During a recent health history update of mine at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Portland, the interviewer was trying to ascertain whether or not I was suffering from PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) from the war days in Viet Nam.
She asked questions like: "Do you find yourself reacting to sudden loud noises like cars backfiring, or slamming doors?" Well, yes. However, it really has nothing to do with PTSD. I have always been jumpy. When I was a small child, my father got a kick out of scaring the liver out of me. He would hide around dark corners in our old farmhouse to wait for me to come by. Then he would jump out and scare me to death.
Actually, I figured out that I was not scared, but startled. Some people simply startle more easily than others. My phlegmatic sister never flinched, whereas I would "jump out of my skin" when scared.
I realize that it is a "brain thing" and that some people are just jumpy. I have always been one of those types. When I lived in Hong Kong, our housekeeper was like me. We even had our private jokes about scaring each other. Haak Sei Loh. That is the Chinese expression meaning: You scared me to death. We both learned to hum, sing, or whistle to indicate that we were around.
Not long ago, I was sitting in a full theater, watching a particularly "scary" movie – not spooky or creepy, but the type that makes you jump out of your seat. I was sitting next to a rather portly lady who was there with her husband or boyfriend. As the film progressed, we both realized that we were kindred spirits. Everytime we were caught off-guard and jumped, we grabbed each other's hand!
As we left the theater, we made eye contact and said "Thanks." I can't remember ever holding hands with a perfect stranger before. But it was like being with an old friend.
However, the time I just about lost it was when I was still in the US military, living in Augsburg. I was working through Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, a historical novel about Michelangelo Buonarroti. Forbidden by the church and the political powers-that-be in Medieval Florence, he had to sneak into the bowels of various church rectories to dissect cadavers in order to understand the nature of the human body. I was into the scene in a most surreal way. Deep in a dark cavernous basement under some medieval monastery, my hero was clandestinely slicing corpses. He realized that he had to be out by dawn. The candle was burning lower and lower, as only Stone could describe.
I was so into the moment that I had totally forgotten reality, when there came a terrible rap on the door. I was in that dank cellar with moldering bodies. The candle was nearly spent and when the pounding came onto the door, I was horrified. The book literally flew out of my hand and landed on the other side of the room. My heart raced.
Wait. I am not in medieval Florence. I am in my own bunk in Augsburg. Shaking, I got up and answered the door. A friend, Dave, was there wondering if I wanted to go to dinner. Still in startle mode, I agreed. Haak Sei Loh.