Monday, June 30, 2014

So You Wanna Be A Foreman?

In my journal, I write down a few notes for things I need to watch during my foreman-training stint:
  • Make sure backroom boxes have numbers showing on the front when they're stacked
  • Cost Of Stand = number of prizes given out X prize cost for each prize
  • Percap = stand revenue / attendance
  • Stand Status - that sheet that tells you the number of prize stock for each stand and the description of it
  • Pick-ups - Cash Control will call, and you group bills into $100 units for pick-up
  • Call in absences and tardies
I can work on the little tasks, but personnel -- assigning people to stands, getting them on break, and getting people off -- is still that grating albatross. The usual headaches in Britannia consist of trying to accommodate stand requests, switches, rotating people out of Fishin' Hole, pulling people to get off work or on break. I have "Jackie" (name changed) as my trainer, and for a rare stretch I'm glad to have somebody who commands authority in my corner, even though she rubs more than half the section the wrong way.

A storm moves in and I'm pulling people to help get tarps up over some of the stands exposed to the elements until Jackie tells me not to do so until it actually starts raining. The logic of that escapes me when we hate the smell of soaked plush prizes. In the meantime, it's back to doing inventory, meaning counting every loose prize bracelet at Fishin' Hole. Is it 130 or 230? I forget. I'll get my best number and put it down, along with the count of the plush bears. Those bears. Those bad news bears that are probably going to get soaked with the storm moving in, the ones I have to set in a separate pile to count them properly. Only one actually gets soaked after I accidentally drop it in the pond water. In all, the Brit forepeople count six stands very night, and I got two of them.

At the end of my shift, I'm filling out a foreperson till sheet while two other forepeople count it. I have tried to sell as much change to lighten the load I have to drag back or count. The till is over by $18, but that's not out of line for a $3000+ bank worth of change.

Jackie grills me on the light switches after all my peasant brothers and sisters sign out for the night and meander home. As we walk through the blackness, the threatening downpour lingering all day finally falls from the sky, soaking my bag of cash and the rest of me all the way down to my underwear. Another rainy night in St. Louis, and it feels like it's raining all over the world.

Rinse and repeat: I fill out another comment form at the end of my shift, praising my trainer and cursing the lack of a personnel management section in the foreperson's manual. And somehow, through all this, I have a growing sense of control over my aspiring position.

The saga continues through the rest of the week as I journey to work Old Chicago and the Ninja games sections. Getting people to volunteer for stands consistently proves frustrating and fruitless. Stands need stocking. Areas need vacuuming. A regular worker with a nasty sense of humor tries to feel my behind. And then some wise guys decide to filch my personnel sheet -- along with two of the foreperson till boxes. The latter is a set-up, plotted by the other managers to make sure I lock up the cabinet when I'm away.

Arcades need change, and it's mainly a job of moving money from one locked box to another and keeping the change machines clean, stocked and happy. The remote-controlled boats need battery changes, and guess who gets to do it?

One week after journeying into the rabbit hole of upper management, it's all over, and I'm glad. In my final comment sheet to the superiors, I write, "So many people think they can do the job better -- will they still say that after they've learned the basics?"

I have 2001 percent more respect for my bosses now, even the irritating ones. I know my place, and I don't think I'm promotion material. I'm right. When promotions are announced later in the season, I'm not on the list, and I don't mind. I figure it's for the personnel grind and a few other things -- like the favoritism among managers. I gather I really should've started dating a forewoman if I wanted a promotion that badly.

* * *

The place is so much different now. I think about it, and I think back to a passage in Nicholas Pileggi's Casino as he describes Las Vegas after the feds ran the mob out. For one thing, the place is now called Six Flags St. Louis -- no more "Mid-America." Time Warner sold the entire chain to another company years after I left. Since then, they've gone through executive drama and bankruptcy. And when it came time to rebuild the lands of coasters and cotton candy, the suits weren't worried about finding enough flags to represent the regions of America where they settled.

I take a look around Britannia on Google Street View. Gone is the quaintness of Skilchester Village, as the sign used to say outside. Now glaring signs pollute what was a polite Tudor look, practically begging you to play something.


View Larger Map

After three years in Games, I would transfer into Six Flags' in-house TV system, which showed cartoons and commercials to people waiting in line for rides. I would get to spend much of my day in an air-conditioned studio, alone, changing tapes and monitoring levels. I would run into my Games cohorts every so often... and think about what mischief they were up to...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Have You Never Been Yellow?

Once a season, the Six Flags Over Mid-America Games department gives regular workers a chance to audition for a shot at becoming assistant forepeople. It's called the "Yellow Tag" program. You apply for the job, get to try it out for a week, and if you don't blow it -- or if you happen to be dating one of the forepeople -- you'll usually move up.

On July 1, 1991, I fill out the paperwork, including the section on what I would do to improve things. I suggest:

  • Improve morale and relationships with forepeople
  • Post earnings per stand in the Britannia section
  • Minimalize change/stock headaches
  • Shoot for a more equitable distribution of stands to personnel

Three days later, on the 4th of July, I see my name on the list of 17 Yellow Tag trainees and set off my own fireworks.

"YEAAAAHHHH!" I explode.

A supervisor on the backroom phone and a foreperson at the desk skip a heartbeat.

"That really says something," an assistant foreman friend says later on.

"I guess it does," I grin back.

The day before I officially start training, I get a crack at the basics: "Chris, would you like to be a foreman for a couple of hours?"

The section bosses had a meeting to attend, and they needed somebody to cover their duties. All I had to do was sell change to stands and keep them stocked with prizes. It sounds simple, and it is. I just have grab some change rolls from the backroom cabinet. It doesn't matter how many I take out, just as the cash equivalent comes back in. All the stands have stock. We're golden.

Then comes Monday.

We start at 9am, one hour before the park opens, and at least half an hour before the regular stand workers shuffle in. Lori, my trainer, shows me where to get the keys and the A&R (absentee and replacement) logs. I learn where all the light switches are in Britannia, and we turn everything on. We check prize stock deliveries against yellow sheets.

Now we get wet and dirty. I fill up the Fishin' Hole game with fresh water and follow that by dragging the stock to the back.

"Make sure you don't drag stock in front of the guests," she reminds me. I'd already violated that rule last week.

Now I have to deal with the change machines. Open it up and pull the hoppers forward. Unlock the bar in front of them. Fill them up nice and even and straighten them out. Open the bottom with the lever, reach underneath and hold the bottom button while pressing each of the three hopper buttons in turn, letting the change spill up and cycle through the works. Lock it all back up. If it goes down, open it up and press the white button to make it reset.

Next comes a lesson in personnel management. Write everybody's name down as they arrive in the backroom, and then start getting people into stands. Here's the fun part: everybody wants something you can't give them. Lori is there to help kickstart me in the right direction through everybodys ego and morning crabiness. I put people down in the time/cost sheets -- our equivalent of timecards.

It's back to the back to straighten out stock and break down empty boxes. I learn how to stock the crane game. I have to call in "breakdowns" once an hour to Maintenance -- the number of games or parts of games that aren't working, even if they haven't been working all day, or all week.

When Day shift comes in about an hour later, I nearly go crazy trying to get breaks straight and people in stands. Only so many people -- 5 to 6 -- can go on break at once. The rest you have to work into the stands. Lori has to guide me as I figure out how to move people around. Certain stands have limits, which I write down to remember:

  • Ring-A-Thing: 2
  • Skee-Ball: 2 (one person behind the redemptions counter, the other walking a beat looking for problems)
  • Spot Pitch: 2
  • Highland Hoops: 2
  • Wacky Wire: 3
  • Putt-Putt (aka St. Andrew's Green): 2
  • Horse Race (aka Churchill Downs): 2
  • Bedrock Bedlam: 2
  • Queen's Dairy: 3
  • Golden Grail: 3
  • Fishin' Hole: 4!

Night shift personnel turns into another mess, as I try to figure out who's going on break while trying to handle specific stand requests. When the smoke clears, I think I've really loused things up, but my only damage is one extra person in Queen's Dairy and Golden Grail, with one short in Ring-A-Thing. It doesn't take much to fix, and finally I get to sell change -- the part of the job I'm used to seeing and thinking I can easily master.

Lori runs down some other things with me on her list that we don't have a chance to get to in depth: "last calls" for stock and how to order more prizes. We do a till audit on an underling -- he's $1 over. I go another round with the personnel, with better results.

All through the day, my keys get passed around. People grab them to open the lock bags containing their till money they bring up from Cash Control and not give them back. Lori's words bounce through my head: "Never leave your keys unattended." For my sake, some other forepeople were around to make sure I got them.

At 3:00, my shift is over, but my head is spinning. I have to fill out a comment form on this first day. I praise Lori and her being there to back me up. I wish I'd gotten the foreman manual yesterday instead of halfway through my shift today. Personnel is a drag. This job is harder than it looks...

I sum it all up in my mind, and I consider I did pretty well. I know I can smooth out the rough spots with more time... tomorrow.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The People Vs. Jackie

Many forepeople at Six Flags Over Mid-America cop an attitude. Most of us put up with it, but in 1991, a forewoman who rubbed multiple people in multiple wrong directions got knocked down a notch.

