By: Roger A Wilbanks
To the untrained eye, a man on a mission often appears insane. His manner and demeanor have the outer appearance of chaos regardless of what's going on within him. He is the sea at tempest regardless of how calm his waters are below the surface. I am that man right now.
I pull into the parking lot of Six Flags over Texas with the intention of riding the largest roller coaster I have ever laid eyes on, the Titan. I am going to pay my $50 admission fee and walk straight to the line all by myself and get onto the one thing in this world I fear. Ok, fear may be too strong a word. I dislike it. That is a much more fitting way of putting it. I always maintained that there was little in this world I truly feared, chalking that attitude up to an early acceptance of death in my youth. It is amazing how liberating it is once you realize that saving your own life is all in vain.
The Titan did intimidate me, however. It's sheer vertical rise and similar vertical fall were the largest I had ever seen. I am no roller coaster buff. I am well aware that there are bands of traveling gypsies that do nothing more than tour the world seeking out the newest and biggest thrill rides. I am not one of them. My desire to get in the seat of this behemoth didn't stem from an adrenaline addiction. I have to do this for the sake of my soul.
I visited this park over a year ago with my then girlfriend and her little brother. We rode every ride there was in the park twice, except for the Titan, that is. My dislike for the rollercoaster was there based on the fact I had seen it break once on it's maiden run. It doesn't matter that its record since then has been spotless; I saw her break down right out of the chute. This was the image I carried in my mind every time I saw the damnable thing and on that night my girl tried everything in her power to get me to ride it. Threats, seduction, bribery and insults were all ineffective. You name it, she tried it and all of it was in vain. I was immovable as the mountain and am pretty sure my inflexibility on this issue was what contributed to the eventual failure of that particular relationship. None of this mattered to me at the time though. The Titan had drawn first blood.
I drive past the park daily now and see it looming in the distance, daring me to scale it and belittling me for my reluctance. It doesn’t matter to The Titan what reason I throw at it for my reluctance, The Titan only cares about the What, not the Why. Every time I pass the park it calls me a coward. A lot of people will tell you if you ask them that attributing human qualities to clearly inanimate objects is a certain sign of madness. I can't argue with that. This calling it does to me is real at least to me, and it is responsible for the fact that I am pulling into this crowded parking lot today, fully prepared to spend $50 to stand in line and ride a roller coaster. Shit, if I were on the outside looking in at myself objectively, I would put as much physical distance between me and the clearly insane person before me as possible. I have the benefit of understanding in this case, however, and beg the indulgence of all who cross my insanity and me today.
After parking my Jeep almost a mile from the front gate, I begin the walk towards my doom. It leers at me from this distance.
"I will only get larger from here on out." It tells me.
"Fine." I reply. I have already thrown my gauntlet down on this one. There is no turning back now. My mind tangents off into a comparison with how Frodo must have felt on approaching Mount Doom but I have no ring to leave behind. I have only the ghost of cowardice past to exorcise. Ok, cowardice may not be the right way of putting what on the surface was a personal decision. I am no coward and being accused of such is anathema to me but the fact that I didn't get on the ride and it bothers me to this day is enough for me to act now. So I walk on, each step drawing closer to this lumbering giant before me, safe in the knowledge that this too shall pass.
When I finally reach the line, I stop to catch my breath under the cooling breeze of the mist sprayers. I am sweating from the walk and the anxiety that is building within me. I take my place behind a family of 7, the children of which are all Titan fans. They are fully prepared to make the Titan their first conquest of the day. I think I'll grab a hot dog and take a lap around the park to allow then through well ahead of me. The father has already looked at me, a single, sweaty 36-year-old man all alone in line at an amusement park and marked me as a potential sex offender. I can't say I blame him. Granted it's hot today - Granted I just walked over a mile, I'm still sweating way more than a normal man and I'm sure the look in my eyes as I stand in the shadow of the Titan is one that anyone would find unsettling. I'll let them get ahead of me, FAR ahead of me and attack my mountain at my own pace. I make my way to the ticket booth and hand the teenaged girl in the glass box my Visa card.
"Just one." I say.
She cranes her neck to see behind me and upon verifying that I am indeed by myself shrugs to herself and internally accuses me of God knows what as she processes my request. This would normally offend me but the Titan is right over my shoulder, glaring at me. I have more important matters on my mind. The septuplet ahead of me breaks left after the gate, making a beeline to the Titan as I stop for a moment to regard it. The father shepherds his flock away from me as I turn around and head for that hot dog.
