Let me point out some of the sights
and other tales from summers at Six Flags
A short story based on actual events.

Ever since I visited Disneyland, I became a fan of theme parks. In high school, when it was time to earn money, I applied at Six Flags Over Texas. I had hoped for a fun assignment, maybe on a ride, but, I was assigned to work the parking lot. This was my first real job, other than throwing newspapers on a paper route. But, this job wasn't actually in the park. I had two main tasks: I directed cars down the aisles and onto vacant rows and I put bumper stickers on the cars. If a driver didn't want a sticker, they were told to raise their wiper. That was a good way to communicate those wishes as we could look down the row and easily see which windshields had raised wipers. I got the sticker system down well - stickers in one pocket and the used paper backings in the other. As I approached a car, I pulled out a sticker, removed half of its backing, positioned the sticker, patted it down, pulled back the remaining back paper and smoothed it out. After a few rows of experience, I uncreased my speed - I almost didn't need to stop or stoop down. The stickers I put on were aligned and positioned very neatly on the bumper. Within a few weeks, My exposed skin was dark brown from being out in the sun all day. My white fingernails stood out. In 1967, most of us didn't know of spf and sun dangers.

Soon, I was promoted to tram operator. This was the plum job in the parking lot. Spending the day seated, under a shade, and driving a tram towing rows of eager parkgoers around the lot and up to the front gate. More fun was sitting in the back and reciting the spiel that first introduced the park to the guests. I was given one night to memorize the spiel, but I, like all the drivers, would ad lib some if we thought of some good joke. After all, we had a captive audience. We also had to buzz the driver when we saw that everyone was seated safely. There was a code, I think it was one buzz to go and two to stop. Or it may have been the other way around. Spiel: Remember to note what row your car is parked on. We just left row K. Six Flags will close tonight at 10pm. On the left is the Six Flags Kennel - free boarding while you're in the park. Air conditioned comfort and a treat. You've seen them on tv: Sid & Marty Krofft puppets, They are here all summer. Catch one of their hilarious shows on the hour until 8pm.

Our family visited Disneyland in 1956, the second year it was open. The television show, Disneyland, had been on the air for several months and we had watched it regularly. Walt covered the new park, showed renderings of the lands and the rides, and interspersed that with tales of Davy Crockett, Spin & Marty, and other adventures. By the time my parents planned our big trip out west, we were primed and pumped to experience this brand new concept of a family theme park. I loved it even though I was just 6 years old. In August of 1961, Angus Wynne opened Six Flags over Texas as a Disneyland for Texans. Originally, it was to be called Texas Under Six Flags, but someone declared, 'Texas ain't under nothing!' so the name was modified slightly. I went numerous times over the years and spent 4 summers working as a host in the park. It was one of the most fun jobs I have ever had, even at the minimum wage of $2.25 an hour
I felt a bit of guilt for getting paid for having a blast all summer long.
Within a few years, Six Flags parks were opened in Atlanta and St. Louis. While on a trip to Florida with my parents, we visited the Atlanta park in 1967, two months after it opened. In 1971, I and two fraternity brothers drove to a conference at Northern Illinois University. On the way, we stopped at the park outside of St. Louis, which had been open for just a couple of months. Mike, a fellow ride operator from Texas was working there and we slept on the floor of his sparsely furnished apartment. In the park, he took us to the employee entry of some of the rides. I felt uncomfortable getting ahead of the waiting guests, but Mike and my friends were already going up to the ride loading platform. And, I'm not even sure the guests were aware of how we got there.

I didn't have a car that summer after my junior year of high school. Sometimes, I would bum a ride from another coworker. Or, I would borrow a parent's car if they didn't need it, or they would drive out to Arlington (about 40 minutes from our house) to pick me up. I don't recall they ever complained, but I believe they got tired of making so many long drives, sometimes as late as 10:15 at night. I decided that if I was at Six Flags the next summer, I would buy a car.

