This story is by Donovan Kundiger and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
1959. What a wonderful year for a young boy growing up in a small mid-western town.
Mike was a happy nine year old living in a place and time where he enjoyed considerable independence. Since mom and dad allowed him free reign of the neighborhood, he could run around with his friends and do whatever he wanted as long as he didn’t cause any trouble and could hear the blast of mom’s Boy Scout whistle. When mom blew that commanding whistle Mike better yell, COOMMMING! and immediately skedaddle right home. If more than five minutes passed before he whipped opened his back door, no excuses were accepted. Truth be known, he could venture afield no further than a few streets and still be within whistle range, but to Mike that meant unrestricted access to the world, his world, and his carefree perception of freedom was all that mattered.
Mike lived in the older part of town. His house stood at the foot of a hill, a slight rise above the nearly flat valley where most of the town stretched to the river. Located on Fairchild Avenue, the second house from the corner of 16th Street, Mike’s home barely escaped the lapping waves of a shallow neighborhood flood each spring during heavy rains.
When the hot, dry August weather arrived the town’s maintenance crew assaulted 16th Street and ripped it up. In the minds of the construction workers, they were fabricating a new storm sewer to alleviate the flooding. But to Mike and his friends, a band of playmates who welcomed any kid roaming their turf who hadn’t grown too old for childish imagination, the construction workers were creating a fantastic new adventure.
The kids marveled at the gigantic, endless, grey, mysterious box that disappeared into the dark unknown. It was HUGE. Mike could easily stand up inside the manmade cave, as could all his friends. The ominous tunnel was especially exciting because back in those days the authorities in Mike’s sleepy little town paid little mind to strict safety measures. Every resident knew what went on in their neighborhood. Therefore, no concern was given toward securing the hazardous site after construction ended each afternoon.
Immediately losing interest in playing games like Whiffle Ball and Red Rover, every evening while moms cleaned dinner dishes and dads tended to their evening chores Mike and his friends dashed to the open sewer like metal to a magnet.
Initially, reconnoitering the sewer beyond their aboveground earthly bounds never occurred to the kids. When entering the open cavern they steered clear of straying very far into its frightening darkness, possibly even confronting something scary and evil lurking the shadowy chamber.
But curiosity captured their imaginations as the sewer snaked northward towards Fairchild. Egged on by taunts of, I dare ya! each youngster’s bravery increased as their explorations edged deeper. Soon they were entering the sewer with flashlights, paper and pencils, venturing further and further inside, their impassioned minds eagerly mapping the sewer’s route. Truth be known (but please never tell their parents) they mapped the sewer’s route far beyond their above ground world, as much as ten blocks, maybe more.
Every street corner had a curb drain for swallowing rainwater into a catchment. Inside the catchment water then flowed through a lateral pipe into the bowels of the main sewer. The laterals were round sections of concrete pipe just big enough the smaller boys could squirm though without getting stuck. To map their location volunteers excitedly slithered up each lateral, knelt in the catchment and then peek out the curb drain. Upon locating a street sign or landmark they’d yell down to their buddies something like, It’s 16th and Humboldt, or, I see Paul’s house. We’re at Leavenworth Street.
Fairchild Avenue marked the end of the line. The wonderful adventure nearly reached its demise when the construction crew sealed the jaws of the cavernous sewer. No longer could the boys easily enter the sewer’s gaping mouth for another mapping escapade.
But their venture didn’t stop. 16th Street still needed to be repaved. Meanwhile the catchments at several street corners remained wide open until the curbs could be built. The exposed catchment pits allowed the braver boys to wriggle down through the laterals into the main sewer. Their clandestine mapping continued.
Mike was the biggest kid in the group still able to barely scrape through the laterals. He managed it by clawing the round, smooth pipes with the friction of his fingers while shoving forward with the toes of his shoes. He felt sure his best friend Jimmy could have squirmed through too, but Jimmy claimed he was too big. Mike figured he was scared, but that was okay with Mike. Whenever Jimmy showed up he called all the shots. Without him in the sewer, Mike became top dog underground.
Mike’s 10th birthday arrived. He loved playing cowboys and Indians so his parents surprised him with a western outfit that included a tooled leather cowboy belt boasting a large, gorgeous silver buckle. Emblazoned on the buckle was a raised bucking bronco ridden by a cowboy grasping the reins determined to break him. The belt was magnificent. Mike hiked up his new western jeans and proudly strapped his belt through the loops. Although excited, celebrating his birthday at his grandfather’s house in another town caused him to miss his mapping quest for several days.
Friday they returned home. Mike was eager to continue his plotting adventure, AND show off his beautiful new belt. Concealing his flashlight, pencil and map, after dinner he burst out his back door and ran to the construction site. None of his friends were hanging out.
Wandering down 16th Street to Osage Street, Mike hoped to find his playmates. Both streets were empty. He glanced at the vacant lot across the street where his buddies played games. It was deserted. Mike sadly turned to head back home. While passing Osage’s unsecured catchment, a thought came. Maybe they’re down in the sewer!
