Ol’ Granddad

I squirmed in the damp sand, feeling the hard ripples beneath my back. A few inches from my face a curved concrete wall, lit by barely reflected light, threatened to scrape my nose. The tunnel was half filled with sand, its wavy surface betraying that flood waters sometimes rushed through. I squirmed a bit further, paused, and tipped my head so I could look between my bare feet to see my friend.

“You comin’?” I hoarsely half-shouted, half-whispered, trying not to sound loud, and spacing my words out. Sounds tended to get lost in the tunnels, bouncing around until each word and whisper got mixed. Somebody could be say something ten feet away and it would sound like it was in your ear – or hardly make a sound at all. Sounds seemed to travel a mile, rounding every corner. A shout would become a whisper, a whisper a shout – echoing in the tunnels, making judging distance difficult. It wasn’t uncommon to run into someone crawling in the darkness when we would make a chain – head-butting them in the rear with your forehead. You learned to crawl head down and bent. There’s nothing like a face full of butt to teach you that kind of lesson.

“Yeah!” I heard my friend whisper. Only, like I said, it sounded like he was beside me. I grimaced – the tunnel was pinching my broad shoulders – and wormed on.

Ahead the tunnel opened into a small space, a cube. Beyond lay the next round. I carefully shimmied into it, and stood, half squatting in the packed sand. A low concrete roof with an iron ring and cover was over my head; to my right a short shelf ran along the wall. I sat on the sandy shelf, looking out at the world beyond.

I was staring at a small street from a slit in the ground. Ahead lay the road, the dirt eye level. I shifted, digging my feet in the sand after checking for glass. This place was bright compared to some of the tunnels I’d been in. My thoughts turned to Ol’ Granddad – the granddaddy of them all.  All us kids called it that – that big round opening like the pale end of a worm tunneling into the dirt. From its entrance we would sit and debate entering. Few ventured beyond the narrow cone of light entering it during the day. Fewer still knew what lay beyond the curve – of the narrow rooms and narrower pipes that the bravest of us had found.

We were like rats, crawling – carefully, most often blind because none of us owned a flashlight. We would crawl and crawl – not hundreds of feet, but hundreds of yards. It was fun and always a scary adventure.  The fact that it did not bother our knees tells you how tough and hard scrabble us young boys were.  The fact that we were willing to brave the risks of the unknown, what lay in the darkness – knowing there might be rats or glass or snakes (including our own personal terror, the mighty loathsome cottonmouth).  There was a vicious braveness inside of us – a willingness to stick our heads in where angels feared to tread – if just to see what they were so mucking afraid of – and then challenge that thing.

Ol’ Granddad was a terminator pipe that dumped into a ditch a few hundred yards beyond the bend of the road at the bottom of the hill we lived on. It was the tail end of a network of pipes put in to handle the storm water that thunderstorms would bring. The water would sheet down the hill in a crystalline torrent when the Georgia thundershowers would roll in.  Granddad was big and built to handle them. He was concrete – big and strong – and long, curving into the dirt of the ‘hood, diving beneath it.

I don’t know how us kids – “older” kids now, ranging between eight and eleven – came up with the name for that particular section of concrete pipe, except that of them all, it was the biggest, longest, and to most kids, scariest. Few ever dared  explore the tunnels beyond. It curved with the road. Often us boys would gather at the end, for this was a favored dirt clod war zone. The ditches along both sides were deep enough to pose as trenches, protecting everyone who was smart enough – and quick enough – to duck a well thrown clod. Sandy clods full of sharp gravel would arc across that road until a car came, at which point a short truce would be drawn until it passed – then the rain of clods would begin again. Around the corner mid-hill where we lived there was no such protection, and the clods were as soft as sugar.  So we often went down there, slinging these clods – mixtures of clay, sand, and pebbles – at each other. We delighted in the way they would explode in a powdery puff when they hit someone. Using clods with big rocks was forbidden – not by the grownups, but by us – for when a regular clod hit you, it would simply disintegrate, showering you in dust and sand. The ones with rocks hurt; as did clay clods. It just goes to show: children can understand something about cooperation, or else it was from fear. Throwing a rock studded clod could lead to a violent escalation that could end in fisticuffs. At the very least, if you threw one you might find yourself pelted by rock studded clods by both sides, leaving you in welts.

