Fear of Falling

Working in the mop-and-bucket brigade in college created the perspectives of a lifetime


James McConkey, a longtime Scholar contributor, died on October 24, 2019 at the age of 98. Below is one of his recent essays for the magazine, published in our Winter 2007 issue.

Like most college graduates, I am fond of my alma mater, though it exists only in historical records and the memories of those who attended it. In 1939, when I entered Cleveland College on a working scholarship, it seemed solid enough to last for centuries: a stone sevenstoried building on Public Square (the center of downtown Cleveland) with stout Roman goddesses supporting the balconies on its façade. And its hallways, elevators, and classrooms were crowded with students, especially in the evening. Most of these evening students were adults, enrolled less for a degree than for courses to abet their knowledge of culture or to provide skills necessary for employment or a better job.

Each year, 20 students from the Cleveland area were granted scholarships like mine, and we made up the majority of the full-time students. The Depression had not yet lifted, and without those scholarships few if any of us could have attended college. In our first year, we had no work assignments; but as sophomores and upper-class students, some of us were elevator operators during the evening rush hours, while others sold textbooks or supported the staff in the mailroom, the publicity office, and at the telephone switchboard. Although other students were later to join me, I was the first to serve as a janitorial assistant, and it seems likely that the initial task that Joe Wilkes, the head custodian, gave me was simply an attempt to find something to occupy my allotted work hours. As instructed, I reported to him at 7:00 a.m. on a Monday morning. He led me to the basement locker room for women students, connected to the sinks and toilet stalls of the adjoining restroom by an archway without doors. My task was to dust off the tops of the 10 or 12 rows of lockers before the first woman arrived.

It embarrassed me to be assigned such a task—not because of its humble nature, but because I was a male in a place where I didn’t belong. To complete the chore as quickly as I could, I used Joe’s tall stepladder to climb to the top of each row. Moving on my knees, I sent a cloud of sooty dust and filaments of spider webs into the air and into my lungs. Despite my haste, the first young woman arrived before I was finished. Dismayed by her presence, I imagined she would be alarmed to find a man crouched on a locker above her head, a filthy rag in his hand; and so I called out to her, as cheerfully as I could, “Don’t mind me: I’m just working my way through college.”

Those words were the first ones I spoke to the slender and dark-haired girl I came to love. England and France had just declared war on Germany, but I, like most other Americans, felt our country safe from foreign strife. (Throughout the years of my public schooling, I’d been taught again and again the folly of warfare, with World War I as the prime example.) A few weeks before my graduation from college, though, I was an infantry private in the Army, my degree awarded in absentia. Jean, that slender, dark-haired girl, and I, drawn together over the years as members of the college newspaper’s editorial staff, were married on the furlough I was granted just before my division embarked for Europe; the convoy arrived in Cherbourg a few days after the Normandy beachheads had been secured.

Serving as an obedient neophyte on a janitorial staff is not a bad preparation for service as an army private: in basic training, for example, my experience helped me pass inspection whenever a platoon lieutenant put on white gloves to test for dust on the frame of my bed or in corners of the high window behind it. Impressed by my speed in dusting locker tops, Joe Wilkes promoted me to the crew of custodians that on Saturday mornings washed and polished the tiles of the first-floor lobby and wide corridors— and that experience proved pertinent in the Army, too. Accompanied by the music of a radio playing at full volume, the rhythmic movements of the Saturday morning floor-cleaning squad had something in common with my infantry division’s parade drills, during which row after row of soldiers stepped to the beat of Sousa marches—and, for that matter, with Tolstoy’s depiction in Anna Karenina of the growing pleasure that Levin (surely the author’s alter ego here) feels in joining the line of peasants scything a field. Two or three full-time custodians and I first mopped the floors with a solution of water and trisodium phosphate; and then, while the tiles were still wet, we moved in unison down the halls, rubbing the abrasive pads attached to our shoe soles against gum and other substances still marring the surface. Ultimately, after rinsing the floors with clean water, we waxed and buffed them. Before we left for the day, we admired our joint accomplishment, transitory though such shining floors were. I felt so joined to my fellow janitors that the following year I founded an organization of student and full-time custodians, Eta Mu Sigma, the Greek letters representing the Elevator and Maintenance Society. I had joined a social fraternity, but when Jean said that yes, she’d like to have my fraternity pin, I gave her the one I valued far more: the society’s pin with the image of a mop in a bucket embossed in silver- colored metal.

