Nothing funny about a fear of heights ... except to your kids

features@islandpacket.comNovember 4, 2013 


Another terrifying reason not to go to the top of the Empire State Building.

STEVE LOPEZ — McClatchy-Tribune News Service

We took the 9-year-old to New York City last week, because ... well, look, he loves trains. For like 9 years his primary goals have involved 1. Being near the subway; 2. Being on the subway; 3. Taking the subway to other stations that have subways; 4. Taking a subway into Grand Central. Some kids dream of space travel or professional baseball; ours has goals in the rewarding field of Riding Public Transportation. It's cool; space camp is expensive, and MetroCards are like $2.50 a pop. I wish that all my dreams were that affordable.

We were only in town a few days, so we crammed them full of enough shameless activity that I'm half-expecting a card from the people at Fodor's, saying "Damn y'all." This flurry included a trip to the Empire State Building, which we did at night, since my son also has a thing about seeing city lights, having grown up largely on Hilton Head Island, where such things are, of course, outlawed by penalty of, I think, having your boats abandoned in the marshes off U.S. 278. (Seriously, come get your boats.)

Now if you know me, which I'm pretty sure you don't, you know that I regard heights with the same enthusiasm I regard getting kicked in the sternum by a rage-fueled donkey wearing cowboy boots, which are unnecessary accessories for donkeys yet seem extra painful so I'm leaving it. Two summers ago, I accompanied my son to the top of the Willis Tower in Chicago, stepped out upon an all-transparent observation deck protruding from the building's face seven miles over the city, and nearly died.

And if you have a child, which you probably do, you know what happens when that child realizes you have developed a phobia: They giggle for 24 years and exploit it at even the flimsiest opportunity. Some time ago my son learned that I am also not a very big fan of spiders, and by that I mean SMASHY SQUISH SMASH SMASH and there are a lot of parts of the "Lord of the Rings" movies that I will never watch again. Naturally, since that day every spider that crosses our path makes my son emit a "hee hee" sound and say something clever about tarantulas.

The Empire State Building actually has observatories on the 86th and 102nd floors. We opted for the 86th, largely because it was the less expensive option; a trip to the 86th was $3,000, whereas the 102nd could only be accessed for $650,000, seriously, never go to New York. Also, frankly, when the glorious twinkling mass of the New York metropolitan area is swimming below you in wavy circles while you try to maintain consciousness, it really doesn't matter if you're on 86 or 102. But I assured my son I would be fine, that being scared of something doesn't mean you avoid doing it for the rest of your life, that the best way to conquer your fears is to stare them down, face them straightaway, fight them head-on ... and all the other annoying platitudes people hate. He kind of looked me with a curious head-tilt, then resumed warning me about the elevator ride.

Mostly I remained quiet, letting him turn over the little matter in his head. He's in fourth grade, so he's just beginning to discover those moments of perceived power that come with thinking you're about to get one over on your dad. For my part I overstated my fears largely for comic effect, knowing that I'd be perfectly fine up there, as long as the building didn't sway, or there was a slight breeze, or anybody touched me, or my head moved. I can actually increase my heart rate by thinking about standing on the 86th floor and looking up at the spire right now. I'm a child.

But once we got to the top, I found only one thing that really frightened me: The way he was apparently born without a sense of common survival skills. The 9-year-old, who at the Willis Tower would lay face-down on the clear plastic floor of the 7,000th-floor observatory and look down giggling, was poking his head out of the iron grates separating Irish tourists from their plummety death, and looking straight down, repeatedly, on each side of the building, repeatedly. This happened enough that he actually got a warning from Empire State Building security, which I received with a standing ovation like, "YES, THANK YOU, LOGICAL PERSON." For his part, he pulled his head in, looked at me and giggled.

So the three of us, my 9-year-old with his head poking out of the safety apparatuses, me clinging to the iron grates figuring out if the plastic Lego bag I was carrying could safely serve as a parachute for three people, and my wife looking on wondering if she's really still related to the rest of us, meandered around the observation deck looking down on an endless desert of lights in all directions. We found our hotel, we found Times Square, we looked up at planes overhead, which was awful, and we looked up at the needle of the building, which was also awful. It was a singular moment of wonder that I hope some part of him remembers forever. If not, we'll always have the N train.

Jeff Vrabel thinks that anyone who has been on a hot air balloon is a damn crazy person. Follow him at and read more at


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