Sunday, June 1, 2014

Let The Games Begin

It's time again for "The 30/30 Challenge," that bi-annual blog-a-thon where I give you 30 straight days of original content, whether you like it or not. For the summer edition, I'm rolling back to the early 1990's when I worked in the Games section of Six Flags Over Mid-America (Now Six Flags - St. Louis).  It's located in Eureka, Missouri, about 30 miles southwest of St. Louis -- and not that far from the infamous toxic streets of Times Beach. In the summer of 1990, just before heading off to college for my freshman year, I finally got a job that did not involve some form of fast food. But it did involve some fast times...

It's my first day on the job, and I don't know where to start. Do I go to the front gate, or to the office at the top of the hill? As a teenager sans car, my parents drop me off in the lower lot for the "guests," -- customers in official Six Flags terminology -- and I scramble up to the office.

After asking a few more questions of a few more people, I finally get myself to the training room located in the center of the park. I have only set foot in this sprawling funland once before, just days ago when my family decided to take a Saturday outing with a 2-for-1 coupon. Before that, I am only familiar with what I have seen long ago on Captain Kangaroo, when the good Captain did a show or two on location from Six Flags over Texas, the granddaddy of the thrill-ride family, the one dating back to 1961, when Angus Wynne opened his own version of Disneyland with more of an emphasis on thrilling rides. Six Flags over Georgia followed in 1967. The park I'm now working for rolled its first coaster in 1971 -- the same year of my birth.

Our trainer, a rotund guy in his 40's with blond hair, passed out the boilerplate forms for us to sign and the short employee manual. We watched a proverbial hazardous material safety video, even though the most hazardous thing most of us would deal with was "Fan-Fare," that mysterious industrial cleaning agent one only finds at Six Flags. After that, the time comes for the field trip outside. The park is sparsely attended for a Monday morning in early June but still running strong.

"What do you think is the question people ask the most?" our trainer queries.

"Where is X?" I volunteer, "where X is some ride."

Our trainer defines my variable. "Where's the bathroom?"

He takes us through the park's six themed lands, each representing a flag that has flown over the midwest through our history. We start in America, making our way through Spain, France, Great Britain and the park's nods to Missouri and Illinois, our trainer dutifully noting the location of each restroom along the way. As the story goes, Six Flags originally wanted to name the park "Six Flags over Missouri," but the company couldn't find six different flags in Missouri's history. Expanding the name expanded their options.

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I also had options. When Six Flags came recruiting at Eureka Senior High School, I applied on the spot during lunch. I heard nothing about my application for weeks. Days after I graduated from high school, I was talking to Dad about putting in an application at a Burger King down the street (despite my abortive experience with them in Kansas City one year earlier) while we were out running an errand. As we pulled into the driveway of our new St. Louis-area home, Mom was running out to meet us.

"You got the job at Six Flags!" she cried. She'd opened the mail. At the time, I really didn't care she'd opened my mail, too.

Six Flags over Mid-America has three games sections, all linked to ride areas: Britannia, coming off Thunder River; Old Chicago, coming off the Screamin' Eagle coaster, and Ninja, coming off the coaster of the same name. Spanish Backstreet is another game section, but it mainly consists of babysitting arcades and making change, so I don't count it as a real section.

With the basic training complete, I report to wardrobe to suit up for my starting section: Britannia. The uniform is a white short-sleeved smock with plaid lines that cut me across the bust and up my neck, bottomed with black shorts. I have to buy and wear L.A. Gear tennis shoes, even though they are one of the park's official sponsors. I expected an official promotional deal that wouldn't involve taking a payroll hit.

A savvy guy who has to be at least a year younger than me takes me on another field trip through all the carnival-esque games of the section: The King's Darts (dart balloons), the basketball tosses (both of them with big and small hoops), St. Andrew's Green (mini-golf), Ring-A-Thing (trying to toss a ring onto a soda bottle neck), Golden Grail (toss wiffleballs trying to get them onto a colored chalice), Churchill Downs (mechanized horse racing), Space Chase (a Jetsons racing game which has absolutely nothing to do with England), Wacky Wire (manipulate an electric ring around a moving spring without touching the sides), the ubiquitous Skee-Ball and the winner-prone Highland Hoops.

"Really watch the foul line on this," he says on the hoops game. "We lose a lot of money here."

I'm soon working one of the stands -- I forget which. But I will never forget the "till." Eighty dollars in change sits in a green apron of pockets tied around my waist. With all of the Britannia workers wearing tills and white shirts, we sort of resemble European peasants in tunics... sort of... all wearing name tags.

They have a color-code system. Newbies like me are "Green Tags" or "Slime Tags." Eventually, I'll graduate to "Black Tag." Maybe I'll make it to a foreperson, or "Red Tag." Maybe I'll get to an assistant foreperson, or "Orange Tag." A few lucky persons will make it to "Gold Tag," winning honor of Service Superstar, complete with award luncheon and a gushing letter from the company suits.

The one tag you don't want to be is "Brown Tag," nicknamed "S--- Tag." They are the 15-year-old employees, the people on a tight leash because of Missouri's child labor laws.

"People are always asking me why I can't hire more 15-year-olds," our trainer says in the introductory session. "I have to tell them that only one percent of my workforce can be 15-year-olds." Their hours are capped below part-time status. Even if they want to work more, they can't. Most everybody else is either in high school or college, including the forepeople and the supervisors, making this workplace more like a frathouse.

The till is the first of many Six Flags Conventions I Fail To Understand. When a guest comes up to play a game, I take his or her dollars, drop them into my till belt and take out the corresponding value of quarters to be dropped into a metal lock box located somewhere in the stand. Or we drop a Susan B. Anthony dollar down there. After rejection by the general public more than two decades ago, they have finally found some useful purpose. I find it puzzling the operation can't handle dollar bills directly. Maybe it's because bills take up too much space in the box. Maybe bills get crumpled up. Whatever.

All of us function as both gamemasters and change machines, and when our tills run low of quarters or SBA dollars, the forepeople come around to swap our bills for more coins. At least once a day, an undercover agent from Cash Control comes in -- dressed in a t-shirt and shorts like a guest -- and takes wads of cash from the back room in a nondescript gym bag to a double-locked fortress in the center of the park.

Managing my till takes practice through working Highland Hoops, the golf game and whatever else I set foot in. On the first day, I come up at least five dollars short after counting my cash, which is supposed to add back up to 80 dollars.

"Don't worry," a supervisor tells me as I feel for my neck. "It's your first day."

I drown my sorrow in peanut-butter sandwiches and I Love Lucy after I get back home. Tomorrow is a new beginning, a new till.

The next day I break even, although I have an advantage of only working a half day.

"We have too many people on shift," our supervisor explains midway through my shift. Park attendance is not justifying the level of staffing, so some people have to get off the clock.

I don't mind. Back at Wardrobe on the hill, I change back into my regular attire and enjoy what I call "The Perk:" unlimited use of the park as a guest when not working. I just show my ID card to a guard at the employee entrance and slip in from the back, avoiding any ticket lines. It's going to be a nice three months.

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