My favorite childhood memory was of our first family trip. We went to an amusement park in Virginia, King’s Dominion. I can still remember when my older brother, Ray, first told me, “We’re going to King’s Dominion tomorrow.” I was eleven years old with no idea what King’s Dominion was and too afraid to ask Ray stupid questions. He was fourteen years old and easily annoyed. Besides, Ray seemed excited enough for us both. I simply emulated his enthusiasm and listened to his descriptions of the park for the rest of that day.
By the next morning I had revisited the idea of the wonderland a hundred times. Would there be a mighty King in regal garments with a jewel encrusted sword and a crown of gold? Was there a magnificent castle with a moat, drawbridge, and subjects who paid the King’s toll to have fun? Were there dragons, guards, and clashes of steel? I was psyched about going to King’s Dominion.
We were up before dawn getting prepped. I chose my favorite pair of jam shorts, which I’d already worn earlier that week, a blue tank top, and my only pair of name brand sneakers, gray suede Adidas. Ray wore jam shorts, a t-shirt, and a pair of blue and white Nikes. His style was always fresh. My mom fixed meals and got my sister, Sophia, ready. At four years old, she seemed more irked for being awakened so early than stoked about the trip. To cheer her up, I promised her an amusement park ride together.
Shortly after that, Reotis arrived. He and my mom were dating. Reotis was tall, dark, and liked to wear shades. He was always in good spirits, accompanying every other word with a smile. We liked Reotis a lot for being active in our lives. He talked with Ray and I about school, gave us money for arcade games, and took us all out for fast food. On that day, he had promised to take us to King’s Dominion. We all gathered our things, loaded up the car, and headed out. I situated myself next to the backseat window to gaze through the glass. I was a dreamer, and the world beyond our town’s limits had always piqued my imagination. Within minutes we’d put the hazardous potholes of the E. B. Jordan housing projects behind us, and were cruising down the smooth, endless blacktop of highway 301.
The adventure began for me right away. I was transfixed on everything outside my window – rural homes, rivers and ponds, pastures with grazing cows. The simplest things fascinated me. There were radio towers that spanned the heavens, eighteen-wheelers that devoured our tiny car in their shadows, and roadways interwoven like knitted linen. The world outside our town of Wilson, NC, was everything I had imagined.
The mood inside the car was made livelier with the sweet sounds of Whitney Houston, “Oh, I wanna dance with somebody!” It was my mom’s favorite cassette. Ray and I played a game in which some of life’s luxuries were as easily obtainable as being the first to point and proclaim, “That’s my car!” or “That’s my house!” After a while, I grew bored with the scenes outside my window and dozed off. It wasn’t long before Ray shook me awake. “Git up!” he shouted, punctuating the command with a jab to the shoulder. “We’re here!” I sprang to life, anxious for my first peek.
There was a giant Ferris wheel that could be seen above the tree line, with its bucket seats dipping down below, along with steel tracks and the guardrail of a roller coaster ride. I bounced from window to window as I took in the spectacle of King’s Dominion. It was a timeless moment without breath or sound. The stillness lasted momentarily, then uproar.
Mom reiterated her list of do’s and don’t’s. Reotis weaved through traffic to make the exit ramp. Sophia pointed this way and that, while Ray verbally committed to every ride he saw. I was enchanted by the sights alone – bright lights, colorful balloons, water rides, and candy. I noticed that there weren’t any castles or dragons, but the disappointment lessened with each scream that came from within. Before entering the park, we ate cold cuts and drank canned sodas from a cooler stored in the trunk. Then, we made our way to the ticket booth, paid the fare, and were admitted.
We took a brief tour of King’s Dominion to get familiar with the premises, then enjoyed an hour or so of family time. Booth games. Arcades. The carousel. Reotis bought us sun visors, except Ray, who chose a purple sailor’s hat. We were so happy just being together. It was the first time I’d felt like one of the normal families I’d seen advertised in movies and on cereal boxes. For one day I wasn’t poor, uneducated, and destined for failure by the dysfunctional circumstances of my environment. We weren’t restricted to having black fun while everyone else had white fun. It was the one time I can remember when the world was perfect, and racial strife was a thing that existed galaxies away. The only universe that mattered was King’s Dominion.
After a while Ray was ready to head out on his own. His adventurous side had been quelled long enough, and it was roller coaster time. The only stipulation was that he had to take me along and keep me safe. Ray wasn’t thrilled about that, but I was. I liked being Ray’s responsibility. He and I spent the day screaming, laughing, and clutching each other as monstrous roller coasters whisked us through their courses. It felt wonderful to lean on my brother when I was scared.
Ray and I later rejoined the rest of the family. The sun was setting, and patrons were winding down from the day’s activities. It was time for us to leave. Reotis snapped photos to capture the moment.
Soon, we were back on the road driving away from that magical Mecca of fun toward a more arid reality. A reality where sugar water with cereal bespoke the absence of money for milk. A reality that would discover Reotis with a wife and family, and fading from our lives. Where, in just a few short years, Ray would become hooked on drugs. The consequent neglect would cause me to harbor anger and resentment for my vulnerability and to turn to negative influences, trying to fill a void. A reality where my brother and sister would grow estranged as adults for a theft three decades past. One where I would battle tumultuous inner demons while serving more than half of my life in a cage. That was what we were driving back to – the only reality for people like us. Yet, for one day, King’s Dominion allowed us to shrug off our fates, cast aside our burdens, and live in a moment of blissfulness that even reality could not disturb.