Father's Sky-High Daydreams

Dad was a true amusement park connoisseur. When we visited family in southern California, he would take us three kids and scores of our cousins to Pacific Ocean Park. We'd get there the second it opened and leave when it closed, not a minute sooner. Dad loved the fact that we paid once at the gate and could take the rides as often as we cared to.

Of us all, Dad was the one who enjoyed the wild rides the most. He called them ''stomach rides'' and would go on his favorites - the real adrenaline boosters - repeatedly. He particularly liked the Barrel.

It was a tube the size of a small room. As the tube spun, centrifugal force plastered each person to the wall. Then the floor would drop. Dad loved it because he could maneuver himself into a sitting position, or sideways, or (always his preference) upside down. He would break into a huge grin as, topsy turvy, he whirled wildly.

Another ride he was fond of was called the Hammer. Since it was situated right next to the ocean, the thrill was in plunging toward the water, sometimes upside down, only to be jerked away at the last possible moment.

''Wow!'' he'd say, between rides. ''That was great!''

As Dad tirelessly and joyously went from one thrill to the next, we kids would grow weary. When he'd see us lined up on the bench waiting for him, he'd frown. ''You're not letting those rides go to waste, are you? They're paid for!'' And then off he'd go to get his money's worth.

Given his penchant for spinning, swooping, and hurtling through space, it was no surprise that he was crazy about airplanes. About anything to do with flying, really.

I remember standing in a crowd, neck craned and eyes skyward. We were at an airshow. It was summer in the Sacramento Valley. Clouds of dust burned my eyes and scraped my throat.

A man's voice shimmered frantically through the heat waves as he floated to earth under his enormous parachute.

''Help, get me down! I said get me down from here!''

Dad said, ''Kind of late to change his mind,'' and roared with laughter. But there was envy in his eyes. ''That's gotta be a thrill. The view must be tremendous.''

Not long after that, Dad had a talk with my mother. ''Bon,'' he said casually, ''they're giving sky-diving lessons out at the airport. I think I'll sign up.''

Mom looked at him, then she looked around at the three of us, ages 9, 8, and 6.

She said, ''Oh no you don't, Fred! You're not leaving me a widow with these three! Forget it.''

He did, until years later. We children were well into adolescence when he brought it up again: ''You know, Bon, some of the guys from work are going to start sky-diving lessons, and I....''

But he didn't get a chance to finish.

My mother's voice had an edge to it that might be described as panic. ''And leave me husbandless with these teenagers? Please tell me you're joking, Fred!''

Well, he couldn't tell her that, but he could drop the subject. And did.

It stayed dropped until maybe a decade later. Times were good for the two of them. We children had gone out into the world to make our fortunes - or at least, manage to support ourselves. My mother had a job she loved; the house was remodeled and redecorated; and they spent their vacations traveling.

It was time to reap the rewards as Dad coasted toward retirement.

One fine evening, Dad said to Mom, ''You know, Bon, I've been thinking. Old Rick Williams is going to be giving sky-diving lessons out at the airport. You know I've always wanted to learn. So - maybe I should sign up. What do you say?''

Mom looked at him and said, ''Okay.''

Dad's lips formed the capital letter O. A minute passed, maybe two.

Finally he said, ''What?''

''I said yes - you should probably get signed up for them. The kids are grown, and my job's secure.'' She smiled at him. ''Take the lessons and enjoy them, with my blessing.''

Dad gaped at her. Finally he sputtered, ''What's wrong? Don't you love me any more?''

And that was the last any of us heard about sky-diving lessons. Much as he hated to admit it, I guess even Dad had his limits.

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