Not Yelling, But Screaming, by Rachel Richardson

On April 20th, 1997, three eighth-grade boys boarded the Wildcat roller coaster at Bell’s Amusement Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The park had just opened for the summer season; it was Sunday, the last night of the inaugural 25 cent ride weekend. One dollar bought the boys a spin on the gut-curdling Tilt-A-Whirl and a splash down the White Lightning Log Flume, or a birds-eye view on the Sky Ride, a few fender benders in the Bumper Cars. One weekly allowance and the boys could tour the whole park twice: the 1920s Ferris Wheel, the oscillating Octopus, the black-lit skeletons and coughing fog machine of the Phantasmagoria. Bell’s was only a few asphalt acres, completely dwarfed by the adjacent pool park, Big Splash, whose Silver Bullet water slide offered a nearly vertical drop from six stories up. By comparison, the Wildcat was diminutive with a top peak of only fifty feet.

The Zingo was by far the prize attraction at Bell’s. A clattering, rickety wooden coaster built in 1968, the Zingo was a latticework behemoth painted Tom Sawyer white. Due to citywide noise ordinances, the coaster ceased running two hours before the park closed. Even the most vociferous rider had to truly holler to be heard above the rattling of the Zingo’s 2500 foot track and multiple 86 foot drops. The deep red Wildcat was half that length, hidden in a far-off corner of the park overlooking the Tulsa Expo Center. It ran on individual cars rather than the standard multi-car train. The three boys rode together, sharing a single lap bar, knee-to-knee.

At 6:15 p.m., their car crept out of the station, turned left, and began the forty-five foot ascent of the first steel hill. The car crested, then stalled. It began rolling backwards, gathering speed until it collided with the next car out of the station.

All three were thrown. One boy fractured his shoulder; another, his jaw. The third died on the scene from blunt head trauma. He had never ridden a roller coaster before.

Bell’s disassembled the Wildcat the following September. The park remained open for the rest of the summer, and the rest of that night.

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Most sources point to Catherine the Great as the originator of the roller coaster. A thrill-seeker by anyone’s definition, Catherine commissioned several Russian Mountains, eighty-foot ice hills reinforced with wooden beams, in the St. Petersburg’s Gardens of Oreinbaum in 1784. The Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville, built in Paris in 1812, kept the Russian Mountain name but substituted tracks for the ice and introduced a wheeled car to replace the usual sled.

Industrial America seized on the notion. The Mauch Chunk Railroad in Pennsylvania capitalized on the hilly topography of coal country, swapping coal for willing, thrill-seeking passengers. By the late 1920s, roller coaster technology included such modern-day mainstays as lift hills, underfriction to prevent track-jumping, and vertical loops, though early passengers often complained of whiplash.

The Great Depression curtailed roller coaster popularity, causing a drought of innovations that persisted until 1972, when a man named John C. Allen constructed the Racer, the first dueling roller coaster consisting of two parallel tracks with flanking trains, in Cincinnati’s Kings Island. Just before the Racer, Allen designed a traditional wooden out-and-back for a park in Oklahoma, a roller coaster he named the Zingo.

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I name my Cabbage Patch doll after Amy MacDonald, a snub-nosed girl who lives across the creek. Amy’s house is full of wonders: a Nintendo system, two pert-eared Bansenjis, an upstairs. Amy has her eighth birthday party at Bell’s and I spend the whole evening dogging Thomas, my second-grade sweetheart. Thomas and I take recorder lessons together before school with a lazy-eyed man who collects Medieval woodwinds. We are both terrible, though Thomas can play Ode to Joy through his nose.

I have never been to Bell’s before. I fall in love with the centripetal force rides—the Himalaya, the Scrambler—anything that whirls and flings and smashes me against my neighbor. I love them because my neighbor is Thomas.

