Many people use escalators every day. They have become a part of our everyday life, however, it is said that people used to be really frightened of them. When they were first introduced on the London Underground, the executives for the escalator’s manufacturer, Mowlem and Cochrane asked a one-legged man named William Harris to demonstrate how safe the new-fangled contraptions were. The man rode up and down to show that those who took it were unlikely to lose their balance.
While I can say that it is not likely that a person would lose their balance on an escalator, I can also say, from personal experience that losing your balance is not the only way, or even the most likely way for someone to end up on the steps of the escalator on their knees. I suppose that you could say that I have Escalaphobia…or at least did have. It is something I have been able to work through in the almost 56 years since my escalator experience occurred. I was five years old at the time, and people were invited to come into First Interstate Bank and look around. The big story of the day was the escalator. As my mother was preparing to take her daughters down the escalator, I was placed on first, then Mom had to get my sister on and hold the baby. Someone stepped on between me and my sisters and mom. In front of me, an older woman panicked when it came time to get off. She back-stepped, and I fell. As the escalator tore at my dress, knees, elbows, and chin, somehow missing my long hair, I let out a scream that could have been heard all over town. The bank president came running over, saying, “Please don’t sue!! We will buy her a new dress and pay all the medical bills!!” Of course, my mom had no intention of suing them. That didn’t happen much in those days.
My wounds healed, and I got a new dress, but the scars remain to this day, and the mental scars were even worse. Every time I stepped on an escalator, my heart thumped and my knees shook. I always had to make sure I took a second or two to center my foot on the step. I watched as people tried to keep walking as the escalator moved. That would never be me. I was on the step, and I was watching for the point when I would need to step off of it. After many years, I thought I was feeling pretty secure in getting on and off of an escalator, when my niece, Liz Masterson and I went into the Mall of America a few years ago. As I stepped on the escalator, thinking I had squared my foot, but apparently not quite, I stood there, and as the step behind me moved, it scratched my calf, drawing blood. I couldn’t believe it!! I probably felt at ease for the first time…and look what it had gotten me. Once again, an escalator had cut my skin. I can’t say that I truly have Escalaphobia, but if you don’t mind…I’ll take the stairs.
Wyoming has just two escalators, and they are both located in Casper. One is at Hilltop National Bank, and the other is at First Interstate Bank, in the historic part of Casper, the downtown district. My connection is to the escalator at First Interstate Bank, which was First National Bank then. The building that the bank occupies is located at 104 South Wolcott Street. Construction began in in 1956, the year I was born. According to a write up on nps.gov, “That building opened in June 1958. A pamphlet published by the First National Bank of Casper around 1959 stated: “The dream of the directors began to take shape in 1953, when Architect Robert Wehrli presented preliminary plans for the bank and tower building that was to rise at First and Wolcott…” At the time of its completion it was the tallest building in the state and featured the state’s first escalator. Drive-through windows and two levels of underground parking were introduced in the early 1960s.”
So, I’m sure you are wondering what that information and that building could possibly have to do with me. Well, with the pamphlet came a public invitation to tour the new bank at their open house. My mother, Collene Spencer decided to go and take her three daughters with her, my older sister, Cheryl, who was 5 then; my younger sister, Caryl, who was a baby; and her 3 year old daughter…me. The open house was very cool, and there were a lot of people there. We toured every floor, and found it all to be interesting and sparkling with newness. Of course, the highlight of the whole bank was the escalator. It was the first one in the state and everyone wanted to see it, and have a ride…and we were no different.
As we prepared to leave, my mom assisted me into the escalator, and then turned for my sister, Cheryl, who had stepped aside to look at something. By the time Mom got Cheryl on the escalator, I was a couple of people ahead of them. It had only taken a couple of seconds really. Nevertheless, my place in historic downtown Casper was sealed. As I approached the bottom, the older woman in front of me wasn’t sure just how to get off. In her momentary panic, she started backstepping. At 3 years of age, I had no idea how to do that, and so when my feet hit hers, it pushed her off of the escalator, and I fell. My screams could be heard all over the bank. My frilly dress became entangled in the sharp teeth of the escalator’s steps as they cut my elbow and chin. With that incident, while few people ever knew about it, and you would not read about it in any historical accounts, I became the first person injured on the first escalator in Wyoming. The bank president came running over, promising to pay for medical bills and a new dress, while begging my mother not to sue the bank. Of course, back then things were different, and a lawsuit was the last thing on my mother’s mind. For me, while I was only 3, the picture of that woman backstepping on the escalator steps has always remained clear and vivid in my memory files, and the scars on chin and elbow remain too. While I can use escalators, I still get a pain in the pit of my stomach every time I get on or off.
A few years ago I was watching a show that used to be on television called “Rescue 911” about a boy that wandered away from his mom, who was on the phone with his dad, and ended up in a terrifying situation. They were in a mall or airport or something…that part I don’t recall. What has stayed in my head was what happened afterward. The boy was excited about their upcoming adventure, and ended up stepping onto the escalator without his mom. She was only distracted for a moment, but that was all it took. Not knowing the danger, he simply sat down. The boy was wearing a sweat suit…the next level of danger. When he got to the bottom, his clothing got caught in the teeth of the escalator, and he was trapped. A young man saw it and tried to tear his clothing so he could breathe, but with a sweatsuit, it was impossible. Just before his life would have been ripped from him, the young man rescued him, by hitting the kill switch…thankfully. I’m sure that boy has never forgotten it. It is embedded in his memory for life.
I know, because when I was about 4, my mom took me and my sisters to tour the new bank in town. We had gone upstairs via the escalator. The bank was beautiful, and we all had a great time. mom decided that it was time to go. We went to the escalator, and she helped me on. My sister stepped to the side to look at something, and seconds later, my mom and my sisters got on the escalator, about 4 or 5 steps behind me, with people in between us. There was an older woman about 2 steps in front of me, and when she reached the bottom, she panicked. She began to back step. It wasn’t her fault really. She was scared. But, I was just a little girl.
When my feet ran into the old woman’s feet, it pushed her off of the escalator, but I fell down. Back then it was common for little girls to wear frilly dresses with a full skirt, especially when going somewhere special. That dress was quickly pulled into the teeth of the escalator. My screams could be heard all over the bank. The manager came running. He assured my mom that the bank would pay for all medical bills and buy mea new dress. He begged us not to sue, which my mom had no intention of doing, but he didn’t know that. True to his word, the bank took care of everything…that they physically could.
Over 50 years later, I still cannot step on an escalator without feeling a lurch in my gut. It is no one’s fault, it is just part of who I am. Traumatic events…even in the very young, just don’t go away easily. I felt nauseated while I was watching the episode of “Rescue 911” that night. I was still able to vividly remember those events. When the program was over, I was shaking. It was more real to me than anyone could ever know.
I know it was no one’s fault, and there was nothing my mom could have done, but I want to tell everyone to be careful on escalators, especially with children, as it could easily cost them their lives, if they are caught in one of these. I have seen people allow their kids to take a ride on the escalator…alone. I want to yell at the parents…ask them, “Don’t you know what could happen?” But all I can do is stand by and pray the God will protect those unsuspecting parents and kids. Please…don’t let your kids ride an escalator alone!!