"Jackie" (name changed) had a pushy, witchy, overbearing reputation, something she apparently treasured. When selling change to her underlings, she would walk up to somebody and stick out her hand without saying a word -- hand it over. She could chew on people, yell at others, and slack off in the backroom without sanction. Someone in upper management backed her, likely the same person who promoted her to forewoman in the first place. Forepeople and supervisors had a habit of moving up people they were dating.

On July 4th, 1991, as fireworks exploded over St. Louis, a group of Jackie's victims got together at the Taco Bell down the road after getting off shift. They signed a petition against her, and although it's not clear if they wanted her fired or just demoted, they wanted something done about her. Some people scribbled down page-long grievances. The petition even made its way into some stands back in the Games section, although Jackie never noticed.

"She was probably slacking," another worker told me.

On top of this, I learned Jackie had concocted a story to get a girl off early from her shift. She lied and said the girl had a sick grandmother, but the girl's story and Jackie's story didn't match when a supervisor heard from both of them.

Five days later, Jackie found herself reduced in rank from forewoman to assistant forewoman -- from red tag down to orange tag -- but only for 30 days. I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall when one of the full-time Games specialists laid it out, but I can imagine the conversation went something like this:

"I'm taking you down to orange tag."

"Oh, come on!"

"I can't ignore this, Jackie. I got pages and signatures here in front of me."

"You know those people will sign anything somebody puts in front of them!"

"Well do they write full-page comments, too, saying how much you [bleep]?"

"I push people hard because we got a lot of people who slack!"

"They can't all be slackers, Jackie. And you've got a problem dealing with people."

"The problem I have is that I got people slacking and stealing and not serving the guests."

"Yeah, well, maybe. But you got a problem, too. We both got a problem here, because if I don't handle this, they're gonna go to [redacted]. And then he's gonna ask why I didn't handle it, and then we're both hosed. Look, this is only for a month. You be cool, and you get your red tag back."

"This is such [bleep]."

"That's not the issue. The issue is how do I save your job, and save my job, and keep this from getting bigger."

Jackie's attitude improved -- slightly. She began saying "please." She began saying, "May I see your till?" But she did only as much as she needed. Thirty days later her red tag returned along with her attitude.

One season later, when I was working a stand by myself and giving a guest directions to a ride, Jackie cut in right after I finished my conversation.

"Would you like to help them out?"

She meant another guest standing at the stand, the one I was about to help had she not assumed I was blowing them off. Then she stuck out her hand.

"Lemme see your bills."

Now she wanted to sell me change. The demotion hadn't done a darn thing except make her invincible. I later learned she tried to quit, putting in her two weeks' notice and hoping it would goad somebody into backing off. Her cadre of supervisors and full-time specialists, those ones who had her back, decided to back her again.

Getting Jackie fired would be a hundred times simpler today. Back in 1991, we didn't have YouTube, Facebook or hidden pen cameras. The combination of those three could've been devastating.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Sticky Fingers

Guests will try to steal from us. Try. And if they don't get away with the prizes, they may try to steal directly from employees.

It happens twice in a single day: May 18, 1991.

In the first incident, a guest walks up to "Fool The Guesser" and lifts two Jack Daniels' wall hangings. The stand is not technically part of the Games section, but an independently-run operation that employs people to guess guests' age and weight within a given range, using a standard list of spiels over a microphone for all to hear -- "Let's see if that extra Coke did it." People usually fool the guy on the microphone, but one woman decides she'll improve her odds.

"Ma'am, Ma'am!"

The voice booms all over Britannia. An assistant moves in and grabs the pilfered prizes but cuts the thief loose. Minutes later, four Security people are all over the scene. I don't know if they went back after the guest.

About 100 feet away at "Queens' Dairy," your humble Games host is confronted by a pack of girls looking for trouble, with one of them eyeing my wrist.

"Can I see your watch?"

I hold out my arm, and instantly she's pawing my Rolex. My fake Rolex. The gift from Grandfather Francis, who bought it in New York City for $40 off a street hustler, along with some other knock-off watches for himself and others. It actually keeps good time, but it won't for much longer if I don't shove my hand back in my pocket.

"Do you have the time?" a colleague in the stand asks.

"I had to take off my watch to keep it away from HER!"

And still, she keeps asking to see it. I would call Security on her if she's not so young, not older than 13. I think of a variant on that line uttered by Ray Charles in The Blues Brothers: "Breaks my heart to see a girl that young, going bad."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Coming Up Short

Tills come up short. Attendance comes up short. Guests try to win and come up short. All those problems are easily managed. But when personnel comes up short, the docile foreperson loses sanity and hair. When the Attractions shifts for the Ninja section run short on people, I'm in for an adventure.

August 17th, 1992: In one day, I work skeeball at one section, then the Great Escape arcade, then to the remote-controlled boats and cars for another three hours in the hot sun while the forepeople figure out how to manage staff, shifts, and breaks.

One foreman -- coincidentally named Chris -- and I work together at the Great Escape, both behind the counter while guests wave redemption-game tickets in our faces. Video games eat quarters. Tickets jam in the machines. Boom-ball games misfire or shoot blanks. Changers balk. The phone rings.

Chris steals from three change machines to keep another one running. I keep running out of quarters myself, much to the displeasure of the guests. Chris runs out of change to fill the machines. He calls another foreman for help, but that other foreman -- likely swamped himself -- doesn't show. Finally, Chris decides to go and get the change himself, leaving the entire arcade, with its guests, tickets, quarters, and problems in my hands.

"Anything I need to know before you leave?" I ask.

"Just don't kill any guests," Chris instructs me.

"I'll try not to."

"I've been trying not to all day."

While he's fetching the change, I get a call from one of the full-time specialists.

"Hey, Christopher!" she sings. "Is [she named another foreperson] there?"

"No, I'm the only one here," I say calmly. "We have no foreman, we have three changers down, I'm out of quarters, and we only have one person at Pac-N-Inn (the other arcade). We're in dire straits."

"Do you need a foreman?"

At this moment, I probably should've said, "No, I need Boy George." But I was too tired to be snarky. "We need something," I replied.

"Okay, I'll talk to [the same foreman who didn't bring the change]."

Good luck with that.

Finally, the delayed foreman makes it, shortly after the change does. Chris returns and avoids committing any felonies. For awhile, all is right with the Games universe.

Then a guest insists on redeeming 23 tickets for 23 cheap plastic rulers. Another guest brings up tickets and asks for 20 more, and I have to draw the line because it's going to clean us out. Again, we're coming up short.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Taken For A Ride

Getting out to Six Flags Over Mid-America means a 20-minute road trip for your humble servant, often at the hands of my parents because I don't have my own ride yet. Often I bum a ride with Michael, even if it means I have to go in an hour earlier because of differences in our start times.

Stephanie is in dire straights on one night in July 1992. She doesn't have a ride home after her shift ends at 7, and if she doesn't get home by 8:30, her mother will make her quit the job. The two of them have been fighting because Steph has gone out a little often -- and a little too late -- with her Six Flags friends.

I originally don't want to do it, because she lives out in Arnold, adding at least another half-hour to my journey home, and I've never been out there in the first place. My borrowed family car is running low on gas. But when I heard about the "or else" part from a foreperson, I step up to help.

She has to stop at Taco Bell for munchies. I have to stop at Texaco for gas. But I get her back home by 8:30, right on the mark. I make the trip from I-44 to 141 to 55 to Robertson Road and back without a hitch. I just hope she doesn't think of me as a total git in the car. I'm not good at small talk, especially around girls. Mike tells me he's taken her home several times.

The next day, rumors are going all through the backroom about the night trip and your humble servant making a move or this or that. Then another rumor goes around that Steph's mother is making her quit -- not because I didn't get her home on time, but because she came home an hour past her curfew on another night, skunk drunk.

However, Steph hasn't really quit, the rumor goes on. She's continuing to go to work, just telling Mom she's "out."

One morning, the phone rings at 7am, and my mother answers. It's a collect call from Stephanie. Mom says she doesn't know anybody by that name, at which time the girl overrides the operator on the line and asks for Michael. He takes the call.

Stephanie wants Mike to give her a ride to Six Flags, which he either can't or won't give her. When she hears this, she chokes up, but Mike holds firm. He's getting tired of running her around on her run-around. And she isn't helping with the gas money, either.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Care And Feeding Of Arcade Games

Six Flags Over Mid-America has two video arcades: "The Great Escape" and "Pac-M-Inn" (later, "Grant's Gallery" to better fit the Missouri theme of that section of the park). Games oversees their operations, but we're mostly there to change dollars into quarters for guests and give refunds for erratic machines.

For the first year of my Six Flags career, arcade personnel are dispatched from a small backroom on the Spanish backstreet, halfway across the park. The operation later moves to a backroom behind the games next to the Ninja coaster. But wherever you're dispatched from, you end up largely on your own to walk a beat through the beeping and buzzing of the games with a key to get into their coin box for refunds or give free plays.

One of the foremen sets some ground rules, posted in a small backroom at each arcade above the cash box where we keep dollar bills guests turn in for change.
  • Smile, walk around, enjoy your job.
  • Don't let people dance in front of the jukebox!
  • You will immediately call for more change when you get down to $50 worth of quarters.
  • Don't let people bring in food and drinks.
Many of the games are at least two to three years out of date. People haven't yet developed an affinity for retro gaming, so it's not unusual to see some consoles sit and gather dust. In my second year, Six Flags turns to an outside company to lease better games, but they bolt up the coin boxes. Instead of digging out quarters, I have to write up refund slips for guests, which is a pain for both of us.

