By Cole Williams
Designer of The Journal
We were chatting at the office the other day when the subject of phobias came up. I found this interesting because most of us suffer to some degree with some phobia or another. We aren’t generally born aware that we are afraid of a thing or situation. We usually find out in some unpleasant way that we harbor an irrational fear.
On our honeymoon, my wife Doris and I visited the catacombs of Paris. These consist of a series of tunnels and chambers resulting from stone being quarried to build the city. As Paris expanded in the 1700s, rather than rudely building over the outlying cemeteries, corpses were disinterred and carried down into the catacombs. Today there are a mind-boggling six million human skeletons down there. Doris and I are both horror movie fans, so this seemed right up our darkened alley.
There are several large chambers in which the bones are artfully arranged.
The chambers are connected by yards of narrow, dark and dank tunnels. I’m not sure of the height of the tunnels, but I’m 5’7” and had a hard time standing up straight. One has to climb down 130 steps of spiral staircase to get to the beginning of the bone dance. The exit is a tad less than a mile away. It’s hard to imagine a worse time and place to discover that you’re claustrophobic.
The first panic attack hit when I was halfway through the second tunnel. This included a runaway heart rate and the proverbial “walls closing in” sensation. I was determined to make it through all 1.5 kilometers of these catacombs and I did. Toward the end I was bent at the waist and running through the tunnels like a diarrhea-stricken ape, but I made it. No one that I know of has ever been hurt down there since the catacombs were opened to the public in 1810. I felt like a complete nincompoop.
I was again tested a few years later when we visited the Mesoamerican pyramid city of Tekal, Guatemala. Our guide wanted to show us an interesting bit of architecture in one of the pyramids. This was only accessible through a system of narrow tunnels. Here we go again.
As we entered the initial antechamber, a large bat flew over our heads and flapped its way out of the entrance. Silhouetted by the clear blue sky, its wingspan looked to be at least a foot. Our guide said “Eet’s jeest a sparrow.” This made me laugh out loud. “Well,” I said, “that’s the hairiest sparrow I’ve ever seen.” Perhaps bolstered by the levity of the hairy sparrow encounter, I made it through these tunnels just fine.
I’m no shrink, but I have a theory which may explain my claustrophobia. In my early 20s I used to be a laborer in the refractory industry. This involved jackhammering old gunite and fire bricks out of huge metal vessels on industrial sites along the River Road. Skilled craftsmen would then replace these materials, which kept the vessels from melting like butter when superheated product was pumped through them.
A coworker and I were nearly welded inside one of these metal monsters in St. James Parish. When we realized the entrance plate was being welded into place, we started banging on it with the pipe wrenches we were using to take down the scaffolding. The welder heard our frantic clanging and switched to his acetylene torch. Had we been trapped in there when the vessel went back on line, we would have been vaporized. No DNA. No nothing.
At any rate, I like to think that I’ve conquered my fear of enclosed spaces. However, on a recent trip to Paris, Doris asked if I’d like to revisit the catacombs. Very funny. “No thanks.” I said, “Been there, done that.”
I figuratively whistled past the literal graveyard.