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Webster’s Dictionary defines a friend as “one attached to another by affection or esteem; a favored companion.” The Big Bad Wolf roller coaster was my friend for 25 years. And so, it is to my friend, that I dedicate this story.
When the Big Bad Wolf closed Labor Day of 2009, I was an emotional wreck. Being depressed for weeks and completely inconsolable in my grief, my husband, family, and friends were all baffled as to why I was taking the news so hard. It was understandable. My grief had taken over most of my life at that point. Therefore, I am writing this story in hope that my feelings will be put into a perspective that anyone can relate to. I believe we all have or will have our hearts terribly broken. Maybe this retrospective will bring meaning to those moments.
Remembering my friend, the Big Bad Wolf
I will always consider The Big Bad Wolf to be “My Coaster”; not because it belonged to me in a physical sense, but because I always felt a deep emotional connection to the ride. I had to search my soul in order to find the real reason behind my belief that the coaster was a living, breathing entity that returned my affection. It was a difficult journey but with some lengthy contemplation, I discovered the answer.
The Big Bad Wolf was not my first roller coaster experience. In fact; that honor belonged to Space Mountain; then followed quickly by an amazing adventure on the Loch Ness Monster. It’s funny. The Loch Ness Monster was built before I could remember and so as I child, I imagine that it sprung from the Earth like Venus from the Ocean. It had and always existed in my world and therefore, I considered it part of the landscape as much as the trees and flowers around it.
At the age of six, I was entranced by the Busch Gardens landscape. I was a magical world that held great power. Needless to say when I heard of a new coaster being built, I was ecstatic! Better yet, I would liken the announcement of the Big Bad Wolf’s arrival to a mother explaining to their child that a “new little brother or sister” would soon be here. I was about to have an exciting addition to my life! What adventures would it bring?
My imagination greedily fed my excitement and I counted down the days as if it were Christmas day. Ironically, that day ended up a few days after my seventh birthday. Fate had a way of connecting us from the very beginning. In my mind, Busch Gardens just gave me the best birthday present ever! My seven year old self knew that “as sure as the sun rises and the rain falls,… they must have held the opening day back just for me!”
There was no rain the opening day of the ride. In fact, the day was rather hot and sweltering in typical Virginia fashion. The night before the grand opening, I was nervously picking out an outfit for the occasion. I had wanted to dress up for the Big Bad Wolf. So when the day came and I put on my hot pink pants, purple and white stripped 80’s styled blouse, and did up my hair in side ponytails with white yarn ribbons, I felt ready.
This was it. The ride was here. I had already seen where The Big Bad Wolf was to be placed within the park. My knowledge came from a 1984 park brochure that also featured an artist’s conceptual drawing of the ride. That image of swinging coaster cars will never be forgotten. It might as well been an ultrasound image of my unborn child.
My mom and brother were excited too but I doubt not as much as I was. My dad hated heights, and therefore couldn’t care less. His lack of enthusiasm was what made the departure to the park EXCRUCIATINGLY long. An hour is a year to a seven year old. Please dad! I thought, Please- please- oh please let’s go! The park is open! The ride is waiting! GAHHHHH!
I really hated being a kid at this exact moment. I started to wish that Scotty from Star trek to beam me to the flipping park right then and there. Forget everyone! I shouted in my head. Just let me get to that ride!
It felt like a lifetime passed before we set off in our little white cramped Pontiac. In fact, I nearly reached tantrum levels before we were able to navigate the humungous line of cars that stretched down 199 and route 60; my sweaty palms pressing against the side window as I impatiently tapped my forehead on the glass. Finally! Arrival! Flashing our season passes to the gate personnel and then actually crossing the threshold of the park’s entrance seemed as tedious as watching Congressmen bicker on CNN. Maybe the world found amusement in my frustration; it certainly seemed so.
You know those kid leashes that parent’s use these days; the one that looks like a little monkey? I’d bet money that my mom wished she could have had one of those. I never strayed farther than 15 feet ahead before I heard shouts of typical parental frustration. Get Back Here! Stop running! I’m warning you!
My response was a huffed “Hurry up! For Pete’s sake, come on!”
When we passed Italy’s garden area, I knew we were almost there. In retrospect, I should have just strolled down the lane and cleverly stopped at the restroom because the phrase “Hurry Up and Wait,” soon applied to our predicament. Turning the corner, we quickly reached the end of the line for The Big Bad Wolf which was currently the middle of the San Marco Bridge. This was not what I had hoped to see.
A groan escaped my dad. My mom sighed and looked at me. “How about we come back tomorrow? This line is going to take all day.”
