, made it all the more humiliating to endure. Most of his friends were tall enough last year.
But before the roller coaster, there would be the party at Chuck E Cheese’s.
All his friends were invited. It started at noon, and one by one the boys straggled in like chickens with blinders. Each raced to choose which seat to sit in. It morphed from bee-lining chickens to looking more like musical-chairs for squirrels. Henry of course, had the place of honor at the head of the table. There is nothing quite as magical as a table full of ten-year-old boys in cone hats, out of control with poor choices of party favors and sugar. The nearby table of mothers (and a token father) would sit in uncomfortable denial as to who the boys belonged to. The moms talked amongst themselves, only occasionally glancing with one eye, like watchful sheep dogs, ever ready to intervene if someone was dying.
The boys became a few decibels quieter as soon as the pizza arrived, but the quiet was as short lived as the pizza. Soon, some of the boys resorted to chasing each other around the table, punctuated by dipping a friend’s pizza crust in their glass of Pepsi, popping balloons, blowing roll-up horns in each others faces or dropping ice cubes down someone’s shirt.
The moms—on cue—descended like sheep dogs to corral the kids back into their chairs with promises of cake and meaningless threats of: “NO roller-coaster!”
The cool thing about this party was there was not a “girl” in sight (obviously moms don’t count—moms are not girls after all). The fact most girls his age were already tall enough to go on the roller coaster was just another straw that broke the camel’s back. Next year might be different and they might become more than just another four letter word, but this year was perfect.
The requisite chocolate cake with water-melon-red frosting, ablaze with nine, blue, fizzing candles, left a stream of smoke like the Titanic as it streamed toward the table. Henry tried to blow them out, only to have them re-light like sparklers and continue melting all over the top of the cake. He loved those trick candles even though his parents had been putting them on his cake for as long as he could remember. They had only done it the last two years–but how much do you remember about previous years when you are a kid? The most important thing he remembered from last year was how he was not tall enough to go on the roller coaster.
The candles were eventually successfully extinguished and the cake was served up to the antsy boys. The cake was unceremoniously extinguished much more easily than the candles.
Then came the gift exchange. This is where Henry got to recoup all the similar baubles he had given to all his friends over the last year.
Next stop—the roller coaster.
All the parents and the 7 boys clambered into two mini-vans and headed off to the amusement park.
The day would not be just about the roller coaster however–although that was paramount in Henry’s mind. There would be a whole lifetime of adventure, and ten-year-old-mayhem, that would lead up to the grand finale!
There were all the rigged games like ring toss, whack-a-mole and the shooting gallery. It was not like you could ever get good at these games, they were just fun—just part of what you did at the amusement park. Of course, almost always, whatever trinket you did manage to win was never worth what you spent winning it–but sometimes winning at any cost had its own reward. This would become even more apparent to Henry in future trips to the park.
Unlike the games, there were some rides you actually could get good at. Henry’s favorite was the swinging gym. The gym was like a giant steel hamster cage, big enough for four adult human guinea pigs, which worked like a pendulum. You were safely locked inside and had to swing back and forth until you got it to go over the top–the way you always imagined yourself doing on a swing. Henry was good enough at it, that the guy running the ride would let Henry twirl around and around just to attract other riders. The secret was, however, it was much easier to accomplish the task alone than trying to work in sync with someone else. Go figure! He even got to ride for free. Henry loved the carnival part of the amusement park about the best of all.
In previous years, it was not uncommon for Henry and his big brother to run off around the park by themselves. Whenever his brother went on a ride he was not big enough to go on (which he was not supposed to do), Henry would have to wait by the ticket booth until the ride was over. One time, he heard a little girl crying close by. She was huddled under the skirt of the merry-go-round—the horses prancing up and down wildly above her—the monotonous music almost drowned out her crying. Her bright red hair seemed to somehow fit right in.
Henry had a momentary flash of when the merry-go-round was scary to him–back when the faces of the horses were real, as they snorted and foamed at the bits in their mouths. He remembered hanging on to the shiny slick pipe as the horses screamed and kicked around and around, up and down. The memories of life altering events tend to stay with a kid.
