Over the course of my life, I’ve developed a generalized fear of heights. Of course, this implies that there was a point at which heights weren’t problematic for me. In fact, I loved climbing as a kid. I loved being on the top bunk, I loved climbing sets of stairs to be on higher floors in buildings and, more than almost anything, I loved climbing the pine tree in my front yard. The tree had lovely, sturdy branches low to the ground and dense needles delicately suspended on long branches, far from the thick, sap-streaked trunk. They provided a perfect sort of arboreal screen for a makeshift crow’s nest.
On adventurous days, I’d climb up the tree, carefully stepping upwards on the thickest branches I could find until the branches nearly became so small that they could scarcely support their own weight, much less mine as well. It was from this nest that I’d obnoxiously holler at passersby. Innocent retirees, out for an evening stroll with their meticulously groomed Cocker Spaniels, would hear a child’s voice making bird sounds and cackling maniacally. Their heads would swivel about, looking for the source of the offending sound, only to find no bratty children in their field of vision. I’d giggle more and call out “Hellllooooooo? Can you seEEEeee meEEEeee?” Totally unamused by the hijinks, my victims would start walking in the direction they were headed, still looking out for the voice assailing them from above. Some would catch sight of me and call me a varmint. Others would never deduce the source of the sound and proceed on, uncertain of what they’d heard.
Encouraged by the ability to confuse neighbors, my climbing became more ambitious. Our small brick house was outfitted with an aerial antenna, which was bolted to the side of the house with a slight gap between the pole and wall. My small hands fit perfectly between the two and by holding the pole, I could climb up the side of my house and then heave myself over the eave, onto the flat roof of the family room. For a six year old, this was a profound accomplishment. It’s probably also part of why my parents had to continually patch and repair the flat roof on that end of the house.
Being on the roof was terrifying at first, but the commanding view it provided was absolutely intoxicating. So, whenever the bricks weren’t slick from rain and whenever my parents were too busy to notice, I climbed up to the roof and spied the layout of the surrounding houses. From that point on, I was hooked on climbing things I shouldn’t climb. At first, the climbing was innocent enough. I’d climb higher on playground equipment than I should have or I’d climb random trees while out riding my bike with a friend.
As events grew increasingly turbulent at home, I’d spend more time out riding around on my bike, looking for things to climb. When the world seemed unfair, I could lift myself up out of it and feel better just by not being earthbound. I’d climb anything and everything I could, just for the fun of it. Friends’ roofs were scaled and jumped off of. Eventually, I stumbled across and scrambled up ladders bolted to the back side of buildings, climbing rungs mounted on power poles, or observation towers deemed unsafe by city inspectors, but not well-secured from the industrious curiosity of teenagers with bolt cutters.
This doesn’t look like a rusty, unstable, Art Deco deathtrap at all.
I also discovered that climbing, especially climbing fences, gave me access to places I should never have been. Now, for some reason, homeowners will occasionally set up wooden fences with the support planks and posts facing outward. I suppose this makes seeing the fence less repulsive but it does make it absolutely easy for strange neighborhood kids to see how big your backyard is, if your dog looks mean or not, or whether or not you’ve got a pool.
It occurred to me that by climbing the fences of perfect strangers and looking into their backyards, I was violating their privacy. But I wasn’t climbing fences to peep, case, or otherwise commit a crime of ill-intent. It should be well-established that I was a strange kid, but I was a well-meaning one nonetheless. I was simply a kid whose curiosity knew no bounds. If there was a creek, I was wading around in it. If there was a room marked “off limits” you could bet that’s where I was going to be at some point. If I was wandering along and heard a sound behind a wooden fence, I was peeking over the top of it to ascertain the source.
These exploratory moments, which were primarily solitary activities, were a way to suppress feelings of isolation. It made logical sense in my brain that if I was busy, being alone didn’t bother me. Like a lot of kids who lacked whatever gene governs normal behavior, I was an easy target for bullying. It didn’t help matters that had gigantic ears and acted out, often inviting bullying by being the noisiest and most obvious misfit in the room. The bullying came from all possible angles and all possible sources. It wasn’t just the abuse-scarred, hulking brick wall of a boy that fits the general stereotype best.
