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chris grabenstein
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Chapter One

Rolling Thunder

The day starts like so many others with John Ceepak: we bust an eight-year-old girl for wearing high heels.

"She wants to ride the ride!" says the kid's mother, who, I'm assuming, was her accomplice in the beat-the-roller-coaster-height-requirement scam. The ponytail piled up on top of the short girl's head (which makes her look like one of the Whos from Whoville) was, no doubt, another part of the plan.

"The rules regarding the minimum height requirement are in place to protect your daughter," says Ceepak.

"I wanna ride the ride!" The little girl stamps her foot so hard she snaps off a heel.

"This way," says Ceepak, indicating how mother and daughter should exit the line snaking about a mile up the boardwalk from the entrance to Big Paddy's Rolling Thunder, the brand-new, all-wood roller coaster rising up behind us like a humongous humpbacked whale made out of two-by-fours.

It's the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. The unofficial start of another Fun-In-The-Sun season down the shore in Sea Haven, New Jersey. Opening day for Big Paddy O'Malley's Rolling Thunder roller coaster.

Ceepak and I are working crowd control with half the Sea Haven PD. The other half is inside on security duty for the dignitaries about to take the first ride around the heaving mountains propped up on wooden stilts. You step far enough away, The Rolling Thunder looks like a K'NEX construction kit sculpture. Or one of those summer camp Popsicle stick deals on steroids.

Ceepak and I walk up the line. He's staring at short peoples' feet.

"Young man?"

This is directed at a boy, maybe seven and very ingenious: He's duct-taped a pair of flip-flops to the soles of his sneakers.

"Please step out of the line."

"What?" says a very hairy man in a sleeveless AC-DC Rolling Thunder t-shirt, the one with the monkey skeletons banging Hell's bell. AC-DC's munching on fried zeppole wads, showering so much powdered sugar down the front of his black T it looks like his curly chest has dandruff. "What's your freaking problem, officer?"

"Your son's shoes," says Ceepak. "Clearly you are attempting to circumvent the ride's 48-inch height requirement."

"Huh?" father and son say at the same time because I don't think "circumvent" is a vocabulary word either one of them has learned yet.

"It appears," Ceepak clarifies, "that you are encouraging your son to cheat."

That settles that.

No way is John Ceepak cutting Shorty a break because, as annoying as it sometimes is, my partner—an ex-military man who looks like he could still jump out of a helicopter with a Humvee strapped to his back—lives his life in strict compliance with the West Point Cadet Honor Code: He will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.

"Please step out of the line, sir."

"We're not steppin' nowheres," says the boy's father. "Is it our fault the rules are so freaking stupid?"

"Actually," I chime in, "the rules are there for a reason."

AC-DC Man sizes me up. He's bigger than me. Heck, his beer gut is bigger than me. But, I've got a badge on my chest and a gun on my belt. He doesn't. Well, not that I can see. Like I said, he has a laundry bag belly sagging all the way down to the tip of his zipper.

"Come on. Don't youse two have something better to do than ruin a kid's day?"

"The roller coaster isn't going anywhere," says Ceepak. "Perhaps you and your son can come back and ride it later in the summer after he's reached the required height."

"He's riding it today!"

"No, sir. He is not."

"What? You gonna arrest him?"

"Of course not. If you wish to remain in line, that is your prerogative. However, rest assured, an hour from now, when you finally reach the front, your son will not be allowed to enter the ride. Danny?"

We move on.

The crowd is amazing. I know Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start of summer but here in Sea Haven things don't usually get this crowded until after the schools let out near the end of June. Then the population of our eighteen-mile-long barrier island swells from twenty thousand to a quarter million and we have to hire all sorts of part-time cops just to deal with the traffic and crosswalk congestion—especially near the Rita's Water Ice stands.

So it's incredible to see how many people have shown up on the last weekend in May to ride the new roller coaster erected on the recently refurbished Pier Four. Big Paddy O'Malley, the father of this kid Skip I knew in high school, and his partners bought the whole pier late last summer after a boarded-up ride called The Hell Hole burned down, almost taking Ceepak and me with it.

It's a long story. Remind me. I'll tell you about it sometime.

Anyway, Big Paddy O'Malley and company gutted the old pier down to its pilings, tore out the rusty old rides, hauled away what was left of the Whacky Wheel and the Chair-O-Planes, and, built this one-hundred-foot tall, 3,458-foot long wooden roller coaster with an eighty foot drop and a top speed of fifty miles per hour.

"I'm afraid that father and son will have a long wait," says Ceepak. "With two thirty-seat trains, the ride has a maximum capacity of only one thousand passengers per hour."

I think Ceepak is a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, just so he can memorize stats like that from their bimonthly newsletter.

