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Archive for the ‘Funny Fears’ Category

hail

The bizarre can descend upon a seemingly normal day like Joaquin Phoenix on a late night talk show – – rambling and unexpected from the wings of the afternoon’s stage, suddenly obliterating the careful script you’d written for your activities into a million pieces. And so began my afternoon last Friday when I was driving to see my Dad – – en route to Indiana by way of Interstate-24 West, aiming for Nashville before I changed course to meander through the green fields of Kentucky, and finally into the southern part of Indiana.

I like driving – – and I especially like cross-country trips. I love seeing the vastness of the US open up along side a ribbon of highway, taking me through so many varying terrains. Even as my legs get stiff and neck aches from being in the car for hours at a time, I still love the feeling of being in my own small, metal world, watching the scenery fly past, slowly transporting myself to another place. I feel contemplative, calm, curious and free – – a great combination to experience so acutely at once.

On this trip, I had brought along one of my books on CD – – “Revolutionary Road” – – and was lost in the eloquently told drama of Frank and April, a troubled 1950’s married couple, as the narrator drew me deeper and deeper into their story with his gravelly, expressive voice. I had the car on cruise control and was leaning on the window sill with one hand driving, while periodically stretching out my legs and shifting my body weight as I was growing a little weary after nearly 3 hours on the road.

I glanced up and saw clouds forming in the green hilled distance – – dark, angry clouds, actually. Remembering that the weather had forecasted storms along my route today, I hit the eject button on the CD player and began to scan the radio stations for some information to ensure I knew the depth of the storms in the distance. I stopped on a Nashville station as someone said the breathless, urgent words “tornado on the ground” and “I-24”. I blinked a couple of times, thinking, “What road AM I on?” And as if answering my thought, a blue and red sign whizzed past saying “West I-24”.

“Ohhhhhh crappity crap, crap, CRAP!!!!!!!!”, I thought.

I listened further to what the radio was saying, hoping for some good news, but none would come. There were multiple tornadoes touching down near Murfreesboro and I was about 30 miles outside of that town heading directly for it. Not to mention there was a Tornado Watch over the whole area where I was traveling. I picked up the phone and called Dad to let him know what was going on, telling him I was going to stop and wait it out somewhere but that I wasn’t seeing any exits at that time. He insisted that there were exits all along I-24 along that stretch of road, but I wasn’t seeing any. I told him as soon as I found a place, I would call him back.

I was growing more and more nervous as I continued to drive through that beautiful countryside with the ominous clouds looming larger and closer with every mile and no exits in sight. At one point, I glanced to either side of the road looking for ANY sort of shelter – – a barn, an outhouse…..a large neon sign with an arrow pointing to a trapdoor on the ground that said “STORM SHELTER ESPECIALLY FOR YOU, AMY – – RIGHT HERE!!!!”. But no such luck. Then in the dark recesses of my mind, I remember hearing a few times that if you are on the road, caught in the path of a tornado, you should stop and lie in a ditch. LIE IN A DITCH!!!!!!!! Let me say that one more time: LIE IN A DITCH!!!!

That thought made me quietly begin to panic. Because let me make this loud and clear – – if I see a tornado barreling toward me, the LAST place I’m going to want to be is a freaking DITCH. I mean, come on – – a tornado would look at me cowering face-down in a ditch and laugh its menacing winded head off. It would be all…”Ooooooo, wheeeerrreee’s Amy? Whheeeerrreee could she be? Oh….look….I wonder if that’s her in the bright purple shirt, jeans and gold high heel shoes….in a wide open field, LYING IN A DITCH???!!!” And then it would pick me up like a rag doll and throw me in a nearby tree or, better yet, in a trailer park to hang out with the REST of the victims.

So it was with considerable relief that I saw a sign indicating a gas station coming up at the next exit. As I veered off the road at the “Bell Buckle” exit, I began looking for this gas station that had been advertised. And that’s when I saw it…perched on a small hill. A beacon of hope to a weary traveler looking to avoid a ditch.

I pulled into the gas station and parked the car, noting that it was a BP station, small concrete building, built into the side of the hill. “Excellent”, I thought. Concrete has to be good, right? And partially underground was even better.

