Author’s note: The following passage is the first installment of my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved my Life. I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning.
There are those who say life is like a roller coaster with its ups and downs, and twists and turns. I’ve loved riding roller coasters as far back as I can remember. My favorite is the Giant Dipper, a whitewashed wooden 1920s era coaster with bright red tracks that dominates the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on California’s central coast. Santa Cruz is about a thirty minute drive from where I grew up in San Jose, California. As my dad drove into town, I remember getting excited to see the high point of the coaster jutting above the squat motels, restaurant buildings, tourist gift shops, and mom and pop stores that lined the streets.
The Giant Dipper was an exhilarating experience from the moment you stepped into the long line that wound its way into the building that housed the coaster station. While in the safe confines of the fast-moving line, friends and relatives would laugh, joke, and revel in each other’s company, with an occasional pause to watch and hear the frantic riders above squeal and scream as the chaotic train roared by. I always began to feel anxious excitement when entering the coaster station as riders took their seats on the train. Soon, I would be securely seated in the two-person car, and without warning, the train swooshed out of the coaster house and quickly vanished into a tunnel.
Adrenalin shot through my body, and fellow riders hooted and hollered, as the train sped through a dark curvy tunnel to a low point before emerging from the darkness and slowly climbing to the first peak with the classic clicking sound of a roller coaster train laboring upward. Once at the top, the train slowly scaled the peak and screamed down the other side of the tracks in a free fall as it rushed toward the earth. After a scaling a couple smaller hills and valleys, the train rapidly rose into the sky to reach its highest point before it violently curved downward to its left on the way to its deepest drop. A few more ups and downs and a slow straight-way led the train to its final resting place in the safety of the coaster station.
My love for roller coasters came from my dad. When we went to the boardwalk, usually because relatives from out of town were visiting, my dad would strut straight to the Giant Dipper. With his trademark mischievous grin, he would egg everyone on to join him on the ride, especially those who looked nervous or scared. My mom never got on the coaster, no matter how much my dad tried to persuade her. My brother Stevie was also a regular holdout, which was funny because he was our family’s tough guy.
Stevie had a big heart, but masked it with a perpetual scowl and a look in his eyes that shouted out, “you wanna fight?” He was tough, uncompromising, and angry. As his little brother, I was regularly collateral damage when he was mad at the world. When Stevie was a teenager, he wore his hair long in the style of a 1970s anti-establishment rebel. Wearing jeans, a leather vest, steel-toed biker boots, and a buck knife attached to his belt, I’m sure he scared people as he lumbered along his way. Despite his bad-boy persona, he was scared to death of that tortuous and seemingly unpredictable roller coaster that overlooked the Pacific Ocean.
When I was about nine years old, I persuaded Stevie to ride with me. In line, he had the steely eyes of a gunslinger preparing for battle, but once the train disappeared into the tunnel, he began to scream, giggle, and screech like a teenage girl at a boy band concert. I laughed harder during the next few minutes than I had ever laughed. With each dip, twist, and turn, this tough guy with the biker boots became ever more vulnerable to the fierce journey of the roller coaster.
As the train slowly entered the coaster station at the end of the ride, Stevie gathered himself, brushed his long, thick mane away from his face, put that bad look back on, and glowered at passersby as if he was about to kick someone’s ass. I didn’t know what was funnier, his screeching on the ride or the mask he put on as soon as the danger went away. Either way; I sure wasn’t going to ask him.
That was one wild ride.
The first forty-six years of my life followed the path of the Giant Dipper. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood on San Jose’s east side was like waiting in line for the coaster enjoying family and friends, and stopping from time to time to hear and see the chaos that sometimes unfolded around me. After high school, I ventured away from the neighborhood to attend San Jose State University with the same excitement and apprehensiveness I felt when entering the coaster station as a kid.
I eventually flunked out of college and chose a lifestyle fueled by alcohol, dead-end jobs, and the next party. The ensuing undisciplined meandering through life was just like the Giant Dipper’s wild ride through the dark tunnel.
Resembling the slow and deliberate ascent of the roller coaster, I put my life back together, got married, went back to school, graduated from college and started a family. Vowing to never fail again, I worked tirelessly, climbed the corporate ladder, and served in public office. The sudden plunge of the Giant Dipper’s first dip and the following short waves that quickly lead to the coaster’s summit mirrors my crushing election loss and rapid rise to school board president.
Midway through my forty-sixth year, my wife Sandra and I were approaching our 20th wedding anniversary, our two daughters were healthy and happy, and I had achieved some success in business and public service. I felt like I was on top of my little world. Like the Giant Dipper’s next move after reaching its climactic high point, my life would soon make an abrupt and furious downward turn and plummet toward its lowest depths, changing my world forever.
Next Wednesday – Chapter 1: 48 Viewmont Avenue