I don’t do heights. I mean, I’ve done them, but I don’t like being any place where I can’t safely drop to the ground without breaking something that I’ll need later. It may have started with the Ferris wheel at the Western Illinois Fair in Griggsville. It was always my misfortune to get on the darned thing with a group of friends hell-bent on impressing their girlfriends with a testosterone-laden shot of daring-do. Adolescent boys live in fear of being called a coward and when you live in a small farming community there aren’t that many places to prove your prowess, the annual fair in the neighboring town becomes a testing ground for your courage.
We’d plead and beg our girlfriends to ride the big wheel with us then we’d cram ourselves in, four to a bucket, and spend ten frightful minutes trying to show our sweethearts how nothing scared us. If I’d been alone with my girl there would have been no bucket rocking but I was always teamed up with some crazy ying-yang who was intent on scaring his lady friend badly enough that she’d grab onto him with what in his dreams he could later chalk up to as romance. It wasn’t love, Bubba, just plain fear.
So there I’d be, pretending to care less about the fact that we were all about to be dumped to a horrible death atop the corndog stand, when actually I was hoping that the jerk beside me would be struck by lightening. That is, specifically targeted lightening.
My hate of high places hasn’t abated a bit over the years. A few summers ago my group of world travelers were to take a trip up Mount Titlis just outside Lucerne, Switzerland, and the only way to get to the top of the darned thing was a cog train that slid right up the side of the mountain. The only way down was via cable car. I figured that if I kept looking forward on the ride up I’d be okay. I’ve never been worried about falling up a mountain. But the ride down in the tiny car suspended only by what looked like cables left over from a World War II landing craft was something that kept me up too long on the night before our ride. Let me make it clear that I am a peaceful man. I don’t pick fights. But when twenty or so very noisy Japanese tourists crammed into our car and began running from side to side to get the best photograph of the rocks below that were certain to be the place our death, I got a bit hostile. These people would not stand still. I tried to place myself in the very center of the car where I wouldn’t have to look out any of the windows, but my friends from the Orient were playing bumper cars with my body in their rush to get the best shot to email back home to Tokyo. I was on the Ferris wheel all over again, but this time with no gorgeous 7th-grade girl at my side.
When I was in high school I thought I’d take a break from farm work for a summer and applied for a job at the local Pike county hospital. I assumed I’d spend a pleasant few months washing sheets or doing brain surgery for patients unable to pay for a fully qualified physician. As my altitude luck would have it, this was the summer that Illini hospital decided to add individual air conditioning units in every room and the only way to do this was to hire a couple of dumb high school kids to suspend themselves outside the third floor windows on a single board attached to the inside radiators by a single pair of ropes. Picture it: a single twelve-inch board, three stories in the air, suspended by a rope with a knot that I’d tied myself. I was not a Boy Scout. 4-H taught me nothing about tying knots. So for three straight months I’d climb every morning out on this perch of death to hammer holes through the hospital’s brick wall. The fact that we were suspended above the Emergency ward did nothing to allay my fears, and I spent the summer waiting for the carnival from the county fair to come by so I could throw a brick at the truck hauling the Ferris wheel.
I’d always thought that childhood fears would eventually drift away as we learned the truth about our anxieties. Deep water no longer holds any terror because I learned how to swim. Nuns no longer frighten me since I learned that my Grandpa’s tales of them eating Presbyterians were a lie. But still….if you want the light bulb changed, you get on the darned ladder. And don’t laugh. . . just blame it on the Ferris wheel.