I hurried into the doors and took in the traditional smells of a convenience store – – smells which, let’s face it, are mainly predominated by some questionable meat being deep fried and then re-heated under a flickering golden lamp. Today, it was thrice battered oily chicken fingers and wilted looking potato wedges. There was also a make-shift dining area in the center of the room which was inhabited by the most stereotypical redneck looking men I’d seen in a very long time. Ball caps, chewing gum – – smelling thickly of stale cigarettes. One picked his teeth with a toothpick. Another one weighed about 300 pounds and was pulling air from an oxygen tank when he wasn’t intermittently laughing with a gravely chuckle. As I sidled in and sat down at one of the tables, it was like the record stopped and all three men swiveled in their chairs to look at me. One grinned slowly – – I can only assume it was a smile that at one point had made the knees weak of one of the women in the small, Tennessee village from whence he came. But for me, the smile just made me reconsider getting in a ditch.

As they slowly began to return to their discussion, I was watching the TV that was set up along side the wall of the convenience store with interest. The problem was, I didn’t really know where I was – – and I was trying to put it all directionally together as far as how concerned I should be about a tornado heading toward this little gas station. And as I sat there and watched the news for more information, the more confused I became. Travelers who were also looking to get off the roads began shuffling into the gas station, looking bewildered, mildly concerned and asking the question quietly to one another “Where are we?” You would hear someone mutter the answer “We’re in Bell Buckle” – – but no one understood what that meant and exactly where that was in relation to the storms. The rednecks at the table appeared to be enjoying all the hubbub at their regular hang-out, grinning and leaning back in their chairs at the silly tourists and all of our i-phones, blackberries and cell phone use. The grinning guy grinned at me again and winked. I shifted in my chair and became terribly fascinated by one of the 7 deer heads on the walls. Deer heads who seemed to all have a smirking expression which said: “You people are worried about a TORNADO? Well at least you’re not dead and hanging on the wall of a place that sells burnt corn dogs and lottery tickets…”

At one point, after the news was indicating that the tornado was headed in our direction, a few of the men went outside to act as “spotters” and one particularly excited, round man kept yelling back into the convenience store about the size of the hail coming down. Repeatedly saying with wide, circular eyes, “Oh Lord….OH LORD! It’s getting BIGGER!”

“Way to calm the masses, buddy”, I thought

All told, I was in this convenience store for an hour and a half, waiting for the squall line of storms to pass. As I looked around the room periodically, wondering if we were all going to have to squeeze into a nasty, dirty, smelly BP public bathroom at any moment to seek shelter from a passing tornado, I was struck by all the different types of people there were together in that little room. And how it’s always in rare moments of sudden danger that you find yourself talking to strangers like you’ve known them a long time. People were chatting about where they were going and why they were going there – – people were asking if women with children wanted to sit down in their chair to rest – – and the rednecks were….well, chewing on toothpicks and giving crooked toothed grins but, still, they were mainly just watching the news like the rest of us, waiting to see what was going to happen. When you’re in danger, everyone lets down their guard because – – what do you have to lose? And no one wants to feel alone in a moment like that.

As it turned out, our little building was spared – – and the storms finally moved well past the area with blue skies ahead, so we all made our way out back onto the open road. Fifteen minutes from where I’d sought shelter, I passed by a long stretch of destruction. Houses with roofs blown off, power lines down – – a tractor trailer truck blown over – – all on either side of that stretch of I-24 that I would have been driving directly into if I hadn’t stopped. And as I continued to drive north toward Indiana, NPR reported on the very destruction I had just seen and the very places I had just happened to be driving through when All Hell Broke Loose.

And so as I finally made it, safe and sound, into Indiana that evening, I counted my blessings that I was intact and ok.

And that I hadn’t had to lie in a ditch.

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Twisted Twister

tornado
As winter transitions into spring here in the Southland, you see people dusting off their flip-flops to wear on feet attached to blindingly white legs that are making their debut appearance this season. We begin to see more and more days that are warm and, thus, people begin to slowly hang the turtle necks toward the back of the closet, becoming increasingly confident that the temperature is not going to dip so low that we have to pull out the winter fare anymore. It’s a strange time seasonally where you don’t quite believe that we’re ACTUALLY seeing the back of winter, eying the weather reports with caution, daring it to show a daytime temperature that’s below 60 degrees, like all this warm, mild weather has really just been a cruel joke. The end of March is really a figment of all of our imaginations, you see – – we’re experiencing some sort of collective dream-sequence and it’s actually still mid-January.

And there is another reason that many of us view the weather reports with caution this time of the year, and that one word reason is: Tornadoes.

People don’t think of Georgia or its neighboring states as being a part of “Tornado Alley” but it is a magnet for the storms all the same – a slight, side street detour just off of Tornado Alley where severe thunderstorms form in the low, slow air of the deep south. This time of year, we so often find ourselves glued to a “Special Report” from the “Severe Weather Center” of one of our local news stations, waiting to see how bad it’s gonna get. Watching closely to see if it’s just a Tornado Watch or if it’s a Tornado Warning, since a warning means a tornado is already on the ground barreling toward a mobile home park near you.

