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When Terror Strikes

In conversation with a friend yesterday, I had touched briefly on the subject of risky behaviour, and with the benefit of insight how the most dangerous aspects of mania can be avoided by simply staying in the house and keeping your blue cape and red knickers locked in a closet, as an antidote for when, in your worst moments you feel like superman.

The conversation had triggered recollections of the most bizarre and downright foolhardiness of some of the things I’ve done in the past – a lot of which I cringe to think about, and which would not bear scrutiny even in these enlightened times, however I dressed them up. I couldn’t bear knowing that when face to face with friends, they might be thinking ‘this man did that‘, and questioning themselves as to why they still talk to me.

The world is well aware of the risk-taking propensity of young men, and despite the rate of attrition, it has been accepted that this behaviour is as necessary for the survival of our species as taking breath. Those young men that do survive tend to act more sensibly as they mature or ‘mellow’ – making way for the ‘young bucks’ to have their time too. However, my experience has been that manic behaviour manifests itself ‘out of the blue’, and worse than that, triggers pleasure receptors that should be long dormant given my mature years. Then there can be terrible moments of reality – when for a brief (and thankful) second I realise that I am acting out a scene purely because of the ‘high’, and I’m left attempting to extricate myself from the very sticky stuff I’ve willingly jumped into. The tendency to panic in such a situation is very strong, and it’s probably only my pig-headed stubbornness to admit defeat, that has allowed me to exit left, with at least a little dignity remaining.

Knowing what to look for has enabled me to recognise the same behaviour in other people – who it might be said of that they should know better. As a result, I tend to be more tolerant of aberrant behaviour than I might have done in the past. I also sympathise when I see another’s actions go terribly wrong, and would unhesitatingly give assistance should it be required.

The worst case of ‘lost bottle’ I have witnessed first-hand, took place just up the road from here, at the Whitley Bay Ice Rink and Bowling Alley. I was a young man at the time and was employed as a steel erector involved in building the Bowling Alley above the existing Ice Rink. Steel erectors are notorious risk-takers and I admit to pushing myself to the point of silliness, in an effort to be like my other, more mature, workmates.

There was one man, in his middle-forties who although heavily built, could shin up a stanchion, and walk along 3 inch horizontal ties as if he was a wire-walking monkey. It came as a great shock then, one afternoon, to hear him calling for help, which set everyone running. Barry (name changed) was sat on a cross beam arms clinging to a large stanchion about 45ft above the ground. I joined the others below him whilst the foreman tried to coax him down, and I’ve never witnessed such terror in anyones eyes either before or since. His face was contorted with fear, tears streaming down his face, and he didn’t reply to any of the foreman’s coaxing – just sat there, visibly shaking and paralysed with fear.

When it was realised that he wasn’t going to be talked down, the foreman and another workmate shinned up the stanchion to just below where he sat, and another man climbed up another stanchion and worked his way along the cross beam until he could sit beside Barry. The presence of these brave souls both beside and below him seemed to calm Barry enough for him to loosen his grip and be persuaded to move out and onto the stanchion – his feet guided into place. Thus it was that two men – one behind him, the other to one side shuffled and shinned Barry and themselves painfully slowly to the ground.

Barry was plied with hot, sugary tea, and when he had calmed down sufficiently, was taken home by one of his mates, and I never saw him again. I had asked the foreman (my father) why it had happened and he had simply shrugged: ‘Who knows – it just happens’. I had suspected that this wasn’t the first case he had ever witnessed, and like so many of the other awful events he had seen, he simply accepted it and probably considered trying to analyse or evaluate it a waste of time. What he also obviously accepted without question, was a responsibility to help his workmate, despite a very real threat to his own life.

JWB Monday 10th August 2009

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