I don’t know if Joe himself was unwilling to do it, or if the other fulltime custodians had refused, but he chose me—so much younger, and hence slimmer and more limber than the others—as the most capable janitor for a special task. The thousands of pigeons that lived on Public Square roosted at night on the surrounding buildings. Many of them roosted on the fifth-floor ledge of Cleveland College. The art studio was on that floor, and the art teachers and their students were bothered by the stench of pigeon droppings on the ledge whenever the windows were opened because of heat or paint fumes. My assignment was to climb out one of the windows to scrape the accumulated layers of guano off of about 40 feet of the ledge.

Joe and I arrived at the studio door to discover that an unscheduled class was in session. Fortunately, the door was at the rear, and the studio was a large room. Since the students at their easels were gathered in a semicircle at the front, Joe decided our work wouldn’t disturb them. And so we entered, bearing our equipment—a scraper, a brush, a pan, and a metal pail—Joe leading me by the heavy rope he had tied to my waist as a safety precaution. From the doorway, we hadn’t seen the young woman the students were sketching. Standing on a platform, one arm on the back of a chair, she was the first nude female I’d ever seen. Were her breasts and the rest of her immaculate body really gleaming in the blue spotlights I continue to carry in my memory, or is that blue glow my subjective response to what I saw?

Though I resolutely turned to the task at hand, I was seeing that glow as I stepped out the window onto the ledge. Joe handed me the scraper, brush, and pan once I kneeled outside. With that vision blinding me to all else, I felt no fear, though I doubt that Joe, playing out the rope as I advanced, would have been able to support my weight if I’d fallen from the edge. Each time I filled the pan, I returned it to Joe at the open window to dump the dirt into the bucket. So I could have looked at the model again and again, but I didn’t. To see her once was a gift granted me by chance; I was no furtive peeping Tom. By the time Joe and I had finished, the modeling session was over.

The generations of undergraduates I taught at Cornell in the second half of the last century would have been amused, I imagine, to hear that at their age their professor’s first view of a naked woman enabled him to clean pigeon droppings from a high ledge of a college building without the slightest fear of plunging to his death. But most of the students of my pre–World War II generation were less knowledgeable about sexual matters than any of those I taught, and I was more innocent than almost all of my peers. My first awareness of the changes brought by puberty came to me in Fort Smith, Arkansas, soon after my 12th birthday, as I was running up the steps of the junior high school shortly before noon on a Saturday morning, a miniature replica of a triceratops dinosaur in my hand. I had finished sculpting it at home, from a large bar of soap, and I was proud of my entry for a contest sponsored in public school art classes by the manufacturers of Ivory soap. Was it the friction from my pants (actually, the corduroy knickers worn by almost every schoolboy in those days) that aroused my penis, or something about the pleasure of my accomplishment—or is there possibly an unconscious erotic element in the continuing appeal of dinosaurs to nearly all children? The unexpected bulge in my pants so astonished and embarrassed me that I sat down on a step, missing the deadline for contest entries, extended to Saturday at noon for careful sculptors like me: while I sat there, immobilized, I heard the door being locked behind my back.