Other kids found ways to tease me as well, even the nerdy girls with awkwardness encoded into their DNA alongside unusual size or facial features. Adults found clever ways to tease me by giving my unflattering nicknames or reminding me that I was a “few floats short of a picnic.” Bullying happened at school. Bullying happened around so-called friends. Bullying even happened at church. I stuck out like a cheap nail. And what do you do with nails that stick out? You pound them flush against the surface, over and over.
One Wednesday night, after a mid-week evening church service during summer, a group of older boys were throwing gravel pebbles into a small, algae choked stream that ran alongside the grounds. A few of them were carefully crossing the stream by delicately walking across an exposed water line pipe. They seemed so well-balanced and graceful, tip-toeing from one end of the pipe to the other like little Wallendas. They were a little younger than my brother and a little older than me, so their approval seemed like something I desperately needed to acquire at the time. I sidled up to the group and waited for my chance to tip-toe across the pipe, which would certainly display my obvious credentials for belonging to the group.
Now, being that I had such experience climbing and balancing my body weight carefully, crossing the creek on the pipe wasn’t nearly as hard as it seemed when I was simply a bystander. Perhaps I was “in the zone” as they say, but the pipe appeared to accommodate my feet easily and I didn’t even slip or miss my footing once as I crossed. When I reached the other side, I turned to look at the other boys, expecting some sort of recognition of what I had done.
There was none. Not a single “good job!” or some sort of positive commentary attached to a less-offensive nickname assigned to me. Nothing, other than the blank looks on their dumb, zit-festooned faces.
They were looking at me but made no special notice of my being there, in and amongst them. I immediately thought that perhaps I had misjudged how older kids interact, so I assumed their silence and indifference equated to acceptance. One of the oldest of the boys called out to the others that there was pizza to be had if they came back up the creek bank, to the parking lot. I watched from across the creek as the boys all moved in unison up to incline. The oldest boy, who had just invited them up, called out to me. He smiled and cocked his head up, which made his hair-gel encrusted hair bob like a cockatiel’s crown. “Hey!” he yelled. “You comin’? There’s pizza up here, man!”
My heart swelled with delight at not only having displayed my feat of balance, but at also having insinuated myself into the group so quickly as to be invited to eat alongside these obvious masters of cool. Not only did this boy know my name; he also wanted to ensure that I wasn’t left behind. With a light heart and nimble feet, I started back across the pipe, my mind swirling with happiness at my good fortune. Just then, I heard his voice again. My eyes were on my feet, so as to not misstep and fall, so I didn’t see that when he screamed out “NOW!” all the other boys picked up handfuls of gravel and slung them in my general direction. I raised my eyes in time to see the dusky sky littered with a hundred pebble-sized chunks of grey rock, all converging on my position like a hundred arrows volleyed across a battlefield.
Just like this, only the Persians were wearing french-rolled jeans, polos, and loafers without socks. And I didn’t die gloriously.
My arms and hands instinctively went up to protect my head, which left my body and legs exposed to the peppering of stinging, sharp little pieces of gravel. A hundred thunk sounds were followed by a sharp, wincing pain. With each hit, my body moved in the opposite direction to avoid further strikes. Because of this, my balance left me as my body tried to pivot and move out of the hail of gravel stones, to no avail. Then, my left foot slipped off the pipe. The other foot, frantically searching for stable footing, also lost its hold on the pipe. For a split second, I felt like I was flying. Like I would glide to the creek bank and not fall in the stagnant water. Like I could float up and away from all the pain, all the embarrassment, and all the weeks of snickering that would follow.
None of that was to be. I hit the water with a massive splash, soaking myself from the waist down in the foul stream. I lurched about in the water, grasping for the edge of the creek, as a chorus of laughter rained down. It hurt significantly more than the entire barrage of gravel. The boys scampered off to wherever they were serving pizza as a reward to the Hitler Youth. Ruefully, I pulled myself up and over the muddy creek bank.
