Out of the Box

Or, how to become airborne when there's no magic click

Any kid growing up in Dallas quickly learns that the Texas State Fair is more than a chance to eat space ice cream, ogle sports cars and gawk at the beefiest heifer. The state fair is a cultural institution, where tradition holds that each year must offer something bigger, newer and faster. And for an eight-year-old, nothing captures this outsize Texas spirit more viscerally than the midway.

Talk of the midway was the biggest buzz of the jungle gym when I was a third-grader at the Lamplighter School in the mid-1980s. The fair handed out free tickets through the schools, and everyone wanted to know if you had ridden the giant Ferris wheel or the bumper cars. Absences were even excused on an informal holiday known as Fair Day.

The weekend my parents took me to the fair, I dragged them to the midway as soon as possible. I remember the spooky trapdoors in the fun house, the burly men slapping strength-o-meters with sledgehammers, and my inability to win even a stuffed snake at the frog toss. But nothing shaped my impression of the fair more than the biggest, fastest and tallest ride my parents would let me board, the infamous pirate ship.

The author as a kid, shown here on calmer seas 
during a fishing trip.
The author as a kid, shown here on calmer seas during a fishing trip.

At rest, the pirate ship looked harmless enough. It was a big boat with more than a dozen long bench seats. But once it began swinging fore to aft on its tall support pivots, it sailed high into the air, sending the topmost passengers nearly upside down. It struck me as gloriously horrifying.

My parents gave me a wad of tickets, I handed them to the attendant, and a friend and I climbed aboard. We settled into a seat close to the middle of the craft. This was one of the tamer positions. Even as an eight-year-old unschooled in physics, I quickly realized I needed to move.

Having relocated to the second-highest bench, I peered down at my friend, saw him pull down his metal lap bar and heard it click into position. My bar didn't click. When I pulled it against my lap and let go, it recoiled. So I decided to hold it in place and wait for it to catch. This was not a good idea. The ride attendant waded through the ship checking bars, but rather than hike all the way to the fore to inspect mine, he eyeballed me holding it against my lap and assumed, I suppose, that it was locked.

Chalk it up to youthful inexperience, but I didn't realize how screwed I was until the ship started moving. It gained speed gradually. The first few swoops were safe enough. The third swoop tossed me just slightly. And the fourth swoop pretty much scared the hell out of me. I became completely airborne and could feel myself beginning to plunge to the ground just before the ship changed direction and slammed me back onto the bench. Yelling and screaming did no good, because everybody was yelling and screaming. The difference was, they were still attached to their seats.

When I disembarked, I was trembling. As far as I recall, nobody believed me when I said I almost fell out. I avoided the midway after that, and the rides at Six Flags attracted me in my teenage years only briefly.

They were bigger, newer and faster, but they never topped the pirate ship for Texas-sized chills. -- Josh Harkinson

 
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