Monday, October 4, 2010

The Reign of the Rotorman.

One of the more interesting, and occasionally baffling, aspects of working in an amusement park is dealing with the regulars, the season passholders that come to the park every day. Most of these regulars are junior high school kids who received their pass from a parent or loved one that wanted to legally kick them out of the house for the summer. Of course, after the first few weeks, they become dangerous, not because they're bad kids, but because the they're bored. And if you're a bored thirteen-year-old and you've run out of things to do at an amusement park, the next logical thing to do is to try your hardest to annoy the shit out of the high school and college kids that work there.

Yeah, the kids are annoying, but they're relatively benign unless they're actively trying to break things in your stand. It's really the adults that you have to worry about. Some of you reading this may have read my previous post about the most awkward interview I ever had to conduct, and I wasn't lying the first time when I said that season passholders who aren't kids and don't have kids of their own should be handled very carefully.

Not surprisingly, the crazy ones were always the most famous. I would like to think that every park has them, these kind of urban legends that manifest themselves as people. Back at Geauga Lake, we had Country Joe, who would watch the same country show four or five times a day, every day. There was Handshake Steve, who, upon entering the park, would smile and compulsively reintroduce himself to every employee as he walked down the midway. But the real mascot, the beating heart, the best-known of the regulars at the park, was the Rotorman.

Let me take a second to explain, for those unfamiliar with the Rotor. It was one of those spinning rides in which the circular outside rotates rapidly, and the centrifugal force from the spinning causes you to stick to the wall as the floor of the ride drops out from underneath you. I was never much of a ride enthusiast, and the discovery of the delicate nature of my own stomach stemmed directly from an experience I had as a 5th grader, when I rode the Gravitron, a similar ride, twice in a row at Blossom Time and then threw up behind the bushes into the Chagrin River moments afterwards.

Rotorman was in line at the Geauga Lake front gate every morning that it opened. He was one of the first people through, and he would make his way as fast as he could to the Big Dipper, which always opened a few minutes before his namesake, and after his obligatory Dipper ride, he would get on the Rotor. The most prevalent legend that I heard about Rotorman was that he simply wouldn't get off of the Rotor until the park closed thirteen hours later. This was somewhat confirmed when I overheard a Rides supervisor in the break room explaining where Rotorman's hiding spot was, behind the entry/exit door of the ride.

In 1995, I would have said that he was middle-aged, but I was a teenager, so I could have been overestimating at that point. From what I remember, he had a heavier build and the paunch usually associated with ex-football players. He walked quickly, but with a slight limp in one leg, which was probably the reason why he ambled along at a quick pace instead of flat-out running down the midway with everyone else when the park opened. He had a receding hairline and shaggy hair parted on the side, straight out of a 1970s yearbook. His eyes were kind of a piercing light blue, but what made them noticeable was that his right eye was fixed down and away from the center of his face, regardless of where his left eye was looking. It was easy to pick Rotorman out of a crowd because he usually wore the same royal blue t-shirt that had a stylized "R" on the chest and said Rotorman underneath it, yes, like a superhero.

A few of my previous entries focus on my being fifteen and the awkwardness of not knowing what the hell I was doing. In 1995, I was seventeen, and at this point, it was pretty safe to say that I had become accustomed to drawing and selling caricatures to the point of actually liking it. I had been promoted to Lead Artist that year, which basically meant that I was good enough at making money and not antagonizing guests to the point where I could be trusted to count inventory.

I was opening the "B" satellite umbrella stand one morning and decided that I was bored. There's a period of time in mid-July, after the crowds from the holiday weekend leave, that forms a sort of temporal no-man's land, because it's dead center in the middle of the summer and going back to school isn't even on the horizon yet. During this period of time, the park gets relatively quiet for a couple of weeks, the temperature starts climbing into the low-to-mid 90s, the days start running together into a haze and and most of the employees get start getting burned out. Morale worsens and self-motivation falters, so avoiding apathy is important if you still want to make money. Worse, the opening shift at B stand was solitary for the first four or five hours. I was bored. I had to do something notable. I looked over and saw Rotorman making his way down the midway.

