There was a time, when I was in Junior High or early in High School, that I, somehow, found myself at my cousin’s, The Robbie, house.
At this point, I feel that I need to clarify some things. When I say that, “I was in Junior High,” that simply means that I really have no idea when the following events actually took place. I never kept a diary or a journal, as I never thought my day to day existence needed documenting. The first page of my diary would read, “I woke up. I ate something that required a lot of milk. I went to school where teachers tried to teach me things, and I tried to resist their efforts. I went home, and in lieu of doing homework, I played outside with the dog until I was filthy. I ate some more food. Went to bed.” The second entry would read, “Ditto.” So I have no records of my past that would reference this visit to The Robbie’s house. I have no recollection of the year, the season (though I’m fairly certain it was during Summer), nor am I positive of any of the main particulars, e.g. how I got to The Robbie’s house. When I say I was Junior High age, this comes from a series of foggy deductions that include knowing I was in school throughout most of my childhood, and I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t in High School yet. The events described below seem to be indicative of someone out of Elementary School; thus, Junior High. I will allow the possibility that I was a Freshman in High School, but not any older than that.
I vaguely remember being in that physical condition where it was still OK to claim “baby fat”, but knowing full well that the body was about to metamorphize into the smelly, hormonal creature of adolescence. So, I was in that pre-staging gray area of life where the body goes through a ten year period that is the equivalent of “hold my beer, and watch this.” In order to put this time period in context, it was most likely during the Carter Administration.
There. Now you know roughly how old I am.
When I say that, “I found myself at The Robbie’s house,” that is to say that I remember being at The Robbie’s house. How I was transported to that location is beyond me. This is actually how I spent most of my childhood. It’s as though my brain went through my memory’s hard drive, and erased whole sections that it did not find pertinent. For some reason, the erasing protocols targeted the majority of sections under the folder heading of, “Travel Time”. How I got from point A to point B is a complete mystery. It would be safe to say that the most logical form of conveyance would be a car, as I’m confident that if I arrived at The Robbie’s house via magic carpet or by being fired out of a cannon, I would remember that. There’s a very good chance that I just repressed any memory of traveling along Highway 17, as that road, with it’s crazy twists and turns, frightened me. Or, more likely, the driving styles of the adults, who saw Highway 17 as their own personal West Coast NASCAR track, frightened me.
Either way, I have issues with Highway 17.
I would be home, blank section of memory, then be at The Robbie’s house.
The Robbie’s house is a place of magic for me. It was located “Over The Hill” from us. We lived in the San Lorenzo Valley, home of the redwoods, hermits, and large commercial crops of questionable legality. The Robbie lived in The Valley, home of stuff that isn’t San Lorenzo. This was Cupertino/Santa Clara/San Jose before the whole area was injected with Silicon.
In context, there was a garage, near The Robbie’s house, around the time of this story, where future multi-billionaires were playing with homemade computers. Consider this: while The Robbie and I were constructing vast Hot Wheels tracks, there were some other guys, probably a couple houses over, constructing the future.
I’m convinced, however, that The Robbie and I had more fun.
Now, before you start saying something silly, like, “You are using the ‘constructing Hot Wheels tracks as hyperbole, right?” allow me to set you straight. Were I to visit The Robbie today, or at any point in our future, doddering old age, we would still construct Hot Wheel tracks and play with Tonka trucks in the dirt.
This is in keeping with the Robinson Credo that states that we may grow old, but we will never grow up.
Back to the start of this. There was a time, when I was in Junior High or early High School, that I, somehow, found myself at my cousin’s, The Robbie, house….
As with most memories, there are questions that arise beyond the typical, “How did I get here?” For example, Where was my sister, Charlie? She was probably there, but the unfolding events seem to only include The Robbie and I. Another question, and one that should’ve been ask with more force at the time, would be, “Who allowed The Robbie and I to go out, alone, unsupervised, into the unsuspecting public?”
Somehow, The Robbie and I slipped our handlers, and we escaped into society.
There was a large amusement park near The Robbie’s house. At the time, it was called Marriott’s Great America, but it has gone through various owner’s, and, if I’m reading it right, it’s now called California’s Great America. I don’t know if that means that the State of California now owns it, or if some guy named Bob California owns it, or if they just got tired of changing the sign every time some corporation purchased it. Either way, it was the coolest thing EVER.
