The movie The Great Escape is based on the true story of how a couple dozen World War II Allied troops escaped from a German prisoner of war camp.
Through months of sneaky effort, they dug a tunnel from a barracks inside the camp out to a nearby forest. The tunnel was barely wide enough for a man to fit into, and required each man to lie on a small wheeled scooter pulled through by ropes.
It’s a thrilling story, but me, I’d be the claustrophobic guy who stayed behind in the camp.
The thought of stepping into a hole in the ground and being pulled several hundred yards through a tunnel not much wider than, oh, say, a coffin, is more intolerable to me than almost anything the German guards could do to me.
One of my first claustrophobic experiences happened at Disneyland when I was maybe eight years old.
Tom Sawyer Island had a playground with a fake hollow tree made of concrete. When you popped through the artfully-designed knothole at the bottom, you climbed a ladder 10 or 12 feet (or maybe it was two miles, I forget), and came out the top onto a sort of patio overlooking the fake river.
“Yay! I’m going to climb up the tree!” I thought.
Lots of other young tourists had the same idea, so I followed a conga line of other kids into the hollow concrete tree and up the ladder. Another line of kids followed right behind me.
So there I was, holding onto the ladder about halfway up this hot, unlit tunnel packed with eight year olds, with one kid’s legs in front of me, and another kid’s head bumping against my butt —
— and the brat at the top decided to get cute and not exit onto the patio. He just stood there on the ladder pretending he was stuck.
There I was, packed like a sardine in the middle of this concrete tube as kids started screaming for him to move, and pushing up on me from below while I was blocked by the kid ahead of me.
I don’t remember saying anything; I was too busy staring at the concrete wall eight inches in front of my face, and gripping the steel rung so tight I probably left fingerprints in it.
At that point, I was focused on mentally condensing the universe down to nothing except that few square inches of concrete right in front of my eyes, and that ladder.
After a couple years (or maybe 20 seconds, whichever is longer) the brat moved, the line continued up the ladder, and I popped out into the blessed, blessed sunshine and fresh air.
Page 2 of 2 - Those few seconds made an impression, since I still remember it vividly 40 years later.
About a dozen years ago I got to reenact that experience — but with a happier ending.
The last time Redwood’s water tower was painted, I got to climb up the steel ladder inside the stem all the way from the door at the bottom to the very top. It was tough, but I survived.
Finally, I got to discover how the Allied troops felt.