The Mystery of the Dark Tunnels; a renouncement of superstition

I may have been a wee ten years old at the time, but I’d seen evil before, and it was only a few paces from my backyard! Sloping down from my property was the drainage ditch, the paved entrance that led to the three tunnels, those scary, dark halls that ran beneath the overpass. I finally got the guts to approach them, some 600 yards down that secluded path, away from view of the busy neighborhood streets. One tunnel was sealed off by a huge piece of plywood with steel bars across it. I couldn’t budge it, but the other two were wide open. The corridors stretched for almost a mile. At places, little slivers of light peered in from up above, hitting the ground and illuminating dried patches of mud. The damp air, the dripping water, an almost overpowering smell of hot asphalt and tar, a demonic presence afloat—I don’t know how I made it through the first one, but I did! It was the longer of the two that I couldn’t conquer. There abode the presence of pure evil!

I tried to cross it many times. I tried and failed. The second tunnel had every bit the malevolent aura of the first, and more. There was a smell of deadness in the air, the stench of rotting flesh, amidst non-spectacular piles of broken boards and dried leaves, caught in packs of mud-caked grass, swirled around the embankments. Swarms of rats could be heard, scurrying off in the distance as my bright green, size-eight Converse sneakers disturbed the splotchy, brown puddles of mosquito larva-ridden water. There was a heaviness in the air, a feeling that violated my soul. The light shining in from the world aboveground was soon put out as I moved further and further inward. The sounds…the creepy little sounds…they got louder all around me, more disturbing, especially the demon-like groans from the tires hitting the road on top of me. The claustrophobic walls seemed to reach in and grab my ribs.

The signs of evil were everywhere on the walls, painted messages of hate, like “Get the fuck out!”, “Suck dick,” and “Fuck off and die!” My flashlight revealed the images of pentagrams, swastikas, skulls & crossbones, spikes, drawings of chopped up animals, of young children who had been tied down to rusty metal chairs and drugged, then sent back to their parents as mindless invalids. It was true. Jimmy Fargo and his mom warned us about stuff like this! Who were these evildoers, terrorizing our neighborhood?

I tried to investigate. I tried to behold all that this baleful place had to offer, but I couldn’t. I was too afraid. The darkness was too thick, suffocating me the further in I went. I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. I shook as I beheld what now stood only fifty yards in front of me, the worst sight of all, that hideous colorless bag of blood and body parts, still hanging from the ceiling, just barely illuminated by a glimpse of light from the other side! I couldn’t go any further down. I had to turn back while I still had my wits, my sanity, my life! I was frozen with fear, trying to fight the urge to leave, but the urge finally won out. I turned to leave, but now my back was to the great evil, so I had to run—and run I did!

How did I ever muster up the courage to tread this far into enemy territory? It seemed like when I went home and contemplated where I had been, I was as scared as when I was actually there, wondering how big a fool I had to be to even consider going there in the first place—a place mom didn’t like me going anyway. The tunnels terrified me in my dreams at night and in my thoughts by day. I was forever left to wonder what was behind that blocked off tunnel, but the infamy of the other two was enough to occupy my mind. I woke up in cold sweats, dreading whatever wickedness it was that rested at the end of the last tunnel. Every day after school during my fourth grade year, the mystery of this rancorous place consumed me! And though I was afraid—terrified to the core, in fact—I still decided to go back, this time with friends I could count on. Despite mom’s warning not to bring little brother into this obsession of mine, I did it anyway. He thought he was brave. Well, now was his chance to prove it by disobeying mom and following me into the place where only the coolest kids dared to go!

Carefully watching the area, it wasn’t long until we saw them, the evil ones in their lair of death; Solomon, Glenn, Mitch, and Brian were their names. By reputation, the neighborhood seemed to respect them, but we knew of their evil deeds. We watched them from the safety of my backyard, as they played on their skateboards and rode their bikes up and down the sides of the drainage ditch. Then they went back into the tunnels to perpetrate the commission of more heinous deeds. They may have been just five grades ahead of me, but I knew they were as diabolical as any adult could ever be. It was our neighborhood, and it was up to us to do something about it!

