Thursday, February 5, 2009

Marching Orders

If there was anything I feared and hated in childhood more than having to climb the metal ladder up to the roof it was the rare, but impressionable sting of my father's belt. Considering how few chores I was asked to perform on a regular basis, it makes any rant about weeding, clearing the table, mowing the lawns, and taking out the trash cans an awfully telling detail about how well I had it.

But my father lacked--shall we say--essential communications skills when it came to issuing directions, which made every small deed into a fully evolved emotional trauma. On weeding day, he would march up and down the driveway, pointing at the ivy, indicating which sprouts you missed. He'd supervise as my brother and I would descend into shame. We'd pout and toss weeds and cuttings on the driveway and dad would ensure that we'd rake them into neat piles, stuff the piles into bags, and carry them to the street. No matter how you did it, you did it wrong. And dad, former chief petty officer, would make sure you knew about it. "Move out!" he'd say, as if we were shouldering our packs and rifles and making our way up Mount Suribachi.

But the order I dreaded most was the one to climb up that miserable ladder to tend to the swamp cooler. We had moved into the house on Gaviota Avenue in 1963, and my mother and father never had adequate air conditioning until 2003. Homes in the San Fernando Valley were chilled by central air conditioning or by swamp coolers. The cooler unit was a metal box that sat on the roof. Cold water was pumped in and showered down over bales of straw. A fan drew air over the moistened pads and the cooled air would feed into the house. In theory.

Pads dried out, pumps failed, and the cooler would stop in the middle of a 103 degree day and everyone would share the misery. There was plenty to go around.

That was when dad would ask me to head up the ladder and help him diagnose the problem. I was good on the way up. The last rung of the ladder was well over the eave and you could step down onto the roof. The roof was covered with white rocks. I couldn't look down, so I focused on the metal cooler.

I don't know exactly how I developed a fear of heights. Perhaps from my mother's genetic contribution. Once we vacationed along the northern California coast and while my dad drove along scenic Big Sur with towering cliffs over the Pacific, mom turned green and refused to look out the window. (I even took hang gliding lessons to get over my fear of heights, but quit after the instructor killed himself in a wicked dive. It's not flying that scares me; it's the dying part that rankles.)

When we were done swapping out pads or clearing the pump on the swamp cooler, dad would be the first to the ladder and over the edge. Once safely on the drive, he'd hold the ladder and issue his orders for me to descend. If I looked at the top of the ladder, I managed to make it to the side. But if I looked down, it was impossible to step off to the ladder. And the white rocks would slide around, weakening what little resolve I could muster to make the edge.

"Move it," dad would say. "Let's go!"

For years I'd hike the Sierras, the Olympic Range, volcanoes on three continents, stand in the wind atop the Hancock Towers, the World Trade Center, and the Empire State Building. I'd close my eyes on looping roller coasters. I'd fly in small planes and tolerate rolls and stalls. I've survived near misses in heavy commercial jets. Last year, I took the small cable car up the interior leg of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and peered out the slat of a window at the ground below. But little has changed. It's sad to have been trapped in so much angst when you consider I never fell, or came close to falling. It reflects some discredit today to confess to being an adult roof wuss.

Ask anyone in my life and they'll be delighted to recount the many ways in which I am brave. I can say that with utmost confidence.


Char said...

I read this and can identify with so much. I am not the neatest housekeeper because my mom was so militant about cleanliness. To the point that I awoke every Saturday morning to the smell of clorox and tide as she would scrub the white kitchen floors on hands and knees. Someone we worked through the angst of my teenage years, the death of my brother from a rare condition that arose from getting the measles, and through a myriad of other problems. Somehow, I'm not sure how - probably a lot of denial and selective forgetful ness, but somehow we got to be friends and I miss her. I think in all of that I became an adult and learned how to speak as an adult.

Anyway - I can feel a great empathy and sympathy for this. But you do seem like a very strong man. What is that quote about our past being something we work our whole life to overcome?

tangobaby said...

Oh, but you are brave. I was scared being on the roof with you, and I've never had to do such a thing. And you're brave for trying to overcome a very natural fear.

Your post reminded me of a favorite quote by the ultimately quoteable Woody Allen: "I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens."

I think most people would feel exactly the same way you did. (You also just reminded me of when my dad fell off our roof once. I have no idea how that happened.)