My sense of balance is challenged even before I don the distortion goggles.

Four high school seniors zipping along country back roads in the wee hours of prom night. John is driving, and I am behind him in the back seat, our dates aligned on the passenger side. We have gone out to dinner, attended the dance and played games at the official post-prom, and now we are on our way to a classmate’s home for breakfast. Up to this point, our behavior has been exemplary, our innocent revelry free of any and all inappropriate activities, but now John is speeding, and this transgression has just been noted by local law enforcement.

It is heart-stopping to be a teenager and to hear the siren and see the flashing lights that signal an officer’s direction to pull over. We are terrified. Well, at least three of us are. As the sheriff approaches our car, John seems remarkably composed. He rolls down his window and asks with a sincerity that would have made Eddie Haskell proud, “What seems to be the problem, officer?” I am simultaneously mortified and amused; I want to laugh and to disappear.

The sheriff mechanically informs John that the problem has to do with the speed at which he was clocked and its superiority to the posted limit. However, he is well aware that this is prom night, and he quickly ascertains that we pose little threat to the community. In fact, he doesn’t even ask John to submit to a sobriety test. Instead he gives a short lecture about the importance of safety on prom night and lets John off with a warning. It is my first run-in with the law, and I let loose a long exhalation of relief, despite the fact that I’m not even driving.

I thought about this comical incident just a few days ago when I encountered a community relations booth set up by the Ohio State Highway Patrol. A stoic yet friendly trooper stood next to a white line taped to the cement floor and offered the public an opportunity to experience what it is like for the inebriated to try to prove their sobriety. This is accomplished by means of Fatal Vision Goggles, which use special lenses that distort vision, altering one’s equilibrium and thus simulating impairment. The idea is to expose people to the helplessly debilitating effects of intoxicants and consequently discourage drunken driving.

I watched a few volunteers gamely don the goggles and stagger off along the white line. Their companions laughed to see them struggle, and even the participants, themselves, seemed amused by their diminished faculties. Most entertaining of all were the flailing attempts by children, whose innocence and lack of any preconception about the activity fed their genuine surprise and delight. One girl could not stop giggling as she threw her weight back and forth in a dramatic effort to keep her balance.

Although everyone I witnessed had some trouble navigating the white line, I was smugly confident that I could defeat Fatal Vision Goggles and traverse the narrow path with the agility of a gymnast on the balance beam. All I had to do was ignore all visual stimuli. If I could walk a straight line with my eyes closed (a feat I assumed I could accomplish with little effort), then overcoming distortion optics should be just as easy. I decided to give it a try.

When I was merely an observer, I failed to give much attention to the detailed instructions that the trooper gave each participant. Now as I accepted the goggles, I heard him tell me to put my left foot on the start of the line, put the heel of my right foot at the toe of my left foot, put on the goggles, keep my arms at my sides, take nine heel-to-toe steps forward, then turn and come back in a similar fashion. Part of my brain was focused on avoiding visual stimuli, but the rest of my brain noticed something alarming: even before I put on the goggles, I had to concentrate on keeping my balance while standing in the uncomfortable starting position. Still, I was reasonably sure that once I got going, my white line walk would be right up there with the soberest of teetotalers. I leveled my gaze with the horizon and reminded myself that my eyes could not be trusted.

The visual distortion was not profound, yet it was annoying. Everything had a yellowish cast, nothing was in sharp focus, and there was a bit of a double image. It felt like it was within my capability to restore my acuity if only I gave it my best effort, but of course nothing I did could improve my vision. Instead I put all of my concentration into my locomotive skills. I brought my left foot around in front of my right foot, swung my right foot around in front of my left, and kept my arms pressed tightly against my sides, all the while trying to establish a casual pace that sent the message, I am not the least bit inebriated.

But halfway along the line, I couldn’t help but second-guess everything my body was telling me about my progress. Without extending my arms to the side to keep my balance, it felt like I was tottering dangerously with every step, and I could not rely on any visual cues to right myself. My only recourse was to engage in spasmodic attempts to regain stability, a fruitless endeavor which must have left me looking like a second-rate Joe Cocker tribute artist. If this had been my performance on an actual sobriety test, I would have been in cuffs before I could turn around to stumble back. Humbled, I returned the goggles, thanked the trooper, and wandered off massaging my left shoulder, which I had wrenched due to my series of violent contortions.

I thought back to that predawn encounter with a county sheriff over twenty years ago. None of us had been drinking, but how might we have performed if asked to prove our sobriety? I know someone who faced a similar situation in college and was so intimidated by campus police that he actually came to a befuddled stop halfway through reciting the alphabet. Knowing John and his unflappable bravado, I’m sure he wouldn’t have had a problem. As for me, who knows how I would have responded to the stress? I might have been just a Joe Cocker twitch away from jail.