He went over to the merry-go-round to ask the little girl if he could help, even if it did seem a bit like the blind leading the blind. Henry was only about six then, but he was actually pretty adept in such situations–even if he was afraid of the gaudy painted horses when he was younger.
The little girl wiped away her tears and told him she couldn’t find her parents. Henry took her by the hand and led her to the guy in charge of the rid his brother was on. The operator had complicated colorful tattoos all over his arms, a shiny gold earring and a pack of cigarettes was rolled up in his shirt sleeve. To Henry he looked exactly like an amusement ride operator should look—the way they always looked.
Henry told the ride operator the little girl had lost her parents and he wanted to know what he should do. The worker didn’t say anything, his unlit cigarette hanging from his lips. He just held up his finger like a “one,” patted the whimpering girl on her head and went inside his little stripped ticket booth that looked like it might be lifted off the ground by the colorful balloons tugging at it. Henry could see him inside the booth calling someone. He came back out in a minute or so and stood with the two kids while keeping an eye on his ride. Pretty soon a policeman came with a couple of other official looking people. They wanted to know if Henry was lost too and Henry told them no—he was waiting for his brother, as he pointed in the direction of the ride behind him.
The policeman could see Henry’s brother spinning around in his seat as the ride went around. He was looking down, trying to keep his eye on Henry, trying to figure out what was going on. He looked nervous and concerned and helpless. The policeman was apparently satisfied as to what was going on. He shook a scolding finger at Henry’s brother and then took the girl by the hand and led her away. The little girl turned her red head and looked back at him and smiled.
Soon the ride came to an end and Henry was able to tell his brother the whole story.
Big brother told Henry he deserved a treat for being such a hero (and because he felt a bit guilty), so he bought him a cotton candy, which Henry ate like a dog with a treat. Afterwards he had a sticky pink clown-mouth to wear the rest of the day.
The next ride they went on was the swings. It was not the most exciting ride at the park, but Henry still liked spinning around with outstretched arms which made him feel like he was flying. This time was different however and he did not think he would be able to fly all the way to the end of the ride without throwing up. In fact, as soon as Henry’s feet hit the ground, up came all the hastily eaten cotton candy into a bubbly pink puddle at his feet. Even though he was now standing firmly on the ground, it was quite a while before he didn’t feel like he was still on the swings. His brother took him to the men’s room and helped him get cleaned up—he even washed off the big clown mouth.
But that was years ago, he was ten now and he was with his friends–not his big brother. He was ready to ride the “coaster of death.” This was HIS year.
Henry loved the smell of the amusement park. The air was thick with the smells of hot dogs, pizza, sugar and fried dough, and the boys were all getting their fill of each between rides.
The boys could see the giant roller coaster off in the distance, towering like some religious edifice—and certainly worthy of their pilgrimage. This would be the final event of the day. The boys got their tickets, Henry was tall enough with height to spare, and they all lined up to get into the train of coaster-cars.
There were already a few passengers on board and they all scrambled toward the empty cars–two boys to a car. The last car, which was also the first car, the one apparently with Henry’s name on it, already had a passenger. All the other cars were full. He was left with NO CHOICE, as he sheepishly took the last seat available—next to a “girl” with bright red hair. Behind him, Henry could hear his friends laughing at him as the attendant lowered the bar to trap the two of them together. Henry looked straight ahead at the shiny tracks that curved sharply upwards and disappeared somewhere near the clouds and blue sky.
The girl spoke and asked in a very squeaky voice, “What’s your name?”
“Henry,” he said politely, but wishing he was invisible.
“Mine is Christine,” she said, as if she knew better than to wait for him to ask her, and knowing full well she was not invisible.
“Is this your first……….,”
The train lurched forward cutting her off and then smoothed out as it strained to climb the mountain ahead of them. There was a clicking sound like someone ratcheting a giant egg timer that you just knew, sooner or later, would have to go off relentlessly. They were now laying on their backs, instead of sitting on their butts, as the train climbed the vertical hill one tick at a time. Their knees fell against the bar that kept them from falling out.
“Is this your first time on the roller coaster,” she continued, her voice wobbling in sync with the timer?
Henry’s heart was racing and he was starting to have doubts about what he had gotten himself into. How could he have wanted to do something so badly and now wish so badly he could change his mind? And how the heck could this girl be going on the ride by herself?