Something about amusement parks has always puzzled me. People spend insane amounts of money to stand in line the majority of the time they're in one. Granted the other 10 percent is what they're there for, I have always maintained that you get what you pay for. When you spend $100 at a park and only $10 of that goes to the actual rides you came for just strikes me as excessive. So here I am, spending money to stand in line to spend more money.
The irony of this fact does not escape me as I take my place in line behind a group of young girls, though I doubt it bothers them in the same way it does me. These girls are battling indecision, another thing that has always puzzled me. I am here now, standing line to get a hot dog. When I get to the counter, I know exactly what I am going to get. It is the people in this world that walk around in a daze, standing in lines they have no business standing in, who are completely unprepared to place their order when they finally get to the counter that truly annoy me. There is a part of me that takes tremendous offense at people like this, which is convinced that it is they who make this world a crappier place for the rest of us.
I finish my hot dog as soon as they hand it to me and start my lap around the park. It is filled almost to capacity today. The kids are all out of school and the parents have taken the day off to get in some quality family fun time. I am truly out of place here today. I am seeking absolution not thrills. I see couples all around me in various stages of relationships. They are easy to spot to a single guy like myself. There goes the brand new couple. You can tell it might even be their first date. His every attention is focused on her and he is painfully nervous. For her part, she is equally awkward trying to gauge both his interest and his intentions. I despise first dates, but accept their part in the greater scheme.
That saying, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step." Comes to mind as I watch this young couple. The cynic in me gives them 3 months before they hate each other and flame each other's Facebook pages.
Another couple bumps past me on their way to a ride. These two have gotten past that awkward first stage and are in the getting to know you phase. That was always my favorite part of dating. She asks him if he likes Jazz. He says he loves Jazz. It doesn't matter if he's lying; the two of them have just shared a connection. You want these people to do well. It reaffirms your belief that there is somebody for everybody. I secretly hope for their sake that he really DOES love Jazz. That will make things so much simpler for the two of them.
I turn again towards the Titan and I ponder. What would have happened if I HAD ridden it that night? I doubt something as cut and dried as that one decision would have saved that relationship. At the most it would have just delayed the inevitable. One grand gesture can sometimes save a failed campaign. If a single soldier sallies forth and captures a machine gun nest it COULD allow the tide of a battle to turn, unless every soldier buys into the cause, that victory doesn't really matter in the end. Failure is assured. That was where our particular relationship was and no Sgt York that could save this war from being lost no matter how heroic his actions. Still, I was left with a gaping hole. It was not in my heart though; it was my soul that was left carved out. The only way to fill that gaping hole was now on the opposite side of the park from me.
As I approach the line for the Titan, I refuse to look up. They knew what they were doing when they designed this ride. Every step you take from a certain point has you in the shadow of this massive steel dragon, ever under its watchful glare. I refuse to meet its stare as I take up my place in line. I would not give it the satisfaction of knowing how much it intimidated me. Yes, I admit it. I was intimidated by a rollercoaster. Not a whole lot of honor in that statement, but there it is nonetheless. Being this close to it, I could feel it's oppressive weight. To me at this point, the Titan was the big angry drunk in the bar that refused to take his eyes off of my girl and me. Eventually I would have to say something but this would be done on my own time and at a ground of my choosing. So for now, I was content to know he was there boring a hole into the back of my skull.
I was joined in the line by a group of people skipping work to play in the park. I envy them. Here stood I, St George sent to slay my Dragon while there stand before me Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Co., out to play pirates for the day. Before me in line is the same couple from earlier, sharing their first date. She is nervous but he’s ridden it before.
"It’s really only scary in the beginning. It gets a lot easier after that." He said.
I laugh at the irony of his statement and he mistakes this for something else. He positions himself between his sweetie and me and regards me with an "I got my eyes on you, buddy." stare. I want to explain myself, to let him know I had decent enough intentions here, but what would be the point? I'd never see them again so I accept this defeat in stride.
Besides, he was right.
I AM an asshole.
I’m just not being one at THIS particular moment.
The group behind me, the pirates, have an odd number of members. This all but assures that I will sit with one of them on the ride. No way in Hell the park people would have let me ride in a car alone. The pirates seem to sense this too and for some reason one of them engages me in conversation. Ignoring my overly sweating, anxiety-eyed wreck of a self, this girl asks me if I had ever ridden the Titan before.
"No, this will be my first time," I say, adding, "finally."
"Yeah, me too." She says. "I was in line to ride it last year when I chickened out. These friends of mine," she motioned behind her, "are here to make sure I get on it this time."
"You have good friends." I said , nodding in their direction. "I chickened out before even getting in line last time. At least you did that much."
I have no idea why I told a total stranger this, but it had the desired effect. She became much more at ease and this in turn relaxed me. I had a Samwise for my Mount Doom.
