Action Park, Revisited
His tooth was floating somewhere in the chlorine-infused liquid—I just needed to find it. Five minutes earlier, a man hurtled down the Surf Hill slide and somehow dislodged a front tooth. He was a regular guy: around 220 pounds with cropped hair and a red bathing suit. The most notable fact about this unfortunate man was his recently vanished tooth, now presumably at the base of the Surf Hill ride. The park was closing in 30 minutes, and I desperately motioned to my fellow lifeguard at the top of the ride to stop sending new riders.
“He lost a tooth!” I shouted.
“What?” she replied.
“He lost a tooth and I need to find it!”
“How’d he do that?”
“I don’t know!!!”
On Surf Hill, patrons took pieces of blue foam and slid down a blue slide lubricated by water, a classic waterpark ride. It was slightly terrifying, and the eight lanes with almost no separation allowed for high-stakes racing. Here’s a video that accurately depicts the sensation:
I don't know how he lost the tooth. Perhaps he got a running start at the top of the hill, lost control on the first bump, and hit his face on the ground or his own knuckles. The tooth either went flying into the woods or tumbled down the slide. I kept on trying to reconstruct the incident in my mind as I searched the brush. I was also trying to determine whether I could be held legally liable for not finding his tooth. Yikes.
The Surf Hill ride I operated was a waterpark classic. It was present in the original Action Park, the legendary "Traction Park" of the 1980s and 1990s, well-known in the Northeast for wrongful death lawsuits and numerous injuries. This is the Action Park you will find in Google searches and various documentaries, the semi-mythical amusement park of carnage feared by your parents and used by physics teachers as an amusing comment on the stupidity of man. Online, you will find terrifying descriptions of "the Cannonball Loop", a slide with a vertical loop that caused so many injuries that it was shut down after a month.
You will hear of accidental drownings in the tempest of the Wave Pool. You will find stories of death, drowning, and lawsuits. Incredibly, a news article cited on Wikipedia claims Action Park didn't even have liability insurance until 1995, when it finally purchased some form of coverage from the "Evanston Insurance Company" [note]There's your #Northwestern connection[/note]. The waterpark went bankrupt a year later and was eventually purchased by Intrawest, a resort conglomerate that rebranded the family-run business to Mountain Creek Resorts.
While the stories of old-school Action Park are riveting and make for excellent drama for 2010s media entities to explore, the reality is that I grew up with the corporate, sanitized Mountain Creek Waterpark. Gone were the days of the "random white guy" entrepreneur Gene Mulvihill, who ran the park as a passion project, all while dodging safety requirements, bribing employees to test unsafe rides and occasionally committing massive insurance fraud. Enter safety, sleek advertising and standardization. This was the more civilized age of Action Park, where the most dangerous slides were dismantled and the "action" had been toned down. With little else to do that summer, I was encouraged by my parents to apply for a job as a lifeguard at the rebranded Action Park. I come from a line of ardent capitalists, and the "life experience" from working as a lifeguard would certainly inspire within me a dream to become a doctor, lawyer or businessperson instead of doing something dumb like being a journalist.
[By the way, I don't consider the Mountain Creek era a bad thing, unlike some hardcore fans of the old Action Park. I had plenty of fun at the waterpark when I was younger, without the ignominious spectre of death hanging over me.]
When I came around to apply for a summer job, the nostalgista were in full command. The old Action Park logo was emblazoned on my gear. It was time to restore the thrills and danger of the waterpark. Old rides were reopened. The new Zero G slide, a huge pink slide which involved a 50-foot-drop from a trapdoor, was under construction and set to open that year. The return of Action Park in 2014, accomplished by the descendants of Gene, was symptomatic of the world we live in today, where naked appeals to the past and "the way things were" dominate. Later that year, the Republican Party would take command of the Senate, presaging the 2016 election and the present day.
Andy Mulvihill, Eugene's son, was at the forefront of the plan. The younger Mulvihill is a golf course and resort developer who inherited a small fiefdom of real estate and various businesses from his father. For those unaware of Sussex County local politics, he is persistently followed by allegations of fraud. Andy and his resorts that dot the landscape of the town of Vernon go into massive amounts of debt and receive constant complaints from residents for fraud, violation of building codes, and other various local catastrophes. Unsurprisingly, he was Chris Christie crony of the highest order. Christie got Andy Mulvihill a spot on the New Jersey Board of Education from the spoils system. Andy spent that important role in the education of New Jersey's youth...checking his iPhone during meetings.
So, in 2014, Andy decided to buy back the Mountain Creek Resort from Intrawest. Restoring Action Park to its former glory became his new priority. I would like to throw more metaphorical stones at this obsession with the past, but the ugly reality is that appeals to make things how they once were are easy to slip into. Extreme examples we find in contemporary politics or small businesses are extreme and ghastly, but I can never escape from the truth: change is terrifying. In our own lives, how many times have we become reactionaries, fighting against the current of kindergarten, middle school, high school, college and beyond? How long have we resisted change in our own lives? There is a limit to this being in good sense and taste, but it's also natural to the human psyche.
