by Aaron Gibson
The following is a true story (mostly) and took place in 1994. None of the names have been changed. (Slightly edited and re-released in 2021.)
Once a year you’ll find a place where the aroma of corndogs, funnel cakes, Indian tacos, fried cheese, warm beer, and cow manure coalesce. A place where, for five dollars you can win a pink stuffed teddy bear by tossing a plastic ring around a glass bottle neck or hurl baseballs at a target as a half-drunk clown sits inside a dunk-tank yelling obscenities at you. Here, you can visit dilapidated barnyards stocked with domestic livestock, check out the newest in RV travel trailers, view the winners of a fruit-canning competition, and bet on a pig race, all in the same day. But the real fun doesn’t begin until the sun goes down. At night, you can blow your wad on a “Midway Pass” and experience every imaginable variation of spinning in a circle while accompanied by 1980s rock songs from Guns n’ Roses. Welcome to the Great State Fair of Oklahoma.
It was here, in this freak show to end all freak shows that we embarked on the greatest urban climbing epic of our time.
To Mike and I, The Monolith, was not just another crazy idea, it was the culmination of shear genius. Never before had there been a climbing wall at the State Fair, and if there had, certainly it would have paled in comparison to ours. This monstrosity of erected steel and plywood would tower over the fairgrounds and attract fair-goers with its Matterhorn-like magnetism. It would be truly irresistible. Kids would avoid the rides on the midway and opt instead, for an opportunity at glory. Anyway, what reward could one possibly feel on a Tilt-a-Whirl or Zipper as compared to reaching the top of one of our mountainous walls? At thirty feet tall and offering 1300 square-feet of climbing, it would give even established climbing gyms a run for their money. It would have five walls to choose from, three vertical walls of varying difficulty, a slab climb for kids and hefty dads, and a “hard wall,” which included a ten-foot long roof climb. At the end of the roof we’d place the ultimate prize, something that every Okie yearned for, a true purpose for reaching the top of the wall: a cowbell. To sweeten the pot, anyone who reached the bell would get his money back. Of course the hard climb would have to be 5.hard to keep any newbies from ever reaching it – that was the carnie way.
We dreamed of The Monolith, the crowds, the popularity we’d garner – surely this act would catapult us into the annals of climbing history, at least in Oklahoma. We were overwhelmed with giddiness. This was it! We’d finally come up with a brilliant idea! And the money – oh God how we’d rake in the money! At five bucks a piece and with lines trailing back for blocks there was no doubt that this wall would be an investment in our future. People would come to the fair just for the wall. Who knows where we’d go from here? Maybe we would make enough to open up our own gym; maybe we could patent the design of The Monolith, maybe even travel the carnival circuit for a while and strike it rich before returning to college. Besides, we were only sophomores; we’d have plenty of time for college later. The future was wide open and ours for the taking. But first, we’d have to build it.
That meant finding someone to give us a loan. Mike knew just the people; his family owned a scrap yard and metal recycling business in the city. With the proper presentation, his dad and grandfather could not resist. We compiled our “business plan,” primarily consisting of some penciled-out sketches of the wall and the routes. Sure, they said, the wall looked great, but had we considered how much it would cost? A minor detail, we thought. Had we considered how much we’d have to make to break even? Break even, hell; we were looking way past that! Had we checked on insurance? Material transportation? Construction? Time? Sure, all of it had crossed our minds – “But look at this wall!” we said. We could figure all of those things out as we went along. Somewhere in the quagmire of pros and cons something sparked their interest, certainly it wasn’t our organizational techniques or our attention to details, it must have been our exuberance and creative drive or maybe it was the scale of the wall – they simply had to see it for themselves. Whatever it was they fronted us the money.
