Every summer my wife tries to get me on an amusement park ride called Steel Venom.
She loves the contraption – about as much as I hate it.
Last summer was no exception and one afternoon we found ourselves bickering in the shadow of a half roller-coaster half catapult.
“You’re chicken,” she taunted.
“Not at all,” I said.
Overhead, the ride flexed and moaned as a trolley corkscrewed its way up a high tower. When it reached the top, it paused for one heart-thumping moment to dangle its riders above a flock of confused birds – then it plunged into a wild spiral that ended only inches from the ground.
The riders flashed by us, howling in terror. A few wore faces whiter than death and I thought for a moment that I recognized an old friend among them.
Without the slightest hesitation or remorse, the trolley fired up a companion tower then repeated the process over and over – until everyone, rider and observer alike, was nauseous.
“Don’t look like much fun to me,” I observed.
“Chicken,” she repeated.
Believe me, Steel Venom did not frighten me. I’ve dodged bullets, survived a car wreck and endured an audit by the IRS and not one of those things even quickened my pulse – because nothing, absolutely nothing will ever come close to the ride I took on a Radio Flyer wagon when I was six years old.
At first, I simply put things into my wagon and towed them around the yard. But I soon discovered it was more fun to hop in the wagon and roll down our backyard hill.
If rolling down the hill was fun, I reasoned, the most fun could be had by rolling down the steepest hill possible. We had such a hill nearby, an old cobblestone street that plunged off a Mississippi River bluff.
To say the street was steep was to understate steepness.
The grade was close to vertical and was one of those hills where things disappear going over the crest and only reappear at the bottom a long time later.
Everything on the hillside, trees, fences, houses, clung desperately to the slope because at the base ran the busiest street in town and its four lanes of traffic sawed past each other – eager for something to let go.
Without a moment of reflection, I towed my wagon to the crest of the hill, surveyed the grandeur of the Mighty Mississippi rolling off into the distance, hopped in and surrendered myself to the magic of gravity.
I may have had time to reconsider my rash decision – but I doubt it. Things happened too fast.
The wagon wheels began to wobble frantically…
The tires chattered against the cobblestones…
A cotter-key popped off an axle and pinged into the gutter…
A parked car whizzed by…
A woman screamed and dropped her groceries on the sidewalk…
A dog gave chase but couldn’t keep up…
It is then I realized that gravity was not the only force at work. The other was raw fear.
Like most kids, I had a monster living under my bed.
He had green oily skin, yellow iridescent eyes and long claws that he raked across the floorboards whenever I approached my bed. If I wasn’t quick enough or didn’t leap from far enough away, he’d snatch at my ankles to drag me down into the horrors that lay under the bed.
As I rocketed down the hill, suddenly there he was sitting on my legs and glaring into my eyes.
“Remember me?” he said.
I nodded that I did.
“Well…,” he said, “I finally gotchya.”
I nodded again.
“Now,” he said rather whimsically, “what do I do with you?”
I was too scared to answer.
About then we hit a pothole and went airborne. I had never flown before, apparently neither had my monster – because it scared the crap out of him.
We landed so hard it rattled his eyeballs.
Then another pothole launched us again.
We hung in the air for the longest of moments – before the ground rushed up to meet us.
My monster turned to me in desperation. “Make it stop,” he bawled.
I felt sorry for him – I couldn’t save myself, much less any other creature.
Another pothole sent us spiraling.
The sky and ground swapped places and then upside down, I watched high flying clouds streak across a cobalt sky – and there among the clouds was a man standing on a road above the sky – frantically waving his arms to stop the traffic.
He and the earth slowly righted themselves as the wagon gently touched down and skipped between the walls of traffic held back by my modern-day Moses.
The wagon, the monster and I skidded to a stop a half-block later.
People bubbled out of their cars as others flowed off their porches and washed toward us. My monster, always shy, managed a half-hearted “later” and vanished under the remains of the wagon.
“C’mon, be a sport,” my wife begged, “I don’t want to ride Steel Venom alone.”
As the trolley flashed by again, I recognized the familiar face. He sat upfront, facing the shrieking riders and grinning his reptilian grin.
“Oh, don’t worry,” I said, “you won’t be alone.”