Uneasy Riders

As a kid, the only carnival rides I would venture on were the Ferris wheel and the carousel. Of course, at the little street carnivals that came to town for the Fourth of July and Labor Day, there weren’t a lot of rides besides those two classics. Still, even then I didn’t see the appeal in trusting myself to metal constructions designed to drop paying passengers with bone-jarring force, whip them from side to side, or spin them in nausea-inducing circles.

Today, in a bigger town at a bigger fair, the carnival rides are a lot more sophisticated. So am I, perhaps, but in some ways I haven’t changed. I’m perfectly happy to let more adventurous souls try the rides. I’d rather stay on the pavement, secured there by the cotton candy on the bottoms of my shoes, and watch the little kids ride the carousel.

From across the midway, the carousel was an exciting shimmer of gleaming animals and golden lights. On closer inspection, the mirrors were tarnished and the gilt paint needed some touching up. The animals—an ostrich, a rooster, a cat, and a tusked boar mixed in among the horses—were just a little too small, a little too skinny, a little too mass-produced.

The little kids riding them didn’t seem to care. The littlest one, probably not a year old yet, had trouble keeping her diaper-padded bottom in the saddle and would have slipped off the side had she not been held on safely by his mother’s arm around her chubby middle. She seemed cheerful enough, if a bit confused by the whole procedure.

Another little boy, about three, was riding by himself and not too sure he liked the idea. He came by the first time with a determined expression and a two-fisted grip on the pole. On the second revolution, he still had a firm hold, but had relaxed enough to smile at his dad as he went by. The third time around, he had decided this was fun, giving his family a big wave and a look-at-me grin. In a couple of years, he’ll probably be wanting to go on rides with names like “Cyclone” and “X-Treme Force.”

The Ferris wheel was sparsely inhabited, mostly by nostalgic older riders. I had no desire to join them. When I look at carnival rides now, I tend to check the girders for missing bolts while my mind considers uncomfortable questions like, “What kind of insurance do they have?” and, “Who maintains these things?”

Once in my life, however, I did go on a real Ferris wheel. The “Riesenrad” in Vienna is one of several in the world built in the late 1890’s. It’s the only one still in use, though it has been rebuilt after being burned during World War II. The wheel is hung with enclosed cars that look like miniature boxcars with windows. Riding it means standing in the car with perhaps a dozen other people, holding onto the railing and looking through the glass at the historic city waay down below.

As we rose majestically to the top of the wheel, one of the friends I was traveling with asked me, “Are you afraid of heights?”

“Oh, not really,” I said.

“I just wondered, because your knuckles are white and I didn’t think you were breathing.”

Of course I wasn’t breathing. We were 200 feet up in the air.

Maybe it was the chance to ride a piece of history. Maybe it was the excitement of foreign travel. White knuckles notwithstanding, I never once thought about insurance or maintenance while I was riding the century-old Riesenrad. Logical or not, I’d go on it again. Now that was a Ferris wheel.

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