The tower and the slide
The next summer, I worked in a new section of the park, simply called the Tower Section. The original design of the park created 6 sections - one for each flag that flew over Texas: Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas, United States, and the Confederate States. The USA section was often referred to as the Modern Section. How would one design a park section characteristic of the USA - it was just nondescript contemporary buildings, restraunts, and shops. During later expansions, those 6 themed areas gradually became gentrified to the point that now, its a chore to distinguish the 6 flagged sections. The first new themed area added was Boomtown, and then the Tower Section. A tall pseudo oil derrick (the Tower) was the centerpiece. Part way up the tower was a superslide back to the ground. Those were popular at that time, so the park built one of its own.

Our crew worked two rides - elevators up to the tower observation deck and the superslide. The tower was more fun. We loaded guests into one of two elevators, operated the large open glass-doored elevators, and monitored the guests on the two decks at the top. The slide was tough. At the bottom of the slide, we helped people get up from their prone sliding position and guided them towards one of two exits. We also picked up the burlap riding mats and placed them onto a conveyor belt that took them back up to the top of the slide. At both the top and the bottom, we were always moving, the people just kept on coming up the stairs and down the slide. It never ended. At the top, the conveyor belt just dumped the mats onto the floor. We had to bend down, pick them up, walk them over to the entrance line, and hand them to the guests. That was a bitch. Some crew members let the guests reach down and pick up their own mat, but there had to be a better way.

There was a large wooden storage bin up there where we put the mats at night and where some of the girls kept their purses. Aha. Idea. I shoved that big box over to the rail and had someone help me lift up the mat exit chute and we placed it on top of the box. The chute bent at the junction at the top roller, but no real damage. Now the bags slid down the chute and across the slick top of the box and landed at the rail the guests walked by. The guests could now easily reach over to pick up their mat. No bending or stooping. By us or the guests. I remember that some of the mats would slide too far and slip through the rail and land on the floor in the walkway. I found some rope and looped it around the railings to create a net barrier. This stopped the mats at the railing. I never got permission to move that box there. I just did it. A trait that I retained for the rest of my life. I later heard and adhered to the phrase, 'It's easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission'. But, everyone who saw this new system, workers and supervisors, thought it was a good move.

Another improvement I made was in the queue (or que) house at the base of the tower. There were two elevators in the very center of the tower shaft and the que house was divided into two lines - one for each elevator. But, while that might sound simple, it didn't work that way. Guests approaching the house would see a line and get in it. So, one side always had a longer line than the other. Then those guests would see the elevator arrive on the short side and see that the few people in that line were able to get right on, even though they entered the que house after the guests that were watching. This was not fair for these people that were spending much of their day waiting in lines for rides. At the end of the line, right before entering the elevator waiting area, we could unhook a chain and let people cross over and enter the other elevator. Hmm. This got me to thinking. What if I closed off one whole side and made everyone use just one line? We would then channel them into one of the two waiting areas. Why not. Let's try it. It was simple matter to put up a chain blocking the entrance to one side of the que house. I also moved a trash can to form a visual and physical barrier. It didn't take long for the crew to get used to the new system. It was actually easier for us to fill a waiting area and then guide the line to the other area. I demonstrated the new system to a couple of supervisors - They caught on immediately, saw the advantages for the guests, and had maintenance weld the two que lines into one longer line. I became a staunch proponent of the concept of one line to multiple destinations. I learned a valuable lesson about crowds, guides, and efficiency.

An advantage to working as the elevator operator was that the wind rushed in through the mesh panels in the sides of the elevator. It felt so refreshing during those hot Texas summers. While operating the elevator up to the top of the tower we had a brief spiel to recite - it included some statistics on the tower: how tall, how far you can see, etc. Sometimes, after our required spiel, we would ad lib more tourguide talk. Example: "As we go up and we can see the whole park, let me point out some of the sights (pause). There's one, there's another, and one over there."

