Roller Coasters, Airplanes and Graveyards [Originally posted on FB 09.10.09]

Part One

The last Thursday in August, my best friend’s six year old son Dylan called me up on the phone. Sadly, I was in a restaurant when he called so he had to leave a message. When I returned home and checked my voice mail, I heard something like this:

‘Barry, this is Dylan. I really wish you would go with us to Busch Gardens one day next week. Please? I hope you can. Call back.’

Keep in mind that I have not set foot in an amusement park since August 1994. That’s fifteen years and many many surgeries since I had last attempted to ride a roller coaster. My last trip to an amusement park [King’s Dominion] is most remembered by those who were with me as ‘the time Barry’s cane got dropped by a KD Employee into the Haunted River.’ When that happened, I had to wait around, freezing and wet, while the staff drained the water from the ride to retrieve my cane.

Needless to say, I thought that would be my last trip to any sort of amusement park. But, after hearing Dylan’s message, and the excitement in his voice when I called him back, I told him and his parents [Eddie and Tucker] that I would check with my boss about getting a half day off on Thursday, September 3, almost expecting it not to happen.

Well, I was able to get the time off from work and thus I spent the next few days truly wondering if my body, specifically my knees could handle roller coasters. I mean, I’m nowhere near as limber as I once was, my knees don’t tend to bend when I want them to and, when they do bend, they usually bark at me just make sure I promise never to do that again.

So, Thursday came. I left work at lunch time and the Pickering family [Eddie, Tucker, Dylan and one-year old son Bennett] hit the road for Williamsburg. The weather was perfect, the company was fun and…I was honestly much more nervous than I let on about the whole thing. The main objective was to make sure Dylan had fun.

Usually I hate wheelchairs. My legs work [most of the time] so I tend to choose to walk somewhere rather than use a wheelchair. However, I remembered the last time I went to Busch Gardens [May 1993 for my father’s company picnic] that the park has a whole lot of hills so, I mentioned as soon as things were set and we had a date planned that I would need to rent a chair. Once we arrived at the park, the staff was so great that I won’t even mention that it costs $15 and you have to reserve the chair 24 hours in advance.

Busch Gardens offered a disability discount so, while I expected to pay about $45 for a day ticket, I got in the park for $29. Good deal. Also, Busch Gardens allows those individuals in wheelchairs to enter a ride via the exit ramp and, once they get on the ride, they get to ride twice before getting out of the car. Kings Dominion offered this when I was a season’s pass holder in the 80s so I was glad to see that the practice had not changed.

Okay, first things first. Dylan wanted to ride the Loch Ness Monster with me, so we hit that ride first. It took a bit of doing to get situated in the car, but it was relatively quick. Of course Dylan wanted to ride in the front car, so, here I was, a coaster veteran of the past, riding for the first time in fifteen years, wondering if my knees would allow me to leave the car once it was over…and we get to ride twice!

The Loch Ness Monster has been around since 1978. I’ve ridden it many times in the past so I knew what to expect. I told myself ‘Everything will be fine, once we get past that first loop.’ Then the first loop came. The G-force was so much that my neck basically stayed down, looking at the floor on the loops, but once we were thru that, and as the rest of the ride finished, I thought to myself, ‘Okay…I think I can still do this!’ By the second ride of the Loch Ness, I knew I was gonna be able to have fun and ride everything just fine. The knees might bark some, but they would survive.

Next on the agenda was The Big Bad Wolf, a ride that sadly had its last run on Labor Day, being torn down to make room for new ride. Now, I had ridden the Big Bad Wolf years ago but didn’t remember much about it. The thing I’ll take away from it now is the ride has to have the deepest car seats to get into. I seriously did not think I was gonna be able to actually get into the car. With help from Eddie, I managed to get in [and thankfully, out] of the car but I knew, even if Dylan asked again, I wasn’t going to ride this more than one go round, [two times around in one sitting].

