In case you live in a cave and avoid all news, rescuers extracted twelve boys and their soccer coach from a cave entrapment in Thailand. Yes, that might be the worst opening sentence since “It was a dark and stormy night.” (Did you think of Charles Schulz’s Snoopy or Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford?). Their horrific, and then heroic, story took me back to my cave entrapment.
While my story is light-hearted, I share my deepest respect for the rescuers and the boys involved. My minor discomfort with no risk to my life doesn’t compare. The mere fact I remember the event 40 years later only hints of the horror those boys faced.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Petty Officer Saman Gunan who gave his life during the operation.
I blame the Boy Scouts.
That organization is foundational to who I am. I earned the rank of Eagle Scout and achieved the Vigil Honor in the Order of the Arrow. I traveled to Philmont and National Jamborees. I worked at a summer camp for six summers. I camped hundreds of nights in a tent under the stars and honed my outdoor skills.
And I spent a night in a cave.
Not a guided tour of well-lit caverns and marked trails, but twenty-four hours of crawling through tunnels with only lights strapped to hardhats to illuminate our path.
We hiked through the woods to a hole in the ground. A dark, shadowy hole. I gulped, sweated, and entered the darkness.
The experienced guides gathered our small group and explained the safety rules for the third time. Never leave the group. Always keep an eye on the person in front and behind you. Follow instructions exactly every step of the way. Conserve batteries, food and water. Blah. Blah. Blah. With sunlight streaming through the hole and lighting the cavern, we half-heartedly listened and waited to begin our adventure.
The guide turned and led the way down the tunnel. The second guide brought up the rear. After a series of twists and turns, we reached a smallish room that allowed all of us to clump together, shoulder to shoulder. Once assembled, the guide instructed us to turn off our lights.
Total darkness. Perfect pitch black. I couldn’t see the person beside me. I couldn’t see my own hands despite wriggling my fingers. I couldn’t even see the tip of my nose or my eyelashes. Disorienting nothingness.
The guide asked us to turn our lights back on. We looked around, blinked against the sudden glare, and realized we stood alone in the tunnel. We scanned and wondered, but the guides had disappeared. We debated what to do next. Half our group thought we came through one tunnel and the other half selected the other.
Before we panicked, our guide reappeared from the shadows. The second guide materialized behind us. “That, my boys, is how easy it is to get separated. Never lose sight of the person in front of you and behind you. Never wander off on your own.”
Give him credit. With a harrowing demonstration and a fourth reiteration of the safety rules, he now commanded the undivided attention of a group of teenage boys. The only thing on earth that can accomplish that is a teenage girl and there were none in our group.
Chastened and obedient, we followed him deeper into the cave, twisting and turning through the narrow passages. With each curve, my disorientation grew. Above ground, I hiked trails deep in the mountains and always knew roughly where I was. Underground, I wasn’t sure we were still in the same state.
Our guide stopped. Asked us again to extinguish our lights and not to move a single step. A pack of teenagers obeyed without question. Don’t try this at home.
He scanned the beam of his light across the rock walls and asked us where the danger lurked in the current scene. Guesses flew. Low hanging overhead rocks. Slick floor. Sasquatch. Trent’s farts in an enclosed space.
He asked, “What about the 150-foot drop?” He pointed at some shadows on the cave wall in front of us. “Right there. The 150-foot drop.”
I chuckled at his bad joke. Big mistake. He called me to stand beside him. “Don’t move,” he cautioned as he turned his light once more at the shadowy wall. The beam of light pierced the shadow and revealed infinity beyond. A huge room, enormous stalactites dropping from the ceiling. The beam of his light petered out before reaching the far wall.
He tilted his head down and aimed the light in front of my feet. “Now look down.”
Inches in front of me, the tunnel floor ended and dropped in a sheer cliff to the floor of the cavernous room. Monstrous stalagmites rose from the floor far below threatening to impale any falling objects. A single step forward would lead to the ultimate Wile E. Coyote moment.
The giant room was named after the explorer who discovered it by unwittingly taking the next step and plunging through the air. He died on the floor below after days of suffering from his injuries.
Now I don’t know if that story is true. The acronym for the Boy Scouts of America could also stand for Bull Shitters Anonymous. You have never heard as many tall tales told anywhere than among Scouts. Every camping trip included tales of the mass murders years ago in that very spot and the lingering ghosts. Newer scouts discovered the joys of snipe hunting. Dining staples included bug juice and mystery meat. Aspiring fiction writers should be a Scout just to learn the art of lying with a straight face for the sheer entertainment value.
I can’t account for the veracity of the story, but I still sense the nothingness beyond that sharp drop. He didn’t need to reiterate the safety rules again. As we approached the most challenging part of our trip, the guide now led the most obedient teenage boys on the face of the planet. Or, more accurately, in the planet.
“Gentlemen, things are about to get tighter. The ceiling height will drop in this next section, so be prepared. And, you,” he pointed at me, “are the tallest, so you need to go through right behind me.”
