(with thanks to Hyejung Kook, who told it to me)
Far away to the south, there is a land of magic and wonder, a place of imagination and of stories. That land is Disneyworld, and this is one of its stories.
This is not one of the official stories, the Imagineered and Mickey-fied spun-sugar tales for the children whose dreams Walt Disney intuitively understood. No, this story is a story of Disneyworld itself, a tale its employees tell each other on long summer nights, as the park starts to close and the crowds thin out, when the Magic Kingdom itself has grown weary, when Sleeping Beauty thinks to herself, perhaps not a hundred years again, but maybe just a few hours. This is a tale they whisper during their break, out of earshot of the children.
Many years ago, when Disneyworld itself was young, there lived a man named George. George was an engineer, a proud figure in black-rimmed glasses, white shirt, and thin, dark, tie. Engineers like George put a man on the moon, but George's job was infinitely grander, infinitely harder. He and his colleagues had the awesome job of making reality out of fantasy, of turning Walt Disney's visions into a form which would reamin solid beneath the amazed child's touch. They were the engineers designing and building Disneyworld, and none were quite as gifted as George.
A mechanical engineer by training, this unassuming middle-of-his-class local boy from Virginia Tech had been laying out assembly lines in a North Carolina plastics factory for several years when Walt Disney himself came to the plant for a meeting with the executives who were building his new poseable plastic Mickey toys. While out on the obligatory pro forma tour of the shop floor, Walt himself stopped in his tracks and looked up at the curve of a conveyor belt as it passed gracefully between a pair of storage tanks and emerged to deposit its contents in a collector chute that came in at an almost jaunty angle.
"Find me the man who designed this," said Walt. "He's working for me now."
And that was how George came to work for Walt Disney, and how Disney found the man who would design Pirates of the Caribbean. Two experienced designers, working with a team of Disney's most talented artists, had tried already and failed to produce a design measuring up to Walt's creative vision. Somewhere in the process of translating artists' renderings into real, guest-bearing, two-ton boats, somewhere in the process of laying out the rides' curves and sights in a way compatible with the technology bringing it all to life, somewhere on the way from the sketchpad to the drafting table, the spark had gone missing.
In person, George didn't seem the sort to be able to put the spark back in the design. Quiet, shy, he drafted in silence with a methodical regularity so precise and measured it verged on the compulsive. Meticulous about details, he claimed to have no sense of a "big picture," and he worked, as he tried to explain, by fitting together one, then another, and then another piece of the puzzle until there were none left in the lid of the box. He had no taste for art, nor for music, and seemed to have no aesthetic sense. But whether or not George himself gave off a sense of magic, it was as though he drew with a wand, rather than a drafting pencil. There was just something elegant, heartrendingly beautiful about his designs. Masses of metal became weightless in his hands; somehow he made an arrangment of gears look like it belonged on a square-rigged sailing ship; the geometry of his sightlines turned tangled pieces of theme-park topography into vistas so stunning they would melt a real pirate's heart.
It was the first triumph of a promising career, but it was also to be the last. Just as George had thanked the Disney vision for building him up, so he would curse it for tearing from him every shred of his happiness.
For George, happiness was unconnected to his career. Assembly lines or lines of tourists, it was all the same to him, designs to be made and machinery specified. He could do it ten hours a day for a thousand years, and never feel anything one way or the other about it. Work was just what one did, a way of providing food and a home -- and also the only thing George cared to think about, other than Troy.
Troy was George's lover, who had been living with George back in Carolina when Walt swooped in and offered George a salary equal to his and Troy's put together. Troy had moved down with George, taken a job in the park playing Prince Charming in an eight-times daily show for the kids, and things had been all right at first.
As George's star waxed and his name was spoken with more reverence, he seemed not to notice the awe the other engineers held him in, but inwardly he smiled. Fame, money, respect -- they might not matter to George, but he knew they mattered to Troy. And for the first time in years, the eternally nagging fear, that someday Troy would be gone, seemed almost, perhaps, to be a thing of the past. Troy needed George less than George needed Troy -- George knew that, but as long as George was the Golden Boy of the Disneyworld engineers, he figured he might remain so in Troy's eyes, as well, despite being, he thought to himself, just another engineer in black-rimmed glasses, white shirt, and thin, dark, tie. So he told himself, to still that little, nagging fear.
By now, you know and I know that little nagging fears like that have a terrifying way of coming true, sometimes even because we fear them. So it was with George. Back in Carolina, when he hadn't understood Troy's love, it had somehow endured. But down in Florida, when he, he told himself, by all rights, should be most secure in Troy's affections, he could feel it start to unravel as the months passed by and the Pirates of the Caribbean rose in the hot Florida sun.