Well, not as cool as rooting through Uncle Ted’s garage, or riding bikes through the alleyway near The Robbie’s house, or making complex Hot Wheels racetracks, or eating huge bowls of sugary breakfast cereal while watching Saturday morning cartoons, but Great America was cool, nonetheless.
It wasn’t as sprawling as Disneyland, or Knott’s Berry Farm, or Six Flags, but it was big enough for a small town kid like me.
Another clarification is needed here. I’m a pretty easy going guy, but I have my limits. For one, crowds. Large crowds and me are like…well, similes are hard to find that would accurately describe me and crowds. Large hurtling meteors and the Cretaceous period? That’s close. The Hindenburg zeppelin and the crew member that stepped out on the back deck for a smoke? Titanic and some frozen chunk of the Atlantic? My dad and Sea Lions? Closer. In any case, I don’t do crowds very well.
For another point, I avoid heights. To be clear, I get queasy in thick socks. This is classified as “acrophobia.” This term does not do it justice. A better term would be “I’m-Afraid-To-Go-Past-The-Second-Rung-On-The-Ladder-Phobia,” or “Looking-Out-The-Third-Floor-Window-Makes-Me-Thow-Up-A-Little-Phobia.”
In light of this full disclosure, one is justified in asking, “Why were you there at an amusement park that is full of crowds that want to go on rides that are freakishly high up?”
An excellent question, and one that has a simple answer: The Robbie.
Picture a little bug on the ground. It’s a happy little bug, minding its own buggy business, doing little bug things. It’s a peaceful day for the little bug. Suddenly, without warning, a huge tornado, somewhere near an F-8 on the Fujita scale, comes ripping through the little bug’s patch of dirt. Chaos! Mayhem! Panic! Wild and Unfettered Disarray! The little bug is uprooted, tossed willy-nilly, hither and yon. It has no control, totally caught up in the whirlwind, and cannot mentally comprehend everything that is happening around him as it’s happening so fast, and is such a foreign environment. After a time, the massive tornado moves on, depositing the little bug back onto the same patch of dirt where it all began. The bug’s carapace is a little dented, an antenna is slight bent, and one of his legs doesn’t want to work quite right, but he’s back home where he can continue with his little bug chores.
As far out of the bug’s comfort zone as the tornado was, the bug secretly enjoyed the ride.
This explains the majority of my experiences with The Robbie.
There are many rides at what we called at the time “Marriott’s”. Some very elaborate roller coasters with scary names: The Demon. The Mauler. The Wrenching Dismemberment. The Ride That Will Prove That Physics Is Out To Kill You. The Ride That Snapped That One Kid’s Neck. This Ride’ll Make You Puke Up That Nasty Hot Dog You Just Ate.
You know, things like that.
Although I was caught up in The Robbie Tornado, I still wouldn’t go on many of the rides. Robbie Tornadoes can only push little bugs so far, but no farther. I would stand in line with The Robbie, right up to the point of no return, then turn my pudgy, prepubescent body around, and wait for an exhilarated, adrenalin infused Robbie to reappear at the exit gate of the ride.
“That was GREAT!” he would say breathlessly.
“Good for you,” I’d reply.
“You should go! It’s so cool! C’mon! I’ll stand in line with you! I’ll sit right next to you! It’ll be fun!” he’d say, along with other standard tornado-ish statements.
“If you try to get me into that death-trap, I will throat punch you, and everyone else in a twenty meter radius,” is what I did NOT say, but thought. Instead, I said, “No, thank you. Let’s eat.”
The “Let’s eat” comment is a classic diversion ploy that generally worked brilliantly with The Robbie. Or me. Or any other male at any age, really.
This went on for most of the day. I’d stand in line with The Robbie. Turn around. Go wait for him to disembark. Think about throat punching anyone that would try to get me to do that. In short, I paid (or someone paid, as I was bereft of finances) admission into Marriott’s for the privilege of watching The Robbie voluntarily go on psychoses inducing rides.
All day. Sometimes The Robbie would come out of one ride, then we’d run around and wait in line to do the same ride again. All over the park, ride after ride, The Robbie Tornado ran amok with a little bug in tow.