Moments like these were the ones that drove me off on my own, to go explore and go climb away from other people. Since I didn’t have a bike handy and couldn’t leave while my mother was in choir practice, I stomped off in my spongy shoes to the backside of the church building, where I could be alone and let the burning tears streak down my cheeks unobserved. I wandered over behind a set of portable classrooms purchased by church to accommodate its explosive growth, where there was a narrow strip of overgrown scrub grass and a set of wooden fences, all with their rails facing outward.
Climbing up the rails, I decided I’d see if I could navigate all the way down the fence line on the middle rail, without touching the ground. Doing so took my mind off the wetness of my pants, the sickening squish of my insoles, and the teasing I was sure to get later from the same set of boys when I dared to show my face again. I worked my way down the fence, grasping a plank and scooting my feet sideways, while I worked towards the posts. I’d plant both hands on the top of the post and swing my left leg around the post until I found the next rail. So on and so forth, until I got halfway down the line. Sometimes, I’d stop for a second a peer over the fence into the backyards of strangers, wondering if they were nice people or if they were going to see me and call someone to have me run off.
I proceeded undaunted until I noticed one section of the fence seemed greyer and less well-maintained than the other sections of fencing. As I approached it, I thought of it as a sort of challenge to overcome. A final test of my fence-scrambling capabilities, if you will. I used the same strategy as I started crossing the older rails, which popped and groaned under my burdensome 115 pound frame. Once my full weight was transferred onto the section, I paused for a second to look down the line and count how many sections I had to cross until I was back on more stable fencing. Seven. Seven sections. I could do it. I was an excellent climber and I was sure-footed. No sweat.
I didn’t fully appreciate how poorly maintained the sections were until I got to the fourth one. The entire seven sections began wobbling and popping with every movement I made on that fourth section. I thought, just for a moment, about hopping off. I didn’t want the entire fence to come crashing down with me underneath it, but I also had a goal in mind and didn’t want to quit. I slid my left foot a few more feet down the line when I suddenly heard a sound that chilled me to the bone.
Violent, spit-filled hissing, louder than I had ever heard before, erupted into the air below my feet. I looked down and saw something brown and grey twisting and coiling on the ground. I swiveled my head around for a better look when I heard an angry, vibrating, static-filled sound. My movement on the fence caused it to shift again, this time rocking inward a bit. The sound increased in intensity, but I still couldn’t find the source. It seemed to be right under me, yet all around me, and greatly displeased at my presence.
Terrified that I had triggered some sort of antiquated alarm system, I slid my right foot back in the direction I had come from. I kept looking down, around, and even above me in a nearby tree. The agitated hissing sound remained, almost continuous and unbroken. My instincts were screaming out to jump off the fence line and run, but I also had no idea where the sound was coming from and I couldn’t leap blindly into greater danger, so I scooted a bit further back down the fence line.
Frantically, I looked over my left shoulder, down at the ground, and saw it: a juvenile timber rattlesnake, half coiled and ready to strike, just a few feet below me.
This isn’t an exotic pet. This isn’t a neat little critter. It’s a godless, soulless killing machine.
Terror swept through my body and the adrenaline, which had yet to peak at being alarmed by the sound, now fully coursed through me like a freight train. I panicked and tried to move further back down the line. My quick movement and sudden shifting of weight to my right hand caused the top of a fence picket to snap off. My left foot lost its placement on the rail and my leg dropped down helplessly. For a split second, the only thing that prevented me from falling right onto an angry rattlesnake was my left hand and right foot, clinging tightly to the aged and dilapidated wood. As I hung on for dear life, the fence began leaning outward under my weight.
Popping sounds and groans emitted from the overstressed fence as I quickly pulled my left leg up, found a better grip for my right hand, and put myself fully back on the rail. I stood up on the rail and bent over, leaning into the back yard, so as to counter-weight my effect on the fence. I knew if I moved too quickly, the fence might fall. I was afraid that if I moved too slowly, the snake would leap up and sink it’s sharp fangs into my soft, tender little ankle. I looked to my left, hoping to see anyone I could scream to for help. Not a soul. I glanced back to the right, with the loud rattle sounds filling the air in dire warning. No one. Just cars passing a few hundred feet away on a main road, oblivious to my plight. No one I called a friend was within earshot. I was afraid that if I yelled out for help, the older boys would be the first ones to hear and come to torment, not rescue me.
