(Reading time 6 minutes)
The day was Halloween, 1939, a day that I have not talked about since but will forever remember. Walking home from school with my two school chums, we took our usual short cut through a small park, along the side of a tiny Civil War cemetery. This day, some workmen had erected forms while installing a concrete culvert entrance for an underground creek. They placed barricades around their project to keep out kids like us, until they returned for work the next day.
As boys will do, we had to see what was happening. Our examination revealed that this was a 4-foot diameter, underground concrete conduit, containing this small creek and street water runoff. It flowed underground for two blocks from this point of entry. Looking into the tunnel, we observed small rays of light at about 100 foot intervals from storm sewer drains along the street. We knew where the tunnel ended, two blocks down. So someone said, “Let’s explore the inside of the tunnel and hike to the other end.” We didn’t have a flashlight, but with the combination of the light from the street drains, and six candles we had from our chemistry class, we were ready to go. We had to stoop over to accommodate the low ceiling. It was spooky and almost impossible to see anything. Dim shadows disclosed an accumulation of trash and dirt build up in the center of the pipe, with broken bottles, tree branches, cans and a surprising infestation of RATS. At the ripe old age of 13, I dare not show my fear. We trudged on deeper and deeper into the spooky tunnel, as the light of our candles flickered wildly and needed frequent relighting. We saw a faint dot of light at the far end of the tunnel. We were about ½ the way through and becoming more and more frightened, especially since the rats seemed larger in size and number. All of a sudden, there was what sounded like a tremendous explosion echoing through the tunnel, followed by gushers of water pouring in from the storm sewer openings along the curbs in the street. The water level rose, the rats scurried everywhere about us clinging to boxes, cans, bottles, twigs and trash floating in the direction where we had to go for an exit at the far end. The candles and matches were washed from our hands. The water was rising rapidly and after a minute or two, we were waist high in a torrent of water, with trash, rats and whatever else was crawling around in our probable underground tomb. What a horrible experience for a 13-year-old adventurous boy to encounter. This must have been the type of tragedy, which my Mother may have envisioned, when she admonished me daily to be careful going to and coming from school. I recall pondering; what could I possibly encounter just walking six blocks or so to school? Now I see! What can we do? The filthy water was now almost up to our chests! Our lightweight 13-year-old bodies were being washed uncontrollably towards the other end of the tunnel. At that moment, I saw a light. “Thank God’, I thought. We may be able to make it out alive. And then it happened. Our hopes were dashed. There before us was a big iron grate sealing off the end of the tunnel, where it emptied full volume into the creek. The water was now up to our neck and rising, thunder and lightning still crashing all around us. We screamed for help, but no one responded. Certainly no one was out on the street in such weather to hear our screams. I cried and prayed as hard as I could, and of course no response.
Wait! The rain was beginning to stop. Even so, the water was still rising from street run off. The three of us were pressed against the iron grate with debris of all kind washing against our backs, plus of course whatever rats attached themselves to the accumulating trash and even on our clothes. All of a sudden, the iron grate fell forward and went crashing down into the bottom of the creek with the three of us clinging to its bars. Uninjured, we quickly scrambled to safety on the banks and watched the trash and rats float downstream.
Now, the only thing we had to do is to explain to our Mothers how our clothes so wet. We agreed to say we got caught in the storm on our way home from school, and got all wet. A true explanation, albeit minimized for passivity and convenience. When Mom saw me, she showed a mother’s compassion for my drenched condition and was glad to see her little boy home safely. After I bathed and changed my clothes, she made me a cup of hot cocoa with cookies. I never told Mom of this terrorizing experience and she can’t worry about it now. You are the first ones to hear what happened to me, 71 years ago. I hope you will keep my secret. If you should meet my Mom in Heaven, don’t tell her about this, and thanks for listening.