Tom Martin: Fears, however irrational, too often guide us

Tom Martin

I’m glad my mother was not alive to see the fatal bridge collapse in Minneapolis. She died in 1985 of cancer, but it was height that she feared most.

On Wednesday an eight-lane truss bridge over the Mississippi River along Interstate 35W buckled and dumped cars more than 60 feet into the river. So far, five people are confirmed dead.

This tragic news out of Minneapolis would have exacerbated my mom’s fear of heights, which parlayed into a fear of bridges. Heights paralyzed my mother. My two sisters and I know a little about that. We’re afraid of heights as well. With each passing year the fear becomes more pronounced. And while our fear keeps us off roller coasters and silos, mom’s fear kept her off the upper reaches of a stepladder.

My mother had acrophobia, an irrational fear of heights. The bridge collapse would have made her irrational fear a little more rational. As it was, she only crossed the Mississippi River as a passenger.

I don’t know how old I was when she stopped driving across the bridge from Hamilton, Ill., to Keokuk, Iowa, because she didn’t talk about it. We lived about seven miles on the Illinois side of the bridge that is located over the Mississippi near where Illinois, Iowa and Missouri meet. Suddenly, instead of crossing the river to shop, she stayed in Illinois even though the drive was longer and the merchandise sparse. She could make it across the river as a passenger, but she would no longer drive it. People with acrophobia can have panic attacks. Maybe that was her concern.

To be fair, the swing bridge at Keokuk was no walk in the park even for people without acrophobia. It was about a mile and a half long with a slight curve on each end. Built in 1916, the old railroad bridge was made of metal. In fact cars didn’t drive across pavement, they drove on a metal grate. Because the bridge stopped traffic to open for barges, I had many occasions to step out onto it while waiting. You didn’t have to peer over the side to get a peek at the Mighty Mississippi, you had only to look beneath your feet. Standing in the driving lanes, you could see through the metal grates under your feet to the dark brown or gray (depending on the season) waters some 40 feet below.

Standing on the bridge nearly took my breath away, although I’d try to conceal it. If you dropped a nickel, it would slip through the grate and plummet to the river. Pavement is much more comforting than metal grate.

And driving the bridge required precision. There was only about a foot of clearance between vehicles. Semi trucks had to pull over and fold in their side mirrors or else they’d mash them against other oncoming semis. That narrow bridge took many truck mirrors and several lives. When I was in high school, a 17-year-old classmate died on that bridge.

I don’t know if it was the height, the grate or the cramped lanes that finally prevented my mom from driving the bridge, but I know fear was behind the decision.

Although it’s seldom not as stark as acrophobia, fear is behind many more decisions than we’d like to admit. A 1991 movie by Albert Brooks, “Defending Your Life,” played on that fact. In the movie, Earth is the first phase of existence, and its inhabitants spend most of their lives dealing with fears. In order reach the next phase of existence (afterlife) a court proceeding is held during which the person, with the help of an attorney, tries to prove he has conquered his fears and demonstrated courage. A prosecutor argues against each claim. If the person loses, his soul will be sent back to Earth in another life to try again to move past fear.

Brooks’ character, Daniel Miller, often succumbed to his fear and therefore has an uphill battle in court. At one point Miller’s attorney Bob Diamond explains that Miller uses only 3 percent of his brain. Diamond, meanwhile, uses 48 percent of his brain.

“When you use more than 5 percent of your brain, you don’t want to be on Earth anymore,” Diamond tells Miller.

As funny as it is, the movie makes a serious point. We are bound by our fears. We’re afraid to confront people and situations so we avoid them. Likewise, we only go as far as our courage takes us.

My mother had plenty of courage. As cancer ravaged her body, she battled without complaint. But the bridge became her weakness.

For most of us the bridges are figurative, and who knows, with the courage to cross, how far they might take us.

Tom Martin is editor of The Register-Mail. Contact him at tmartin@register-mail.com or 343-7181, Ext. 250.