And then there are the meteorologists. On tornado days, it is their finest hour – – it’s how they earn their badges of courage and MVP awards. It’s the meteorological equivalent to the World Series in baseball. The Final Four in basketball. The Superbowl in football. They pace back and forth across our TV screens dramatically – – a sweaty sheen to their brow as they show us radar screens from every angle, with angry, red blobs representing the storms that are moving in rapid succession across the border of Alabama into our state. They draw lines of scrimmage with arrows pointing this way and that indicating the path of the storm – – trying to predict it’s every turn, speed, nuance. They take us into the 3D inner workings of the storm due to the latest technology now available, pointing to the height of the questionable cloud, showing us their points of concern. They tell us the lingo – – “hook echo” and “BTI Index” – – and we memorize it, learning to speak and understand the language of severe weather fluently. We nod our heads solemnly, realizing that, yes indeed – – that hook echo is looking ominous. I swear that at this point, I could be hired at just about any local news station and do a passable job at reporting the weather – – just due to watching so many of these situations over the years.

As the day or night wears on, and it happens to be a particularly volatile day of storms, then you will see their shirt sleeves pushed up above their elbows and dark circles form under their eyes as they prepare to work until the wee hours of the morning, tirelessly, to ensure we are well-informed. Their eyes and urgent voices implore us to take it seriously and… OHHHhhh we do. If you’ve grown up around tornadoes and see the devastation they produce, you understand that they are forces of nature to be respected and…if you are in the path of them…feared.

And so I took it seriously when I was watching a pacing, worried, urgently-speaking Atlanta meteorologist one night back in April of 1998. I had just moved back to the south after spending two years in the moderate climate of the Pacific Northwest, and a little weather phenomenon called El Nino was going to make certain that I was welcomed back into a Southeastern US spring with a “BANG!” To this day, I cannot watch The Weather Channel without thinking of that spring where nearly every week during March and April of that year, we were faced with tornado watches and warnings and, thus, I was glued to the Weather Channel. I always imagined El Nino as a very loud, fat, angry, insult wielding Mexican man carrying a couple of burritos and a few dozen Weather-Weapons of Mass Distruction in his wake. And the worst part is that he often hit late at night – thundering into a neighborhood near you with a cackling laugh. So you would be awake with droopy eyes, and a yawning mouth….watching the weather stations, waiting for the bad weather to pass – – because otherwise, you could be rudely awakened by a roof being torn off your house and perhaps find yourself sucked up into the top of a tree in a cow pasture 3 miles away. Such is the sense of humor of El Nino.

On this particular night, I was watching The Weather Channel as they began to report tornadoes touching down in the Atlanta vicinity. Now, if you remember from a previous post, I only had VERY minimal furniture in my apartment at that point – – so I can’t say I was worried much about my lawn chair being sucked up into a tornado – – I was more worried about ME being sucked up into a tornado. And it was with this in mind that I debated when or if I should retreat from my third story apartment in a WOODEN (can anyone say “shattered like toothpicks?”) building and perhaps find a neighbor downstairs who would be willing to take me in. Because while I knew that if I were to stay in my apartment, I needed to sit in the bathtub or hold on to the toilet (what a way to die – – – holding onto the crapper!), I knew I would have a much better chance of remaining safe if I went to a lower level.

They were breathlessly giving the time line of the path of the tornado that was sweeping into our area of northern Atlanta, and I saw my suburb listed on this time line – – indicating that the storm was about 7 minutes away. On shaky legs, I began forcing myself into action – – making my plan as I went. On the TV, I still heard the meteorologist saying that “if you’re in the path of this storm, seek shelter immediately…”“Ok, ok…”, I thought, “…I’m going.” I really didn’t KNOW anyone in this complex, save the woman who lived directly underneath me who I’d said hello to twice. She was a middle-aged lady who had a little dog – – and right now, she was going to be my best friend.

I heard the TV once again bark the instructions “seek shelter IMMEDIATELY!” and thought “OK! I TOLD YOU I’M GOING! QUIT YOUR NAGGING BECAUSE YOU’RE STARTING TO FREAK ME OUT!” And with that, I opened the door to my place and stepped out onto the breezeway – – I was immediately pushed back into my apartment by the force of the winds that had already started whipping up outside. I thought briefly about turning back around to sit in my tub, but the thought of being by myself in my apartment on the THIRD FLOOR waiting for a tornado was just too much. So I made my way downstairs, heart racing – – my outfit made up of sweatpants, a tank top, and very large Tweetie Bird slippers. I had the brief thought of my Tweetie Bird slippers sticking out from amongst the rubble – – a sick and twisted version of The Wicked Witch of the West.

