The fear began on a steep hillside in the Ozarks when I was a child. My mother was trying to turn our 1933 Pontiac around on a narrow dirt road. Just on the left side of us was a stone wall; on our right plunged the cedar-studded cliff. I clutched the window frame as the tips of my fingers turned white with fear. Mother’s left foot was jammed on the brake pedal, her right cautiously alternated on the accelerator to avoid slipping over the edge of the precipice or crashing into the wall. There was a wild look in her eyes that I had never seen before. I felt as if my hair was lifting from my scalp.
At last Mother faced straight ahead. “Whew!” She looked at me and laughed nervously Her left foot eased off the brake and she began to speed up the lane toward the highway to Springfield, Missouri.
From that day on I experienced that same terrifying fear each time I felt myself in danger of falling backward or ascending suddenly to a great height.
After reading “And Now, Miguel” and following that children’s classic with my first trip to New Mexico, I discovered a part of the state that intrigued me. In a rented car I drove from Taos to an extinct volcano named Capolin that rose above the barren plains like a strange cone pictured on a game board.
An irresistible urge to go up to the top and look down into the crater propelled me to turn into the entrance. There was no guard rail; the road looked only as wide as one car. My feet grew cold in that old familiar terror. What on earth possessed me to drive up this horror? After all, I was retired and just a tourist. I hugged the wrong side of the road and prayed that no car coming down the volcano would try to pass me.
Later, after what seemed like hours of agony, I was able to park at the summit. Peering down into the crater was almost worth the ascent. After that day, I would also be able to fake my bravery when I related the experience to my family and friends.
I suppose that almost all my life I’ve tried to test my courage in overcoming the fear of heights. I endured the long elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building and carefully stepped over to a few feet this side of the edge. I’ve made myself follow the same caution when I visited the Grand Canyon.
My first flights didn’t seem to bother me. However, once I shared a flight with my childhood companion. He had a habit of scaring me with fear-inducing facts, like one of the most dangerous parts of a journey by plane was takeoffs or landings. After our trip together, I grew anxious when the pilot announced over the intercom, “We’re beginning our descent now” and I heard the ominous sound of seatbelts being buckled.
Coloring paper doll clothes had kept me entertained for hours when I was young—how focused the activity kept me. But adults weren’t attracted to the artwork in children’s coloring books. Then I came across an item sold in the Walters Art Gallery’s gift shop (Baltimore)—a medieval times book to color. Eureka! Just what I needed for landings and takeoffs.
As I was choosing between green or blue for a jester’s costume in my new coloring book, the flight attendant leaned over me, “Time to buckle up.” She did a double take, “How interesting.”
I showed her the cover of the book. “Coloring keeps me distracted when we’re landing,” I said.
“I’ll have to remember that,” she smiled.
Many years later I was amused when I saw the coloring sheets and coloring pencils on a coffee table in our retirement community’s dining room. “Something new,” someone commented.
“Hmm,” I thought.