One August afternoon my niece, Vikki, and I were shopping on Balboa Island, not really looking for anything in particular, just strolling along Marine Avenue, munching frozen bananas from Sugar ‘n Spice. We wandered into a high-end gift and card shop, the kind that stocks museum merchandise. Vikki picked up a greeting card with a reproduction of Munch’s “The Scream” on the front. “Looks like Gramma on the Mummy ride,” she said.
I laughed. “It sure does!”
Two weeks before, my parents had visited. They stayed with Jamie and me in Santa Monica and, as it was summer, I was off work and had lots of time to spend with them. Vikki came over often, usually at night, but one day Jamie got us passes to Universal Studios, so she took the day off to go with us.
Vikki had never been to the theme park before and I hadn’t gone since about 1977 when the Jaws shark attacking the tram was the big attraction so we were all looking forward to spending the day together and having some fun.
“Have a good time!” Jamie yelled over his shoulder that morning as he banged the screen door on his way to the studio. I caught the handle and leaned against the doorjamb.
“You sure you don’t want to come with us?” I called after him.
“Are you nuts?” he shouted from the rise of the sidewalk. “I can’t think of anything worse.”
That was probably true. Jamie didn’t like sticky children or amusement parks and the whole “magic of moviemaking” concept left him cold. (“It’s not magic,” he’d grumble. “It’s real estate.”)
I returned to the kitchen to refill my coffee mug and check the clock. Vikki was supposed to arrive by about seven-thirty so we could go to The Firehouse on Main Street in Venice for breakfast before the trek to the Valley. We would take her car since I was a nervous driver and my father believed in an early start for every excursion: if the Park opened at eight, he thought we should be in the parking lot at seven forty-five, LA commuter traffic be damned.
I was adding cream to my mug when my mom entered from the guest bedroom. She was completely dressed in linen pants and a coordinating top, huarache sandals, and a chiffon scarf tied stylishly around her head. She looked great, especially for a trip to a sweltering amusement park destined to be full of shrieking children and dripping food products.
“Wow, you’re all dressed up!” I exclaimed. “I am just going to wear khaki shorts.”
“I don’t wear shorts at my age,” she sniffed. “Varicose veins.”
I paused, as I wondered whether they were genetic, then, noticing that my mom’s hair looked especially good I asked, “Did you get a new wig?”
My mother smiled. “Yes, do you like it? The color is called Golden Ash.”
“Yeah, it’s beautiful, very flattering, but aren’t you going to be too hot? It’ll be over ninety degrees there today.”
She shook her head slightly. “No, I will be fine. My hair is dirty and I cannot do anything with it.” I must have looked skeptical because she added, “I’ll take a hat.”
I shook my head. “I wasn’t thinking about sunburn or color fading, just that your head might be too hot.”
My mother opened the dishwasher and placed her mug gently on the top rack. “No, I will be fine.”
“Okay. Well, your choice. I’m going to go shower and dress so we can go eat as soon as Vikki gets here.”
About ninety minutes later, we were finally on our way to Universal. I had put my father in the front with Vikki. She and I disagree about driving. I think she has a lead foot and she says I am a quivering lap dog. I call her Mario Andretti and she calls me The Pomeranian. We bicker less if we walk places.
It was nearly ten when we made it to the gates. The Park had opened at eight so the lines were already long. “I knew we should have gotten here early,” my father muttered.
“It doesn’t matter, “ I said pushing them toward the VIP gates. “Jamie’s friend Bru reserved the tickets. He is in charge of Physical Production here so we have Super VIP passes.”
The VIP Access gates were nearly empty; we were at the box office window in about two minutes. I could feel the air conditioning blasting out the aperture when the clerk slid open her little Plexiglas door. I explained who we were and provided everyone’s identification. We could feel the heat rising from the pavement as we stood while she verified our identities with Bru’s office, then with Jamie’s. Eventually she returned with our identification and plastic VIP Access passes on Universal lariats. She explained that our passes came with Front of Line Access and Repeat Ride options. I didn’t think we’d use Repeat Ride but Front of Line was good because my parents are in their eighties and it was getting hotter by the moment so the less they had to stand, the better.
With my father consulting the map, we began our trek through the Park. We started with the Studio Tour on the tram train that I remembered from my adolescence, then went into a special exhibit of costumes from the golden age of horror movies. We visited the King Kong 3D, had a snack, and perused a few shops.