Up at "The Great Escape," we bring in a slew of ticket-dispensing games similar to what you now see at Peter Piper Pizza or Dave and Buster's. The prizes require an obscenely high amount of tickets, as you would expect.

"We were going to get Virtual Reality," somebody tells me, "but the company wanted 70 percent of the revenue."

At least twice a summer, we would have Games parties at the Great Escape, where somebody would be able to get into the coin boxes and put the games on free play. This would be Babylon, if we didn't have so many games riffing on Mortal Kombat.

Whatever happened to Pac-Man and Donkey Kong?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Hide The Children, It's The Till Monsters!

From time to time, we let groups who need to raise money quickly come in and try their hand at the Games sections. Six Flags Over Mid-America calls them "Boosters." We call them "Till Monsters."

They come in wearing dark blue uniforms with paper nametags, usually half a dozen or more at time. A regular employee will be at their side, making sure they get the hang of the dropping procedures -- which they usually don't. And when they're on the job for only one day, they have little incentive to learn. Their tills end up wildly over or under.

But where there's problems, there's also opportunity. "Bones," one of the Britannia foremen, finds a way to scrape off their excess bills into a slush fund to buy lunch and sodas for the staff. I'm not sure the supervisors know about it.

On Fourth of July weekend in 1992, Six Flags brings in loads of boosters to alleviate staffing shortages in expectation of a 20,000+ crowd and a concert by Color Me Badd. Either we're firing too many people, or not hiring enough people, because it's the only time I recall us turning to a temporary employment agency for help in the Games stands. One of the supervisors says he doesn't want them in his section because he doesn't want to have to deal with them. He gets them anyway.

I'm working with one booster at a mini-golf stand in Old Chicago when a forewoman comes around to sell her change.

"Are you dropping every time?" she asks.

Yes, she responds. But when the forewoman sells her three SBA rolls, her mouth drops wide open as the booster pulls out more bills plus a roll of quarters and who knows how much more.

"Are you sure you're dropping every time?"

I don't know what the foreperson does with the excess. I can only hope she gets a slush fund going in Old Chicago.

Till theft? Maybe. Inexperience around wads of money makes for a good cover story. I have to think people have come in for one day, skimmed a nice sum, and committed the perfect crime. I don't know the wage that Boosters get, but while they're working for their organization, some of them probably want a little for themselves.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stuff Our Guests Say

A few incidents involving actual Six Flags Over Mid-America guests:

SMELLS LIKE TROLL SPIRIT. Guests will return stuffed-animal prizes because they have holes, loose strings, stains, scuffs, ugly-looking seams, water-absorbent interiors, the wrong color hair, no eyes, no nose, no tail, no doo-hickeys on top of the feelers, or simply no class. But I never had a guest tell me a prize reeked until my second season on the job.

She's a woman who just keeps on playing Whack-A-Troll, stacking up stuffed troll prizes. On her first victory, she immediately puts the little plush creature up to her nose and snorts it like a dog getting acquainted with a new toy.

"Do you have another one?" she asks. "This one smells bad."

I take a whiff and find no foul odors. But I play along, handing her trolls and letting her smell them until she finds one that satisfies her nose. I have to bite my tongue to keep from cracking up.

"They smell like sawdust," she tells another guest. She wants to give them to some new babies in her family. I wonder if she'll ask them to smell them, too.

FULL FRONTAL? Guests walk into the Britannia games section after a soaking on Thunder River, and the ones who don't think about multiple layers of clothing unknowingly find they're putting on a wet t-shirt contest right in front of dozens of teenage boys -- and other guests.

Most people never say anything, including the Games workers, although some keep a joke tally on a prize-giveaway sheet in each stand, right next to the count of "Fat Men Wearing Spandex." Yet one day, a man and a lady walk up to a game, and the man issues a command as he hands three balls to her.

"And don't show your bloody breasts!"

No, he's not British. She isn't, either. But she's not wearing a bra. And at least she has the sense to keep her posture proper.

THE KIDS AREN'T ALLRIGHT. About 15 minutes before closing time, a couple of young hotshots wander up to my stand. One of them wants 50 cents to get something to eat. I tell them I can't do that, even though the kid claims he has a season pass, lives five minutes from the park, and will pay be back tomorrow.

"C'mon, you got billions coming into this place every day," he pleads.

"Not exactly billions," I correct.

"Millions."

"Not that much."

"Well, with everything put together, you do."

"Not that much," I repeat.

"This place bites," the other kid says.

"Then why did you get a season pass?" I query.

"Well," he stalls, "we didn't know until today that they raised the price of everything."

STICKY FINGERS. A guest walks up to me with the tag from a stuffed basketball wrapped around his finger. He'd been carrying it that way, and now he can't get it off. He asks if I have some scissors. I don't, but I know where to get some.

I turn to a co-worker and ask if she had any cutting devices. She starts cutting up into laughter when I tell her why I need it.

"Don't laugh!" I scold. "This is serious!" The man's finger is turning purple.

She and a supervisor hunt down some scissors in the backroom while I wait for this guy to collapse in front of me. Eventually the ball slips off before the scissors comes. His finger regains its normal hue, and all is right with the world.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Walk Like A Man, Sing Like A Girl

Reel To Reel: Jersey Boys

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Christopher Walken
Rated: R
Red Flags: Some mild sexuality, tough-guy Jersey language

"Tight underwear," my Queen Mother replied long ago, when we were sitting in the car as a young family and wondering how Frankie Valli could hit all those high falsetto notes. Jersey Boys doesn't offer us any secrets beyond hints of practice and exercise. Maybe it should've, especially in the first half hour, where this story of The Four Seasons needs a kick start.

It's clear this is not going to be the Broadway smash that is now on tour (and playing in Tucson as I write this) from the opening credits. Put this in the hands of Bill Condon, who directed Dreamgirls and Chicago, and he would've gotten things moving from frame one. Director Clint Eastwood prefers to play this as a dark drama with musical interludes rather than a musical. We see young Frankie (Young, from the original musical cast) hanging around his aspiring-wiseguy pal Tommy (Piazza) in the 1950's as they pal with a Jersey mob boss (Walken) and dabble in crime between gigs with Tommy's band. With Tommy's into-the-camera narration, the movie nearly turns into something resembling GoodFellas: The Musical, and a very slow one at that.

Tommy's group changes lineups and names, but it can't get beyond playing clubs until their friend Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci, played by Joey Russo) introduces them to promising keyboard player and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Bergen). He has the songs Frankie wants, but his terms make him a reluctant hire for Tommy and his I-take-care-of-everythin' style. Bob and Frankie land a recording deal with flamboyant producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), but only as backup singers until the band comes up with three songs -- "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," and "Walk Like A Man" -- that propel them to the top of the charts, anchored by Valli's trademark falsetto. Success would be sweet if it wasn't for Tommy's management practices, where money comes in and out, but only Tommy knows how or where. Eventually a loan shark comes looking for Tommy, leaving the possibility the Four Seasons could end up singing with the fishes.

This version of Jersey Boys might've worked better as a dark-tinged straight rockudrama in the mode of What's Love Got To Do With It without the breaking of the fourth wall borrowed from the stage production. Only at the end do we get a hint of the energy that could've lifted this film. Ultimately, what makes this film worth a look is John Lloyd Young's vocals and all those Four Seasons' hits.

It's A Family Affair

For two seasons at Six Flags Over Mid-America, my brother Michael (four years my junior) also did a tour of duty in the Games section. Sibling rivalry chugged along at that time, meaning I'd find ways not to end up in the same section with him. But I couldn't beat the odds all the time.

May 29, 1992: We end up co-spieling Churchill Downs. I came up with a system where I would call half the race, and he would pick it up at the halfway point. One of the forewomen caught a glimpse of us.

"It's family entertainment!" she cried, calling it nearly "heartbreaking" to see us working together.

Oh, brother.

About a month later, two foremen conspired to get us back together again, this time having us start the day together at a different racing game involving water pistols. I'm sure they weren't thinking we'd turn the guns on each other -- which we didn't do, by the way. When your kid brother annoys you as a teenager, work is supposed to be an escape from home life.

"He's not that bad," one of the foremen snickered.

"You don't have to live with him," I replied. "He's got an ego the size of New York."

"Look, out here you're just co-workers, not brothers."

Mike was going on break anyway, so it didn't last long, to my relief. When I heard my brother opening announce to guests that they may squirt me -- joke or not -- I think we're headed for trouble.

We'd end up working a few other stands in the same section, but his hours and my hours didn't usually line up. I would often grab early shifts, and he would get nightside gigs, or the reverse. The way things worked out, we didn't see as much of each other as you would think. And graciously, he kept me out of the gossip loop and vice-versa.

Or does he?

One time when I'm walking into the backroom, he's talking about kicking somebody's butt later on. When he turns around and sees me standing right behind him, his face pales and he leaves the room.

On a busy Sunday, one girl asks why Mike isn't there.

"It's his day off," I reply.

"How did he manage to get Sunday off?"

