Climbing to the top of the giant monster, moving steadily, my shoes slowly clacking against the bony spikes of its spine, the beast stirred from its slumber. Now I was in for it! Standing on the very top of its head, looking almost straight down, I could see the people crawling like ants beneath me. It stopped for just a millisecond, and giving a mighty roar, suddenly lunged forward descending in a blur of speed. Plummeting downward, a scream of horror escaped my lips … And Then! …And then!..and then…I woke up.
I shot up in bed, my heart racing like I’d been running the fifty-yard dash in gym class. Little by little familiar objects in my room faded-in under the moonlight bringing me back to the calm of reality. Though I lay back down, I didn’t dare go to sleep. Couldn’t if I wanted to. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out where that scary nightmare came from.
Tomorrow was the last day of Dad’s vacation. Usually, this was something our entire family looked forward to, because it meant an annual trip to Riverview, the best, biggest and most spectacular amusement park in Chicago. But this year, at least for me, I was dreading it. My cause for concern could be summed up in one word, the “Bobs”. The meanest, fastest, tallest most fearsome roller coaster this side of Lake Michigan. You would think that since I’d been on every other roller coaster at Riverview Park, the Silver Streak, the Comet, the Flying Turns, the Greyhound, I wouldn’t be bothered by another coaster, but you’d be wrong. The Bobs (or the Beast as we called it) was in a class all by itself. Although I marveled at it, I was also afraid of it.
I’d been told by my older cousin, Wendell, that the main drop was over 85 feet. It looked more like a hundred to me. Seventeen hills of wooden tack dipped and dived with dead man’s curves that had enough centrifugal force to keep you plastered to your seat.
William, Wendell’s twin brother, would tell tall tales about it, just to scare us.
“My friend told me that a girl was killed on it,” he said, his voice low and somber. “She was thrown from the train coming down the biggest slope. SPLAT! Hardly anything left of her after she hit the ground. Not only that,” he added, his eyes squinting with a sinister expression, “she haunts the place. Going on ride after ride…day after day…summer after summer…for all eternity. My friend said the last time he was on the Bobs, he sat in the car all by himself, or so he thought. When the ride was over and it came to a stop, there she was. Sittin’ in the spot next to him, all transparent and white, he could see right through her. I can tell you this,” William added, “he’s never been on the Beast since.”
I was nearly twelve and didn’t fall for those stories anymore. Besides, the thought alone of riding that coaster was enough to frighten the freckles from my face, and with good reason. This year, it was my turn to board the Beast. Call it a tradition, a rite of passage or whatever you want, but every kid in our family was expected to ride the Beast the summer before their twelfth birthday. Tomorrow was doomsday for me.
On the drive up there, we would usually stop to pick up Wendell and William. But this year, only William would be hitching a ride to Riverview Park with us.
“Poor Wendell,” said my older sister, Babs, as we approached their house, “too bad he’ll have to miss the trip.”
I imagined that he was pretty upset. But there was no way he could take on the rides with a cast on his leg. “No good deed goes unpunished”, as Grandpa says, and that’s just what happened to Wendell.
A couple of weeks ago, it seems William had snuck off to play ball with his friends without finishing his after-dinner chores. Wendell, always shielding his twin, offered to finish them. As he was taking the garbage down the back porch steps to the alley, he slipped on a baseball that William must have dropped as he slinked off. Wendell went tumbling down to the stoop, cracking his leg to-boot.
Poor Wendell nothing! I thought to myself. I’d gladly trade places with him today – broken leg included.
The gates of Riverview greeted us. Stepping under the arched canopy of lights that were held up by tall towers of red, white and blue, we waltzed into another world. Our senses overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of a multitude of magnificent attractions. The organ music of the merry-go-round, the scent of sugar spun cotton candy and popcorn, and the colorful bizarre banners of the side shows beckoned to us.
Our family always gravitated to the huge facade of Aladdin’s Castle first. It was hard not to. A man in a turban with enormous and dark hypnotic eyes looked down at the visitors, enticing them to walk through its doors. This fun house had it all. A large turning barrel daring us to run through it without falling, a magic carpet ride, random fans that blasted you with surprising bursts of air sending shirts and skirts flying, and spooky twists and turns. The screened maze was the biggest challenge. William always made sure that he was the first of us to enter, determined to lose his younger cousins in this web of confusion. You could fall behind in the blink of an eye, lose your way and have to start all over again.
As I zigzagged through this puzzle, I kept trying to think of some way that could delay my rendezvous with the Beast. And finally, I came up with a plan.
For the next few hours we were either on a ride, or standing in line waiting to get on one. We went zooming down the slippery ramp in the big wooden boat of the Shoot-the-Chutes, splashing into a pond of cold water. I watched as Babs, sat in a seat holding on to the harness of the Pair-O-Chutes, soaring up and then floating down on the wind. Pausing at the freak shows, our group gawked at sword swallowers and fire eaters. All the while, I was filling myself up with caramel corn, hot dogs and whatever else I could manage to talk my mom into letting me eat. I had to; it was part of my plan.