“Come on, let’s go on some rides,” Vikki said.
“Okay. Do you want to?” I asked my parents.
My father replied “sure” at the same moment my mom said, “no, you go.”
“Oh come on, Gramma,” Vikki pleaded.
My mother sighed and considered. If she did this, it would only be because she loved her granddaughter, “All right,” she said finally. “Which one?”
Vikki looked around; she pointed. “That one.” We headed toward the huge Egyptian-like display. “The Revenge of the Mummy,” I read. I doubted that my mother was going to enjoy anything with the word “revenge” in the title. We read the explanation before joining the queue. “ Heart-pounding special effects . . . unexpected twists and turns . . . speeds up to 45 mph . . . virtual darkness.”
I turned to my mother. “Are you certain you want to do this?”
I could tell by her hesitation that she wasn’t – my mother has vertigo – but she didn’t want to disappoint Vikki. “Of course,” she answered. I shook my head but we walked to the VIP Access Point anyway.
The Revenge of the Mummy train pulled up and we slid into the second row of seats. Four other people had grabbed the first row. It was probably just as well, I thought, as the safety bars snapped into place. The ride began.
The train jerked into the blackness of the tunnel. The music blared as the ride launched backward, then shot forward. Egyptian light effects bounced all around us as we climbed higher into the darkness. We stopped for a second then shot downward from what felt like Alpine heights. The wind shrieked past my face. My stomach couldn’t keep up with the rest of my body and I lost it somewhere in the middle of the ride. My brain was numb with fear as we plummeted headlong down the chute. I was sorry I had ever agreed to this.
At that moment, Vikki clutched my arm and yelled into my ear, “Gramma doesn’t look so good.” As turning my head was impossible without risking whiplash I tried to glance at my mother from the corner of my tearing eyes. It wasn’t easy in the strobing lights and I was so dizzy that I soon gave up trying. In another few seconds the ride was over and the train was gliding back into the station. When we came to a halt, I closed my eyes and tried to regain my balance as we waited for the safety bars to unlock automatically.
Suddenly I heard a shriek. “Oh, my God! Someone was decapitated by this ride! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
Then another voice, “No, no no! It’s the special effects! One came off the walls!”
I opened my eyes and saw the woman in the car in front of us throwing a decapitated head into the flock of costumed attendants who were now clustered around the platform. One of the attendants caught it and held it sideways. “This isn’t ours,” he said.
No kidding, I thought; what special effect in this place would have a pink chiffon scarf tied around it? I caught my breath as I realized what it was. I glanced over at my mother. She was the color of banana pudding and looked as though she had been scalped. The safety bar unlatched and shoving it aside I scrambled over my entire family and dived into the crowd. “Give me that!” I hissed, snatching at the decapitated head. “That is my mother’s wig!”
My mother and I found the nearest ladies’ room to repair the cranial damage while Vikki and my father went to a hot dog stand. As much as I loved hot dogs, I didn’t think I would be able to eat one; I had no stomach left to put it in.
“How does it look?” my mother asked, gazing at her reflection in the mirror. The wig had returned to its usual resting place with the scarf freshly tied around it.
“Better than when that lady was throwing it onto the platform. And tie the scarf tighter this time so that thing doesn’t go flying off anymore!”
My mother stated to laugh, and then I did, too. “If I’d really been wrapped like a mummy I wouldn’t have lost it!” she gasped. “Maybe we should wash it when we get home. We don’t really know where it’s been.” We leaned against the sinks, howling, until our stomachs cramped.
“No more rides,” my mother said as we exited the ladies’ room. “My vertigo is killing me.”
“At least your vertigo doesn’t land in total stranger’s laps and scare the shit out of them,” I answered. My mom smacked me on the arm and laughed harder.
Overall, it wasn’t a bad day, at least if you didn’t count the scariness of the ride, my mother’s Mummy-induced cranial dismemberment and subsequent vertigo, and the abject terror of the rider in the car in front of us when the wig landed in her lap. I remember that afternoon every time I see a startled bald person.
Vikki turned and walked toward the cashier with the card in her hand. “I am going to buy this to mail to Gramma,” she said smiling. “Then let’s go get another frozen banana.”