The Gravitron Twister - Michael C. Keith
The Gravitron Twister
by Michael C. Keith
Round, like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
-- Alan and Marilyn Bergman
On a hot dusty Sunday afternoon in late July of 1964 KOBS morning deejay, Harry Wilmot, had ridden the Gravitron Twister for 56 consecutive hours setting a record that would stand for a half century. There had been three attempts by deejays to break the record and all had failed. Each subsequent challenge over the years, however, served to significantly increase notice of the small AM radio station serving western Oklahoma, and now the station’s owner, Lyle Covey, fervently, if not desperately, hoped history would repeat itself on this fourth attempt to best the legendary feat of the long dead radio personality.
KOBS-AM was hemorrhaging its music listeners to Internet downloading sites and other new audio technologies. For five decades it had been the go-to source for pop music among the area’s young people, but over the last couple of years its hold on its once-loyal audience had seriously declined. This was the trend everywhere else as the old medium was being rendered archaic by cyberspace, and Covey was growing worried that his station’s days were limited unless he could increase its listening numbers and regain lost advertisers.
Lately he had tried a myriad of things to draw audience members and keep the few he had, including treasure hunts, flagpole sittings, and talent contests--the old tried and true gimmicks to entice listeners. These had worked before but more recently they had been ineffective in generating interest in the station. It was clearly getting more difficult to inspire people to tune into Forge, Oklahoma’s, only radio outlet. Still, Covey was determined to keep his signal in the air over the Great Plains despite the loss of ad revenue from sponsors who sought out other means for getting their messages out to the public, especially the under thirty crowd.
With the recent hire of a talented 19 year-old straight out of deejay school in Tulsa, whose on-air moniker was Prentice Outlaw (his real last name being Cominsky), Lyle thought he might be able to turn things around. His previous afternoon drive-time deejay had proven to be a disaster with his propensity for telling off color jokes, and in the small conservative community served by the station, it had inspired a raft of complaints and the loss of precious advertisers. The last thing Covey needed on his station was a Howard Stern wannabe.
This was Prentice’s first on-air gig, and he was anything but polished, but he did have a down-to-earth charm and sense of humor and a deep resonant voice unique in someone his age, and Covey was already hearing positive comments about him despite his short time doing the morning show. In two weeks, he had already attracted the attention of the local Ford Dealer who had agreed to underwrite Outlaw’s challenge on the Gravitron Twister when the Kelly Brothers Carnival returned to town to participate in the annual West Oklahoma Fair.
Not only was Prentice a quickly growing presence on the KOBS airwaves, his tall good looks made him an attraction off-air. Word soon spread around town that the new deejay looked like a young Robert Redford. As testimony to his appeal, the local high school cheerleading team actually showed up at the station during the morning show and to the everlasting delight of Covey performed a routine that incorporated the station’s call letters and the young deejay’s name.
Can you give us a K? Can you give us an O?
Can you give us a B? Can you give us an S?
For the Prentice Outlaw morning show!
KOBS-AM program director and midday man, Ron Savage (proud creator of the station liner: “The Savage follows the Outlaw”), recorded the cheer and used it as the morning program’s promotional jingle. In less than a month Prentice had become something of a phenomenon, and Covey was certain his upcoming stint on the Gravitron Twister would put the station back in the black.
During his program, Prentice talked non-stop about his plans to shatter the long-standing record of Harry Wilmot, and he did so not out of bravura but out of complete confidence. Amusement park rides had always been his passion and he had ridden some of the biggest and best since a young child, so he had no doubt about outlasting the 56 hours his morning show predecessor had spent on the spinning disk, which to Outlaw seemed pretty tame compared to the rides at Frontier City, where he had ridden the Mindbender and Silver Bullet three times each in one day on his 16th birthday. In fact, the Gravitron Twister looked like an elaborate merry-go-round to him with rocket shaped seats instead of customary carousel horses.
“It’s not so much the ride itself. It’s pretty tame,” advised Covey the day before the event. “It’s the nonstop rotating that gets you.”
