Don't forget to visit my website! Jackie Coleman - Author

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fear of Heights

With starling clarity, I can remember the precise moment I became afraid of heights. More accurately, I suppose, it was the moment I became aware of my fear of heights.

The summer social at our neighborhood church was the highlight of our young, semi-deprived lives. They had rides (which I loved), games of chance (which held no appeal) ... and cotton candy (which I lived for!). Aside from summer socials, the only time a child of my generation could get their hands on that delicious spun sugar was at the circus around Thanksgiving. For a cotton candy addict like myself, waiting so long between fixes was torture!

The summer social was a small affair and had only a handful of rides ... and I loved them all ... the swings, the octopus, the ferris wheel, etc. Nothing scared me or made me dizzy, and the volume of my enjoyment was limited only by the number of ride tickets I had the funds to purchase.

My sister Debbie was the best big sister in the world. Debbie is nine years older than me and I adored her. She was sweet and kind and generous ... and fun! Debbie was nothing if not fun. Debbie was so good to us four little kids. She paid for us to take swimming lessons when we were young. She had never learned to swim, and she wanted to make sure us little kids to knew how. 

She’d take us out for ice cream all the time. She had a brand new 4-speed Ford Pinto. Pinto’s had bucket seats, with the gear shift and emergency brake in between. Jill, being the oldest of us four little kids, always got to ride in the passenger seat. I really loved Debbie, and I didn’t want to be all the way in the back ... although in a Ford Pinto, backseat passengers are not really very far away from the driver! But I wanted to be as close to Debbie as possible ... so my designated seat was between the two front seats ... on the emergency brake. It wasn’t comfortable, but what was a little discomfort as long as I was close to Debbie?

I guess I was about eight years old or so when I rode the ferris wheel with Deb. After climbing on, we stopped at regular intervals to allow more passengers to board. I remember reaching the very top, smiling contentedly as I surveyed the scene from my high perch. I remember thinking to myself ... "Life is good!" ... I sat next to my beloved sister, my belly full of cotton candy, happy as I could be ... then Debbie shattered my carefree innocence with one casual comment. ”Look Jackie ... we’re higher than the church steeple!"


That wasn’t possible! The church steeple was the highest thing in the world! She had to be wrong! I looked up and sure enough ... we were higher than the church steeple!

I immediately froze. My tiny, white-knuckled hands gripped the bar so tightly I was sure I would crush it! That flimsy bar was the only thing standing between me and death! Debbie began rocking the car back and forth and I thought I was going to toss the cotton candy I had greedily gulped down only a few happy moments before. I begged Debbie to stop rocking the car, but she just laughed and told me how much fun I was having. I guess she thought I was kidding, but I wasn’t! 

My mind was a whirlwind of activity. I thought of the toothless carnival worker who had put this ride together a few days ago ... the same one who had just helped us board. He obviously couldn’t even remember to brush his teeth!!! How could he be trusted to remember the proper assembly method and tighten every bolt?? 

I was dumb enough to go on the ferris wheel and other torture devices (like the Zipper), with her, and others, many more times. I found NO enjoyment riding these rides. If fact, I hated them. I rode them because they wouldn't take "No" for an answer. I rode them because people begged and pleaded until I couldn't take it anymore and simply gave in. 

A year or two after the ferris wheel fiasco, my sister Jill and I were on the Umbrella’s (sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it?) ... when it broke. And, of course, we were at the VERY TOP! We were stuck up there for close to an hour! That might not sound like a very long time, but it felt like an eternity! I guess I was hallucinating, but I was sure I saw the seasons changing! It wouldn’t have surprised me if we had stepped off that ride ... after it was finally fixed ... onto a blanket of snow!

In high school, our church youth choir went to Six Flags over Georgia. While there, I rode a ride that forever cured me of ever allowing myself to be manipulated into riding a ride I didn’t want to ride! I’ve provided a few very rough sketches in an effort to thoroughly convey the abject terror I experienced on this device.

In order to board this ride, one must first climb up a stairway the equivalent of a ten-story building. The drawing below shows the trajectory of this “ride”. The red arrows trace the first path, where riders are facing forward. The return trip follows this same path ... except now the riders are facing ... backwards.

Now ... in order to fully comprehend the astronomical level of terror I was subjected to, here is a sketch of the restraint system:

This may seem safe enough to the average rider, but I am NOT the average rider. Although I met the height requirement, you’ve got to keep in mind this ride is ridden by the height extremes of the entire adult population ... of which I fall at the ... how shall I say this ... the shallow end. The restraining bar was a good six inches above my shoulders, and more than that from my body. There was no seatbelt to hold you firmly in your seat. Hence, there was nothing of the "secure" restraining system actually touching my body ... but that would quickly change.

As the ride began its descent, I fell forward into the bar. After we made the first half of the loop, we began going down the other side ... keep in mind I am upside down at this point, with my body leaning forward against the restraining bar. As we descend, I fall up ... to the top of the restraining bar.

At this point, I am no longer touching ANY part of the ride except the restraining bar!