But in the inimitable words of Neon Genesis Evangelion's 3.0's tagline...you can (not) redo. The park bore the Action Park name, but the heyday of the 1980s was long gone. As Karl Marx famously wrote in The 18 Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts, waterparks, and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."
Frankly, the park was now safe, manicured and meticulously designed to extract cash from its customers. Even Surf Hill, a relatively banal ride, had been smoothed out over the years. The Wave Pool had been tamed to avert drownings. The scariest and most dangerous attraction in the whole park was the 23-foot Cliff Jump, which was still comparatively tame for anyone with thrill-seeking experience. There was proper insurance. I would not be liable for the missing tooth fiasco. There was nothing remaining from the Action Park name but a cynical marketing scheme. Second time as farce, indeed.
Even the employment itself was farcical in its seriousness. The days of boozed up teenagers enjoying idyllic Stranger Things-style 1980s pop culture tropes were gone. We had swanky uniforms with Dri-Fit shirts and bright green lifeguard shorts. There was an electronic punch card system. There were long hours, often nearing 50 per week with weekends. There was that distinct, overwhelming feeling of dehumanization found in the lower rungs of the 21st century service economy, that indescribable sense of meaninglessness as workers tried to keep protocol and maintain the Disneyfied aura of the waterpark. In reality, nobody cared whatsoever. When giving directions to confused tourists or loading a bunch of sweaty adults onto a tube for the Colorado Rapids, I often wondered what Marx and Engels would think of the late-capitalistic service economy, a state in which technology had advanced so that even his precious industrial labor was rendered obsolete. At least the factory workers were, you know, building something that had some value. The surplus value produced by the service economy is the "facilitation of surplus-value elsewhere." Thus, because Owner X works better when Owner X's kids are at the waterpark with a babysitter, the service economy provides some kind of abstract, synthetic value.
This still sucks ass. Customer service and, specifically, production of surplus "entertainment" may not be as nightmarish as children working mechanical looms, Upton Sinclair, or the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, but don't let anyone convince you that it's any less miserable, at times. If the Industrial Revolution was "the tragedy", the Service Revolution of the last few decades is "the farce". The working classes of America, stuck with smashed unions and stagnant wages, are no longer making consumer goods for the bourgeois (that's the job of the even more dispossessed working classes around the world), but ensuring the bourgeois have great pictures for their Instagram stories.
While pushing sweaty adults down water slides, I realized that the surplus value being robbed from the lower classes is production of quality of life itself, which is some dank, feudalistic shit if you ask me. This transition, naturally, pisses off all the unexceptional white guys (and others) who can't find quite as many outlets for their stupidity, especially when the service economy forces them to do shitty gig economy jobs or even, you know, work alongside women as equals. Ultimately, all of this leads to a lot more angsty people online. And yet, somehow, the farce works even better than the tragedy [note]Barring the admirable but somewhat quixotic #Uberstrike or #Amazonstrike that swing around every once in a while[/note]. And, of course, because of that damned human nature of idealizing the past and devalue the future, we're back at people wanting to go back to the 1980s again, when Action Park was breaking people's bones without any legal framework at all.
Meanwhile, back at the waterpark, things were changing. A recent Pew Research Study states that teen employment in the United States is significantly lower than 20 years ago. Teens are more likely to have school commitments, unpaid internships or the desire to do absolutely nothing than their forebears. The availability of easy, entry-level jobs for teenagers has decreased significantly, with many of these retail posts and service positions being taken by older, more experienced workers. I have no idea whether this is a good or bad sign, but the simple fact is the teenaged, minimum wage worker will likely never return to their prominence of the 1980s. Not that Action Park paid me minimum wage: because of the "seasonal events" rule, they avoided the 2014 New Jersey minimum wage hike to $8.25 per hour and continued to pay me and the others $7.25. Also, even though I had successfully passed the "deep water lifeguarding" test in training and was managing the more difficult pools, they never upped my pay to the promised $7.75 per hour that was promised for my training.
This collapse in teenaged employment is another sign of late capitalism and changing modes of production that Marx and I don't fully understand. All I know is the waterpark had imported a group of about 30 Spanish college students on a foreign exchange/work program. Why they chose to work in Vernon, NJ, a two-hour bus ride to New York City, was beyond me. They all lived in a compound near the waterpark and were significantly older than the typical high schoolers. Did they care about providing a great guest experience? No. They were very depressed when the Netherlands clowned Spain 5-1 at the 2014 World Cup.
Regardless, the job's mythical tortures were largely gone by 2014. There were no employee deaths or injuries. Like many of the "throwback" authoritarian regimes that have cropped up in this decade, it was just intensely boring, frustrating and poorly run. The excitement and nostalgia were never coming back, but neither was anything modern or effective to save the business.