At the end of the night, everyone stands in line for the Zingo. I stand with Amy’s mother outside the corral while the others ride. I am embarrassed by my cowardice, but even my fledgling love for Thomas can’t convince me to endure what must surely be the extreme, mind-cracking torture of this titanic roller coaster.  The Ferris Wheel had been bad enough, especially with Amy rocking back and forth when we got stranded at the top, making our seat wobble and pitch.

In two years a boy will ride the Wildcat for the first and only time. But now, in 1995, I am eight years old, and the Zingo is insurmountable. Everyone knows the Zingo is the scarier coaster of the two at Bell’s, and tonight only confirms it. Before Amy even opened her presents, Thomas and I rode the Wildcat together. It was no big deal.

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Allen, the Zingo’s architect, once said, “You don’t need a degree in engineering to design roller coasters. You need a degree in psychology.”

This explains the strata coaster. Currently, there are only two on Earth, both in America: Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster and Six Flags Great Adventure’s Kingda Ka. Their tracks are inverted parabolas; the train goes up, then comes back down. That’s all. The thrill comes from the staggering height. Kingda Ka, the world’s tallest, shoots up to 456 feet, reaching speeds over 125 miles per hour.

Search for any variation of “roller coaster POV” on Youtube and you’ll find a plethora of first-person videos, some shot by steady-handed enthusiasts, some taken officially by the park. A video of Kingda Ka begins with a cheerfully menacing announcement: “Arms down—heads back—hold on!” before the train launches. The speed is apparent but hard to comprehend from behind the safety of a screen. I imagine sandy eyeballs and dislodged contact lenses, spit flying backwards, teeth gone dry. From the hill’s apex, the lines of the parking lot look like geometric field paintings made by aliens, visible only from the air. The parked cars are as small as seeds. Then the descent: down, down, down, a drop of eon-long seconds, the longest roller coaster drop in the world.

The line for rides like Kingda Ka can stretch for hours, simultaneously tedious and terrifying. Hands sweat. Stomachs churn. Reason insists on some form of order (Why are you doing this? This is stupid! This is crazy!) and is then waylaid by morbid curiosity (It’ll be fun, won’t it?), irrational pride (Everyone will think I’m a wimp if I bail) and, ultimately, panic (Oh God oh God oh God, here we go!). Much like war, riding a roller coaster is ninety percent boredom—memorizing the sweat stains of the man in front of you, wishing you’d peed beforehand—and ten percent terror.

If a roller coaster is good, the fright is entirely mental. A roller coaster should not hurt you—the ride isn’t a symptom of your body, but a product of your mind. Physically, you are in less danger on a roller coaster than you are in an automobile. Mentally, you’re pretty much screwed.

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In the summer of 2006, a microburst hit Tulsa. The storm arrived at sunrise, shooting a highly compressed column of air over midtown, which then dispersed—a kind of upside-down mushroom cloud that did more damage within fifteen minutes than any tornado in the past century.

The 1926 Ferris Wheel at Bell’s, where Thomas, Amy and I had squealed and kicked over ten years ago, was totaled. No one who called Tulsa home was surprised by the freak wind phenomenon. Our city has suffered every species of bizarre weather: floods, earthquakes, ice storms, droughts and fires, as if Mother Nature is determined to eradicate the entire state of Oklahoma.

The Zingo survived the microburst, though the storm wedged dozens of tree limbs into the coaster and forced Bell’s to shut down midseason. The park remained closed for twenty days while repairmen reinforced the damaged support timbers and cleared the debris. They redid the façade of the Phantasmagoria, changed the structural bolts of the Mind Melt, hunted for the missing elephant statue from the mini-golf course.

A crowd gathered to watch a tentative test run following the Zingo’s repairs. Robby Bell, the park’s president, remarked how the Zingo running “just lifted everybody’s spirits.”

My friends and I were college-aged by then. None of us stuck around to see the Zingo reopen, let alone ride it.

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Branson, Missouri may be the most terrible place on Earth. Nestled in the scenic vistas of the Ozarks, Branson has bastardized all its natural beauty by building the tackiest strip between Atlantic City and Las Vegas, a multi-mile barrage of souvenir shops and wax museums. The only way to survive Branson is to ignore it and head directly to Silver Dollar City.