I looked at my mom as if she were the headless horseman. “I want to ride the Big Bad Wolf!” I declared with my chin jutting out and my arms crossed in defiance. My legs planted themselves like roots of a mighty oak.
“Ok” she resigned. “So be it, but I do not want to hear one single complaint missy!”
I wasn’t tall enough to really see over the concrete wall of the San Marco Bridge but I could still hear the Siren’s song of a roller coaster. I stretched up on my tippy-toes, my hand clutching the textured wall, just so I could get a glimpse of the Wolf. Eureka! There it was! The Big Bad Wolf was real! It was here; born into the world at last!
I could not have contemplated a more magical time in my life to witness the Big Bad Wolf’s arrival. Seven was the prime age of innocence. I still believed in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and pure magic. In my youthful world, fairies lived in my garden, gnomes roamed freely in our house; and when I talked to my Star Wars action figures, they actually responded.
Drawing nearer to the entrance my heart could barely take the blood rushing though it. I could hear my pulse as loudly as the coaster cars flying overhead! Pure Magic! I thought. The black cars glimmered like fairy dust in the sun; the red tracks looked like a mythical creature crawling through the trees. Much like a true love’s kiss in fairy tales, I felt an unbreakable connection from the Big Bad Wolf immediately attach itself to my heart.
It took three hours to actually ride the Big Bad Wolf that day and surprisingly, my patience never faltered during the wait. Afterwards, I knew this ride would be forever special. It was everything I dreamed it to be and more!
As a child, the Big Bad Wolf took me to a magical place. As a young adult, the ride served as a means to whisk away my worries and replaced them with peace. It was a welcome companion through life’s journey. No matter how bad my day was, how bullies at school taunted me, or if some silly boyfriend broke my heart, the Big Bad Wolf cradled me, gently rocking me back and forth along its red tracks until I no longer cared. I would close my eyes and just feel as if I were flying away from it all.
Still, not even the healing powers of my favorite coaster could assist me in the next stage of my life; the loss of a loved one. My grandmother used to share her words of wisdom by starting off with the line: “When I am gone, remember what I say.” I used to scoff and rebuke her declaration with: “Oh Stop it! You’ll live forever!” Sadly, I believed that. I had fooled myself into thinking that death was a fictitious tale to frighten children.
When my grandmother passed away, I held a veil over my eyes that shielded me from accepting it. My grandfather’s death however, was excruciatingly real. I realized that with granddad still alive, I could still feel my grandmother’s presence. Losing him was like losing my grandmother too. The veil was lifted and I saw death for what it was; a thief.
A few months after I lost my grandfather, the park officially announced the closing of the Big Bad Wolf. My world began to crumble.
It can’t be! I thought. The Big Bad Wolf is supposed to live forever! The naive mantra I had maintained before my grandparents passing returned in desperate force but quickly faded. I realized that this roller coaster had become more than just a machine of steel; it had become more than just my friend. It had become an inseparable part of my life and in turn, a part of me. If something as strong as the Big Bad Wolf could fall, then what will carry on after me? What will be left of us all?
A riddle from the Hobbit came to mind:
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town
And beats high mountains down.
The answer was time. Time devours everything. I had finally come to understand what “nothing lasts forever” really meant.
It was almost too painful for me to ride the Big Bad Wolf after the announcement. I felt as if I was holding my friend’s hand at the hospital who was only given weeks to live. The fate of the Wolf was out of my hands. No matter what I did, nothing would save it.
The final day of the coaster’s operation arrived and after winning an auction earlier that month, I had already secured the honor of having the last “official” ride of the Big Bad Wolf. The day went by so fast, but just before my hand slipped off the coaster car for the last time, I was able whisper a soft farewell.
The next few weeks I felt lost in a emotionless fog until I eventually ran across a quote from my hero General Joshua Chamberlain. His wise words aided in my quest to find closure to a long year of sorrow.
“We do not live for self…. We are a part of a larger life, reaching before and after, judged not by deeds done in the body but deeds done in the soul. We wish to be remembered. Willing to die, we are not willing to be forgotten.
..it is the living who cherish what can never die; it is the loving who keep back their dead from death.”
Profound words from a great man.
My grandparents are gone, The Big Bad Wolf is gone, and in time, I too will be no more. Yet, if Chamberlain is right and as long we harbor the memories of those we love, then we do not walk alone in our grief; we carry their love with us.
I have taken that lesson to heart.
Therefore, I will steadfastly hold treasured memories until the end of my days; never to forget the love of my grandparents nor the welcoming sight of my dear friend, The Big Bad Wolf.
~May they continue to live on in the hearts of all who loved them.