By the time I entered the ninth grade, I was attending a junior high in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Now in my mid-80s, I’ve forgotten the names of my other ninth-grade teachers, but whenever I come across references to the only game bird I’ve been willing to eat (in Portugal, with fig sauce; it was delicious), I remember Mr. Partridge, who taught a class in elementary science. That his name remains so firmly in my mind is a consequence of a single sentence of his. For, on the day that he was especially angered by the snickers of other boys—who found sexual innuendoes in nearly all of his scientific references—Mr. Partridge did me the disservice of singling me out for praise: “Jimmy McConkey,” he said, “is the only boy in this class who doesn’t have a dirty mind!” The reason that I didn’t, though, is that my ever-restless father, always in search of ideal employment beyond his grasp, had moved his family so often—at least once every year—that I never had developed anything but transitory friendships, and so lacked the comradeship with other boys that permits an exchange of sexual anecdotes and dubious information. After school let out a day or two later, another boy in the science class, maybe out of pity for my ignorance, whispered in my ear a dirty story simple and graphic enough for my understanding—the only crude joke I’ve been unable to forget, which suggests that seven decades later I still carry some of the burden of my youthful innocence.

And yet, ever since a beautiful nude model made me fearless on a twofoot- wide ledge, I’ve rarely been visited by the terror that high places can bring to most rational people. In addition to my janitorial work, I served as a guard in the locked and empty building on Sundays, which gave me uninterrupted hours for studying. My chief responsibility was to take down the flag at sunset from its mast on the flat roof above the seventh floor; and every Sunday I tested my newfound courage by looking down from the edge at the little people waiting for the yellow toylike streetcars.

It’s possible, too, that the attraction of heights—of a removal from the daily distractions of life—is part of my genetic heritage. One of my first memories of my father is of his swooping down in an airplane over our house in a Milwaukee suburb and waving to me, my older brother, and my mother from the open cockpit of an airplane. With a World War I pilot, he once owned a dozen Spads and Nieuports, cannibalizing parts from 10 of them to keep one of each in flying condition. During my underclass years at Cleveland College, my brother, Jack, was an aeronautical engineer for an aircraft manufacturer in Baltimore. In the summer after I’d removed pigeon droppings from the ledge, he invited me for a visit, saying he had a surprise for me. It turned out that his love of flying had caused him to quit his engineering job; he now was teaching acrobatic maneuvers to pilots at a small airport near Baltimore. His surprise was to demonstrate some of those maneuvers, with me as the passenger in the rear cockpit seat, where there were duplicate controls for his students.

He strapped a parachute to my body, carefully demonstrating how I should use it in an emergency, and put a leather helmet with goggles on my head after making sure I was tightly fastened by a belt to the seat. After we were high above Baltimore, he turned the plane upside down, an unusual way to view the streets and the harbor. My memory carries little of the various acrobatics we engaged in, for they all merge in my mind as a dizzying sequence; but they included steep climbs, barrel rolls, and a final power dive over the Chesapeake Bay. My trust in my brother kept me from panic. The duplicate controls moved in accordance with Jack’s controls, and my major fear was that at some crucial moment my body would disobey my mind and interfere with Jack’s flying of the plane. When we pulled out of that final dive, I thought I had blacked out; and after we landed I told Jack I’d gone blind, and might throw up—for now that the exhilaration was over, I realized how nauseated I was. He laughed at my distress, pulling the helmet off my head: gravity had caused the leather to cover my eyes.

I’ve never had the desire to be a pilot, but our oldest son, Larry, earned a commercial license many years ago; I’ve enjoyed flying with him in both his first plane, a single-engine Cessna, and the much speedier two-engine Cessna he later bought. No passenger needs to experience the thrill of acrobatic flying to realize the great difference between flying in a small plane and flying in, say, a Boeing 747: it’s the difference that separates riding in a nimble sports car from traveling in a crowded Greyhound bus. To add to the drama, passengers in small planes may wear, as does the pilot, headphones to block out engine noise and to hear the communications between control towers and all the pilots, commercial and otherwise, in the area: weather reports from pilots about unexpected turbulence or icing conditions; warnings from the control tower of approaching aircraft; and on occasion, an appeal to the tower for information concerning their position from pilots of small planes without instrumentation who have lost their visual bearings. Meanwhile, passengers on a commercial jet try to avoid boredom by watching movies, doing crossword puzzles, or playing video games on their laptops—all the time remaining oblivious to the fact that often, because of wind currents, their giant plane is sliding at a tangent from the direction they are facing. (I became aware of this on a windy day when Jean and I were flying with our son; he pointed to a commercial jet that had passed above us, flying in the same direction as we were. Like Larry’s turbo-engine twin, the Boeing jetliner maintained its assigned course by heading maybe 20 degrees away from it.)

