03/24/2014 01:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Not D-I-E on a D-I-Y Amusement Park Ride


This story was written and performed by Whitney Presley for the live, personal storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession With True Life Tales) at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas, Texas on April 17, 2012. The theme of the show was "Have A Field Day."

Oral Fixation creator Nicole Stewart says, "When Whitney performed this story live, she had the audience rolling in the aisles. Her comedic timing is impeccable. Enjoy the ride!"

In 2006, I was in a grant writing position for a university, a job that was really just an endless game of computer solitaire interspersed with the occasional writing assignment. I was feeling unchallenged on many levels, restless and just flat out stuck. Travel had always been an antidote to boredom before, so I looked around for the cheapest ticket out of Austin I could find.

My father's church was taking a one-week mission trip to Latvia, which, once I Googled it to figure out where the heck it was, sounded mysterious, exciting and just the jolt I needed to break the monotony of my monotony. So I boarded the plane with a group of strangers, and 17 hours later I found myself in the capital city of Riga.

When we arrived at the church, we were told they weren't sure they needed us, so the group leaders found ways to occupy us teaching English, counseling and working as promoters for an upcoming church concert. It was not quite the adventure I had envisioned. So when they gave us a free day to explore the city, I jumped at the chance and dragged one of my newfound, seemingly adventurous friends, Angela, out to explore Riga.

We had a field day.

We crashed a birthday party in the city square where everyone was dressed in superhero costumes and was drunk at 10 in the morning. We rode to the top of the tallest church in Riga in an elevator that had survived three fires...yet still had all its original parts. We ate Latvian street food- strange meat on sticks (horse?) and bought "priceless" amber from one of the 52 amber street stalls.

Then, we stumbled upon the amusement park. This was not an amusement park by Six Flags standards. Or Coney Island standards. Or even traveling fair that sets up in a parking lot on the seedy side of town for two weeks standards. This was a Latvian amusement park, where the shells of old rides lay broken beside the new rides so the kids had something to climb on while they waited their turn in line.

There were three rides in the park and they were all "do-it-yourself." There was a mechanical bull with a hand crank generator beside it. The length of your ride was determined by how long you cranked the generator beforehand. There was an airplane ride that took you in a circle upside down. Really, it was just a pair of bikes with an airplane shell. The faster you peddled, the faster you got around the circle and back down to the ground. And then, there was the tower death drop. You know, where you ride slowly to the top and then plummet to the ground. The trick? You used a pulley to haul yourself to the top of the tower.

I immediately told Angela that we weren't leaving until we had ridden one of these rides. I mean, what a cap it would be for the whole day. The bikes seemed like a lot of work and the bull? Please, we're from Texas. So we checked out the tower again. It was mainly kids, and they seemed to be pulling themselves to the top easily, waiting a few seconds and then dropping smoothly to the ground. It didn't look that scary... so the Tower of Death it was!

We walked over and handed the teenage "ride tech" our money. He casually looked us up and down and then pointedly looked at the sign. We looked at the sign. It was in three languages, none of which were English, so the only part I understood was the phrase, "150 kilograms."

I turned to Angela and said, "There must be a weight limit. How much do you weigh?"

Angela hesitated, and then slowly said she weighed about 125 pounds. Well, 128 since she had eaten street food that morning.

"Oh yeah, yeah, me too," I said. "Well, I mean... uh... it's more like 130 for me. So, that's about 250 pounds, which is totally within the weight limit. Plus, they always underestimate the restrictions on these rides. We should be fine!"

We turned and smiled at the teenager, who shrugged and pointed toward one of the benches. We climbed on and he locked the safety bar in place. He gave us one more look and started laughing. It was very disconcerting.

The ride started. As you pulled yourself up, the ride circled so that you could get a full 360 degree view of Riga. We reached out tentatively and yanked on the ropes in front of us and quickly rose about two feet in the air. Shwomp, shwomp. Just as swiftly, we dropped a foot. Plunk.

Angela jumped. I jumped. We both giggled nervously and reached for the ropes again. A good hard yank took us another two feet in the air, where we dangled a second or two before dropping a foot again. Plunk. More nervous laughter. None of those kids had dropped like this when they were on the ride earlier.

That was when we noticed a small crowd had gathered at the bottom of the ride. There were several cameras and lots of fingers pointing up at us. We soldiered on. Shwomp, shwomp, plunk. Shwomp, shwomp, plunk. Fifteen feet above the ground. Twenty feet above the ground. Thirty feet above the ground. And finally, we were at the top.

We were a couple stories high and could see all the buildings and city sprawl of Riga. The ride was kind of shaking as we circled around and around, waiting for the drop that was to come. We weren't sure what was more frightening, the ensuing drop or the duct tape we spotted holding the thing together. We could feel the fear oozing out of each other's pores. It was probably the most frightened I have ever been in my life.

The feeling went on and on and on and on. We were stuck. Stuck at the top of the Tower of Death with no idea how to get down.

We fiddled with the rope and tried to pull the pulley backwards. We yelled down to the sullen teenager, but he just stared at us. We tried to pull on the ropes behind us thinking that might loosen something, but to no avail; we just circled around and around. Finally, I found a button on the back of the seat and pressed it. The safety bar flew up, pitching the bench forward. We yelped and tried to re-lock it.

Then boom! We plunged into a free fall. We were screaming our heads off, holding desperately onto the safety bar as it tried to fly over our heads. I was praying that because we were on a mission trip doing the Lord's work, He might be more inclined to save us from our own stupidity.

And wham! We came to a screeching halt about 10 feet off the ground, and then slowly dropped one foot at a time. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. The crowd that had gathered at the bottom started cheering and clapping like we had defied gravity, which we kind of had.

You know how they say that in the moments before death, your life flashes before your eyes? It doesn't. Mainly it's just images of a Latvian amusement park ride rushing past. What they don't tell you is the moment after, the moment you realize you're dangling just a few feet above safety. That moment of such complete clarity. That's what the blinding light is! It's the onslaught of profound life-altering realizations that you maybe should write down somewhere and remember for the future.

Things like: maybe the next time you're getting on a weight-restricted, do-it-yourself amusement park ride, don't lie about your weight. And learn how to say, "Hey, please help me" in several languages. Like Russian. Or Latvian. And that maybe the next time you're stuck on this ride we call life with no way of knowing how to get down or out or moving, the best thing you can do is release the safety bar. Sometimes a free fall can be a new adventure, not the death trap you expect it to be.