Ever since I wrote ‘The day my son was braver than me’ about how I looked the ‘Wild Eagle’ in its beady little eagle eyes, then looked quickly away, the coaster has never passed up a chance to taunt me. Being a father of four who knows he’s going to have to eventually suck it up and learn to ride coasters with them, I’ve tried to ‘work my way up’ the roller coaster hierarchy. OK, the Tennessee Tornado was a bad choice, but perhaps some other, less intense rides could ‘warm me up’ to the possibility of finally flying the Eagle. It was worth a shot, right?
Being season pass holders, we’ve been to Dollywood several times since the day the Tornado whipped us. Once, my wife and I left the kids with grandparents and went up there for the day. The Eagle’s presence loomed in the back of my mind, always there, always mocking, always daring me to ‘take the plunge.’ As we were making our way into one of the gospel shows I even think I might have heard a soft ‘caw, caw’ from that direction. Yes, Eagle, I know you are there. I know you will probably claim me eventually but it WON’T BE TODAY! We eventually made our way past it. I tried to walk fast and not look over but I couldn’t help but take a quick glance and I’d swear it seemed like the Eagle statue at the front was laughing at me, taunting me, daring me…
We kept walking, past Mystery Mine with its sharp curves and jerky cars (yeah, I was too chicken to ride that too). We eventually decided to take a shot at Thunderhead, Dollywood’s wooden coaster. In what eventually became a high point in our marriage, as we were climbing the hill I grabbed Kim’s arm and jokingly (well, half jokingly) cried, ‘Mommy!!!!’ I made it through that with most of my dignity (and lunch) intact. I was still alive, and that counted for something! I still wasn’t feeling regal for the Eagle, but I had progressed from a ‘not in a gazillion years’ to ‘well, maybe I could get shamed into it.’
Well, during a warm October weekend, that’s exactly what happened. This time, my kids AND my parents were with us. From the time we entered the park I knew the Eagle was there, knew that no matter how much I stalled we would pass it eventually, knew that Nathaniel would probably want to ride it… so naturally I tried to delay it as much as possible. Delays or no delays, one thing about time is that it just keeps on plugging – eventually I found myself right in front of the Wild Eagle, standing there with my entire family, discussing whether or not we wanted to ride. Nathaniel, having recovered like a champ from his Tennessee Tornado experience, was begging to ride it (of course).
Ladies first, I always say! Being the chivalrous gentleman I am, I offered Kim the chance to take Nathaniel on the ride, and she graciously accepted my generous offer. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there were no lines. They came out of the ride excited. Not only was Nathaniel not scared and relieved for the ride to be over, but he wanted to go again! Kim smiled at me tenderly and told me I should take him (gee thanks, Honey!). Nathaniel then looked at me and said the words that changed my life forever, “Dad, don’t be a scaredy cat!”
Nothing like shame from your 7-year old to make you jump off a cliff… there was no choice for me now – destiny had trumped fear. Nathaniel grabbed my hand and off to the Eagle we headed. Wouldn’t you know it, still no lines. Where are all the Sunday in October Dollywood goers when you need them? We got right to the top. I looked around at the people getting on and off. Little kids, still alive, smiles on their faces. Older folks not in cardiac arrest. Good signs. How bad could it be?
We climbed on and buckled in, legs dangling from the seats. They say it’s like you’re flying, except really fast and lots of G’s – grrreat… We pulled out of there and I started panicking a little. If I screamed for mercy would they stop the coaster? Would they laugh at me? Probably. We started climbing that first, horrible, Mt. Everest sized hill. I looked up at the sky, then over at Nathaniel. He was smiling in delight. Being too embarrassed to grab his arm and call for my mother, I said a quick prayer. Lord, if you let me out of this without hurling I’ll read the Book of Leviticus five times! Better yet, Lord, how about you just go ahead and come right now – being this high already, I’d have a great head start!
No Jesus to rescue me from this one. As the coaster began its slow, then faster and faster descent down that inevitable grueling, heart-pounding, terrifying hill, I closed my eyes. They stayed closed for most of the ride thereafter, which is mostly a blur (probably because my eyes were closed). I remember the awesome sense of relief when we came out of the last spin and I knew we were pulling into the station.
I had made it, but I was pretty shaken up – so much so that I had a hard time getting my seat belt unbuckled. Nathaniel, having already unbuckled his and dismounted, came over and pulled mine up. Some hillbilly in line laughed and said, “The boy is teaching his Daddy how to unbuckle!” I laughed and mumbled something to the effect that he had ridden it before, but I really didn’t care. This was no longer about a rite of passage for my now disturbingly thrill-seeking 7-year old – this was about his Daddy’s lifelong fear. For the rest of the day my step was just a bit lighter, my sense of accomplishment a little more full. I had faced the Eagle, faced my fear, and come out on top. That’s pretty cool at any age.