My Fear of Heights

Richard Bishop   

© Copyright 2012 by Richard Bishop 

Harvesting Trilogy:

Part One - Threshing: Wheat 
Part Two - Siloing: Corn 
Part Three - Haying: Alfalfa


Photo of a barn and silo.

My being born and raised on farms is by now no secret to anyone. The fresh air and wholesome environment left me with little to complain about as far as health goes. Tonsils "out" and fast cases of the Measles and Chickenpox and "that was it" for being hampered by the myriad illnesses stalking most child-hoods.

But I had one that you cannot see. And you cannot know about it until "the test" comes along. Like all my peers, I got along with it just fine while in grade school. There was no place in the Portage 3rd Fractional "One-Room Schoolhouse" to challenge one in how to handle high places.

Out-back there was a low woodshed for storing wood for the space-heater and two "outhouses" and that was all of it for our grade school Complex. And the Bell Tower was unreachable for us children. Because of the high ceiling, the Repairman had to bring in his own 15-foot extension-ladder just to reach the trap-door to fix the frayed rope or the bell & wheel when they were out of order. So all this time, my malady escaped being noticed by me and my family and my peers.

But, I was as vulnerable as any other human being to the unnerving effects of events beyond my control. Once, when I was about seven or eight years old, I was riding with my Father in our REO Speedwagon (the REO brand is an abbreviation of the name of Mr. R. E. Olds; old-time fans of General Motors products and modern Rock Music fans will smile over this). It was a sturdy four-cylinder medium-sized truck with a flat-box type rack on the back.

All of a sudden smoke and flames started belching-up through the wooden slat-type floor-boards. I said: "Aaaah, I'm getting outta here !" So my Father calmly slowed to a stop and said: "Well, get on out." I was in such a hurry to save myself, that I jumped down from the high seats right past the running-board and landed on the ground, running scared.

Now, my Father was not so easily rattled. He had been in the trenches "over-there" in WW I (1914 - 1918) and had survived. He switched off the ignition, got down out of the vehicle, reached around and pulled up the hard-wood floorboards and threw them out onto the ground. Then he reached down to the ground and scooped up loose sandy earth with his hands and threw it into the space around where the transmission ran through. This snuffed-out the fire in short order. It turned out to have been an electrical fire -- caused by a "shorted" wire that "sparked;" causing the old oil on the outside of the engine to start burning (his treatment was better than water would have been; had there been any available). He had demonstrated once more: coolness under fire. I had demonstrated a classic case of PANIC in an emergency (otherwise known as "useless under fire"); not to be confused with: (1) Chicken Little shouting "the sky is falling" (after an Acorn drops on his head) or (2) the fear of heights.

When I was a little older, I should have gotten a clue from a game we had of our own invention. Sometimes a few neighborhood kids would come over and we would take turns climbing up a ladder and jumping off from a farm storage- barn roof where the edge of the roof was about 12 feet off the ground. There was a pile of straw to break our fall. Some days I would have the courage to jump off and some days, I didn't. But, I could just walk away from it, with no consequences, whichever way I chose. I guess that made me a "borderline" case of "the fear of heights."

The real life confrontation was not long in coming. It was in late 1942 and I was just about to arrive at my twelfth birthday (from 9 November 1930). Pearl Harbor was 11 months past. We were in the annual throes of "bringing in the corn."

This process entailed the same community effort as "Threshing." That is, our Farm was part of a "Ring" where all Families in the Ring traded-off help in harvesting. A crew of field-hands gathered together in the morning and went out to each field of "Field Corn" to cut it and lay it in bundles within the rows of the now remaining six-inch standing cornstalks. The corn was usually really wet with dew when the first cuts were made. The miserable wetness disappeared along about 10:00 AM as the Sun burned off the dew. Usually, by noon, enough rows of corn had been cut to keep the silo-filler going until dark. The field hands then turned to the bringing in of wagon-loads of corn bundles to be un-loaded into the silo-filler.

