The Day I Almost Died at an Amusement Park (or Why Beer is a Good Motivational Tool)

I haven’t always hated heights, I think it is something I’ve grown into. I remember being much braver as a child, living in Wyoming, riding horseback and climbing rocks in the Badlands. It is my opinion that as my eyesight became worse growing up, my fear of heights proportionately grew. I now commonly wear gigantic frames that would be about an inch thick, if not for the invention of plastic and the compression technology used for thinner glasses. Also, a big shout out to Zooey Deschanel for making my vision handicap look purposeful, I have on several occasions been asked if my frames were cosmetic.

Hiya, handsome.

No, you can’t try on my glasses, I need them to survive.

Some people have never experienced vertigo and don’t know what it feels like. To them I say it’s like my brain missed the class on depth perception, and doesn’t know where to tell my eyes to focus. The strain of focusing on the foreground and the background at the same time makes me dizzy and that directly contributes to my acrophobia. With that in mind, the following story is a mostly true account of my activities at an amusement park one summer. Names may have been changed to protect the identity of the persons involved.

When I was a new college graduate, I and my friends Ellen and Portia took a trip to Six Flags Darien Lake. We were at that idiotic age of having just turned 21, adult enough to go on vacation by ourselves, but juvenile enough to pick an amusement park.

I love roller coasters. I know to some people this may seem contrary to my stance on heights, but here is my reasoning why it is not. When I’m in a roller coaster, I am strapped into a giant machine that has been tested so much that it is virtually idiot proof and I will not be able to stumble or fall out even if I wanted to. However, when I am on the plastic see through stairs with no backs on them at the MoMA I become extremely nervous and positive that I will somehow lose my balance and probably manage to fall in between the plastic pieces to the concrete floor below. Whoever designed stairs without the back portion must have been some kind of fearless stunt person. Even though I maintain my vice-like grip on the hand rail, I always have a hard time trying not to think about a diabolical troll creature underneath me hoping to grab my ankles.

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Remember how I mentioned my friends and I (what did I call them… well, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) had all turned 21 within six months? When you first turn 21 you realize how many places serve alcohol, and you wish to try EVERY SINGLE ONE of them. Because of this, a few of my 21 year old drunken experiences were in places like bowling alleys and airports.

So, after a few rounds waiting in line and riding the coasters we decided to get a burger at one of those fake restaurants they have in theme parks. Now, I had just been on a ride known for it’s vomit-inducing capabilities and was not at the moment feeling hungry, but being 21 and legally allowed to drink in public I decided to order a beer. I think I was given the options of a medium, xtra-large, and the most popular “bucket’o’beer.” Being an intelligent and fancy adult I chose the one the size of my head.

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Now anyone with even a little experience drinking knows it’s not a good idea for a 100+ pound girl to drink a gallon of beer on an empty stomach. I was less familiar with the concept of moderation because there weren’t many opportunities to drink beer when being raised by two minister parents. Regardless, I was feeling more than a little tipsy when my friends Lenny and Squiggy started talking about how much fun it would be to go on the Giant Swing.

The Giant Swing is basically the Gateway Arch of St. Louis with bungee cords attached. You are strapped in, lifted up about 800 feet, and suddenly dropped, your tiny body plummeting toward the earth, back and forth till you come to a gradual stop.

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Sober me would recognize this as a bad idea, and all the smooth talking in the world would not be able convince me otherwise. And at first I was against it. However, once it was suggested, I started to rationalize to myself that it was my obligation, nay, my duty to prove to myself and my friends Hall and Oates that I could conquer my fear and ride the Swing of Terror. With my beer goggles on, I was Independent Woman, capable of anything and nothing would stop me from doing anything I wanted to!

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We chugged our watered down lite beers, and stumbled to the sign up station. Upon arrival, we were told the earliest time slot available was 4 hours later, just before the park closed. Undeterred, we signed up anyway, and figured we would goof off till then. Unfortunately, as time passed my beer buzz started to subside, and I began to feel more and more anxious about the swing. Over the course of the afternoon, I tried several times to persuade Simon and Garfunkel to let me back out, but to no avail. I was to do this with them or I would be permanently labeled a Bad Friend.

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When it was finally our turn my naturally pale skin had turned almost translucent, and I was shaking in my Doc Martens. The swing operator gave us the run down of what to expect while we were harnessed together like three sardines in bubble wrap, and said that any one of us could pull the release lever once we got to the top. Then he took a beat, looked at my petrified self and adjusted his statement, saying it would probably be a good idea to not let me be the chosen person, as it was likely I would chicken out and we could get stuck up there all night. I’m pretty sure he was joking. There was surely a backup release trigger they could use… or was there?

When we were being slowly hoisted into the air I remember thinking that of the hundreds of times this ride had been used, it was highly unlikely that this would be the one time the bungee cords would finally snap, though I thought it would make a good story for my obituary.

Why did I agree to do this?

Why did I agree to do this?

I allowed myself to be distracted by the view of the park. It was sunset and almost anything can look serene from 800 feet. I expected that once we got to the top my friend would say, “Ready guys? On three… two…” and give me a chance to muster up my courage.

Instead, as soon as we got to the top, my friend pulled the trigger immediately, not even giving me a chance to catch my breath. We flew through the air so fast all I could do was inhale as the bottom dropped out of my stomach and my hair whipped behind me.

I'M FREAKING OUT, MAN!

I’M FREAKING OUT, MAN!

Indeed, I couldn’t scream until we hit the apex of the swing at the other side. I made up for it on the way back, using my singer’s trained diaphragm muscles in an imitation of Tarzan. As we slowed down after a few times back and forth my screams turned into laughter, and when we were unstrapped from the harnesses at the bottom my friends and I were in giggle fits. I was relieved for the whole thing to be over and more than a little thankful I had managed to escape with my life.

But I did it. I braved my acrophobia and rode the Giant Swing. Now that that experience is checked off my list, I will never do it again.

The kicker of the story is that not only was I talked into this, my friends Bert and Ernie somehow got me to pay for the whole thing, because they were broke and I’m a doormat.

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