On Monday, LeaderTalk ran a blog entitled Tell Me a Story. Which got me thinking: here I am, telling people to treat their life like a story, and it’s been a while since I’ve told when myself. So, no lessons today. No observations, either. Just a good, old-fashioned story… which happens to be true.
Locked In at the Lincoln Park Zoo Reptile House
I’m seven years old. It’s the summer after second grade, and my parents have taken myself and my two younger sisters to Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. They had nixed my visiting the reptile house earlier, but after a slow loop past primates, camels, rhinos, and elephants, we’ve now found our way back to where they keep the scaly things. My mom still has no desire to go in, nor does she want to sit with two young girls by herself while my dad accompanies me.
So they give me permission to go alone.
The reptile house, from what I see, is a rectangle, with the doors placed at the middle of one of the long sides. I’m the only one in there. I pretty much jog past all the exhibits; these are massive lizards and even massiver snakes, most of which are indistinguishable from the branches and rocks they’re hiding amongst. I’m on my way back on the door, somewhat disappointed, when…
…I see it.
To “More Snakes, Amphibians, Crocodiles & Alligators.”
I head through the door and find myself descending a flight of stairs. The basement is smaller than the main chamber above, and it’s shaped like a barbell. The first room contains dozens of small, backlit cases with smaller snakes in them. The windows are all printed with the same warning: DO NOT TAP GLASS. I’m excited to see a cobra; tap, tap… tap, tap.
I move quickly through the dark, narrow hallway that connects the snake room to the last room on the far end, where the crocodile pits are. The hallway has no light except for what’s coming through the many small frog and toad cases that line one wall.
As if anyone goes to the zoo to see a frog.
Finally, the main attraction: a massive gator pit, and next to it, a massive croc pit.
These creatures are huge; modern day dinosaurs. The glass doesn’t seem thick enough to hold them back. I’m midway through reading about the history of the crocs, including the stories of their capture, when I discover, sure enough, one of them is a confirmed man eater. I have looked back into the pit and am trying to figure out which one the killer is when the sound happens.
Shuffle, creak, thud. It sounded too far away to be the basement door closing.
Then, terrifyingly, ku-chunk, ku-chunk, ku-chunk.
Someone has put out the building lights.
I stand, frozen.
After a moment, the cage lights—which are positioned facing at me from the back of the pits—come on. A croc jumps.
I pass out.
When I come to, everything is pitch black. I get to my hands and knees. I reach for a wall and pull myself up, remembering where I am. I get to window height and peer into the croc pit. The cage light seems to be showcasing me like a spotlight on an entree. A croc had moved nearer to my wall. I am too scared to realize that they would see a reflection of themselves in the glass; my knees buckle and back down I go.
I gain control over my breathing. Sort of. With my heart pounding at a rock concert decibel level, control has become quite a relative concept. On hands and knees, I feel my way to the now pitch black hallway, through the now pitch black snake room, and up the pitch black stairs.
I fear the door may be locked. Terrified and trembling, I reach up and push. It gives way just enough to prove it is unlocked. I sink down, relishing the exhilaration I feel knowing I am about to be safe. I draw a long breath, inhaling stale dust from the floor, which makes me cough up a metallic taste I can still remember today, 30 years later.
After a long moment, I find the courage to try my legs on the stairs. I stand slowly, open the door, and wobble out into the main chamber. Light pours in from the row of glass doors ahead of me. I sprint at them best I can. It’s like running on al dente spaghetti noodles. I can see my parents on the outside—wait ’til I tell them what happened!
I put my hands out, preparing to push that bar across the middle of the glass door. I am running full speed.
I smash into the door, which doesn’t budge. It’s locked from the outside. I check all the doors; they’re all locked. I bang on the glass.
The adventure continues.
I can’t believe this.
My parents see me. They wave.
Did my parents just… leave me?! No way. But… they did! But they wouldn’t! Yet… I can’t see them! The steps are right in front of me! Where could they have…? Obviously they were staying together. But…
It’s an emotionally trying couple of minutes.
Finally, they return, zookeeper in tow. He lets me out.
For the next five years, I have a recurring nightmare that I am being chased across the rooftops of Chicago by a giant crocodile. Other than that, I suffer no real damage—I retain no lingering fears of the dark, of zoos, of crocodiles, or of parents.
In fact, considering that the only lasting evidence I have of the event is the story you just read, I feel quite lucky for the experience.
What’s your story?
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.