"I dunno," I explain.

"[Bleep]."

"I'll tell him you said that." (I didn't.)

But I had to give him the business near the end of the summer, when we were writing down our addresses on a wall poster for people who actually wanted to pick up a pen and dash off a letter in the days before widespread email and Facebook. He misspelled a word in a comment below our location.

"Learn to spell, Dan," I snarked in a note beside it, alluding to the famous Quayle Potato(e).

Sibling rivalry, in full effect.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Don't Lose That Number

Six Flags Over Mid-America is an extention of high school in many ways, having its own employee sports leagues, pep rallies and the occasional overnight trip. But when Games employees run free, the outcomes range from mildly hilarious to criminally actionable.

On one trip to the Lake of the Ozarks, three employees, including at least one foreman, end up with theft charges for stealing letters from a portable arrow sign. We know it's more than a rumor because the bail bond forms are posted in the Britannia backroom for all to see. They make plea deals.

Another float trip rolls around. This time, nobody's sober.

Another girl fills me in on the alcoholic details. One black tag downs three-fifths of a peach Schnapps bottle. A foreman gets so skunked he has to be carried onto the raft the next day. Another co-worker smokes five cigars in 20 minutes. Shacking-up abounds. One forewoman surnamed King earns a title of "The Shacker Queen."

As the girl pours out every dirty secret, little and big, co-workers on break at a nearby table observe her talking and your humble servant casually cross-examining. They think we're flirting.

"So did you get her number?" one guy asks me later.

"No," I reply. "But I sure got all of yours."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Leggo The Ego

Some forepeople sponge up power, and when one of them made it to the level of full-time Games department head, his monarchal ego radiated outward like a bad smell. "Jack" (name changed) needed regular ego feedings, and he wasn't afraid to vent in all directions.

One Saturday, Jack shows up in the Britannia backroom about 15 minutes before my day shift begins. He immediately starts heaving weight as soon as a foreman starts clowning with a fellow orange tag's sizable till.

"Let's see how many of these we can break," he jokes, eyeing stacks of quarter rolls.

"Hey bucko!" Jack bellows. "Don't mess with people's tills!" He launches into a rundown of what he wants the other supervisors and forepeople to get done today, including improvements to the prize displays. While he's ticking off his list, the foreman he just scolded slinks into a chair.

Jack throws him a dirty eye. "Are you slacking?"

"Yeah."

"Get out there -- this is Saturday."

"So Saturday's slacker day."

Jack turns his attention to another foreman with attitude problems, griping about the "flashing" -- prize display on the walls, in Six Flags terminology -- redone at the long-range basketball. He walks around the back of several stands griping about a "major skunk invasion" and ragging on the backroom's cleanliness.

"This place looks like a hole!"

"It's not so bad," replies the slacking foreman.

I'm surprised the foreman doesn't get axed on the spot given what has just happened in the past week or so. We're hearing how he canned a girl in her stand for not showing him the proper respect. The topic comes up during a break, and several of us trade rumors.

"I'd like to clear her name," spits another guy sitting nearby, taking it all in.

He gives us the real story, saying this girl bought it for getting into an argument with Jack in front of a guest and two other black tags. Fair enough. But I gather it's mostly because of Jack's ego and not the argument.

Another girl tells me about a time where she was cleaning mildew from the pond where we keep the remote-controlled boats. Jack tells her she has to wear gloves and goggles while using Lime-A-Way. She tells him she doesn't have either, and Jack says, "We'll get you some." He doesn't. So this girl and a co-worker go on a long journey to find the necessities... in pouring rain.

Some time later, the aforementioned foreman with attitude gets a promotion to supervisor, but only after threatening to quit after being repeatedly passed over. No doubt Jack has a hand in it. What's that saying about birds and flocking?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Challenger

My undisputed title as number-one spieler faces a serious challenger in the summer of 1992. "Robert" (name changed) joins the Games crew in the Old Chicago section. We work a shift together in the long-range basketball toss and he relentlessly pitches the game to every passerby.

"Hello, sir, would you like to try your luck?"

How can he run with that much energy for so long? He tells me he loves people, and this gig beats his previous jobs at Shoney's and McDonald's. I understand, but I want to see if a theorem from a foreman holds up: "After the first two weeks, your enthusiasm just dies."

A few days later, we work a racing game together. In a rare change of duties, I don't have to call the races because Robert is blowing everybody away with his relentless power spieling. A supervisor tells me I better start running if I don't want to get beaten for Spieler of the Year. I'm a bit envious. Robert finally lets me in on his secret to perpetual energy: one hour of sleep and one hour of sitting meditation. If somebody can get that pumped after only two hours of down time, he deserves some kind of award.

I step up my own game the next day, power spieling at Whack-A-Troll in Britannia and turning red in the face.

"Remember to breathe," a co-worker tells me.

"Take it easy," a foreman says. "You got eight hours to go."

About a week after Robert's debut, I hear scuttlebutt about a supervisor trying to set up a Spielers' Challenge. Robert and I would both work a double shift in Old Chicago on the same day, taking turns calling racing games and seeing who could make the most money for their stands. Nobody officially comes to me with the challenge, but I find Robert and we shake on it. Now we just have to set a date for the showdown.

But neither of us gets to rock the mic. Days later, Robert's sacked for being $10 over on his till, a day after ending $16 over. And I see some of his final hours.

It starts when I take a 15-minute break, authorized by one of the foremen late in the evening. I walk into the Old Chicago backroom, where a forewoman and a supervisor are talking business.

"Could you do me a favor?" the forewoman says immediately. "Could you go back into the section for a few minutes?"

"I'm taking my 15-minute break now," I reply as I fiddle with the lock on the slide-out basket where I'm storing my till.

"Oh, okay," she replies. "Here, I'll lock that up for you. Go ahead. Go on out."

Strange. I go down the path to one of the restaurants and grab a Mr. Pibb. I return to the backroom with it, so as not to sip in front of the guests -- one of the directives of Good Six Flags Guest Service. This time I see the supervisor taping together a ripped-up till audit sheet. As I sit in the room, I quietly hear the forewoman and her talking about where they are going to meet outside the Games office, that another worker is "out of his stand again," and something about a write-up. The worker they're talking about enters the backroom and the forewoman sends him down to Long Range, where Robert is working.

"I thought we closed Long Range," the worker puzzles.

"No," the forewoman replies. "We'll be down in a half-hour to close it."

Not soon after, the forewoman has some words for all the black tags in the backroom, including me. "Could you all wander around the section for awhile?"

"The only reason I'm here is because I don't want to sip in front of the guests," I say.

"Oh, well," the forewoman replies. "As long as you're on a bench, it doesn't matter."

I go to a smaller backroom behind one of the stands and sip there. When my break ends, I return to the main backroom and fetch my till apron. The foreman who had sent me on break is the only one in the room besides me, and I tell him the whole story.

"Sounds like you were about to hear something you weren't supposed to," he says.

"That's what I thought."

When I see Robert in Wardrobe at the end of my shift, he clarifies everything.

"Goodbye," he tells me. "I'm not going to be seeing you anymore."

"Huh?"

"I got fired today."

"For what?"

"Being $10 over."

He tells me the Games department head dropped the ax himself. But he doesn't tell me everything. I later learn he's dipping his hand in the till, just like so many black tags who think they can steal without getting caught. A co-worker who borrowed money from Robert tells me he saw no money in his wallet at the beginning of one shift. Afterward, he had $30.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Stephanie's Joy

If you've never had to deal with the sudden death of a co-worker, consider yourself extremely blessed.

At Six Flags Over Mid-America, the Britannia section of Games abruptly lost 16-year-old Stephanie Jolly in the summer of 1991. She had just gotten rid of her despised brown tag and was excited about getting a driver's license. She won several Mystery Guest awards, living up to her name, and she was a natural to make Service Superstar. I would've nominated her, if I could've found a way to keep that nomination out of the rumor machine.

One day, in the backroom, she told us she was going in for surgery. We knew she had something wrong with her brain, but she brushed it off as if it were a trip to the dentist. I heard she had a tumor, but later, I heard it was something a lot more precarious -- swelling of certain blood vessels in her head. It didn't cause her much pain, but she once had a seizure during a break.

During surgery, her brain swelled so much that it crushed her skull. She was gone.

The Games supervisors got the word first, and they had the biggest problem: how to break the news to everybody without plunging the entire section into grief. They decided to tell people once they got off shifts, but the news trickled back to people still working.

"We almost had to shut the section down," one co-worker recalled.

This same person had been going out with Stephanie for some time, and worse, the relationship had soured in the last few days. The co-worker was at one of the arcades when another worker with him got a call from management. A boss gave the word to her first with instructions not to tell her floormate until a replacement could arrive. But the news being what it was, her facial expressions gave away dire news.

"What's wrong?"

"I can't tell you."

"What's wrong?"

"I can't tell you until Jim (the supervisor) gets here. He told me not to tell."

"[Bleep] that. What's so [bleep]ing wrong?"

"Steph didn't make it!"

Instantly, the co-worker lost control of the rational forces within him. A guest walked up to him saying he'd just lost a quarter in a machine. The co-worker hurled the keys in his hand at him. "Fix it your [bleep]ing self!"

At that moment, Jim arrived with a replacement. He told the co-worker to take off his till and go up to the Games office, where some other sups were in mourning.

