Hammered

Facing one’s fears can be a stomach-turner—but in the end, it’s one heckuva ride

“I still believe in Hope—mostly because there’s no such place as Fingers Crossed, Arkansas.” — Molly Ivins

“WILL YOU GO on this ride with me? Everyone else has turned me down,” Lisa said.

The two of us belonged to a social club simply called Friends, noted for its adventuresome outings. Based in Maumelle, members of the group ranged in age from their early 20s to late 60s. We met monthly for game nights and to suggest weekend excursions we’d enjoy. We’d kayaked together on the Saline River, carpooled to listen to jazz at the annual Eureka Springs Jazz Fest and even scrabbled for gems at Crater of Diamonds State Park until we were nearly blinded by sweat.

Now, on this balmy autumn evening, a dozen or so of us Friends had fanned out to wander through the midway of the Arkansas State Fair.

Lisa and I, nibbling at our bubblegum-pink cotton candy, had paused in front of The Hammer.

I turned to face Lisa. “Absolutely not,” I said, without hesitation. I looked away.

We’d been standing in front of this contraption that resembled a Martian mutant robot long enough for me to recognize that a few of the topsy-turvy riders, pressed against the grills of the topmost cages, were upchucking. I’d backed up a few feet to ensure that I didn’t get spattered.

The last time I’d agreed to climb aboard a thrill ride, back in the late ’70s, I’d earned a badge proclaiming, “I Survived the Tidal Wave.” However, after climbing down from that dizzying roller coaster at Santa Clara’s Great America theme park, I’d vowed never, not-in-this-lifetime-ever, to board such a hair-raising contraption again.

“Please?” Lisa’s voice quavered. “My little brother always used to look forward to going on the scariest ride here every year. He was a real daredevil. Now he’s been deployed to Iraq. He asked if I’d go in his stead, to keep his string alive. I promised I would. I don’t want to break his heart. He’s always looked up to me, since I’m three years older. He’s only 19.”

I’m a sucker for good-deed stories, especially when they involve favors for somebody who’s serving our country. But still … The Hammer? I couldn’t recall anybody ever calling me a daredevil. And now Lisa was handing me the old “Only you, Dick Daring” line.

I wasn’t buying it. I turned back to her, wagging my head slowly from side to side, buying a little time. I wanted to make certain that my response sounded sympathetic, sincere and undisputedly certain.

“Oh, Lisa. I’m so sorry,” I began. “I appreciate how much your brother must have enjoyed meeting the challenge each year. And what a thoughtful and sweet big sister you are. But couldn’t you just write and tell him you’d done it? There’s really no way he’d ever know.”

“I’d know,” she answered. Now she was shaking her head side to side. “And that would be a lie.” To any bystander, we must have resembled a pair of puppets, with all the head wagging.

Clearly, Lisa clung to a sturdier sense of ethics and a stronger commitment to filial devotion than I ever had. I’d always been noted for my pragmatism.

I again paused for a moment, reflecting. I’ve done a lot of things outside my comfort zone. I’d gone back to school at 39 to earn a graduate degree, a master of social welfare degree from UCLA. After turning 50, I’d three times volunteered to serve with the Peace Corps in faraway countries. Why, when I was only 8 years old, after some initial squawking, I’d accepted, and actually eaten, a helping of my Grandma Gertie’s squirrel stew. On a double-dog-dare, I’d even eaten armadillo at Macey’s Cafe in Belize City when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there in 1988.

Now that I thought about it, I only happened to be in an amusement zone in Little Rock on a muggy October evening in the first place because I’d dared to relocate to Arkansas after returning from a decade overseas.

I’d arrived armed solely with a suitcase, a Motel 6 reservation and the knowledge that the state of Arkansas would accept my California social-work license. I’d gotten the notion in 1995 through a conversation I’d had when I’d been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Seychelles, an Indian Ocean nation right above Madagascar. Two nurses at the Youth Health Centre who had just returned from the World Conference on Women in Beijing had been quizzing me about possible places to visit if they ever got to the United States.

I’d wasted no effort in praising my homeland.

“In Southern California,” I’d bragged, “there’s a lot more than just Disneyland. We can have breakfast at the beach, lunch in the mountains and dinner in the desert.”

“But what about Little Rock?” they’d asked.

“Little Rock? Oh, that’s in Arkansas. I’ve never been there.”

“Why not? That’s where Hillary Clinton lived. We heard her speak at the conference. She made us think that women had achieved a lot in America and are being taken seriously back there.”

I’d figured the time had come for me to get to know a little more about my own country, including the South, which I’d never even visited. Now I was living in Little Rock, too, where women are taken seriously. I stole another glance at Lisa. She’d tossed her cotton-candy cone into a nearby trash bin and was languishing against a post, shoulders slumped, still mournfully gazing up at The Hammer.

Then I thought about my son, Steve, now in his 30s. Nothing I’d ever done seemed to elicit much more from him than an indulgent smile.

“Would you be blown away if I actually rolled over Niagara Falls in a barrel?” I’d asked him one day. He’d merely shrugged. I reminded him that I’d once allowed his father to talk me into traveling to the 102nd-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building in 40-mile-per-hour icy December winds. He’d nodded. I hadn’t heard a single “Wow.”

I watched now as others approached The Hammer, two by two. Each couple got strapped side by side into a cage. Then, at the speed of light, they were hurled up and down, and round and round … upside down. After two minutes, they emerged staggering, as if they’d chugalugged a pint of moonshine. That had to be a long two minutes.

Lisa wanted to keep a promise to her brother. I decided to settle for a far less noble goal: I wanted to impress my son.

I took a deep breath. “OK,” I called out, “I’ll go.”

Lisa brightened instantly, sprinting over to give me a hug.

With that, the two of us proceeded to get hammered. Lisa squealed nonstop for two solid minutes like a Razorback cheerleader calling the hogs. I kept my eyes glued shut, unpeeling them only for one brief second to see if we really were upside down. We were.

When I’d moved to Arkansas, I’d not known grits from granola. It took me a while to realize that when my new friends mentioned running off to Paris, London, Stuttgart or Bismarck over the weekend, they weren’t jet-setters. Those were all towns in Arkansas, a few hours’ drive away at most.

I’d learned that when you worked up a taste for barbecue, you couldn’t go wrong at the White Pig Inn, just blocks from my studio apartment in North Little Rock. I’d learned that Arkansas boasted many famous natives, including Maya Angelou, Billy Bob Thornton and one of my favorite mystery writers, Grif Stockley.

And now I’d learned that I could go for a ride on The Hammer and live to brag about it.

We hadn’t fainted. We hadn’t gotten sick to our tummies. But once we reached the safety of stable ground, we both stood trembling for a good five minutes, sweat pouring down our faces.

Finally, Lisa winked at me. “Well, what about celebrating with some pumpkin funnel cake before we find the group?”

The next day, Lisa phoned to thank me again for accompanying her.

“I sent a letter to my brother,” she said. “He’ll be so pleased.”

“I emailed my son. I told him we went on The Hammer.”

“Oh?”

“He emailed back right away that he was astonished. That I must be dauntless.”

Steve’s approving words had kept me smiling all that day.

But just so you’ll know, I’ll never go on The Hammer again. Nor would I recommend it. Some things you do just once in a lifetime, no matter who it may impress.

Terri Elders, LCSW, has contributed to over a hundred anthologies, including multiple editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Her feature articles have appeared in local, national, and international periodicals. She blogs at atouchoftarragon.blogspot.com