Volume One Special Coverage: Pulling Together While Staying Apart

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Stop the Ride

what doesn’t kill you makes you queasy

Ken Szymanski, illustrated by Serena Wagner

As the Tilt-A-Whirl is about is about to unleash its madness, the announcer offers this reassurance: “If at any time you want to exit the ride, give the ‘two thumbs down’ signal, and the operator will bring the ride to a stop.”

Though the ride hasn’t even begun, I’m already woozy. Here at Como Town in St. Paul, my seven-year-old son is not afraid to ride the rides, but he is afraid to ride them alone. I’m his only companion, so if I don’t ride with him, he won’t ride at all. This will be my fifth ride of the day.

I have a wobbly history of near-vomits on these spin fests. Even decades later, I can recall the trauma scenes: The Octopus at Thorp’s June Dairy Days, The Tempest at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair, and The Zipper at Spooner Rodeo Days … where I was trapped for an extra cycle due to an unloading oversight.

Rotating in large, psychotic circles while simultaneously – and violently – spinning in my own personal vortex of doom? My stomach disagrees with this concept.

So far, on this day, there were chinks in my armor. The circular swings, rising and dropping, made my legs weak …especially the second time. The Teacups, believe it or not, were worse. Despite the innocent name and appearance, they are prototype double-spinners. I’ve rocketed upside-down and underground on big-budget roller coasters. I’ve gone zip-lining, bungee jumping, and skydiving with enthusiasm.

All pale in comparison to the brutality of The Teacups.    

We take a break for some cotton candy, which helps get the motion sickness aftertaste out of my mouth, but I tell my son no to mini-doughnuts. In this land of excess, I must draw the line somewhere.

That’s when we come to the Tilt-A-Whirl. “Dad, I want to go on that,” he says.

Watching the double-spinning motion of that ride, I ask, “Can you go on this one by yourself?” He shakes his head.

Thinking back, my own father didn’t go on carnival rides with me. I have a hard time picturing him at an amusement park, actually – unless he’s standing there, completely unamused, maybe smoking a cigarette. Not gruff … just ready to leave anytime now. A former farmer, factory worker, and Korean War veteran, he didn’t buy into this type of nonsense.  

Dad died eight months after my son was born. But for those eight months, he showed his goofier side. Despite the dementia brought on by Alzheimer’s disease, Dad would transform with his new grandson on his lap. Bring the baby, and for a good 15 minutes, or sometimes longer, Dad emerged from the fog:   fully alert, engaging, and comical.

We called it the surge. He’d carry on with ridiculous facial expressions and hilarious one-way banter – anything for a laugh from his new grandson.

Now, seven years later, my son and I are buckled in to the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the announcer is giving the two-thumbs down speech. As we get up to speed, the ride stays true to its name and we tilt, and whirl … and whirl … and whirl. This is like a violent version of The Teacups.

I feel awful, and want to give the sign, but I can’t do that in front of my son. He’d never forget the day I stopped the carnival ride and we walked off in humiliation. I try to focus on one fixed point for the illusion of stability, but it’s impossible when getting whipped around like this. I’m in trouble. I’m getting spun and slammed. I want to give the sign. Would the operator even see me, just a blur inside this spinning dome?

I must give the sign.

I’m going to lose my lunch.

I try to give the sign, but I can no longer lift my arms.

My insides are noodles in a blender. Meanwhile, my son is howling with joy.

Finally, the ride slows down. The ride stops. It’s only a matter of time before I lose it. I lift the safety bar.

Not on the ride, I tell myself. Get away from the ride. I zig-zag down the stairs.

Behind me, my son yells, “Let’s do that again!”

I search for privacy, stagger next to the mini-doughnut stand, drop to one knee – one hand on the ground to steady myself. I worry about what my son is thinking, 90 miles from home, the only adult he knows is half-collapsed on the blacktop. I pull a five-dollar bill from my wallet and hand it to him. With high-pitched, fake tranquility, I ask, “You want some mini-doughnuts? Here, go get some doughnuts.” He shakes his head, confused, scared. A young couple walks past, points at me, and laughs.

Then I hear a voice. Perhaps it is my pride. Perhaps it’s paternal instincts. Or maybe, just maybe, it is my late father. The voice says, Get. Up. Don’t let him see you like this.

Like a knocked-down boxer trying to prevent the fight from being called off, I lurch to my feet.

Down, but not out.

After a few minutes, we sit on a bench and eat mini-doughnuts together. Each bite is a temporary relief from the nausea.

On the drive home, I nurse a strawberry smoothie. We’re buckled in, and mercifully, rolling just one direction at a time. My stomach is still not amused, but we’re on cruise control now. The road curves and dips and rises again.

I stay focused on the horizon, something far off to keep us steady on the good ride home.

Lasker Jewelers
Lasker Jewelers

Pulling Together Partners

The following organizations are currently supporting Volume One’s work in the community during the pandemic:

Lasker Jewelers

L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, Eau Claire

Downtown Eau Claire Inc DECI

University of Wisconsin Eau Claire

Pablo Group

Wisconsin Independent Network

Middle West Management

Bon Iver

Royal Credit Union

Silver Spring

Evergreen Surgical

Charter Bank

Chippewa Valley Technical College

The Murty Henriksen Family

The Larry and Marie Past Family

The Dan and Kerry Kincaid Family

Anton and Rae Schilling-Smets

Brady and Jeanne Foust

If your organization is interested in supporting Volume One during this difficult time, nick@volumeone.orgcontact us.