But Ol’ Granddad – that was a big draw, a scary dare, luring us with its dark embrace, its cool concrete walls – beckoning with mysterious whispers. You could hear it whispering to you sometimes; strange sounds – especially when we were gathered around its entrance, debating about entering its mysterious depths and what, if anything we might find.

It took us months to decide to venture into this big old pipe. I can still see it now, still remember it as clear as if those times took place yesterday. How we would sit in front of the pipe, debating – and then finally making the decisions – who was to go first, who was going to go second, and so on.

“Rats might be in there,” someone would nervously say every time, eyeing the dark opening.  “Watch out for glass.”  We would look at our calloused dusty palms, as if envisioning cuts to come.

“Snakes, too,” another might whisper. Everyone was scared of snakes – we knew they sought cool shade during the summer – and rats, we were sure, carried rabies, turning them (in our imagination) into ferocious sharp toothed ravenous monsters. And I didn’t want to get rabies shots again!  (Those scarred me for life in some ways.)  Finally debating – and daring – each other out of our fear, we would venture in.

I’ll never forget those journeys into the darkness. You could ‘duck squat’ if you were short enough, but that took a toll on the legs, so we usually crawled.   The cool, rough cement beneath our hands and knees, we’d crawl along, dragging our toes; the entrance of the pipe – a round white circle – growing smaller and smaller and then disappearing as we’d round the curve. That final glimpse of light before it’s gone. Like an eclipse of the sun it would grow dimmer, the cone of shadow lengthen – and then it would be gone. There would be complete darkness. A sense of vertigo would overtake us; disorientated by the lack of vision, we would find ourselves slowly angling up the curved sides of the tunnel, our sense of gravity gone awry. Your only warning would be a vertigo to warn you. We never took flashlights; that was part of the dare – and it was a long way through the pitch blackness. Not to mention, I don’t think anyone had one. Then slowly, it would appear: a dim gray dot far, far ahead. We would crawl along faster now, more sure of ourselves – a line of boys all in a row, our voices and toes whispering along the concrete.

At the far end Ol’ Granddad abruptly terminated in a concrete room. It was tall – much taller than us, about twelve feet high, with about six feet on each side. Spilling out of the drainage pipe, we’d stand on the sand floor and stare up, relieved to be in the light. The light always seemed gray. Far above our heads the light would trickle around the edges of the heavy plated manhole, and seep through the finger holes you would use to lift it like lances. It was always dry when we crawled. We never ventured into it when it rained, or even if it looked like it might rain, instinctively knowing the threat of a flash flood, and knowing our parents would skin us alive if they knew we were there. There was only one other pipe leading into this terminal, this “junction box” as I came to learn in engineering. That pipe was much smaller, with a thick bed of sand. Looking into it you could see another dim circle of light further on. And of course, only the braver kids would go. There were only two or three of them – me and my best friends.

I remember that pipe very well, the one that we were facing as we stood in that narrow distribution box of the storm drain. It was always damp in that pipe, the sand rose to the middle. You had to crawl on your back or your belly, your nose bumping, shoulders scraping the walls. It wasn’t as dark as Ol’ Granddad – light would trickle in from both ends – nor was it was long as Ol’ Granddad. But the claustrophobic sensation of being squeezed in on all sides was always a bit uncomfortable – more mental than physical – until eventually you would find yourself emerging into a new room, a much smaller room, with another shelf to sit on.

From that vantage point us kids – or at least the few of us who dared – could sit and watch the cars go by on the road outside. Peering through the narrow slit of the rainwater inlet, we would sit there in the cool darkness, whispering and debating to one another, and feeling the thrill of seeing without being seen. It became one of our favorite secret hiding places: no one knew we were there, not even most of the kids of the hood.

