Where the Hell's My TV Movie?

by Jim Knipfel

Childhood traumas crop up in a myriad of ugly forms. Some kids are verbally, physically or sexually abused; others watch their parents hacked to bits by axe-wielding clowns; still others stand by as German soldiers tromp through the streets of their town. All those are well and good--meaty fodder for the talk show circuit. My own childhood trauma was not quite as flamboyant as those others, but no less devastating.

No, I was not victimized by some dark-eyed adult, his hands groping down my jammies in the dark--my spirit was destroyed by a Machine. A malevolent Machine. A Machine so evil, so treacherous, that I find I difficult to write these words. I lost my innocence, my faith in humanity, the simple love that children feel...on the Machine. Call them what you will, bumper cars, dodge 'em cars--to me, they would always be the Machine.

I was nine years old, standing in line to ride the beast at Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I didn't have any friends, but I loved Bay Beach. I always thought the machines were my friends, so every summer I spent many a happy hour wandering alone through the clanking, clattering, screaming, dangerous mess of a small town amusement park.

Until, that is, the day the Machine destroyed me. Standing in front of me were three raucous thirteen year-old thugs from the bad side of town. They were joking and shoving back and forth, when one of them (to this day I swear this happened) turned to me and asked "How old are you?" There was a sign hanging over the track which read "You must be at least 8 years ol.d to ride the bumper cars."

At least that's what I thought he said.

Having read the sign, and figuring that this is what the thug was inquiring about, I stood up proudly, jabbed my thumb into my chest, and announced, "Well, I'm nine!"

The three of them stared at me for just a second, then they broke out into some of the ugliest, most vicious laughter I've ever heard. They didn't stop there. They pointed at me and told the people in front of them, "He's nine!" Word of my age went up and down the line of people waiting to taste a bit of mechanical mayhem. I tried to ignore them. I was alone in a world full of idiots.

It didn't stop with the laughter. When my turn came, I chose a sporty little red number, my ears burning with hatred and a taste for revenge. My tormentors went to the other side of the track, still chortling amongst themselves.

As soon as the sixteen year-old, pimply faced kid who ran the ride pulled the handle that set the electricity in motion, I slammed my foot down hard on the pedal--and shot straight backwards, trapping myself in a quagmire of unused cars, my ass end sticking out into the path of every oncoming demon. They all slammed into me, again and again, and with each collision, the driver of the attacking car would scream "I'm nine!"

That day has haunted me for twenty years now. So when word came through a few months back that my folks were hosting a family reunion at Bay Beach, my guts seized up. I asked my Dad if the bumper cars were still there. He started laughing. "I'm nine! I'm nine!" he yelled over the phone from half way across the country. Yes, they were still there. So this was my chance for revenge--or my Waterloo. I would either confront and destroy my old demons, or introduce my new demons to my old ones, so they could team up and follow me around for the rest of my life.

When I told my wife of my plans, she just laughed at me and said, "Oh, give it up--you'll just get stuck in the corner again, and everybody will laugh at you." "Thanks, uh, dear."

On the flight to Wisconsin, I pulled my pad and paper out and started plotting bumper car strategies. After a few minutes, I realized that it was a pointless endeavor, that it was a goddamn amusement park ride, that no rules--logical or illogical--can control its actions. It would just be me against the Machine, soft kiddie flesh in the other cars be damned. I was out for rust as well as blood.

These days, Bay Beach is a crumbling, decadent, rotting amusement park, where all the rides still cost a dime and the word "insurance" is forbidden. All the old rides are still there--the Tilt 'O Whirl, the Scrambler, the Ferris Wheel, all of them, it seems, held together by yet another coat of paint. The Machine had been moved from the peeling, wooden pavillion which used to house it into a new peeling, wooden pavillion, just a few scant yards from where the family reunion was taking place. Mocking me, that's all it was.

The night before, about fifty or sixty relatives showed up at my parent's house. The story made the rounds quickly, and everyone got a good laugh. The next day at the reunion proper, they all prodded and bugged me--"When ya gonna do it?" they'd ask. "When the time comes," I'd drone back at them. It was all very dramatic.

When the time did come--when I had enough Pabst in me to nudge the fear into a dark, hidden corner of my brain, I quietly slipped away from the volleyball and card games over to the Machine. Some battles a man has to take on himself, without an audience.

I stood there for half an hour, in a line jam-packed with 8, 9 and ten year-olds, all of them laughing and joshing, having a good time. I just stared out from beneath my ape-like brow, never cracking so much as a smirk. This was serious business, and had to be undertaken in a serious manner.

As the line moved forward, I studied the action on the track. There really was one kid in every group of fifteen who couldn't make the fucking car work--who got stuck in a corner, who only went backwards or ending up driving around the track in the wrong direction. I wondered to myself if, twenty years from now, these same poor incompetents would be making the same pilgrimage I was.

The teenager who took my ticket gave a strange look as he let me on the track with the little kids. I wasn't there to help someone out, nor was I escorting a daughter or nephew. I was there to destroy. I pushed a much smaller kid out of the way so I could snag another sporty red job with silver trim and an interior as black as my heart.

I sat there with my knees up against my chest, my right foot already crushing the pedal to the floor, my hands white-knuckled on the wheel as I surveyed the competition. Little jocks, little scumbags, little fuckers who hadn't yet learned that they were trapped in pointless lives. Kids out to have a fun time. I was looking for the single incompetent one--I would leave that one alone. He's already had enough trouble. But I couldn't find him. That's when I realized that the incompetent one was probably still me.

When the starting lever was pulled, a strange thing happened. It was like a bolt of lightning shooting from the ceiling through the top of my head down through the foot on the pedal. The Machine and I became one. We screamed around the first corner, blasting the little pokey-Moes right the hell out of the way. Scooting, aiming, crushing, rear-ending, handing out mini-whiplashes like candy corn. And with each collision, I screamed, "I'm nine! I'm nine!"

When it was over a few brief minutes later, I sat in my car for a second after everyone else had left, savoring my victory. I had destroyed the Machine!

Of course an hour or so later, after doing a bit too much bragging about it, Laura challenged me to another go-round, trapped me in the first corner and knocked me senseless.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Illustration by Russell Christian. All rights reserved.

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