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Peterson: Stairway to heaven, stairwell to truth

I have been hanging out in stairwells lately, kind of trying to get in some exercise, or at least that’s what the sign on the door of an especially small elevator says.

It saves electricity, if the lack of exercise is not enough to make you feel guilty for pushing a button rather than using your legs.

So I am shamed into the stairwell.

I used to feel trapped in elevators, with the walls closing in and never knowing whether it would deliver me or plunge me to certain death, and I don’t have the coordination to jump at precisely the moment the elevator slams into the ground. I’m not sure that would help because I think the damage would be pretty catastrophic, causing the carriage to shatter into smithereens.

I might be shamed into stairwells, but it carries a lot of personal baggage, and I’m not talking about a backpack and suitcase.

No, I was shamed by a stairwell.

A number of years ago, I applied for a job as a corrections officer. It seemed like decent, interesting work that could be worthwhile. But you don’t just apply for a job as a corrections officer. It’s a three-step process to get your name on a waiting list.

One morning, everyone applying for corrections jobs was asked to meet in the college cafeteria to take a written test. About 300 people showed up. If you didn’t pass the test, you would not be allowed to proceed.

I was fortunate to pass the test. It eliminated about half of the people. I won the flip of the coin.

The second test was physical, and I cannot remember whether physical was defined. I remember showing up at the McHenry County Jail wearing clothes suitable for exercise.

When I arrived at 11 a.m., I was told to come back in about an hour. Things were not going as fast as they thought they would.

I returned at noon, and I waited in a line for close to three hours. The people in line were younger, athletically fit and cracking jokes.

The test sounded simple enough. Run 70 yards with a fire extinguisher down a hallway, set the extinguisher down, run up three flights of stairs, wait for 30 seconds, run back down, retrieve the extinguisher, run back 70 yards, then pull a 150-pound sand dummy 5 yards. Do it in something like 3˝ minutes.

If you passed that test, you advanced to an interview, and if you passed the interview, you were placed on a waiting list. It’s not like the job would happen overnight.

When I got to the point where I could see the actual test, I was concerned. People were breathing heavy, really heavy. And some didn’t complete the course in time, coming up 10 seconds or 30 seconds short.

When I got to the end of that first 70 yards, I was feeling winded. Then I had the stairs to climb. I thought “flight” meant three sets of stairs that might get you to a first floor. No, they meant three floors of stairs. By the time I got to the third floor, I was winded, very winded. I-couldn’t-talk winded.

I was closing in on the sand dummy when I fell trying to put the extinguisher down. I tried three times to get up to grab the extinguisher, which slid away from me. I couldn’t get up the third time. It was the dreaded help-I’ve fallen-and-can’t-get-up moment.

It might have been funny at first to the others. Sure, they were thinking, he will get up and finish and beat the clock. The second and third attempts turned something that could be funny into something that was too painful to watch. They were grimacing.

In an entire life of attempting to be athletic, I was defeated. Worst player, last player picked. But I kept coming back for more. I couldn’t seem to learn the lesson. Until that late Saturday afternoon in the jail stairwell.

I never finished the course. Time had run out on the second or third fall. I stumbled to the finish line. No one was laughing. I tried too hard and failed as miserably as I ever had on any field of play.

They changed the physical-fitness rules for corrections officers, I noticed, when I was leafing through job listings. They now tie fitness to the age of the person, with older people – like me, for instance – meeting different standards.

I learned in that stairwell what I would have learned in an out-of-control elevator. I would be crushed. Which is a novel phobia. Most people understand the fear of elevators – claustrophobia. Being crushed by stairwells? They haven’t come up with a word for it. But fear them I do.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate, freelance writer and former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at

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