“Pssst!” A sharp whisper came at from my feet. I looked down. My friend’s head, dirty blonde and curly, peeped from the pipe. I watched with interest as he squirmed through like a sandy brown worm, kicking aside a shard of glass that I spotted. He squatted, pivoting and peering through the slit, then sat on the sandy bench beside me. A car thundered by, its tires sending deep thumps through the tunnel ahead. The road was ribbed as well with an accordion like layer of sand on top of the hard packed clay and gravel. I could see the little spurts of dust glancing off each one as the car drove by. Its wheels just skipped across the tops of the curves. That’s the only way to take a washboard road – fast. If you go slow you beat both your car and yourself with its harmonics and rhythm. So you fly, just touching the tops of the bumps so that the shocks can’t drop your tires in the middle. It goes a long way towards smoothing out a ride on a washboard road. I know that from having driven plenty of them.

Facing us was another pipe. This one was small, dank, and round. Always it was almost full of sand, choked by the silt which would wash in. It ran directly underneath the road to the storm water inlet on the other side – sitting there on our ‘bench’ we could hear faint rumbles emanating from its dark throat as cars would pass overhead. None of the other pipes we crawled through passed under the road; only this one did. And this was the ultimate dare: to go through this pipe and see what lay on the other side.

As far as I know only I and another friend took that dare – and just a few times. Squeezing my shoulders together, I crawled in on my back – I didn’t want a face full of dirt – and with my nose scraping the top of the tunnel, I inched my way along. It was thrilling and terrifying, and like the patter of running rats my heart would race whenever a car would come over, its wheels sending thunder echoing around me. You could feel the vibration thudding through the concrete walls; the sand above was washboard, testing the car’s suspension – and our nerves. We would voice our fears in a whisper: what if a cave-in happened? What if the tunnel collapsed? And even worse: what would happen if we got stuck? Childish fears, of course – but we were children then.

At the far end of this tunnel lay another box, identical to the one we’d left, only more full of sand. To one side lay yet another tunnel, and even smaller section of pipe. It didn’t take us long, fresh from our fears, to decide: we weren’t going into that one. It was much smaller, much darker, and even more packed with sand. Enough was enough, we decided, and then sliding back into that dark dank pipe, we made our way back to our magic hideout.

Ol’ Granddad. I remember we abandoned our secret pleasure for a week or two when a murderous prisoner escaped from a local jail. The call went out; our parents warned us, we heard it on the radio. Warnings that he could be hiding anywhere – in the bushes, the woods, abandoned cars . . . and drainage pipes. That sort of perked our ears. For a week we would drop by the entrance to Ol’ Granddad and eyeing its round mouth, whisper.

“Do you think we should go in?”

“I don’t know – do you think he’s there?”

“I don’t know – why don’t you go in and find out?”

“Not me! You go! You’re the one that wants to go in!”

And so the debate would rage. Eventually we worked up our courage high enough to venture in – and no, he was not there. But every pebble we’d hear rattling, every stray glint of light from the errant pebble or piece of glass would throw us into a panic. Several times we had jumbles of kids as the ones up front would suddenly try to bolt backwards – only to run into us other kids who were moving on. But we found only the cool darkness, the mysterious stretch of black; the open pit, the branching tunnel. I remember the sighs of relief as we reached the ‘main room’ – the “Sun Room” as we called it, that concrete pit with its dim gray light.

Just one of our ‘grand adventures’ – one that, when we’ve gotten together as adults, we still talk about. The times spent in “Ol’ Granddad” – the pit, and how we’d sit in our secret hiding place, watching the cars go by. As a parent I know I would be horrified to find my child doing such a thing – but I would understand.  There is a huge maze of culverts not too far away – I wouldn’t be surprised to find children exploring them (though they are strictly forbidden).  The lure of the darkness, the desire to discover the secrets beyond. And I think after giving them a good scolding and warning never do it again, I would drop my arm around their shoulders in silent congratulation and pride as I led them gently away . . . shaking with silent laughter.