From Mike’s many successful expeditions he’d become a confident, seasoned veteran. He stared intently at the dark lateral that lead to the subterranean abyss while weighing whether to venture underground alone. It beckoned him to crawl in. Utterly fearless of chancing to find his friends inside the concrete chamber, or explore alone, he jumped into the catchment. Stuffing his map into his pocket, Mike turned on his flashlight. With his arms extended and his flashlight illuminating the tiny tunnel, he wiggled into the concrete pipe.
Each lateral was twelve feet long, consisting of two six foot sections. The sections locked tightly together when the protruding bevel on the end of one section married the indented flange on the other creating one continuous pipe. Squirming through the confining pipes to the main storm sewer had never been a problem. Never!
Mike inched forward smoothly, as easily as the thirty or so times he’d wiggled through the tiny tubes with his friends. That is, until he reached the joint in the two sections of pipe. During construction, when the pipes were married, these two sections failed to lock completely leaving a separation of half an inch between the ends. As Mike’s shiny, beautiful cowboy belt slid over the crack the raised bucking bronco and rider dropped into the gap locking his progress.
Panic shot through Mike’s body. He stiffened, an act that jammed him even tighter inside the imprisoning space. In all the expeditions they’d made, nothing of this sort ever happened to him, or any of his friends. He was totally unprepared, with nobody to help. No one even knew he was down inside the pipe, trapped.
Praying he’d hear a reply from his friends he yelled, HEEELP! into the dark storm sewer. No one answered. He called louder and listened intently. Total silence. Crammed inside the small concrete cylinder his body blocked all sound from escaping to the world outside. Mike was terrified, totally alone.
It was impossible for his extended arms to reach back and dislodge the clinging belt buckle. In desperation Mike closed his eyes, emptied his lungs and forced his tensed muscles to relax. Feeling his wedged body release its grip on solid wall of the pipe, slowly and meticulously he wiggled his hips in a circular motion while clawing with his fingers and pushing with his toes in an attempt to dislodge the seized horse and fearless cowboy.
Mike lost all sense of time. Mom’s whistle no longer mattered. Fear of dying kept his hips grinding and twisting. Just as tears began running down his cheeks the horse and cowboy suddenly broke free. Mike desperately squirmed the last six feet and collapsed into the cold dark chamber of the main sewer. He was alive, but mortally frightened.
There was only one way back to freedom and the world above, through the same dreadful concrete pipe that moments ago tried to captured his life. Sitting on the floor of the man-made cavern that could still become his burial vault, Mike assessed his chances of shimmying back through that cursed pipe. As tears flowed he unfastened the buckle on his prized cowboy belt, pulled the leather through the belt loops of his jeans and reluctantly dropped his birthday present on the floor. The risk of trying to inch his way back to freedom while clutching the belt was too big a risk. Mike shined his flashlight on the silver buckle for one final agonizing look, then crawled back into the threatening, narrow tube.
Mike’s escape consumed every scrap of courage the ten year old boy could muster. Mentally and physically drained, he finally pulled himself out into the catchment. Too exhausted to crawl out of the pit, Mike lay in a fetal position while trying to regain his strength. Depressed, yet thankful to be alive, he glanced one last time at the dark, menacing concrete hole leading into the tomb that possessed his wonderful cowboy belt, at least until the first torrential rain washed it way. Wash it to where? The detailed maps drawn by Mike and his friends didn’t reveal the monster’s end, if there was an end. His magnificent belt was gone, forever.
Eventually Mike managed to crawl out of the catchment and shuffle dejectedly home. Opening his back door he came face to face with his mom, Scout whistle in her hand. Surprise lit up her face. It was the first time Mike arrived home before her almighty whistle blast. Get ready for bed, hotshot, she smiled, gave him a quick kiss on his forehead and returned to ironing a basket of clothes. She never noticed Mike’s new belt was missing. Why should she? Mom was always busy, and he’d only worn it a few days.
In the weeks that followed nobody noticed Mike’s missing belt. His friends had never seen it, and his dad was so wrapped up in his work he rarely took notice of the clothes Mike wore unless it was Sunday morning when he was required to be dressed properly for church. Mike’s belt was so short lived nobody missed it, except Mike.
He never mentioned his terrifying ordeal to anyone except to me, his bestest friend. Should the story weave its way back to his parents, a lashing from dad’s belt added to the horrifying terror Mike endured was a punishment he wasn’t willing to risk.
Of equal importance, he didn’t need his friends teasing him about getting stuck, never realizing how easily he could have gone missing forever…. or at least until the sewer lateral backed up during the first spring downpour and the town’s maintenance crew discovered his body when they used a rooter to grind out the debris.
It’s a story best left dead in the sewer along with the belt that nearly claimed a young boy’s life. In fact, I wasn’t supposed to repeat it so please don’t ever mention I told you what happened. And for heaven’s sake, never, ever bring it up to Mike.