GEAUGA LAKE, JUNE 1993. I was fifteen, working a shift at the Computer stand on a weekday, which, like most amusement park caricature stands, was named for what it was closest to. In this case, my stand was between the Big Dipper and the Computer Photo stand, where customers had their photographs taken by an early digital camera on a template with a hole or two cut into it for the face(s).
I was sticking to my normal daily regimen of standing under my umbrella with my chair and easel behind me, which was par for the course among caricature and portrait artists. My personal routine, however, was the added challenge of appearing as accessible as possible while avoiding the performance of my actual job at all costs.
My motives stemmed more out of cowardice than laziness. I was still in the early stages of picking up the drawing part of my job...drawing, and I was under the impression that every sketch I did had a 50/50 chance of an awkward exchange where my customers had to tell me that they didn't want to buy my sketches. This didn't happen too often, but Geauga Lake had a pretty honest crowd back then. In comparison, a lot of my rookies at Kings Island drew sketches that resembled Sloth from The Goonies during their first few weeks, and people rarely ever complained aside from a wince here and there. They almost always paid for their sketches, whether they were good or not. Such was not the case at Geauga Lake, and I was terrified of getting rejected.
I had been through some pretty rigorous training that spring, sure, but the weeks since hadn't done much for my sketch. In most parks, rookie caricature artists usually learn by working alongside veterans. For whatever reason, the Geauga Lake Caricatures department from 1992 must have imploded; on the rare occasion that I actually worked alongside someone else, the entire crew of nine or ten artists was comprised entirely of other rookies, except for one second-year vet. My supervisor only worked at Geauga Lake on Saturdays and Sundays, and was at Sea World, across the lake, on weekdays. So the opportunity to learn was there, if you were okay with learning from someone who didn't really know how to draw caricatures either.
So I would just stand there. If someone would approach me to ask how much caricatures cost, I would answer them with a smile, but I would make no effort whatsoever to sweeten the deal or try to get them to sit for me. I secretly hoped that everyone would just walk away so I could just collect my minimum wage in peace until I somehow magically got better at drawing. When guests decided to buy a sketch, I would try my hardest to feign confidence during my panic-induced nausea, awkwardly moving my marker around the paper and silently praying that I didn't forget anything. Like earrings. Or eyebrows.
I had ways to pass the time when I was trying not to draw. I would people-watch, and when that got old (which, believe me, takes a while in amusement parks), I would watch the weight-guesser across the midway, another high school kid trying to learn his job like me, narrowly avoid getting slapped by the women who demanded that he guess their weight or age. This usually made me feel a little better, as he was far worse at guessing than I was at drawing caricatures. I would watch the aging monorail make its way into its station, evaluating its status as the "transportation of the future." I would stare at clouds. I would fantasize that the Skyscraper, the space-needle-esque observation tower in the middle of the park, would fall and crush my stand as I dove out of the way.
One day, as I was staring out into space, I heard some shouting behind me in the Big Dipper line, and I turned around to see two men yelling in each other's faces. At the risk of sounding demographically insensitive, one was wearing Cross Colours and the other was wearing NASCAR and a mullet, and both were each surrounded by many more men dressed as they were. I couldn't quite discern what they were shouting about, but I could see their faces as they grew increasingly more aggressive. I could see them gnashing their teeth at each other like rabid dogs. I could see the sunlight reflecting off of the saliva being ejected out of their mouths as they screamed.
The escalating cadence of their voices was made all that much more terrifying by the fact that they were in line for a roller coaster, and when I say "they were in line," I mean that they were inside the confined area where the line is winding between steel railings, banking from straight lines into 180-degree corners. And it wasn't like they were near an edge of the area, either. They were right in the middle, practically dead center.
I remember wondering, as I watched these grown men start shoving each other in slow-motion, how this could possibly end well. The line was pretty tightly packed, and many of the guests were far too overweight to climb over or fit through the railings that were cemented into the ground. The people a few rows away from the action were craning their necks, trying to get a better view of the the developing situation and relaying the play-by-play back to their shorter party members, but they certainly weren't moving.
This was bad. For the people surrounding the two groups of angry men, there was no way out. For the security guards that would be called to break up the fight, there was no way in. This wasn't going to be like the other scuffles, the quickly-dissipating glorified slap-fights that I'd seen while working across the midway from the Beer Garden. This was going to be a vicious, sweaty, no-holds-barred cage match, complete with innocent bystanders in peril. I took a step towards my sales counter to call Security before I remembered that my cart didn't have a phone. And then NASCAR threw the first punch.
Cross Colours took the blow to the side of his head and reeled backwards, his lower back hitting the railing. Almost instantaneously, he straightened his backbone and, in a Weeble®-like motion, sprang forward and transferred all of his upward momentum to his fist in a right hook. He hit NASCAR square under his left eye, a blow that would have surely would have knocked him down, had there been anywhere for him to fall. NASCAR bounced off of the people surrounding him like a pinball, regained his composure, and lunged back at Cross Colours. At this point, it became a free-for-all. The groups of men who had been taunting one another started blindly throwing closed fists at anything that moved. Women were screaming, children were crying, and people were being forced against the railings by others desperately trying to escape.