When Tommy, Billy, Brandon, and Bret arrived at the tree house, I was finally ready to call the meeting to order. We now had a clear objective—to take back the ditch from these villainous Satanists who were destroying our peaceful neighborhood. My younger brother (younger than me by four years and second in command), together with his trusted friends and fellow officers, Sean and Kyle, had prepared us for battle. Armed with plastic slingshots, clubs, and rocks for throwing, we were ready. Now all we needed was the courage to walk the three-football-field’s distance separating us from them and put a stop to these enemies of all goodness. But we thought to ourselves, this wasn’t going to be so easy. These four guys were a few grades ahead of us. Whipping them would be tough! But since they evidently took our being younger as a sign of weakness and decided to trample on our turf, we had to show them who was boss. It was now or never!

Then we lined up single-file and headed out. The closer we got, we slowed our pace and walked quietly, watching as our adversaries lurked. We hid ourselves in the brush that grew out from the resident’s backyards. Our hearts beating faster than ever, one by one, we started having second thoughts about this mission. Since these guys were older than us, and there were four of them, it might be easier to corner them one on one. So out of the blue, this “carefully planned attack” (our description for surprising them, popping out from behind the hedges, throwing rocks at them, and hitting them with limbs from trees that were almost too big for us to carry!) suddenly became a reconnaissance mission! Like the evil Megatron to his Decepticons, I gave the command to “RETREAT!”

OK, that wasn’t our best work, but our day soon came! There was one of them—alone! I called for my friends and they hurried to my aid, being as anxious as I was to see justice served! “Quick! Let’s corner him before he calls for help.” It was Solomon, the oldest one among them. There he was, all by himself, innocently doing wheelies on his new BMX bike a short ways off from the tunnels, as though he was a good and decent kid like one of us. But like last time, what started out as a planned attack turned into something else. We faced him down, but he wasn’t scared of us at all. Then something amazing happened; instead of throwing rocks at him, we started talking to him. He seemed so cool! He was friendly and smart and fun to be around, so much so that we almost forgot he was our enemy—almost! Great and powerful leader that I was, I wasn’t going to let him off scot-free just because he liked the coolest music, played the coolest games, wore the coolest Quiet Riot t-shirts known to man, and was in the tenth grade! No siree! I grilled him about his evil ways. He insisted that he, Brian, Glenn, and Mitch, were not “Satanists” (as we erroneously understood the term to mean), that they never tortured boys, or did anything any other kid their age wouldn’t do. He denied every charge I laid against him, but I wasn’t buying it! He was still evil in my eyes!

“I know about the bag of blood and guts down in that tunnel!” I said. Solomon just smiled and shook his head of long, curly, black hair, then laughed. He thought I was ridiculous and told me he intended to prove to me that none of what I said was true. “Come on, I’ll show you that there’s no such thing down there.” Off to the tunnels we went!

That heightened sense of fear came over me once again, but my friends were watching. I had to play it cool. They looked up to me, respected me, trusted me. I Couldn’t let them down, couldn’t let them see my shaking knees and chattering teeth as we walked briskly towards the longer tunnel, now only ten yards away from us. Black death drew near, that diabolical, horrible place. We entered and the darkness quickly swallowed us. Our bravery gave way to quivering, to heavy breathing, and constant outcries of “What was that?!” Were those our echoes we were hearing in the distance, or were they the voices of more Satan worshippers deeper in the tunnel, waiting to kill us? Would our petrified posse even make it halfway? I was beginning to wonder, since the youngest of us was already crying and asking to go back home! But the worst was yet to come.

That moment came, the moment we neared the hanging bag of blood. The distance was closing fast! Shall I listen to the crying pleas of my younger comrades and retreat? I can’t. I’ll be called a “chicken”! Not this time! I was going all the way (and if I was, so were they since they wouldn’t dare leave my side in such thick darkness!). Closer and closer we came, hearts pounding, eyes scrutinizing, standing ready to send that decisive signal to our brains that would say, “RUN!” Strange, the bag didn’t look quite the same from this far into the tunnels. It doesn’t look white, nor even like a bag anymore, it’s…what?

Now the light from the other side of the ditch bathed the creepy scene, casting away the darkness. To my astonishment (and profound embarrassment), I saw what it really was for the first time. It was no bag of blood. It was the tail-end of a graffiti mural that some other idle youngster took the liberty of making. I stopped and looked again to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Sure enough, they weren’t! I felt stupider than Jupiter! All this time, it seemed I was scared of some artwork of a cryptic-looking Iron Maiden logo made by a 17-teen-year-old punk! “You guys thought this was a bag of blood and bones? You guys are fucking loonies!” Once again, Solomon just shook his head and laughed.

