To reach the unreachable jars

I was once walking down a busy shopping street in New Jersey when a man emerged from a storefront and signaled to me. "Buddy," he said, presuming familiarity in the manner of the native Jerseyan. "Got a minute? I need some help."

I followed him into the store - his store, as it turned out - and looked on as he pointed to a high shelf. "My ladder's broken, and I can't reach that box. Grab it for me, will ya?"

Happy to comply, I reached the box with ease, and handed it down to the, well, short man with all the ceremony and sense of fulfillment of a firefighter rescuing a kitten from a tree.

"Anything else?" I asked.

"No, buddy," he said. "Thanks."

Having done my good deed, I went on my way.

That fleeting event was part and parcel of the story of my life. Although I would like to be noted for my personal virtues, however modest they may be, it has been my height that has garnered me the most attention.

I have always been tall.

"You were a long baby," reminisces my mother. In grammar school I was assigned a variety of nicknames, mostly along the lines of the hackneyed "stretch" and "beanpole." In high school, when introduced to my friends' parents, the first thing they would say was not "hello," but "Do you play basketball?"

Truth to tell, I'm not unusually tall. But I've always been lean, a condition that accentuates my 6-foot, 3-inch altitude. And I have always prided myself on my posture, the result of years of my mother admonishing me not to slouch at the dinner table.

As a kid I was the object of bullying for two reasons. First, I wasn't athletic. Second, I was tall and gangly. I recall a fifth-grade friend of mine, of average height, taking me aside and offering his advice after I had been harassed by some classmates. "You're tall," he said, stating the obvious, "but you need to put on some weight. Then you'd be big. Then," he said, jabbing at the air with his fists, "you could bully them!"

The thing was, I didn't aspire to bullydom. But all was not lost. I was, from an early age, of great service to many people because of my height. My earliest recollection of being asked by an adult to reach something was when I was 10. My grandmother was in the kitchen, cooking. I watched as she tried to reach the baking soda on a high shelf. She saw me and, much relieved, asked, "Would you please?" Without a word, I sidled in, reached up, and seized the orange box. My only reward was a kiss on the head, but it made me feel as if I had performed a heroic deed.

Then there was the time when I was a freshman in high school. I was walking past the schoolyard where some of my cohorts had lodged a basketball between the hoop and the supporting pole. None of them was tall enough to reach it, so I ran toward the hoop, leapt into the air, and neatly knocked the ball loose. A cheer went up, and I basked in their gratitude, a superhero.

Even now, as a full-fledged adult, I am called into service with due frequency. In libraries, if the spine of a book beckons you with an interesting title, but you can't reach it, I'm your man.

If an overhead light bulb blows in your home, please stand back and be ready to hand me a replacement, for an 8-foot ceiling is well within my reach. And if your child has scampered to the top of one of those "creative playground" towers and won't come down, just say the word, and I will fetch your little tyke. Always happy to help.

In short, I am in no way self-conscious about my height.

So how do I feel when I meet someone taller than I? In a word, startled.

I'm just not used to having to look up at other people. In fact, just last week I was introduced to someone who was 6 feet, 11 inches. Almost 7 feet tall! I didn't know this person, and when our host left us alone, I didn't know what to say. And so I swallowed, looked up at him and asked, "You play basketball?"

It so happened that he did, and the conversation was saved. But my height had nothing to do with it.

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