Cash in hand, we secured a dump truck from the scrap yard and headed to the scaffold place to rent a massive load of scaffolding. At the rental store we took some liberties on the contract: sure we were going to have a “Qualified Person” erect the scaffold, yes, we were going to have an engineer asses the design prior to, during, and after the construction, of course we wouldn’t build anything on the side of the scaffold. We signed on the bottom line agreeing to everything. It was a small price to pay for success. We purchased over a thousand hand-holds, all black, ClimbIt brand holds designed by Jim Karn. We acquired 40 sheets of plywood, 30 gallons of outdoor grade latex paint, climbing ropes, webbing, tools, and all the necessary hardware. Commandeering our friends and family, we spent a week painting plywood, drilling t-nut holes, measuring, cutting, re-cutting, and envisioning how the wall would look. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to set-up the wall prior to the fair; all the kinks would have to be worked out on-sight.
We arrived at the fairgrounds with enough materials to construct a foreign embassy. Indeed, that’s what it looked like. As pop-up carnival tents, and Transformer-like rides pulled into the fairgrounds and deployed in a matter of minutes, we pondered over a sea of plywood covering a square block and struggled to sort out which piece should go where and why it wasn’t fitting properly.
I balanced precariously on the mid-rung of an end-piece of scaffolding twenty-five feet up as Mike clambered beneath me shouldering another section of scaffold. He hefted the piece above his head, handing it to me, I balanced with tense legs, set the section in place and inserted the metal pins joining the two sections together. We were taking huge risks – every position was akin to top stepping on A5 aid placements. Piece by piece the scaffold was assembled like a tottering set of Tinker toys. Mike maintained that the integrity of the wall, and moreover, the brilliance of it, was in the “U-shaped design” and once the three walls were linked together it would be rock-solid and impossible to sway, an idea that I felt held water because Mike, at the time, was a physics major.
The following day, we attached the plywood, giving the wall the stability of a house of cards. We decided that we’d have to visit the scrap yard again to find some cables and set up a guy-line system behind the wall to further support it. Mike added, “Once we put the roof on, it will shore the whole thing up.” But the roof was massive, hundreds of pounds, in fact. It contained, a steel I-beam on the front, several sheets of plywood and framed with twelve inch wooden beams. As I saw it, the roof would do one of two things: stabilize the wall, as Mike foretold, or crumple it like an aluminum soda can. We’d constructed “the roof” on the ground and were unable to budge it because it weighed so much. No amount of pulleys and come-alongs were going to get this thing in the air. We quickly dialed up our friend, Keith, a climber and construction contractor. The next morning we arrived to find Keith perched in the operator’s seat of a 75-ton crane. He plucked up the entire roof section and placed it gently on top of the wall as if crowning a king. The wall was complete!
With as much business as we were expecting, we’d need some help. So we decided to hire some. But finding quality employees to work full-time at a state fair is like picking between the last two kids for a dodgeball team, you’re choosing from the best of the worst. We interviewed ex-cons, dropouts, drunks, socially challenged, chain-smokers, career fairgoers, mentally unstable, and combinations thereof (not that we were any better, one might contend). Out of a choice of five, I think we hired four of them. What did we care, as long as they could belay? (Side-note: Turns out, most could not belay.)
Turnover at the wall was high – we fired two guys during the first week: one because he went back to his regular job of stealing, this time from us (he emptied our cashbox), the other simply didn’t show up for work, apparently he got a better offer from a Coke stand near the Giant Slide. Our most loyal employee was an out-of-shape, middle-aged-prematurely-balding man named, Richard. After locating an XXL harness, we taught him how to belay in a matter of minutes and he quickly comprehended the scope of the work – or so he said. He was a pleasant, talkative man for the most part, though he lost all patience when it came to children. For example, if I were belaying a kid and he fell, I’d let him hang for a second to get back on, however, when Richard belayed, if a kid came off the wall the child was instantly teleported to earth. He lowered kids so fast it looked more like a free fall than a lower. Somehow Rich, as we called him, managed to arrest the climber’s decent shortly before breaking their ankles. However, there was one close call: apparently, in Rich’s haste, he forgot (perhaps intentionally?) to clip a kid in. When the boy reached the top of the wall and Rich took up the slack he ordered him to, “LET GO!!!” This was typical Rich, not “Good job, OK….coming down,” or ”Nice work, now just lean back and I’ll lower you,” it was always – “LET GO!” But this time the kid did not want to let go, and for good reason – he wasn’t clipped in to the rope. Rich continued berating the child, ordering, “I said LET GO!” I overheard the commotion and turned to see what was happening – sure enough, an eight-year old was hanging on for dear life at the top of the wall without a thing to catch him if he fell. Rich was growing more and more irritated and he began yanking the rope trying to dislodge the child from the wall.
