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Fears of having phobias

When I met my late husband in San Diego in the ’60s, he was a Navy pilot.

On the day he proposed on the beach, he confessed that he was afraid of the water. He didn’t swim. Oh, and he was afraid of heights. So, if you are afraid of heights and cannot swim, what do you do in the Navy? You fly seaplanes, of course. What else?

Yes, he flew seaplanes during Vietnam. They were huge two-story, propeller-driven albatrosses. They weren’t amphibious. They couldn’t land on land – just the ocean. Or bay. Or lake. Or whatever body of water was nearby when you were almost out of fuel. The Navy retired that P5M aircraft just as Tom left the service.

He told me many years later that it took him all 18 months of flight training to pass the swim test required of all Naval aviators. On the very last day, at the very last hour, he conquered the swimming pool. He wouldn’t win his wings without it.

“Why didn’t you learn to swim as a little kid?” I asked him.

“My mother wouldn’t let me,” was his reply. I’d never heard of such a thing. My mom wanted me to learn to swim, climb, hike, ride a bike, drive – everything, as soon as I could. She pushed me to be strong, confident and unafraid.

Tom’s dear mother, Dorothy, kept her sons well fed, well cared for, and very, very safe. Imagine her horror when her youngest wanted to fly seaplanes based in the Philippines… a foreign country, dear Lord, in the Pacific Ocean. He used to say he was only alive because of his mother’s consistent prayerful novenas.

Dorothy, was raised on a farm outside Buffalo. Her family’s superstitions prevented any of them from endangering themselves. Their prevailing wisdom was: “If you climb a tree, you’ll break your arm.”

“Wait, what has climbing a tree got to do with breaking an arm?” I asked.

“That’s what happens when you fall out of the tree… which you will,” he said, paraphrasing his mother. Same story with swimming. “If you go in the water, you’ll drown. That’s a fact.” Of course, his mother never learned to swim. When she died at 89, she had never owned a bathing suit. Or been in a lake, ocean or pool. She also never learned to drive.

And Tom’s parents were so afraid of flying that in order to get them to visit him in San Diego, he had to fly east to accompany them to the West Coast. And back.

He was fond of telling the story that after they’d toured around southern California, he drove his parents to Las Vegas.

His mother wasn’t sure they should go to a place like that. After dinner, his folks settled in their hotel room, Tom decided to go back to the casino for a nightcap. Later, heading up to his room, he was stunned to spot white-haired Dorothy comfortably seated at the nickel slot machines.

He stood and watched for a while as she continually fed the machine, pulled the lever, and occasionally won a small pot. Around 2 a.m., he gave up watching and went to bed. She never mentioned it at breakfast, but he teased her about it at the next family holiday. Turns out, Dorothy was afraid of almost everything – except nickel slots.

Tom’s brother, Ted, a school administrator, won a national search for a headmaster’s job in Dusseldorf, Germany. Dorothy’s German farm family had originally come from the Dusseldorf area. After Ted and his wife got settled, they encouraged Dorothy to visit them and learn about her heritage. They even offered to buy the ticket.

“Nope, I’m not going to drown in the Atlantic.”

Ted asked, “What are you talking about? We’re sending you a plane ticket.”

“Yes, I know. And when it crashes, I will die in the Atlantic Ocean – and that’s not how I plan to go.” End of discussion.

When Tom and I married, he made me promise that our children wouldn’t be stuck with his same phobias. We both saw to that. Early swimming lessons, flights from a young age and lots of trees to climb. Eventually, our daughter dived on the swim team, and later bungee jumped and climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Our son, a Marine, followed his father into flight school, earned his wings, as well as many combat air medals in Iraq. Phobias avoided.

New phobias are not supposed to arrive with all the other nasty plagues of advancing age. Just recently, I have become creepingly uncomfortable climbing any height at all … even one step up. And it bugs me. But – I do not want to break my arm when I fall off the stool ….

Marcy O’Brien writes from Warren, Pa. She can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com.

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