I have a poor history with heights; I have an unfortunate tendency to fall from them. So my acrophobia is not irrational in the slightest, despite what everyone might tell you. As someone who has flown through the air and bounced off the floor on multiple occasions, I can assure you some pain is involved. How I continue to keep falling in spite of my caution however is a real mystery.
There are several moments in my childhood and teenage years where I tested gravity for myself.
We went there every summer as a family for camping holidays. Sandy beaches, rural footpaths and of course, cliffs. Lots of cliffs. Lots of jagged rocks and sheer drops. I feel level headed just thinking about it. The dog was the first to fly off and amazingly enough he survived. Even more amazing was how he did it twice in the same week. Unlike any other regular dog who couldn’t care less about who saw him do their business, Ben was one of those prudish spaniels. You know, one of those hypocrite canines who isn’t afraid of pushing his nose toward another dog’s rear end, but can’t bear the indecency of being seen relieving himself. He used to hide behind corners or furniture whenever he needed to go. So when we were up a fifty-foot cliff, we should probably have kept a closer eye on him. Instead we watched him casually shuffle backwards into a bush to protect his modesty, not realising that the bush was their to protect his life instead. He only fell a short distance through some miracle and my father dragged him back up to the path. Another 20min later we start working our way down toward the beach. Already down there is a family with their golden retriever who barks up at us. Ben barks back. He decides that walking down the cliff just isn’t fast enough and leaps down instead. Got to hand it to him; he made record time getting there. My father found him wheezing into the sand and miraculously he hadn’t broken any of his legs. At this point they didn’t dare leave him without his lead on. But as soon as there attention was on him, it had left me.
I was wearing flip flops, so I won’t need to explain how I fell. I was walking on top of this rock, looking out into the horizon with one foot perched on a jutting ledge, pretending to be Luke Skywalker on Tatooine from the first Star Wars film (yes, I really was that cool as a child). The sea crashed over the rocks, shooting spray up into the air and filling the air with that salty scent. It was all very tranquil until I slipped and dived into the ocean in a heap of sprawling limbs. When I surfaced I was more concerned with catching my flip flops before they floated away, and less about trivial matters such as possibility of cracking my head open on a rock, or being pulled out to sea by the current. When I got back to my family who had set up the picnic on the sand, my mother called out to me.
“What happened? Did you you get splashed by the waves?”
“….Yes. Yes I did”
My grandparents live in blackheath, and whenever we visited we would often walk into greenwich park together. Aside from the legions of squirrels that rule that park beneath their fluffy tails, it’s also known for it’s sloping hills. I was relatively fearless in my youth and I would always rush over to climb the trees during these walks, usurping the squirrels from their vantage points and watching them flee to neighbouring trees. My parents would then call me down and I would gingerly crawl down. I normally landed flat on my feet. One time I didn’t.
On that time I happened to land on my side. It also happened to be on the peak of one of those hills. So I just happened to roll down it at a hurtling speed and crashed into a jungle gym at the bottom. I was not so eager to climb trees after that.
The Golf Course:
My grandfather loves golf so my father took him for a game at our local course by the Strand. I was drafted to carry the clubs. They tried giving me the title ‘caddy’ to improve my enthusiasm but I know a chore when I see one. Half the course was situated on a series of massive slopes, giving the players an added challenge when they played. So I dutifully lugged a bag of golf clubs up and down these slopes, as my father and grandfather took their shots. One particular shot was at the peak of this 15 foot mound. Steps had been built into the earth so that we could climb it as the slopes were unbelievably steep. At the top I dropped the bags and my father got ready to hit the ball.
“Poncho, step back a bit. You don’t want me to accidentally hit you with a golf club, trust me” he said, shifting his feet precisely as he spoke. Just as instructed I took a step back.
A moment after that I was rubbing my face against the earth as I dropped off the side, both my hands uselessly clawing at the slope as I tried to slow my fall.
Cut and bruised at the bottom, I groaned and shakily got to my feet. My father and Grandfather, instead of coming down to check on me, had made their shots and were now on their way to the next hole, leaving me to limp after them. My sister was happy enough to relay to me the conversation that occurred post my fall though.
My grandfather peered down after me.
“You know your son has just fallen off the edge right?” he told my father.
My father, continued to concentrate on his footing.
“…Do you think he hurt himself?”
Then my father made a near perfect shot in the game.
The walk to school was on the other end of a valley. That meant you had to go down one slope and then climb another. Going around would take too long. The Lines were owned by the military but aside from the occasional platoon taking a morning job together, it was mostly clear. I would walk up and down them everyday along concrete footpaths woven into the fields and slopes. The hill’s angle was 45 degrees. Not steep enough to merit climbing gear, but steep enough to hear your knees scream at you, ‘what in God’s name are you making us do!?’. But I ignored my body, as I always do, and made the climb every afternoon on my way home from school.
When winter hit one year, we had real snow. Naturally the country shut down and so did the school because any snow greater than 3 inches is a British disaster (apologies to those of you from Canada, Siberia or other equally cold areas. The UK does not deal with snow). But there was always that chance that school could be open and it just hadn’t been announced on the radio yet. So my father insisted that we go. The Lines that winter was blanketed in snow and hidden beneath were sheets of ice. The fun slippery kind. One afternoon on my climb up, I stripped up the slope, boots stomping into the shin deep snow with as much speed as I could muster. The faster I got home to get out of the inhuman cold (-2 degrees. Apologies once again…), the better.
Of course I slipped on the ice and leapt face first into the snow on my ascent. I got over that fairly quickly. What I couldn’t get over was the hill. Hugging the ground I could feel myself still falling, ever so slowly. The ice stretched down the path and I slid down it at a snails pace. Every attempt to stand was met with a sudden flail as my shoes had all friction swept away.
It took 5 minutes for me to fall to the bottom.
These days whenever I peer down into a dizzying height, I envision all the potential ways I might plummet. But my acrophobia has nothing to do with fear of heights. I’m just afraid of the moment when I hit the ground. To this day I still wince whenever I see Buster Keaton.