What Scares Me

Fear of freezing to death, sleeping bags, and swimming




After one traumatic day at the pool, a lifelong dread
By John Updike

Hydrophobia names not only a fear
but a disease—a generally fatal one, rabies, whose agonies of swallowing are stimulated by the sight of water, hence the name. Of course most phobias have at their root a fear of death, and my fear of water began, I believe, when my father, treading water in a swimming pool, invited me to jump from the tile edge into his arms; I did, and slipped from his grasp, and sank, and inhaled water for a few seconds. It felt, when I gasped, as if a fist had been shoved into my throat; I saw bubbles rising in front of my face as I sank down into a blue-green darkness.
Then my father seized me and lifted me back into the air. I coughed up water for some minutes, and my mother was very angry with my father for his mistake. Even then, it seems to me in the wavery warps of this memory, I took my father's side; he was, after all, trying to teach me to swim, a paternal duty, and it was just bad luck, a second's slip-up, that in fact he delayed my learning for several decades. Part of our problem, that traumatic summer day, was that we had little experience of swimming pools; not only did we have no pool ourselves, but no one in our neighborhood or circle of acquaintance did, in that blue-collar Depression world. We were not country-club people. It is a mystery to me how we found ourselves at that particular pool, in bathing suits. Nor do I know exactly how old I was—small enough to be trusting but big enough to surprise my father with my sudden weight.

Henceforth I knew what it was like to look through a chain-link fence at a public pool, its seethe of naked bodies in the sunshine, and inhale its sharp scent of chlorine, but not to swim in one. At the local YMCA, the pool was a roofed-in monster whose chlorinated dragon-breath, amplified by the same acoustics that made voices echo, nearly asphyxiated me with fear. Aged twelve or thirteen now, I tried to immerse my face in the water as the instructor directed, but it was like sticking my hand into fire; nothing could override my knowledge that water was not my element and would kill me if it could. At college five years later, where one had to pass a swimming test to graduate, I managed a froggy backstroke the length of the pool, my face straining upward out of the water while a worried-looking instructor kept pace at the poolside with a pole for me to grab in case I started to sink. I think I did sink, once or twice, but eventually passed the test, and stayed dry for years.

In the movies of my adolescence, Esther Williams smiled through the hateful element, using it to display her rotating body, but other movies, glorifying our wartime navy, showed sinking ships and sputtering submarines. One of my nightmares was of being trapped belowdecks and needing to force myself through adamant darkness toward air and light. My lungs felt flooded at the thought; my hydrophobia extended to a fear of choking, of breathlessness. Life seemed a tight passageway, a slippery path between volumes of unbreathable earth and water.

And yet, graduating from college, I took the Coronia to England, and contemplated the ocean calmly from the height of the deck, and slept behind a sealed porthole. Adulthood strives to right the imbalance of childhood, and to soothe its terrors. My fear of water eased as, in my mid-twenties, I moved with my wife and children to a seaside town. Paternity itself, with its vicarious dip into the amniotic fluids, made me braver, and the salty buoyance and the shoreward push of seawater were marked improvements over perilously thin fresh water. We bought a house by a saltwater creek in the marshes, and that was better yet; I plunged into our private piece of creek as if I were one with the grasses, the muddy banks, the drifting current, the overhead vapory clouds—one with the water, my body mostly water. By middle age I had learned to swim and take pleasure in it, but still tended to float on my back, and to keep my face averted from the murky, suffocating depths beneath me.

John Updike's latest works include Americana, a book of poems, and Seek My Face, a novel due out this fall.
There's a reason they're called mummy sacks
By Michael Perry

On the whole
, I love sleeping bags. When I got my first, a slippery orange thing lined with images of ducks and shotguns, I quickly discovered that no matter where I slept—the haymow, the back forty, the living room—I felt like I was lighting out for the territory. I took immediately to that snug, toasty, flannelly embryo feeling. You know the one: After a long day of hiking, you crawl in the bag and give out an involuntary little happy-shiver and hug yourself. And yet, a claustrophobic bugaboo lurks in the coziness. As a child, I once wound up head-down in my sleeping bag and went frantic, crazy-ape bonkers trying to escape. Later, I slid from the top bunk in my orange bag, panicked because I was unable to throw out my arms. Even now, I find myself opening the bag before I push my legs in, just to check for teensy wolverines hidden in the toe end. I think of bears arriving, and me unable to escape. Freud would draw conclusions based on the male preoccupation with issues of zippers and entrapment.

After years of cheapo bags, I treated myself to a military-issue mummy sack. "FOR EMERGENCY EXIT," read a tag sewn inside, "grasp each side of the opening above the slider and spread apart quickly, forcing the slider downward." Sweet reassurance for the claustrophobe. That night I slept in a farmhouse owned by a pair of photographers. Not wanting to muss the vintage quilts, I unrolled my new sleeping bag, slid in, zipped to chin level, hugged myself with the happy-shiver, and dozed off. It was July, and I woke up 15 minutes later drenched in sweat. Grasped each side of the opening above the slider and spread apart quickly. Nothing. The zipper was jammed. Be calm, I thought, and commenced thrashing on the bed like a prodigious eel. I jammed an arm out the face hole and, with one particularly contorted bounce, wrenched into a sitting position. Deep breath. Think. With one hand waving uselessly at the sky, I grabbed the interior zipper pull with the other. Bit down hard on the liner. Yanked and yanked. When the zipper finally gave way, cool air rushed across my skin.

Love your sleeping bag, I say, but do not trust it.

Michael Perry's memoir Population 485 will be published in October. He lives in Wisconsin.
First comes uncontrollable shaking, then a numb, frosty doom
By Stewart O'Nan

Because I was the goalie
, when I fell through the ice it wasn't simple. My homemade foam rubber pads became two huge sponges. That it happened in a cemetery didn't help, or that I was at an age when I pointedly ignored things even if they could hurt me. We were there because we didn't fear death, nonchalantly tromping between the headstones and over the snowy hills into the far heart of the place and down into the bowl that held the pond. In summer, fat goldfish slid under the lily pads, but now it was solid—or so we thought.

I screamed before I realized I was standing on the bottom. The water barely came to my waist. I still needed help getting out, and then the wind hit my wet clothes and skin and I began to shiver.

I had to get inside and get dry, but first I had to take my skates off. The laces seemed tighter now that they were wet, and my fingers didn't work. A friend had to help. I didn't think to peel my wet tube socks off (cotton, worthless), just jammed on my Pumas and ran.

The running was uncool, and if I'd been out in the middle of nowhere it would have been dumb. Fortunately, my friend Smedley's house was only a couple blocks away, and I made it easily.

But in my worst nightmare, I don't. I'm out in the woods by myself. The shivering turns to even larger involuntary contractions as my body tries to create heat through muscle friction. I lose control of my hands. I stumble like a drunk, my speech slurred, muscles stiffening. The initial pain gives way to numbness. I get foggy and make poor decisions, like walking the wrong way or sitting down at the base of a tree and going to sleep. In the end, I pass out and die in the snow without a struggle, frozen solid, my skin hard as wood.

It didn't happen—it couldn't have—but I still have trouble walking on ponds, and forget about hauling a bobhouse out and then sitting in it waiting for a nibble. On shore, I can hear the ice creak, and know that someone's going in. Not me, I'll think. No way.

Stewart O'Nan's latest novel is Wish You Were Here.

More Adventure