Why you should care

Because sometimes the roller coaster is the wrong choice.

The writer is the author of six books and the host of an OZY webisode: “In the Barbershop” with Anthony Hamilton.

I was born, they always said, with a smile on my face. A nervous, unaware smile. That same smile would ultimately be the cause of many beatings.

As a child, when my parents called for me, the sounds of their voices made me instinctively nervous. Within seconds, the smile appeared. “Anthony, did you knock the screen off the window in the bedroom?” my mother would ask. I hadn’t. But the smile crept up, and she hit me. I can remember working with my father, who was a carpet layer. While working one day, we were in a customer’s home and placing some tack strips around the wall of a bedroom, when my father noticed that I was not using the hammer that he had instructed me to use when putting down the tack strips. “Anthony, what did you do with the hammer I gave you to put those tack strips down?” Since I was already nervous from the stern way in which he’d asked the question, the smile reappeared.

That was one of the last days I can remember the smile. I was 12.

I had a history of finding fear in places where other people found fun. When I was 4 or 5, I wanted to hang out with the older boys. We walked by the creek that ran alongside the highway. The boys were going to cross the bridge up high, but I was afraid of heights; instead, I walked under the bridge to jump the creek. I’d seen the others do this before: You had to take a long start and jump across. But they were all older, taller. I tried to pick up speed, but I misjudged and … well, that’s when I learned how to swim. I began whirling my arms in and out of the water; I heard the other boys yelling, “Keep on stroking! You can make it!” This was fun?

She was no longer the prettiest girl in school; her curves nauseated me.

I was about 16 years old when I went on a field trip with the junior class. We went to a place called AstroWorld. It was an amusement park in Houston. Everyone wanted to get to the roller coaster as fast as possible. I followed not because of the roller coaster but because of that “you’ve gotta come” — it pulled at my ego, while inside me was a fear as big as Texas. How bad could it be? I mean, girls were doing it! I was a star football player! Oh … and it was Phyllis Nobles, one of the finest girls in the school, who turned around and smiled at me and said, while we were walking toward the roller coaster, “Hey, Anthony, why don’t you ride with me?” You don’t say no to that!

I bought my ticket, grabbed Phyllis Nobles’ hand and boarded the first and last roller coaster I would ever ride in my life. It wasn’t bad at first, because we were slowly heading upward, and I was holding with both hands the chain that was strapped across our waists. I was looking to my right side at Phyllis, who was smiling from ear to ear. Within what seemed like minutes, we had reached the top of the roller coaster, and she turned to me and said the most ridiculous thing that anyone could have said: “Raise your hands up!” When she said that, she threw her hands up as high as she could. Mine were glued to the chain. As she screamed cheers of joy, I cried. I literally cried. We were moving so fast that the tears dried up before we came down and back up again. I prayed, “Lord, if you could just get me off this ride, I promise I will not ever follow the desires of the crowd again … I will never participate in an event again just because everyone said it was fun!”

By the time the roller coaster had stopped, all my lust and admiration for Phyllis Nobles was gone. She was no longer the prettiest girl in school; her curves nauseated me. We were at the end, and I could not wait to rush away in relief. When she turned to me and said, “Anthony, let’s do it again!” she had no clue that what I wanted most was to go back to my room and examine my underwear. On my way back to the room, all the guys were fired up — Phyllis Nobles!

I’m sometimes called a stick in the mud, a party pooper, anti-social, a homebody, a hermit. But following crowds never really turned out right. I know the things that happened to me years ago are, in some people’s eyes, water under the bridge. But I remember how that water swirled and almost sank me, and I’d rather drive over the bridge. I own a car now.

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