The "Custom-Operator" of our Ring had a big Allis-Chalmers Tractor and a silo-filler. He also furnished the "pipe" running up the outside of the silo (and over the top) together with the flexible bucket-type down-chute for aiming the down-flow of ensilage inside the silo. On the first day, it usually took him about three or four hours to set-up; assembling (bolting together) the outside pipe usually took the longest time -- depending upon how much help he received. Setting the Tractor in the right place, digging low holes for the wheels, placing wheel-chocks, and fitting the belt was only a matter of 45 minutes or so.

We had three silos (all without roofs; thereby exposing the contents to the weather); two on the North end of the most distant barn about 150 yards from the House. The other silo was in the middle on the South end. Each silo had had a shingled-roof at one time in their past. Their roofs had weathered, and rotted, and tumbled-down long before we came to this farm in 1933. All that was left was half-inch threaded-bolt studs, complete with rusted nuts, protruding about 5 inches and placed every 24 inches around the concrete rim. The wooden roof had been fastened to the concrete rim with these.

That brings us to the problem of getting the biggest volume of ensilage into each silo. Taking into account that the raw ensilage will eventually settle and compact itself by its own weight, it was necessary to figure out some way to compensate for this. Nobody wants a silo only three-quarters full (weeks later) when they had carefully filled it chock-full when the silo-filler was there.

And so the idea of "topping-off" was born. Most of our neighbors had the same conditions with their silos (the few that still had roofs, just had to live with the "settling" problem). This innovation was accomplished by attaching normal hog-proof "wire-fencing" to the top of the silo (using the bolt-studs and bailing-wire to secure the fence) and running it 360 degrees around (hog-proof fencing has smaller holes in the fence at the bottom). The result: another substantial layer of ensilage about 4.5 feet higher than the silo (which would eventually settle down level with the top of the silo). Naturally, this meant that the silo-filler pipe had to be built-up that much higher and another two flexible bucket-type segments were added to the down-chute.

The down-chute was usually handled by a adult Farmer and, often, he had a young boy helper to tramp down the ensilage. I was offered the job because I was tall and big for my almost 12 years and weighed enough to be an effective "tamper." As the ensilage grew in height (and when arriving at the top of the silo) you peeked out to view the surrounding countryside through a wire-fence (psychologically this seemed to suffice, for the time being, as a protective element). That usually set the stage for the fun that came later. You see, it's one thing to be up high with protecting walls all around you and another, completely different thing to be up there with no protection, at all !

Then, you go about tramping your way on up to where the wire fencing fades totally away and now there's just nothing left of a protective barrier and only the flexible bucket-type down-chute to hang onto. One false step or a slip on the wet ensilage and you're over the side, irretrievably ! And you were lulled by how easy it was to get up there. Question # 1: Just how do you figure on getting down?

Whoa, now hold on here. How could a responsible parent permit his "child" to be involved in such a risky event? Let me say, in defense of both my Mother and Father, that in the first place, I was no longer a "little kid." I was also no longer a child . . . no matter what the law says about 18 being the "age of Majority." I had advanced from Grade School to Junior High School and was beginning the eighth grade; the last grade of Junior High. As I indicated before, I was tall and big for my age; had driven a tractor responsibly for a couple of years already, and performed chores around the Farm (often filling-in for the adults and older siblings). I had also learned to drive (only on the Farm, of course) a 1929 Buick that we used for hauling jugs of cold water to thirsty field-hands. Not only those things, but I had done my share of climbing like a Monkey when it came time to pick Pears from our three tall Pear trees and Apples from the Apple tree. I was also already thinking about starting to smoke cigarettes (but my Father had quit smoking about then and that had cut off any ideas I may have had of a surreptitious supply). In the end, my Parents had no indication of my being anything but quite mature for my age and normally careful in everything I did around the farm; including handling the usual heavy machinery. In short, they thought, and rightly so, that I was at the age where I could be asked to do the difficult in a safe way . . . the same respect that adults are given by benevolent task-masters.