I banged loudly and urgently on the woman’s door – – worried for a moment that she might not be there and not knowing what I would do then. After a few moments, the door burst open and there she stood, with a puzzled look on her face – – especially when she looked at my Tweetie Bird slippers. I spoke quickly and explained the whereabouts of the storm and asked if I could sit in her bathroom with her since she was on a lower level. Turns out she had no idea that there was a tornado warning in the area – – she wasn’t a Weather Channel addict like I was.

No sooner had she welcomed me in her home and shut the door behind me, when the lights went out and it got totally silent. The winds seemed to die down, but in an unsettling way – – and what was even more unsettling was her dog’s reaction. She had an older cocker spaniel, and as the lightning continued to flash with a sickly green hue through the windows, the dog began making a strange, eerie whining noise. Like that moment in the scary movie where violins of dissonance are playing in the background in a foreboding way as the audience covers their eyes waiting for the Bad Thing to happen. All the hair stood up on the back of my neck – – because I KNEW that dog was sensing something. Animals can do that with the weather – – or at least that’s what I’d always heard. The lady and I ushered the whining dog into the bathroom with us, and I sat wedged between the bathtub and the toilet, holding the dog’s collar, while the woman sat on the edge of the tub. I could hear my heart beating in my ears and felt my knees LITERALLY knocking together in fear. The dog continued to whine, and then looked toward the windows of the woman’s bedroom that we could see illuminated just outside the bathroom door and began to bark at something unseen. I have never felt so much like a sitting duck in all my life. I knew that tornado was close – – but tornadoes are completely unpredictable – – they can dip up and down across the landscape like the needle of a meandering sewing machine. So I just didn’t know if it was going to dip down on top of our building or not.

When the hail started, I REALLY started to worry – – because that signifies unstable air….which means that a tornado is near. It continued to hail for a few minutes – – while the strange, ominous lightning flashed over the expanse of her apartment. We were completely silent, all of us, waiting to hear the winds that “sound like a freight train” – – but hearing only the hail. A few more moments passed, and then all we heard was the rain – – as the skies opened up and the unstable air was beginning to pass. I started to breathe a little easier, realizing that it seemed like it – – whatever it was, wherever it was – – had perhaps passed. We all sat there for about 10 more minutes, then retired to her living room to sit by candlelight and talk nervously. After an hour or so, the lights came back on with a blaze of electrical relief – – and I made my way back upstairs to my apartment, thanking her profusely for allowing me to be a nervous wreck in her bathroom with her.

As it turned out, an F3 tornado had blown through my neighborhood that night – – houses destroyed and serious devastation reported. Some of the worst of the damage was barely a mile away from my apartment. So we had been spared, but just barely. And who knows why – – I was just lucky that night.

And so we are now entering another season of unease – – eying the weather with apprehension when you see storms predicted for any particular day. Spring is so bitter sweet that way in the south – – absolutely stunningly beautiful days full of flowers, cool breezes and warm sun – – but we have this other side of it too. Dark clouds and unpredictability.

Such is life though, really. And I suppose, all you can do is pay attention, find some shelter on occasion – – – and wear some decent shoes.


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stuffedsnakes

I’ve mentioned here before that I was once afraid to fly, but what I didn’t mention was that I am also afraid of snakes. However, given that I don’t come face-to-face with many…you know… cobras on a day-to-day basis, I haven’t been as concerned about overcoming THIS fear like the fear of flying. It just doesn’t inhibit my life to a degree that I feel the need to really do anything about it. Thus, it still resides within me….coiled and ready to strike the moment that I catch a PBS special entitled “Desert Reptiles” on the tube. As soon as the monotoned narrator utters the words “indigenous rattlesnake”, I’m searching amongst the couch cushions with shaky hands looking for the remote control so I can quickly change it to another station. The one time I actually tried to watch one of those shows, the rat bastards decided to show a rattle snake striking out at the camera IN SLOW MOTION. So the vile creature looked like it was going to LEAP out of my television and dig it’s fangs into my right arm. I screamed like a banshee and threw a bedroom shoe at the TV to protect myself. I mean really – – – all you PBS Producers who FLOCK to my blog? – – – I’m talking to you when I ask: “Is that sort of drama really necessary?” Couldn’t you just show the snake from a safe distance away like, say…..from a 747 cruising at 35,000 feet? It would pretty much look like a tiny, squiggly worm from that height. A nice, sweet…harmless…squiggly worm. Not a horrifying, slithering Serpent of Doom.

