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Al Martinez

A Ferris wheel spins a spell that is hard to resist. : A View From Below

July 23, 1987|Al Martinez

There is something about a Ferris wheel that lures me to the carnival, whether it is tucked into a corner of a county fair or blazing with lights in the middle of a parking lot.

I am drawn to it from a shadow of childhood memory that regards the Ferris wheel as a symbol of special pleasures, an almost mystical circle in the sky, evoking ghosts with the efficacy of a hypnotist's pendulum.

So it was no surprise last week on a morning laced with mist that I was drawn to the Santa Monica Pier, whereupon the new Ferris wheel sits.

Let me say at the outset that it doesn't take a lot to lure me to the ocean. I have an almost primitive response to the sea. I can stand for hours on an isolated beach just staring at the surf, without a thought in my head or the slightest need to communicate with anyone.

I'm happy at the ocean on days of howling storm or withering heat, when wise men rush for shade and shelter, leaving fools to dream on the shoreline.

I don't need a reason to be there. The whisper of a salt-water wind is enough. But a Ferris wheel, like perfume in a woman's hair, adds to the allure, and spins a spell that is hard to resist.

I was southbound on Pacific Coast Highway when I first saw the big wheel turning slowly through strands of fog that lay like silver ribbons over the morning pier.

I was late for a meeting that offered immense column possibilities, but I stopped anyhow to watch the Ferris wheel across the triangle of water that separated us, and eventually I said to hell with the meeting and drove to the pier.

Everyone ought to be able to do that once in awhile, indulging the simple pleasure of recalling with difficulty the childhood freedoms we once thought we would never forget.

Everyone ought to be able to say to hell with it and not end up paying a price beyond the worth of the product.

Weekdays don't draw huge crowds to the pier, so I could sit alone on a bench and watch the Ferris wheel turn without the necessity of making small talk with someone sitting next to me. I've never been good at chatting.

I haven't ridden a Ferris wheel for years, partly because being turned on a wheel through the air is not high on my list of priorities and because, well, riding in a Ferris wheel, like climbing a tree, belongs to other times and other ages.

Watching the Ferris wheel is enough for me, seeing it turn almost silently against a lacy sky, without the clattering roar that accompanies a roller coaster or the uneven rhythms of those other rides that bump and jerk across the sand or sawdust.

A Ferris wheel is, by necessity, a smooth and compelling flow of circular movement, touching places in memory that no roller coaster ever could. A Ferris wheel is for quiet times.

I probably could have sat there alone all day without talking to anyone, but was distracted by a little boy who walked up to within three feet and stared silently into my face.

Kids have a way of doing that. They peer directly into your eyes and wait, knowing with absolute certainty that eventually you are going to do something that no one has ever done before, and they are going to be there to witness it.

I decided not to say anything to the kid as long as he didn't say anything to me. I watched the Ferris wheel and he watched me, waiting for geese to fly from my ears, or my head to explode in a burst of balloons and confetti.

"Are you going to ride the Ferris wheel?" he finally asked.

"Maybe," I said.

"My name is Fred."

"Maybe, Fred."

"I'm not afraid of the Ferris wheel," he said.

"Neither am I," I said.

"Then why don't you ride it?"

I was tempted to reply because it might break loose and roll into the sea, but this would have opened a whole new line of questioning, so I just said, "Maybe I will."

"When?"

"Maybe next Monday."

Perfect. I have a friend named Travis who is 4 and who, when he's not sure how to respond, says "Maybe next Monday."

"What's happening next Monday?" Fred wanted to know.

"Everything," I said, which seemed consistently vague.

Fred considered that for a moment and then said, "I'm 6, how old are you?"

"A lot older than 6," I said.

A woman in the distance called his name.

"Well," he said, "I've got to go."

He ran toward her, and moments later they climbed into a seat on the Ferris wheel. Fred saw me and waved enthusiastically from high overhead and I waved back, wishing for a moment that time could transport me to his place, but knowing that it couldn't.

It just isn't the same when your hair is gray and the wonder's gone.

I sat there for a long time watching the Ferris wheel turn. It wasn't until the morning mist had vanished and teen-age boys who called each other "dude" were swarming over the pier that I decided it was time to leave.

But I'll go back again soon to sit on a bench and watch the Ferris wheel and maybe talk to Fred, if he's there. It'll be on one of those to-hell-with-it kinds of days.

Next Monday maybe.

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