A paper cup half-filled with lemonade slush exploded as it hit the blacktop and brought me out of a trance; I realized that I'd been standing motionless, staring for a good five to ten seconds. I looked at my stand again. No phone. I looked at the Computer Photo stand, which had a phone in the back room. Closed, as the computer had inexplicably frozen up the day before, and locked, to protect the equipment. Calling Security clearly wasn't an option right now. The shouting and screaming grew louder, as the back of the line began to break up, clearing a path for the melee to bleed into the midway. The fight was going to be on my doorstep in seconds, I thought, and my tiny umbrella stand would be at the mercy of intense, perhaps racially-based animosity, and preternatural levels of testosterone. What was I going to do? What the hell was I going to do?
And that's when I hurdled over one of my chairs, ripped the cord out of the power strip, picked up the register, and started running.
Let me pause here and make the point that, in my naive, diseased 15-year-old mind, this seemed like the most logical course of action. Escape was imperative, and even though I probably hadn't made much, if any, money, there was still a $170 beginning bank in the register, and I wasn't going to leave it. In my mind, it was a hundred yards or so between my stand and the office adjacent to Portraits, and I had to call Security as quickly as possible before the proletariat started looting the Dipper Gift Shop and the Sand Art booth.
Of course, what I failed to realize then was that if I had encountered any security guards, and thankfully, I didn't, it was unlikely that they would have understood my reasoning for sprinting down the midway with a cash register in my arms. I imagine these events now from a third-person perspective, and I'm sure it didn't look like i was heroically saving the company's money from an angry mob. More likely, it appeared that I was attempting to rob my employer in the most idiotic way possible.
By some miracle, I made it to the Portrait stand without getting tackled by Security and thrown in handcuffs. I slammed my cash register down on the back counter next to a completely bewildered Portraits cashier whose mouth dropped open, seemingly having trouble forming the words to ask me what in God's name I was doing. I flung open the office door, picked up the phone and used the rotary dial to call Security.
Me: "There's...uh...whew...a, uh..." (breathing heavily)
Security: "There's a what?"
Me: "A fight...Big Dipper..."
Security: "Yeah, we got that. We already sent them over."
Security: "Anything else?"
Security: "Jesus, kid, get off the phone. You're tying up the line."
Me: "Oh. Yeah. Sorry." (click)
I hung up the phone and caught my breath for a second. What the hell had I just done? I had to get back to my stand. The situation was being taken care of. Had I completely overreacted? I had to get back to my stand. It occurred to me that, since the portrait artists were all drawing, no one seemed to notice me run into the stand except for the one Portraits cashier. This worked out well for me, I thought, since there probably wasn't any way to recount the events of the past ten minutes without making myself seem like some sort of lunatic. Which, it now occurred to me, I probably was. I had to get back to my stand.
Yes, I decided, any attempt to vocally explain my behavior to anyone, especially management, would only result in disaster. The Portraits cashier stared at me in silence as I grinned at her, picked up my cash register, and slowly walked out of the building.
I returned to the scene, expecting to find a bloodstained, smoldering crater where my stand used to be, only to find the area completely unchanged. There were no medics bandaging the wounded and carrying them out on stretchers, the railings containing the line for the Big Dipper weren't mangled or ripped out of the pavement. They weren't even bent. In fact, the sweeps must of just been through, because the area was even cleaner than it was when I left. The entrance to the Dipper was temporarily roped off, a few security guards were still milling around, one of my chairs had been knocked a few feet over, and it looked like someone had bumped into my umbrella, but that was it. It had practically never happened.
I plugged my cash register back in and walked over to my easel, where a little kid had apparently used my color sticks to draw a stick figure, some sort of vehicle that looked like a tank crashing into a train, and his name, "Jason." I wondered if he had sat down and drawn it while his chaperone was being questioned, attended to by First Aid, or in the preliminary stages of getting ejected from the park. I wondered, to that end, if that kid would remember being booted out of an amusement park when he got older.
For that matter, I wondered if I was ever going to really like this job, like the veteran artists from Sea World who trained me. They genuinely seemed to enjoy drawing caricatures. Maybe it was because, at their Anheuser-Busch family-themed utopia, they didn't have to worry about drunken goons punching each other in front of them when they were at work. Maybe the last twenty minutes was a good indicator that my naivete and paranoia deemed me unsuitable for working with the general public. On the other hand, I thought, there was no sense in evaluating my feelings about my job, or the seemingly dangerous people around me, until I practiced enough to get better at this. I had to practice so I could get better. I had to. But not now. Maybe tomorrow.
I settled back into position in front of my chair, imagining the Skyscraper falling towards me.