Being raised in Alabama, I was taught to have a healthy fear of snakes (like I needed any EXTRA fear of snakes) because they are located generously within the woods and waters of the southeast US. We learned to listen for the telltale sound of a rattler in the woods – – and of course, were taught the mantra “Red and Black – – he’s an OK Jack” and “Red and Yellow will kill a fellow” referencing the colorful patterns of the King Snake and the Coral Snake, respectively, and how to tell which one was friend or foe. Which was easy for me because in my little book of snakes.……..THEY’RE ALL FOES.

As far as snake safety goes, we were taught to never reach up under rocks or inside holes and tree crevasses because there could be a snake lurking there, ready to eat your arm or, you know, drag you off to the evil place from whence it came. I pretty much spent my entire childhood and….let’s face it…adulthood too…being terrified to sit on a rock and dangle my feet over the side. And I would rather be rolled in tar and set on FIRE than put my hand underneath a rock or, Hell, even KICK a rock over a few inches. In my mind’s eye, I can see a snake leaping out from under the rock like one of those boxes with the spring-loaded snakes meant for happy-happy fun times at a party (here’s a hint: AMY DOES NOT THINK THAT SPRING-LOADED FAKE SNAKES IN BOXES ARE HAPPY-HAPPY-FUN TIMES! I will throw whatever object I happen to have in my hand at the time at you, order you out of my house and strike you from my will if you ever do that to me. Fair warning!)

We were also taught that if you were to happen to SEE a snake, then you are supposed to stop, and FREEZE….completely motionless…until the snake scurried away. Because, you see, it’s more scared of us than we are of it. To which I say: Are you KIDDING me??? We all know that’s a load of crap – because — have you ever looked into the eyes of a snake???? THAT SNAKE IS NOT SCARED OF US! If it could use an assault rifle, IT WOULD – – and then dump our human bodies off in a ditch somewhere as it peeled away in a black-tinted-windowed vehicle while making a hissing noise at his buddy in the passenger seat named Vinny “The Rattler” Snake.

No…I decided long ago that I wouldn’t be doing any FREEZING if I were to ever see a snake in my path. I would run to the next state, with flailing arms…..screaming obscenities….and calling the cops on my cell phone as I ran. What could the cops do? Well….I DON’T KNOW. But my feeling is that they could possibly use a flame-thrower or some sort of poisonous gas to destroy all evidence that this thing ever existed on our planet.

So you can imagine my extreme dismay, when in high school, we were informed that we were going to have a SNAKE SHOW. Yes….a snake show. Could we get anymore stereotypically Alabamian than to actually have a “snake show” at a public school assembly? As in….snake handlers up on the stage of the auditorium, picking up rattling, hissing, ANGRY snakes with metal hooks and dangling them precariously over the audience. It was supposedly to educate us but…..come ON! Has anyone seen “Snakes on a Plane”??? Because, clearly, if that movie had been out in 1990, then they would have KNOWN that snakes can suddenly and inexplicably turn into mutant MONSTER snakes at any given moment if the wrong evil scientist gets hold of one of those bags of snakes. And then it would have been like a scene from “Carrie” – – except the part of Carrie would have been played by a mutant snake wearing a crown. Or….whatever. It just would have been BAD, people.

As we filed in to watch the snake show, I immediately began to locate the exits in the building, not excluding the large windows located on either side of the room which would have taken a ladder to reach. But I figured if I went insane enough, I could convince some of my friends through loud, forceful, maniacal screaming….to form a human ladder of sorts and hoist me up to the window so I could start signaling any stray planes or helicopters to make an emergency landing and bust me out of there in a Mission Impossible-like rescue operation.

My palms began to sweat and I ordered my friends to sit as NEAR TO THE BACK AS POSSIBLE. No sooner had we sat down when the men came out with the bags o’ snakes and began to pull them out one by one. Pulling out the wiggling, horrible, HISSING creatures ONE BY ONE!!!

I leaned over and put my head between my knees to try to ease the urge to faint – – all the while hearing the “Oooo’s” and “Ahhh’s” of my classmates. I kept trying to convince myself that it was worth it to be out of whatever class we were able to miss that day in order to see a bunch of snakes pranced in front of us like some sick, twisted version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – – but it wasn’t working.

I found that if I kept looking down at my knees, and not up at the snakes, then I was actually doing ok. If I ignored the feeling that one of the snakes might have gotten loose somewhere in the building and could….AT ANY MOMENT…crawl around my shoe….then I actually was remaining calm.