I waited until he was within earshot of my stand to strike.

"Hey, uh...Rotorman!"

He turned his head to look at me. His pace slowed and he began to adjust his course towards my stand.


I hadn't thought this far ahead; in fact, I hadn't even expected to get his attention. I suddenly felt like one of those naturalists on television after they attract the curiosity of a potentially dangerous animal. This was a pretty stupid stunt for me to pull, I thought. I didn't know anything about this guy except for the myths I'd heard about him. For all I knew, he was a violent sociopath. But I had already started this. I was going to finish it.

"Uh, could I draw a practice sketch of you? You won't have to pay for it or anything..."

He stopped in the middle of the midway and glanced at the Big Dipper. He looked back at me and winced.

"Ummm...I don't...uh, I have to get on the Big Dipper soon."

"Come on. It'll only take me a couple of minutes."

He looked back at the Big Dipper, and then looked back at me. They hadn't opened the ride yet. He started walking towards me again.

"Uh..." he stammered. "Yeah, fine. But when people get on the Big Dipper, I'm leaving."

He approached. Part of me panicked. There were many theories about how Rotorman became Rotorman, and I had no idea which one, if any, was true. Some of the Games supervisors were convinced that he was a Vietnam War vet with a Purple Heart and a metal plate in his head, and that the only thing that could alleviate his constant migraine headaches was riding the Rotor. This theory would have also accounted for his slight limp.

Another theory was that, as a baby, someone had left him, covered in a bag or something, on the Rotor, and that no one had noticed him for the better part of a day, and by the time that someone found him, his brain was scrambled and he subsequently became addicted to the Rotor for life. This supposedly accounted for his right eye, but was one of the more implausible theories; Geauga Lake had at least been there since the turn of the century, and the Rotor was a very old ride, but I doubt someone could have gotten a bag or backpack on the ride in the first place, whether there was a baby in it or not. Plus, I don't know what the effects of centrifugal force are on babies, but I doubt that they are described above.

I also remember there being some speculation that he was an ex-NASA test pilot who took too many Gs while flying experimental aircraft over Area 51, but that sounds like something that I would have made up when one of the rookies asked me who Rotorman was. Regardless, it made no difference to me at that point. I was going to be the first and only Geauga Lake caricature artist to ever draw Rotorman.

He sat down in my chair, still glaring at the entrance to the Dipper. I could tell I had thrown a serious curveball at him by interrupting his daily morning routine. His polite compliance with my demands had limits; he had already told me that he was a ghost as soon as that ride opened, so I knew I had to work fast. Still, I had questions.

I started drawing the side of his face. Temple, cheekbone, right jaw.

"So...what's your name?"

"Huh?" He looked at me with his primary eye.

Chin, left jaw, cheekbone, temple.

"Your name. Besides Rotorman, I mean."

"Fred." He looked back at the Dipper.

"Hey, I'm Jamie. Nice to meet you."

"Yeah. You too."

Left ear, right ear, inner hairline. Ask him. Wait, not yet.

"Have anyone ever drawn you before?"


Outer hairline, inner left ear, inner right ear. Go ahead, ask him. Do it.

"So, did you become Rotorman?"

"I...ride the Rotor a lot." He smirked. Diastema, check. Damn it. He had deflected my question.

Hair detail, sideburns, left nostril. Try again.

"No, I mean, like...why do you ride the Rotor all day?"

"I like it. It's fun."

Septum, right nostril, philtrum.

"Yeah, but you...hey, smile real quick for spin around on that ride all day. Don't you get sick of it?"

He smirked again and shifted in his chair.

"No. Don't you get sick of drawing pictures?"

Upper lip, top of lower lip, top teeth.

