Millions of other kids have probably said this, but I will say it anyway: My father has always been the smartest person I know. Growing up, I could never pull one over on him. He, however, always managed to surprise me. Like when he brought home the Knight Rider model car for me after he wouldn’t let me talk Mom into buying it. Or the time he took my brothers and I to the airport “to watch planes take off,” and our grandparents just so happened to arrive for a visit that we were not expecting. He and Mom conspired sometimes, instructing us boys to “clear off the dining room table,” which would turn out to be covered with wrapped gifts for all of us.
My favorite surprises came in late August, during summer vacation from school. Usually in the middle of the week, Dad would unexpectedly take the day off from work. My brothers and I were in our regular positions around the table with bowls of Life cereal and plastic tumblers of Donald Duck orange juice. “Finish up,” Dad would announce, “We’re going to Busch Gardens today.” The remainder of our breakfasts were quickly inhaled, and uncharacteristically, the three of us kids decided on our order of turns in the bathroom without the usual quibbling. Dad’s plan was a clever one; advance notice would surely have meant a night filled with restless kids giggling and refusing to sleep.
There was plenty of giggling from either side of me during the ride to Busch Gardens. I sat in the middle of the back seat of the Chevy sedan. Pale and nervous.
Dad caught my eyes in the rear-view mirror. “You okay, Gray?” He is the only one that ever calls me that. It’s our thing, even now: anagrams, wordplay, terrible puns, and working the Sunday crossword together each week. The cornier, the better.
Seven-year-old Gary nodded and said, “I’m okay, Dad.” In fact, though, I was afraid. Afraid of getting carsick. Frightened by the high-speed traffic roaring past us during the drive to Tampa. It was a bad combination, the smell of exhaust, the blare of horns from impatient drivers, and the blur of motion on each side of me when I looked past my brother’s heads out the window. I knew Dad would get us there safely, but still, I was scared. Irrational fears were my childhood lot. I was timid, afraid of my shadow. Of everything.
Our first visit to Busch Gardens was in 1976. Sam the Bicentennial Eagle greeted us, dwarfing the three of us kids. Mom had her Polaroid camera on the ready and snapped a shot of us. As expected, I, the tiniest, was far to the right, in the shadow of the ferocious bird of prey’s wingspan. That Sam the Eagle was cartoonish and inhabited by an overly jovial park employee was lost on me.
Also lost on me was the thought that a petting zoo was meant to be fun for kids. Human kids. The goats were the ones who enjoyed my visit. They smelled fear and Rye Krisp crackers the moment that I entered their pen. The largest one rushed to confront me. Instinctively, I held the prize above my head. Instantly there was a hoof on the front of my sweater and a goat face to face with me. One eye staring at me intently, the other seemingly focused on some faraway point. The deranged look was enough. I dropped the cracker in defeat. Then I was surrounded by his caprine partners in crime, looking equally hungry and crazed. Once they knew that I didn’t want to touch them any more than they wanted to be to be, and that they could bully me into dropping their snacks, it was all over. They began nipping at me, making demands in loud nasal-sounding growls. I foresaw my sweater being completely unraveled and consumed. And then what? Goats eat anything, I remembered hearing. Did that include scared little boys in glasses and Hush Puppies shoes? It was time to retreat, but the coarse-haired creatures were not going to make it easy. They tried to head me off, they had an easy mark and thought I might have more snacks to be pilfered. If I had, I would have flung them just to put distance between us. They jostled me all the way to the exit. Whoever decided a group of goats should be called a trip was accurate. I cried out as I stumbled, then strong hands lifted me up and out. “Got you, Gray.” Dad to the rescue.
The next venue held little danger. The train. The Serengeti Express, circumnavigating the “Magic Continent” African-themed park at top speeds of four miles an hour. Antelopes, elephants, giraffes, could all be viewed with no chance of putting hooves on my chest. My brothers were adventurous and restless, looking at the glossy trifold maps of the park and excitedly discussing the rides they were going to try out. The Scorpion. The Python. If the names did not terrify a timid seven-year-old, looking up at the gravity defying loops and hearing the screams of terror from the riders certainly would. It did for me.
