Column: It makes me weak in the knees

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From the Eclectic Mind of Roger VanHaren

Roger VanHaren

There’s a commercial on TV which makes my knees cringe. Maybe you’ve seen it. There’s a guy (obviously equipped with a video camera on his hard hat) climbing a cell tower in Alaska. All you see is his hands reaching for climbing pegs and the tower covered in ice. Every time I see it, I can feel this weird sensation in the back of my knees.

I wasn’t what you’d call an intrepid hero back when I was a kid. (I’m still not an intrepid sort, I guess.) There were lots of things that I was a little afraid of, but I didn’t like to let anyone know that I was afraid, so in order to take my mind off some things, I’d “count.”

Example: I was not very good with heights, and some of the chores we had to do on the farm involved some climbing. At silo-filling time, for instance, we’d have to climb the silos to put the filler pipes into the the top of the silo.

A leaning ladder is one thing, but climbing those metal steps straight up the outside of the silo was not my cup of tea, so I’d set a “personal record” goal in my head and then focus on counting the steps as I climbed, rather than concentrating on the unnerving fact that I was 25, 30, or 40 feet off the ground. I sure never looked down if I could help it.

Climbing the silo on the “inside,” inside the chute, to go up and throw down silage for the cows, was a little easier, but I still counted the steps every time I went up. Once I was up in the silo, I’d have to count how many forkfuls of silage I was throwing down, too. That was a more practical thing; I knew how many forkfuls each cow had to have and how many cows there were.

Climbing in the haymow was a snap because if I fell there, the fall would be cushioned by the big stacks of loose hay. (This was in the days before hay-balers; the hay was pulled up into the haymow in big soft bird nests by a big eagle-taloned hay fork on a pulley and track system.)

I always counted the ladder steps. Force of habit, I guess.

The weak feeling in my knees when I watch that commercial may indicate a slight fear of heights. Acrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear or phobia of heights, especially when one is not particularly high up. The term is from the Greek: ákron, meaning “peak, summit, edge” and phóbos, “fear.”

I don’t think I was ever really acrophobic, but I was definitely a little afraid of heights. I had to get over it when my boys and I had a summertime painting and repair business when the boys were younger. Had to do a lot of climbing when we painted or did work on roofs.

I remember one time when we were working on a woman’s house and she asked me, “How can you stand to work that high off the ground?” This was a woman who worked as a wing-walker in air shows.

I said, “You’re asking me about working up high and you walk on the wings of airplanes a thousand feet in the air?”

She said, “That’s different. I don’t have a ‘connection’ to the ground. On a ladder, you do.” I guess that made sense, but I wasn’t about to trade jobs with her.

So what’s the cause of the fear of heights? Some psychologists have argued that phobias are caused by early traumatic experiences. In the case of acrophobia, these experiences might include falling from a tree or witnessing someone get hurt from falling from a high place. Or maybe one of your parents might have modeled that fear for you.

Acrophobia can range from fear when on the top floor of a tall building or a tall cliff, to fear of standing on a chair or step ladder.

People with acrophobia feel a sense of panic when they’re at a certain height and often become unable to trust their sense of balance.

The fear of heights and the fear of falling are not the same, but they are closely related. The fear of falling (FOF), also referred to as basophobia (or basiphobia), is a natural fear (one you’re actually born with) and is typical of most humans and mammals, in varying degrees of extremity.

Well, anyway, you’re not going to catch me volunteering to climb a cell tower — in Alaska or anywhere else!

Contact Roger VanHaren at