I don’t know how I’ll die, but being crushed in a roof or ceiling collapse must be high on the list of possibilities. I have escaped this fate three times in my life. The image of a bloated, sagging ceiling threatening to fall is one of the most common dream imageries I now have, next to my teeth falling out, not having the right books for class and not knowing what my schedule is or what classroom I should be in, and being unable to find my car in the parking lot.
The first incident is the one that would most likely have been fatal. My 4th grade school year was coming to a close in 1983 and I was 10 years old. As an end-of-year celebration, all the students were gathered in the gym for a program, the details of which I can no longer recall. Perhaps we had a sing-along or were given tips on how to stay safe over the summer. Hundreds of kids and their teachers sat in the bleachers on each side of the gym and in folding chairs on the basketball court. We sweated through the un-air-conditioned event and then were free to leave for the seemingly endless summer. But I was back the following weekend when my dance school had their recitals held on the stage of the gym. While I was not performing my ballet or tap routine (I did both), I would sit in the audience with family members and the rest of the students who were waiting their turn. The music for each dance number was loud and echoed through the gym, and no one suspected that the 60,000-pound steel mesh and plaster ceiling above their heads was poised to crash. Once again, the audience left and the gym returned to its quiet state, or at least if it were creaking and groaning there was no longer anyone around to hear.
Then, with the school abandoned for the summer, a little student marching band from Iowa was in the area and asked to use the gym as a place to sleep on June 20. It was 10:45 at night but the band members were not yet asleep. Some were playing outside in the cool night air but a few remained inside when they heard a rumble, looked up, and saw the ceiling trembling. They ran to the nearest exits and cleared the floor just as the ceiling crashed down, smashing pieces of the hardwood and twisting the basketball posts. No one was killed.
My second close encounter happened at my granny’s house in Texas. I was a high school senior making the annual Christmastime pilgrimage with my parents, sister, and brother-in-law to Austin to see my paternal grandmother and the rest of my dad’s side of the family. She lived on beautiful Lake Travis, back when the water level was neither shockingly low (as it was when I visited last November 2011, at around 60 feet lower than average) or tragically high (as it would be one year after my last Christmastime visit, in 1991 when the water rose 29 feet above average and swallowed my granny’s house).
But in 1990 the lake was still harmless. We visited with the relatives and went to see all our favorite familiar sites, including Pedernales Falls and Zilker Park. But on the morning of the last full day there, I woke with stomach pains. I felt nauseated and just wanted to sleep. So even though there was still a day full of activities scheduled, I was allowed to stay home alone and rest while everyone else enjoyed their last day of vacation.
My granny’s little lakeside cottage had only two bedrooms with two double beds in each room, so I was sharing a room with my sister and her new husband. I spent the entire day in bed, waking only briefly to roll gently onto my other side before nodding off again.
By the time my family came home that evening, I was starting to feel a bit better. My mom offered to make me some toast so I took her up on it, and she brought me a plate with one piece of toast smeared with a bit of jam. I ate most of the toast and then, instead of calling her in to get my plate, decided that I was feeling good enough to get up and walk to the kitchen to take it back myself. It was going to be my first time getting out of bed all day. I sat all the way up, scooched to the foot of the bed, which was just across from the doorway, and leaned forward with the plate still balanced in one hand as my feet touched the ground. At the same moment, I heard a loud noise behind and above me. I didn’t know what it was, I just knew I needed to run. I dove for the doorway as I felt something scratch across my back.
My family was there in an instant. I stood in the hallway with the crusts from the toast spilled on the floor about me and looked back into the bedroom. The room’s drop ceiling, just in the location directly over the bed I had slept in all day, had fallen in. I got away with only some scratches on my back and a need to find a new place to sleep for the night.
The last time I was nearly hit by a falling ceiling was in a dive apartment during my junior year of college. The ceiling in our kitchen had been dripping from the apartment above it and I had made numerous calls to the management company. But they didn’t come out and the ceiling began to crack and sag. The affected area was where the kitchen led into the living room. It was obvious that it was going to fall, so I set a chair underneath it to remind my roommates to walk the long way around, through the hallway and past the bedrooms, to get from the kitchen to the living room. But after the chair sits there a while, you get used to it.
My boyfriend and I were watching TV in the living room and I had gone into the kitchen to get a snack. On my way back I decided to chance it and darted under the sagging ceiling past the chair. I made it no problem, sat down on the ubiquitous college futon to finish watching the show, and two minutes later heard a crash behind me.
So now you will forgive me if you see I have a tendency to look up. Not just outside for my nerdy pastimes of astronomy and meteorology, but indoors too. My inner chicken little knows that there’s nothing wrong with claiming that the sky is falling, because sometimes it really is.
"Lake" Travis, November 2011