Maybe it was nothing more than the hot Florida sun. Maybe it was the stresses of supervising a construction job of Pirates magnitude and then, without an intervening respite, starting the plans for two rides, each half again as big. Maybe it was the relentless pressure of the Disney fantasyland, the two-parent nuclear families with their two scampish blue-eyed sons who were everywhere in the Disney ideology of the imagination. Maybe it was the social pressures, the distrust of difference and the demands that the Disney family resemble the families for whom Disney wove its magic wand, the dread that kept George closeted and told him that even there he was unsafe. Maybe it was the pure unreality of the place, the unhinghed and phantasmagoric nature of his surroundings. Maybe it was the insane force of his own jealousy. Or maybe it was the fault of Mary, the South Florida nymphlet who played Snow White opposite Troy's Prince Charming.
They had a fight Tuesday evening. Wednesday morning, Troy was gone, leaving behind a terse little note telling George goodbye. George didn't show up at his office that day; he went to the park instead, looking for Troy, carrying a pistol (back entrances, of course, being well known to Disneyworld's designers). Following the last Snow White Spectacular of the day, Troy and Mary left the backstage area together, hand in hand, and George lost them in the crowd.
All might have ended well, even then, if George hadn't, for once in his life, given way to sentiment. He disappeared into the dark passageways of Pirates of the Caribbean, seeking refuge in the hidden places of his own creation, a way to be alone and sort through his thoughts. In the warmth of the late summer evening and the comforting familiar hum and clanking of his ride, he dozed off.
Which meant he was there as the park closed and the ride shut down, and he was there after the happy families had gone home. And he was there when Troy, in a bitter humor, brought Mary to the Pirates of the Caribbean for a final symbolic act of spite.
The noise of the ride starting up again startled George from his sleep. Scrambling up through an access way, he made his way to the banks of the ride to see what was amiss. And there, before his eyes, were Troy and Mary, in the middle of things, as it were, gliding by in one of HIS elegant twenty-three person boats. Running ahead along the river to the top of the chute, the next emergency stop-box along the ride, he waited for the boat to reach his position. As it drew level, he reached out and pressed the big red emergency shutdown switch. As the ride ground to a halt, George waited only until Troy's eyes to flicked up to meet his own before he fired.
To restart the Pirates of the Caribbean after an emergency stop, the ride attendant at the chute -- the brief flume-ride moment of high excitement that was one of George's masterpiece touches -- must go to the bottom of the chute and manually lower an emergency metal guard that pops up when the all-stop is depressed. Then, he or she must insert a special key into a lock along the bank, before walking the short distance up to the top of the chute and repeating the entire procedure -- turn the crank to lower a plate, and then insert the key in a lock. These steps must be taken in this order -- neither key will turn until the corresponding guard has been replaced, and the top guard plate cannot be lowered until the bottom key has been turned.
It is a lengthy procedure, and a very specific one. Much of the plate-control mechanism is inelegant, circumstantially indicating that the plates and keys were added after George's initial design. In point of fact, only the bottom key was required to restart the ride, as George designed it. The second key and the bumper-plates were added later, in order to prevent a careless operator from doing accidentally what George now did deliberately.
Walking down from the top of the chute, George thought about Troy, thought about the Pirates of the Caribbean, thought about what it must be like to first see Disneyworld as a child. Wondering how his life might have been altered had he seen this place through other, younger, eyes, he reached the bottom and pulled from his breast pocket the engraved copy of the master key with which he had personally opened Pirates to the public and launched his boats on their maiden voyage. He placed it in the lock, turned, and stepped out into the chest-high water near the bottom of the chute. And then he waited for the two-ton vessel bearing the the bodies of Snow White and his dead lover to make its descent and carry him off to the Magic Kingdom.
This is the story they tell at the Pirates of the Caribbean. If you know someone who works on the ride, they can show you the spot, along a backstage access corridor, at the end of a dark and spooky passage beneath the "Caribbean," where the names of George and Troy are carved into the stone. Sometimes, during the rotation in which they change working stations, they speak of hearing George's ghost walk past in the opposite direction as they climb upwards, alongside the chute. There are those who tell of meeting a maintainance worker in the early-morning hours, come to check up on the ride, whose nametag says "George," although no record exists of anyone scheduled to inspect the Pirates on that shift. And every night, after shutdown, the last person out must always, always, remember to say "Good night, George."
Disneyworld is the fantastical made rational, the pinnacle of the industrial creation of wholesale wonder. An army of schedulers and technocrats work ceaselessly to keep the turnstiles turning, to keep the magic flowing. This is the layer They don't want you to see. But there are deeper, more mysterious layers, layers They're afraid to look too closely at themselves. Underneath the wonder, there is reason. And underneath the reason, there is wonder again -- the dark and eerie that haunt the memories and imaginations of the cast of thousands. George belongs to them, his ghost is the marble in the Disney oatmeal, the reminder that the Mouse springs not from some genie's mind, nor from some corporate one, but from the human mind. And where we have been inured to wonder, where it has been discredited and exposed and trampled on, we will find some other means by which to marvel at our surroundings.
Good night, George.