Built above a cave inside a forest, Silver Dollar City is a hokey but charming facsimile of an 1880s village. The employees wear bonnets and petticoats, overalls and stovepipe hats. There is a daily jamboree of grizzled banjo players and a hillside petting zoo featuring Hank, a gigantic rabbit. Artisans give hourly demonstrations on blacksmithing, glass-blowing, taffy-pulling. The scent of new leather and hot apple fritters permeates the park.

There are also four roller coasters that make the Zingo look tamer than a tire swing.

The same summer of the microburst, we go to Silver Dollar City for a few days’ fun. Mom shops the country chic boutiques while my brother and I tour the roller coasters over and over. We ride and ride again: the propulsive Powder Keg, the backwards-facing Thunderation, the indoor dark coaster Fire-in-the-Hole.

But the best, by far, is the Wildfire.

We ride barefoot, our feet dangling and helpless. The train chugs from the station, turns and dips and begins its ascent. My brother, a self-proclaimed buff, is ecstatic, but I’m flooded with dread, swearing loudly. We face the sky, reach the apex, and the train pauses for a split second. The ground is far away, and we are either going to fly or die but suddenly we fall, and I open my mouth and scream.

The coaster drops and rolls and twists, loops, up again, down. The track runs in inverted helixes, sometimes breathlessly close to the earth, and my brother beside me is yelling. I can discern the words, “Woo!” and “Yeah!,” other yodels of triumph and joy. But the noise I’m making is all vowels, a chimpanzee’s shrieking, an awful wordless yowling, a siren that doesn’t let up until we slide to a halt.

I laugh. I wipe my eyes. I feel completely rejuvenated. I am traumatized and yet alive, adrenaline-drunk, weak-kneed, woozy, and wonderful.

We get back in line immediately.

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Before 2005, my experiences on roller coasters had been confined to the Zingo, which I ultimately overcame via a series of sultry, empty summers, when my high school friends and I would assemble for $5 Wristband Night. I had never truly loved the Zingo—the ride was bumpy, and I invariably woke up the next morning with odd bruises in odder places: my kneecaps, my elbows, the inside of my wrist.

Before 2005, I could not scream. Every plummet on the Zingo made me hold my breath and wince—I would try to let it out, but they were only yells and hollers. My voice, only louder.

My parents and I are on Interstate 40 in August of 2005, five hours deep in a three-day road trip from Oklahoma to central New York to drop me at my freshman dormitory. Drizzle mists the windshield as we enter Missouri, passing billboards directing to the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, uncountable Cracker Barrels, an exit for a town called Cuba. I have been up all night packing. My father is sleeping, supine and unbuckled in the backseat. My mother drives.

I am half asleep with the seat reclined when it happens. My mother saying over and over, a small frantic prayer, “Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.” My father snoring on. My eyes creeping open to see the grill of the suburban as it bounds over the highway median and catches us in the corner, a nearly head-on collision at seventy miles an hour.

The airbags balloon. The seatbelt, a clothesline across my stomach. My mother is pinned between the steering wheel and the door. Her window and the windshield, vanished. Smoke escapes the hood, bent like a tent. My father is moaning, his leg somehow stuck beside my arm, his thick ankle, his Reebok sneaker. The leg is clammy, smooth, like a porcelain sink, and I have not called my father Daddy in years but that’s all my mind can broadcast, and my mom asking, “Jerry? Jerry?” in her little voice until he finally replies, strained, “I’m okay, it’s okay.”

And then I am getting out of the car that is no longer a car but a collection of metal and fabric and rubber and smoke. I am screaming on the side of the highway, screaming through my fractured ribs and my bloodied foot. There are people in the distance, a crowd approaching, there are sirens that are for us. I cannot stop screaming. I cannot stop. These are not words; there is only noise.

My mother will laugh about it later. “I knew you were okay because you wouldn’t shut up, all that screaming,” she’ll say. “Like the day you were born.”