The co-worker declined an offer to be a pallbearer at Stephanie's funeral, noting he was still messed up. Jim took his place.

This all happened while I was away on vacation, and I'm glad I didn't have to see Brit reduced to grief.

"You gotta smile," Stephanie once said to me. "It's Saturday!"

She was born to work this job. Why her? In my scoundrel youth, it reinforced my flawed theory, adapted from Billy Joel, that only the good die young. If I had a relationship with GOD back then, I would've been able to explain it to people. I don't think I would've made a big dent in their grief, but at least I would've kept them from blaming THE LORD.

Monday, June 16, 2014

An Outcast Is In Our Presence

On break, I sit down with some girls from day shift. I instantly detect an uneasy silence accompanied by looks that signal, "There is an outcast in our presence." For what, I don't know. Yet those looks -- they're penetrating.

I play it cool. "Something tells me something isn't right," I say.

A few of them laugh. Psych-out move? Nah... too much cooperation for that.

Your humble servant doesn't date on the job. All right, I'll own it: I don't date, period. I have good reasons besides the obvious of being the square. I see too many relationships go bad on the job at Six Flags. But the park all but promotes on-the-job fraternization, holding socials every so often like it's an extension of high school.

A girl named "Tina" (name changed) asks me out to a "Turnabout" dance. Then I find I'm her second choice. She had asked some other guy first, who turned her down but changed his mind. Now she's engineering a way to go out with two men.

"Sounds kinda kinky," I tell her. I back out, not wanting to be the third wheel. I really didn't feel like going anyway, even stag.

Later in the summer of 1991, the Games department runs a "Data Match" dating game. It's a pencil-and-paper precursor to eHarmony.com, where people fill out a standardized survey of their interests and a computer matches them up to best matches from the opposite gender.

Here's my results. Click for a larger view:

Well, almost my results. (Finding decent scanning software and drivers for my old hardware for free is a vicious circle.)

Note my highest compatibility is 67 percent. I don't know if that's positive relationship material. I don't follow up on the results. Remember, I'm not dating.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

They Nail Cheaters, Don't They?

I will give you the Standard Six Flags Guest Service Disclaimer: most of our patrons play honorably and responsibly. The one percent that don't are a pain for two reasons. First, it's hard to catch them in the act. Second, when you do, they'll find a way to claim that you didn't, and in the name of guest service, you'll have to politely give them a pass.

"Ring-A-Thing" is the easiest for cheaters. The perpetrator doesn't have to lean over very far to secretly plant a ring on top of a soda bottle employee and claim a gargantuan plush animal. It only takes a second.

A little kid tries it one day. He flags me down from another part of the stand, indicating he's a winner. But it doesn't feel right. He's done it with his very last ring, and it's on the front row.

I turn to a woman who has just walked over and ask, "Did he lay this ring on there?"

She nods yes.

"This woman says you laid this ring on there," I addressed.

The kid gives me a cute smile. "I did."

"Don't do that! We nail cheaters!"

He and his buddy run off after the tactful but first dress-down.

Another guest wins the grand prize at Highland Hoops. So far, no problem. But then he comes back later and tries to play again, violating our policy of one grand prize per guest per day. That's when he claims he's not the guy who won, but actually the guy's twin cousin. In the name of Guest Service, I can't call him out on it.

The foul line is supposed to keep some order in the universe. But if I enforce it, guests complain. At one of the ball-tossing games, I calmly remind him, "Make sure your hand doesn't go over the foul line."

"Man, gimme my money back."

"Because I told you can't go over the foul line?" I query.

"Because I can tell you aren't cool."

Aren't cool -- that's a code term for, "I'll turn my head the other way while you cheat." I give him his money back.

He later comes back and starts leaning again. When I call him on it, he hurls all the balls away in a huff.

"I'm only doing my job," I explain.

"Why don't you go on the other side?" he gripes, pointing to some guests standing in another line at the same stand.

I do, and a co-worker lets him play again. He wins and collects his prize. I find out he was leaning again, but the co-worker -- a green tag -- doesn't want to cause trouble. And we both think this guy's a jerk.

One guy isn't content to cheat; he just flat-out steals. We find him sitting on the counter at Highland Hoops and politely tell him to get up, because we don't allow people to sit on the game counters. Later, we learn he has been reaching behind him to grab stuffed bears out of the stand and pass them to his buddies. It took another guest to tip us off, long after the fact.

Occasionally, some people think we're the ones cheating. At "Spot Pitch," we require a tossed quarter to get completely inside one of the small circles on our game board to win a prize. One guest thinks he's entitled to something for making it half-way. We have the forepeople and supervisors eyeball it, but they won't give in.

The steamed patron goes down to Guest Relations to complain. They call us and tell us to send down a prize. We send him a gigantic plush Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle -- with a rip in it.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Get Me A Bleeping Supervisor

ADVISORY: This contains mature content. Read with caution!

Managers, as I understand and I believe, should not only lead but inspire. In the Games section of Six Flags Over Mid-America, many do lead and inspire. Many also denigrate and defile.

The phone rings in the Britannia backroom.

"Brit -- Chris speaking."

"Who the [bleep] are you?"

"Chris Francis."

"Well, get off you [bleep]head and get a [bleep]ing supervisor right [bleep]ing now!"

I get one. I should've just hung up.

Fast forward now to a sick joke from a foreman named "Cliff," the name changed to protect his identity.

Shortly after opening one day, he gives me a fake write-up for "not shaving face and legs. This is against the grooming code and uncool." If only I had my historical mindset then. I would've come to work in 18th Century knee breeches and stockings and told him they get girls. Cliff, meanwhile, has Ten O' Clock Shadow, stubble, and gorilla legs. So much for setting the standard.

Later, after I come back from break, Cliff throws me a question straight from left field.

"Can I see your wallet?"

He'd seen me locking it up.

"What, you wanna rip it off?" I jab.

"Nah, let me just see it."

So I let him have it. He flips through my numerous cards before spotting a circular bulge in the back, which may have been what raised his eyebrows. It turns out to be change, but Cliff has a dirty mind.

"You got a condom in your wallet?"

I spend the next few minutes fighting a losing battle as I try to convince everybody in the backroom that I don't carry birth control next to my bills. I keep cracking up, though, because every so often, somebody comes into the backroom, hears the conversation, and asks, "Who's got the condom?" Or they poke their head in the door and ask it. Then I can't stop laughing.

Another girl gets ticked because I make it clear I'm not going to use it on her.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Guests Behaving Badly

Most Six Flags guests behave. A few complain. They take issue with the prizes, the rules or the foul line. As best we try to head off disagreements, some people are born disagreeable. Usually I can kick disputes up to a foreperson or even a supervisor. But even if we're in the right on the rules, the guest will often prevail out of the need for good PR. More than a few Games workers catch onto this and bring it up at a staff meeting.

"We know," a supervisor says. "But now that Time Warner owns us, they're really stressing guest service."

"So let's just get rid of the foul lines," I remark. "Because obviously they don't mean anything."

The foul lines stay. But we can't call a foul on a the problem guests unless they get flagged for unnecessary roughness.

One night around closing time, a stand worker in Britannia is giving a refund to a guest who had run into a machine malfunction. Another man walks over and snatches the money. Naturally that starts a ruckus. The second man gives back the money, but then a third man runs over, shouting "That's my money!" Fists fly into a three-man battle royale.

Soon the area is crawling with Security officers. They're still there a half-hour later when I go back to close up and count my till. An Eureka, Missouri police officer steps in takes a statement from the girl running the stand. It doesn't look like anybody is seriously hurt. At least I don't see any blood.

Sometimes fights break out at the basketball tosses. People make side bets on whether they'll hit a three-pointer from half-court or beyond. Some people try to shoplift, forgetting they're in a controlled area that can be closed down. It's like trying to rob a casino.

When the video arcades fill up, we send up the most irascible personality types to police the crowds -- which mostly means keeping girls and boys from hanging over each other and breaking up shoving matches. I once ask why everybody else seems to be working an arcade shift. A forewoman tells me it's because they need nasty, mean and tough people... and I'm not any of those. I don't know whether to be insulted or flattered.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Money Madness

As a Six Flags worker, I sometimes get caught in situations that leave me wondering whether I will have a job at the end of the day. These are cases where a small mistake creates a butterfly effect of consequences.

July 18, 1992: Britannia, day shift. I can't stuff dollar bills down the pipes at the Churchill Downs horse-race game. They won't slide down to the bottom like change. If you throw a wad down, it'll just stick in the pipe. So when I run out of change, I have to fold it into the top of the pipe, not shoving it down, until somebody gets around to sell me change. "Thor," a foreperson whose name I'm changing to protect his identity, arrives when I'm at least $6 over. He and I start fumbling around with my till while he's selling me change.

"How much are you over?" he queries.

"I dunno," I tell him. No way am I going to count the till in my stand -- a consistent no-no -- and risk more wrath.

Thor takes the wad from the top of the pipe along with the bills from my belt. I also have money from guests in my hand, as they try to talk to me in the middle of all this.

"Pull five from that," Thor directs, giving my till wad back. "Drop six." I do it, using change he's just sold me.