Those two rides are the only major roller-coaster rides that Dylan is able to ride at this point, due to height. So, he’s not yet able to ride Griffon, Alpengiest or Apollo’s Chariot. Feeling torn, Eddie and I decided to ride Griffon because Eddie ‘wanted me to feel the drop of a lifetime.’

So, Eddie and I go up the exit ramp and they ask Eddie where he would like to sit and he says ‘the front’ before I can say anything. I figure ‘What the hell? You’ll live, right?’ The great thing about all the other coasters except Wolf and Loch Ness is that the seats are like bicycle seats. You slide into them and a harness goes around your shoulders, or in the case of Apollo’s Chariot, around your waist. These seats are a breeze for me to get into, and I sincerely hope that all future roller coasters are built with these kinds of seats.

The Griffon was a phenomenal ride, expertly building anticipation, letting you hang for a good seven seconds, staring down at nothing but pavement, before sending you 90 degrees straight down at god knows how many miles per hour. The rush was spectacular and even before the ride ended, I was already looking forward to a second go-around. Let it be noted that The Griffon is perhaps the smoothest thrill ride ever made. It doesn’t jar or shake you around. Like I said, my favorite and the best ride in the park. Check it out if you dare.

Alpengiest was a good ride, similar to the Griffon but more jarring. And Apollo’s Chariot was a blast mainly because the restraint meets you at the hips, leaving your upper body free. All five coasters are top notch and it was well worth the price of admission.

I had a great time hanging out with Dylan, Tucker and Eddie, and ‘racing’ Bennett in his stroller. Funnel cake was had by the end of the day, capping off a great day out.

Thanks to Dylan for inviting me, Tuck and Eddie for coming along, and thanks to Bennett for smiling all day long. I hope to go back soon.

And seriously, ride The Griffon. You’ll thank me later.

Part Two

The very next day, Friday September 4, I flew to Jacksonville, Florida to visit my friend and former co-worker Jonathan. I worked that day until 3, then ran home, finished packing and, by 5:00 headed to the airport.

My flight left at 7:45. First stop was Atlanta, then my connection to Jacksonville. As luck would have it, Saturday night September 5, Virginia Tech played Alabama in Atlanta, so the flight down to Atlanta was basically me and 170 Hokie/Bama fans. It was a fun, at times boisterous flight. Little did I know that the fireworks really wouldn’t start until we landed.

The plane landed at Hartsfield airport in ATL actually ahead of schedule. It was 9:15 and my next flight left at 10:00. Looking out from my window seat at the city that I usually visit every summer, I really felt strange, almost a sense of betrayal that I wasn’t staying in Atlanta. I truly love the city and I feel a sense of electricity hit me when I’m there. Perhaps the city knew this and, perhaps powers were at work to make me stay longer than planned?

You see, we did in fact land ahead of schedule, however, we kept waiting…and waiting…and waiting to de-board the plane. The command never came because someone could not connect the jet bridge to the plane, so, everyone that had gathered their carry-on luggage and stood in the aisle had to put the luggage back in the bins, get back in their seat and prepare for the pilot to ‘drive’ us to another gate. All told, this took about 40 minutes, I finally got off the plane right at about the time my other flight was scheduled to take off.

Now, I do a lot of things well. Sprinting is not one of them. But, on this night, I came damn close to flat out sprinting down the gateway, getting on the train and jumping on an escalator to get from Gate D to Gate C. As soon as I stepped off the escalator onto concourse C, I started loudly talking to any agent within shouting distance, ‘Has the flight to Jacksonville left yet??!’ I couldn’t get an answer, so I lumbered from gate 25 to gate 19. I was happy to see about six other people standing in front of the front desk and, before I could ask anyone anything, an agent said. ‘William Hall?’ to which I gave a wheezing, ‘Yes’. It wasn’t until he handed me my boarding pass before I comprehended in my frazzled mind that the plane was still on the ground.

I found my seat and, for the first time ever, paid the six dollars for a bloody mary while the plane made its way to my final stop.

We landed 30 minutes late, but I eventually found Jon and we made our way to his new townhouse. I had asked him to buy me a bottle of Grey Goose vodka so we could drink when I landed. He did. We drank and watched Lynyrd Skynyrd DVDs until four in the morning. As an aside, Grey Goose does not cause a hangover the day after. Keep that in mind when shopping for spirits.