Then, we finally came to the Crack-The-Whip. The carts on this ride rolled down a long oval wooden track. As it moved toward the end, it would pick up speed, swing round the bend, sending you flying around the turn. Usually, I saved this attraction as my very last. But it was an important part of my plan to ride it. It always made me dizzy and sick to my stomach, and I was hoping that I could rely on it to do the same for me now.
Just before I stepped into the cart, I downed two bottles of orange soda pop. My stomach was rumbling with the abuse I had given it. Good, it’s already working, I thought confidently as the ride flung me around and around.
Unfortunately, this time it let me down. When I got off, I was only a little queasy, not the kind of sick I needed to be if I wanted to get out of riding the Bobs. There went the perfect excuse to delay my initiation into the world of a soon to be teenager.
"Sure you’re not going to back out?” William asked pointing with his thumb at the Beast. He had been ribbing me about my rite of passage from the moment we entered the park.
“Aren’t you coming too?” I asked.
“What? And miss the chance to see the expression on your face as you come in for a landing?” He snickered. “That, little cousin Peggy, will be worth more to me than riding the Beast itself. I can always go again later.”
I frowned at him. Although I could have done without his sarcastic remark, it was good for one thing. It spurred me on. I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of letting him know I was afraid.
We approached the giant roller coaster’s ticket booth, its pristine white pillars looking like the gates of heaven. Up the steep ramp I staggered behind Babs and Dad to the train station, the point of no return. Climbing into the car, squashed between the two of them, the safety bar slammed down, and we stated to move.
I looked down at William, Mom and the rest of the family as we slowly chugged up the highest hill. It was torture knowing what was coming next and not being able to escape.
At the very apex it seemed like we stood still, then as if dropping in a free fall, the train roared downward. The wind pulled at my hair taking my headband as a trophy. My eyes were nearly as wide as my gaping mouth. I let out a scream and discovered there wasn't enough of it left to take me to the bottom of the steep incline. An invisible force at the first curve slammed me to right, pinning Babs against the side. On the next bank, the car jerked smashing me against Dad. Somehow, the safety bar didn’t seem safe enough. Letting go of it, I grabbed Dad’s arm, pressing my fingers deep into his skin. I was sure he felt the pain, but he said nothing. Daring to glance at Babs, I could see her tonsils as she opened her mouth along with me in our next downhill high-pitched duet. Scared though I was, for some weird reason, I sort of looked forward to the next rise. Surprisingly, I was a bit disappointed when it lacked the thrill of the highest hill. Before I knew it, the ride took its last drop, dove into the station and we climbed out.
"Well, Peggy,” my Dad said to me, rubbing the finger indentations I had left on his arm, “it’s official now, you survived the Bobs and live to tell.”
As the tenseness left my body, it trembled with relief. I had spent a heck of a lot more time worrying that ride than it actually lasted.
“What’s buzzin' cuzin'? How was it?” William called up to me with a cocky grin on his face.
I tried to make sure that my expression didn’t reveal my true feelings. “It was a breeze!” I lied.
“Hmmmm….really?” He questioned, not believing a word of it.
“Yes. A regular piece of cake,” I said, avoiding a direct look into his eyes.
We finished covering the whole of Riverview Park, and didn’t leave it till the evening parade was over and it was blazing with colored lights. Afterwards, we stopped off at Aunt Rose and Uncle Earnest’s house to drop off my cousin. Of course, William rattled on to them about the great time he’d had.
Wendell sat at the dining room, his casted leg propped up on a chair. Taking a metal hanger he had twisted into a poker, he reached down into the cast to scratch himself. There was a scowl on his face, and I could tell there was a lot more irritating him than an itch.
“You’d of been proud of Peggy,” my little brother Jimmy said to Wendell climbing in the chair next to him.
“Why is that?” he asked, his words sullen.
“Cause,” he said, “she rode the Bobs today. The biggest roller coaster in the world!”
“Really? Peggy, rode the Bobs?” He asked, his eyebrows high on his forehead.
Wendell looked at his brother, the cause of his cast, and let his resentment spill out the truth, “William, you mean you let your little cousin beat you out of riding the Bobs?”
It didn’t take long for Wendell to tell us the rest of the story.
Two years ago the twins were supposed to ride the Beast. And they did – or at least half of them did-twice. It turns out that Wendell, covering for his chicken brother William, rode the Bobs not only for himself, but again in place of his brother. Until this moment, everybody thought that they both tackled the coaster.
I turned around looking for Wendell’s deceptive twin.
Though William had never been on the Bobs, he had relentlessly teased and taunted me all afternoon. Words of retribution were on the very tip of my tongue. But in true William fashion, he had skedaddled out of there before I could have my say.
As we drove home, I was a mixture of relief and pride. Conquering my fear of the Bobs in spite of William’s teasing was a triumph, but I was glad it was over. Would I ever ride it again? You bet I would. Next summer, I’ll make sure to be sitting in one of the Beast’s cars - right next to William!
Copyright Joyce E.S. Pyka ©
About the photographs:
Photo 1: The entrance to Riverview Park (Wikipedia, public domain)
Photo 2: The entrance to the infamous Bobs! (Wikipedia, public domain)