Ricky Delgado nearly turned inside out the summer of ‘62 when ten rusty carnival trucks rattled onto the fresh asphalt parking lot of the new shopping center that sprang up a few blocks from where we lived. He watched as the attractions were unloaded and assembled: a carousel, a haunted house and a rickety roller coaster. But one attraction captured his attention more than the others—rising into the sky, even higher than the Ferris wheel, was The Hammer.
Ricky and I were best friends because he overlooked the fact that I was fat and blathered constantly, and I looked the other way knowing that, at ten, he still wet his bed. He’d been to carnivals like this before only to be turned away from the “cool” rides because he was too small. But in recent months he’d shot up half an inch.
I had to sneak out on opening night because my folks believed the rides to be unsafe. Point of fact: The Hammer didn’t look safe. The ride was a giant forty-foot steel blade that rotated using centrifugal force like an airplane propeller. An enclosed cage spun around independently at each end. Two victims could sit in each cage. Painted with flat green paint, the diesel-fueled Hammer roared like a beast defending its territory. It was gigantic and put out a burning smell that made my eyes water. Judging from the chart beside it, Ricky was still an inch too short to qualify for a ride, but nothing could crush his determination to get on. He begged me to accompany him. He taunted me and called me a pantywaist, but nothing he could say would coax me into joining him.
When the moment came for him to take his ride, I was amazed to see tough-guy Ricky walking away from The Hammer. I wondered if he was secretly as afraid of the thing as I was.
We wasted time inspecting the rest of the carnival, throwing dimes at towers of brightly colored glassware and failing to win prizes only babies or mushy girls would want. We inspected a reptile house that had a two-headed boa constrictor the color of a banana. Ricky swore the second head was just a tumor, but it was still really cool. There was also a fun house, but Ricky said it was bogus and for sissies.
We settled down to eat hot dogs covered with relish, mustard and catsup. I scarfed down two while he munched slowly on one, a concerned look on his face as he stole glances in the direction of the green beast waiting for him.
Finally, he couldn’t put it off any longer. Ricky wiped mustard and catsup from his mouth with the back of his hand and we headed on over. At first, it seemed like he was going to be turned away. The unshaven guy at the gate snickered at Ricky, “How old are you?”
“Old enough for your sissy ride,” Ricky shot back, struggling to make his voice as deep as possible.
Carnie Guy had the dead smile of a shark. He studied Ricky’s cockiness for a second. “That’ll be four bits, kid.”
Ricky handed over two quarters and Carnie Guy unlatched the rope to let him pass. I will forever maintain that I saw no fear, only a young Chuck Yeager calmly stepping into the cockpit of a sound barrier-breaking jet. As his best friend, I always felt honor-bound to promote this image…even though I did see his legs tremble as he climbed into the oval cage.
Carnie Guy strapped him into the seat with a cord that can only be laughingly referred to as a “safety belt.” He closed the wire door and latched it tight before returning to the controls. “Ready,” he shouted over the roar of the great engine.
Ricky nodded and stuck up a thumb.
At that moment I didn’t know if he was the bravest kid in the world or the stupidest. I’d heard rumors that a kid had actually died in The Hammer when his heart exploded, and I began to worry Ricky might not survive this ordeal: best friends were hard to come by, even if mine was a bed wetter.
I reached for the talisman in my pocket—a rare fossil Ricky gave to me after discovering it in his backyard. Ricky claimed his discovery was the penis bone of the world’s greatest prehistoric predator—Tyrannosaurus Rex. In all likelihood it was an old chicken bone discarded during a barbeque, but back then I carried it around, convinced that one day a museum would call to borrow it. That evening I held it tight…and waited.
The Hammer sputtered and growled as Carnie Guy opened an oil-soaked panel to check the beast’s black, slimy intestines. He did something with a screwdriver that caused the thing to roar more loudly; clearly, he was making it mad. He closed the panel and then up…up…up…Ricky rose into the sky. The cages began to slowly rotate at the ends of the long metal arms. So far, so good. For a moment I thought I heard Ricky call my name, but all I could be sure of hearing was the noisy machine. The setting sun was tipping the telephone wires with golden light as Ricky’s cage reached its zenith. It seemed to me that every noise hushed as my best friend hung suspended in time and space. The diesel-chugging pendulum of doom started inching forward on its trajectory, and then Ricky’s cage hurled downward in a dead-drop like a massive hammer intent on striking the earth.
I don’t know what was going through his head, but I’m positive that his pants, which he had a hard time keeping dry in the best of circumstances, were no longer so. But Ricky’s cage didn’t crash into the ground. Instead, The Hammer whipped Ricky back into space with even more force than before, and the process was repeated over and over as the individual cages spun in their own little orbits. Sometime around the tenth rotation I heard something: It was faint at first, and I struggled to hear it, and then it was louder. It was Ricky! I was actually hearing him through the racket. He was screaming, “SSSTTTOPPPPPP!!!!”
It seemed odd that Carnie Guy didn’t hear Ricky. At least I don’t think he heard him because he kept smiling and made no effort to slow the thing down, much less stop it. But I didn’t spend too much time observing Carnie Guy because at that moment I saw something flying out of Ricky’s cage and twinkling in the waning light of that perfect day...vomit.
When The Hammer finally stopped, Ricky struggled from the cage. White as a sheet, he wobbled about on baby legs. He brushed me away, and with a trace of vomit on his chin announced, “I’m hungry! Let’s get some more hot dogs.”