But then…..THEN….they decided to bring out the non-venomous snakes INTO THE AUDIENCE. And worse:

THEY WANTED US TO TOUCH THEM!!!!

When I heard that, and I saw the snake handlers begin to spill out into the audience on either side of the auditorium holding the snakes, I slowly got up and in a state of quiet, but determined panic…….began to crawl over chairs. I remember stepping on a guy’s hand and him saying “OWWWWWW!” quite loudly, but I didn’t care. I would have very happily stepped on someone’s HEAD at that point to get out of there.

When I reached the back of the room, I informed one of the teachers standing guard by the door that I had to leave. He informed me I couldn’t leave. And I, in a moment of VERY rare teenage defiance, looked at this teacher and said in a strangled voice “No you don’t understand, I have to get out! I have to get out!

He realized at that point that he was about to have a meltdown of epic proportions in front of him if he didn’t let me out of the auditorium. And after seeing that, once I got out, all I did was sit on the carpet of the lobby and sorta…you know…rock back and forth like Sally Field in the movie “Sybil”, then he knew I wasn’t trying to fake an emotional scene just to get out and go do some wild, illegal school activity like cut my mini-skirt shorter so it was THREE inches above the knee instead of just two. I was a rebel in those days, you see.

And so the snakes left the school that day without my having laid ONE fingernail on their scaly, disgusting bodies. But the mental scars…..THE MENTAL SCARS…..they remain.

My condo is located on the third floor – – and I would LIKE to say this is only for the sake of the view.

But I would be lying.

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img07skydive5

To say that I was once afraid to fly, would be like saying that Hurricane Katrina was actually just a few small tufts of gray clouds containing a smattering of showers. I was, in short, petrified of flying.

I was in my mid-twenties, and I still FLEW, mind you….but I got onto an airplane, literally, feeling like I was walking into a metal coffin that could, at any moment, plummet nose-first into the Earth….with me, likely, munching on some peanuts while sitting on the lavatory toilet. And what’s worse than dying in a plane crash? Well…that would by dying while sitting on a TOILET in a plane crash. Humiliation and death…joined together in a matrimonial fire.

The strange thing was that the fear sneaked up on me. What was, at first, just a few tendrils of apprehensive thoughts, soon became a giant, hissing boa constrictor of fright that began to squeeze the life out of me. I could no longer approach any vacation that involved air travel with excitement because I had so much anticipatory anxiety about the flight. And once I reached my destination, I would not be able to enjoy so many beautiful, amazing places because I would start worrying about the flight home.

I limped along like this for a year or so….never refusing to get on a flight out of pride and determination….but each flight feeling like the worst form of torture I could imagine. Until one day, after a particularly distressing flight where I nearly had a full-on panic attack while on the plane, I decided “enough” – – and knew I had to get help, or I wouldn’t be able to get on a plane anymore. And I didn’t want that to happen because I loved traveling so much.

Interestingly enough, right about the time I was starting to research options for therapy that I could perhaps try in the area, my aunt called me about a local news segment she saw about a therapy called Virtual Reality Therapy – – and they were doing a research study where they needed volunteers. Therefore, I could get a very expensive….but very new…form therapy for free.

I called them the next day and very soon after that, I found myself sitting in a room, answering a whole myriad of questions designed to see if I just THOUGHT I was aerophobic but was, instead, actually…you know… schizophrenic. Luckily for me, I was only diagnosed as the former because I left out the part about the voices in my head. And even more luckily for me, I was selected as one of the participants in the group that would actually get the therapy – – not the placebo group.

I went to my therapy sessions with a lot of conviction and determination, and took all the behavioral tools they gave me and ran with them. Basically, I would wear a VR mask, which made me look like I was about to play some sort of geeky war game or something, but instead, I was looking at the virtual replication of the inside of an airplane. I would sit in a chair with this mask on, and the chair would move around and simulate the movement of an airplane. In addition, there were speakers inside of the helmet so I could hear noises that sounded like what you would hear inside an airplane too. It was honestly pretty amazing. And I tried hard to block out the mental image of what a complete freak I looked like while doing it.

The goal was to create an environment as close to a REAL airplane, and then desensitize me to it. By repeated exposure to the environment, and showing me how to calm down all my physical and emotional reactions to the stimulus, then eventually I was able to calm myself down on the virtual flights.

Soon after that, I took my “graduation flight” and did quite well. I wasn’t 100% better, but I was well on the road to recovery. With each flight I took that next year, I noticed a degree of improvement, until I could actually READ while on a flight again instead of gripping the arm rests waiting for the captain to come over the PA system any minute and scream “CRASH POSITION, PEOPLE! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!!”. I felt almost like a normal passenger again.

