The ladder that almost got me during Desert Storm
I don’t like heights. It started with a class in gymnastics in 7th grade. I didn’t take it by choice — I know my limitations! (Linda, of the flat feet department.) No, the entire class had to take it. The teachers told us that we had to test out on either the balance beam or the unparallel bars, and that we HAD to try both before deciding.
So I got up first on the balance beam and crept my way slowly across it. Sure, the teacher spotted me, but her stop me from falling?! Then it was time for the bars. I got up on that top one and was supposed to roll over the top. I couldn’t do it. It was like my body was stuck, and I couldn’t move. It took a lot of effort for the teacher to get me down. I picked the balance beam as the lesser of two evils and didn’t do well in the class.
I was greeted with heights again when I was in Basic Training. We had to climb a cargo net, touch the board at the top and climb down. With a drill sergeant yelling at me, I was kind stuck having to do it. The unparallel bars looked positively stable. The cargo net swayed as the soldiers climbed and flexed as I took each step. This was evidently supposed to be build confidence, but it sure didn’t help mine.
I got about halfway up — probably eight to ten feet — and then the fear paralyzed me. Even my brain was paralyzed. I couldn’t even think. Finally, the drill sergeant yelling got me going again. Somehow, I made it to the top, touched the wood beam, and climbed slowly down. When my feet touched the ground, I was shaking all over.
Then came Desert Storm. We were at a wildlife research center, and it was around January, right before the ground war started. We were seventy miles from the border of Kuwait, and the distance ate at our nerves. Wouldn’t take much for the enemy to come over the horizon. Being industrious soldiers, we turned the local water tower into a guard post. I was on the work detail that helped construct it.
It had a shelf of sorts under the tower, and that’s where we put all the sandbags. A construction truck lifted sandbags up, and the soldiers had to haul off the bags and stack them in a wall. A fifteen foot ladder went to this shelf. The first one made the men nervous. It was made of pipe and quite flexible. We were going up and down in full gear — rifle, flack vest, equipment belt, canteens, gas mask, and helmet — so we weighed quite a bit. The pipes kept sagging under everyone’s weight.
So maintenance platoon construction a ladder out of rebar. As far as I could tell, they just laid it out and welded it. They didn’t measure it.
Some of the steps were a little too close together, and a few of the steps were too far apart, especially for people with shorter legs like me. Still, I was on this detail, and I had to climb this ladder. Going up I could manage. It was the getting down that was hard, especially with that too wide step. I got stuck the first time and one of the guys had to come up and guide me down. I ended up having one of the guys precede me every time I went down because of that one wide step. It was very easy to step down, expecting to find a rung and step into space.
I sort of got used it because I had to go up and down it so much — at least four times a day. I could tolerate the heights at least, instead of getting paralyzed. Then, at last, the detail was done, and I descended for the last time.
I’m at the third step from the top. I put my foot on the rung.
My knee gives out.
My foot slips off the rung, slamming me forward into the ladder. I grab it in a bear hug and hang on tight until my legs working again. Then I slowly make my way to down until the ground surprises me when I touch down.
I haven’t had to do heights like that since, but I have gone to places that are very tall like the Paris Casino. It’s still a scary experience, even knowing I won’t fall in those places. Some things don’t change.