I froze in place, with every muscle in my body at full alert, absolutely afraid to breathe or move an inch. An already bad day had become much worse and all I could hope for was some sort of miraculous intervention. I stayed still, clinging to the fence, with no movement or sound whatsoever. For perhaps the first time in years, being high up on something made my head swim in dizziness. I had no control, no way down, and there was something deadly waiting for me below. The fence shook as the adrenaline began to make my arms shudder violently. My heart was pounding, my mouth was incredibly dry, my legs were shaking, and all I could think about was not falling off this fence that now seemed to tower into the Oklahoma evening sky.
One of the most terrifying minutes of my life passed with me poised precariously in that position, until the rattling slowed and I heard the scrub grass being disturbed in the opposite direction I was going. The rattler was on the move and headed for the back end of the property, which ran near the creek I had fallen into a short time ago. I watched intently for further signs of movement or more rattlers underfoot, fully expecting an entire herd of surly, cantankerous serpents to parade beneath me. Thankfully, this one must have been a bachelor living alone. I clung to the wall vigilantly anyway for the next few minutes, paralyzed by fear to the point that I couldn’t think of anything else but my own survival.
I recall this story now because, as of late, I feel like I’m metaphorically back up on that fence line. In many ways, we all find ourselves in similar situations in our own lives. We trot along, industriously following our best instincts towards what we hope will make us happiest, but the universe is simply not designed with fairness in mind and there’s not a soul that can defensibly argue otherwise. Days that already aren’t going your way suddenly turn worse just when you dared to hope things were looking up. The day that’s now turned worse suddenly drops off a cliff because of new misfortune and you find yourself clinging desperately to a tiny purchase on the thin rail of sanity.
I’m not alone in this feeling. Most of us have been there before. Here’s but a sampling of the varied human storm and stress I’ve encountered in the world, in just the last few weeks.
Perhaps a tight budget becomes a financial crisis with a few breakdowns and rate increases. Perhaps you struggle with an addiction and someone close to you picks up the habit too, driving you further into addiction because of the suffocating shame. Maybe you’re unhappy with your career and you take a huge risk by venturing out on your own, only to painfully fall on your face. Perhaps a relationship filled with struggles becomes too much to tolerate and you leave, only to find a much worse relationship. Or someone you’ve tried so hard to love betrays you in the most cruel, selfish way possible. Or you’ve been terribly unlucky in love and you meet someone you think you love dearly, but the timing is wrong and it all crumbles to pieces at your feet yet again. Or the person who just dumped you moves on so efficiently and quickly that you begin to doubt both their sincerity and your worth as a person. Perhaps, when your stress levels are already sky-high, you get terrible news from the doctor or perhaps you have a long, rocky relationship with an estranged parent and you get a call saying that there might not be much more time to make things right.
At some point, we all end up on that fence, battered by a series of misfortunes. We’ve become terrified in a place where we once felt adventurous and safe. Many friends we reach out to seem to vanish, either because they themselves don’t know how to help or they don’t really care. Help isn’t coming any time soon, especially if you aren’t ready for it, and you’re left with two options: give in and let go or be brave and hang on.
The best of us choose to hang on. No one is born with a stoic sense of determination and we all fail many times before we learn how to ride out the danger. The people we admire learned how to persevere. They too weren’t born knowing how to survive, yet they found a way.
It’s that will to endure, or lack thereof, that makes us what we are.
And so, if you’re hanging on out there this week, I hope you endure. Your shoes will dry out. The bullies will move on. The hissing, rattling snake will slither off and the aged, rotting fence that seems barely suitable for supporting its own weight will be enough to sustain you for the moment if you’re careful. You might never feel quite the same about climbing, but you’ll certainly feel much better about living after you’ve made it through.
Have a good week out there and keep hanging on!