If our lives are like theme parks, mine has been a low-budget one that I entered the day I was born. When my parents carried me out of the hospital, we headed to the Kiddie Zone, where I soon was making mud pies and feeding them to my little brother. But the best ride in this section of the park, was a second-hand red bike. My parents bought it for me after a neighbor complained that I wouldn’t let her daughter have a turn on her own. Riding down one hill, a mini-Mount Everest, I closed my eyes just long enough to get an exciting surge of fear that at such supersonic speed I just might crash. In the summer, the tar-patched road in front of our house became a sizzling, seething cauldron. Tiny bubbles of tar swelled and I carefully aimed my front tire so they would burst as I rode over.
At age nine, we headed for the area of the theme park I like to call Deliverance Revisited, after the movie, of course. It was a shell of a house, really, on 15 rugged acres of scrubby cedar with only two or three inches of topsoil covering part of that single slab of solid limestone that underlies Middle Tennessee. The rides in this section of the park were safari-like in the summer and included walks accompanied by wildlife of ticks and chiggers, fleas too, since the previous tenant had a pack of stray dogs. They had been evicted and generously left us large appliances on the back porch, where they spray painted peace signs on the clapboard siding.
The best ride, though by far, was motorized: The big yellow school bus.
I vividly remember the voyages to and from school growing up. We kids were nearly the first on and last off for a one hour commute.
The door would open and there she was – Marge Simpson in human form, who drove that enormous diesel on the curvy back roads like a bat-out-of-hell with bleached hair piled up so high, it nearly touched the roof. We held on, white-knuckled, as she took the bends Andretti-style. It was especially brutal the years before seats became high-backed and more padded.
The bus was where I met more theme park visitors. Buddy lived at the next stop up from us. He and I sometimes hunted crawdads in the creek behind my house. He was sort of annoying in a gross boy kind of way and was the only kid I ever remember cussing at the bus driver.
Kelly’s stop was an apartment complex. She had perfect hair, perfect Jordasche designer jeans, and a beautiful rabbit fur jacket. In sixth grade she could compete with the older high school girls for boys. Her glasses were even tinted blue-to-pink. Amazing.
On the other end of the social spectrum was Anna and her little sister, who had a little growth thing that dangled from one ear that I tried not to look at. Their house was set really far back from the road and looked exactly like “Jennie’s” childhood home from the movie Forest Gump. Anna frequently wore the same dirty jumpsuit with no underwear. She always headed for the back of the bus and fell victim to those kids who preyed on the weakest ones. “Come on, sing a song, Anna!” they would prod, pretending to be really interested. She would start in on a gospel song and the kids would turn and snicker. I looked away feeling sick. The only thing worse were the days when the bus would slow down as it approached their driveway, see that no one was there, and pick up speed again. I would strain to look as long as possible at the awful, ramshackle house till it disappeared, wondering if they were inside.
I don’t know how many hours I logged on that ride. It was my introduction to the unfriendly attractions at the theme park.
As my life went on, my family and I walked farther to where the scary attractions were located. My grandparents went into one and never came out. Then my brother. I screamed at the exit where he was supposed to come out and waited until I had no more strength, but he never did. Then I understood why there was always screaming over there and faces were contorted into masks of pain.
The bravest thing I ever did was leave and go on to the next ride. I had to go alone: It was at this point that it was decided that we would all meet when the park closed. Funny, the precise closing time wasn’t posted anywhere.
Lucky for me was the Tunnel of Love. Even though it was dark in places, it is where I met my husband and my three little babies. We left there and have been on a few bumper cars, cliffhangers, and to the petting zoo. I wonder sometimes what we could have seen had we been able to go to one of those deluxe theme parks, or buy one of those exotic vacation packages.