by Stephen Gallagher


This year, we did the Florida thing. I can tell you now, Babel isn't a place with a tower, it's a former swamp given over to huge theme parks and the roads, motels and fast-food restaurants that service them. Remember how Mars looked in TOTAL RECALL? It's an above-ground version of that, only with a larger proportion of mutants. It's hot and it's crowded and if you're stupid enough to go in August - pass me that dunce's cap, please - all your holiday snaps will look like pages from WHERE'S WALLY.

Whatever America does, it does well and to excess. From the atom bomb to an ordinary sandwich. Crowd handling is calculated and well thought-out and, like everything else, it works on an unbelievable scale. I actually admire this technique a lot; but it's something I'd prefer to admire from a distance, rather than from somewhere in the middle.

America's theme parks are wonderful machines. You can always tell the Brits who've visited them; they're the ones who wander around Camelot, wincing. I reckon that an entire generation of US citizens was warped, not by Disney, but by those Bill Finger Batman stories where the climax took place at a trade fair or in a studio props store with giant typewriters and other weird, out-of-scale things that actually worked. Coming from a can't-do-that culture like ours, it can be overwhelming to see this stuff made real. To everyone, that is, except for children, who instantly take it all for granted, and Americans themselves, who are so overdosed on the bizarre that they're completely at home with it.

Some are so at home with it that they can work the system to a degree that makes the rest of us seem naive. I'm not talking about the ones who study the park plans and wait times in advance and arrive with a schedule and a running order. I mean, we did some of that. Let me explain.

Part of the can-do culture involves an exemplary attitude to catering for disabilities. Whatever you've got missing, they can handle it. They've got induction loops, they've got braille, they've got ramps. Any of the parks will provide you with a wheelchair, and in most places the chairbound and theiraccompanying family get conducted through a separate entrance where there's room to manouevre and no sweating in line.

This, it seems to me, is only fair. When life's been less than generous in the hand that it's dealt to someone, the rest of us can hardly begrudge such minor compensations. In fact, I'll admit to having felt a smug glow of approval whenever I saw a wheelchair party being conducted to the head of the line.

After a while, the glow was to wear off.

It happened at Sea World, one of a countrywide chain of theme parks that sets itself the enormous task of making fish appear to be interesting. You walk around the place being urged into a sense of reverence and awe for the environment, while ignoring the fact that several square miles of wilderness were destroyed in order to build it. Respect for wildlife is encouraged by the sight of aquatic mammals going through well-drilled showbusiness routines.

And doing it very well, in immense purpose-built open air stadia where instead of a stage, there's a glass-fronted tank so that you can see both above and below the surface of the water. All the stadia have areas set aside for wheelchairs; and good seats, too, not shunted over by the exits the way we tend to do it.

But something struck me after a while, because no matter how huge a theme park is, it's still a community for a day and you're bound to keep spotting some of the same people as you're moving around. Add a wheelchair to a group, and it makes them easy to identify and remember. It was one such group that first caught my attention. There were half a dozen of them, three generations of an extended family. A caring, sharing bunch; every time I saw them, someone different was taking a turn at pushing the chair.

It went even further than that. Because every time I saw them, someone different was sitting in it, as well.

After this, I started paying more attention and realised that they weren't the only ones who were doing this. I saw a handful of groups that were, as far as I could make out, entirely able-bodied and who were up there alongside the genuine cases and claiming the same privileges. It must have been easy enough. I mean, it wasn't as if they made you crawl fifteen yards to prove that you qualified for a chair. A lot of conditions aren't so readily apparent. I've known young people with heart trouble who look fine, but can't cover distance and have endless arguments with traffic wardens who think they're using illicit parking disks.

But by the end of the day, in the auditorium for the killer whale display that is Sea World's centrepiece and major marketing symbol, I was pretty well convinced that not all was as it should be, here. The arena was packed, and the special-access row was full. There was a big fanfare and the performance began. Killer whales, appealing though they are, have a limited repertoire; they swim, they jump, they roll over. But I'll admit that something the size and mass of the space shuttle self-propelling up out of the water with a wetsuited trainer on its nose is a sight that I won't readily forget.

The beast went up, the beast came down. When it hit the water, the water came straight up and out into the arena in a solid moving wall. I don't know if the whale was feeling extra-frisky that day, or what. But within seconds, the tidal wave was in the air and coming down onto the row of wheelchairs like the Red Sea hurtling toward the chariots of the Egyptians. We're not talking about spray, here. We are talking serious ocean contents.

I have never seen a bunch of people move so fast. They were up and out of those chairs as soon as they saw it coming. Some ran up the aisles. Others were scrambling over the rows of seats behind.

No-one was missed.

A few who hadn't moved at all simply sat there and took it. These were the genuine, unarguably disabled. I suppose it was like the ducking stool of old, where you virtually had to drown to prove your credentials. But the rest of them had covered Daley Thompson distances in record time. I don't know if they were looking sheepish as they returned to their wheelchairs. They were too sodden for anyone to be able to tell.

Which is how I came to believe that that Jesus surely was a killer whale.

I saw the proof, my friends. He stood upon the water, and they were healed. He gave new life to the sick and ailing, and he raised the lame to walk.


Copyright Stephen Gallagher © 1995


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