If you didn’t know already, Jacksonville, Florida is where most of the original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd grew up and where they formed the band. The city is full of landmarks, legends and myths. Now, in all honesty, I went through my Skynyrd phase from 1989-1991 and had not really listened to them much at all since 1991. That changed in July when I attended a Kid Rock/Skynyrd double bill concert in Va. Beach with Trudy. I enjoyed the show, but I really went for the company. Skynyrd however really impressed me and, hearing songs again that I had not heard since high school made me remember why I liked them in the first place. So when it was decided I would visit Jon in Jacksonville, he decided to turn the weekend into a tour of Skynyrd landmarks and old haunts.

First stop was Jacksonville Gardens Cemetery, where Ronnie Van Zant, Leon Wilkenson and Allen Collins are buried. We chose not to approach Ronnie’s grave, so I took a picture with the zoom. I also got a picture of Leon Wilkenson’s grave, which has to be the gaudiest, loudest and most fitting monument to a true individual.

Second stop was, in some ways the highlight of the whole weekend. Jon drove to the suburb of Orange Park, where the Van Zant’s grew up, and where Ronnie’s father Lacy lived until his death in 2005. We drove down Brickyard Road, a pathway later immortalized by Johnny Van Zant in his hit song of the same name. We drove past the cardboard cutout houses, past the paved portion of the road, to a gravel pathway on the property the Van Zant’s used to call home.

We parked the car and, without either of us saying anything directly, we both whispered for the rest of the time we were walking the pathway, toward the driveway and the foundation of where the house used to stand. To some, it may just be a dead end path with overgrown weeds, dead trees and cracked pavement. To me though, it really did seem like hallowed ground, filled with stories and memories. We spent about 30 minutes there and, I’ll honestly never think of Ronnie Van Zant, or any of the band members the same way after that.

Saturday night, we had a great meal at Crossroads, where the Florida football game was on every television in the place. By the time we sat at our table, Florida had a 14-0 lead. By the time we got our meal, it was 28-0. Florida would win 62-3.

After dinner it was back to the apartment to watch Va. Tech with KISS on the iPod.

Sunday afternoon, we rented a boat and traveled around Doc’s Inlet. At the last minute, I remembered sunscreen and slathered some on. We carried a cooler of soda [and only soda] and got a quick lesson on how to drive the boat, how to start the boat and how to park the boat.

I had a good time on the boat, though I think Jon drove a bit too fast. The capper was a fabulous meal at Whitey’s Fish Camp, where you can tie your boat to a dock and walk in for fresh seafood. I had amazing spiced steamed shrimp and Jon had fried shrimp. The restaurant is known by locals as ‘Ronnie’s hang out’ because, in the 70s, Skynyrd would have band meetings at the restaurant. Once that fact was published in a music magazine, Whitey’s Fish Camp’s place in Rock Lore was secure, even if it wasn’t exactly true.

Sunday night, surprisingly not sunburned; we rested before heading out to see the movie ‘Extract.’ I had only heard that the film was made by Mike Judge, who gave us ‘Office Space’ and ‘Beavis and Butthead’. I did not know that Mila Kunis was in the movie, nor was I aware that Gene Simmons was in the film. All in all, a great cast that had a good story. Some scenes fall flat, but it was still enjoyable, and Mila Kunis is nice to look at no matter the film.

My thanks to Jon for hosting me for the weekend and thanks to his dog Sally for sharing her futon with me.

Travel day Monday went smoothly, although I was exhausted upon my arrival home. My brother Brian and my niece Madison met me at the airport [she wanted to ride the escalators] so I got to see Maddie for a moment before she headed back to her mom in North Carolina.

It was a whirlwind of a long weekend but it was a wonderful way to bid farewell to summer. Thanks again to friends for this past weekend and to friends for this past summer, which was filled with unforgettable moments, phenomenal shows and lasting memories.

–Barry