©2022 Robert Sickles
One obvious thing about Europe is that there are a lot of impressively high places and tall things—mountains, cathedrals, castles, cliffs. It’s rare to find a city or village that doesn’t have a famous bell tower to climb, or a ruined rampart from which to view the surroundings. Whole towns with narrow streets cling to steep hillsides; mountain pass roads duck in and out of tunnels to dizzying hairpin curves; everywhere you can find trestles and bridges that somehow defy gravity. This was fabulous stuff for a kid like me who grew up in a mildly hilly region of New Jersey. Bald Hill, a blunt stumpy knob of less than 900’, was the highest spot in my town.
It’s never been clear to me why my mother, who had a palpable dread of heights, would go along with Dad’s passion for touring Europe, knowing that it would involve airplane flights, cable car rides, high bridges, antique elevators and rickety stairs to complete the trip! Mom preferred the art museums, canals, old palaces, gardens – all the ground level stuff. But—such a good sport—she trembled up the stairs to the lower level of the Eiffel Tower, hid her face in my jacket for the steep cogwheel railway ride up Mount Pilatus, went pale at the top of the ruins at Heidelberg Castle on the Rhine, and pled for mercy from her higher power atop the bell tower of San Marco Cathedral.
When planning our day’s drive through the Alps from Germany to Switzerland, Dad spread out a map that had all the scenic routes highlighted in green ink. He called me over and proudly tapped on a route he had circled, and said that it was going to be perfect.
Mom looked at the map, grumbled and harumphed, rolling her eyes. She noted it was the thinnest gray line on the map, a wiggly hint of a road that looks like it turned into an even finer dotted line here and there. Did that mean the mapmaker is only vaguely certain that the road even exists there? Mom argued “…on this map it doesn’t look like we’ll pass through any towns, Paul. What if we need food or gas?” Pointing to a nice heavy line on the map, “Can’t we take this nice big highway? Look how straight it is.” She was already edgy before we even packed the car and left the hotel parking lot. Nevertheless, Dad persisted on his chosen path.
At first, we drove along a lovely Alpine valley – Hansel and Gretel cottages, brown cows with bells, hay fields, a little roadside shrine, some nuns on bicycles. But after we passed through the dark forest, we started our ascent. And Mom began to moan. Over and over the hairpin curves revealed deeply creviced cliffs and waterfalls. Above the tree line, in fact above the clouds, the road became a ridiculously steep incline and squeezed at times to one-lane. On our right, we hugged a sheer granite wall. On the left, a skimpy row of boulders served to keep us from base jumping a straight-down freefall for a thousand feet. Fortunately, we were alone on that road that day, as it would have been tricky to find a wide spot for two cars to pass. To Dad, she pleaded “Paul! Slow down! You’re too close to the edge!"
The mountain resented having a road cut into its side and seemed to be trying to nudge us off. I know this was cruel, but I piped up that I could see far below the wreckage of a car that had gone over the cliff. Nearing the crest, Mom clenched her teeth and moaned while Dad exalted “Isn’t that a beautiful view? Come on, Bobby, I’ll take a picture of you over by that snow bank. Imagine! Snow in August!”
It seemed our rental Ford Taunus did not come standard equipped with horsepower, nor were we aware of the effect of high altitude on a carburetor, and the engine began pinging and ka-chunking, then it wheezed and stopped and would not restart. Actually, after Dad became red-faced and ham-handed, the key wouldn’t even turn in the ignition, then it snapped off when he tried to turn it with little pliers from the glove box. I still have a little pocket nail clipper with a bent file that he used in vain to get the broken stub of key to turn.
Mom’s mind had gone to mental white-out and her eyes looked like glazed doughnuts. I heard her making a faint, wheezy whimper. I asked her a question, but she was unresponsive, and she didn’t even react when Dad, became livid and unintelligibly vulgar. And so, there we perched, as though teetering, utterly alone and above the clouds. A peaceful feeling came over me, and I saw this place was completely beautiful. Removing myself from Mom’s trembling sighs and Dad's tirade about crummy little foreign cars, I walked ahead and found a nice flat rock where I could stretch out on and close my eyes, and I listened to cow bells from a meadow far below the clouds. But then I was aware of the sound of an approaching vehicle.
A motorcycle with a side car pulled up carrying a young couple with a baby. The man explained in bits of English that being Sunday and a church holiday, Dad would have to beg someone to come fix the car. The wife and baby dismounted and Dad was expected ride with the young man to the next village to find a mechanic.
“For crying out loud,” Dad fumbled to get the goggles on. Then “Oh jeez, help me!” as they skidded off the gravel and disappeared down the road. I checked in on Mom, assuming she would be vibrating anxiously over Dad’s sidecar peel-out. The Swiss woman also looked in the window at her. Mom sat there rigidly against the “safer” side of the car and clutching her purse up to her chest, as though trying to keep the car balanced so it wouldn’t fall off the cliff. The young woman tapped on the window. “Are you alright, Madam?” Then turned to me “Is that your mother? Is she alright? She looks, ehh, awfully white.”
“Yeah, that’s my mom. She’s afraid of, like, mountains, bridges, towers, viewpoints, elevators, waterfalls, airplanes…”
“I see… she has fear of height, the acrophobia. So, she’s having a terrible time in Europe, yes?”
“Definitely not her idea of fun. And yet, we travel here again. Maybe Mom hoped that Dad would let us spend the whole time strolling the Champs-Élysée or viewing Rembrandts in Amsterdam. She’ll be better when we get down to the city.”
When I look over slides and photos of our trips, Mom is often seen clutching, almost hiding behind, a gigantic white purse. It now occurs to me that besides carrying all her necessities it also served her very sensibly as security against her phobias. (It might also have worked as a parachute or flotation device if her worst fear came true!)
Just to tidy up the story, Dad returned in a van with a mechanic who quickly started our car, the Swiss man picked up him family and went their way the other direction, we made it to our destination—a small hotel on Lake Zurich. Everything we needed that night, we happily discovered, was entirely on ground level!
Age 15 (yes, I'm wearing my lederhosen) somewhere in the Swiss Alps.