Killer Water Slides, Stealing Tires, and Dog Flu
I watched CLASS ACTION PARK on HBO Max this afternoon and dug it quite a bit. The documentary, directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III details the behind the scenes story of Action Park, a New Jersey amusement park that was built by a former Wall Street trader with absolutely zero regards to safety regulations or the health of his guests.
In the years that the park was open, there were multiple casualties and an incalculable number of injuries. In fact, according to many of the former park visitors that the documentary talked to, the allure of danger in going to the park and riding on its legendarily risky rides was part of the attraction.
The documentary is a brisk and entertaining film about a park I never visited and knew little about. I was enthralled during the movie, though, because I kept asking myself the same question – Would I have had the stones to visit Action Park during its heyday?
I haven’t been to an amusement park for some time. In fact, the last one I can clearly remember going to would probably be Disney World, twenty years ago. Growing up, I spent plenty of time in the trifecta of Texas theme parks of the ‘90s – AstroWorld, Fiesta Texas, and Sea World – San Antonio. I was a huge coward, though. I mostly stuck to the kiddie rides and live musical shows. I would psych myself up enough to maybe ride a single roller coaster, but it would be the tamest one available at the park. Wooden roller coasters? Forget that – the noise they made while you were on them sounded like a prolonged death rattle! Ones where I spun upside down or rode backward? No way! If I’m going to die, I want to see my death coming.
Sitting here, in a forced quarantine that prevents me from actually having the chance to attend an amusement park even if I wanted to, it’s easy for me to say that I’ve manned up over the years and would have the courage to ride a roller coaster now that I’m in my 30s. In fact, I have grown fond of watching roller coaster videos on YouTube recently. I spend quite a bit of time watching stuff about the construction and history of famous rides, as well as footage shot by guests on the rides themselves. Maybe it’s a nostalgia for a past I was too chicken to experience for myself, but I have become a voyeuristic adrenaline junkie. Going to an amusement park and riding a roller coaster has become one of the first things I want to do when the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is over. I can easily imagine a future where I am a roller coaster fanboy, traveling the country, visiting the newest rides, and then logging onto the roller coaster community boards to rate the thrills.
But this is just me lying to myself. I’m still a big coward.
I don’t easily get scared by horror movies or books, but my own imagination constantly feeds me a steady stream of spine-tingling possibilities about the various ways I might suffer. Car crashes, break-ins, muggings, disease, and failure – I have a running inventory at all times of the worst-case scenarios in any activity I partake in.
High up on my list of fears is cops. I am deathly afraid of the police. Whenever I have found myself being asked a direct question by a cop – whether it was because I was pulled over for speeding or because I just found myself in a situation where a cop felt the need to talk to me – I immediately clam up, start sweating and stammering and, in general, begin to look really, really suspicious. I don’t know why, exactly, I’m so afraid of the police. I don’t generally do things that the police would have an interest in – but when I do catch the attention of a uniformed cop, I am a puddle of nerves.
One night, when I was in college, I went to the movies to see a midnight screening of STAR WARS: EPISODE III – THE REVENGE OF THE SITH with some friends. I really didn’t want to go to the movies – I had already seen the film and wasn’t a fan of it – but, in the end, I just didn’t want to be left out. That’s also why, after the film, I agreed to go with my friends into the giant field behind the theater and try to steal a tractor tire that they wanted to take back to their apartment. They planned to clean the tire out and then take turns rolling down a hill while riding inside of it. This seemed like a really stupid idea, but so did stealing a tire in the first place. Once again, though, I really didn’t want to be left out.
So, at around three in the morning, my friends and I found ourselves standing in the middle of a field, our actions illuminated by the headlights of my Ford Focus, while we all worked together to try and lift the tire into the flatbed of one of my friend’s pickup trucks. We were struggling to lift the tire when we heard a voice ask, “What the hell do you guys think you’re doing?”
I immediately knew it was a cop.
