Class Action Park, Blood, and the Glory of Risk
HBO has a new documentary "Class Action Park" out, on the train wreck that was New Jersey's Action Park amusement complex in the 1980s. (A "class action" is an American type of large-scale liability litigation in US law, for those not familiar – get it?). I'm not a big fan of the documentary – too many cartoons with no value added – but they get the basics right, and they do explore the connection to organized crime a bit. There are other treatments on YouTube that will give you the basics and a hint of the culture of the time.
I grew up in New Jersey in the 1980s, and still have a crooked tooth from a 30-foot-dive-gone-wrong from Action Park, so this subject hits close to home. It was every bit as dangerous as the documentaries make it sound. The attractions were not mechanically complex – most were gravity-powered – but they looked like they were designed by your Uncle Rube and made out of parts from the local lumber supply store. In many cases, they were.
The most notorious ride was the loop-de-loop waterslide, which was rarely open due to its frequent problems and accidents. They had two other versions of this built sideways and buried underground which I do recall vividly, mostly because they a) were terrifying and b) dumped you out into a 10-foot drop into ice-cold mountain spring water pools.
Action Park, however, as a lab on the mechanics of risk was interesting. It attracted teenagers – those old enough to drive out to the western New Jersey mountains, or able to convince their parents to do so. Teenagers are known for their hormonal urges, not their risk management skills. They were turned loose into a danger-filled playground with water and skimpy swimsuits. There was little supervision – most of the staff were teenagers themselves. It was a level of anarchy much of the developed world no longer allows.
People remember incidents with strong emotional content. For many Action Park visitors, it was a first taste of new freedoms. You were with friends you were concerned about impressing. There were attractive people around to show off in front of. There were rides that were clearly risky, but with an underlying imprimatur of presumed safety – they wouldn't have it in an amusement park if it wasn't safe, right?
I remember looking at the cliff diving – mostly exactly that, high cliffs overlooking a large swimming pool that you could jump off of – and giving it a go in a snap decision. I remember the mix of fear of jumping, fear of my friends laughing at me for not jumping, and fear of scorn from the good-looking girl behind me. The last two were stronger than the first one. I jumped.
Hitting the water from a substantial height can be OK if you are prepared for it. I was not, and my jaw hit the water without preceding my feet or body. A bloody mouth ensued, and my front right tooth was knocked a bit loose. Given the thousands of dollars and three years that had been spent on orthodontia on my behalf, I refrained from telling my parents when I got home. But that tooth is off-kilter today.
It's a battle scar I wear proudly, though. I saw a risk, I overcame myself, I took the risk, and I survived the experience with a tale to tell.
There's a t-shirt saying you will find in ski resort knickknack shops, usually the less expensive one. "Bones heal. Chicks dig scars. Pain is temporary. Glory is forever". It turns out it's adapted from a quote from Keanu Reeves in American football movie "The Replacements" If Keanu Reeves said it, it’s fine by me, though many disagree. Regardless, it says something about risk, even dumb teenage ones. Perhaps those are the best kind.
Not all took the same risks and had the same outcomes. There were deaths at Action Park, and some question as to what governmental oversight can or should have done. I do not mean to trivialize those issues with what, for me, has the whiff of nostalgia. Risk, however, does inherently imply that there may be a bad outcome. Without those outcomes, it’s not a risk. And those outcomes are perhaps necessary for progress. There's another skiing saying: "If you're not falling, you're not trying." Engineering all risk out of life is increasingly possible, and society seems to be prizing this behavior more and more. This however may not be wise.