“Rich, he’s not clipped in,” I said. It didn’t register with him, perhaps because he’d only learned to belay a few days earlier and had not yet mastered the intricacies of climbing safety – otherwise known as, knot tying.
“Hey,” I yelled to the boy and got his attention, “you did awesome! Now see if you can climb down.” It was as simple as that. It was all part of the game to him, you climb up then you climb down. No problem. I assisted Rich in feeding the rope through his belay device as the boy down-climbed, giving the illusion of safety. The boy’s father wasn’t buying it. He’d never seen a climbing wall operation before but it all looked fishy to him. My father happened to be there and he stepped in to meet the other father just as the boy’s feet hit touched dirt.
“Nice work,” I said to the boy and gave him a pat on the back. I quickly unbuckled his harness and hurried him away from the wall. The conversation between the dads escalated to an argument and I overheard something about risking his child’s life, running a “death trap” and turning us into the authorities. My Dad basically told him to shove it. We’d made it through our first near miss – no blood, no foul, as they say.
The Fair was not, in fact, fair. The fairgrounds administration ruled with a mob-boss mentality. We paid exorbitant rent, insurance, electricity, down payments, and handed over 20% of our daily earnings. How were we supposed to make any money with all the damn fees? The Fair required us to have a ticket taker, supplied by them, that would collect the tickets we sold and keep track of how many customers we had. We handled the money and sold tickets, then the fair-appointed ticket taker would collect the tickets. At the end of the day the tickets were turned in, tallied, and we paid our dues, they took their cut and gave us ours. It was a raw deal with apparently no way out. That is, unless you had a man named Bud as your ticket taker.
Bud was a good-ole-boy born and raised in Oklahoma. He was a retired Navy man, a cowboy, and a proven ladies man. He was in his sixties and looking for a part time job, something fun to get him out of his house, to give some renewed life to his retirement days, and maybe to meet a few single State Fair lassies. We hit it off with Bud immediately, and likewise, he grew a liking to us. He recounted stories of his days in the Navy and told us the dirtiest jokes we’d ever heard. Bud saw, right off, the corruptness of the system, he felt that “the man” deserved less than they were taking. So during the course of a day he found ways of making some of those tickets disappear. This was fine with us; it meant that we got to keep more of our hard-earned money. If they wanted to play like the mob, we could play that too. We didn’t mind showing Bud a little love – the more tickets he could make disappear the more money we greased him with. Now we were really learning business.
By the second of the three weeks things were really rolling. We had busy days and slow days but checking out the competition around us we knew we were doing better than them. Across the street was the Laser Zone, a dirty red inflatable maze where, inside you could play laser tag while running full-bore into vinyl air-filled walls. The owners were Canadian and were traveling across the US, anxious to get to “the big fair in Texas.” One of the Canadians closely resembled JB Tribout (see, 90s sport climber guy on wikipedia) and climbed like him too – he had no trouble dispensing of our roof climb. They were good guys and we let them climb for free whenever they wanted, in return, we played a lot of laser tag.
To our west was the Hole-y-Roller. A simple, albeit stupid, idea where three oversized inner tubes were lashed together with canvas and retrofitted with seatbelts. The idea behind this attraction was to crawl inside this strange inner-tube contraption and be rolled up and down an empty grassy yard for five minutes, similar to rolling down a hill inside a tire. Faced with a choice between scaling a climbing wall or being rolled around until you puked, kids usually chose the former. The ‘Rollers’ didn’t like us because we charged less, had a better presentation, and tended to take their business.
