February 21st, 2017



I am afraid of heights, have been as long as I can remember.  When presented with a cliff, a ledge, or even a precipitous decline. Vertigo strikes; depth perception leaves me, my breath becomes short, my pulse races..  It’s not so much a fear of heights — I’m perfectly fine in the window seat of an airplane flying at 36,000 feet — but give me a ledge or a sharp drop-off, and I’m a quivering wreck.

When I was four, five or six, but before John my younger brother was born, my father would drive to the south side of Chicago, and to get there we needed to cross the Proviso railroad yards, a switching yard of the Chicago Northwestern  and and Union Pacific railroads, a vast agglomeration of  tracks over a quarter-mile wide.  The only way across was by way of a two-lane bridge built of wood, an incredibly tall structure, which swayed and creaked and groaned from the weight of the moving automobiles lumbering across.  I was terrified of this part of the trip.  “Deep hole, deep hole!” I’d cry, and  hide down behind the front seat until we’d finished crossing.  Buck, my older brother, was delighted by this, of course.

One summer, when John was about one year old, the family all piled into our car for a trip to the West Coast.  On the way, we stopped off at the Grand Canyon.  I could not be coaxed into getting anywhere near the edge; I’d have to content myself with looking kind of sideways, so as to see down toward the bottom, from my position far from the retaining wall.  Buck, of course, was excitedly gleeful as he cavorted about, peering down over the rim of the canyon.

Incredibly, there are people like Buck who just love the edge; they’ve even built a platform extending out from the edge over the precipice — with  a glass bottom! — for the amusement of those crazy people.

I loved classical music; we listened to it all the time at home. My father’s hi-fi was always on,, playing our own records or the FM radio that was almost permanently set to WFMT, the classical station in Chicago.  And I loved going to live concerts by the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall downtown; my parents had season tickets.  But I had to steel myself every time, because the reserved seats were in the topmost balcony, a steeply pitched incline down which we groped our way to near the front.  They were great seats as far as hearing the concert was concerned, perfect acoustics, the recording microphone (only one — this is before stereo recordings became mandatory) hung in the center of the auditorium just a few yards in front of us.  But getting there without panicking was the tricky.  I had to develop methods of navigating the stairway without actually looking down, always keeping my eyes on something close — the wall, the handrail, my arm — and letting the yawning chasm in front of me into only my peripheral vision.  These tricks were to help me later when I was in high school and being an usher at Orchestra Hall: because I was the new guy in the ushering crew, I was assigned to that same top balcony.

And glass elevators.  Glass elevators!  Who is the sadist who dreamed those up?  There are buildings that you cannot get up into without taking a glass elevator.  Glass on three sides!  Gotta be crazy.  There’s a chain of hotels with only glass elevators, inside the atrium.

I have elevator nightmares: keep going up and down and sometimes sideways, and the elevator stops but not quite even with the door so that you have to crawl up and out, but what if the thing starts going down when you’re half out?  Nightmares.  Happened once in a parking garage in Burlington, Vermont, a glass-walled elevator on the outside of the building, which chose to stop between floors — the car stopped, the doors opened, revealing a bare wall. My worst nightmare come true! I panicked; the two girls riding at the same time were amused; they pushed the ‘up’ button, the doors closed, and the journey continued, as though nothing untoward had happened.  Did I feel embarrassed by my  panicky reaction?  Probably.


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