As terrified as I was, I came to a new and alarming realization ... once I reached the halfway point (as indicated by a blue “X” on the incredible trajectory sketch above) ... I had to do this again ... BACKWARDS!!!

I'm sure you're wondering why I didn't look at the ride more closely before I got on it. Quite frankly, at that moment, that is one of the thoughts that was running through my mind. I didn't have time to dwell on that, though ... I was too busy praying I wouldn't pass out from fear and fall to my death!

To say I was in a panic would be an understatement of monumental proportion. Had I been seized by terrorists at that moment, and had I possessed any nuclear secrets, I would have sung like a canary! I would have told them anything they wanted to know for the sheer pleasure of rotting in a foreign prison, eating bugs for the rest of my life!!!

The return trip was every bit as bad as I imagined it would be. I take that back ... it was worse!

They say when people have a near-death experience, their life flashes before their eyes. I can’t say that happened to me ... I was too busy experiencing my death!! There was no time to relive my life!

When the ride finally came to a stop, I was nearly catatonic, shaking so badly the entire structure was vibrating, and barely able to walk. The only reason I was able to walk down on my own was because of the intense desire to be on the ground, where I fully intended to stay! As the group of kids descended the stairs, they were all babbling things like ”That was fun!” and “Let’s ride it again!”, which brought a chorus of “Yeah!!” I didn’t say a word. I was still far too traumatized to talk. I was on the verge of collapse, holding onto the banister with both hands, willing myself to stay conscious until my feet reached the ground ... where they would stay ... forever!!!

As predicted, everyone wanted to go again and headed toward the boarding line.

I walked with them, but once we reached the line, I stood off to the side. ”Come on,” they shouted, beckoning me to join them.

”No,” I said, with a force that took my fellow choir-mates by surprise.

Everyone looked at me, completely shocked. I could tell they were all wondering ”Did that booming voice come from sweet, little Jackie or the heavens?!”

They did everything they could think of to persuade me into getting on that ride, but I stood firm. I wouldn’t budge. I had looked death squarely in the eye and lived to tell the tale. No amount of cajoling would EVER get me on a ride like that EVER AGAIN!! Instead of allowing their comments to make me feel foolish or silly or childish like they normally did, I stood there smiling and shaking my head. I couldn’t care less what they thought of me!

Besides, it gave me a new purpose in life ... it was now my official duty to hold purses and soft drinks at amusement parks.

A few times since then I have tried to conquer my fear of heights ... or severely underestimated my ability to cope.

While in my early twenty’s, my sister Pam and I were coming home from a weekend trip from Kenlake State Park in Kentucky when she spied a water tower overlooking the lake. The gate was open and she wanted a picture from the top. ”Okay,” I thought (without actually thinking!). About halfway up the reality of what I was doing hit me. My heart was beating so hard it actually hurt. It wouldn’t have surprised me if my chest was beat black and blue from the force of my heart crashing against it!

With Pam’s gentle urging, I found myself at the top ... where she wanted me to let go of the railing and take a picture of her!!! Somehow I found the courage to do so, but only because I loved her so much!!! I managed to make it back to dry ground again, but for a while we were both afraid the only way to get me down would quite possibly involve the fire department ... and jail time!

A few years ago the kids and I went to Savannah, Georgia. While there, we made a trip to nearby Tybee Island and the Tybee Island Lighthouse. For some reason, I decided to go up to the top of the lighthouse and video tape the surrounding area. I have no idea what made me think I was capable of doing that!!

The steps were open, so that you could see ... all ... the ... way ... down! I had to hold onto the banister with both hands to ascend the stairs. I came upon a mother and a little girl of perhaps four-years-old making their way down. The mother was holding the hand of the little girl, and the little girl was holding onto the banister. They stopped when they got to me. I clung to the banister for dear life. ”I can’t let go,” I told them. The mother observed my ashen color, my white knuckles, and the way the metal was bending under my vise-like grip, and knew I truly couldn’t let go. The little girl let go of the banister and walked by me. I was ashamed of myself ... but not ashamed enough to let go of the banister!

Once at the top, I emerged onto the landing, where I stood as close to the wall as I could get without actually burrowing into it, and waited for one of my kids to wander by. I saw Dave skipping by, not holding onto anything!!

“Davy,” I breathed, barely able to think in the thin oxygen at that altitude. Moving only my eyes, I motioned toward the camcorder, and stammered the closest thing to a sentence that my oxygen-deprived brain could form at that moment ... "Camera. Can’t. Down.”  He took the camera from me and started taping while I made my way back down to safety.

My little sister Penny and her family are coming here this summer, stopping in St. Louis on the way to check out a college for their oldest daughter. While there, they’re spending a day at Six Flags and invited all their Evansville kinfolk to meet them there and enjoy the park together!

"Uh, sorry, Penny, but I won't be able to make it. I'm having bamboo shoots driven under my fingernails that day!"

I love Penny dearly and would do anything for her ... anything, that is, except go to Six Flags!

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