So, Action Park and the 1980s were dead. Nonetheless, this guy really just lost his tooth on Surf Hill. Really? This wasn't supposed to happen anymore. Perhaps the slightly terrifying on-site injury back at Surf Hill meant it was coming back. Surf Hill was an easy assignment for underpaid lifeguards: it was a boring spot coveted in the long upper hill rotation for its lack of real work. And yet here I was, on hands and knees looking for a customer's dislodged tooth. It was exciting. It was real.
The other lifeguard on duty, whom I will call Antigone for pretentious reasons, was not so perturbed by the inability to find the tooth. She argued that I was not legally liable, and that it was useless to fret over someone else's problem. This was the type of practical, pragmatic logic of a competent lifeguard that I lacked. In essence, I was a total poser. I went to private school. This job was meaningless to me. Pretending to be engaged, or even that fake level of engaged that anyone who has properly worked in customer service has mastered, was completely foreign to me.
I was an awful lifeguard. My parents' hope that lifeguarding would teach me "life lessons" and sending me out of the privileged bubble I lived in went unfulfilled. On the second day, I lost my little lifeguard fanny pack with the oxygen device and first aid material. Because I lost this on Day Two, I was not allowed to monitor the rides where someone might actually be in danger for the entire summer unless someone had a spare kit. This meant I was often demoted to the manual labor aspects of the job: stacking tubes, cleaning helmets, and pushing buttons. The Spaniards constantly made fun of me, and my supervisors were generally exasperated that I was still on payroll. But they would not fire me. They couldn't fire me because the expense and time to train a different lifeguard, if they could even find one, wouldn't be worth it.
If I was lucky, Antigone or a supervisor would trade me their fanny packs when she was on lunch or on some different shift so I could get a break and watch over pools in 100-degree heat. During this time, I had convinced myself I was a big shot distance runner, and would frequently do long runs in the morning that left me completely exhausted. Thus, my biggest fear would be someone actually needing assistance while I was on duty. Despite my running endurance, I was a terrible swimmer, and I was horrified that someone would drown while I was watching over the Cliff Jump and die while I slowly swam out with my red flotation device. Worst of all, the Cliff Jump and other dangerous rides would often have as many as one near-drowning per 30 minutes, which meant there was a good chance I'd be called upon in the 90-minute rotation through the three lifeguard posts on the pool.
It was probably good that I lost my fanny pack and was demoted to cleaning helmets in "soap", as much as I hated myself for being stuck there. Still, the job wasn't so bad. I was getting paid to do nothing, or worse than nothing, but it was fine. Then, about a month into the job, the management realized it could save money by not paying "deep water" lifeguards to do mindless manual labor. This meant that they hired scabs without any lifeguard training to do my job of stacking tubes or pushing buttons, essentially making my position completely redundant. This was why I was on Surf Hill in the first place: my hours had been reduced by 20 percent and the only way to make use of my fanny pack-less ass was to throw me onto the boring rides and hope no one noticed. This led to one glorious week where I operated the slide for toddlers and spent my days pushing kids from one pool to the next.
I probably should've just quit after this. Antigone was the only person on staff that pitied me enough to like me. As I was shunted aside to even more menial roles (that were rapidly losing hours), I picked up brutal 12-hour weekend shifts and complained bitterly. It was hot, and I was working from 8 AM to 8 PM. My supervisor was a mild alcoholic college student who got no support from upper management. The other head lifeguards (only one of whom spoke Spanish, by the way) constantly feuded with each other about what jobs they didn't need to do. Everyone prayed for thunderstorms that would shut down the park. Like the tenant farmers and serfs of old, my life hinged on cloud cover.
"The tradition of all dead generations of lifeguards weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living," Marx writes, again in 18 Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Waterpark Socialist Edition). For me, the traditions of lifeguards past were all returning in full force. On a slow weekday, I tested a water slide next to the cliff jump that was shut down during the Mountain Creek days due to safety concerns. Just like the old days, we were shipped down the slide to see what the heck would happen. Needless to say, I mildly injured myself on the bumps at the bottom of the slide. Whoops.
This was all to satisfy the whims of Andy Mulvihill, who never appeared once at the business he owned. He was Big Brother. Any problems with HR, staffing or hours, we blamed the Mulvilhills. Bad people being hired? Blame the Mulvihills. Water's too cold? Blame the Mulvihills. He was all-encompassing, diabolical, clueless, profit-hungry, and "sometimes a nice guy" all at once. After two years of trying to rebuild his father's legacy with "Action Park", the name changed back to Mountain Creek. Oh, and he got sued. Many times.
What did I learn? Well, absolutely nothing. My one-week lifeguard/CPR training has lapsed. I didn't become a better swimmer. I did not gain a love of resort management. I gained a slightly better understanding of modern capitalism. I also learned that being miserable was probably my default state of being.
We never found the tooth. For all I know, it's still buried in the dirt.