I have a fear of heights.
I was recently asked by my friend Bill to join him on a rappelling adventure down the side of a 24 story building in Manchester, New Hampshire. For someone like Bill, a man who has travelled the globe experiencing all that life has to offer, walking down the side of a high rise may be just the thing to do on a hot, lazy summer day. For me, this just isn’t my idea of fun. I get nervous standing on a chair to change a light bulb. Besides, I always envisioned myself passing away quietly in the middle of the night at the ripe old age of 100, not being a 45 year-old blob being scraped off a sidewalk. So naturally, I looked at Bill and said, “Absolutely!”
When you drive into Manchester, there is no way not to see the steel mountain I was asked to descend. The Brady Sullivan Building reaches 24 stories into the sky and is clearly the tallest building in this city of 110,000 inhabitants. The adventure was set up by the Daniel Webster Council of The Boy Scouts of America as a fund raiser and could not have been a more professional event. Rappellers began by getting fitted for a harness, helmet, and gloves. Next came a walk to the training area where professionals took us through what to expect during the descent and then allowed us to practice with a three story walk down the side of a parking garage. From there, it was an elevator trip to the top of the building from which our spider man adventure would take place.
It was while waiting on top of the roof when I discovered the real reason why I was here, and it had nothing to do with conquering my fear of heights.
I happened to look down at the roof top and in the direction of a fellow rappeller waiting his turn. I saw that the man had an artificial leg that was brilliantly painted. Not wanting him to think I was staring, I asked his permission to look at his colorful prosthetic device. He introduced himself as Frank, granted me his permission to look, and began to explain the significance of the art. The leg was painted by an artist who is best known for painting some of those crazy masks donned by NHL goaltenders. He explained how the eagle represented the country for which he had served and that the purple heart being held in one of its talons was painted from a picture of his actual purple heart. Under the majestic bird was a copy of the bars signifying service during the Vietnam War just above a date from 1970, the day he lost his leg in action. To the side was a copy of his son’s first tattoo, a vertical expression of the word PORT. Port was his son’s nickname that had stuck with him until his death in January as a result of a car accident.
Frank was preparing to make the same descent as me, but his drop would mean so much more. His voice spoke with tremendous pride. His eyes portrayed the same pride detected in his voice, but I could sense fear, excitement, and sadness as well. I felt an understanding of the sacrifice his body had made on my behalf, but also recognized Frank would have given much more if the need had arisen. My heart ached as he spoke of his son, yet Frank seemed to genuinely appreciate the opportunity to share his story. I later learned that as Frank went over the edge of the building he carried with him a swatch of clothing his son had been wearing at the time of his death.
When my friend Bill asked me to join him he had no idea Frank would be on that roof with us, there is no way he could have known. Yet, I believe that meeting Frank is exactly why I was there. Frank, through his words and his actions, reminded me that it is not life’s events that dictate the people we become, but rather how we react to those events. His voice and eyes directed me to recall that everyone encounters adversity and misfortune in life, and these trials are part of who we become, but we decide how they affect our mind-set. Mixed in with the other elements I detected in Frank’s voice and eyes was the most prevalent quality of all: His joy of life.
To think, I thought I was there to overcome my fear of heights.