Velocity Over Time

A diptych of amusement park memories and plutonium.

This morning over coffee, I came across a mention that on this day in 1926, the Tilt-a-Whirl trademark was registered. This was my favorite ride, and I like to be exact about these sorts of things, so I did a quick search to verify, and learned that also on this day (in 1940), scientists at UC Berkley discovered plutonium.

I did not discover the Tilt-a-Whirl until I was about nine or ten. Before then, there were other favorites, and they were never the roller coasters, which induced a terror that seemed a bit too true-to-life. The Spider was among these. It had eight arms extending from a segmented hub, a spinning pod at the end of each arm. I sat in a pod and when the ride began, it spun while the arm moved up and down in its rotation. It was an enjoyable spin, dreamy and relaxing, inducing bubbly rushes on the faster parts, but rarely terror.

My first time on The Spider was during an annual family trip to Playland, and my father was waiting just beyond the gate. My mother had taken my younger sisters to Kiddie Land. The year before, we had all gone together on the Kiddie Coaster, my father and my younger sister and I all in the same car while my mom stood with my baby sister. Now I was alone in the shiny black pod. It was my first ride outside Kiddie Land. 

Until that day, I had never looked at my standing father from such a height. How strange it was to be in the sky like that, suspended by metal arms encased in plastic. He looked far away in his white shorts and pastel t-shirt, steadfast with his tired smile. My sisters would have been moving between the carousel, the bumper cars, the gentle Kiddie Coaster, and the little train. I was suddenly alone on the dark side of the park in the shadow of the monster roller coaster. I don’t remember its name as I had no interest, ever, in being its passenger.

The ride started. There was no getting off. This was, after all, what I had wanted. I gripped the bar in front of me and shut my eyes and waited for it to end. I vowed not to not get into one of my thinking moods that would always confuse and worry the adults. I had, by then, heard more than enough concerned whispers about my episodes of seriousness. I didn’t have the words to explain the way I would suddenly feel gripped by some terrible momentum, but I was grateful that no one was pushing the roller coaster issue. I was supposed to be having a good time.

It was the mid-80s in suburban America. War, I was told, was over, and progress was a nonstop ride from here on out, and the cycles of history were ending, and it was up and up and up from here. One was expected to celebrate the good fortune of having arrived right in time for the happy ending to the march of progress. Pretty soon, they told us, we’d all be zipping around in flying cars. I wanted to believe, but there was this constant knot of tension aggravated by the vertigo of momentum. I had been listening and keeping watch, and there were more than a few things that didn’t add up. 

Plutonium, by the way, has more uses than some would think, the government-sponsored Nuclear Regulatory Commission website announces (“Protecting People and the Environment”). It creates energy and powers space missions and even human hearts when needed.  At the end of the page, almost as an afterthought, it is admitted that plutonium production is controversial. It can, the text acknowledges, be used for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The syntactic effect is that of an afterthought.

No one was allowed to talk about the discovery of plutonium when it happened on this day in 1940. The project was top secret, and it was going to be revealed in an act that would end not just the second great war but would, its champions announced, forestall future wars. It was the dawn of a new era, and we were in it.  

My first ride on The Spider was a terrible ride. After, I would claim it was my favorite, at least until I discovered the Tilt-a-Whirl a few years later. There was no way to explain the terror of being suspended alone in mid-air without seeming ungrateful for the care that had gone into bringing me there. My father, a giant by all prior standards, suddenly looked small and ordinary––quaint, even. 

It’s like this with disasters, isn’t it? The original terror always looks archaic in hindsight. It’s almost impossible to recollect it without shaking heads in disbelief at the idea that it was once possible to be so suddenly and irrevocably shocked, that there was––once upon a time––a time before the solid things were replaced with their pictures, when there were fortresses still left to crumble.