Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Big Country Chronicles, Part I: A Legend Is Born.

Sometimes in life, we meet people that are so interesting that we know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that if we stay within a certain proximity of them, events will occur that will create the kind of memories that stay vivid for a long, long time. The kind of memories that comprise stories at social gatherings or are written about on a self-referentially obscure corner of the internet (Hi)We gravitate towards these people because we, consciously or subconsciously, crave adventure. This is a story about one of these people. Men like this are how myths are created. Men like this are how legends are born.

Men like this buy emergency sweatpants.

The man who would soon be referred to only as "Big Country" received his nickname at three o'clock in the morning on Cinco de Mayo in 2003 (Editor's Note: I've thought about this, and I've decided to not refer to him by his real name for reasons that will become apparent in a later chapter, should I choose to write it. I honestly don't think that he would care if I disclosed his identity, but in the times that we live in, varying authority figures generally try to seek out this sort of...delicate information about people, and I don't want these writings to jeopardize future opportunities for him. If you know him and choose to comment, please follow suit and please don't narc him out). He had recently been hired as a caricature artist at Kings Island; around that point in time we had a sizable percentage of caricature, portrait and airbrush artists that were students at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and he was a referral from Jon, the Caricatures supervisor at the time and a schoolmate of his.

His interview sketch was good, and he had interviewed very well, but we were uneasy about hiring him; Jon had volunteered to make sure that he had a ride to his shifts because he didn't have a car or, for that matter, a driver's license. We would later say that we hired him based on Jon's voucher, but the underlying reasons centered around his almost preternatural charm.

He was a portly guy of average height; he wasn't sloppy, but he certainly wasn't skinny. He looked more like a high school offensive lineman that had retained a lot of his strength but had let himself go a bit. He almost always wore a beat-up baseball cap emblazoned with the Miller High Life® logo over his long ponytail, and he was reluctant to shave his beard to work at King's Island, but he agreed to, as long as he could keep his hair. 

He was from the hills of Virginia, and had a strong accent. I have often described him to others as looking like an Aryan Kevin Smith, and my impression of him kind of sounds like me doing an impression of Will Ferrell's impression of Harry Carey with a Southern accent.

Upon granting me permission to call him Big Country, he mentioned, as is typical of enigmatic men, that he went by many names, including Big Jesus, Fat Jesus, Big Gorgeous, Hillbilly Buddha, Buddha Jesus and so on. The caricature artists, even the high school kids, gravitated towards him; as I said before, he was extremely charming, but more importantly, he was a fantastic storyteller. Strange things had been happening to him in his 21-odd years, and his stories–coupled with the dichotomy between his cerebral, philosophical nature and his thick hillbilly accent–was a valued commodity to the artists that worked the slow eight-hour June weekday shifts with him. Everyone wanted to work with the bastard lovechild of Socrates and Hank Williams, Jr.

His compelling style of storytelling was rooted in the shock value that came along with the first sentence out of his mouth. You couldn't stop listening to him once he started a story, and he seemingly had hundreds of them, true or not. Some of these openings include:

"Did Ah ever tell you about that time Ah fell asleep in a preacher's car?"

"Did Ah ever tell you about that time mah mom knocked me out throwin' her prosthetic boob at me when Ah was ten?"

"Did Ah ever tell you about that time Ah was trippin' on acid in Eden Park an' Ah bit a garter snake in half 'cause Ah thought he was a messenger from the underworld?"

"Did Ah mention that some dude broke into mah apartment last week ta rob me while Ah was sleepin', an' Ah had to wrassle him?" With this one, I remember my exact response.

"Wait, what? He came in to rob you while you were there and you wrestled him? You're out of your mind, dude! Did he have a knife, or...or a gun or anything?"

"Ah don't know, Ah was half-asleep. Ah shoved him up under the couch while we was wrasslin' on the rug, an' then Ah jumped up and down on the couch 'til he said he would leave."

"Wow. That's pretty f*cked up, man. Well...I mean, did he leave?"

"Yeah, he left. Ah mean, Ah stayed on the couch until he tahred out enough where I didn't think he'd still be a liability, but...yeah, he left peacefully."

• • • • •

I was making the afternoon rounds at the park one day towards the end of June. Generally, this was a pretty uneventful task of checking on the kids and documenting register voids. There were exceptions every few days; another necessary reason for rounds was to instill the awareness in our employees that, at any random point during the day, there was a chance that they were being watched.

There were always fires to put out in those days, but it was generally the caricature artists that would fail in the most spectacular ways. The week before, a sixteen-year-old caricature artist named Mary Beth had somehow managed to ring up a sketch for $70,000 at I-Street, and a few days later, I was making my rounds, only to find a caricature stand abandoned by a kid named Jordan, the only artist scheduled to work the Rivertown stand that day.

I could see him about thirty yards away from the stand talking to a girl working at the Mining shop, and I could have just shouted for him, but I had been doing airbrush tattoos all morning because of a no-show, and I was in an awful mood. I reached under the register for the switch, popped the drawer open, took the cash out and walked over to the porch near what used to be the Antique Photo building. I used my cellphone to call Rivertown Caricatures. Jordan ran back and answered the phone.

"Hi, Car...uh, Rivertown Caricatures, this is Jordan."

"Hey man, it's Jamie. Just checking in. Could you take an X for me?"


I started walking towards him. I could hear him turn the register key and hit the Amount Tend button, springing open the register drawer.

"Oh. Uh...oh no."

"What's up?"

"Oh, no. The...uh...all the money is like, gone. Oh, $%&#."

"Yeah, I know. I have it. Hang up, I'm right behind you."