"I was trying to go out with her on that trip." A guy she was with added. "After that though, I told her I couldn't date a chicken and ended up going out with her sister instead."
She giggled and said, “You can't even hold the door open for yourself, let alone for my sister . How would you ever get the impression I would go out with YOU?"
After dismissing her friend she faced me again.
"I was here with my girl last time. We've since parted company but she wanted to ride the Titan and I refused. " I said. "So now I'm here alone just to get on this beast, ride it and shut that part of myself up that still thinks I'm a coward."
"You're here alone?" he said. "Just to ride ONE ride? Man, you're Nuts! I like that though!" I ignore him.
"My name is Clarice." My fellow dragon slayer tells me.
"Nice to meet you Clarice, my name is Brian."
The line begins to move. I keep my attention focused on Clarice, not daring to look over my shoulder when she says, "Why are you doing that?"
"Doing what?" I said
"Making me look at that thing. That's mean." I apologize and we swap spots. "Much better. As long as I don't have to look at that thing, I feel better about riding it."
I agree completely, while over her shoulder I could see the Titan smile and mock my chivalry. The sign said we had one hour to wait from this point so Clarice and I fill the time by killing time. The others she had come with were polite enough to leave us alone in our misery. The line inched forward, each step magnified the towering menace that leered at me over Clarice's shoulder. My neck grew stiff from craning it upwards.
"Just stop looking at it, ok?" Clarice asks. "Keep me distracted or I'll chicken out again."
"Don't worry, Clarice. You’re not gonna chicken out this time. You're not alone anymore. I'm here with you." I say. "Roosevelt said 'The only thing we have to fear is Fear itself' and he was dead on right with that. We aren't going to die on that rollercoaster. We're going to inch slowly to the top, just like in life, and when we reach it, gravity will take a hold and the real ride begins.”
I didn’t know where this speech was coming from but I rolled with it because it seemed to be working. “You're scared of the anticipation here, not the actual ride. Don't lose sight of that."
"Well said, good man!" he said. "Only I gave her that same garbage last time and it didn't help. She'll get to the end of the line and bok bok bok just like last time. Watch."
"No offense pal, but I can really see why you have a hard time getting people to go out with you. Look at me Clarice. Of all the people in this park right now, I want to be here the least." I say. "I came here today to get this monkey off my back, but he's here right now and his weight is almost crushing me.
I want nothing more at this very moment than to be in my Jeep driving back to Dallas with the Titan in my rearview mirror, but you know what? It'll still be here even after I leave and every time I drive by I will remember this day as one of failure. I'm not big on regret. I think if you have your heart set on something, the only person you owe anything to is yourself in seeing that you get it. I know that feeling of failure every time I pass this place will be infinitely worse than the few seconds of anxiety I suffer through as it clanks its way up to the top. I am going to do this and you are going to do it with me. You’ve got to slay this dragon just the same as I do. We can do it if we attack it together. Between the two of us, we can find the motivation to stay on this line until we come out the other side."
When I finish my speech, she looks in my eyes for a very long time. Perhaps she was looking for the telltale smirk that would indicate I was completely full of shit, I don't know. All I know is she said "Ok." And we really didn't speak until we got to the end of the line and board one of the Titan’s many cars. "Grab my hand when we get in and don't you DARE let go…no matter what." She whispers. We get into an empty car and the attendant checks our harnesses, making sure we were secure inside the car.
"Here we go." I say
Clarice grabs my hand. "Don't let go." She says.
"What's your favorite movie?" I ask.
"Huh? The Princess Bride…why?" she says.
"What's your favorite line?" I ask as the cars all lurch forward.
Her grip on my hand tightens.
"As you wish. That always seemed so romantic to me, like a total giving of oneself to someone else."
She squeezes my hand tighter.
"I'm scared." She says.
I ignore this. "I always liked 'You seem like a decent fellow, I hate to have to kill you.' 'You seem like a decent fellow, I hate to have to die.' Myself. That showed the amount of respect that two men facing death can have for one another."
We inch our way to the halfway point of the tremendous rise. We are almost vertical now. It feels like we were in a rocket preparing for take off. The ground is so far below us it looks like a child's plaything. The vice like grip on my hand indicates the enormous amount of stress Clarice is under. I become oblivious to myself and the anxiety that is almost overpowering me.
"Look at me." I say.
She opens her eyes and turns to face me as we approach the top. "What?" she asks.
We are inches from the crest. In an instant the first car will begin to cross the point of no return and we will hurl our way into adrenaline overload.
"Do you like Jazz?" I ask.
"I love Jazz," she answers.
Then she and I scream like our lives depended on it as the Titan hurtles us forward.
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