At some point during that year of recovery, a pinprick of a thought entered into my mind. This thought told me that if I could skydive….if I could really, truly, jump my ass out of a plane……then I could do anything. Because that, right there, was my worst fear. Falling OUT of an airplane, thousands of feet in the air – – – well…that was enough to make my blood turn cold with just the thought of it.

It was a thought that grew and grew….it soon became almost an obsession. I began researching skydiving statistics….watching movies with skydivers. I looked up local skydiving companies in the area to check on pricing. And, you know, if there had been any deaths that month.

And then one day, when I was sitting in my cubicle at work…..staring at a desk calendar….I just decided to call one of the companies and make my reservation. No rhyme or reason as to why I decided to do this right THEN….I just decided it was time. So I called….as quickly as I could before I lost all nerve…and did it. I made the reservation for the following weekend, and I even managed to find a friend who would go with me….since most of my friends thought I’d lost what was left of my mind and wouldn’t even consider the thought of going with me.

The morning of the skydive arrived, and my friend Matt came to pick me up in his truck. He’d never been skydiving either, so we were both a bundle of nerves driving to the little town where the hangar was where we would be diving from. As we arrived and parked the truck, I thought seriously about turning on my heel and running like a bat out of Hell away from that hangar, not knowing where I was going, or where I would end up….but that hopefully wherever it was would have large quantities of alcohol.

We walked in and Matt informed them who we were and what we were there for, they turned to me and asked me to come over and run my credit card through for the final payment to complete the purchase transaction, and I thought about saying “No hablo ingles” but figured all that would buy would be an interpreter, not a ticket OUT of the situation like what I was hoping for.

Once that was done, Matt and I were ushered into a room to watch a video of a bunch of happy, smiling skydiving people with their thumbs up in the air, pretending that they weren’t hurtling toward their deaths from 10,000 feet in the air. Everyone looked like they were on an outing to a circus….or perhaps a really exciting polo match. Not strapped to another human being, looking down at cars the size of sugar ants.

At one point, I realized I was spacing out during the video, then smacked myself in the face mentally to “SNAP OUT OF IT!” because, you know, this wasn’t a boring video shown in biology class. This was a video that was giving me step-by-step instructions on how not to die.

Once that little comedic gem of entertainment was over, we headed over to a table where we were presented stacks of forms to read and sign, that basically said that we, or our families, would not sue them in the event of our death or dismemberment. Somehow, the “death” part didn’t rattle me as much as the “dismemberment”. But after thinking about it and deciding that, as long as it wasn’t my head, that I could deal with losing a limb because, hey, at least it would sound tough losing my limb in a skydiving accident as opposed to having some sort of freak accident with a garden hoe. So I signed on the dotted lines in front of me.

If I didn’t suspect I was insane at this point, I truly began to worry about my mental stability when they introduced us to our “trainers”. I can’t recall my trainer’s name, so I’m going to call him “Whipper Snapper”.

Whipper Snapper was abbbooouuutttt….12 years old. Maybe 13 since it sounded like his voice had changed. Mostly. Unless he said the word “awesome” – – – I detected some audible cracking of vocal tubes on that one. Ok…he was ACTUALLY 19 years old. But still. Come on. I’d just signed off on a sheet of paper that said I was trusting a NINETEEN YEAR OLD to prevent me from being dismembered. I. had. lost. my. mind.

Whipper Snapper liked to say “rad” and “far out” a lot. He was pretty professional for a 12 year old, but I had a hard time paying attention to a lot of it because the sun kept glinting off of his high school class ring. I lay on the concrete floor of the hangar and assumed the various positions I would need to contort my body into while in the air – – all the while Whipper Snapper would give me a thumbs up and “Awesome!” as I, apparently, wallowed on the floor correctly.

Then, Whipper Snapper inexplicably clapped his hands and said it was time to get into the plane. Now that stopped me dead in my tracks because…..hang on there, grasshopper….you haven’t taught me how to LAND yet. Whipper Snapper was unruffled by this notation of mine, as he continued to gather up all of our gear and usher me toward the plane. He said “Oh no worries….I’ll teach you that when we’ve pulled the chute”.

I stumbled behind him and, over the roar of the propellers, I screamed “You’re going to teach me about landing while in the air???!!”

He nodded in affirmation, and grinned broadly as only a death-defying 12 year old can.

