Sunday, April 08, 2012

Lazy Sunday #215: The Wall Of Death

I was maybe 12 years old when I first encountered "The Wall of Death".

It was one of those late summer evenings with the chill of a coming winter in the air. A night when school loomed in the coming week and you were trying to squeeze every last drop of the freedom and fun that had been summer.

My pals and I had escaped to the local fairgrounds, where the midway was ticking down to closing for the duration. But there was still time for a last hot dog. A last snow cone. A chance to find something forbidden or frowned upon to raise your status in the eyes of classmates while you were locked down for another year.

Back then, the midway still had freak shows and girlie shows and haunted houses to expand your adolescent horizons. But I was drawn to a wooden cylinder at the far end of the park that smelled of gasoline and echoed with the whine and backfires of two-stroke engines.

It was two stories high with a metal staircase to the top and a gangway that circled the 30 foot diameter. Overtop was a draped tent peppered with bare light bulbs that swung and bounced as the wind rippled the canvas.

Astride it were painted backdrops depicting daredevils riding the inner wall on motorcycles and go-carts. Most didn't even hold their handlebars, fearless in the face of what the Barker by the ticket window assured us was imminent mortal peril. And they even gave you a taste of what was happening inside.

Now and then a muscled guy with a pompadour and sideburns would straddle the motorcycle on the outside stage, kick it to life and ride a bed of metal rollers at full speed, so implacably unimpressed by the obvious danger that he didn't even bite down on the cigarette in his mouth to keep it from blowing away.

There was a hot blonde who came out to ride the cycle too, only she stood on the seat as it rolled beneath her, so relaxed you knew she hadn't even flinched when that flaming skull and crossed daggers were tattooed on her shoulder.

Every now and then, the wooden wall behind her would shake as the steel cables binding it squirmed and the engine noise inside peaked. Somebody was riding the wall of death.

Of course, we paid our four bits and scrambled up the metal staircase to see for ourselves. I'm sure the emotion was no different than kids my age felt 2000 years earlier climbing the steps of the coliseum in Rome or hurrying to the top of an Elizabethan bear pit.

We all want to see life challenge death and remind us that our only real enemy is fear.

Of course, in the end, it's just show biz, a trick of the light, a practiced illusion. The guy with the sideburns has a mortgage to pay. The girl with the tattoo reads a bedtime story to two kids before she goes to work and the tat comes off with cold cream.

Like Priests on Easter morning, ordinary folk whose job is to remind you that it'll all be okay in the end, there's really nothing to be afraid of. Go home and push your life beyond your own barricades of fear and walls of death.

And -- Enjoy your Sunday.


Rusty James said...


Happy Easter Jim.

Sam Jephcott said...

Wonderfully evocative writing - Happy Easter Jim

Anonymous said...

Anyone who'd like a fictional version could do worse than watch "Eat the Peach" if you can find it. Not the most polished film, but funny and heartbreaking.