One day we arrived to find the Hole-y-Rollers shut down. Apparently one of the employees, a troubled eighteen year-old, had apparently been accused of fondling a kid while assisting them with their seatbelts. He was arrested that morning and taken to jail. It was then we started referring to them as the Holy Gropers. The local news channels descended on the place like wildfire. It was great press for us because The Monolith was in the background of all the shots. After that, our climbing business soared.
The accused molester was bailed out the next week and went back to work. But it didn’t take long for trouble to find him again. Nirvana1 was in town on their In Utero tour and they were playing at the State Fair Grandstands, usually the venue for dirt-track racing. Mike and I weren’t about to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we climbed up the back of the wall and stood high above to check out the concert. From our vantage point you could make out the howling face of Kurt Cobain and hear the lyrics to Heart Shaped Box. The fondler had a similar idea, he didn’t want to miss the show either – he found the tallest tree he could find and scurried to the top. However, somewhere around the top he must have tugged on a weak branch, it cracked and he fell the height of the tree and cratered. To the echoes of Pennyroyal Tea we watched as the young groper was shoved into the back of an ambulance and transported to the hospital. We never heard from him again.
The Rodeo Flyer
O’Brien’s beer tent was just a block west of us and on Friday and Saturday nights the drunken masses stumbled from the tent flaps and made their way down to The Monolith. Here was a place to test their strength, to impress their lady-friends, to heckle their buddies, and to establish their manhood – no matter how piss-drunk they were. For us it was an easy sell, all we had to do was point out the cowbell. It went something like this:
An intoxicated fellow approaches, enamored by the wall, his glassy eyes tracking up and down and then out the roof – he spots “the bell.”
“Think you can make it up there?” we’d say.
“Hell, shit yeah I can make it.”
“Do you climb?”
“I don’t climb, I rappel! So how much is it?”
“Five bucks – but if you make it to the end and ring the bell you get your money back.”
“Anyone made it?”
“A few,” we’d say. (In fact, the only person besides Mike and I and our climbing buddies that had reached the bell was a Mexican trapeze artist in the Barnum and Bailey Circus.)
“Shit, I’ll give’er a try, hold my drink.”
And so it went. Surprisingly, in the midst of the drunken free-for-all no one ever got belligerent, no one ever got hurt. Though someone did almost deck.
From the crowd a man appeared. He was a tall clean-cut cowboy as slender and stiff as a lasso-line, a true-to-heart rodeo bull rider. He wore a black felt cowboy hat wedged tight around his head like a screw cap and sported a belt buckle the size of a horseshoe. His boots were brightly polished, his Wrangler jeans hard-pressed, and his barbell moustache was well-manicured. He reeked of Budweiser and his lips glistened with saliva from spitting when he spoke. He studied the cowbell wavering at the lip of the roof like a catfish eyeing a nightcrawler at the end of a fish hook. There was this look in his eyes like he’d waited all night for this.
He handed me a five-dollar bill and walked straight back to Richard, belaying beneath the roof. He slipped on a size medium harness, cinched it up real tight, and started up the wall. I’d never seen someone smear or toe-in a two-finger pocket while wearing cowboy boots. He climbed as if his boots were meant for the route. For a moment, I wondered why I’d never considered cowboy boots myself as an alternative to climbing shoes. And what he lacked in footwork he overcame with raw power. He muscled through, hands completely void of chalk, between the slimiest slopers and tiniest crimpers with the greatest of ease, soon he was crouched beneath the first roof hold.