But what about the money in my hand? I didn't realize he had accounted for it. He asked me if I'd pulled the five, which I had, but with him fooling with my money and guests itching to play and interrupt my thoughts, I'm losing track of things. Thor hands over some rolls of change and collects some money from a few more guests.

"Drop this," he says, handing me a roll of quarters. I do it.

But afterwards, I have a feeling something isn't right. My till feels too light. I go on break a few minutes later, and after a backroom count, I find I'm $6 short. Time to tell Thor.

I go over to him and explain what I've done, according to his instructions. He puts his head in his hands when I tell him about the first drop in addition to the second one.

"I'm trying to do my job," I tell him. I've followed his orders and he has the audacity to get upset with them. Or maybe he's just realized he's messed up. But knowing Thor and his longtime reputation for being a posterior orifice, the former is more likely.

"Go on your break and I'll talk with [the supervisor]," he says.

When I come back from break, the sup has a solution: remain at $6 short. "I'll write it down in my book that you're excused. Obviously you misunderstood something he said."

That does little to comfort me as I fret over what Cash Control or somebody else can do to me as Six Flags deals with a wave of till thefts. My hands keep shaking, and another foreperson nearly scares the stuffing at me.

"Need money, Chris?" he says, coming up from behind.

I nearly leap a foot in the air.

As for Thor's attitude, the sup tells me not to worry. He's "having a bad day."

Or a bad attitude... and enjoying it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

McClosed

In the summer of 1992, Time Warner (before AOL) owned Six Flags Over Mid-America, and they made a generous proposal. They allowed McDonald's to take over three of the park's restaurants. An eatery in the center became a full-service Golden Arches. A burger joint on the east end transformed into "McDonald's Hamburger Express," and another one on the west end near Old Chicago transformed into "McDonald's Pizza Express" at a time when the burger behemoth was thinking outside the bun.

Immediately, the park's self-run hash houses felt the pressure. When kids had the choice of an unknown dive and the familiar happy meal, guess where they pulled their parents? Banners went up outside other Six Flags restaurants offering combo meals for supposedly competitive prices. Guests weren't swayed, and they packed the central McDonald's. Even park workers went there, snubbing the food at their private "All-Star Cafe" for Big Macs and the famous fries. Getting a 50 percent employee discount wasn't bad, either.

Two months later, McDonald's found out they were losing the two Express locations. Immediately, conspiracy theories emerged. Were they too successful for their own good? Had Time Warner, in a fit of corporate stupidity, set them up to fail to protect the park's own? The theory had legs. Food Service workers got an extra fifty cents an hour to sling the grub where grease was the word. Even so, it still wasn't much of an incentive, considering most Six Flags workers made less than minimum wage because they were technically part-timers: they worked a steady job during the summer, but only during the summer -- and weekends in the late spring and fall.

Further rumblings down the rumor wire revealed a contrary story. The express locations weren't pulling their weight in sales, especially compared to the central location. The park could support one Mickey D's, not three. Food Service took back their former territories, continuing to serve hamburgers and pizza -- just not from McDonalds.

The central location immediately boosted its staffing and raised prices, making the park's location more expensive than their outside stores. Six Flags axed the employee discount. McDonald's remained a few more years, outlasting my stint with the park.

Now, even the central location is gone, turned back into a Food Service location. This Google Maps photo from 2011 shows it:


View Larger Map

In the battle of corporate giants, it truly is eat or be eaten.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Spare The Rod, Or I'll Hit You With It Myself

Come to Six Flags Over-Mid America and enjoy all our rides and shows. Enjoy all our comfort food and ice cream. Try your skill in the Games sections. But don't ever, ever beat your children in front of me.

I see it more than once. And when I do see it, I see it egregiously.

Most of the time, parents just yell at their children. Or one parent yells, and then another parent yells at the other parent for yelling at their children in public, swearing at the other parent in the process.

One time, a child cries in front of a Skee-Ball ticket counter, and a parent lifts him up by one arm to swat his behind several times before letting him fall to the cement floor in a heap of agony. The parent does this over and over again until the child lies in a fetal position.

"Where's my camcorder?" I whisper to a co-worker. "I'm gonna bust these people for child abuse."

The irony is, there's no good way to do that. The park has lines for security and anonymous tips if we spot guests behaving badly, but suspected child abuse is touchy. If I falsely accuse a guest, it comes back to bite my behind, and then I'm open to legal or disciplinary action if I'm wrong.

I should've reported it to a foreperson, quietly. I didn't, and I still wish I had to this day. I really wanted to confront this parasite of a parent and bellow, "You are a guest in this park! That means we don't have to watch you exercise corporal punishment before a live audience! Beat that child one more time and I'll shove my quarter rolls down your throat!"

We are still years away from the see-something-say-something era of self-policing. I probably had the final mentality of "it's none of my business; it's a parent punishing a bratty kid."

Years later, in the news business, I'll hear about parents arrested for public spanking. Mom or Dad's charges go away, but the humiliation doesn't. Whether the kids straighten up or run wild is left to speculation.

Nowadays, I probably won't call the cops on you. But kindly beat your children someplace else.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Till Theft Do Us Part

On any given day, thousands of dollars pour into the Games section of Six Flags Over Mid-America, passing through the hands and till belts of dozens of young employees before ending up in the drop boxes of some two dozen games before ending in the vaults of Cash Control. But along the way, scores of dollars will end up in pockets and purses, skimmed from the operation to pad the pay of employees who think they can quietly rob their bosses.

It's officially called Till Mismanagement, and officially, it's a firing offense. It's a crime, too, but in my four-summer stint, I never heard of anybody going to jail for it. That's probably why it continued.

Till theft is treated as a fact of life by our department head. "We've said goodbye to a lot of you," he says at one employee meeting. "We'll probably say goodbye to a lot more of you before the summer's over."

It's easy because drops are made with each game, no security cameras are around to catch people on tape, and the sections have various nooks suitable for moving cash around in secret. The actual technique varies, but many will short-drop: taking a dollar bill but dropping 50 cents into the box. Some will take wads of money at a time at a group racing game, but only drop half that in change, instead of dropping each dollar in change as it's collected. Later, they'll duck into the hiding place and pocket the excess. A few bold quick-buck artists will slip a dollar into their own pockets every so often instead of the till belt. Remember, the amount of money in the till belt is not supposed to grow or contract at any time -- it's solely there for making change.

Forepeople figure out ways to skim, shorting stand workers a few dollars each while selling change. Each worker thinks they've just gone short of the $80 that's supposed to always remain in the till by making a mistake in dropping. Meanwhile, the excess dollars add up and end up in the foreperson's pocket.

Six Flags does have its own undercover detective agency, but Internal Investigations are only as effective as their anonymity and their technique. A rookie gumshoe will stare constantly at somebody in a stand, and it's an obvious tell. One employee I know confronts a girl with eagle eyes.

"Do you work for Internal?" he queries.

"Yes," she says, breaking down nearly into tears, cover blown.

Sometimes I notice people walking around with camcorders held in awkward positions. They pass through, wait a few minutes, and then they pass through again.

I nearly catch two people in the act while training as a foreman during the summer of 1991. "Jared" and "Scott," as I'll call them, already had a dodgy reputation because they always worked together and walked together, leading people to think they did other things together as well. Enough said about that part.

As I'm selling fresh change to my comrades, one of the forepeople takes me aside and tells me not to sell to the racing game where Jared and Scott are working. Another tells me to ask if people need change before selling it to them -- which I was already doing.

While I make my rounds, a foreperson and a supervisor meet privately in the Britannia backroom, presumably discussing something that didn't seem right or something they saw. The foreperson calls for me, and I cautiously knock on the door.

"Pull a guy quick from Fishin' Hole," she tells me, "and send them to Bedrock Bedlam."

"You didn't see any of this," the supervisor says as I'm walking out the door. She and the foreperson head straight to Jared and Scott's stand, have them take off their till belts, and escort them out of the section. I never see them again.

Most busts take place out of my sight, and out of the guests' sight. We hear about it later through the rumor pipelines, long after the guilty parties are gone.

One summer later, Six Flags decides to get tougher on the skimmers, and so they deploy a battalion of till auditors from Cash Control into Britannia. They come up the back way, from the Thunder River dock. They stand around, discuss some strategy and wait until the crowd of players has thinned out a tad.

"GO!" somebody shouts, and the swarm of auditors splits up and spreads out to each stand like an FBI raid. They order every employee to hand over their tills with their nametags. Some auditors nearly rip the tags off their targets. Everybody gets fresh tills, temporary nametags, and probably a few dirty looks. The same operation goes down in Old Chicago.

Forepeople aren't exempt. One auditor takes his $3000 change till and hands him an $80 black-tag till.

Hours later, when our shifts end, we're summoned to a mandatory meeting in the training center, where we're all debriefed by two full-time Games honchos, a security officer, and a Eureka Police Department detective who speaks of an "ongoing investigation."

He tells us they're building hard evidence on people, but nobody in the room is a "suspect." He reminds us till theft is a crime, but he offers us a deal: any skimmer can some to Security within 24 hours, fess up, and be terminated without prosecution. After that, skimmers face a crap shoot.

I voice a couple of thoughts about the way it all went down. "I'm concerned about people's civil rights being violated," given the way the auditors went about their business.