Of course all thirty seats in the first train to hurl (pun intended) around the track will be filled with members of the O'Malley family plus assorted state and local dignitaries—not to mention my buddy Cliff Skeete, a disc jockey at W-A-V-Y who will be doing a live remote broadcast so we can all listen to him scream like a terrified two-year-old into his cordless microphone.

"One minute to blast off!" Cliff's voice booms out of the giant speakers they've set up near the ride's entrance so everybody on the boardwalk (or anywhere else in a one hundred mile radius) can hear. Over the entryway, there's this cool neon sign with retro red letters spelling out R-O-L-L-I-N-G then T-H-U-N-D-E-R, with jagged blue lightning bolts flashing on both sides.

"Let me tell you folks," croons Cliff, who calls himself the Skeeter when he's on the air and plays this annoying mosquito buzz every time he mentions his name, "this job has its ups and downs. And today, it's gonna have it's ups and downs and ups and downs—not to mention a few twists and turns. Riding in the front car, we have Mrs. and Mr. O'Malley—Big Paddy himself. Their sons, Kevin, Skip, and Sean. Daughter Mary—who's sitting right in front of me. You ready to roll, Mary?"

Dead air.

Now I remember what the mean kids used to say about Mary O'Malley: She rode the short bus to school. I believe she is mentally challenged. Slashed her wrists in the bathtub a couple times.

"Oh-kay. Thanks, Mary," says Cliff, because that's what good deejays do: They keep calm and blather on, no matter what. "Thirty seconds until blast off."

Ceepak and I are up near the front of the line now. I can see the "You Must Be This Tall To Ride This Ride" sign. It's a Leprechaun holding out his hand. The O'Malleys are major league Irish.

Ceepak motions to the kid in a green polo shirt checking heights.

"Be aware that some people in this line are attempting to cheat your height requirement."

"For real?"

"Totally," I say because Ceepak is over 35 and wouldn't know how to say it.

The guy returns to his measuring stick task with renewed zeal.

There are other warning signs posted near the entrance. My favorites are the graphics suggesting that this attraction is not recommended for guests with broken bones, heart trouble, high blood pressure, pregnancy, or "recent surgery."

Sure. The day after my appendectomy, the first thing I'm gonna to do is climb on a roller coaster.

"Ten, nine, eight...." D.J. Cliff is swinging into his Apollo 13 impression. The thing is—roller coasters don't really blast off; they more or less lurch forward then chug up a hill.

"...three, two, one...here we go folks!"

The crowd crammed into the Disney World-style switchbacks cheers because, as the first train crammed with dignitaries pulls out, the second one finally slides forward. Thirty non-VIPs scamper onto the loading dock and jump into the next train's seats. The impossibly long line is actually moving.

Ceepak and I step back, gaze up.

From underneath the latticework of planks, we can see the first train rumbling forward, clicking and clacking on the steel tracks.

"We're on our way," Cliff commentates. "Here comes the first hill! It's a big one!"

Now comes the clatter of the chain running down the center of the track as it grabs hold of the coaster cars and hauls them skyward. This is the part of a roller coaster ride that always scares me the most. The anticipation of what's to come when you finally reach the top. The thought that you could so easily climb out, walk back down, call it quits. And, near the top, it always sounds as if the chain is getting tired, that it's stuttering, that it may not be able to hoist the train all...the...way...up.

But, of course, it always does.

The clacking stops. The first car has reached the summit.

"This is it!" booms Cliff. "Here we go!"

There is no sound for a long empty second.

And then the screams start.

"Oh my gawd!" cries Cliff, momentarily forgetting that he is on the air. "Whoo-hoo! Yeaaaaaah! Whoo-hoo!"

The train rattles down that first hill in a flash.

Now everyone is screaming. The mayor, the O'Malley family, the chamber of commerce, Cliff the D.J.—plus all the people on the ground waiting for their turn to scare themselves to death. It's a screechfest.

They're rolling through the first banked curve. The initial screams subside—just long enough for everyone to catch their breath for the second hill, not as steep, but just as exciting.

"Whoo-hoo!" Cliff has 86-ed any scripted commentary. He's barely using words anymore. "Boo-Yeaaaaaah!"

The train rattles up and down a series of knolls, shoots into a wooden tunnel, zooms out the other side.

"Oh my God!" somebody shouts. "Stop the train!"

"Huh?" Cliff. Confused.

"Stop the train!" It sounds like Skippy. "Stop it!"

Some kind of alarm buzzer goes off.

"Stop it!" That was Skip's dad. Big Paddy. "Stop the damn train!"

In the distance I hear the screech of brakes. Steel wheels scraping against steel rails. Cars bumpering into each other.

Then an awful quiet.

"Oh my god!" Mr. O'Malley again. "Hang on, honey. Oh my god! It's her heart!"

© Chris Grabenstein, 2010