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Many dark nights ago, my friend Walt Carpenter tricked me into riding the Rock-O Planes with him at the Shelby County Fair.
You may recall this ride, in its day the most adventurous on the midway and hidden down in the dark northeast corner, just around from the blare and glare of those infamous hoochie-coochie shows, and cattycornered to the Octopus.
The Rock-O Planes were a challenge to a boy who didn’t like to have his feet too high off the ground or on ground too high above other ground. He disdained the Ferris wheel and anything of the sort. Speed and motion didn’t bother him, but any sort of height or altitude was pure-D panic.
The Rock-Os not only were as high as anything around but also had the ability, based on the whims of the occupants of enclosed cages, to allow for a 360-degree vertical roll. That’s why this ride was known to be a place where a boy took a girl to sort of scare her into needing comfort, if you get my drift.
But Walt and I were not thinking about girls – except perhaps in questioning my manhood – when we contemplated my trip aloft.
“Come on,” he said, or something like that, “I promise I won’t spin us upside down. Just ride the ride. It’s no big deal.”
I watched the ride go around and heard the squeals of those girls who were about to be offered comfort. I shook my head and said I didn’t think so.
Walt had this way of challenging me in about every aspect of life, and given that he was older, bigger and infinitely more sophisticated, he wasn’t going to let me out of this. So I did what any adolescent does in a time being challenged imperiously by a peer: I submitted.
We climbed inside one of those cages, and as the door shut, I admit that I was pretty darned scared. The motor came to life as the ride started its upward climb. We had made maybe one revolution when Walt grabbed the bar in the middle and started, to, well, rock. I protested as much as I felt acceptable, but he was laughing and having a big time. I don’t recall his exact words, but my maturing masculinity might have been among them.
So upside down we spun, and I lived to tell about it. Walt probably doesn’t remember that night, but this wasn’t a traumatic moment for him.
I mention this because I took another Rock-O Plane-sort-of-ride, and this one didn’t require a 15-cent ticket or the challenge of a very dear friend.
I was driving down an unfamiliar 4-lane street in my new city of employment when a minivan came out from my left side and headed for the intersection through which I was passing.
I caught the fleeting, peripheral shape and immediately knew I likely was going to be struck – which brought up all sorts of frustrating thoughts about insurance and delays and repairs and details – when all of a sudden my little SUV started to be a Rock-O Plane, rolling completely over at least a half a time, with Walt Carpenter nowhere in sight.
No, my life didn’t pass before my eyes, and I wasn’t injured beyond a seat-belt hickey. But my decades behind the wheel hadn’t prepare me for coming to a stop upside down, hanging by those seat belts and wondering how I got there, sort of like a scene from a bad sitcom. I was going maybe 35, and the vehicle that struck me surely couldn’t have been going any faster than that. But the blow near my left, rear wheel somehow got me airborne.
I immediately feared that there must have been a major collision behind me, and I prayed no one was hurt. My engine still was running, and the Sync service provided by Ford was blaring about calling 911. Half-a-dozen men were at my door to check on me, and I rolled down (up?) the window and told them I was fine and asked if anyone else was hurt. I simply needed to get upright.
They told me not to move so fast, but there was no reason to delay. I unfastened the belts, lowered myself by the steering wheel and crawled out the window like an inverted NASCAR pilot.
Fire trucks, paramedics and police already were arriving to ensure I was in one piece. Witnesses were explaining what they had seen, and that other driver was receiving a couple of tickets for whatever her minivan had done. I really had no firm clue.
You likely have driven past an accident and seen a guy standing nearby, sort of dazed, maybe talking on cell phone, maybe just sitting and watching. I was that guy.
Meanwhile, my Escape lay on hits blue sunroof in the middle of a thoroughfare, glass and plastic and stuff littering the asphalt, later to be scooped up and carried away to a graveyard.
Oh, that van? It lost only a headlight, a corner of a bumper and a bit of bent fender, which sort of matched the condition of my pride. This was not how I had planned to spend my Saturday.
I’ve never met Mr. Toad, but I can’t imagine that his ride could have been wilder. If you’ve never flipped in a car – and I pray you never have or will – then you can’t imagine the surreal sensation of wondering what was about to happen and what might have caused it all in the first place.
In the end, that slightly dented pride and that much-dented SUV gave me a few seconds of fame. Social media showed the leftovers of the vehicle, and friends and acquaintances filled up the file with prayerful, concerned and touching comments.
But, you know, I didn’t hear a word from Walt Carpenter.
Steve Doyle, a native of Shelby County and a former editor of The Sentinel-News, lives in Greensboro, N.C.