“Naw, I don’t get motion sick. My daddy used to spin me around for hours, and I couldn’t get enough,” replied Prentice.
“Well, 56 hours is a heck of a long time to go around in circles, and old Wilmot himself said he felt like the ground was moving under him for days after he got off the darn thing. Of course, you’re a lot younger than he was when he did it, so it may not affect you that way. The other deejays that tried to break the record were a good deal older than you, too, so you may have an advantage in that department.”
“I’ll do 72 hours on it. What do you think? Make it so nobody ever beats my record,” offered Prentice, running a comb through his wavy blond locks.
“Well, you don’t have to spend that much time on it, but it sure would be great if you could break the record,” replied Covey enthusiastically.
“Consider it done, Mr. Covey,” said Prentice, and on his show the day of the challenge he announced his plans to ride the Gravitron Twister for three days straight and added to the challenge by vowing to consume fifty of the fair’s famous cream custards during that time.
* * *
The rules of the contest required that Prentice not leave the ride and that it only stop rotating long enough to pick up other riders during the operating hours of the fair. Otherwise, it would continue to move without interruption day and night. In order to accommodate the call of nature, a port-o-potty was installed and a bench was removed to create a space for an air mattress that the deejay could sleep on. Most of the time Prentice would be stationed in one of the rocket seats that proved a tight fit for his long torso. At different intervals he would broadcast from the ride and read commercials for the Ford dealership sponsoring the event.
The morning that Prentice climbed on the ride was marked by a heavy shower that kept spectators to a minimum, but by noon the sun was high and hot and the number of people on the fairgrounds had thickened. The young deejay waved and hooted at the young girls gathering to watch him make history, and in response they chanted, “Go, Outlaw, Go,” and blew him kisses of encouragement.
By mid-afternoon, Prentice had happily devoured 12 custards and felt he should have pledged to eat a hundred of the delectable pastries. Back home his sweet tooth was legendary and this was a perfect opportunity to show it off. He washed the desserts down with gallons of root beer and never felt more invigorated in his life as the ride kept rotating with only occasional stops to let fellow riders on and off.
When night came Prentice Outlaw snuggled into his sleeping bag and fell into a deep luxurious sleep. Midway through the night he was awakened by a bulging bladder and he took the occasion to relieve himself off the side of the slowly spinning ride since the fairground was deserted. While he emptied himself of accumulated soda pop, the scene swirling around him took on the aspect of day and in the field where the Kelly Brothers amusements had set up shop there now appeared cavalry aiming their rifles at a gathering of Indians.
When the first shot was fired, Prentice ducked behind one of the rocket cars and slowly peaked out from behind it. As quickly as the bizarre scene had appeared it was gone replaced by the dark runway of concessions and game kiosks. Prentice continued peering out onto the deserted fairway expecting things to morph again but after an hour when nothing did he returned to his sleeping bag and fell back to sleep thinking the whole spectacle had been a weird side-effect of 20 hours on the Gravitron Twister and his huge intake of sugar.
Shortly after sunrise, he was up and feeling well rested. A few carnival workers were out and about as well and cleaning the grounds of the preceding evening’s trash. Prentice consumed three cream custards for breakfast and washed them down with a thermos of coffee provided him by Covey who interviewed him for the morning show as the second day of his stunt got underway.
“Well, folks, we’re here with Prentice Outlaw, who has just spent his first night going in circles as he attempts to set a new record for continually riding the Gravitron Twister. How you feeling Mr. Outlaw?” asked Covey in his best announcer’s voice that reminded Prentice of Pee Wee Herman.
“Never better. Had a good night’s sleep and just ate my 20th custard for breakfast. It’s gonna’ be a great day, and I hope all you out there listening to KOBS come on down and cheer me on,”
“Well, we can start that right now, Prentice,” said Covey, whose words were instantly followed by the recorded chanting voices of the high school cheerleading team.
Can you give us a K? Can you give us an O?