We rotated jobs at our ride: top of the tower - making change for the telescopes, picking up litter, elevator crowd control, and monitoring the guests; bottom of the tower - crowd control into the elevator waiting areas, picking up litter, and taking hourly readings of the turnstiles to see the number of guests. On the slide it was also top and bottom. Top: crowd control into the lanes of the slides, making sure each rider had picked up a riding mat, litter pickup, and monitoring shove-off times of the riders. Bottom: picking up the mats and putting them on the conveyor belt to the top, helping riders get up, and, of course, litter. So, one time when it was my turn to move from the Tower top to the slide, I walked about halfway down the exposed tower staircase to a landing next to the elevator shaft. Marge, a cohort at the Tower, and I went to see "Midnight Cowboy" and afterwards went to a psychedelic club near Knox and McKinney in Dallas. In my best Six Flags manner, I asked the couple sitting on the floor next to us, “Where y'all from?” A question common in the park, but not so much in a club with stoned patrons. Marge was the elevator operator and said (loud enough for the guests in the elevator to hear) that someone had jumped and fell to the landing. I draped myself over the landing with my eyes wide open, my legs contorted on the platform, and my tongue hanging out. We were teen agers having fun for the summer. Later, I realized how stupid and stressful that prank was. Am glad we weren't caught. Part of our motivation was to have a great story to share in the 'Compound', the backstage crew dining area. Other ride operators told stories of pranks on their rides. I guess lots of dumb teenagers worked there that summer.

Once, while riding down, I finished the spiel and was about to announce that the rear doors would be opening and please exit towards the rear. About four feet from the landing, the elevator just stopped. Motionless. Quiet. We had descended into the walled barrier, which stifled any wind or ventilation. It was Texas summer hot. I called maintenance and reported our dilemma. This was the first season for the new oil derrick tower. There had been some problems with the elevator ddors. But, this was a new wrinkle - it was just stuck. I was confident it would be just a moment before we moved the remaining two feet to the exit level. I joked for the first few minutes. Then it got old. I couldn't make light of the situation any longer. I called the maintenance operator again - "They were on their way!" I felt like a comedian at the club who got little response, there was just dead silence. The maintenance guys showed up and got to work on top of the cab. Some of the passengers were getting upset. They felt I and the park could be doing more. Then, the cab moved. Slowly, we made progress and we inched down the remaining four feet. Finally. It had been about 30 minutes that we all stood packed into that elevator cab. It seemed longer since these people were on vacation, expecting a fun day, with impatient kids, and it was hot. The doors opened and the fresh air rushed in and the guests rushed out. There were two supervisors at the exit greeting and apologizing to the guests and handing out some coupon cards - I never did learn what the coupon was good for. I stepped out and talked with them briefly to give details of what happened. I then went on a break.

In the morning, before the park opened, the slide crew would test the speed of the slides. If they were slow, we had two options. Spray some wax onto the metal at the humps, places where riders would slow down. We could also sprinkle some powder, I think it was just cornstarch, to absorb any overnight moisture. We would slide down and spray or sprinkle in the lanes on either side. Sometimes, we would fine tune the outside lane to be faster. That lane caught the sun and stayed dry all day. We would rope off that lane and hand pick young riders in line to ride it. We would whisper as if we had some contraband drugs to sell. We worked that line, trying to find just the right mix of bravado and daring. The fast lane became such a hit that riders would request it. Sometimes, though, it was just too fast to be safe - then we kept it roped off.

One afternoon, a group of boisterous high school kids were coming through the line. They were having a good time. They picked up their mats and stood at the head of 4 adjoining lanes waiting for them to clear down below. They were going to race. This wasn't uncommon among groups of teenage boys. They positioned their mats, sat down, aligned themselves and were ready to go. One called Ready Set Go and they pushed off with tremendous force and glee. The accident was a fluke. One kid, pushed himself up while coming over a hump and rose up off the slide just a few inches. When he landed, one leg was across the lane divider and in the adjoining lane. At the exact moment that he came down, his friend in the next lane came off the hump and landed on his leg. The leg was stopped but the guy's body kept going. Crack. The leg broke. Just a fracture, but he was in pain. At the bottom, we heard him scream as he came on down to a stop. We kept him still and called First Aid. They sent their cart with a stretcher. Two medics lifted the stretcher onto the cart bed. A couple of Operations Supervisors had arrived by this time. During the next few days, I was interviewed by investigators from the parents' insurance company. They wanted to blame us and the park. I explained the fluke of his pushing off and landing a leg in another lane. It could not have been prevented by any ride operator. The parents were, apparently, very upset that he would not be able to play football in the fall. A fun day at Six Flags turned into a potential life-changer for the kid.

