I think it was the flying monkeys that really got me.
A recent discussion online brought back to me a memory of the time when I was, I dunno, maybe six or seven, watching The Wizard of Oz on TV by myself. This was in the days when most televisions (including the one I was watching, in a back bedroom) were cursed with small black and white screens — unlike the full-color imaginaria that grace most living rooms nowadays, boasting resolution down to the individual facial pore. Still, the effect was real enough that once Dorothy was clear of the creepy-friendly Munchkins and had her ruby skates pointed toward the Emerald City, my apprehensions on her behalf were quickly on the rise.
As a tubby little kid, my go-to palliative for anxiety was food. So as the Oz narrative unspooled, and the suspense escalated with hostile apple trees and whatnot, my youthful lizard brain began to think it might be time for a little something. Sadly, by evening prime time this particular night, my mother’s kitchen was closed. I would have to improvise.
In the bathroom was a glass bottle of St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children. The bottle was so new, the cotton wadding was still in the neck. Now, I don’t know how old you are; but if you are truly one of the ancients, like me, you will probably recall the chalky, cherry taste of St. Joseph’s aspirin. It wasn’t quite like candy; but it wasn’t unlike it, either. It was, in either case, real aspirin.
It was probably around the time the bad witch made her initial appearance on the Yellow Brick Road that I opened the bottle and chomped down the first aspirin (or two). Some time after that came the sinister sleepy flowers. Chomp. And then that rather contentious first audience with the Wizard. Chomp, chomp. Finally, when the flying monkeys appeared, I started ripping through those poison Skittles by the tiny fistful. I’m not proud to report that, when there were no more pills left, young me actually ate the label off the bottle.
By the time the Wicked Witch was melting out of her wrapper like an evil Snickers bar, I was feeling pretty copasetic and rather sleepy. This, I should mention, was not a good thing for my continued tenure aboveground, especially as an asthmatic kid who was never very good at breathing in the first place.
As it happened, by some miracle that night my mother noticed that the bottle of baby aspirin she had bought just that morning was sitting empty (and missing a label) on the back of the toilet. An inquiry ensued.
Shortly thereafter, at the urging of my Army doctor uncle, we were all off on a merry jaunt to the Emergency Room. The police escort we got along the way (my father was a county detective) was pretty awesome; the stomach pumping after, not so much.
If there’s a moral to this anecdote, I suppose it’s that fears can make you do stupid things. And for whatever reason, I was born with a million of them. Sometimes it seems like my life has mostly been a tale of overcoming one damned fear after another.
Like snakes, ohmigod. When I was a kid I was so afraid of snakes that I would make my older brother Randy, who was cursed with sharing a bedroom with me, get up every night and check the closet, the drawers, and under the bed to make sure no uninvited reptiles were in residence. To his great credit, he did not kill me and dump my body in nearby Turkey Branch Creek. Not even once.
Not that Randy was altogether blameless in the ophidiophobia business, mind you. One time, for instance, he was reading a fantasy book of some sort, wherein was a drawing — I still remember vividly — of a giant cobra-looking snake towering over a couple screaming white people in pith helmets. When I asked him in a trembling voice about the picture, my brother informed me soberly that, yes, such snakes did exist in our neighborhood; and yes, they were capable of breaking into a second-floor window.
I know what you’re thinking, but my brother’s a great guy, honest. Some targets are just too tempting to resist.
Anyway, a few years of reading about reptiles finally got me over that particular fear — to the point where I now love snakes, and have even threatened to have one as a pet. A prospect to which no housemate has ever responded positively, alas. Even so, on the few occasions when I have happened suddenly upon a snake in the wild, I have invariably reacted like a cat with a cucumber before coming back to earth (literally). Some reactions can’t be unlearned.
Of all the terrors I’ve had to overcome as the years passed, none was more pernicious or life-constraining than the fear of flying that kept me nailed down to one region for most of my life. My battle with that particular problem will require a whole other story, which I promise to recount some time soon. (Spoiler alert: I’ve now been around the world a couple times without having to swim.)
Suffice it to say for now that, while fears were almost the dominant feature of my childhood, and a constant debilitation even for much of my adulthood, the overcoming of them, one after another, has been one of the chief satisfactions of my life.
I still have challenges in that regard. For instance, making connections in the writing community and marketing my work as an author means constantly pushing the boundaries of my introverted comfort zone. And conquering my shyness to speak halting French to my neighbors in Brittany is a day-to-day struggle.
On the whole, though, I feel like my life is much more about possibility and promise now than it is about limitation. At 64, I feel capable of so much more than I did at 30.
Just please don’t send any flying monkeys my way. Those things still scare the shit out of me.