This brings me to my fear of heights that I didn't really know that I had (and, as a complicating factor, my Parents didn't know either). I had signed-on for tramping-down the ensilage behind Mr. Lon Peters, who was handling the heavy down-chute and placing the flow where needed in orderly rows. As the level of ensilage rose up, he detached a bucket-type segment of the down-chute (now no longer needed) and let it down to the ground outside on a rope (and out of our way). About that time, we installed another wooden door which sealed the silo and covered the iron-rungs of the ladder on the inside. The rope itself, was attached to the curved top of the pipe and stayed mostly out of our way by poking it out through the iron-rungs until the next bucket-type segment of the down-chute needed to be let down.

Everything was fine, until we (and the ensilage) went up over the top of the silo and on up to the top of the wire fence. Then the fear of heights "hit me" and the closest to the edge I would venture was about three feet. And so Mr. Lon Peters had to tramp that part down . . . on out to the edge, all by himself. He was fearless; I became useless (My Rationalization: He had the flexible bucket-type down-chute to hang onto). Now that was a pretty shaky support. He and my Father must have had a good laugh over that, later.

But it was not quite laughing time yet. This silo was finished and it also just happened to be quitting-time for the day and we were both faced with letting ourselves down 4.5 feet of wire fence to the permanent iron rungs of the built-in silo ladder. I refused to budge. I was nearly paralyzed with fear but instead of admitting it I "fronted" the reason that the flimsy fence-wires bothered me no end. The fencing-ends were held together with bailing-wire "twists" and I could just visualize, as I applied my weight climbing down, the whole highly-stressed affair bursting (or exploding) with me flying one way and a ton of ensilage flying another.

Stubbornness goes in our family (and Mr. Lon Peters knew that) so he wisely decided to leave it as a family matter and hollered for my Father. At the moment, the embarrassment of my having to get help similar to rescuing a kitten up a tree did not yet register with me. My Father obliged by calmly climbing up to use adult reasoning on a mature 12 year old. He urged me to try backing down over the edge while he reached up from the iron ladder rungs with a helping hand. I didn't buy that, either, because a helping hand goes only so far. . . . . but not 4.5 feet. And, besides, I knew that there was virtually nothing to hang onto with your hands (except loose ensilage) while pouring yourself down over the side for the first "kicked-in" footholds.

To really get the picture, you have to know that most area silos were not less than 10 meters high (32.8 feet) and the top of our concrete-cast silo was at least 10 feet higher than the slope of the barn roof that passed by about five feet away from it.

Question # 2: How was my Father supposed to stop me from plunging straight-down (right on past him) when he, himself, must hang on "for dear life" at that height (10 feet higher than the barn)?

This situation was not filled with the same emergency PANIC for me (i. e., an adrenalin surge) that the REO truck fire had engendered. Here, I slowly wondered how I could have voluntarily gotten myself into such a DUMB predicament. I must have said: "Sure, I'll do it" - without thinking of all the consequences. And my Father (who often installed the fencing on top of the silos around the neighborhood for Ring members) and Mr. Lon Peters (who always supervised the tramping & tamping) had climbed up and down safely so many times that they had forgotten what it was to be a "Newcomer" on such matters (they each had no more fear of heights than a legendary Mohawk Indian "High-Iron" Construction-Worker building the Empire State Building !).

Once more, I thought only of myself and my only thought was: "How am I going to get out of this, alive?" I had visions of the Kalamazoo Fire Department having to come out and use their biggest Fire Truck with the 40-foot extension-ladder to get us both down. That would take at least 45 minutes. And that made the potential embarrassment of it all finally "catch-on" in my brain . . . . I could just see the "He-hawing" of the entire field-hand crew over this . . . . this would give the community weeks of amused conversation . . . . and maybe even make the Kalamazoo Gazette !

So, part of my Father's little talk was aimed at convincing me that the "jury-rigged" wire fence would easily hold my weight. This was mildly persuasive since he was telling me that it always held the weight of Mr. Lon Peters, a Grandfatherly man of considerable bulk (who, incidentally he said, had gotten down that way safely at other Farms all over the neighborhood). Well ! For that matter, I allowed as how I had never seen him (or anybody else) do that “Circus” trick.