It was near the end of the day. The Robbie wasn’t tired, because, regardless of the law of thermodynamics, The Robbie was incapable of fatigue, but it was, quite literally, near the end of the day. We had been at Marriott’s for what seemed like four weeks. The Robbie had been on every ride in the joint at least ten times. I don’t even know how he did that. It’s like some sort of convolution of time. He could fit four weeks of entertainment into a ten hour time-span.
I, on the other hand, was done. Crowds, noise, foods that were designed to suck the life out of you, all were beginning to wear on me.
As we were heading out, Robbie still talking excitedly about his adventures, and me thinking that I would actually like to try a green salad for once, we passed by a ride that I had not yet seen. My memory is shady on the name. Part of me wants to say that it was called the “New Orleans Whirl”, though I have no idea how New Orleans factored into the design of this particular ride. It might not have been called that, but the name and the ride, in my mind, are conjoined for ever. Upon looking at the California’s Great America’s website, the ride might now be called “The Orbit,” which, in my opinion is a step down from the Big Easy.
When I first saw the ride, it didn’t look scary to me. This is what I saw: A large disc, approximately the size of Wyoming, was spinning parallel to the ground. Along the edge of this disc, were about fifty capsules in which two people could ride, one in front of the other. As the disc whipped around, centrifugal force would cause the capsules to lift out and fly around sideways. Basically, it was like that G-force test thing that I saw astronauts use.
That’s what I saw. There were no corkscrews, no dizzying heights, no urban legends of decapitated kids. Just a big wheel that spun around and played with physics.
I decided right there and then, I could do this ride. This was a ride built for me. FINALLY, I could earn my Marriott’s admission fee.
“Let’s go on that ride,” I said calmly to The Robbie.
He didn’t hear me. Or, more likely, didn’t believe what his ears were reporting to his brain. “What? What did you say?” I can’t blame him. I had just spent the whole day following him around an amusement park where he was being amused, and I just basically parked.
“Yeah, that one looks fun. Let’s go on that one,” I repeated.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity, The Robbie nearly carried me over to the gate.
Now, it’s important to note that the ride was, and this will serve as a literary foreshadowing device, coming to the end of the its cycle. Again, I didn’t see the whole ride, just the penultimate few minutes. And, because it was the end of the day, and, therefore, no lines to speak of, The Robbie and I were able to walk right up to the front, get vetted by the operator (I was barely tall enough), and get into our chosen chariot.
I sat in front, The Robbie was behind. The seats were more like saddles, and there were large gates on either side, reminiscent of what you would find on a cattle ranch. One side was affixed, the other was the access, and the gate swung up to allow the hapless victims to enter the capsule, then locked in place before the ride started. Except for the seats, everything was made of thick steel.
Here’s a little tip for you amusement park newbies. If you ever get on a ride that requires you to sit in a capsule made entirely of recycled tank parts, know these two things: 1. It’s made that way so that spraying out vomit is easier, and, 2. In the event that the capsule is separated from the ride mid-cycle, and is catapulted four miles away like some Medieval siege weapon, the capsule will suffer no ill effects. It will only require a new paint job before being reattached to the ride apparatus.
In hindsight, this sort of thing probably happened with some frequency.
I must say that, at this point, I was seriously double guessing my decision. The gate wasn’t locked at that point, so I could’ve easily bailed, and it was being heavily considered. I was hesitant for a couple of reasons. Primarily, The Robbie was so happy that I was actually going on a ride with him. It seemed so important to him that I engaged in something he enjoyed, that I hated the thought of quitting at the last moment. The other reason why I didn’t escape the Pod of Death was because the second we sat down in the capsule, The Robbie started to, by sheer force of will, cause the car to rock back and forth wildly, while hooting and hollering like a monkey on LSD. There was no getting out at that point. Were I to try, I would probably get flung into some wall fifteen yards hence.
So there I sat, rocking crazily back and forth, with a Monkey-Tornado sitting behind me. Several things occurred nearly simultaneously:
A. I decided to get out. Just being in the rocking capsule was more ride than I could tolerate. Going on that ride was a bad idea, coming after a long line of bad ideas.
