Bill Cole is no longer a spaceman. He leaves the psychiatrist’s office having been told that his condition was in essence all in his head. Taking a job away from the space port so as not to be reminded of what he had lost he moves on with his new life making new friends and trying to fit in. Joe, his only close friend invites him to dinner at his home. He figures he can make the entire trip with out ever seeing the sky which terrifies him so accepts and enjoys the meal. Joe lives on the thirty fifth floor but Bill finds that as with most of the artificial caves we live in there is no sense of its location from the inside. Bedding down for the night but leaving the light on to dispel the sense of boundless space he tries to sleep. Having no success he resorts to a sleeping pill and falls into a dream filled slumber.
He is awakened by the sound of a kitten meowing. Trying to locate it he realizes that it is outside the window. Bracing himself against the sheer terror this simple act inspires he opens the window to see the kitten outside on a ledge four feet down. He tries to reach it by hanging onto the window sill but it moves away. He collapses back inside thinking that he can’t expose himself to this kind of danger again.
As he is sitting on the floor at the window trying to control his shaking he remembers the trauma that had brought him to this juncture. He had been on the outer skin of the luxury liner Valkyrie fixing the radar dish. The ship was rotating to provide gravity for the passengers comfort so from his perspective all directions were down. Having completed the repair he tries to return to the inside of the ship only to find himself trapped and hanging by his hands with all infinity below his feet. There is no rescue coming so he hangs on for two hours until he finally falls. When he regains consciousness he is told that a nearby ship had rescued him. He returns to earth with a severe case of agoraphobia that prevents him from even thinking about space much less returning to it.
But the kitten needs him so he steels his resolve and ventures onto the building’s ledge and rescues it. Making his way back inside he finds himself thinking how nice the sky looks and how far down the street is without feeling any sense of trepidation. He decides to go to the spaceport in the morning and sign onto a space bound ship.
The only true stories are ones that exemplify human emotion. Heinlein was a master of this whether he was showing us hopefulness, compassion, greed, or as is the case in this story fear. A human being without emotion is a robot and a story without emotion is a technical manual. One of the greatest tributes I can offer the producers of star treks TNG is that they understood that special effects were of secondary importance to the human element. We all have things that we fear. It might be poverty or loneliness or hopelessness or rejection or death or sickness or even something as simple as reproach.
I will be honest here, heights scare hell out me. I don’t like skyscrapers or planes and I most certainly don’t like ladders. To give you some perspective on this I would like to share my ladder story.
My Ladder Story
Some years ago, perhaps about 1993 I was working on a house. My job on the project was sheathing. This involved the somewhat awkward task of climbing a ladder while carrying a sheet of OSB, (oriented strand board) placing it into position and using a pneumatic nail gun to fasten it to the house. This particular day was mid march with ice and snow still on the ground and whereas the ladder had ice cleats on the base I was still nervous about its stability. I had just about finished, needing only the topmost piece on the gable and, having cut the final piece on the ground, proceeded to make my ascent up the ladder. I was at an indeterminate point in my climb when one leg of the ladder slipped and it swung 180 degrees so that instead of my facing the building I was facing away from it.
When I felt that leg slip I ceased to think. I threw the sheeting away and wrapped both arms and both legs around the ladder and PRAYED. I have never embraced a person with as much vigor as I hugged that ladder. After an objective time of perhaps three minutes and a subjective time of just shy of an eternity my heartbeat began to slow and my awareness expanded to include an area greater than just the right here and right now. Timidly I looked down in preparation for my descent. I was only on the second rung from the bottom. Seriously folks, I have seldom felt such sheer terror as when that ladder slipped.
Falling is one of humanity’s primal fears and this story is a fine example of its potency. Having had some small measure of it as I have related to you I can fully sympathize with this mans plight.
And yet, one of the things that makes us human is our ability to confront our fears. It is the ability to make the choice “I will do this despite my fear”. One thing that I do believe in is facing the fear head on and embracing its terror in an attempt to conquer its hold on me.