The heights I normally ascend to are far closer to the ground than that and give none of the freedom one feels when, from the windows of a small plane, the earth is a distant mosaic of fields, towns, rivers, and cloud shadows. I make the climb by something so mundane as an extension ladder, holding in my hand either a scraper to remove flaking paint or a brush and a bucket of paint to return our house to its former immaculate whiteness. Each summer for more than 40 years I have painted one side of our 1830s Greek revival farmhouse; and sometimes, with the help of family or friends, I also painted either the carriage house—once used for horses and buggies, now for cars—or a smaller barn.

The previous owner had planted small yews at the corners of the house, and, despite my trimming, over the decades they grew ever taller and wider— which led me to place the foot of the extension ladder farther and farther from the foundation. About 10 years ago, I realized that the ladder might slip while I was painting the overhang under the roof, about 20 feet from the ground. I was then in my mid-70s, but physically I still felt young and reckless enough to give it a try: after all, if the ladder did slip, I’d fall on the topmost supple branches of the yew, luxuriant with tender needles that had grown as a result of my last trimming. And that actually happened, but with even more fortunate results than I had foretold: after the ladder fell, not only did I bounce up and down, unhurt, as if the yew were a mattress, but— a miracle that made me twice blessed—the wire handle of my paint bucket caught on a branch, and not a drop of paint spilled.

Although I hired a backhoe operator to remove those overgrown yews, I kept up my annual house painting, without qualms, every summer up to the last one. Painting is a mindless task, giving one a chance to dream and to go back in time, and often I remember those days when—long before I put my faith in the piloting skill of my eldest son—I was trying to guard all three of our boys from harm. Their ages were 13, 10, and three the year we were in France; I had been granted a fellowship to live and write in Paris, during my first sabbatical leave from Cornell. Before returning home, we spent a month visiting other European countries in our little Volkswagen, which would accompany us on the ship we would board in Naples. During those weeks, our children kept escaping their overprotective father, to climb on the parapets of ruins or to experience the vertigo one gets from running up the interior spiral staircase of the leaning Tower of Pisa. For the first time in my life, I felt the terror of heights. I was on a mountain with them—on the rim of Mount Vesuvius—and as I was trying to keep our youngest son from squirming away from my grip, I felt a terror that centered in my testicles. And yet on the morning of the day we climbed that volcanic mountain of ashes, Jean had had to restrain me from jumping over the rail of one hotel balcony to the balcony of the adjoining room, where that youngest son—who couldn’t undo the chain locks he had managed to secure on both the entrance door and the one connecting the two rooms our family needed—was sobbing. (Using fractured Italian and physical gestures, Jean was able to convey to the desk clerk and the hotel owner our predicament. Italians love all young children, and this pair delighted in splintering the door with a crowbar and seeing Jean embrace our three-year-old son.)

As St. Augustine realized about a millennium and a half ago, any entrenched activity or attitude becomes part of our personality. It was natural enough, then, that I lost my fear of heights once my family was safely back at home. But this summer some of that fear I felt on Vesuvius returned to me, though I have no children to protect. On a ladder, I so lost my sense of confidence that I hired painters to scrape, sand, and paint my house, and a carpenter to replace splintered and warped siding, another job I’d previously accomplished. One might assume, given my age, that I should have hired others for tasks like these some time ago, but I’ve always taken pride in my self-reliance and physical agility.

That sudden resurgence of fear has its beginnings in a custom of mine since retirement—every Wednesday I have lunch with friends at the faculty club on the Cornell campus. Their fields of expertise cover a number of the university’s disciplines, and I’ve learned from these congenial companions that their subjects can be as rewarding and creative as literature has always been for me. Because of their contributions, some of their names are known far beyond our table. In late spring of this year, a chance remark by one member of the group—was it connected to his refusal to travel by airplane?—caused me to relate the story of my janitorial experiences as well as a few other events I’ve mentioned in this account. I don’t know whether or not I was boasting about my lack of fear of heights, but that night I had a dream that proved I’d become far less confident in my strength and agility than I had assumed myself to be.