Sundown was rapidly coming on, so he "changed ground" and tried a different tack. He asked me if I wanted to try to come down in the dark by flashlight or did I wish to stay up there all night. That did it and this reasoning overcame all my objections. In the end, I held onto the fencing wires with my fingers in a "death-grip" and, by kicking my shoe-toes into the dense, tamped ensilage through the wire fence "holes," I carefully backed down the four-and-a-half foot side of the "topping-off" to where my Father could get a one-handed grip on me by my belt. Out of sheer fright, I would have closed my eyes but I needed them wide-open to place my hands and feet correctly !

And somehow, miracle of miracles, my clutching grasp and the bailing-wire that held the whole contraption together, kept us both from landing in a heap at the bottom of the iron-runged ladder under half a ton of ensilage !

Monday Morning Quarterbacking

This whole situation could have been de-fused if Mr. Lon Peters had gone ahead and climbed down; demonstrating to a young pupil how it's done. But, I suppose he wanted to see that I got down safely -- before he departed for Supper. That is, I was mighty glad that he was still there to lay out flat and give me rock-steady hands to hold onto (part of the way down) as I backed gingerly over the side (I now have some idea of how new rock-climbers must feel when they have to let themselves down over the side of a sharp cliff without hand-holds of any kind except for the cliff-face itself).

Of course (as a last resort), there was always the solid pipe running up the side of the silo which a person could use to slide down -- like a thick Fire-House pole -- using the bolted section-joints every 5 feet or so as stopping footholds. And, for added security, there was the attached rope (for lowering down no longer needed segments of the down-chute).


In the Summer of 1944, at the age of thirteen, while taking a few flying lessons in a Piper J-3 Cub, these fears lay dormant.

The next years, while a passenger on a variety of military and civilian airplanes, gave me no trouble regarding my fear of heights. My twenty-five years in the Military: while it provided many incidents where I was a witness to various types of PANIC reactions of others , I was luckily spared any such embarrassment that would have amused others or confounded my Superiors.

Speaking of the Military, while stationed in Japan, from 1959 to 1962, we received a visitor from the United States whom we took downtown to see the sights of Tokyo. We visited the Tokyo Tower (333 meters or 1,091 feet high) which was built shortly before, in 1958. It had a built-on observation platform at 250 meters or 820 feet. My wife was very brave and looked over the side. Nothing in the world could convince me to get anywhere near the safety-railing. I was not alone; our visiting friend refused the pleasure also !

In the 1980s, after my retirement from the Military (in 1976), myself, and my wife, Elfi, and my sister, Betty, and her husband, Willie, visited a 73-story skyscraper in Detroit, Michigan, formerly called the General Motors Renaissance Center. It was opened in 1977 and is 221 meters or 727 feet high. It had a modern outside elevator. Things were going OK until I saw the other skyscraper buildings rapidly dropping far below us. Then I could only cope with it standing in the center of the elevator car with my eyes closed most of the time . . . taking little peeks once in a while to keep my bearings. I wondered once more, as I did back on the silo: "How am I going to get out of this alive?"

Fast forward a total of fifty-five years. I remember standing back a (seemingly safe) distance from the window while staying on the 21st Floor of the Monte Carlo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was brand-new building but the walls in our room just didn't seem thick enough. I thought once more of how the fragile fencing (added to the top of our silo) only marginally provided a protective barrier.

Fast forward a total of sixty years. While on a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, in January, 2001, standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon gave me the same weird feeling. I don't believe that I would want to walk around the fairly recently opened (2007) horseshoe-shaped observation platform called Skywalk. The glassed-over walkway circles over a drop of 1,200 meters or 3,937 feet, straight down beneath your feet !

And as for the Stratosphere Tower (in one of my favorite cities), Las Vegas, Nevada; it was opened in 1996 and is 350 Meters or 1,149 feet high. I would never, ever, take one of the four thrill rides on the top of it.

And as for the Burj Kalifa, in Dubai, the World's tallest building (or Skyscraper, at 829.84 Meters or 2,723 feet) since its grand opening in January 2010, No thanks -- I don't even like to read about it !

Contact Richard 

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Richard Bishop's Biography and Story List

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher