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  • January 27th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance
They call it acrophobia. And no, that’s not fear of acros. It’s fear of heights, of being up high. And more specifically of being up high and falling. If you have seen the Mel Brooks movie “High Anxiety” and laughed at the Mel Brooks character when he is petrified by being in an elevator with an exposed window overlooking the hotel far below, you’ll know how I felt on the elevator that lifted me to the top of the Space Needle in Seattle. Somehow they forgot to build an elevator with enclosed walls and also one where you have the option of not getting in the thing in the first place.
Or how I felt peering through the open door leading to a tiny cat walk around the very top of the dome on the Missouri state capitol. Or how I felt on top of a mule on a petrifyingly narrow trail leading out of the Grand Canyon, the only thing between me and what appeared to be a 2000 foot plunge into the abyss was the assurance of the mule wrangler that “They don’t want to fall off the edge either.”
Yeah, well I’d rather hear it directly from the mule. Putting your life in the hooves of a mule strains the idea of trust to the extreme. I happen to believe that most mules are smarter than most humans anyway, but that doesn’t mean that I want to trust my life to one in a moment of blind panic— leave the blind panic to me, not to the mule.
Fear of heights is an acquired phobia according to the psychologists. They say that babies only instinctively are afraid of falling and loud noises, not of snakes or high places or other common fears. Give a baby a diamondback rattlesnake and it will chew on it like a Binky. Certainly, that Grand Canyon mule, had no apparent fear of heights. Going by the name of Streak, an ominous sounding name if ever there was one for a large and legendarily independent four-legged creature, she persisted in walking on the outside edge of the trail which was only mule wide to begin with, occasionally kicking a rock over the edge.
Once we negotiated a hairpin turn in the trail where she performed a three-quarter back and fill move, like a long distance trucker negotiating a difficult turn. For a brief and dizzying moment I opened my eyes only to see an abyss the likes of which I never hope to see again. Worse, there was a wind blowing and I had the panicky feeling that I was Dorothy in that Kansas farmhouse about to be swept by a tornado into God knows where. My late friend, Norm Strung, was on the mule directly behind me and said, “ I know you’re apprehensive, but you really should see this wonderful view.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said, clutching the pommel of the saddle with one hand and the mule’s mane with the other. You couldn’t have pulled me loose with another team of mules.
According to one definition of acrophobia, it is an irrational fear of heights. I’ll quibble with that— standing on a precipice with your feet hanging over the edge teetering precariously and being utterly terrified strikes me as the absolute epitome of rationality. The word itself derives from Greek meaning summit and phobia. I take that to mean a fear of being on top. Donald Trump should acquire a whole lot of acrophobia and get down to the bottom where he belongs, preferably under the rock from which he crawled. Acrophobia also is called vertigo but apparently there is a semantic difference between the two. Supposedly, vertigo is that feeling of imbalance and even an irrational feeling that you want to jump, while acrophobia is infinitely preferring to be down low rather than up high.
I don’t know how or when I acquired my fear of heights but perhaps it was the sight of my uncle Roy Finnell scampering about in the lofty rafters of his rickety tobacco barn arranging sticks of newly cut tobacco for drying. I do recall that my father was unnerved by the sight of his brother-in-law acting like a member of the Wallenda family on the high wire and perhaps his poorly hidden panic transferred itself to me like flu germs. However, our daughter Carrie, shares some of my phobia— she and I both scooted on our rear ends down the rickety stairs from the top of the Missouri state capitol to firmer ground, but she also skis fearlessly and hikes precipitous mountain trails where mountain goats get the whim-whams.
I also have what I guess I could call political acrophobia—a fear of politicians in high places. For example, I am terrified of Donald J Trump. I have a feeling that’s a phobia that I share with most of the voting population of the United States and, I also feel, that if he continues in office much longer it will be a universal terror. I think Trump has what you could call acrophobial backspin, a fear of being exposed in high places, something that his many accomplices in high crimes and misdemeanors could make reality. One can only hope.