"Wha...when did you..."

"Just now, while you were chatting up your ladyfriend over at Mining. You know, most people know how to open cash registers without a key." I took the money off of my clipboard and handed it to him.

"Yeah...sorry. I...uh..."

"Are you going to leave your stand unmanned ever again?"

"N...no. No way."

"Well, there you go. That's your warning. No write-up. You're welcome. Lesson learned." I turned to walk away.

"Yeah...but...that was pretty mean, though. I really freaked out."

I thought about it for a second. He was absolutely right. This had been a pretty huge dick move on my part. Jordan was a good kid, and he was one of the better rookies that I had trained that year.

"Yeah...yeah, you're right, it was. Sorry about that, man. My morning sucked. Here."

I handed him an unopened pop that I had bought from the vending machine in the break room.

"Are we cool?"

"Uh...it's diet..."

"Fine. If you don't want it..."

He pulled the bottle towards him and smiled.

"KIDDING. Just kidding. It's cool, it's cool. I'll drink it."

"Jackass." I walked away.

My behavior during this juvenile cloak-and-dagger game was fresh in my head a week later. I had sunk pretty low to mess with Jordan like that, and at 25, I was too old to be playing mind games with high school kids and not look like a total asshole while doing it.

The bigger problem was Rivertown. The stands in Rivertown were too slow, and I knew all too well from working satellite stands in other parks, like B-Stand at Geauga Lake, Batman at Elitch Gardens and Shark at Six Flags Ohio, what the dangers of idle drawing hands were, regardless of the low-level paranoia that had usually kept me out of trouble as a line employee. I was approaching Rivertown Caricatures on my round; I didn't know who was working the stand, but I decided that maybe I would watch the stand for a while from a distant hiding spot. Watch the artist work. Collect my thoughts. Take notes. Observe.

As I posted up near a tree and began my surveillance, I realized that my mark was Big Country. I went down my mental checklist.

"Smiling at people and hustling, check. Standing instead of leaning, check. Mats and frames out, check. Register is...wait. What the hell is he..."

Big Country put one foot in front of the other, slid off his shoe, bent down, picked it up, and lobbed it into the middle of the midway.

"Sh*t," I thought. I quickly scanned around me. Thankfully, none of the park employees seemed to notice him do this, and none of the Merch managers were in the area. This was a relief; I had mentally flashed forward to an awkward conversation in which I had to explain why one of my artists was flinging his shoe at guests. Our relationship with KI's Resale department was a little terse at the time (it got much better in the following years), and this was exactly the kind of event that would end with me being sternly reprimanded, usually with a healthy amount of condescension, before I was forced to apologize for the unpredictably bizarre behavior of my employees.

I started to move from my post to ask Big Country what the hell he was thinking, but I stopped. A thirteen-year-old kid who had just gotten off of one of the rides walked over, picked up the shoe, and approached the stand. I stayed in position.

The kid handed Big Country his shoe, and he slid it back on. After a brief discussion, the kid sat down in the chair opposite the easel, and Big Country sat down and started drawing him. I flipped the pages on my clipboard to the notes section, and put my pen to paper before I realized that I didn't really know how to explain what I was witnessing at this point. "Threw a shoe." I scribbled it out and looked back at the stand.

Big Country finished his sketch, tore it off the bar, and showed it to the kid. The kid smiled. My mind raced. 

"Was he...no.  Is that kid...no way. There's no way in hell he's gonna sell this. No way."

 I watched in disbelief as the kid reached into his sock, pulled out a wet wad of cash, peeled a bill off the side, and handed it to my caricature artist, who, beaming, punched the numbers into the register, put his sketch in a bag, and gave the kid his change. In my position, I knew I had to discourage actions like this, but I couldn't help but feel proud. That was probably the best, if not the most unpredictable, hustle I had ever seen. I moved out of position and started walking over to the stand.

"Hey, Jaymie. You missed it, Ah just sold a sketch. Ah've been doin' pretty good today."

"No, I saw it. I was over...what the hell was...did you just throw your shoe at that kid?"

"Well, yeah, in front of him. Ah was just gittin' his attention. Clearly, mah efforts have rewarded me."

"Dude, you can't just throw your shoe into the midway."

"What? Why? Ah don't remember seein' any handbook rules about Shoe Fishin'."

"That's because it's common sense not to throw your...did you just say 'Shoe Fishin'?"

"Yep. Shoe Fishin'. That's what Ah call it."

"Y...you named it? Like, it's a thing? A thing that you do?"

"Hell yes, Jaymie. It's mah new guerilla marketin' technique."

I sighed. "Look, I'm impressed. Seriously. Don't think that I'm not impressed. But you can't do that. You're not the one who is gonna get his ass kicked by the park because one of his artists may or may not be whipping his shoe at guests."

"So Ah cain't do that anymore? Oh man, that sucks. It was consistent, too."

"No, you...wait, did you pull that off more than once?"

"Jaymie, Ah made lahk eighty bucks off that today."

"Jesus. Seriously?"

"Yep. Ah can see what yer sayin' about the approach, though. From a distance, it maht look, lahk, malicious, or..."

"Wow. I mean...yeah, you totally can't do that ever again, but I appreciate the improvisation. That's...ha ha. That's genius, in its own f*cked up way. Good man."

"Why, thank you, kahnd sir." He bowed.

As I walked away from the stand, I was fixated on Shoe Fishin'. My God, I thought, how much charisma does one actually require to be able to chuck footwear at someone and then sell them something immediately afterwards? Outside of training him, this was my first work experience with Big Country.

Little did I know that fate would soon unite us again, in the parking lot of the gas station across from the park.


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