Within a dozen yards, I hunched over to avoid giving myself a concussion from the declining roof. One hundred feet later, I duck walked until I crawled on hands and knees. Soon enough, I slithered through the mud on my belly like a snake.
The slimy, cold mud caked my clothes, streaked my face, and clung to my hair.
Yet, the tunnel shrunk further. My shoulders touched the walls on either side of me as rocks scraped my back. Unable to bend my knees, I pulled myself forward with the fingers of my outstretched hands and pushed with the toes of my boots.
In our effort to conserve batteries, only the guides’ lights lit the cramped tunnel. Far behind me, the rear guide’s beam couldn’t reach me through the narrow shaft. The lead guide skittered down the tunnel far faster than me, his light fading in the distance. I clawed, pulled, slinked and slithered as fast as I could, but he disappeared into the darkness.
Lying in a tunnel in absolute darkness, rocks pressing against me from every side, I reached for the light on my hardhat, but couldn’t bend my arms enough in the tunnel.
Something slithered behind me, dragging its bulk through the slime of the tunnel. Fingers wrapped around my ankle. Trent, behind me and equally blind, had caught up. “Would you hurry the hell up?”
“A Scout is kind,” I reminded him. His response was anything but kind.
From behind us drifted Stephen’s voice, “Please, God, don’t let Trent fart. I wouldn’t survive.”
With such encouragement from my friends, I focused on moving forward. My hands gripped wet, slimy rocks and pulled. I slid through the mud, the wall of rock dragging down my sides. With each inch gained, I stretched my hands forward for the next purchase. Straining. Reaching. Until the tunnel ended in a solid wall of stone.
My fingers slid over wet rock in front of me. I felt on either side of me for a turn but felt only more rock. Above me. Below me. Trent caught up, breathing and cursing behind me. “What are you doing? Move it!”
I explained the predicament and received Trent’s full sympathy. “Well, find it, genius.”
Despite Trent’s motivating talk, I couldn’t move until the guide’s voice floated through the air. “You missed the turn. About ten feet back.”
A train of boys in a cave backed up, inch by inch. Using my toes, I pulled myself backwards. My fingers pushed through the muck. The ceiling scraped my back and sides. Cold mud caked my chest and belly as the rock walls pulled my shirt. And I couldn’t see a thing. At all.
After several minutes of backing, the guide’s voice reached me again. “Stop. Right there. There’s the turn.”
I felt to my right. Rock wall. To my left. Rock wall. “What turn?”
I bent my elbows, lifted my hand and felt nothing. Still blind, I explored with my hands to determine a hole, no wider than the tunnel I was in, over my head.
“Just pull yourself up through it.”
How? Lying on my belly with the walls of the tunnel against my sides, I can’t bend into a 90-degree angle. Not even close. Even Trent’s encouraging shouts of “Would you move it?” didn’t help.
“I can’t,” I said.
The ever-helpful guide’s voice beckoned me. “Think. How can you do that?”
The Scouting way. Put a boy in a challenging position and then ask him to solve it for himself. Great life skill. Sucky at the moment you are feeling the weight of the earth, literally, on your shoulders. The only way I could bend to fit up that shaft was to turn over on my back first.
Resolved in my mind, but executing the solution was a different story. Inch by inch, I rotated my body in a tight tunnel touching me on all sides while my hands stretched above my head. Ten times harder than it sounds. A half dozen of my Scouting buddies trapped in the tunnel shouted their usual encouraging phrases.
“Grass grows faster than you move.”
“You’re slower than a herd of turtles.”
“My grandma is faster than you and she’s dead.”
The rocks grabbed at my clothes with each twist of my body. Fortunately, baggy jeans on teenagers were not fashionable yet. Today, a pile of baggy jeans ripped off by attempting that turn would clog the tunnel.
Unfortunately, the popular jeans were Levi’s 501’s. Button fly rather than a zipper. Wet, cold, slimy mud gathered in the little openings between the buttons and slipped to the sensitive regions underneath.
From prone to supine in only five minutes though it felt like five hours. The guys behind me celebrated, “It’s about time.”
The guide’s voice cut through the din. “Now, reach up, and pull yourself up.”
My tired arms stretched up and into the tunnel above me. I grabbed hold of rocks and did the world’s most awkward chin-up. Every inch I raised my head, I had to slide my butt along the tunnel floor. Inch by inch until I was sitting up. My legs stretched into the tunnel, unable to bend and useless for pushing, so I reached higher, grabbed another rock, and pulled my body until my feet were below me. And, from there, I clawed my way up the shaft until I entered an open cavern, the guide sitting and smiling at me.
I collapsed onto the cave floor and savored the freedom of movement. I wiggled fingers and toes and bent arms and legs.
I then did what any good Scout would do. I leaned over the hole in the ground, looked deep into the darkness where Trent waited to twist his body, and shouted the usual friendly encouragement. “Hurry the hell up, Slowpoke. What you waiting for? Christmas?”