When I was eighteen I had a friend who was a skydiver. I thought he was nuts but willingly ran the drop zone vehicle (that’s the guy who drives out to pick up the bodies after the jump) for him and his fellow lunatics. Skydiving is impressive to watch and the sheer exuberance displayed by its advocates is very appealing. To cut a long story short they talked me into it. Not only did it promise to be an adventure but here was a chance to face down that bogie man that had haunted me since childhood (as if I were an adult at eighteen). The event was memorable if somewhat painful.
My Skydiving Story
I was NUTS, that was the only possibility. I had finally slipped my leash and was roaming free in la la land. The idea was to get into a plane, ascend to three thousand feet and then voluntarily jump out. Okay, meaning no disrespect to those who enjoy this sport it sounds more like an elaborate form of Russian roulette. Gee I wonder if my parachute will open this time. I expressed this to Rocky who was my jump master as he had survived this temporary fit of insanity over seven hundred times. He tried to reassure me by pointing out that more people die in their own bathrooms each year that from skydiving. I assured him that as I had no intent of giving up using the bathroom skydiving could only decrease my chance of survival. But I had decided to do this so training began. This involved a lot of study on what could go wrong and how to fix it followed by me hanging from the rafters in Joe’s (the aforementioned friend who had only lost his mind about two hundred times) garage and practicing. The only part of this I enjoyed was that the ground was reassuringly close.
Comes the big day. I board the plane making sure that I had everything I needed and more importantly making sure I had left any vestiges of reason behind. We fly to the site of the jump, open the door and then I sit at the edge with my feet dangling three thousand feet off the ground. Now, in the Cessna we were using the exit was in two parts. The first was to place your feet on the wheel housing and lunge forward to grab the wing support then hang there until you hear JUMP MASTER SAYS GO. Well that’s what I heard and as many times that I had fallen off of things accidentally I found that it is more terrifying to let go deliberately (Kind of like playing trust). But there is no getting back on the plane with a hundred mile per hour wind hitting you in the face and besides at this point I was just numb. So off I go, the parachute opens without incident and DEAR LORD GOD ALLMIGHTY WHAT A VEIW. This was, I swear to God the single most incredible experience of my life, wow and again WOW. There was no fear or anxiety or anything negative about it. So there I was with my bird’s eye view of the world, beaming like I had just gotten a date with the prettiest girl in school (sad to say, this never happened) and I start playing with the steering toggles. The parachute steers by two cords which spills air from one side or the other. This diminishes the support surface but does no harm other than temporarily causing a more rapid decent (more on this later). Despite the resistance of the parachute gravity was doing its thing and my ride was nearing the end. I was coming down right over the drop zone driver who in this case was Joe when I saw him jumping up and down, waving his arm over his head and shouting something that I could not hear. As I descended to about a hundred feet I was able to make out what all the jumping and shouting was about.
The paracommander parachute that I was using had a forward speed of about ten mph. The wind on that day was about ten mph. That meant that had I been flying into the wind I would have come straight down and landed as light as a feather. I unfortunately was traveling with the wind and was about to slam into the ground at twenty mph. Employing my extraordinary reflexes and disregarding all reason (remember that I had left my reason behind) I pulled the right hand steering toggle all the way down to my knee. The right hand side of my parachute all but collapsed and I dropped like a rock. As I was close to the ground there was no time to accelerate to a dangerous speed, so, had I chosen to roll as I hit it still would have been a good landing. (Does anybody hear ominous music)?
A stand up landing is self explanatory but is generally done by experienced skydivers under favorable conditions which dropping like a rock does not qualify as. But I had it in my mind that I was going to do a stand up on my very first jump. I landed with my knees locked and felt a tremendous shock travel from my heels to the top of head. Yet I had done it, yes sir I had done a stand up landing on my very first jump. My triumph only lasted about three seconds as I collapsed to the side making my second landing of the day. Whereas I did land on my butt, unfortunately my butt landed on a prickly pear cactus, ouch!
So much of fear is fear of the unknown. We have no true experience with the thing that we fear so we anticipate the worst and create our own terror. As it happened I was not afraid of heights at all. It was, as these stories exemplify, a fear of falling which is healthy and sane.
Having feelings is a part of what makes us human but we must make a sincere attempt to identify the true source of those feelings so that we become their master for otherwise they will master us.
The Rational Anarchist