Can you give us a B? Can you give us an S?
For the Prentice Outlaw Morning Show!
As the morning progressed the crowd watching Prentice pursue Harry Wilmot’s half-century record grew and at one point the line to join him on the Gravitron Twister snaked as far as he could see. Lyle Covey could not contain his joy with the massive turnout and on several occasions road the ride with Prentice to encourage him to stay the course, which was not necessary because the young deejay had no intention of abandoning his promise to become the new record holder. The way things were going, thought Covey, if his morning man could remain on the ride for another couple of days, the publicity would give the station the boost it sorely needed to get back on track to being a viable enterprise in the digital age.
By the end of his second day on the Gravitron Twister Prentice had devoured 37 cream custards and still felt no ill effects of the steady rotating. In fact, his excitement and enthusiasm were building as he neared the record set by Harry Wilmot, which Covey calculated would occur at 1 PM the next day.
That night Prentice estimated the crowd of admirers and curiosity seekers to be in the hundreds with many shouting, “Go, Outlaw, GO!” to his great satisfaction. This is going to make me a star, thought Prentice, as he exuberantly returned their acknowledgement. Once the record was in the bag, he would ask, no demand, a two-dollar-an-hour increase in his salary, and he was confident he would receive it, because Covey could not stop complimenting his tenacity and determination. What was happening was a dream come true for Prentice, who always had fantasized being a celebrity.
* * *
It was well past midnight when the fairgrounds emptied and Prentice curled up on his air mattress. It was still hot so he tossed his sleeping bag aside to catch whatever breeze he could, and one of the upsides of constantly moving was that it kept the irritating summer bugs away. Soon he was asleep and like the night before, he awoke several hours later with his bladder about to burst. Standing at the edge of the ride and peeing into the blackness, he wondered if the space before him would again transform into a battlefield, and just as he finished dispersing his urine into the void, it did with such a roar of gunfire it caused him to catch his genitals in the zipper of his fly. For several moments Prentice writhed in pain on the ride’s deck and then managed to drag himself behind one of its rocket seats to keep from being hit by the barrage of bullets flying around him.
Native American women and children were being mowed down before his eyes by mounted soldiers. Scenes of carnage were everywhere, and Prentice felt helpless to do anything about it. This can’t be happening, he repeated to himself closing his eyes against the atrocity, and then as quickly as the scene had appeared it vanished. Prentice remained crouched on the spinning disk for several long minutes before he was prepared to rise and risk exposing himself to an errant bullet.
Nothing in his experience could explain what he had witnessed and he was so shaken by it that he could not get back to sleep. Like the night before, he tried to explain it as the side effect of perpetual motion and a sugar intense diet, but deep down he did not believe that was the explanation.
Until the sun rose and Covey and the station technician appeared, Prentice maintained a steady vigil from the safety of the Gravitron Twister for a possible return of the menacing horse soldiers and their victims, and when everything remained normal he once more relegated the experience to the farthest reaches of his mind as he reset his eyes on the big prize only hours from his grasp.
It took the cheerleaders jingle over the station’s speakers to get Prentice back in the zone he needed to be in. As it faded, Lyle Covey chimed in.
“Good morning KOBS listeners. This is the BIG day. Will Prentice Outlaw beat the Harry Wilmot’s fifty-year record? Well, in less than seven hours we’ll know. So I want everybody to come on down to the fairgrounds and cheer him on. He looks a little peeked this morning, so I think he could use your encouragement.”
After exchanging a few on-air words for the home audience, Prentice told Covey about what he had witnessed earlier that morning, or what he thought he had experienced that morning.
“You better cut back on those cream custards, Prentice. All that sugar and starch can make you see things. And your head gets jangled from all that spinning, too. Nothing out of the ordinary, I suppose. Maybe that’s what happened to the other guys who tried to beat Wilmot’s record. I didn’t own the station back then, but I did hear tell that they thought they’d seen things, too. Maybe it’s the ghosts from the Washita Battlefield out there past that park visitor’s station,” said Covey pointing to a vast stretch of land that reached the horizon.