At the end of each summer season, there was a program in the Southern Palace, the largest theater in the park. When the park first opened, it was an open-air amphitheater. During the Great Renovation of 1967-68, the amphitheater was enclosed in the form of the Antebellum architecture prevalent in that section. Texas was once under the Confederate flag - this was originally called the Confederate Section. The name Confederate was dropped within a few years. The after-hours program at the Southern Palace included speeches, farewells, a slide show of the summer, and the awarding of scholarships to those employees deemed outstanding. My name was called first, before I quite understood what was going on. The friends I was sitting with pushed me up and I walked down the aisle. At the orchestra pit, I was fumbling while trying to unhook the chain across the gap. I felt a theaterful of eyes on me and a few chuckles. I gave up and just stepped over the swinging still-hooked chain. Later, at home, my mother had waited up for me and I showed her the scholarship award. She was excited and pleased. I had made her proud, and that felt good. I was so happy that I had proved myself to her, that my eyes teared up. Her response, "Why are you crying? Boys don't cry."

Why are guests frantically waving at me to stop
The next summer, I was reassigned from Parking Lot to Ride Operations. Great news. This was the most sought after designation. Because you ran the rides. Other department assignments were Food & Beverage, Souvenirs, Security, Maintenance, and the guys who swept the grounds constantly. But I was now a ride operator! I was assigned to the Sky Hook, a former crane outfitted to lift two baskets up above the treetops. It was a simple ride, but I wasn't able to operate it for several weeks. I worked at the que house loading and unloading guests. When the baskets were both in the air, we had a few minutes of down time.

I would walk under the basket as it was being lowered. My goal was to pass under it so closely that the bottom of the basket almost grazed the top of my head. I got pretty good at it - so that I didn't have to watch the basket. I made it look like I was just strolling towards the exit and was oblivious to the basket coming down. Whew, just missed it. This was fun for a while. until Margie, one of the operations supervisors, watched my antics for a while, then called me over for a 'chat'. She mentioned how much Six Flags had to pay for insurance to cover all the personnel and all the rides. And the Sky Hook had some of the highest insurance rates. They would frown on my almost being crushed by a basket full of people.

Along one whole side of the square loading area was a fence, about 8 feet high. Standard fence like you would see in thousands of backyards in thousands of suburbs. Except this one also masked the shed that contained the mechanical equipment for the ride. But from the que house, one couldn't notice the shed, just the fence. So, I would climb up and walk across the fence (actually, the edge of the shed roof. I hammed it up, like a tightrope walker would do - balancing, foot after foot, along the very narrow top of the fence. Then, I would act like I was losing my balance and flail my arms and begin to fall. As the mothers gasped and the kids screamed, I stepped onto the roof of the shed (that they couldn't see) and miraculously saved myself from a horribly disfiguring 8 foot fall to the asphalt.

Nancy taught me the 'Trash can spiel': Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please. 'This is what you have been waiting for. Your patience has paid off. Almost. Here it is: the brand new Six Flags Trash Can. Its for trash, your trash. It has the new deluxe swinging door, the Six Flags logo right here on the side'. The rest I don't remember. We only gave that spiel a few times. It was like a rehaearsal in which the script just didn't work. There were no laughs and no positive response. We knew well enough to close this production.

The Sky Hook was, essentially, a crane that lifted up a basket. Instead of winding cable on a spool and using a counterweight, there was simply a second basket on the other side of the crane's cable. As one basket went up, its cable splayed out the other side which lowered the other basket. The entire crane rotated at its base so that the descending basket could land on the same loading pad where the other basket ascended.