I followed him into the plane, against my better judgment. While on the plane, I was introduced to my videographer. He went by the name “Skydogg” and had right at 8 tattoos (that I could see) and his jumpsuit was unbuttoned to the navel. I wasn’t sure if this was to attract ladies or detract birds in the air. Either way, I didn’t think the look would be effective on either front. Like Whipper Snapper, he grinned at me in a way that indicated he knew something I didn’t, and then slowly put on his helmet, containing the camcorder. Attached to the helmet was a small lens that fit over one of his eyes, making him look like a demented cyborg.

The plane took off, and I craned my neck to look into the cockpit. I was immediately sorry that I did because I noticed a swath of duct tape over one part of the controls. “Dear God…”, I prayed, “please let that be the industrial strength duct tape. Amen.”

Whipper Snapper began securing his parachute and pulled me back until I had my back against his chest then secured my harness to him. I checked that I remained attached to his harness no less than 137 times. I then put on my hat and goggles….realizing that there appeared to be something wrong with my goggles…..they were fitting loosely….looser than they should. Whipper Snapper tugged on them a bit then declared them to be “fine”. Because, you know, he was SUCH an expert. Freaking 12 year old.

I looked over at Matt, my companion on this adventure, and he was attached to his own Whipper Snapper, with a look of extreme concentration on his face. I can only assume the concentration was to ward off the desire to throw up.

Beside the door of the plane sat a lone figure – – a younger man likely in his early twenties. He kept checking his altimeter, then appeared to lean his head back and pray. I turned to Whipper Snapper, my eyes questioning him…..Whipper Snapper said “it’s his first solo jump”. I immediately felt grateful that I was attached to someone else and didn’t have to think about things while I was in the air like, you know….pulling a parachute cord at a certain moment while hurtling toward the ground. Laziness was paying off for me in this instance.

We reached 14,000 feet, and it was time. The skydivers on our plane began to jump out, one by one. Some silently….some with a rebel yell. I was the last one to go.

Whipper Snapper and I crawled to the door like mating insects…and I looked outside, at the yawning earth below me. I nearly fainted but gathered up what shreds of courage I had brought with me to this place….wondering whose STUPID idea it was in the first place. Reminding myself it was MY idea just made me feel worse. SkyDogg stepped out onto the side of the plane, hanging onto the door so that he could film me coming out of the plane and get a good shot. I briefly looked at him, marveling that he was still grinning at me, seemingly completely unaware that he was hovering above the earth at an appalling height. Then Whipper Snapper and I began to rock back and forth, counting….”1……2………3!!!!”

And we jumped out. The air hit me with the force of a train. I did not feel like I was falling, but I was gulping in air, wondering why Whipper Snapper didn’t tell me how to BREATHE in the air.

SkyDogg was still free-falling beside us, at the same rate, motioning to give him a thumbs up. I did, but then realized that my hat and goggles were beginning to fall off….and at the rate we were falling, I didn’t want that to happen because I would then have to shut my eyes. Whipper Snapper shoved my hat on my head and held my goggles on over my eyes so I could look at SkyDogg for a few shots.

After what seemed like an eternity of falling, we pulled the chute, and then were jerked up into the air – – the chute billowing above us.

And then….silence.

The silence was both eerie and beautiful at the same time – – floating serenely above the earth, looking DOWN on birds flying. For all the hubbub and angst and hurry leading UP to this moment……it was suddenly exquisitely quiet. I smiled for the first time….the worried tension leaving my face. We moved the chords this way and that on the parachute, so that we were doing dips and turns in the air. I looked to the right of me and could see the Atlanta skyline.

“Oh!”…I said.

“Pretty awesome, huh?”, Whipper Snapper said. I could hear him grinning.

I could only nod. I was, indeed, in awe of the experience.

He reviewed the landing procedures as we continued to drift down, like a large, bizarre snowflake. It actually wasn’t, miraculously, that difficult to do, from what I could tell. And as we descended closer and closer to the ground, I readied myself for an embarrassing impact. But I actually only stumbled once, then righted myself for a near flawless landing.

It was a euphoric feeling when we landed, and I eventually disengaged myself from the bodily care of Whipper Snapper. The euphoric feeling remained as Matt and I chatted excitedly on the way home, looking up at the blue, blue sky occasionally, in disbelief that we were just UP there. Our SKIN had touched the air up there!

The euphoria still remained for weeks to come…months….until it dissipated into my psyche as just a very fond, quirky memory.

But it’s a permanent memory. And whenever I get scared or worried…or think “I can’t do that” about some new challenge that has crossed my path, I think:

“I went skydiving attached to a 12 year old. I can do anything”.

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