When I was young I was famous for my motion sickness, especially when riding in a car. On our frequent trips east to the mountains, and across those mountains to the desert, my father and his friends would often place bets on how far I would make it before I would be emptying my stomach on the side of the road. I was usually good for about twenty or thirty minutes, but anything beyond that was borrowed time. On rare occasions I would make it all the way to where we were planning to picnic or camp, and in that case everyone who was betting would have to pay me. I never made much money that way.
Possibly my shining hour came one day when I was six or seven years old. My mother, her best friend Francis and I were driving in downtown San Diego, looking for a store or something. Mom was lost and driving up one block and then turning left, going another block and turning right, starting, stopping, and then starting again. The effect was predictable. In this case however Mom’s erratic driving attracted the attention of a policeman who put on the lights and pulled her over. Our car was a four door Studebaker Commander and I had already lowered the window and was gasping for air. As the policeman approached our car the nervousness which his authoritarian presence produced in me plus the impending gastric eruption combined to produce projectile vomiting which painted the front of the police officer’s uniform with the emulsified remnants of my breakfast.
I was almost certain that I would be dragged out of the car and shot on the spot, or at the very least removed from my family and placed in “The Home.” The officer however stopped dead still, looked down at his ruined uniform which was just beginning to stink of bile and Raisin Bran, and proceeded to calmly write my mother a ticket as if nothing had happened. I can easily guess what the officer did next. My mother, mortified by the event and I believe a little bit miffed by thinking that she could have avoided the ticket had I not puked all over the policeman, aborted her mission downtown and returned home by the fastest route that she could find. My father, upon learning of this episode, laughed so hard that I think he might have peed his pants.
As impressive as that story is, to me at least, it does not hold a candle to that of my friend Wes. Wes’ stomach had been even more sensitive than my own, and the wrong food or wrong smell or one turn too many in the backseat of a car was certain to produce an unpleasant reaction. In fact, when Wes accompanied us on those trips when I was being timed for my wagered-on eruptions it was frequently Wes who was the trigger; he would pop and then I would soon follow. You would think that, with our history, we would be careful not to tempt fate. Such however was not the case. Being young and being boys we left the act of thinking to those better suited for the task and blundered blissfully through life. This clueless wandering led us one evening to the climax of my story.
Wes and I went to the San Diego County Fair one summer when we were both sixteen. We had grown out of the worst of our delicate stomachs and did not think about them much anymore. My parents dropped us off at the fair a few hours before sundown and after giving us twenty dollars each they instructed us to meet them at the front gate at 10 o’clock when they returned to pick us up. Twenty dollars was a lot of money in 1964 and we set aside half for rides and the other half for fair food.
And did we pound that fair food down! Hot dogs, french fries, cotton candy and snow cones, and anything else that we could find was joined together in the roiling cauldrons that our stomachs were becoming. All of this was washed down with Coca Colas spiked with the half-pint of Southern Comfort that I had smuggled in with us. We ended up doing more eating than riding because that, and looking at all of the cute young girls and trying to strike up conversations (with very modest success) was far more entertaining. We did indulge in a few rides however, and well into the evening we found ourselves standing at the front of a line and preparing to enter the cage of a Roll-O-Plane.
For those of you not familiar with fair rides fifty years ago, the Roll-O-Plane is very much like a ferris wheel. The difference lies in the fact that the passenger is seated in an oblong steel cage which will spin on it’s axis if you pull forcefully back on a lever that sits conveniently in front of you. The resulting motion is one of the cage spinning while the larger wheel to which the cage is affixed rotates in its large, lazy circle. If I was writing a recipe for disaster I couldn’t possibly think of a better one than Wes, fair food, Southern Comfort and a Roll-O-Plane. We were strapped into our seats, the cage door was secured, and the great wheel lurched slowly forward by stages as more passengers were strapped into more cages. Finally the cages were full. The gangly, slightly sketchy – OK, really sketchy – ride operator threw the big wooden lever and the Roll-O-Plane surged into motion and the ride was underway.
As the big steel wheel picked up speed Wes and I pulled back on the lever in front of us. The cage tipped back but stopped when we were a little less than horizontal. We let go of the lever and the cage swung forward. At it’s furthermost point on the forward swing we jerked back on the lever again and this time we went all the way over. Holding the lever back towards us the cage soon began to spin like a propellor as the great wheel made it’s increasingly rapid rotation. I was having a ball and didn’t notice that anything was wrong until Wes grabbed my arm.
“Man, I gotta get outta this cage or I’m going to get sick” he said. I was at the point of making a logical argument as to how one cannot simply exit the spinning cage of a Roll-O-Plane when it is in mid-ride but my sage advice was cut of by Wes, who looked forward (thankfully) and cut loose with everything that was in his stomach. Hot dogs, french fries, cotton candy and everything else that we had chucked down the tunnel that evening exploded out of Wes and formed a rooster tail of vomit that sprayed out of the cage and sprinkled onto the crowd below. I was clinging desperately to the wall of the cage, as far from Wes as I could get, unmindful of the possibility that if the door swung open I would fall a good distance down to the asphalt pavement below.
The ride operator, as soon as he discerned the nature of the shower that he was taking, cursed loudly and slammed the big wooden lever back to end the ride. One by one he let riders out of their cages, some of whom were unaware of what had just happened and were annoyed by the shortness of the ride. When he finally got to our cage I flew out of that vomit-sprayed chariot as quickly as I could and stood by to help my ash-white friend gain his feet and move away from the scene of the disaster. The operator said a few choice words to us as we were leaving but we paid him no attention. We only wanted to get away from the glares of the others who had hung around to see who the perpetrators were.
The crowd quickly swallowed us up and we made a beeline to the restrooms where Wes could clean up. I had somehow escaped that unsavory bath completely. Wes was remarkably free of residual chunks, the majority of which had been slung out over the crowd or was now dripping from the steel cage onto the seat and floor where we so recently sat. By the time Wes exited the bathroom he had regained his composure and, like my father a decade before, we both laughed so hard that we almost cried. I stopped to get one more hot dog as we made our way back to the main gate, content to wait for my parents while seated on some benches there and thoroughly finished with the fair for that year.