“Yup,” he said, desperately clinging to the bar that spanned across them.
He would love to have been able to pretend he had tons of experience with roller coasters, but that would have been difficult to fake at the moment. He didn’t know that was his job yet.
The train was barely moving as it inched up the hill; and he could hear all his friend’s panicked excitement behind him. They were now almost at the top and it started to flatten out. As the train started to go down the hill, Henry could no longer breathe, the bottom was nowhere in sight–it was a dead vertical drop. Not just steep—it went down until it disappeared into a tunnel at least a mile below.
Henry could see miniature people on the ground milling around in the miniature streets of the miniature village of colorful tents.
He knew for sure now he was in way over his head.
As the last car got dragged over the top, the train accelerated to the speed of light! Christine screamed the loudest scream he had ever heard in his entire life as she grabbed onto his hand with all her might. This shocked him so much he literally forgot where he was or what he was doing. The next thing he knew the coaster had disappeared into the dark tunnel and floated by a series of colorful windows full of fish. It was all made to look like one was traveling under water. When the train shot out of the darkness and into the light of day, there were new twists, turns and loops to endure.
Christine eventually let go of his hand and he could not remember another single thing about the ride as it abruptly came to a stop back where they started. The security bar was swung away from them and they both hopped out onto the platform as if to escape some wild primal animal. Christine thanked him for riding with her and he said thanks back. As they went their separate ways he was not sure what he was thankful for. He could still feel the grasp of her hand on his, but he had no clue who saved who. Was this another cotton candy moment? He was indeed in over his head.
When she turned and smiled at him as she left, Henry had the oddest familiar feeling. Henry would forever be altered by that red haired girl’s tight grip on his hand–on his first roller coaster ride.
It was a quiet ride home in the two vans for the group of ten-year-olds and it did not take long before they were sound asleep from their day’s adventure. Henry drifted off to sleep and immediately found himself back on the roller coaster. This time his friends were not with him, but Christine was. Somehow they were both older though—like maybe eleven—but he knew it was Christine and him. There was that same red hair and smile.
It was as if they were at the amusement park together the next year or something. This year was different though because she was holding his hand from the start. It was all very confusing to Henry, even in his dream. How did something that seemed so unimaginable one moment, suddenly become not only imaginable but somehow unavoidable—and with no explanation—the next moment? There must be all kinds of sleep one can be awakened from.
He won Christine a Panda Bear, almost as big as she was, by knocking down a stack of milk bottles. Some guy twice his size and twice his age had spent a lot of money trying to win one and Henry knocked over all the bottles on his second try. Luck is worth a lot when you are on a mission. The look on the big guy’s face was priceless.
Over the years, Henry would often be visited by this dream, and of course as he got older, so did Christine. The dreams got much more interesting and the prizes that could be won got more valuable as well—although some of the games got harder and harder.
One time the roller coaster seemed to get stuck at the top of that first big hill. A seagull swooped in and fearlessly landed on the front edge of the coaster–right at Henry’s feet. While the train was stopped, almost floating in air, they had time to look out over the amusement park and see how it was like an island of color, light and sound surrounded by the rest of the world—with precise incongruous boundaries between them. They could see the Ferris wheel spinning around below them—almost as high as they were. Inevitably though, they were again plunged, screaming, seagull squawking, with hair streaming, eyes watering and cheeks flapping, into the darkness below.
Henry never lost interest in the park, there was always some new adventure to capture his attention, some new game with impossible odds, or some new ride to scare the pants of him. There was always the red head with the smile and the loudest scream he had ever heard—and would ever hear.
The roller coaster bumped and screeched to a stop and he wondered how the ride could be over so soon. It always seemed to end too soon and seemed shorter every year.
The jolt woke him up from his dream and he became aware of actually being in their car—not on the roller coaster at all.
Christine was driving. She looked over at him and smiled as she realized she had wakened him by braking too hard–her wild red hair was now mostly grey.
Suzy, their granddaughter was asleep in the back seat–it had been a long day with grandma and grandpa at the amusement park; and they all had too much fun on the roller coaster—Suzy was tall enough this year.
By Charles Buell