Surviving the midway

Friday, September 12, 2003

I'm suspended upside down, 72 feet above the ground with my hair standing on end, my mouth frozen in a scream and some child's candy pelting me in the back of the head.

No, it's not a nightmare.

Welcome to the this year's SEMO District Fair midway.

My mission: To ride the rides, talk to children and figure out which ride gives you the most bang for your buck.

A plum assignment for any amusement ride fan, but not so much for a 21-year-old education reporter with a pronounced fear of heights and a tendency to become claustrophobic in compact cars.

At 5-foot, 4-inches and 113 pounds, I often get mistaken for the junior high and high school students I write about for the Southeast Missourian. It's those very traits that led to this assignment.

Thinking of the three slices of pizza I had unwisely stuffed down just a half hour before, I started out nice and easy with the "Pumpkin Path."

The ride consists of giant pumpkins and bears that twirl in circles depending on how fast you turn the wheel inside (think tea cups at Walt Disney World). I spent the entire ride trying not to slide into 12-year-old Samantha Schaefer of Scott County, who was seated next to me. She must have gotten a kick out the various shades of green my face changed, because she invited me to tag along on their next ride -- "the Down Draft."

It's a floorless ride that has passengers seated upright while spinning in circles and dipping up and down. It had me wishing I'd stuck with the pumpkins.

Samantha must have seen the panicked look on my face as the ride plunged toward the ground, because she kept saying, "It's okay. You're going to be okay."

My fear of heights was somewhat overcome by my secret super-hero complex on "the Cliff Hangar."

The ride lived up to its name -- three people lying stomach-down on a triangular glider that dips and swoops while turning in a circle.

Every time the glider dived toward the ground, I was certain I was going to crash into the chain-link fence surrounding the ride. But in between the fence dives, when I wasn't worried about dying, I pretended I was a flying Power Puff girl.

That's where I met 9-year-old Jacob Bennett of Cape Girardeau.

"There's no ride too high or too fast for me," proclaimed Jacob, as we soared side-by-side in our glider. My hero.

On to "the Double Shock," which seated me on a long bench with about 10 other people, swinging pendulum-style at first and then making complete, stomach-plummeting circles.

Then there was "the Ring of Fire." The line was long -- a sure sign that it was a good ride -- and I just happened to find a place behind a 7-year-old named Callie.

Once seated in the "ring" with a metal cage lowered over my head, I found the cramped space very claustrophobic, but that soon became the least of my worries.

I'm not sure if this was the Ring of Fire Johnny Cash was singing about or not, but we did go down, down, down. We also went up, up, up. And around. And upside down.

For the most part, I kept my eyes tightly closed as the shuttle loop-de-looped its way around the inside track of a 72-foot-tall ring.

Abruptly, the ride came to a halt, and I thought it was safe to open my eyes. Turns out we were suspended at the top of the ring, hanging upside down with only a cushion and what I deemed a very flimsy cage in between myself and the hay-strewn ground three stories below.

I thought the ride was falling apart beneath me when I felt objects smacking the back of my head and landing in my lap. I screamed, feeling certain that the cheese pizza was on its way up.

I hesitantly opened one eye to discover small pieces of taffy flying by my head, not metal screws as I had anticipated. Then we were swooping our way down the ring again.

The other Callie disembarked from the ride clearly unscathed, with a grin on her face. I staggered off and stared wordlessly as she told me she had kept her eyes open during the entire ride and loved every minute of it.

The fearlessness of children like Callie at the carnival amazed me. They wanted nothing to do with miniature trains and pretend motorcycles. The more death-defying the ride, the better for them.

Take "the Starship 3000," for example.

Every child I spoke to informed me that this was the "coolest" ride at the fair.

It's difficult to tell exactly what the Starship is like from the outside but I had already been debriefed by my flying hero, Jacob, from the Cliff Hangar ride.

"You get inside an alien. You spin really fast and stick to the walls," Jacob informed me.

And this is a good thing?

Against my better judgment, I tried it anyway. After a few minutes, my cheeks felt like they were being sucked out of the back of my head. A sound system inside the capsule was blasting Filter's "It's Gonna Kill Me" and, for a while, I was certain it was.

Next morning, my voice was gone, and I've been sucking down vitamin C drops all day.

But don't let that deter you.

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128

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