The amusement park in the summer beckons to kids like brightly colored cereal boxes strategically placed on the lower shelves of a supermarket. The siren song can’t be resisted! Parents dumping kids off at an amusement park is a win-win situation for both parties: parents can shirk parental responsibility and kids get to frolic in the merriment of rides, games, and food.
Astroworld was Houston’s premier amusement park. Build next to the Astrodome, the 1st dome stadium in the world, it was acreage upon acreage of frivolity. Fortunate for me, and as well-demonstrated in The Competitive Eater, The Bra, The Convenience Store, (and pretty much every future confession), my parents had no problem leaving me unattended in public spaces. Either they trusted me, I whined to go to the park to the point of revulsion, or they adhered to that Middle Age belief of “Well, if something happens to him, I still have the two other kids.”
My memories of the park when young strike a dissonant chord with those of my adolescence. I remember fondly riding the little rides and playing carnival games with my older brother. He was a very popular kid so I reveled at being around his cool friends (especially the female ones since girls were as foreign and enigmatic to me as obscure French 1960’s New Wave cinema or Theater of the Absurd). At that age, my weight had not super-burgeoned to the point where it stymied by enjoyment, for I did what all kids did: rode the rides, played the games, caused mischief by entering prohibited areas or getting on rides or seeing shows above my age. As my weight and age increased, and as my middle brother left to college my experiences at Astroworld changed. Like The Summer Camp, I will just mention the few that really stick out in my head.
I loved walking around Astroworld alone just taking in the sights, playing carnival and arcade games, and eating an inordinate amount of junk food. I guess a morbidly obese teenager walking around with cotton candy in hand was the proverbial blood to sharks to sadistic bullies. The summer I was 16 a group of boys continually harassed me. My first recollection of them was waiting in line at the whitewater rapids ride. They uttered the hackneyed fat slurs, but unlike others hecklers, they pestered me after the ride. They followed behind me making comments and threats similar to Italian men catcalling attractive women. I tried to run away from them, but of course they were much faster than I. If I was fortunate to find a security guard he would usher them away so I could escape into the relative anonymity of a large amusement park.
However, these kids would always find me and continue to harass me like Max Cady in Cape Fear. I couldn’t enjoy myself. I remember thinking “Is this how they want to spend their entire day? Making a fat kid cry? Don’t they want to play?” But I guess that is what they did. They used the park likely as an escape from their troubled dysfunctional family. I eventually had to involve my parents and park administration. To their credit they put the gaggle of teenagers in probation and threaten to put them on the “shun list” if they continued. And they stopped! For once, an authority figure who stepped up and defended me.
The Roller Coaster
I boasted as a youth that I rode every large roller coaster at Astroworld by age 10. Even the Texas Cyclone! I loved the adrenaline rush and the fear of possible death that looms over all amusement rides. That came to a crashing halt (metaphorically of course). Beginning around 16 I was disallowed from riding due to safety concerns. I remember the first time I became the Rosa Parks of the Obese-nation. It was a new season and either I had gained a lot of weight over the past year or a more stringent policy was enforced. I was waiting in line for the customary hour when I sat down on the ride. By this point, there were two issues: 1. The lap belt that would protect me was not closing anymore. 2. I no longer could fit in one seat. If the ride had a full seat I was okay, but most had bucket seats with either a lap bar or an overhead one to keep you from careening down to your pending death. I distinctly remember the teenage girl employees huddling up together whispering about what to do with me. They spoke to their manager (who was likely 19!) and he said “You can’t ride this ride due to safety concerns.” Nothing was lost in translation. It was because of the fat. I knew they were right to a certain extent. I loved the roller coasters, but even I knew that if the lap bar couldn’t close I was risking my life. I acquiesced to their request and waddled away. I then focused on those few rides into which I could still fit. No pending Final Destination death for me.
Waterworld was Astroworld’s sister park. Similar to The Swimming Pool and The Summer Camp, I detested the water park. I would avoid it at all costs, but I did like to swim and I felt that the T-shirt I wore would magically blind people to my obesity. I distinctly remember being 17-years-old and going into the big wave pool. I had never been in one before. At Waterworld they would turn off the waves for 15 minutes of every hour. Not ever being in a wave pool and not knowing this policy, I jumped into the wave pool in the deep end and swam to the middle. Immediately, they turned the waves back on. Now I was never an ocean swimmer (for my fear of jellyfish), so I was not accustomed to the waves. Despite the fact I could swim, I began to struggle and yelled for help. The lifeguard jumped in, but because I was so fat he could not guide me alone to the shore. He called in two other guys to push my Shamu-body out of peril. As the three were pushing me to safety they snickered. Safely on the ground one of the guards told me “You are too f*cking fat! Lose some f*cking weight!” I was embarrassed and petrified.
Like the broadcaster who spoke about the “The Horror…the Horror!” as he was recorded live during the Hindenburg explosion. “The irony…the irony” that I too stalked. But it was different. Like any teenage boy, I liked girls. I thought about them, had crushes on special ones at school, and daydreamed of them. At Astroworld, I distinctly remember following gaggles of pretty teenage girls. Now unlike my tormentors, I never confronted them or heaven forbid ask one out. I just walked behind them, trying to be discreet, like an anthropologist in the Great Rift Valley of Africa observing gorillas. For me, girls were so foreign and impenetrable to me. At this point in my life I never thought I would never marry one, much less kiss one.
As with the Convenience Store and Competitive Eater, I had to score my food! My $20, even in 1980’s dollars, didn’t go far. One summer I befriended a couple of geriatric men who worked in the German food section of the park. I really like the water balloon gun game that happened to be in that section and liked the pretzels. They eventually let me eat all the sausages I wanted in exchange for mopping floors or cleaning the ice machine. I consented of course. It gave me a respite from the summer heat (and my omnipresent rashes) and I got to eat more. One of them once asked me, “You need to lose weight.” I just laughed uncomfortably and changed the subject. He never broached the subject again, seeing my visible discomfort from such a simple, truthful statement.
I do have some great memories of Astroworld. Why wouldn’t I? Even fat kids like to have fun. The first concert I ever attended (Depeche Mode 1988) was there; I made friends there; I have great nostalgia for my brothers taking me on rides and hanging with their friends. Unfortunately, they tore it down a few years ago and with it there was a collective sigh of sadness from Gen Xers and Boomers alike. I guess all things are ephemeral.
A. Gregory Luna, double-certified Health Consultant