Once upon a time—1981 to be exact—Princess Leia (indirectly) saved my life.
At that time, I was a poor college student at West Virginia University. As a choreographer for the university's jazz dance company, I had been developing a dance that demanded a very difficult lighting plan; one that could ricochet back-and-forth between illuminating and silhouetting the dancers. In my manic quest for lighting perfection, I decided to enroll in the Theater Lighting course so that I could design the plan myself (and befriend people who were good at running the light board so that I could use them for my own selfish gains).
So I signed up for the class and quickly discovered that everyone else in the course was already fairly familiar with stage lighting because they had all worked behind the scenes during college plays. I had always been on the stage, so I didn't know a Leko from a Fresnel and—if I am completely honest here—I still don't. (NOTE: They are types of lights used in the theater—for the rest of you who don't know the difference either.)
I did okay in class at first—when all I had to do was memorize names like Leko and Fresnel for a vocabulary quiz. But before long, I found myself trapped inside a theater with a pack of fast-moving stage techs shouting directions at me to "unplug a something-something" and "reattach the (expletive deleted) cord to the thingamajig". That's when I began to suspect that there was more to theater lighting than just the pretty colors we see onstage. There was like electrical work and know-how involved! It was shocking in a very real way, if you know what I mean. As I stumbled through the tangled spaghetti of electrical cables (that all looked the same to me), I silently swore that I would overcome my lack of lighting know-how and become someone that my lighting professor could rely on.
And I did. I became his personal go-fer that very same day (mainly because I almost caused a small fire or electrocution or something along those lines early in the morning). However, I excelled at dashing out to pick up fresh coffee and snacks and the occasional Leko or Fresnel (although I always had to be told which was which).
And then, just when I thought I had the hang of my theater lighting class, my professor threw a curve ball—even for those students who actually had lighting know-how. We arrived at class on a cold, snowy day and before we could remove our coats and hats, our professor said "Follow me to the main theater". It was time for another "real world" lighting lesson.
Now, lighting technicians must naturally possess certain traits: they must (A) have a good head for heights, (B) see well in the dark, and (C) be agile on ladders and wire grid decks strewn with lights and electrical cables. To stress these career-making-or-breaking facts, the good professor decided to make us climb a ladder in the barely-lit main theater. We began our ascent beneath the stage in the orchestra pit and—still wearing our snowy boots—had to climb (at least four stories) to the wire grid deck (about three stories) above the stage.
I had no fear of heights at the time, so I thought nothing of it as I began my climb on the cold, round pipe-like rungs. But after only a few steps, I realized that I needed to be extremely careful. The tread on my boots was still packed with snow (because WVU in the winter is basically the Hoth System) and my feet repeatedly slipped on the rungs, shooting out from under me. Apparently, I was not the only one wearing icy footwear because the rungs above me bore chunks of melting icy mud, making them more difficult to grasp. Each time I experienced slippage, my heart would pound a little harder.
Just after passing the height of the stage, the students above me significantly slowed in their climbing speed. I could hear my professor shouting to someone at the top of the line, "You can do it. Take your time. You won't fall."
The word "fall" tingled in my ears, but I took some deep breaths and shook it off—patiently waiting for the line to begin moving again. And then, about thirty feet off the ground, my ice-caked boot shot off the rung and I nearly plummeted backwards into the pitch blackness below. I yanked my body into the ladder and froze, clinging to it for dear life. Pressing myself into the cold, wet rungs, I tried not to hyperventilate and/or cry.
One student below me had wisely insisted they couldn't do the climb and, with assistance, had gotten off the ladder while they were alongside the stage. But the stage was a long way down. And the lighting grid was a long way up. I was trapped between a dozen students above me and several more below.
(My Princess Leia action figure modeling my death-defying climb on the ladder to my office.)
And then I did a really stupid thing: I looked down. My head began to spin. I couldn't see anyone beneath me; only a black, seemingly-bottomless pit. My stomach lurched and I quickly swiveled my head forward and pressed it to a rung. My palms began to sweat profusely, making my predicament even more grave. As I tried to catch my breath and slow my heart rate, I could hear a girl above me saying "I can't! I can't do this!" and the voices of my professor and other students cajoling and encouraging her to keep climbing. That's when I knew I couldn't do it either. That was the moment when I suddenly became AFRAID OF HEIGHTS!
The line above me began to move. But I couldn't. I was paralyzed. My hands were too sweaty and my boots were too slippery to risk moving. I was so terrified that I became angry. Angry at my professor ("What was he thinking??? Someone could die today! And it might be me!"), angry at my sweaty palms and at the innocent-looking snow that had made my boots so dangerously icy. Finally, I calmed down enough to know that I had to keep climbing to get off the ladder. Going down would be even more dangerous because I couldn't see anything beneath myself but blackness.
And then—it came to me. Or should I say "she" came to me. PRINCESS LEIA!
Would Princess Leia be scared to climb the ladder? No!
Would Princess Leia fall off the ladder? No!
Leia had The Force. She would keep climbing, no matter how dangerous the ladder might be.
Fortunately, I had worked at a job where I played Princess Leia the previous summer. Centering myself, I slipped back into character. And began to climb. With every reach and step up to a higher rung, I pictured myself as Princess Leia—climbing upward.
Finally, I reached to top—only to discover that you had to climb a few rungs ABOVE the grid deck and then step over the ladder onto the decking. For a moment I almost panicked again, but just as my inner Princess Leia evaporated, two students grabbed my arms and helped me get up and over the final hurdle. I was shaking, but triumphant. And—most importantly—still alive!
I have often joked that Princess Leia saved my life on that dang ladder. But it really isn't a joke. It is the truth. I still harbor a tiny bit of fear regarding heights, but I can still channel my Inner Leia when needed, so I have always managed to keep going in scary-height situations.
I wisely chose NOT become a Lighting Technician.
Instead, I became a Princess.
(Just ask my family.)
So there you have it:
The Tall, but True Star Wars Tale of How Princess Leia (indirectly) Saved My Life.
Have a Happy Star Wars Day!
And May the Force Be With You (especially on ladders and in theaters).
[NOTE: One of the "Memoir-ies" that you frequently see pictured inside of my head is a photo of me channeling Princess Leia—besieged by two baddies: the evil Gladbag (aka: my BFF Sheila) and the dastardly Collander (aka: my other BFF Johannah). This photo was taken during a hilarious Star Wars skit we concocted in the summer of 1980 in Myrtle Beach. Sadly, I have no other photos of myself playing Leia—even though I had two FOR REAL jobs playing her (that paid salaries and everything). I grew up in the un-selfie generation.]
PPS: After writing this post and reliving that horrible ladder scenario in my head, I now have to climb down the 11 ft. ladder to escape my office (which is in a tower because I told you I was a Princess).
Unless I can channel my Inner Leia, I may be trapped here for days.