I learned the word for it in school: acrophobia, the fear of heights. It seemed to apply to me.
Still, something wasn't quite right. I wasn't especially afraid of being in a high place. My fear arose when I was standing at ground level but, looking up, saw a high ceiling above me.
I didn't remember how it started, but I imagined being frightened when I was about two years old. It must have been inside one of those 1880s-vintage county courthouses that are common in the Midwest. People were scurrying all around me, their shoes clacking on the marble floors. The sounds mixed with their voices and echoed off the high, hard walls and staircases. I looked up, and the building never seemed to end. I had to look almost straight up to see the ceiling, and even there the activity continued: whirling fans, sunbeams streaming through skylights, people hurrying along the fourth-floor balcony just under the roof. Overwhelmed by all the confusing sights and sounds, leaning backward to see the marvels above me, I lost my balance and almost toppled over backwards. I started to cry.
(Here's a similar, alternative scenario.)
Ever since this imagined episode, in similar situations I've been afraid I'd fall down and go boom. My toes curl downward in a vain attempt to grip the floor more tightly. I dread a loud noise or someone bumping into me. I keep my eyes fixed on the floor and take short steps, trying to reach the safety of a side room where the ceiling is only eight feet high.
As a child, it helped if I had something or someone to hang onto, usually one of my parents. I recall that my first-grade class visited the museum of natural history at Ohio State, where mummies and dinosaur skeletons loomed over us in great echoing marble halls; I had to hold onto someone's hand, and classmate Donna Marie Borland was there for me.
Churches were frightening, too, of course, but once I got used to a sanctuary after a few weeks, I was able to walk into it unaided.
The rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., soars 180 feet above the floor. I've briefly endured this space on two occasions.
Familiarity helps. I've been inside the Louisiana Superdome a number of times, and now I can walk almost normally across the floor of this enormous space.
Loud noises don't help, however. One trip to New Orleans was for a 1992 Steelers preseason game, where we worked inside the WWL-TV control room on an upper level of the Superdome. As I walked past an entrance to the balcony seats during the rehearsal for the halftime show, I heard a choreographer giving commands over the booming public address system. I did not want to venture any further into the seating area shadowy under the huge dome, sloping downwards at a precarious angle, and shaking from this giant imperious voice.
So my fear is not really of heights, but more of being startled by sudden sounds and unfamiliar sights coming from high above me.
Noises from the Sky
On September 1, 2002, I was in Cleveland for a Sunday game against the Red Sox. That same afternoon, there was an air show at the Burke Lakefront Airport several blocks away, featuring the Air Force's Thunderbirds. When our baseball telecast was over and I was walking to the garage where my car was parked, I noticed that the Thunderbirds were still performing. The F-16 jet fighters climbed straight up and peeled off in four different directions, one of them coming towards me at a few thousand feet. I saw it approaching. But when I heard the tremendous roar of the jet engine on afterburner as it reflected off the buildings all around me, my knees bent. I couldn't walk. I wanted to hug the ground until the Thunderbird's thunder had faded away. It was the same sort of fear that I feel under a lofty ceiling.
And then this summer, I saw videotape from another baseball game, this one played under threatening weather conditions. The players are standing around on the field. There's a bright flash; no one reacts. A second later, there's a crash of thunder, and all the players simultaneously duck down close to the ground, then run off the field to the safety of the dugouts. The game is suspended until the threat of lightning has passed.
Why did they all cringe in unison when they heard the thunder? It must have been a reflex.
Our human ancestors evolved on the plains of Africa, and in such places the safest response to lightning is to lie flat, hugging the ground with your hands and your toes, so that the lightning strikes not you but something taller like a nearby bush. If possible, you should flee to the shelter of a nice cave with a low ceiling.
Evolution would have eliminated (by electrocution) any humans who did not react properly to a thunderstorm. Similarly, there are few dogs left that do not fear thunder. Domesticated dogs hide under the bed or under the porch.
So it's perfectly natural to bow down before the bolts of the mighty Zeus. We are genetically programmed to cringe at loud sounds and spectacular lights above us. I just happen to react that way indoors.