Peterson: New fear brings familiar sinking feeling

We all have our fears, and I have plenty of them, mostly irrational. But fear has a way of grabbing you by the throat, rational or not.

My fears stretch back to my earliest memories. What better to etch a sketch on your brain than a real scare? Slipping off the spinning merry-go-round and cracking my head on the asphalt when I was 4 years old was enough to spawn fears of playground equipment, spinning and, by extrapolation, carnival rides.

Irrational? I doubt it. A few years later, I was smacked in the face by the end of a wooden teeter-totter on another playground, where I was next in line. And standing too close apparently. The equipment was out to get me. That would explain throwing up after a ride on the kiddie rollercoaster at the Minnesota State Fair.

If my mom instilled anything in me, it was cleanliness. And nothing was more unclean than an outhouse. Where do you wash your hands? What is it that was most recently on the toilet seat?

Worse yet, what are the odds of slipping off the seat and plunging into the cistern of raw sewage that you could see with your own eyes, a sight made all the more frightful by the smell of human waste? I was small enough, I had a vivid imagination, making it certainly possible, so maybe I could hold it until we got home. Next week. Gadzooks.

I still cling to those fears, although I haven’t used a real outhouse in decades. Most of them have been replaced with Port-a-Potties, and as disgusting as they are, in a pinch, I will use them. I try to keep my imagination in check. It’s mostly the germs that frighten me now. Mother knows best.

I have a new fear: sinkholes.

The story made the papers just this week, but a week ago, a golfer in southern Illinois Waterloo fell into a sinkhole on the 14th hole at Annbriar Golf Club, according to The Associated Press.

Mark Mihal was out for his first round of golf this year when he noticed a depression on the fairway, as if it was calling his name, “Check me out, Mark.” He walked over, and just like that, he plunged 18 feet into a new sinkhole that was 10 feet across. That’s like falling off the roof of a ranch-style house, not unlike the house we own, and falling off roofs is another fear I have.

It was only two weeks ago that a Florida man, who was tucked in his bed sleeping, was sucked into a monstrous sinkhole that was so deep that his body could not be recovered. Driving by his house, you wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss. But the sinkhole swallowed up his bedroom. And it was threatening neighboring houses.

Mihal suddenly disappeared, and luckily, his golfing buddies noticed he was missing, and they heard his cry for help. Inside 20 minutes, he was rescued from the sinkhole. The details are a little sketchy, but his buddies found a ladder and a rope to help save him from the mud.

The question that comes to mind is: Where do you find a ladder and rope on the 14th hole of any golf course? I’ve played golf before, and those might be two of the last things you would expect to find. The ladder was too short, so one of his partners lowered himself into the sinkhole to tie the rope around Mihal, who was pulled out of the hole, his injured arm in a sling fashioned from a sweater.

The Associated Press reports that there are as many as 15,000 sinkholes in southwestern Illinois. And like the Florida sinkhole, there’s no telling when one might open up on you. It’s the limestone under the surface that dissolves in acidic rainwater, snowmelt and carbon dioxide, a geochemist told The Associated Press. Once the limestone develops a hole, gravity comes into play, and everything above it gets sucked into it. Including curious golfers and sleeping guys.

The experts say the odds are slim you will be sucked into a sinkhole. And most sinkholes are small.

But the words are hardly reassuring. I’ve intentionally dug many holes in our yard, fighting the heavy clay deposits that like to cover limestone. We live in a low spot in town; it used to be a pond until it was drained about 50 years ago. And there’s water under our house, which the sump pump purges nearly year-round.

Certainly, sinkholes aren’t a problem in northern Illinois. I mean, right? There’s nothing to worry about. Right? It’s irrational to think I could be walking across the yard and be swallowed up. It’s a whole new fear, the more irrational the better. That’s how fear works.

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

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