The good news finally came after weeks and weeks of waiting: our favorite room – the Safari Room – at our favorite bed-and-breakfast a mere stone’s throw away from our favorite amusement park was available the nights we had requested.
It was ours and we were thrilled. After sharing the glee with my young daughter Gabriella, I asked her what would be the first ride we would take at the park. The Ferris wheel, as in the past? Her first thrill ride, the Froghopper? Or maybe The Rockin’ Tug, which became a new favorite last year?
“The bumper cars,” she said quickly and resolutely. And the answer made me smile again, this time inside, and remember the root of her response. Three summers ago, at the same amusement park, Gabriella summoned up her courage and decided to try the Skooter, the adult bumper cars. I was happy to oblige her – I always had enjoyed them as a young boy. Now with the grown up parent goal of enjoying the ride with my 4 ½-year-old daughter, I was more inclined to avoid jarring collisions than when I was a determined 14-year-old Mad Max crasher.
So we counted out the tickets and Gabriella picked out a green car best to her liking. We settled into our seats, the klaxon blew and the cars lurched into action. It seemed to me it was 1966 and 1967 all over again.
Gabriella told me to take the wheel and was content to sit and laugh and point out the passing scene. And as we glided in that noisy circle — occasionally nudging a beleaguered, trapped patron or cutting off a testosterone-fueled teenager to the squeals of delight from Gabriella — I found myself in a calm, relaxed state. I was in the zone.
When the ride ended, we dashed down the ramp and my daughter yelled happily to no one in particular, “No one touches us when my Daddy drives!!” Later that night, sitting in the stillness that settled in after a late evening rainfall, it struck me that it was not 1966 or 1967 redux; it was 1992 and 1993 again. And my skill behind the small wheel had nothing to do with the teen-ager I had been, and everything to do with the man I had become.
I realized that the bumper car arena drew sharp parallels to my experience as a war correspondent driving in Sarajevo. Some of us dubbed our method of driving “the Bosnian weave,” the seemingly haphazard and inconsistent and unpredictable manner of accelerating and slowing, swerving and darting, all designed to keep moving forward. No matter what.
The goal: never to get boxed in; always to dodge the snipers; and above all avoid RPGs and anything else that would – and was – fired your way. It worked quite well back then and I seamlessly adopted it as an unspoken mantra of my motoring skills back in this country. Some colleagues here marveled at my ability to “see the whole board.” Other passengers found it to be terrifying.
But it is a long way from Titova Street in Sarajevo to the bumper cars of Elysburg, Pennsylvania. Thanks to Gabriella, I now understand how lessons learned from one of the darkest, most challenging periods of my life have sunlight and purpose some time down the road – a road without snipers or bodies but dotted with only merry folks on holiday.
The first year we rode the cars I noticed another guy around my age, quiet, wearing a wonderful straw hat and a slight, inward smile. He had no child and merely sailed around the circle of fun. No one got near him. I was curious but didn’t ask. I suspect I knew.
My daughter now brags about our bumper car driving prowess to her friends – a badge of honor I cherish. It is something she and I share and look forward to doing again. A ride we take together. Fun for both of us.
The park has become a place where she and I have preserved one outpost of father-daughter bonding. Together, she and I went on her first roller coaster ride, the Phoenix. Together, she and I dared to go into her first Haunted Mansion. Together, we nervously boarded for the first time the guaranteed-to- get-you-wet Sklooosh, and were startled at the soaking we got. She was afraid to do all of them, but gradually, she found her courage. She learned to be brave. We were a team.
And we still are. There will be other marches of time – other challenges — with Gabriella at the park. This visit she finally will be tall enough to seize a ring from her perch on the Grand Carousel merry-go-round. She will no longer need me to do that for her.
But there will be at least one more lesson for Gabriella. I will teach her how to master the “Bosnian weave.” She has begun to learn how to see, drive through and survive on the bumper car circuit otherwise known as life. It’s a skill she will need and use on all kinds of highways, no matter where she lands in the world.
— by Tom Squitieri