Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lower Passages - A Short Story by Fred Herrman

Just a few months ago, like a fog that clears and reveals a place and a time, I suddenly recalled that as a child, I used to use to explore a set of underground easements and tunnels from a passage in my old house.

It sounds strange, I know. 

At the age of eight, my parents and I moved into a large old house in a semi-suburban, semi-rural area of northeastern California, which was built where there had been gold-rush industry many years earlier.  One could see while driving around the town that there were skeletons of rusted mining apparatus and earth-sifting equipment built into the hillsides and sprinkled throughout the small city.  We lived there for about three years. 

My parents weren’t around much, and I was raised as an only child.  They worked a lot and then spent most of their free time socializing with friends of theirs.  This was a town where there wasn’t a whole lot for a kid to do other than to explore around and make his or her own playground out of whatever was available in this wooded and hilly area.  Our old house was built on slab, rather than on foundation, and one of the features of the large home was that in one of the dens, the most remote of the two, was a set of what appeared to be built-in book cases on either side of a mason fireplace.  They were innocent looking enough, just holding old accounting and finance reference books. 

However, the bookcase to the left of the fireplace was actually a door built with a long, vertical hinge on one side, which could be swung open smoothly to reveal a somewhat roomy wet-bar.  This was comprised of a sink, mirrors, and shelves of cleaned glasses of all sorts, full wine racks and other assorted drinks.  The space was large enough to fit three adults cozily, who could sit down in tall barstool chairs with high wooden backs and cast off another day’s work with a good liqueur and a smoke.

What I discovered sometime soon after moving in there was that one of the lower wall panels, and a piece of an adjacent floor panel in the back of the wet-bar, lifted up and out.  I remember showing this to my father once, who passed it off as part of an aging house and as a section that was possibly needed at some time in the past to access plumbing for the bar.  The next time that my parents were gone, I lifted the pieces out, and with a flashlight, I lit up the hole and found that there was a shallow passage under the level of the house slab that was wide enough for an eight-year old boy to squeeze into. 

I don’t think I entered during that first viewing, but rather ruminated on whether it was worth further exploration.  The concept of a vacuous nothingness just tens of feet from my bedroom arrested my thoughts for probably two or three nights laying in bed.  But sometime during that same week when I had the house to myself, I went back.

Opening up the wood panels and shining the flashlight in again, I summoned up the nerve to squeeze into the hole in our bar floor and wall and then crawl down into to the cool and musty space.  I crouched silently for a minute, whipping the beam of my light in either direction.  What I found was that the space was not wide or long at all.  I was sitting in what was more like a cement box.  But to one side of this cube on the floor was a slat.  I peered over and saw that I could slide myself lengthways over the ledge to yet another level below, the floor and walls of which were all dirt. 

Now I was in some sort of actual underground passage that looked like it had been hand-carved into a natural rift in under the ground to make it wide enough for a person to fit through.  There were two directions to go, but one looked more inviting than the other, being that it headed at more of a downhill slope.  The other direction had a tight corner to it and then a bottleneck, but proceeded on after that.  But I wasn’t sure if I could fit through it. 

I headed down the easier side, mostly crawling with my elbows an occasionally goose-stepping.  I almost always wore Toughskins blue jeans, which were jeans, made for kids who played hard in the mid 1970’s.  They had pre-ironed on knee patches that could withstand a lot of friction and scuffling about.  There was no doubt that I would get dirty down there, and I knew it, but I could explain this all away to my parents should they later catch me laden with mud and grime that I had just been playing in the nearby hills.  They wouldn’t know the difference.

I crawled for what I figure now to be about hundred-fifty feet through this slightly descending tunnel, when I came to a turn to the left, and then it dropped off like a shelf to an open earthen cavern.  Below the drop off was a wooden ladder fastened into the earth that was about twenty feet down.  After testing the ladder to see if it was secure, I attached a string that was part of the end of the flashlight to my belt loop and let it hang down to illuminate my way down the ladder. 

The light swung with each movement I made casting ghoulish shadows onto the side of the cavern walls, magnified and complicated by the flashlight’s swaying back and forth near the rungs of the wooden ladder.  It was cold down there.  A curious eight-year old is either scared or not scared.  Further thought into what and why all of this was didn’t enter much into my young mind.  I wasn’t scared.  It was there for me to explore, and that’s all that mattered. 

