28 May 2000. Fort Myers, Florida. Hand-in-hand, Mother and I made our way down the crumbled sidewalk. She had already measured me, at home. I was finally tall enough, this year, to ride The Round Up. What an eternity, to reach 48 inches!
As we reached the carnival, we could see the blurred lights of the spinning rides and we could hear human screams mixed with laughter. I pulled Mother along, as fast as she could go, until we reached the ticket counter. Reaching into her purse, she pulled out a small wad of crumpled $1 bills and handed them to the ticket lady. Separating the tickets in two, Mother handed me half—saving the other half for later. With tickets clutched in my fist, I sped away, hearing Mother’s faint yell, “Be careful! And meet back before dark!” Ah, the smell of funnel cakes, elephant-ears, and churros! Sprinting through the crowd, I had only one objective: The Round Up.
When I was still too small, I would watch the big kids get spun a million miles an hour. I had seen them moments later, getting off the ride, dizzy and wobbly, but always smiling. The bravest ones got right back in line. My hour had come. Riding this ride would give me bragging rights to all of my shorter friends. In line, I stood upright, neck tall, shoulders back. The previous riders stumbled out. My heart raced, my breath quickened. I half expected the ticket-man to pull me aside and check my measurements…but he just took my ticket and waved me through. (Thank you, Lord!)
The Round Up was a massive steel cylinder that turned faster and faster until its riders were glued to the sides. And just when as the world turns blurry, the floor drops away. Ah, that joyous feeling, to flirt with fate! I settled myself between two kids as nervous, as excited, as myself.
Slip your arms into the shoulder harness. Check.
Buckle your waist strap. Check.
A ride attendant inspected our work. He gave the other guy a thumbs-up. Check.
The Round Up creaked to a slow start. Picking up speed now. Faster. Faster. Faster. Whoaa, too fast! The G-force pinned my shoulders and back to the wall. Closing my eyes I felt the rush of wind. Without warning, the floorboards creaked and gave way. Then, suddenly, it was over. As quickly as they opened, the floorboards closed. The ride slowed to a halt. The boy to my right was asparagus-green. I knew this would be his last ride for the day. The girl to my left was shaking but happy: The Round Up had captured another loyal victim.
I looked around for Mother. I thought she might be waiting for me, watching from a distance, unseen, as guardian angels tend to do. At that moment, a policeman jostled his way through the crowd, his baton raised high. Then another. And another. More excitement! I ran after the cops, I wanted to be apart of the action. A crowd had gathered by the Ferris Wheel. There were shouts. “Hit him! Hit him! Stop resisting, nigger! Get down!” Squeezing between the legs of the grownups, I headed to the front.
Face down in the grass, a young black teenager was being pinned by two policemen The heavy-set officer dug his knee deep into the side of the young man’s neck. The other officer worked to grapple the young man’s arms behind his back to handcuff him. I had never witnessed anything like this.
Where was my mother? I needed my mother! I hurried back to where we parted. She was gone. The lights over the ticket-booth were off, now. Tears welled up. At the carnival entrance, squad cars lined the curb. Some half-dozen handcuffed boys and girls sat on the ground, some quiet and crying. A few rebels shouted profanities at the cops. Men, women and young teenagers were being maced, wrestled to the ground and handcuffed. As more cops arrived, the crowd fanned out to escape their swinging batons.
With no sight of my mother, I reached the entrance praying that she would be there waiting for me. Just then a young black teen, running past, was tackled by a German Shepherd. The dog seized him by the leg. The young boy thrashed and screamed as the dog dragged him towards the cops. Quickly surrounding the boy as he flailed on the ground, two policemen pounced, rolled him over, and handcuffed him behind his back. Crying and pleading, the young boy was led off to the nearest cop car.
“CHAZMEN! CHAZ!” My mother’s voice! Bursting into tears, I ran to her embrace and thanked God for returning her to me. Kneeling down on the grass, she hugged me tight and explained: There had been a fight between some young girls. The police were called. Some of the children had resisted arrest. “Let this be a lesson.” my Mother said. It was. Try as I may, I have never been able to forget The Round Up.