We’d seen others get as far as him but not in the same manner, maybe this guy was sandbagging us, maybe he was a climber turned bull-rider. In any case, he had the gripping power of a pair of vice-grips; he was not letting go. Words of encouragement filtered up from below as the crowd paused to watch the fateful attempt to tag the bell. He paid no attention but continued like a man on a singular mission. Underclinging a horn, reaching to a two-finger handlebar, then a two-finger roof pocket – my god, he was at the end of the roof! His feet dangled in mid-air but he clung to the holds as if they were monkey bars – inconceivable, we thought. But it was happening before our very eyes, he reached the lip of the roof and hung by one arm. Casually, he reached up and slapped the bell. The sound rung out over the fairgrounds like a church bell in a country town and the crowd let out an ecstatic roar!
Rich, his belayer, yelled, “OK! LET GO!”
Just as the cowboy released the holds he realized something was not right. The rope moved, ever so noticeably, in front of him and instinctually, he grabbed it, catching it…at the knot! He hung precariously from his outstretched arm, one hand latched securely at the end of the rope.
Holy shit, he’s not tied in, I realized. The cowboy spun like a yo-yo on the end of its line and for some reason, Rich was not performing his usual speed-lowering technique. Rich wasn’t even paying attention. He had his head down – what the hell was he doing?
“RICH,” I yelled, “Get him down, now!” The cowboy didn’t appear phased, he didn’t look scared, he wasn’t worried – maybe he thought this was normal. He showed no sign of letting go – this guy was a super hero! As Rich lowered him the cowboy twirled like a circus performer, the whole thing surreal and terrifyingly magnificent.
How should I handle this, what should I do, what’s he going to say to me, is he going to hit me? Is he going to strangle Rich? The cowboy’s boots touched down and I was there to meet him. He handed me the end of the line and gave me a huge country-boy grin.
“Nice work, partner!” I slapped him on the back, “way to go, you’re the only one to do that!” I handed him a crisp five-dollar bill. “Why don’t you use this to get yourself a beer?” I said. He tipped his hat graciously and gave me a sly look. He sauntered off into the night like a wild-west outlaw, the strongest and ballsiest climber I’d ever seen.
We were lucky to make it through the remainder of the fair without a fatality and by the end we knew how’d close we come. Sure, we had some close calls, but when you run over six thousand climbers up and down a wall over a three-week period the odds are against you.
After all the payoffs, the bills, and the fair fees we were about a $1000 short of breaking even. But who had to know? In our minds, we were successful. We achieved everything we’d set out to do –we survived the State Fair and everything it threw at us. The Monolith changed us as climbers, as business people, it bettered us as friends, and threatened our college semester.
Mike came dangerously close to dropping out of school that semester due to grades, and I managed to whittle out a “D” in organic chemistry, a grade I likely would have received anyway. Following the fair, we decided not to become carnies, or to open a climbing gym, or to go into business together. We learned enough that we knew better. We chose to just climb and find another way to make money. The Monolith experience was like a comet passing through the night sky – brilliant, striking, and unique while it lasted, but it wasn’t meant to last. And though The Monolith may not have lived on, at least we had a few dozen sheets of plywood and a trunk full of holds, enough materials for multiple home-gyms for years to come.
Some reflection and notes
For the most part this story is true. All the major story components are accurate (and then some). The story, in fact, has been scaled back somewhat because there was so much that I could expand on. However, there is one item that I now believe I took some creative license on; the part about Nirvana being the band that played. I had such a recollection of this but recently thought about it more and even went back and did some research, tracking all the shows that Nirvana played and I can’t confirm that they actually played the OK State Fair during this timeframe. They did play at OK State Fair Arena later this year in December. It’s weird because I feel like I have memories of it – but I simply cannot verify for myself, so now I feel I must have created a false memory. That said, I did some additional research and now believe that it was actually Def Leppard that played. Which, you know, is still pretty cool, but at the time I would have much preferred Nirvana. In any case, we were huge Nirvana fans, so even if they didn’t play (which see, I still have this weird recollection that they played !) but I guess I just wished they played. Back in those days we would have also binge-listened Smashing Pumpkins (Siamese Dream), Pixies, Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers…the list goes on.