By Bill Buchanan
I was really looking forward to the Ventura County Fair, which continues through Aug. 15. I hurt my knee Sunday night, and will be going a little slower for the next few days until it either gets better or I get faster on crutches.
I hate to miss the fair, because when I was a kid few things caused more excitement at my house (well, for my sister and me at least) than the annual county fair. For one week each October everything else became secondary as the rides, exhibits, games of chance, sideshows and “fair food” took over our lives.
At night, you could hear the carnival organ music, and see the bright lights of the midway and the rides from my house. That meant sleep was pretty much out of the question for that week as my sister and I plotted our every move. In fact, I doubt the D-Day invasion of Normandy was as well planned as our visits to the fair. Each night my sister and I would go over what we were going to see, what rides we were going to ride and what food we were going to eat. We would tally the cost of each event, and then see if we could add something to the itinerary, or would be forced to take something off. We shook our piggy banks until they were a blur, making sure we got every last coin out to take and blow on games, rides and food.
And although I was fascinated by all of it, I guess the rides were my favorite thing about the fair. This was due in part to my total inability to win anything at any of the games of chance. Over the years, I probably spent $40,000 trying to win stuffed teddy bears for myself, and later on, the girls I had a crush on — including my wife. At least I was consistent — I was awful at all the games. I would put down dollar after dollar shooting basketballs, tossing rings, throwing darts, you name it, and then walk away with my hands as empty as my pockets. Then, as if on cue, some guy and his girlfriend would walk by weighted down with stuffed animals until their knees buckled —- to make sure that I felt even more incompetent.
In all those years at the fair, there was one particular ride that always held me spellbound —- the Rock-O-Planes. At night, the Rock-O-Planes looked like a neon octopus with long tentacles shooting out in all directions. At the end of the arms were little prison-like cages that housed anyone brave enough (or stupid enough) to climb aboard. The entire gizmo rotated in a clockwise motion, taking you from ground level to 30 feet or so in the air, then hurtled you back toward the earth. All the while, the cages rocked independently to insure that you never felt in control of your destiny.
I watched in awe for many years as boys and girls, men and women, went bravely into the cages to challenge the beast, often exiting the ride weak-kneed and disoriented, with someone’s corn dog from two hours ago all over their shirt. These images kept my curiosity and adventurous spirit at bay, until one fateful day, I was walking past the ride and a classmate corralled me into going on it with him. The boy who called out to me was Gary “Chunky” Paris.
Chunky saw me, pointed to the Rock-O-Planes, and yelled out, “Hey, Buck, let’s go ride it!” My first impulse was to run and hide in the photo booth. But since I was with a group of friends, peer pressure got the best of me. I couldn’t back down in front of my friends, so I climbed into the cage to ride the Rock-O-Planes with Chunky. He was one of those annoying people who were never bothered by anything. My theory, at least with him, was because he was just plain crazy. Truly crazy people don’t worry about injury, death or other trivial matters like the rest of us. And Chunky was certifiable. The story about him that stands out is that once when he was young, he was driving his motorcycle, and hit a house. It was never made quite clear what led him to hit a house on his bike, but that is beside the point. After the accident, he got up, shook himself off, got back on the bike, and drove himself the hospital to get treated.
Crazy. And I was on the Rock-O-Planes with him. I knew I was in real trouble when Chunky began to flip the cage over before the ride even started. Then things got worse. Each time we went up in the air, he would roll the cage so that we were almost parallel with the ground. Once we reached the top and began our descent, he would flip the cage forward so that you felt like you were going to hit the ground face first. We repeated that cycle over and over again until the Lord finally took pity upon me.
When my fervent prayers that the ride would stop were finally answered, I was thankful for three things — that I was out of that cage, that I was alive, and finally, that the engine and crowd noise had been loud enough to muffle my screams. I don’t know that I actually screamed out loud, but I was certainly screaming on the inside.
I didn’t know if Rock-O-Planes even still existed, so I “Googled” it just out of curiosity. I halfway expected to either get nothing at all, or maybe get a hit about a stoner garage band called “The Rock-O-Planes” playing at some obscure venue. But sure enough, the ride is still around. You can even see a YouTube video of some fool flipping over and over and over in the cage as he rides to glory.
I couldn’t tell for sure, but it just might have been Chunky Paris in there. Have fun at the fair.