We would take turns loading/unloading guests or operating the crane. The operator of the crane/ride sat in a cab about 30 feet up the crane. When it was my turn, I would climb up inside a caged ladder to relieve the operator. One time, my relief person climbed and stood on the gangway just outside the cab door. We began talking and laughing about something. I was having such a good time that I forgot I was the ride operator. I was quickly reminded when I noticed, over his shoulder, a basket load of people waving frantically as their basket was dropping into the treetops. The mechanism to raise and lower the baskets was doing just as I had told it to. But, I forgot to work the mechanism to rotate the crane. I jumped off the stool and grabbed the controls - reversing the up/down cable. The basket never got caught in the branches but it had begun to tilt slightly. In the chaos and scramble, I let the other basket back down to be unloaded. That group just went up and down, and not even all the way up. The other group - the ones waving at me and worried for their safety - got a longer ride. All the way up, around, down to the trees, back up, back around, and finally, down to the unloading pad. I felt awful, embarrassed, and ashamed of the screw-up. No one was hurt.

Tired of bumming rides
One summer, I worked many double shifts in order to earn enough money to buy a car. The system: We would call the Operations desk where two girls answered the calls from those who weren't coming in to work and also from those of us who called seeking to pick up an extra shift. They would recite the options for that evening and we would pick one. they would make the assignment on a large schedule pad at their desk. We would then leave our day ride a few minutes early to go to the compound to change into the uniform for the evening ride. There was a different feel in the park at night - it was cooler, mellower, and a slightly slower pace. Maybe the guests were tiring and winding down after a long day in the park. The que house lines got shorter and we sometimes let kids stay in the car or boat and ride around again. During that summer, I worked numerous rides: both log flumes, the antique cars, the Mine Train, and a week at the Mini-Mine Train. After the park closed, we would ride the mini-mine standing up - we were surfing the ride. There was one place where we had to duck down as the train went under a railroad track trestle. I'm glad the supervisors didn't find out as they probly would have stopped that immediately.
Working double shifts was fun because I got to meet lots of other people and interact with their ride families. During breaks and after the park closed, I would wander around and redesign an area, reconfigure quelines, or add a new ride. "Oh wow, this would be a great place for a new ride" heavily influenced by what I experienced at Disneyland. On some breaks, under the cover of darkness, I would slip into the Southern Palace and watch the show there. It was cool and a great place to rest.

One of the rides I worked during that summer was the Astrolift - the ski-lift style ride that took guests from one side of the park to the other. It was removed many years ago, after an accident on a similar ride at another park. But, that summer, I was loading and unloading the gondolas. The door swung closed on a simple door hinge. I was loading a family into the gondola and didn't notice that the mom still had her finger in the crack of the open door. I swung the door shut and the leverage of the door and the sharp metal corners sliced right into her finger. Blood. Lots of blood. I helped the dad, who was starting to panic, get back out and told them I would take them to First Aid. I yelled to the ride supervisor and we left. As we were rushing, half walking and half running, mom felt faint and started to pass out. The dad handed his daughter to me and picked up his wife. I could see that the little girl was beginning to get scared. Probly picking up the vibes from the 3 adults around her. We made it to First Aid okay - I led the dad through the door marked 'Employees only'. The nurse on duty took over and began to clean and bandage the wound. She told me that it would be okay and I should return to my ride. Which I did. But on the walk back, I felt awful. I had hurt someone due to my carelessness.

I did buy a car that summer. A white 1966 Ford Mustang. Of course, I customized the car. I painted thin red pinstripes along the body and added a cassette player to play Spinning Wheel, Chicago, Cream, the Association and other bands from that era. At that time, I stopped listening to the car radio with its interruptions, obnoxious ads and jingles, and contests. That was the beginning of a habit that I still adhere to today.

To make the commute more fun, and save on gas and tolls, six of us who lived in the same area formed a carpool. We each drove about 1 day a week. The driver could choose to take Turnpikes or the free highways. The turnpike route was faster, but the driver was responsible for paying the tolls on the two separate toll roads. North Dallas to downtown: 15 cents and Dallas to Arlington: 30 cents. Seems so little today, but in the late 1960s to high school seniors, it was enough to deter some of our car pool from driving on it. Others were willing to pay for the quicker and non-stop drive. We also stuck to a rule that the driver could select the misuic that soundtracked our commute.

