I had pestered my father to take me on the Sling Shot ride the night of the disaster. You can actually see a photo of us standing alongside the ticket booth if you watch the documentary on the Travel Channel. My father is easy to spot in a red and white checkered shirt and navy shorts. I’m holding his hand, wearing a baseball cap. The picture was taken about a minute before the accident.
The premise of the Sling Shot was simple. Two passengers were strapped into seats contained inside a red ball made of interlocking iron circles. A pair of taut bungee cords were attached to either side, stretching from a set of metal scaffolds that towered several hundred feet above the ground. The ball was fastened to a rubbery platform, remaining locked in place while the passengers climbed aboard. Once everyone was safely buckled in, the ball was released, snapping into the air and whipping up and down between the two scaffolds.
“Let’s try it,” I said to my father as ocean waves passed beneath the wooden boardwalk of the amusement pier. The air was thick with flashing lights and the strains of calliope music as the crowd gathered on the ticket line under a darkening sky. I could hear the distant mechanical rumbling of both the Side Splitter and the Action Wheel as I pointed to the giddy teenaged girls leaping out of the red ball after a slow successful descent back to the ground. “We can go up there,” I said, “You and me.”
My father shook his head. He was struggling to light his cigar in the balmy breeze, his shirt hanging loose against a pale lean frame. The tobacco finally started to glow and my father gestured towards a sign in front of the ticket booth that said the ride was only for people ages twelve and up.
“You’re going to have to wait a couple of years,” he said.
I looked back at the row of apartment buildings across the street from the boardwalk, groaning as I stared at the shaded windows. I was tired of waiting for things just because I wasn’t old enough. Like the way my father would never explain to me why he had to keep going the hospital every few weeks. All he told me was that the doctor was giving him a special examination and that he would need to spend a few nights away from home every now and then. When I asked if I could stay with him sometime, my father started to cough and told me I was too young.
“I never get to do anything,” I said.
My father took me by the hand and led me past the ticket booth for a closer look at the ride. I pressed my face against a chain-link fence as a pair of kids from the local high school were getting settled in the plastic seats. They were a good-looking couple. The girl was wearing a pink two-piece swimsuit and the boy went shirtless to show off the tattoos on his biceps. The girl kicked off her sandals and then turned to kiss the boy as the attendant made sure their seatbelts were fastened securely.
“Why are they kissing for so long?” I asked my father.
He took a drag from his cigar.
“Someday you’ll understand.”
It was years until I understood why my father kept his prognosis a secret, how he didn’t want me to worry that each trip we made to the ice cream parlor or the amusement pier could be our last. Although he had successfully hidden from me the particulars of the situation, I still could sense that something was wrong. He had left me with the queasy sensation of having to stand alone on the ticket-holders line, waiting to board a particularly dangerous ride that was only for the grown-ups.
The attendant waited for the teenagers to give him a thumbs-up and then pulled a lever. Both the boy and the girl screamed as the ball was shot into the air. The screams multiplied an instant later when there was a resounding crack and both of the bungee cords snapped just as the ball should have reached the apex of its flight.
If you watch the documentary, you can see the photographs of faces frozen in horror, the catalogue of gaping mouths and agitated eyes, the tableaux of hands lifted in despair or folded in prayer. I can dimly remember seeing all of it. But what I remember most about that night was the joy I felt when my father pulled me towards him, how he clasped my shoulders as that bright red ball was launched like a rocket.
With my head pressed against a checkered shirt and the aroma of tobacco permeating the humid breeze, I expected to see that ball continuing to rise far beyond the boardwalk, accelerating away from the amusement pier and the apartment buildings and even the hospital where my father would be admitted for the final time during the following week. I imagined how those teenagers strapped inside would relish their increasing distance from all the troubles on the ground, how they must have turned to each other and leaned across the metal handholds to indulge in another one of those ridiculously long kisses.
They would soar past the horizon of a moonlit sea.
Craig Fishbane is the author of On the Proper Role of Desire (Big Table Publishing). His work has also appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Quarterly, Gravel, The Good Men Project, Hobart, The MacGuffin, Lunch Ticket, New World Writing, The Manhattanville Review, the Penmen Review and The Nervous Breakdown. His website is: https://craigfishbane.wordpress.com/