“Dad!” I said, happy to discover that there was a ride that I thought I could manage. “Can we ride the bumper cars?” Before long, our family of five was deboarding the train at the Congo station. Ubanga Banga bumper cars. The excitement built as we wound around the labyrinth that was the waiting line, Dad’s firm hand gripping mine. The screams here were different, peals of joy and delight rather than dread and imminent danger. Add to it the shower of sparks across the ceiling grid, and there was live current in the air.
The anticipation grew as the line shrank. And then it was our turn. Dad could easily have stood still with my hand in his grasp, and held me in place, powerless to move forward, and rush out like I was trying to. Instead, he let me practically drag him through the mob of eager drivers to the car I had decided on even before it came to a full and complete stop. The green one at the outer edge, distanced from the mass of hastily parked vehicles clogged in the center. Without a second thought, I got in the left side, the passenger side. Dad was the driver, after all.
The environment was like a giant balloon, the eight-dollar type, filled to maximum expansion, air waiting to gush out in a noisy rush and a myriad of squeals. My heart and lungs felt similarly swollen, ready to burst. I remember the brief hushed moment while the park attendant checked the safety restraint, reaching over us, already looking on to the next car. Dad and I were a team, my right arm and leg wedged tightly against his left. He smiled at me from behind the padded steering wheel, the strap across his wide chest and just below my throat, where my stomach suddenly was.
A loud if not bored attendant’s voice echoed in the semi-dark and cavernous dome of the bumper car attraction. The directive to make sure the safety belt was secured and reminders that one-way traffic was mandatory and head-on collisions were not permitted were nearly drowned out by the roar of blood in my ears. In the second of silence after the announcement ended with a bang of the microphone back into its stand and before the entire grid went white hot with electricity, Dad spoke to me quietly, calmly. “It’ll be okay, Gray,” he promised, sensing my anxious pang.
It was better than okay. Dad gripped the wheel with both hands, and advanced carefully around the arena. A small cry escaped me when I saw a car approach from my left, racing directly at us. Dad made the perfect maneuver when he saw the impending collision, swerving to meet it. It was over before I had time to think, a jolt that made a laugh burst out of both of us. Our first crash, and it was okay, just like Dad had said. I pointed out our next target and Dad closed on it quickly, a girl a few years older than me, and her mother, both laughing like us when we bumped. Dad caught the next car on his right, against the wall, and we sideswiped it with a roar of laughter. It was a spectacular two and a half minutes. It was our time. Mom had taken my brothers to other more perilous rides, and I had Dad all to myself.
Flash forward to year ten of my fifty on this planet, to another memorable trip to Busch Gardens. With an important difference. That summer especially, Mom had been helping me monitor my increasing height. I stood a proud fifty-four and one-half inches tall. Tall enough to ride the amusement park rides. Not just to ride, but to drive. Unaccompanied. If Dad had not surprised us kids as usual on the morning of our excursion, I would not have slept for several nights previous. I felt like I was bursting out of my skin, the way I was stretching out of the pants legs of my corduroys. Dad was going to be proud; I just knew it.
The first part of the morning was a blur. I’m fairly certain that there were orangutans and elephants and a dolphin show, but my focus was on my bumper car driving debut. Waiting for the rest of the family to finish up their lunch at the German-inspired Festhaus restaurant was the closest thing to torture that a ten-year old could experience on a beautiful Florida day. At an awesome amusement park. With a stomach full of Black Forest cake.
Dad had my number, once again. Making our way around the park on the Serengeti Express post-lunch, he pretended to study the park map. “Congo Station next,” he said with a partial grin, “No need to get off there; we’ll wait until the Stanleyville Station.” I jumped off the slick metal seat to protest, and then realized that he was expecting exactly that reaction. “Dad!” I mock scolded. We were both laughing as I pulled his arm in the direction of Ubanga Banga, where the familiar squeals, mechanical and human alike were coming from, and where my first driving experience awaited us. I remember the feel of the pebbly concrete wall at the entrance to the ride. I was seventy pounds of excitement as I backed against simple measuring rule painted there. My head was just above the end of the yellow “Accompanied by Parent” range and proudly into the green. Good to go!
The line was no longer than normal; it only seemed to stretch further and move slower. I had the same feeling as I had earlier in June, the final hour of my last day of elementary school. My arms, legs, and mind, all thrumming along to some frenetic beat. Mentally I counted off each group of riders in front of me, trying to calculate how many turns I had yet to wait. I watched the same cycle play and replay, wide-eyed jumpy kids waiting impatiently, then driving insanely, and finally, exiting excitedly. Were there three more groups ahead? I did as much math as a ten-year-old on summer vacation was permitted. I had about a twenty-minute wait, I figured. Or maybe, I would just barely make that third group. Each time the line made its sudden surge forward, I would drag Dad as if he were not moving fast enough, the Timex he wore on his left wrist scraping my hand.
The whistle blew, and it was like the final school bell. The attendant avoided being trampled while attempting to regulate the flow of screaming drivers-to-be. I detached from Dad, my goal in sight. I walked as quickly as I could across the smooth and rubbery floor without breaking the No Running rule. The other kids and a few adults were predictably choosing the vehicles clustered in the middle, ignoring the car I had my eye on. I was buckled into the green car on the far side up against the outer barrier before I ever looked back for Dad. He was gone. Had I asked him to watch? Offered to drive him for once? Said thank you? I had not.
I didn’t dwell on it, how could I, with the overhead speakers blaring. The high-school kid held the microphone against his faint moustache and recited the safety instructions I already knew by heart.
- Pull the belt across your body and make sure the buckle is secured.
- Keep all parts of your body inside the vehicle at all times.
- Drive in a counter-clockwise direction; no driving against traffic.
- Head-on collisions are not permitted.
- After the ride (I could not even imagine this far ahead) remain in the vehicle until all others have come to a complete stop.
Both hands on the wheel at nine and three o-clock, my right foot hovered over the pedal, tapping it eagerly. I strained my neck, scanning the crowd, looking for Dad. If I had thought about it, I would have realized what else besides him was missing. Fear. My constant nervousness and anxiety. Dad had given me gifts that would last my entire lifetime – courage, and confidence.
The grid overhead came alive with energy that nearly matched mine. Then I proceeded exactly the way I had imagined and planned for longer than I can remember. A glance ahead, then to each side, a quick peek behind. I moved smoothly along the outer edge. Driving just like I had watched Dad do so many times. Safely, steadily. Each pass around, I looked in vain for him. Was he somewhere watching me, proud of me? I hoped so.
The other kids were screaming, smashing into each other’s cars, the wall, the median, and racing toward the next impact. My goal was to navigate safely, confidently. Like Dad. I was not imagining myself in some demolition derby. I was not out there for sparks and screams and collisions like the other kids. Not driving some silly car in an amusement park ride. I was behind the wheel of the green Chevy Impala sedan. Vinyl and polyurethane steering wheel in my hands. Cloth seat and two-hundred-fifty horsepower propelling me.
I should have brought Dad along for the ride, I think, glancing to my right, looking at the empty passenger seat. What I do not see is the car to my left; close, too close, swerving and sideswiping, ramming me hard enough to knock the wind out of me. I feel my car shudder, and the rear end slide slightly right to contact the unyielding concrete barrier. That bump reverses the spin, but the driver who struck me overcorrects and loses grip of his wildly spinning steering wheel. We collide again, me in a similarly futile struggle for control. We are reduced to cars and bodies hurtling through space, fighting inertia and inevitability. Screeching and squealing deafens me, the stench of burning rubber fills my nostrils. My younger self would be terrified, but I am calm, unafraid.
Another impact, much more forceful and bruising, bounces my brain inside my skull, and every bone inside my body reverberates. My glasses fly off as my face meets the steering wheel none too gently. My car careens into another. And then another. The world turns upside down. The Impala is mortally wounded, spraying glass and metal and concrete shrapnel across the asphalt. Wheels up, roof down, still speeding, no brakes, no control, no chance. Backwards and upside down, my brain does me no favor in turning the sight in front of me upright so that it registers. It is a tanker truck, fifty tons and ten-thousand gallons of flammability. The driver, making a herculean effort to brake in time. He will fail. “No head-on collisions,” I think. My life does not flash before my eyes; except for the absolute best parts of it. I hear Dad, one last time. “You’ll be fine, Gray.” I smile and brace for what is coming.