Ledges Where Birch Was Born

High places scare me. This fear is probably built into my dna, but an experience that almost killed me surely made the phobia worse and, alas, permanent. I was about age 12 visiting my priest uncle with my family in the Pinardville section of Manchester, NH. We often went to Manchester and sometimes stayed a week or more at the rectory of St. Edmund's Parish where my uncle was pastor; while I was there I made a friend, Omer Beaudoin.

Omer was a daring high-spirited kid, whose company I greatly enjoyed.

One day he showed me a new game. He walked along the back railing of the sidewalk of the Piscataqua Bridge. The drop to a shallow river or on land was more than enough to get anybody killed. I was in a jolly double-dare mood at the time, and since my friend had risked his life, I had to, too. I went out on the back of the railing in a giddy moos. Somewhere out there, I looked down. In that moment, my world changed forever. Suddenly, I understood that one false move and I would die; suddenly, I understood human mortality. For few seconds I froze, the feeling of panic so intense and unpleasant that death itself seemed preferable. I had urge to just drop. Then I realized that no, I wanted to live. But I was frozen–could not move. Then a blank space in memory. Somehow I was able to inch my way to safety.

Since that day I have been not just afraid of heights, but terrified. I've made a few attempts to face this fear and failed every time. Today I'm more or less resigned to it. My phobia worked its way into my novel Live Free or Die. When I was writing that book I remembered the seven months I lived in New Orleans back in 1967. I got around on a tiny 100 cc Yamaha motorcycle. Couple time I had to cross the Huey P. Long bridge that spans the Mississippi, an experience I loathed for the terror it brought out in me. The worse job I could dream was painting the upper spans of that bridge. That's the job I gave to Frederick Elman, and the book opens with a scene on the bridge.

The culminating scenes in Whisper My Name and in Live Free or Die occur at high ledges on the Salmon Trust. For me, the fear of falling from high ledges and bridges is ever present. Since I can't deal with the real thing, I purge it through my writing. Did I write "purge it"? Well, not really. I have a moment of mastery while I'm creating the scene, but the good feeling goes away very quickly. I've found that writing about bad experiences only momentarily eases the trauma. In fact, writing can make it worse. Conclusion: Writing is not good therapy.