The bottom of the ladder reached a thin dirt ledge that was met with a sloping slab of concrete leading down away from the ladder.  The concrete was the width of the whole cavern on the side that I was on, and it ended at the dirt walls about thirty feet on each side of where I was.  So the only direction I could go was down the concrete.  It was at about a 45 degree angle, and course in texture, which made for an easy surface to squat my way down, and I knew, a not very difficult way to get back up.  I was all legs in those says from being a boy who continuously ran and climbed in the hills. 

I untied my flashlight from my belt loop and shined it along the whole cavern, up, down, and each corner where the earthen walls met.  Even I at that age could tell that wasn’t just a coincidental meeting of natural openings underground.  This was large enough that it was definitely human excavated.

There were three or four tunnels that led out of this cavern.  From one of them, I could hear something like the sound of machinery coming from that direction.  I walked slowly into that tunnel opening, which quickly opened into a room that had burnt out old-style light bulbs recessed into the top of the earthen ceiling. 

To the right of the room was a large metal cabinet; one that might house electrical or generator equipment.  The cabinet hummed with a steady mechanical sound, and occasionally seemed to change gears, as if it was running equipment that was either lifting, like an elevator, or was changing due to torque requirements. I stood there and just looked at it, expecting it to stop, or to somehow give an answer about its purpose.  But it did nothing different.  It simply kept at its work uninterruptedly.   

As an adult, considering how far I crawled and climbed, I’d have to say that at this point I was about fifty, to sixty feet below ground level.  And yet, to me, this was neat, wondrous, and convenient.  It did not seem completely strange and perplexing, as it should have.  It would become an ordinary, yet private part of my life, and that may be why I had forgotten about it for so many years after we moved away. 

To the opposite side of the machinery, going left in this tunnel was yet another room.  It was connected by another opening and was recessed by only a few feet from the room with the machinery.  I could see cement foundations of things that had once been affixed to the floor of this room among the earthen floor.  What came to my mind back then were things like lathes, cutters and such. The cement foundations were no wider than four or five-foot wide squares, and they seemed to have steel stumps, which has been sheered off at the surface of the cement indicating that, more than likely, machinery with legs had once been attached to these cement foundations.   

Thinking about it now, I realize that I never found any signs of other people recently in these areas.  I didn’t look for this fact as a child, but remembering how these tunnels and rooms looked, there were no abandoned sleeping bags, trash or evidence of partying, as one might find in easily accessible abandons sites.  So, I have to think that it was completely unknown to most people.  I suppose the exception would have been for whoever maintained the machinery in the previous room.  That is, if it was maintained at all, and not some forgotten system that had never been turned off.

There was only one time that I thought I heard someone in these passages.  It was one of my solo visit, and it had been when I had taken one of many other tunnels that I found along the way, most of which seemed to loop around in a way that I could not understand an could lose my bearings in.  I never got to the bottom of whether someone else was actually down there or not during that visit.  But it spooked me badly, and I believe that most often after that, I brought a friend along with me.

From this recessed room, I found a vertical tunnel that lead down, as a manhole would, to yet another lower level.  This hole had a steel encased at the top with metal rungs that protruded out from one side.  After testing these rungs, which proved to be secure, I climbed down the hole and found that it turned into a horizontal tunnel after about fifteen feet, and then lengthened high enough for me to walk through without crouching at all.

From my vantage point, I could hear the faint sounds of water, like a small, babbling brook underground.  It seemed to come from an adjacent tunnel in this section that appeared too small for me to fit through, and which in my three years worth of visits, I was never able to locate the source of.  But the sound of what I liked to think was a brook brought a calmness to my wanderings down there. It made me feel as if I was not that far from normal things.

I walked for several minutes.  It was the longest section up to this point.  I’m sure now that I walked between an eighth and a quarter of a mile; probably about a thousand feet.  The tunnel made small variations in direction, but was mostly straight, and very dark, but lit thanks to my flashlight.  In all of my times down there, I knew to keep fresh batteries in my flashlight, but I never really thought about how well I could have found my way back if my flashlight had completely failed for some reason. 