A litter habit
One Sunday morning, decades after the four summers at Six Flags, I walked the dogs up the bike path to the local Starbucks. After coffee, we crossed this street and saw a plastic cup full of water sitting in the pavement. It had the accessories of a straw and a lid. I was baffled. Why there? I ran through some scenarios - the most likely seemed to be that a driver opened the door and set the cup down on the pavement, shut the door, and drove off. But what was going through their mind? "If I put this cup out here, I'll be rid of it." But, where did they think the cup would go? Now, the cup (which has become litter) will be someone else's problem. If no one else takes responsibility for this cup/litter, it will either blow around the street or eventually float down the drain into the nearby creek. The litter lifespan is long. The plastic would take years to break into smaller pieces and become embedded in soil or fish food. Even paper takes several months to decompose, aluminum cans take 80 years. To avoid becoming somewhat disappointed at how selfish and unempathetic people are, I picked up the cup, emptied it, and took it home where I put it in the recycle bin. It's life as litter was over.

I was so struck by the confusion of ' 'what are people thinking' and why is there so much litter. I determined these causes:
1. Lack of trash cans or trash cans not emptied often enough.
2. Accidental - blown off the table, missing something while loading the car.
3. Parents who taught kids to never pick up anything off the ground.
4. Suspect `we have gotten used to the amount and are just numb to it now.
5. Laziness or those who just don't care
6. Arrogance - picking up my trash is someone else's job - literally and figuratively beneath them.
7. The attitude 'the problem is so massive, what can I do about it?'

When I am in New York City, I often stoop down and pick up trash and put it in the next trash can (granted there are less trash cans around now since some people have become more paranoid that a terrorist will put a bomb in one) but there are still enough around. I pick up trash that people just threw down and I look at them and simply say, "I'll throw that away for you." They are often dumbfounded and apologetic. I sometimes mention that I love New York and I hate litter. I avoid passing judgment or making a scene, I just pick it up and toss it in a trash can, all in plain sight of the offender. I hope it makes them think the next time. I pick up trash partly to make the city look better, partly to set an example and show how easy it is, and partly to stupefy the bystanders. Imagine how great the city would look if every one of 8 million people picked up just one piece of litter each day. That copy line stuck in my head and I started to sketch out a graphic for a teeshirt. That led me to develop a campaign to address the attitude of being so overwhelmed, as to do nothing - JustOnePiece. Printed on tee shirts, bumper stickers, and cards was the copy: Just think how much better our city would be if each of us picked up Just One Piece of litter each day.
Maybe don't feel you must pick up all of it, but just one piece. That's a start and that will help.

There was rarely any litter at Six Flags, especially back in the early days of the park's history. We were trained as employees to pick up trash on the grounds of the park and parking lot. We were not to step over or pass by a piece of trash - we were to bend down and pick it up. I saw the payoff - the grounds were usually spotless and the aesthetics of a litter-free park impressed upon me the value of an environment with very little trash around. And it took very little effort. I could even pick something up with barely slowing down my walk. The Six Flags training was likely inspired by Walt Disney at Disneyland. I worked there for four summers and that behavior became a habit for me. I continued it even when I wasn't in the park working. I still do it today, on walks with the dogs, in the neighborhood, and even in NYC, I pick up litter.

Picking up litter is contagious. Someone walking the fairgrounds with loads of trash on the asphalt isn't very motivated to pitch in - Oh, well, just throw it down. Compare that to a theme park - the grounds are litter-free. Now, when walking, one doesn't want to be the one to junk up the ground. People are more likely to hold onto the trash until they can put it into a trashcan.

While my Six Flags experience in the 1960s was tramloads of fun, it instilled in me some valuable behaviors. Greeting people. Talking with people. Tolerance of diverse backgrounds and economic levels. And picking up trash.

© James Robert Watson    Email    Text

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