Friday, June 30, 2017

The Great American Scream Machine - a Lesson in Overcoming Fear

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I was probably around 10 years old when my family made its first trip to Six Flags Over Atlanta. The trip is a fond memory including bumper cars, log flume water rides, the Dahlonega Mine Train - which at that time was a wooden roller coaster that smelled of creosote and had an interactive animated "Buford the Buzzard" tossing insults at the waiting crowd in the queue line.

The event of the day the left an indelible mark in my memory from 43 years ago, was the Great American Scream Machine - a wooden roller coaster that had opened that year with a hill that was 105 feet tall and a top speed of 57 miles an hour. The restraints for the coaster consisted of a lap bar. Current day it utilizes a seat belt and a lap bar, but for the life of me I only remember the lap bar on my first ride.

As a 10 year old kid, I had seen the advertisements for the Scream Machine and had my hesitations. It was a mammoth site painted in gleaming white adorned with red, white, and blue banners.  Somehow my Dad performed a skillful job of talking me into it over the course of the day. As we stood in the queue line, I glanced up at the huge 105 feet tall hill and began to rethink my decision.

"I think I have changed my mind", I told my Dad.

He chuckled, "Too late now", he said pointing to the sea of people in line behind us.

I began to try to muster up all of the courage I could possibly find in my 10 year old being. I loved the Dahlonega Mine Train, so I told myself that maybe after the first hill it would be about the same. But somehow deep down, I knew that even if it was, it would be a heck of a lot faster. After several minutes, we took our seats about halfway back in the roller coaster. The lap bar came down about three inches away from actually touching my thighs. I took hold of it and decided holding on would probably be in my best interest for self preservation. Minutes went by as we set motionless in the roller coaster anticipating what was about to happen. Finally the high school kid at the console with all the cool lights and buttons pressed a button and our car began to roll out of the station and around a curve in the track providing a clear view of the huge hill of wood and track that stood before us like a mountain.

Image Source: http://www.themeparkreview.com

The car began to climb the hill with an all to familiar click-click-click sound. I could feel all of the courage I had mustered up in the queue line quickly draining out of my body, seeping into the soles of my shoes, and out the bottom of the car. As riders in front of me held up their hands to show the absence of fear, I increased by grip on the lap bar sitting several inches above my lap. After what seemed like hours, we reached the top of the huge hill. I looked off to the sides and marveled at how small everything below us seemed. The first couple of rows of riders and cars began to disappear over the peak of the hill and the screaming began. Then after a few moments, we were rocketing down the other side. I felt weightless. I could feel my small 10 year old butt leaving the seat of the car and my thighs rose to make contact with the lap bar. I struggled with what little strength my little bony arms contained to hold on to the lap bar and tried unsuccessfully to leverage myself back down into my seat. Looking straight ahead all I could see were the cars of riders descending the hill in front of us and the bottom of the hill which seemed miles away. In my mind, I could begin to picture myself floating completely out of the car and tumbling down in front of the coaster. I flexed all of my non-existent 10 year old not-going-out-for-football muscles and continued trying to hold myself in the car while clenching the muscles in my abdomen and holding my breath. My Dad sat laughing in the seat next to me unaware of his youngest son's impending death. I began to pray confessing every misdeed I had ever committed or even thought of committing over the last 10 years promising to read my Bible and study every Sunday School lesson every week.

When we finally reached the bottom and began to climb the next hill that paled in comparison to the first, I felt my butt make contact with the seat, and I began breathing again.

"Dad, you better hold onto me", I screamed, "I almost fell out on that last hill."

He smiled and chuckled seemingly unconvinced that I had just had a close encounter with death. The next few hills seemed enjoyable compared to the introduction with the Grim Reaper I had just experienced on the downhill of a 105 feet plunge to almost certain death. I managed to continue to breathe through the remaining hills until the car came sliding into a sudden stop at the station.

I quickly gazed around me and then performed a self inventory - all fingers check, all toes check, two legs, two arms check, no detectable dampness in my underwear and no unusual smells. Yes! I had survived and would live to see another episode of Emergency!

As we walked away from the station, my legs felt wobbly and my head seemed to be spinning. I stopped,turned, and looked at that menacing towering track and was amazed that I had done it. I had rode the Great American Scream Machine and had lived to tell about it.

Years later, I returned to Six Flags as a Junior in High School. When we unloaded the van, I glanced up at that same towering track and thought, "I rode that as a little kid no big deal". I rode it again but this time with my hands up. Six Flags had added a new coaster called the MindBender an all steel roller coaster. While not as tall as the Scream Machine and slightly slower, the MindBender completed two barrel rolls mid-track. And to grab your attention, the designers made sure you could see the inversions sections of track from the parking lot. We rode everything in the park that day, and I had successfully steered clear of the MindBender. But just after dark, two girls in our group asked me if I had ridden it. When I said no, they responded, "We rode it before lunch. Come on, you gotta try this!" What was I going to do, chicken out in front of two high school girls?

When we boarded the cars it was dark, and the operators had tied glow sticks to the front of the first car. As we rolled out and came to speed, I could see maybe 10 feet of track in front of the glow stick so every twist and turn was a surprise. Before I knew it we were inverted twice and sliding back to a stop at the station. As I stepped out of the car and onto the platform I felt slightly dizzy and began laughing.

I would return to Six Flags several times while living in Georgia. I reached a point where I skipped all of the other rides and spent an entire Saturday going from one coaster to another until I had ridden all they had to offer and some more than once. I now go to Disney World on a regular basis and ride any and all coasters they offer.

What got me to a point where I was not scared to ride a new unfamiliar coaster? What was it that got me over the fear of roller coasters? It is simple. I conquered the fear by pushing through it when I was 10 years old and agreeing to get on the Great American Scream Machine against all of my better judgement and a little 10 year old voice screaming inside my head "NOOOOO". Is not that the way we overcome any fear? It's the fear of the unknown. Despite seeing all the commercials and the watching movie at the Chevy Show just hours before getting on it that was filmed from the front of the first car on the Great American Scream Machine, I had no idea what it was going to be like. So, I was scared silly. But once I rode it, once I overcame the initial fear, the second time as a Junior in High School was not so bad, because I knew what to expect. I remembered the sensation of weightlessness and the lap bar actually touched my lap. So having that fear conquered, moving onto the MindBender was not as overwhelming. And after riding the MindBender, I had no fear of riding the Georgia Scorcher, Batman, Acrophobia, the Ninja, the Georgia Cyclone, or Goliath.

When I returned with my daughter around age 10, she quickly decline every coaster in the park. I spent countless Saturdays for two season with season passes with her. Finally, I talked her into it. She agreed to ride the Great American Scream Machine. When we stepped out of the car onto the platform, her words were "I'm glad that's over with!" Did I talk her into it, because I wanted to make her do something she did not want to do? No! I did it, because I wanted her to face fear head on and discover what a fearless and courageous person she could be come by facing her fears. Face your fears and free yourself from them.

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