I came upon some sort of break in the dirt ceiling of this tunnel, where a metal beam, like one that would hold high-tension power-lines, stabbed through the right side of the tunnel, as if the tunnel was inadvertently dug towards this beam, or that the metal beam at some point pounded through the tunnel.  There was a very faint light up next to the beam, and I could tell it eventually lead up to daylight.  Somehow the earth around the beam was jiggled loose making a little bit of light slightly penetrable at my depth.  But, now, looking back and understanding a little better about the topography around those parts, I have to assume that in the great distance I had walked, I was then in an area where the hills had sloped slightly down above me, reducing my actual depth under the surface.  That would explain better the little hint of daylight I could see.  But the only direction possible for me was forward.

I walked another probably 300 feet, when the tunnel took a sharp turn to the left.  When I made the turn, I could see some metal housing ahead of me.  I had to climb over a large slab of rock that looked like it had slipped from its natural place in the side of the tunnel and which blocked my way.  From there, I was able to get to the metal room.  When I arrived inside it, the area looked like some sort of observation perch or control room.  There were intercoms, metal controls on a panel board with three seats bolted to the floor, and what had been windows in front of the panel board.  But upon looking out of the direction of the windows, there was nothing.  It was all welded shut with light green and pale yellow steel.  The most I could do was to climb a set of stairs that left this room, like a ship’s tight staircase, which led to yet another enclosed metal room, with even less hint of what it once was.  This point tended to be me and my friends' destinations when we went down there during successive visits.

In one freakishly strange occurrence, I woke up one late night in the first part of the tunnel system nearest our bar opening, having sleep-walked, or sleep-crawled into it and then going back to sleep on a mat that I had bought down there at some point.  I never disclosed this to my parents because of how seriously dangerous it could have been had I gone a little farther to the ladder area.  I thought I had been found out when the next morning, my father told me that I had slept walked.  Without my saying anything, he continued on with the story that at about 9:30pm, which was earlier on that same evening, I had wandered into our kitchen in my pajamas, lifted my shirt to him to expose my belly, and proclaimed to him that I had holes in my stomach.  He dismissively sent me on my way back to bed.  Apparently, that night I had experienced a propensity for sleep-walking, something that has never again occurred since that strange night.

When I think about where our house was, and about what direction I was probably going while underground, I can make a good guess of where I ended up each time I took these passages.  Our home is no longer there.  In its place now sits an area gym and small corner mall.  But, within a mile of our house was a very large industrial complex, which even to this day is still owned by a private company.  It has always been inaccessible to the public.  The complex sits in the nearby lower hills, which descend from our old neighborhood.  An Internet map of it shows that it is not a working site anymore, but is rather grown over by trees and shrubbery.  But I suspect that at one time it contained a large quarry or two.  It would explain rooms that are now underground, but which at the time needed observation of the excavated area below it.  Why any of that connected to our old house in such a circuitous and almost impenetrable way is still a complete mystery to me.  I drove back to the area just a two months ago and ask people if they knew of anything like this.  A couple of the long time residents said that they had heard of similar stories of underground passages, but they couldn’t give me any definite answers about them. 

As I mentioned in the beginning of this account, there were selected friends of my age that I used to bring down there with me; really just two that I remember.  They were close friends, and probably as luck would have it, were as afraid of what their parents might prohibit them from doing during their spare time as I was of mine.  So they never said anything of this to their parents either.  The friend who I used to take down there most often was named Gary.  He was slightly smaller than I, and I think admired my confidence and adventurous nature.  So I found it easy to explore the tunnels with him and he followed me without question. I trusted him.  It was a way of my feeling like I had command of the navigation of these tunnels, and yet at the same time, I didn’t feel all-alone down there.  I’ve never seen Gary since we moved away from that little town and I don’t even remember his last name.  The other friend that I brought down there once or twice, unfortunately died later in life when he was about 35 years old, so the passages are not a memory that I am able to share with anyone who experienced them with me.  I wonder if Gary is still around, and what he remembers of this; if it’s a lost or vague memory of his now, and how impacting versus coincidental those explorations were to him.

When I remembered all of this recently, the most powerful feeling I recall is that of having mastered something.  I conquered the unknown and developed an internal map of this hidden underground.  In my account here, I haven’t bothered describing all of the pathways that led into areas that I never fully explored, partially because they were so off of the main route that I had worked out, as it were.  But there were many of them.  So part of the confidence that I felt was from the idea that I could leave the confines of my parents house and navigate these passages in a world familiar to only me; a world that few others even knew existed.  It used to give me a sense of self-identity and pride.  And just as the purpose of the passages still remains a mystery, I am also at a loss to explain how I had forgotten about them for all of these years.