The department head empathizes, saying that these weren't the best people to have going out doing audits. He reminds us not to count our tills in our stands, as seen on some of the covert camcorder tape. The other honchos give us an opportunity to see whether we were over or short at the time we were shaken down, and I find I'm two bucks over, which management tells me is nothing to be concerned about.

I never hear if anybody takes a deal, although we joke about whether we're going to surrender or not the next day. The auditors don't return for the rest of the summer. The investigations continue.

And skimmers continue to game Games.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Elusive Superstar

Many workplaces have their employees of the week, month and year. At Six Flags Over Mid-America we have Service Superstars, those who perform at the proverbial mark way above the level. But in many ways, just like in many other workplaces, it's just another popularity contest cloaked as an incentive to work harder.

I learn the truth after a few weeks. And an incident in May 1991 further convinces me, just as I'm beginning my second summer in the Games section.

It starts after I get a coin box key meant for Skee-Ball accidentally stuck in a basketball-toss machine while trying to give a guest a free play for a lost coin. I get some guff about it, which I expect, but what gets me is the attitude of a supervisor, promoted to that rank out of foreperson: "Well, no Service Superstar for you."

He's probably playing with me. He probably knows I'm thinking about it because he's just asked me a few minutes earlier whether I got one last year. He and another sup were trying to figure it out, since the slate starts clean every season. Or maybe that's what they want me to believe. I can't trust anybody anymore. Nonetheless, I buy into the hunch that I might be getting it. Boy, am I young and gullible.

Yet in all this, the ironic twist is that the act was committed in the name of serving the guest. The guest had accidentally put his money into a machine that had no ball -- and was not marked "Out Of Order," either. I tried to fix the problem by giving him a free play. Yes, a key got stuck, but not out of malice. The Skee-Ball key works on the crane machine and Boom Ball, so maybe it should work on the hoops game too. One can't fault my logic.

And then come times when I want to help the guest, but regulations throw up a block. Many times a guest will win a stuffed animal but want it in a different color that what we have in stock behind the stand. They'll see the color they want with the numerous animals tacked up on the wall (known as "flash" in Six-Flags-speak), but I can't get it down for them. I need a foreperson's permission to do that because first, it will leave a gap they have to fill again with more plush. Second, they have to recount the plush on the wall again if you take something down, which they don't like to do. Third, much of the plush is dirty, dusty and deformed due to hanging on the wall for an extended period of time.

Guests don't buy this logic, and they shouldn't. You're there to serve them, not make excuses why you can't. Still, I have to explain all of this to them, because often a foreperson isn't around, and they often don't give permission to raid the wall.

"It's something you and I both have to live with," I tell one guest. Sometimes I can appease them by letting them trade in a big stuffed animal for several smaller ones, something I can do without anybody's permission.

I would never earn Service Superstar through four summers of Six Flags. No special luncheon. No letter of praise from the bosses. No gold engraved nametag.

If only I had a relationship with GOD during those years. I would've remembered Hebrews 6:10: "GOD is not unjust; HE will not forget your work and the love you have shown HIM as you have helped HIS people and continue to help them."

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Swimming Lessons

Without a permanent shift in any of the Games sections of Six Flags Over Mid-America, I worked in Pool, which some of us called "swimming." I had a lot of latitude to set my own hours. I would usually sign up to work extra open shifts in sections that needed them or fill in for others when they needed time off. Most of the time, it worked flawlessly, but I accidentally double-booked myself a couple of times and had to work it out with the office. One time, though, failing to handle things the right way the first time led to a lot of needless frustration.

Monday, June 24, 1991. I call into the office to scope out open shifts. The first time I get a lady who isn't even working the desk. She says somebody will call me back, and you can figure out what happened. I call back a second time, and I'm told to call back around noon, in the likelihood a night shift will pop up. I call again and come up dry.

But I have another issue to settle: Jody's shift. Her and I made a deal a month ago -- I'd work for her on a day shift from June 28 to July 14th. It sounded like a done deal, but not completely. I need her to get it on a form so I could sign off on it and put my Social Security number on it. Now time is running out, and it needs to get to the office to get processed so the forepeople are aware of the change. I'd had repeatedly asked her to get the paperwork to me, but she says no rush, she wants to wait until her time off got closer.

Now I'm getting annoyed. A day earlier, I'd put up a note on the Britannia bulletin board:

THE PERSON (BROWN TAG) WHO WANTED ME
TO WORK FOR HER JUNE 28 TO JULY 14
NEEDS TO GET THE PAPERWORK (TSC) TO ME
PRONTO OR ELSE THE DEAL IS NULL AND VOID!
--Chris Francis
MY NUMBER IS ON THE POOL LIST.
THIS MEANS YOU JODY [REDACTED]!

I shouldn't have done it. But I need to get it taken care of, and I'm getting desperate. My plan is to get the paperwork done today while working. But without a shift, I have to get it done another way. I talk to the desk girl and get her to verify Jody is working. I ask to have the call transferred to Britannia. That's when I hit another problem: the junky phone in my room accidentally cuts me off. I call back right away and Desk Girl tells me Jody will call back on her break.

Hours pass with no call. I get back on the phone and explain. The girl on the other end tells me she'll work on it be back with me in a few minutes. She calls back to later saying I don't need to do anything; Jodi will turn in the forms in on Thursday, and I don't need to put any of my information -- including my Social Security number -- on the paperwork. They can get it from the office files. I should've known, but I didn't think office managers could crib that information, even with my consent.

Jody calls back later and I apologize for the sign, explaining how hard it's been for me to get shifts lately because Six Flags is cutting back on extra workers. She's good about it, very good, but in a way that makes me feel worse.

"I owe you big," I say just before the goodbye.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The XY Affair

ADVISORY: This entry contains mature content.

Occasionally, men do fall victim to sexual harassment. Maybe that term is a little strong for what you're about to read, but it fits. Although what happened was done in fun, not spite, it ranks as my most memorable uncomfortable moment from my time at Six Flags Over Mid-America.

Quoting from my journal of July 15, 1991:
Midway through my stint [spieling at Ninja Invasion in Old Chicago] two girls who shall be known here as X and Y started giving me some problems. They were fellow employees, and they must have had nothing to do because they both entered the stand at the same time and started coming on to me -- right in front of the guests. All this time, I'm trying to keep my concentration and run the game. They'd back me into corners, asking me questions that girls usually don't ask boys:

"Have you gotten laid yet?"

And then they'd feel me up, right when I'd be trying to spiel the race. I'm lucky I didn't make a Freudian slip. I'd break up at times when they'd rub my legs, but at least I didn't say anything embarrassing. I was embarrassed, though. Guests shouldn't see [bleep] like this -- and that's just what it was, [bleep]. I know somebody put them up to this. [Redacted]? She's a sneaky little [bleep], I think. She was the one who was fondling me during the time I was giving out stands while working as a yellow tag
[management trainee] in O.C. Both X and Y left the stand occasionally to gab with others around the way, perhaps to spread the world about what they were doing to me and how I was reacting to it.

The two left for awhile after nearly a half-hour of this nonsense, and then Y came back to send me on a break. She said X was waiting for me in the backroom. When I got there, she was waiting for me all right. She half-dragged me outside and made like she was going to rip my clothes off, starting with my till belt. This girl was crazy, gone with the wind and the wind wasn't even blowing. After doing that, she led me back into the backroom, and the next thing I know, we're both on the soft and she's pretending that she wants to do the wild thing. When the steam cleared, I lay spread out on the sofa with the top button on my shirt undone and one shocked expression on my face."
This backroom incident, by the way, took place in front of several other employees, including a foreperson, laughing all the way. For the record, nothing happened below the belt.

Back to my journal, where nothing shocking happened after that until the last 15 minutes of my shift:
That's when [redacted] came up to me like I was her boyfriend and nearly hugged me. A few minutes later, she told me my face looked swollen, and maybe it did. I wouldn't have been surprised after the hijinks of X and Y. She asked for a second opinion from Kurt [a foreperson]. He didn't agree. She told me I looked sexy though. I told her it must be the glasses. She told me she thought I looked better without the glasses. Anyway, she gave me her phone number on a piece of tape as I was leaving...
Or so I thought. It turned out to be one of the numbers for Six Flags. Later I confronted her, playing around.

"What are you trying to play me for, girl? I'm not going down as a sucker!"

She said she messed up and miswrote a digit, something she always did. Yeah, sure. How does a person continuously forget how to write their own phone number?

Yet there she goes, swearing to GOD she messed up. If I had been closer to GOD at that time, I would've told her to leave GOD out of it.

And keep her hands to herself.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The One That Got Away

As many of you know, my high school years would pass by without any semblance of a dating life. I should've started wearing tricorns and knee breeches in high school and learned a minuet, staying true to what I would later liberate from my heart and mind. I'm not going to dive into the pity pool, but let me point towards a possible love connection from June of 1991.

Angie and I are working together at "Fishin' Hole," a stand we put in for little kids to win something with every play. The object is to drop a fishing line with a magnet into a pool and pick up a prize for fifty cents a drop. The kids get excited and swing their lines around, meaning we have to dodge flying magnets. You'll put somebody's eye out, kid!

During a break from rugrat infestation, she asks a jawdropper:

"Do you have a girlfriend?"

"No."