“There was an Indian battle over there?” responded Prentice distracted by what he had just heard but still smiling and waving at the crowd.
“Old Custer massacred over a hundred people they say, mostly women and children,” replied Covey.
“General Custer?” asked Prentice no longer smiling and waving.
“Colonel Custer. He wasn’t a general then. Anyway, don’t let your imagination carry you away. No paranormal stuff going on with you, just indigestion and vertigo. Hang in there a few more hours and you’ll be the new reigning Gravitron Twister champion with a big adoring morning show audience,” counseled Covey, jumping off the ride.
Listeners had quickly responded to Covey’s urging to come down and witness history in the making and the closer Prentice came to reaching Wilmot’s 56 hour record, the larger the crowd ringing the Gravitron Twister became. The roar of “Go, Outlaw, Go!” resounded at such booming decibels that the calliope music that blared constantly was drowned out. Prentice’s intake of cream custards had slowed somewhat, but he was determined to fulfill his promise to eat 50 of them and believed he would reach the goal by the time he hit his 72-hour mark the next morning.
Oddly since climbing on the ride, Prentice had been unable to have a bowel movement, and he suspected the custards along with the constant spinning had backed him up. Occasionally, he would experience minor cramps, but they would fade as soon as they arose. Besides that, he had no other symptoms from his long hours on the ride.
* * *
An hour before the infamous Wilmot record was about to be eclipsed by Prentice Outlaw, the crowd surrounding the Gravitron Twister spilled far beyond the fairgrounds. The whole experience so exceeded what Covey had expected that he was giddy with goodwill toward his young deejay and promised him a raise and other perks before Prentice had even broached the subject.
“We can get you a Focus to drive from the dealer. He’d like you to do a remote broadcast from his showroom next week. How about that Prentice?” asked the bubbly station owner standing next to the rocket capsule in which the deejay nestled.
“Like the Fusion better,” replied Prentice, feeling like the king of the world.
“I think he’ll go for that,” replied Covey, waving at the near frenzied spectators.
One minute before the makeshift clock setup in front of the Gravitron Twister reached the Wilmot record, the crowd began counting down, and when the second hand swept past the top of the hour it erupted in deafening cheers. Prentice raised his arms and jogged around the ride in victory. Midway through his second loop he let out a series of thunderous farts that only he could hear because of the din of shouting onlookers. The effect of the gaseous release was manna to his constricting abdomen and allowed him to consume two more cream custards for the benefit of his adoring fans.
“After 50 years, we have a new Gravitron Twister champion. Let’s hear it for Prentice Outlaw of the KOBS morning show!” shouted Covey into the microphone, and Prentice did another victory loop around the rotating ride before speaking to the crowd.
“Thank ya’ll for being here, and I hope ya’ll come back in the morning when I make it 72 hours.”
“Go, Outlaw, Go!!” answered the appreciative throng, and again Prentice did a victory loop around the slowly orbiting platform leaving a contrail of soothing flatulence in his wake.
The rest of the afternoon Prentice was able to snooze at intervals between live broadcast reports of his ongoing feat until a late afternoon thunderstorm roared across the prairie forcing him to take refuge in the port-o-potty until the lighting abated. When he emerged the fairway was empty and remained deserted until the carnival doused its lights for the night. The storm had broken the heat and the wind was cool enough to prompt Prentice to wrap the sleeping bag around his shoulders.
The shut-eye he had managed to cobble together during the day left him alert as he reluctantly anticipated a return of the Washita Battle scene. He wondered if he might be able to intervene in the massacre, do something to keep the slaughter from happening, but he had no idea what. Besides, he thought, what can you do to change something that has already occurred or how can you alter an illusion? It was all some kind of weird mirage conjured by his frazzled imagination, he figured, and there was nothing he could do but watch it like he might a disturbing movie.
