We had a little time before we needed to get ready for the show at the Strawberry Festival so we walked through the festival grounds. There was time for one ride and we tried to pass quickly by the stalls selling funnel cakes, turkey legs, and cotton candy, looking for that one ride. Speed loomed over us, just ahead.
"That's it, that's what we're doing."
"You're going on it right, Jess?"
I've come far since I cried on the Camp Joy ropes course in fifth grade, a long line of irritated children waiting behind me for their turn. My breakthrough roller coaster moment was in England in 1986 when I swallowed my fears, stuck my glasses down my pants and threw my arms up for the first time. Despite my fear of heights, I've bungee jumped and would sky dive but still I think carnival rides are the worst. Who made these rides? Who's checking that they're still safe? How tired or strung out on meth are the ride operators I unkindly wonder? For all my love of adrenaline, I have a corresponding fear of carnival tragedy. Am I prejudiced and would I feel differently at Disney World, Six Flags, or Kings Island? Absolutely, yes.
I was using my work brain when I agreed to go on the ride and was calculating how long we had to get back to the trailer to get ready without being late. Anything to move us along and stay on schedule, OF COURSE I'LL GO ON SPEED. The festival director who was leading us through the crowd took our phones and sunglasses. We walked up the steps to the metal grating platform and sat in the bucket seats. A bored carnie who, in fairness, did NOT look even slightly drugged, pulled the chest restraints down so that they locked over our shoulders and I thought for the first time, WHAT AM I DOING I HATE THIS. I checked that my restraint had actually locked by pushing and pulling it repeatedly. "I didn't think this through," I said to my seatmate.
The Speed arm began to move, lifting us up and around slowly so that we were perched at the top while the other end loaded. I would have had a fantastic view of Plant City, FL had I looked around. Instead I closed my eyes and felt the wind and the swaying of the chunk of metal we were attached to. We'd driven through Alabama the night before, through storms that were "capable of producing devastating tornadoes" as the weather channel kept saying. Devastating tornadoes did touch down in Indiana and south of Cincinnati and north of us in Alabama. Our bus took the long route to Florida to stay as clear of the storm's path as possible and though we saw rain and dark skies and most ominous of all, flocks of birds flying strangely in circles, we didn't see any tornadoes. None of my windows back home in Nashville broke like other people's and the ice cubes of hail that pelted the city damaged nothing of mine.
I'd had a conversation on the bus that night with someone who asked me if I'm the type of person who thinks that nothing bad will happen to me. "Nope," I said, "but I used to be." There's an extensive back catalog of stupid stuff I've done while thinking nothing bad would happen to me but that feeling has been slipping away for several years. Ever since the accident we witnessed in December, I'm more afraid of drivers. The Tennessee drivers who don't signal and cut each other off make me nervous. I was in my bunk when David, our excellent bus driver, braked harder than usual. I went up front to sit in the jump seat and he told me a car drove straight into the back of a truck before crossing all the lanes of traffic, right in front of our bus, and going off the road. On our way home, 30 miles outside of Nashville, we stopped on the highway for an accident. When we passed the flashing of a dozen cop and ambulance lights, a helicopter was landing, a body bag on the ground.
I know terrible things can happen to anyone and to me. Swaying in the wind at the top of Speed, pieces of metal and nuts and bolts holding me in place, was enough. "Isn't there enough danger to avoid? Aren't there enough natural rushes to be had? Do I need this whether it's truly dangerous or not?" Then we fell. Backwards at first, we swooped towards the ground, our seats upright for half a turn before they, too, began to spin. I was looking at ground and sky and my feet floating up in front of me and I closed my eyes again and screamed from deep in my throat. I didn't care about the stomach-turning drops and dizzying turns and I never started laughing like I do on other rides. I just didn't want Speed to break, I didn't want to slip out of my seat or be catapulted onto the nearby log flume. I totally failed at Speed and felt nothing but relief when we finally glided to a stop. My hands were shaking when I took my phone back from the festival director. "You looked like you were going to throw up," he said. I nodded.
I went back into work mode, "Okay guys, we need to head back," but my mind was elsewhere. Why go on a carnival ride and be afraid when there's probably nothing to be afraid of? Why not stick to more valid fears, not to paralyzed but to be spurred to action? Like the climate change causing wacky weather patterns all over the world, including the tornadoes of the past few days? Like the political violence overtaking huge regions of the world. Someone said to me recently that if we knew what governments know, we'd never sleep at night. I want to sleep at night but don't want to be oblivious. If I lived another life, would the ride be a welcome escape or a complete joke? Would it be easier or harder to just buckle up and laugh?