We are hospitalized, discharged, sent to a nearby motel. We make phone calls and wait for the pain medicine to kick in: we all have broken ribs, bruises, but we are shattered only in our minds. We decide to keep going, and we rent a van.

A year later we go to Silver Dollar City. My brother yells on the roller coasters. I scream.

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Bell’s received county clearance to build a second roller coaster to replace the long-dismantled Wildcat. President Robby Bell expressed his excitement about the new ride, a steep, steel coaster that would feature nearly a dozen crossovers and have “a completely different profile” than the Zingo.

That fall, the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority voted not to renew Bell’s lease, citing concerns about Bell’s long-term viability. The Bell family quickly began scouting new locations for the park, looking to suburbs like Sand Springs and Jenks. Then a backlog of unpaid property taxes emerged. Lawyers wrote letters. The Tulsa World  tried to translate the chaos into layman’s terms. A date appeared: June 15. By then, Bell’s had to be gone.

Trapped in a fiscal spider web, President Robby Bell made an executive decision, and all of Tulsa sighed, wrote drippy nostalgic op-eds, and forgot about it. Bell’s was over. The Zingo came down.

I wasn’t surprised. I had already lost the Metro Diner, a 1950s sock-hop café where I skipped German class for Oreo milkshakes; the University of Tulsa bought the land, razed the building, and erected an enormous ceremonial gate. The Camelot Hotel, once the prime locale for celebrity hobnobbing, was now a strip of fast food restaurants. The Rose Bowl where my brother got his hand stuck in a bowling ball was empty as a jar.

They tore down the Zingo piece by piece; the ride was unsalvageable, meant only to exist in that one set of coordinates. By July, it was gone. I managed to avoid driving past the empty lot for the brief weeks I was home that summer and only confronted it after I’d graduated. It had been nearly fifteen years since I first went to Bell’s, since Amy and Thomas and I were perched at the peak of the Ferris Wheel, but everything had changed. Now there was nothing. With my window down, I could almost hear the echoing rickety clang of the Zingo’s chains, the oceanic rush of the fall, the screams of riders, ghosts now, gone.

In 1999, Amy moved to Texas.

In 2009, Thomas shot himself in the head.

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Hands move up, then down, making the motion of waves, hills.

“It’s like a roller coaster.”

It isn’t, I want to say. It isn’t at all like a roller coaster. You say it’s like a roller coaster when really you mean unstable. You mean it varies, it changes—you mean a sine wave, a heart monitor peaking and plummeting, zeniths and nadirs, up and down, fluctuations, oscillations, the tide ebbing in and flowing out. It is inconstant; it is simply life. It is not a roller coaster.

There are enthusiasts who love roller coasters because they are the epitome of fun. Roller coasters are singular experiences, impossible to replicate. They defy gravity. They free you of your human constraints. They soar, and for a moment, you are an angel, you are unstoppable.

But that is only the surface of the psychology of roller coasters.

A roller coaster shreds the haze of existence and makes you raw and real again. You are annihilated, tossed like a dandelion seed on the wind, an unmoored kite, a balloon let loose, made wholly insignificant in the sheer might of the metal and the clatter and the speed. A roller coaster pulls the primal howl from where it lies coiled in your gut, always there but untapped, inaccessible. The roller coaster releases the unfettered scream you never knew you had. You are consolidated from a mess of neuroses and habits and tastes, stripped to nothing but nerves and noise—you are no longer the you of that morning, all plans and hungers, but something simply surviving. It is complete catharsis. It is trauma. It reminds you that you are living, and that you are alive, and makes you wonder how you ever forgot.

And then it’s over, and there you are: clapping and laughing, elated.

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RachelRichardson

Rachel Richardson was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Rumpus, Passages North, and The Nervous Breakdown, and her fiction in Lime Hawk, monkeybicycle, Fairy Tale Review, and elsewhere. She can be found online at www.rachel-richardson.com

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