Not the Man I Used to Be by Cort Johnson

Not the Man I Used to Be by Cort Johnson

There we were at a restaurant enjoying our annual XMAS get together (during Thanksgiving). We had been talking about doing exciting things like skydiving, bungee cord jumping, hang glider flying, etc. who would do what and who wouldn’t do what when I made the mistake of opening my mouth. I had just been thumbing through a book on roller coasters. The author had ridden them all – all around the world – and to my surprise some were in Las Vegas and one – the Stratosphere – was amongst the scariest he had ever ridden. Why don’t we put our money where our mouth was and just do it? I said. Would you do it came the retort? Sure I said, my old cockiness flooding back in.

I’d liked roller coasters pre-ME/CFS but since then I’d had a lot of trouble with heights; I got vertigo going over bridges, for instance. I hated standing near ledges on tall buildings. It seemed like my depth perception was off – that I just couldn’t handle much spatial data. In fact when I was really tired taking in vistas of any kind seemed almost painful. It had been awhile since anything like that had happened though.

But here we were an hour later we were headed towards the Stratosphere – a slim needle rising high in the sky with a restaurant at the top and a roller coaster that twirled around it – 1000 feet above the ground. My brother, Chad, had gone on it once before but he was not in the kind of condition at the time to remember much. As we drove he pointed it out ‘Look at how tall that building is’ he said but I was unmoved – “Piece of cake” I thought in a state of supreme confidence. What’s so hard about getting into a car and rolling around the edge of a building? How bad could that be?

Actually that roller coaster was gone but it was replaced by three other rides; one that straight up, one in which you buckled into a little chair – not a car or a container – a chair – and were twirled over the city, and one in which you were thrust up and down at the city below like some demented battering ram.

As soon as I got up to the observation deck I realized it didn’t really matter which one we chose – I was toast any which way. The battle was over the minute I stepped out of the elevator. Within seconds the panorama left me weak at the knees, my heart pounding and my mouth dry. Gingerly I made my way near the handrail. Were those the Casino’s way down there? Was that possible? Somewhere off in the distance as I heard people saying “Isn’t this beautiful”! “Wow, this is great”! I thought I felt something vital in me beginning to detach itself and float off into the void and I wasn’t sure it was going to return.

I stepped back and gathered my wits. I was determined to go through with this but I knew, with my will evaporating by the second, that I had to be quick. Theoretically acclimatizing myself to the height should work but it didn’t look like I was going to last long enough for that to happen. I decided to just do it. Luckily my family had decided the same.

We went up to do a ride which propelled people at great speed a hundred or so feet up into the night sky. A woman on the way up assured us that it was ‘a piece of cake’. The wind was swirling a bit as we got there. As usual the protective fence around seemed all too low for someone for someone who’s 6’6″. Out in fresh air the city seemed more immediate and daunting than ever.

But the most astonishing thing was the ride itself; again there was no car to sit in, there were simply a chair you sat in and then were thrust, naked to the elements, up into the night.

I tottered over to one, any banter long since gone and sat facing the city. Just taking this step far exceeded the fear factor of any ride I’d ever taken. It was literally impossible to take it in. I blinked and tried. It was just too much. I closed my eyes.

Again I realized I really had only one option; if I couldn’t handle the city at ‘ground level’ how was I going to take it while being propelled at high speed into outer space? The ride bucked and started, I grabbed the handrails as hard as I could, and closed my eyes as tightly as I could. As we hit the top I heard a deep, deep almost primeval groan from my brother Chad, then we dropped down, went up again, at which point I heard my sister say “Isn’t this nice!”, and then down and up and finally down again and stopped, at which point I opened my eyes. Success! Everyone was ecstatic at the experience – I was overjoyed to have simply survived, nervous system still intact.

I clamored out past my niece – who had understandably burst into tears at the sight of her mother ascending into the heavens – and into the building. Ten minutes later I was rewarded with a picture of all four of us, my sister, brother, myself and nephew – everyone agog at the glory – except for me – teeth clenched, hunkered down, eyes shut.

No, I’m not the man I used to be.

September 2007

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