A Roller Coaster Memory
by G Frank Miller
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Lake West Okoboji is a beautiful, blue water lake at the very north edge of Iowa. Left over from the last ice age glaciers, the lake is deep with many bays and coves. It has always been a very special place for those of us who grew up in Northwest Iowa, and one of the most special places at Lake Okoboji was the amusement park at Arnolds Park.
The old wooden roller coaster was the first thing you would see as you approached the park. It dominated the skyline. The sight of it was guaranteed to get your adrenaline pumping.
My mother said she remembered the roller coaster from her childhood, but I doubt that she ever actually rode on it. Standing with my parents looking up at the peeling white paint and watching the entire structure shake as the cars rushed by, I had to wonder if it was going to hold together long enough for me to ride it. According to my internet search yesterday, it is still standing and is now named “The Legend.”
As soon as possible, I’d get my roller coaster ticket and head to the loading platform. The little train of cars would glide in and unload passengers who were obviously excited and energized by their experience. They would be “talking a mile a minute” telling about how they were so scared or brave enough to hold up their hands. No one was listening; everyone was talking.
The gate would open and the next group of riders would rush down the platform, the bravest ones going for the first car, but others just jumping in the first one they came to. When all were loaded, a bar would be lowered over our laps and we’d head out for adventure.
At the end of the platform, the car would be caught by something like a giant bike chain that would pull us to the top of the first hill. With a “clack-clack-clack” sound the car inched its way to the top of the first and highest hill. Excitement built with the anticipation of what was going to happen when we got to the top.
Finally, the little train of cars would reach the summit of the great hill. After a slight hesitation, gravity would take over and we would fly down the hill, screaming and shouting all the way. At the bottom of that hill we would coast to the top of the next hill where gravity again took us on another fast ride to the next hill and the next hill until we finally came to a stop on the platform and the ride was over. Now we were the ones with the adrenaline rush “talking a mile a minute” as we rushed off the platform, often hurrying to get back in line for another ride.
Last Friday, Veterans Day, our grandson, Josh, flew from Buffalo to visit for the week end and to help me celebrate my seventy-third birthday. We met him at the airport in Orlando and headed to Universal’s Islands of Adventure before traveling to our home in Melbourne Beach. As we entered the theme park (they don’t call them amusement parks now), I heard a roaring sound that sounded like jet engines on a plane preparing to take off. Looking up, there were all these twisted, large green pipes. There was some sort of car roaring along the pipes. It appeared that people were in the car with yokes over their shoulders to keep them from falling out. The vehicles were moving so fast it was hard to see exactly what they were. This was called the HULK.
Josh said he would like to ride on it, and I was curious enough to say “me too.” Helen, my wife, announced that she had good sense and would wait for us by the exit.
It took us about twenty minutes to wind our way along the line to where the HULK was departing. At the departure platform, everything was rush-rush. I wanted to scope out the place, but there wasn’t time. We were directed to row 6. I sat down and a young man came by, pulled the yoke over my shoulders, attached a belt at the bottom, said “hang on,” and we were off.
I relaxed as we slowly pulled away from the platform and headed toward the first hill, just like at Arnolds Park. For just a second my mind went back to fond memories of former roller coaster rides and how now I was sharing the experience with my grandson. The thought didn’t last long. There was no slow “clack-clack-clack” up the first hill. Just as I relaxed, it was like we were launched on a rocket. With a loud roar, we shot up the hill, roared over it, screamed down the far side, did a loop-de-loop and then started spiraling through loops and turns. Our speed was so great I couldn’t focus on anything. All the turns and spirals forced my head into the side of the yoke until it hurt. Sometimes we were right side up, but not for long. The ride seemed to be endless. I was praying for it to end, and making a promise that I’d always listen to Helen’s advice. However, it was such a violent ride it was hard to even think of making promises. Survival became my focus. It seemed we were going at least a hundred miles per hour.
As I struggled to my feet when we finally came to a stop, I could hear Josh saying something like, “that was great.” I had to hold on to something to keep from falling over. When we finally exited the HULK, Helen’s first comment was, “you look awful.” No matter how bad I looked, I felt worse.
It has been about sixty years since my first roller coaster ride. Reflecting back over that time, what I had just experienced said a lot about our culture over that same period of time. A cutting edge thrill ride in my youth would be a kiddy ride today. I don’t see this as progress.
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