Freudians are adept in decoding dreams like mine as expressions of sexual fears and desires that the conscious mind has repressed. It seems to me, though, that my unconscious mind often serves as a kind of guardian, warning me, through dreams, of excesses in my emotional states and behavior. Here is the dream that is the seed of these recollections, given in the manner of its unfolding: I’m trying to raise a very long extension ladder to reach an open window with a small ledge on the third floor of a brick building. The ladder is too heavy for my strength, but three young women who are passing by—they resemble some of the undergraduates I once taught— easily lift it for me, raising the two extensions higher than the window, and directly in front of it. Ignoring my request that for safety they raise the ladder next to the ledge to enable its user to grasp one of its rails while stepping onto that projecting stone, they nimbly climb the rungs, swinging like acrobats around the ladder to jump into the room behind the window. Much more cautiously, I follow them, feeling the ladder shake and bend as I ascend the narrower and flimsier extensions. As I swing around the ladder in their manner, I see they are already impatiently waiting to descend. The room is dark, small, and empty, and its entrance door locked; I never had a good reason for wanting to enter it. As I prepare to descend, the three young women are already safely down; each gives me a friendly wave before leaving me to my own resources. My hands are sweaty, and I’m terrified they might slip as I swing back onto the ladder. I do that successfully, but the trembling in my knees causes the ladder to vibrate against the bricks. The dream doesn’t relinquish its terror until I am back on the ground—at which point I awake, having learned my lesson.

I guess that anybody in his mid-80s who tries to behave as if he were half his age requires a cautionary dream like that; it made me aware, among other things, that I now require help not only to raise a heavy ladder but simply to carry it from one place to another. Jean and I once owned horses—we bought them when they were young and as eager as we to canter and gallop. We kept them long after they were too old for riding, until they died of ailments that eventually afflict all elderly creatures— one in her stall in the horse barn; the other, a gelding, while peacefully grazing in the pasture. Once I was able to hoist 100-pound bags of horse grain on my shoulder, but now I struggle to do the same with the 40-pound bags of dry dog food needed for an animal large enough for a child to ride.

This summer, while painters climb ladders, my wife and I have been safely below them, engaged in the laborious task of repairing, scraping, and painting the frames and innumerable louvers of 28 pairs of shutters first installed 175 years ago. (We’ve enjoyed working together on chores like this for 62 years, which makes me realize that the janitorial pin I gave her while we were undergraduates foretold much about our future life. She didn’t appreciate, though, the birthday present I gave her a decade ago: in a hardware store, I saw an identical dset of the commercial- type mop and bucket with wooden rollers I’d used as a janitor, and on a whim bought it for her as a joke.) I’ve also been engaged in writing this autobiographical narrative; on occasion, a discovery occurs to me while repairing a shutter, and I desert Jean for an hour or so to return to the manuscript.

Young men make the bravest soldiers, for they believe that death belongs only in their distant futures. In addition to the reasons I have given, this one may help account for my early insouciance to heights, but nothing I’ve yet said adequately explains the longevity of my self-confidence, as I realized while working with Jean. A fuller explanation has to take into account the generation I was born into.

I’ve never had the desire to read the popular book that hypes Americans of my age as members of “the greatest generation.” Human nature hasn’t changed much over the millennia; what alters, I think, are the historical conditions that give priority to one or another of our mixed qualities. While reading in bed a few nights ago, I found myself engrossed by a magazine article about the American response to altering historical conditions. Written by an economics historian, it presents the thesis that the democracy we accept as granted requires for its continuation sufficient prosperity to keep most people content with their lot. It uses statistics and contemporary records of our numerous economic downturns and depressions to demonstrate the erosion of belief in equality and justice in times of suffering and hardship. During such historical periods, resentment made America a fertile ground for physical violence and mass riots while exposing all the prejudices lying dormant in times of relative prosperity. The single exception to this unstable state of affairs—that famous exception proving the rule—is the Great Depression in which my generation came to maturity.