I ponder my next words for several seconds before finally letting them out of my mouth: "What, do you want to be mine?"

"How did you know?"

"Know what?"

"That I liked you?"

I pause again. "Wild guess."

As I read back over my journal, I'm still not sure why I asked that question, other than the moment was right and the words were right.

But I have to be careful. If this girl is playing me, I don't want to go down as a sucker. Teenage hearts break easier, and not just in the ladies. But Angie tells me she and another girl had talked about me earlier in the day. It sounds legit, but I don't let down my guard.

At the time, it doesn't seem right, anyway. Years later, I realize why: I'm 19 and she's 15. I'm in college, and she's in high school. It reeks of illegality, even if everything's above the belt. She's nearly the same age as my kid brother's girlfriend. I don't push the relationship.

A month later, Angie falls through the termination hole amid questionable circumstances. I hear she gave out the grand prize at the "Golden Grail" game for a ball that landed right next to the grand prize cup without it being a winner. I gather she took pity on somebody.

I did it once too, giving a little girl a small prize at another game when she was only a hair away from being a winner.

"You just saved me a lot of problems," her grateful father told me.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

It Is Written (Up)

It's all fun and games until one of the Six Flags Games people breaks the rules, or they get on the wrong side of some foreperson's ego, or they become a target on somebody's list. Working in Games parallels what we would later call Survivor, where the object is to outwit, outplay and outlast, or just good-old-fashioned high-school politics. Get out of line, and you get "written up."

I quickly learn the regulations count for no more than 50 percent. When I work my first shifts in the Old Chicago section, I find out their forepeople have little margin for error, or a miniscule sense of humor. People get written up for taking the top off a water cooler to get some cold ice for their drinks. Maybe that explains why others are begging me to work their Old Chicago shifts.

At one point, I see this sign in Britannia's backroom:

DO YOU ENJOY BEING WRITTEN UP FOR:
--Taking the lid off the water cooler
--Talking to a fellow distressed employee
--Having any fun at all?

IF SO, TALK TO AN OLD CHICAGO PERSON ABOUT SWITCHING SHIFTS.

Later, when word gets around about O.C.'s reputation for write-ups, the forepeople try to write everybody up as a joke as their sense of humor finally emerges.

Some people get written up arbitrarily. Some people commit felonies under management's sight line or get a pass. It's life. It's Games.

In June 1992, I find out a newbie gets written up twice and chewed out once in the same day, at least one for questionable circumstances. The first is for a black shirt under a white uniform. That's understandable, even though one can hardly see the black shirt, anyway. The other is for throwing a wiffleball across the section from one stand to another, although nobody seemed to notice all the throwing going on between stands yesterday. The chew-out is for letting a non-Games employee shoot a basketball at long Range, never mind that Security officers do it all the time, along with forepeople.

"Start keeping book on people," I tell him.

He whips out a notebook. "I already am. I think that's why I'm getting all this [bleep]."

I advise him to wear a tape recorder, if he can.

About a month later, I talk to him again, and he opens up his notebook. What I read is detailed and damaging. More than anything, it documents the antics of one particular foreperson for:
  • Staging a "puppet show" behind a fence in Britannia using prize plush animals, and throwing ice and water over the fence to observe the reactions of guests standing in line for Thunder River
  • Yelling at a Green Tag for counting his till in the backroom without permission when he didn't need to ask for it, because he's out of sight of guests
Fortunately, he wouldn't have to be anybody's problem much longer, and I play a role in his downfall.

At the end of one shift, I'm counting some change, stacking those notorious Susan B. Anthony dollars into neat little pile. Along comes Mr. Foreperson, who starts messing them up, insisting on counting them himself. I insist he stop.

"Don't you trust me?" he says.

"I'll take the fifth," I reply as a joke.

"[Bleep] you," he spits back.

"You can dish it out, but you can't take it," I say, and I recount how he comes up to me at Ring-A-Thing one month ago, screaming in my ear as I was bent over, trying to pick some rings up off the floor.

"Achhhh... easy!" I groaned. "I have hearing loss in both ears!" (I'm not sure that I actually did, but days upon days of loud games, loud guests, this loud foreperson and the realization that other people can talk to each other clear across the section and understand each other while I can't led me to this conclusion.)

"Well, then it shouldn't have hurt you," he grinned.

"It sure doesn't help it!"

He still thinks it's funny, one month later, especially since I tell him I've documented it all in my journal.

This incident might've evaporated, had it not happened within the earshot of a supervisor. The loud-mouthed foreperson is canned within hours, if not minutes. Finally, justice prevails.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Art Of The Spiel

Mere days before I set foot in Six Flags as an employee, when I visit as a guest with my family, my aspirations locked in on the horse-racing game in the Britannia section. "Churchill Downs" features a dozen mechanical horses controlled by alleys of golf balls rolled into holes by contestants, similar to Skee-Ball, flanked by two vocal gamemasters calling the race at the same time in boisterous stereo.

"I want to do that," I told Dad.

It's called "spieling" in Six Flags terminology, and it's an art. I get to try it for myself on one of my first days on the job, when my trainer-buddy agrees to let me step up to the mic. He quizzes me on the rules.

"You need to have three balls in the tray," I ferret from my mind. "You need to remain seated at all times, and nobody starts rolling until I ring the bell."

He smiles as he ticks off the points on his hand. Grasshopper, you are ready.

I pull the battered gooseneck down to my level and let it fly.

"We just need three people to start this next game of Churchill Downs!"

VU needles on the backroom amplifier hit the red zone. People turn their heads.

"You can win yourself a little jockey monkey!"

Forepeople wonder, who's that guy?

"Just roll those balls up the tray and get your horse to the finish line! Only a dollar to play!"

And so begins a journey that becomes my trademark. By the time my Six Flags games career wraps up four years later, I will call more than one hundred races between "Churchill Downs" and its Old Chicago counterpart, "Ninja Invasion." Ring the bell, and we're off and running.

"Annnnd we're off! Out of the gate into the lead is Number Three, Number Three! Here comes Number Five out of the gate! Seven and Six now showing. Three makes a big move! It's Number Three, Number Three by a length!"

The key is to mention everybody's horse at some point in the race to make things sound competitive, even if some people just can't get their stallion surging.

"And it's Three and Four neck and neck as we come to the halfway point! Three and four! On the outside coming up, Number Five!"

If it's a weekend or a weeknight, and we've got people around, a crowd is drawing in. As I pump up the intensity, the guests are cheering the horses on, and it's truly turning into a day at the races. We just need the hats and mint juleps. The horses have names we can give to the guests, but it's easier and faster to call numbers.

"Coming down to the wire, Three and Five, we're gonna have a photo finish!"

People are going bananas behind the players, who are now nearly throwing their golf balls up the trays, despite my admonitions, trying to hit that big three-point hole that will put them over the line.

RINNNNNNNG!

"And it's Number Five! Number Five! Congratulations! The rest of you, we're getting another game together in just a minute, so stand by!"

I quickly hand out a prize to our champion of the moment. Hands with dollar bills jut out in front of me, and I hastily grab the money, activate the lanes, go through the rules again and hit the starting bell.

It's a grueling gig. More than once, I'll come into work hoarse because my voice is depleted from a spieling marathon. The forepeople -- at least the good ones -- take pity on your humble spieler and put him in a stand where he doesn't have to talk as much. Some days, I'll just don't have the energy for a four-hour talkathon. But one day, I'll have a mysterious excess of energy and need to burn it off.

It happens on August 11, 1992, when I work "Pork Chopper," a motorcycle-themed race game in Old Chicago which gives away Harley-Davidson swag. The crowds aren't enormous, but they pile up after I start rocking the mic. The stand sucks in money like a rampaging Hoover.

And on this night, it's not just the guests getting prizes. From my journal:
I'd just finished spieling a game when a guest suddenly got my attention.

"You're familiar with the Mystery Guest program, aren't you?"

"Yeah!" I replied.

And, boom, he handed me a pink mystery guest card. Just like that.

"Good job!"

Now Games people don't usually win Mystery Guest cards, so this was an honor indeed. And believe me, I was high as a kite.

I wasn't so high later on when I redeemed it in Personnel. All the good stuff, like the Best Buy and Music Vision certificates, were gone. I got two Wehrenberg movie passes. The trouble with those is that, for a lot of big name movies like Batman Returns, you can't get in with them all the time. But I guess I shouldn't complain. It's getting selected that counts, and I'm one of the chosen few.
I won "Spieler of the Year" for at least two years. The first award landed me a gigantic cigar, which I couldn't smoke, and I didn't even try until I was living in Texas many years later. It disintegrated, and I coughed all the way through nary a few puffs before putting it out and trashing it. I'm glad I got a plaque the next year.

I also got the opportunity to train the next generation of spielers. Our Games Guru invited me to write a guidebook. I called it "The Art Of The Spiel (or, How To Talk A Good Game)," for which I earned a few extra summer bucks. I'm not sure if some of that material is still in use, but I know it made it into the training materials for at least one year.

Last New Year's Eve, when I was at Disneyland with my family, we passed a horse-racing game, and I just couldn't resist having another crack at it, more than two decades leader, from behind the row of players and off the microphone, direct from the diaphragm.

"Annnnnnnd they're off! Coming out of the gate and into the lead..."

Still got it.