We dropped the tire and spun around to face the uniformed cop who was shining a flashlight at us. My hands immediately went into the air in full-surrender mode. My friends, two white boys from East Texas, were not as intimidated by the cop.
“We’re taking this tire,” one of my friends said.
“Is it your tire?” the cop asked.
“It’s nobody’s tire," my friend responded. “It’s been sitting in this field for over a year.”
“This field belongs to somebody,” the cop said. “That tire belongs to somebody. What were you planning to do with it?”
“Break it down into parts to sell in Mexico,” my other friend, a real smartass, said.
I was mortified. What were my friends thinking? This was a cop! He had a gun! He could arrest us! He could shoot us! More than I was shocked at my friends' non-plussed attitude around the cop, I was scared so I just kept quiet while the more sensible of pals explained to the policeman that they were hoping to take the tire to a local dump, to help beautify the landscape.
“At three in the morning?” the cop asked, wisely seeing through the bullshit.
“We’re concerned citizens,” my friend replied.
“Listen, kids, it’s late. You didn’t actually put the tire into your truck – if you had, that might be a different story. As I see it, no crime was committed … yet. I’m willing to let you go with a warning. But I want to take down your names and phone numbers, in case the person who owns this field wants to press charges. Hand over your driver's license and let me know your phone number.”
One at a time, my friends did as they were told. When it came to me, though, I froze. I had just gotten a cell phone for the first time but hadn’t memorized my own number yet. I stammered for a bit, trying to recall my number. The cop was getting impatient.
“I don’t have all day, son.”
In a panic, I gave the cop the only number I could remember – my parents'. I was fucked. I spent the next week petrified that my parents were going to get a call about my criminal behavior. I did not check in with them for almost a month, hoping that if I didn’t talk to them, they wouldn’t have a chance to freak out about the fact that their only son was stealing tires from helpless farmers in the middle of the night.
Nothing ever came from this criminal act. Well, almost nothing. My friends, while trying to steal the tire, discovered that there was a large snake living inside of it and, having learned nothing about the laws surrounding criminal trespass, came back the next afternoon with a machete to kill the snake. They took its corpse home and barbequed it. So, I guess, two East Texas boys at least got dinner out of the incident.
I have continued to be afraid of cops. I’ve been pulled over for speeding a few times, and each time my communication with the police officer is a series of hems and haws, as I stutter my way through the requested information the cop is asking me for. I have found that a lot of cops, when faced with somebody who is clearly afraid of them, like to torture the person by asking them a lot of questions. Cops like talking to me nearly as much as I don't like talking to them.
Last summer, while hosting a visiting author in Houston for an event at the movie theater I was working for, I was pulled over by a cop late at night while driving the author – a nationally famous man extremely well-recognized and regarded in his genre – back to his hotel. I was mortified, but, even more so, I was scared. I knew I hadn’t been speeding. Why had the cop pulled me over, then? What if there was still a warrant out for my arrest from my past as a tire thief? What would happen if I was responsible for getting this author arrested alongside me?
In the end, the cop let me off with a warning – I had forgotten to turn my headlights on. He did ask me several questions about a beaker I had in my cup holder, though. It was a leftover promotional item from the film ISLE OF DOGS. With sweat dripping from my brow, I handed the cop the beaker so he could inspect it.
“What the heck is dog flu serum?” he asked.
“It’s, uh, you know, um, a, uh, prop.”
“For a movie.”
“About dog flu?”
As I drove the author back to his hotel, I was relieved that he found the incident funny. We shared a laugh about the cop's curiosity over the beaker. Did he think I was making meth or something? Hahaha, what a weird story, right?
After I dropped the author off at the hotel, I immediately pulled over at a gas station, rolled down my window, and through the beaker into a trashcan. What if a cop pulled me over again and didn't give me a chance to explain the beaker? What if I was shot because a cop thought I was trying to introduce a deadly strain of dog flu into the world's canine population?
I couldn't take that chance.
Yep, I’m a coward.
Nope, there would have been no way I would have gone to Action Park.