The brief article doesn’t explain this anomaly, but the reasons seem obvious to me, and probably to any other member of my generation who has survived long enough to compare the present period to that one. In retrospect, I can recognize that we were innocent about more matters than sex. We were naïve about many of the racial, religious, and other prejudices that afflicted America, for we believed so much in the ideals of our country that we ignored, as did our Founders, the shortcomings in our practice of them. The relative lack of resentment during those long years of economic hardship is largely a consequence of the common knowledge that the Depression affected nearly all citizens, whether they had been rich or poor before the 1929 financial collapse; the Depression made manifest the American ideal of equality and the sense of social justice that stems from it.

Cleveland College was a microcosm, in the Midwest, of the nation’s liberal idealism. It was an American version of English working-class colleges, the difference being that the adults who attended represented a cross section of our populace; and they, like the younger students on working scholarship, were full of hope for the future. (My parents, like those of most of us on scholarship, had not attended college, but it was assumed by parents and children alike that somehow we would have that privilege.) The Depression was responsible for the success of Cleveland College; the building was demolished to become a temporary parking lot after the final World War II veterans had attended classes on the GI Bill.

In this first decade of the 21st century, how can I explain to myself and to others the strong belief in a better future that most Americans shared during the Great Depression? To resort to a metaphor fitting my subject, we may have been clustered on the bottom rungs of a ladder, but that American ladder rose into the heavens, and someday we would climb higher and higher. For professors and students alike at Cleveland College, the guiding spirit behind our idealism was clearly Franklin D. Roosevelt, and it is apparent that—from his first inaugural speech in 1932 onward—he aroused the American capacity for hope.

To freshen my memory of that inaugural address and its effect on the public, I’ve just looked at my copy of Samuel Eliot Morison’s Oxford History of the American People. Though Roosevelt’s words bluntly confront the immensity of the financial crisis, and demand greater presidential power to overcome it, the crucial—and most famous—sentence opens the address. To Morison, it “sounded like a trumpet call”: “First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Morison gives two examples to illustrate the electrifying power of this speech. One is from Will Rogers, whose humor and cowboy mannerisms had made him a popular newspaper columnist. On the day following the inauguration, Rogers said in his column that “for three years” Americans haven’t “been as happy as they are today. No money, no banks, no work, no nothing, but they know they got a man in there who is wise to Congress, wise to our so-called big men. The whole country is with him.” The other example comes from a New Hampshire woman whom Morison met that same day; he says she came from a town that always had voted Republican. In response to his question as to what she and her fellow citizens “thought of the new president,” she replied, “We feel that our country has been given back to us.”

To those examples, I can add a third. My father, a Republican, may have been among the minority who voted for Herbert Hoover, but following the address he became so pleased that his middle name, like Roosevelt’s, was “Delano” that he altered his pronunciation of it—like our new president, he now accented the first syllable instead of the second.

What accounts for my self-confidence over the many years in which I felt no fear of falling? I’m sure it had a major source in the words and actions of Roosevelt—as well as in all that I learned about the courage of ordinary people and the generous support they gave each other (as a child, I was a recipient of that support) during the Depression. I kept my indifference to heights long after wiser people, recognizing the limitations that the passage of time places upon all of us, became cautious. I was willing to climb tall ladders even after I saw a horrifying image and read eyewitness accounts of innocent people jumping from the fiery windows of the collapsing Manhattan towers. I regret the necessary dream that made me fearful, just as I regret the inevitable disappearance of Jean’s and my alma mater—the building in which I met her and learned many things that also have enriched my life, including the skills of the janitorial trade.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

James McConkey is Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature Emeritus at Cornell. His books include The Telescope in the Parlor, Court of Memory, and To a Distant Land. His next book, The Complete Court of Memory, is forthcoming.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up