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by Dennis Rials, Founder, Bedrock Foundation Repair

I have hired many workers who were scared to crawl under a house. This is common, and in my own personal case, I found that I was very claustrophobic. I tried to fight it out and combat my claustrophobia, but at times I just couldn’t work under the house at all it was so intense.

Because of that, I was sympathetic to the workers who wouldn’t crawl under the house, but I couldn’t use them if they couldn’t work, and I had to go at it alone.

I remember one house in particular, in my first year in the foundation repair business, that was very tight underneath, and I was working there alone. I would crawl up under the house as far as I could go, trying to set up a jack or two to do the raising. I soon got stuck. It is easier to squeeze in there than it is to back out.

Just like a cat that finds it easy to go up a tree, but it can’t find a way to climb down. I carried a large claw hammer with me at all times for this situation, and once I got stuck, I panicked, and I quickly began clawing at the dirt to dig myself out. I soon found out that this cannot be done quickly, so instead of screaming and losing total control, I would close my eyes sometimes and just try to go to sleep, there, under the house. After a while of rest, trying to remain calm, I would return to the digging the hard clay soil out from under my body so I could squeeze out from under the floor joists. Under this one house I managed to get seriously stuck under it a number of times, sometimes taking hours to get out. It was nerve racking at times, and once I got out, it took a long while to build up my nerve to get back up under there and finish the job.

I don’t know where I became claustrophobic, but maybe it’s because of an incident that occured with me in college. I was at Michigan State University, in the dormitory, and everyone was leaving for the Christmas break. They were shutting the dorms down completely, and everyone had to go. I waited to the last minute, of course, and I decided to go to the basement and wash a load of clothes before I left. I took the elevator down, and when I started to come back up, and took another elevator that was about a foot off the ground for some reason. Like an idiot I got into the elevator, pushed my floor button, the door closed, and there I was. The door would not open. The elevator would not go, and I was stuck.

Nobody was around, like I said, they had already left for the Holidays. I faced having to stay there for a long time, too long in fact. I’ve seen in the movies where they have an access door in the top of an elevator. Forget it. There isn’t one. I was stuck in a solid box, and screaming would do no good. I tried everything. I was in there for hours and hours.

I discovered I could manually pull open a first set of doors, but the outside set of doors would not budge. Later, I ran my skinny arm behind the doors towards the next elevator, and I discovered a lever. I didn’t know what it was for. After a while I found that if I stuck my long legs out to hold open the first set of doors, reach far inside with my arms to pull the lever, and then with another arm at the same time, I could open the outside set of doors. The lever freed the lock on the outside set of doors, and I was free. From then on I took the stairs.

Another incident occurred when I worked at Texas Bank in Dallas, one of my first jobs ever.

I was asked to work on a Saturday, which was a rare occurrence at this bank at this time. It was a high rise building, and absolutely no one was in the building on this Saturday but us, on about the 8th floor or so.

I worked diligently and hard all morning I remember, and then I had to go the boys room. I realized that the boys room was on the floor above, so I took the stairs instead of the elevator.

I walked up the stairs and found that the door was locked. Then when I went back down to my floor, that door was locked. I went all the way down, and all the doors were locked, including the door at the bottom going to the outside. I guess that’s quality security for a bank to lock all its doors. I went up and down the stairs a number of times, a long ways, and I could find no way out.

I was tired, frustrated, and panicky from again, being stuck. I tried everything. Our office was far down a hallway, and there was no way anyone could hear me yelling. There was no way out at the top of the stairs. It was hot.

At the bottom of the stairs, I tried and tried to get the door open to the outside, and finally realizing that the door wasn’t too sound anyway, I angrily reared back and gave it an extremely hard kick, like I’ve never kicked before. The door severed from it’s latches and slammed open wildly.

I remember there was a homeless man sitting close to the door and I liked to scared him half to death. He didn’t know who I was and what I wanted, but I could see the fear in his eyes once he saw the desperation and panic in my eyes. He sat there on the ground, frozen in fear, as I quickly passed by and went on my way.

Maybe it is these incidents that have matured my claustrophobia, but my daddy once told me he was very claustrophobic, and so was his mama, my grandma Zeola Rials.

I once went out of town to sign some papers at a bank, but before I went into the building, I first had to find a bathroom. I went into a small cafe in the town square there, and there was a small bathroom at the rear of the cafe. When I trying leaving the bathroom, I found I could not get out. They had some junk door handle that turned and turned around, but it was broken, and it would not turn the lever to open the door. I try to jimmy it open and everything else, and there I was again, stuck, with an appointment I had to be in a few minutes. I couldn’t get out.

To my luck, this wood door opened to the outside, not the inside. I gave it a swift and hard kick, and the door swung wildly open into the cafe. It shattered the wood door frame to splinters in fact.

Apparently many restaurant clients there eating could hear me inside that bathroom trying to get out, cause when the door slammed open I could tell they were about to go and try to find help.

I walked through the cafe quickly and got out of there, because I was shaken up and panicked.

Nobody dared to talk to me about the damage to the bathroom door, but I bet they fixed the lock.

My absolute worse attack of claustrophobia came a few years later, when I went to inspect a large, brick pier and beam house, in a distant part of Dallas. The house was vacant, and I soon found a scuttle-hole access in a closet. I pulled the board cover off, and looked underneath. The house had very little crawl space, but I could get around under there just barely. What made it more difficult is that there were air conditioning ducts all over the place.

This was one of those houses that I saw probably had quite a bit of rotted lumber, and I needed to inspect it well to find out how much the estimate should be. I had to crawl all of it carefully to inspect the lumber, so there it began.

I crawled way down to one side, so I could get around the ac ducts, and then down another, and so on. And then it happened. My flashlight began getting dim. I don’t think I’ve ever had a flashlight go from dim to darkness so quickly. The juice was gone in just a minute, and I was way under the house, in the early evening, in the pitch, black, darkness. The house was vacant, no one else was anywhere around, and I could not remember exactly where the scuttle-hole access was so I could get out. The panic set in, and as I’ve been most of my life, again, I was stuck.

The access hole would be between some floor joists, in a recessed area there. I went up and down, feeling with my hands against the floor above, sometimes scraping against nails coming through the floor. I worked my way around ac ducts, in the total darkness, over, and over, but I could not find the opening to get out. I was in there for hours on end. I tried to go up and down one set of joists until I could go no further, then I would take the next set and go down there, thinking I would eventually reach the opening to get out.

I thought that if I waited till morning, that perhaps some light would shine through some of the cross-vent openings, and then I could see. I couldn’t wait, though, and I never stopped crawling, not for an instant, but just kept going up and down under that house, over and over, until finally I found my opening to get out.

I came through that hole and got out of that house as fast as I could. My nerves were shot and I was shaking. Still panicked, but relieved that I was finally out, I vowed to never again end up in that situation.

Instead, today, I crawl under houses for a living, and I am still quite claustrophobic. I just don’t like elevators.

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