B. The Robbie, in between a hoot and a holler, leaned close to me, pointed in front of us. There, just ahead, was a very imposing steel arm that came up from the capsule, and was placed over a foot-thick post that was attached to the giant disc. This served as the pivot point for the capsule. Upon this pivot, the capsule was able to swing back and forth. It was slathered with a thick gray-black grease, and I watched as the capsule arm rotated easily over the post. Near the end of the post, the designers had placed a rather larger “cotter pin”. This metal pin kept the capsule arm from sliding off of the post. There were other factors involved, of course. So many other catastrophic events would have to happen all at once in a cascading sequence to cause the capsule arm to separate from the pin, but the cotter pin was there just as an added measure. It was at this cotter pin that The Robbie was pointing. “See that cotter pin?” he asked. “That’s the only thing keeping us from flying off of this thing. Just that little, tiny, pin. If that falls out, we could be tossed into space! Whoo Hoo!” and back to the hallucinogenic monkey routine he went.
Ever since then, I’ve wondered, “Why would you tell someone THAT?!”
C. After being enlightened to the cotter pin situation, there was a loud “ca-CHUNK” as the safety mechanism of the ride locked the exit gate. Escape was impossible, unless I turned into the Incredible Hulk and Hulk-Smashed the entire ride.
For some reason, the Incredible Hulk option has always seemed to be a viable option for me.
The Robbie was still behind me, rocking the capsule higher and higher. I, on the other hand, was only paying attention to the cotter pin three feet in front of me. The ride started with a series of thunking sounds, and started to pick up speed. I kept watching that cotter pin. As the ride increase speed, various laws of physics came into play, and the capsule started to swing out until the bottom of the Pods of Death were flung outwards. Still, I barely noticed my new, gravity defying position because I was fixated with a small cotter pin that, I could’ve sworn, just jittered a little bit. Suddenly, all my understanding of The Force was being utilized to making sure that the cotter pin stopped that jittering nonsense. Faster we went, until everything was a blur. To my left, the ground, and to my right, the sky. All was ignored except for that cotter pin. The Robbie was entering into a level of Adrenalin Nirvana that I could never understand, but I had entered a zone of intense concentration on that cotter pin.
Here’s where things got a little weird. The ride started to do things I did not expect, simply because I didn’t know that it was going to act in this manner. Under the Wyoming sized disc, there was a gigantic metal arm, driven by humongous hydraulic pistons, that started to push up the ride. This titanic arm slowly, and inexorably pivoted the entire ride until it was perpendicular to the ground. So, instead of spinning around parallel to the ground, it was now spinning like Paul Bunyan’s table saw blade, with the capsules still falling victim to the centrifugal laws.
This whole process nearly made The Robbie apoplectic with joy. Not being satisfied with hurled down to within inches of the asphalt, then spun around until you’re gasping for oxygen in the ionosphere, The Robbie was making the capsule sway back and forth. This gave the same sensation, I imagined, of an Apollo command module going through reentry rather badly. The Robbie was screaming uncontrollably. At least, I thought it was Robbie screaming. Turns out, The Robbie was still hooting and hollering, and I was screaming.
Turns out, we harmonize quite well.
I, however, didn’t pay too much attention to this, as all my prayers, telekinesis, mutant powers, and scary scowls that I learned from my dad were being thrown in the general direction of that cotter pin.
After a few hours of doing things that humans should never do, the metal arm began to slowly bring the big disc back down. After a few more hours, the spinning slowed, allowing the capsules to regain their proper place in the gravitational world.
The Robbie was coming out of his euphoria. I, however, was still screaming, utilizing the same breath of air that I took before the ride began. I had gripped the handlebars that were on either side of us so hard that the imprints are probably still there. My unblinking eyes, watering freely at that point, were still in a death-lock on that cotter pin.
The ride finally came to a halt, the capsule was still rocking gently, and the locking mechanism on the gate released. The Robbie bounded out as easy as you please, not suffering any ill effects from the trauma we just experienced. I was relearning how to breathe, and having to command each finger to release the handlebar one at a time. Feeling that it was safe to remove my eyes from the Cotter Pin Watch, I blinked. With wobbly legs, I nearly fell out of the capsule, and weakly followed The Robbie out of the ride area.
“Wow!” The Robbie shouted. “That was GREAT! What fun! Whadja think?!”
“I made it so that the cotter pin didn’t fall out. So, yeah, I’m pretty happy about that.”
“Whoo Hoo! Let’s go again!”
Aaaand back to the throat punch we went.
The day faded away The tornado and the little bug made their way back to The Robbie’s house where buckets of fried chicken awaited them.
The day was seized, I had earned my Marriott’s entrance fee, so all was good in the universe again.