There is a 2015 movie titled “The Wire” about a tight rope walker named Phillipe Pettit who, on the afternoon of August 6, 1974, walked 130 feet on a galvanized steel wire between the then unfinished World Trade Centers in New York City. Pettit spent 45 minutes walking back and forth 1350 feet above the ground, while hundreds if not thousands of awed New Yorkers waited far below, probably holding their breath, for the moment he would lose his balance and fall.
He never did, but watching the movie even while sitting comfortably on a couch (holding tightly to the armrest) I got super whim-whams, something that never did bother Pettit, who walked back and forth from one side to the other while New York City police pleaded with him to come back to safety, probably wishing they could just shoot him off the wire and get it over with. Pettit even laid down on the wire at one point, and told the world later “I was not scared because it was a precise thing. I was dying of happiness”. Meanwhile, watching the movie, I was dying of terror.
His feat was analogous to my uncle treading the rafters in the tobacco barn, only more than 1200 feet higher up. I’m not saying Uncle Finney might not have been able to walk the cable balanced by a tobacco stick instead of a long pole, but I think maybe even that would have daunted him—and not much did.
So afraid of heights am I that I cannot look up at the St. Louis Gateway Arch from its base without feeling faint and losing my balance, a clear case of vertigo. I tried it once and everything turned to water inside my body and I thought I was going to fall over on my back. So far I have resisted the urge to travel to the top of the Arch and look out–far stronger is the urge not to do it.
Is there a cure for acrophobia, other than leaping off a cliff 2000 feet to jagged rocks below, which falls into the category of “a permanent solution”? Behavioral psychologists claim that you can cure a phobia by gradual exposure to it, conditioning yourself as it were to accept the fear and overcome it. Sounds good in theory, but when your fear of heights extends to a feeling of despair two rungs up on a ladder it’s going to take more than minimal exposure to heights to induce me to scale the side of the Empire State building like King Kong, never mind batting down airplanes that are shooting at me.
This is a Pavlovian approach to solving problems. Pavlov was a Russian scientist who conditioned dogs to salivate at a certain sound. You probably could condition me to salivate at the sight of a ribeye steak but I doubt that even playing early Elvis Presley would incline me to teeter at the edge of a precipice.
Recently, a friend emailed me about her time skiing at a nearby Idaho ski mountain and instantly my mind filled with acrophobic angst, remembering back to my time skiing in Colorado. Many years ago Marty and I were chaperones of a YMCA ski trip and I found myself trapped on a lift for the first time with a teenage twerpette who seemed not to realize that we were suspended, apparently thousands of feet above solid ground, perched on a flimsy lawn chair seemingly fastened only by a length of 20 pound test monofilament fishing line. “Isn’t this fun!” She chortled rocking the chair, which sent me into spasms of terror. “I’ll take your word for it,” I muttered through clenched teeth, once again transported to the saddle of that suicidal mule on the Kaibab trail.
“We’ll be at the top soon,” she trilled. I didn’t want to be at the top—I wanted to be at the bottom where there were lots of alcoholic drinks. But we did reach the top, and I spilled off the chairlift and sprawled in a tangle of skis and poles in front of a crowd of skiers who regarded me with amused contempt. The twerpette helped me up and I shakily followed her to the edge of what seemed to be a precipice on the order of the North face of the Eiger. Many vertical miles below me I could see Steamboat Village.
The twerpette, all of 15 years old, looked pityingly at me and said “do you need help getting down, Mr. Vance?”
“No, you go on ahead,” I said in a squeaky voice that sounded much like that of Barney Fife, “I’ll just check my bindings or something.” And she sailed over the edge like Lindsey Vonn and vanished in a spray of snow while I stood there petrified wondering if somehow I could spend the rest of my life there, supplied occasionally with food and, especially, strong drink.
It took several eons of unremitting terror but I finally got to the end of the run in a series of panicky fits and starts, looking like someone fighting off a swarm of African bees. Charitable memory has mercifully erased the details of that perilous descent down the mountain, but there were no scouts for the US Olympic downhill racing team waiting to sign me up. There was, however, a bistro with calming libations where I spent much of the remaining time on the trip.
So I trundle on down life’s highway, preferably one with no hills, and without friends in high places to smooth out the bumps in the road. As far as I’m concerned any friends I might have had in high places can just stay there.

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