"Uh...yeah. Yeah, sometimes I do."

I heard some excited yelling behind me, signifying that the Big Dipper had opened. As promised, without a word, Rotorman was out of the chair and ambling as fast as he could towards the entrance, leaving me sitting at my easel staring at an eyeless sketch of my new acquaintance. It didn't matter. I'd spent just enough time staring at him that his eyes and eyebrows were committed to memory. Mission accomplished. I had successfully drawn Rotorman.

As I drew a generic superhero body on him, I thought about our conversation. I felt cheated. When I decided to try and hold a conversation with him, I had expected to learn all of his secrets, the unanswered queries about his psychoses that made him ride around in rapid circles all day, every day. I wanted to take a peek inside this guy's brain. I wanted to stare into the mouth of madness and ask it questions. Maybe I thought that learning about Rotorman would somehow educate me, indirectly giving me a new understanding of people. Or maybe I just thought that I would come closer to learning the truth about what makes them crazy.

But the only truth that I had learned was that Rotorman was probably one of the smartest people that I had ever met. I thought about the countless times people had told me, "Do something you love, and you'll never have to work a day for the rest of your life." Well, Fred was doing that in the most literal sense possible. Sure, he wasn't technically working, and he might have had a pretty severe case of obsessive compulsive disorder, but he still seemed pretty happy to me. I dare any of us to be that satisfied with the daily routine of our lives, with or without mental illness. I asked Rotorman why he rode the Rotor all day, and he told me. Maybe the rest of the answer didn't matter.

The afternoon shift came in, and I went on break. I took my Rotorman sketch with me to the Main stand to show my buddy Rob before we headed out to Sirna's for lunch.

"Hey, check it out. I drew Rotorman."

"No way. Weird. Did he sit for you?"

"Yeah. He got up halfway through and ran away when the Dipper opened, but yeah."

"Nice, man. You could put that up as a demo."

"Nah. I was going to, but...nah. If he saw it, he might not like how I drew his eye."

We started walking towards the employee gate.

"Was he like, psychotic, or mentally challenged or anything?"

"I...I don't know. I don't think so. He was all right."

"What, like, was he normal?"

"I...I wouldn't say that, but...I dunno. He was a little off. He was pretty friendly, though."

"Well, what''s wrong with him?"

"Uh...he' I dunno. I asked him, but he didn't answer. Nothing, I guess. He's just some dude named Fred who really likes riding the Rotor."

• • • • •

After I closed my stand a few nights later, I was walking down the midway on my way to the money room and saw two shadowy figures collecting cans in a giant garbage bag. As I got closer, I saw that one of them was Rotorman. I said hi.

"Hey, Fred."

He looked at me with only a vague sense of recognition. Maybe he couldn't see me in the darkness.


Or maybe he just didn't give a shit about who I was. I was okay with that. Maybe, I thought, he actually was like Batman, obsessively devoted to a cause. Maybe there was only room in his heart for the Rotor. At least part of the issue of Rotorman's sustainability had been answered. I mean, the guy obviously didn't work. He rode the Rotor all day. Who knows where he lived, if he survived off of government disability checks or was in assisted living. Maybe he was just retired. I knew now, at the very least, how he saved up enough money to afford a season pass every year. He collected cans at night. Part of Rotorman made sense now.

Thinking about all of this now, I kind of wonder what happened to Rotorman after Geauga Lake closed down a few years back. I would like to think that he bought the Rotor at an awesome layaway price when Cedar Fair was selling off GL's roller coasters, but I know that was probably impossible. It couldn't have been easy for him. That park closing affected a lot of kids and their summer jobs, for sure, but that place was Rotorman's whole life. I would like to think that he found a new dedication to his life's work, like building gyroscopes. Or playing Roulette. Or maybe even something that has nothing to do with spinning around rapidly.

Wherever he is now, he was legendary then. We should all be so lucky.