Acrophobia is a comfortable disease*

Watch out for kids from Sierra Leone

Watch out for kids from Sierra Leone

With apologies to e.e. cummings.* I’m not sure why that poem popped into my head. It has nothing to do with what I’m thinking about. Acrophobia is not a comfortable disease.

I am terrified of heights. I’d do almost anything to wiggle out of playing tour guide to a group of Lutheran kids from Sierra Leone who want nothing more than to go to the top of the JPMorgan Chase tower (55 floors) in Dallas. You can’t get to the top, but there’s a spectacular observation deck at the bottom of the “keyhole” on the 40th floor. About seven years ago I took those kids up there. We were almost chased away by the guards because the kids were taking pictures. Terrorists, you know.

Yes, I’m pretty much a wall-hugger by whatever definition you give the term.

Another wall I hugged was the stairway to the top of the steeple of the First Congregational Church of Nantucket in about 1979. I was there with the organ tuner. The tall ships were coming into the harbor. We left our work and scrambled up the tower. But when I got to the open space, I could go no further. The organ tuner yelled at me to come on up, or I’d miss the sight. I had every intention of missing it.

The first tall building (not that tall—only 34 floors) I was dragged to the top of was the Kansas City Power and Light Building, the Art Deco masterpiece that dominated the Kansas City skyline when I was a kid. Dragged there by my dad and an uncle when I was in elementary school. I remember my brother and cousins running around the observation deck and leaning over the balustrade as if they were on the ground floor while I hugged the wall.

About the time I hugged that wall, I had my scariest climbing experience. There was no wall to hug. My parents knew the Forest Ranger at the fire lookout tower near the top of Laramie Peak in Wyoming. We lived for the first six months of my life in Douglas, at the foot of the peak, and the ranger was a member of Dad’s Baptist Church (my brother and I were born in Douglas). One summer after we moved to Nebraska, we returned to Douglas and drove up the peak see the forest from the ranger’s perch. The family clambered up the open staircase while I sat in the car. A thunderstorm blew up. My terror of the stairs was not as great as my fear of the storm, and I managed to climb the tower alone in the rain.

There. Four examples of my acrophobia.

But (and I’m not getting all gooey and inspirational here—simply stating the facts) they are also examples of my overcoming my terror and having pretty wonderful experiences.

Art Deco from childhood

Art Deco from childhood

I know what Dallas looks like from above. I found my apartment, and I achieved some sense of how this city is laid out (John Neely Bryan or whoever set down the streets was, I am sure, drunk). I saw the Tall Ships in Nantucket harbor, even more magnificent than they had been at Boston in 1976. I had a real sense even as a kid how the Missouri river cuts between the two Kansas City’s.

And I saw the natural wonder near my birthplace. I don’t know how to explain that experience. In 2005 I tried to get there again and discovered that my dad had accomplished a remarkable feat simply to find the tower. I spent half a day driving around with the instructions of a park ranger at the base of the peak. But I didn’t find it on my own.

OK. So here’s the gooey inspirational part of this story. (Oh, puleeze!) In a very few instances I have overcome my fears and had important, exciting, lovely (you find the word) experiences as a result. And the fact is that, operationally at least, I am no longer acrophobic. That’s a lie. I never put my full weight down in an airplane, doing my part to keep it in the air. I still hate heights (you will never under any circumstance find me on the masochism machines at Six Flags).

I have demonstrated against the Viet Nam War. And against the unconscionable invasion of Iraq (see, we were right). And in support of the Holy Land Foundation five. I’ve stood in front of groups of people and talked about my beliefs. And I write here about myself in a way I shouldn’t.

Fear greater than lightening

Fear greater than lightening

I do quite a few things that belie my nature as a wall-hugger.

I’m not saying that climbing a fire lookout tower on Laramie Peak made me brave. It didn’t. But I’m going to die soon (oh, come on, even 50 years would be “soon” in the grand scheme of things) and I guess I’m beginning to understand that participating is the only thing that makes sense of my having been here in the first place. So I do it sometimes against my better judgment.

Perhaps cummings is appropriate.

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*pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
—— electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
A world of made
is not a world of born—— pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if — listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go
——  
e. e. cummings

4 Responses to Acrophobia is a comfortable disease*

  1. bobritzema says:

    I, too, have a fear of heights, but it is different from yours. I am fine with roller coasters and planes–actually, any high places that are encloses. But I am terrified of high places that have no barriers, or minor ones, between me and the void. I think what I’m afraid of is throwing myself off the precipice, which is odd because I don’t have any suicidal desires that I know of. Does your fear include exceptions, or is it to any high place?

  2. I can climb Scotts Bluff National Monument or Mt. Washington or any other natural wonder. Terra Firma, no matter how high, does not bother me. It’s man-made structures I don’t trust.

    • bobritzema says:

      Interesting! I wonder if most cases of acrophobia are about some specific feature of the high place, not the place itself.

  3. Interesting question!

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