I So Totally Get

SARAH’S FEAR of flying and why she feels it.

When I was a kid, The Colonel and Uncle Cliff engaged in this project. I had/have no idea what direct experience they had to lead them to believe they could pull it off. But Uncle Cliff and Aunt Chris (Mom’s older sister) had a rental property in a one of Cincinnati’s senior suburbs that had a big tree — ash? maple? I don’t really remember — in the verge between the sidewalk and the street*. It was threatening the property — a large Queen Anne house that had been split into four very nice apartments. They decided, rather than paying a tree service to remove it, that they would take it down themselves.

In my childhood distortion of the memory, it turned into a mammoth project that stretched out for years. That’s a problem of scale and probably wrong. But it wasn’t a weekend project. The tree was 70 feet tall if it was an inch, and at least 30-40 inches in girth in the main trunk. It was NOT a small tree. It took awhile to bring it down. In pieces.

Uncle Cliff was a sailor. Well, he’d been a Marine in the war, but, being of Nova Scotian stock, and from the lobstering coast of Massachusetts, he… He was a sailor. OK? He knew stuff about rigging and line handling and all that. The Colonel was a tad behind in that, but picked up the elements of marlinspike seamanship very quickly, and soon was able to throw a long splice into a mainbrace with the best of them.

I was nine or ten at the time, big for my age, and was pressed into service, hanging onto flylines and cleaning up felled branches, hanging onto one end of a two-man saw (for dear life) — that kind of stuff.

And they wanted me up in the tree. As the lightest adult or semi-adult there, I was the sensible candidate. They rigged a bosun’s chair, hung it on a half-inch 3-part tackle and swung me aloft.

I froze in terror. Every creak or sway of the branch I was rigged to, every swing of the rigging, every shift in my inner ear put me in fear of falling to my death. No amount of reassurances that I could trust the Colonel, who was on the hauling line, could comfort me. There was no getting any work out of me. Nor was I any better on a ladder. My lizard brain was taking all signals from my sense of balance and translating them into blind panic. I’d never liked heights, but this took the cake.

So they gave up on having me cut off limbs. The Colonel put on a pair of lineman’s spikes and clambered up the tree, one-man saw trailing on a line, and did off the various limbs of the tree’s top.

Fast forward to the next summer. We’d moved to a greener suburb. The house had three forty-to-fifty-foot silver maples in the back yard. The Colonel rigged up a three-quarter-inch four-part block-and-tackle to one of the trees and just left it hanging there. He stood a 40-foot extension ladder up against the next one over and left IT there. No comment. No instructions. Nothing. Just the naked temptation.

I’m not exactly G. Gordon Liddy, but I did have the notion that I had to face the fear, so I lashed up a bosun’s chair (a double bowline on a bight, if you’re interested), hooked it to the running block, and hauled away on the hauling part. And walked up the tree. And enjoyed the view. I snubbed the hauling line under my butt and just hung there, surveying the backyard landscape of the neighborhood.

Having fun.

The lesson? So long as I’m in control, I’m just fine. If there’s the slightest indication I might lose control, my lizard brain goes apeshit — if you’ll pardon the metaphor mixture. So the fear of flying thing — with somebody else in control — I totally get it. I also suspect I’d be just fine if I could pilot the plane.

Later on, I took on the ladder to similar success. Even got handy at going up the BACK side of it, and then flipping around to the front. Years later, when I joined the stage crew at Walnut Hills, that nimbleness on the ladder stood me in good stead running up the back wall of the stagehouse to the fly floor, 50 feet up.

*Now that I think on it more, that’s wrong. It was two trees. There was a locust tree in the verge and the bigger tree was just the other side of the public walk in the yard.

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