The hours passed slowly and uneventfully and eventually Prentice drifted off only to be awakened by something he first took as thunder, and when his eyes opened the sky was, indeed, flashing with brilliant light, but it was light from the muffles of a hundred rifles as another reenactment was obviously underway.
Prentice backed away from the front of the Gravitron Twister and took up his familiar viewing post behind a rocket seat. Leading the right flank of the charging line of cavalry was the man he assumed was the infamous Indian fighter, George Armstrong Custer. He did not sport the long locks Prentice expected, and he was smaller than his legend painted him, but there was no mistaking him for anyone other than the fearsome warrior as he swung his saber with violent intent.
Soon the scene before Prentice was awash in blood and bodies and he could no longer remain a passive spectator. He shouted for the brutality to stop but nothing slowed the carnage. Then he decided to take action and heave something at Custer when he neared the Gravitron, but the only thing available were two cream custards that he had put off eating because he planned to consume them when he reached his 72-hour goal. Nonetheless, in an act of desperation he grabbed the pastries and hurled them at the colonel when he rode to within a few feet. The desserts struck the colonel on the shoulder causing him to look skyward for a winged creature, which may have defecated on him. Prentice was delighted by his marksmanship, but when the colonel peered in his direction obviously looking for the source of the sticky gook splattered on his uniform, he took refuge behind the rocket seat again. For a brief moment Custer looked exactly in his direction but his eyes responded as if nothing were in front of him but the vast prairie. It was then Prentice realized he and the Gravitron Twister were invisible to the notorious dragoon. They were objects in another dimension of time.
* * *
Prentice gave a full account of the experience to Lyle Covey who arrived at the fairgrounds just before dawn. While Covey listened attentively, his thoughts were clearly taken up with the climax of his deejay’s singular feat, which would be broadcast live in an hour. Covey was accompanied by the town’s newspaper photographer and shortly after their arrival the local cable access channel crew appeared at the site.
“This is the big moment, Prentice. You okay? Seem a little shaky, but that’s sure understandable,” inquired Covey.
“Naw, I’m fine. No problem, but I used up the last two custards I was going to eat when I reached my record,” replied Prentice putting on a clean shirt that Covey had brought him.
“I’ll go find some. In the meantime get ready for your close-up, as they say.”
By the time the big moment had arrived, Prentice was filled with excitement but he was also experiencing a churning in his belly unlike anything he had ever felt before, even when he had participated in a hot dog eating contest back in high school that he had won by chugging down three more than the runner up. He was certain it would settle down once he got off the ride.
At precisely 7 o’clock as planned the Gravitron Twister was brought to a stop and Prentice took his first tentative step onto solid ground while devouring the last of his 50 cream custards. He attempted to steady himself by gripping a light post as Covey prepared to broadcast. Despite the early hour, a crowd had gathered and it applauded wildly while the cheerleader jingle played repeatedly over KOBS. As the cable station camera rolled and the newspaper photographer snapped picture after picture, Covey proudly detailed the deejay’s miraculous accomplishment culminating in his introduction.
“Ladies and gentleman . . . KOBS listeners everywhere, I give you the all time Gravitron Twister champion, Mr. Pren . . ..”
It was at that auspicious moment that the contents of Prentice Outlaw’s defiled innards erupted like Mt. Vesuvius dousing Covey and a half dozen others near him with the sour effluvia of his 72-hour diet. Unlike Prentice who was deeply embarrassed by the headline--“Another Custard Massacre”--and photos on the front page of the next day’s paper, Lyle Covey was ecstatic since he held Mark Twain’s reputed view that there was no such thing as bad publicity.
The following year when the Kelly Brothers Carnival returned to town it did so without the venerable Gravitron Twister, which had been retired to an amusement park museum in western Massachusetts. This disappointed Covey greatly since he had convinced his new morning personality to try to break the record set by Prentice, who had recently left KBOS to join the National Park Service at the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site.
BIO: Michael C. Keith is the author of several books, articles, and stories. He teaches Communication at Boston College.