While this may have been an eye-opener for me, it wasn’t for the rest of the gang, following a few feet behind me, huddled among themselves, discussing their perilous circumstance. They didn’t hear Solomon's and my verbal exchange up front. The quivers and shivers were all that mattered to them. Just as we were clearing the other side of the ponderous passageway, I heard an ear-splitting yell behind me, then a bunch more! Leader or not, I found out quickly I wasn’t brave enough to keep from getting caught up in the energy of the spine-chilling moment; like Mexican water through a first-time tourist, we all ran out of there, screaming and hollering at the tops of our lungs, Solomon slowly walking behind us.

Upon our exit from the tunnels and back out into the succoring daylight, I listened as my second in command and his subordinate officers shared details of the “awful” things they had just seen and heard. Me, I was watching as Solomon came trotting out behind us with a thoroughly entertained look on his face. He said to me, “Why were you running? You know there’s nothing down there now.” I was speechless—embarrassed, of course—but even a little bothered that the source of excitement and storytelling that for so long had held captive my imagination had vanished, much like when mom turns on the closet light to show us there’s no monsters inside. There I was, only ten years old, and I had already gotten my first taste of skepticism. It was a bitter taste. I was back down to earth, back in the real world again, where the sorts of things I saw in horror flicks just didn’t happen. It was a depressing feeling. In a way, I wanted something cryptic to be down there, something mystical and magical, a departure from my boring, everyday world. The thrill and suspense livened up my life, and then it was gone. All I could do now was to try and save face; I answered Solomon, “Yeah, I know. I was just running to entertain these little kids with us.” “Liar!” he said. “You were scared shitless, and you know it!”

Thus, ended one of the most invigorating eras of my childhood, the mystery of the dark tunnels. Mom was right; if I took little brother down to the tunnels with me, he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night, and sure enough, he didn’t. Believe me when I tell you, she was none too happy when she found out about our little adventure! Solomon was right too. There was nothing down there, as much as it pained me to admit it at the time, but he was also wrong. We weren’t loonies, just young, impressionable kids, with very, very active imaginations—imaginations that made something out of nothing, that made us consider good kids our enemies who should have been our friends from the start. Details were made up or exaggerated, events were colored to make an ordinary place in my neighborhood an extraordinary one. Our desire for the fantastic, our fear of the unknown, and our lack of maturity and understanding of the nature of life ended up creating a fictional world for us, one in which we – and only we – who believed in it could live.

As a kid, I was duped by the wiles of immaturity. As an adult, I was duped again, this time, by what the vast majority of grownups consider to be real—religion. Sadly, adults have their own world of fantastic notions and fictitious beliefs, a world I was once drawn into, a world I wished were true with all of my heart. That world is the world of faith, and the world of faith does to adults what boogiemen and monsters in closets do to children—creates senseless division and needless fears of the unknown, of human differences, of social and scientific progress, and of change. It produces pointless wars and unnecessary enemies. It makes an ugly species even uglier.

We needn’t worry about goblins, ghouls, or ghosts, barging in from the netherworld and wreaking havoc in our lives. We humans do that to each other just fine all by ourselves. We are the birth-givers of the villainous creatures of the night, of the red-eyed demons, skulking above our bedposts, seeking our demise. We have a gift, we humans do, the ability to create problems when and where none exist. We should fear ourselves, not some world of specters.

All the mistakes made in adult life can be seen, in miniature form, in the lives of children. Too bad we can’t learn our lessons in childhood and make the necessary improvements when we reach maturity! The truth is, we just get bigger and a little wiser when we grow up, but we never really become anything other than children—often just larger kids with more privileges and less physical vitality. Yes, we seem destined to watch the reruns of history repeating itself over and over again, as humanity never fails to showcase the worst of mistakes.

Eloquently and powerfully, Carl Sagan sums the matter up…

“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us-then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. It’s little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

– Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Chapter 2, “Science and Hope”

(JH)

The Days of Innocence

My brother and I used to play a game every Saturday morning. The game was called, The Two Men in Bed. Every Saturday morning, we would jump out of our beds and into mom and dads’. Mom and dad would always be up by then, doing chores around the house, but we kids loved to sleep in on Saturdays like every self-respecting grade-schooler does while watching cartoons. I was seven and brother was four. Boy, did we have fun!

We took a videogame joystick from our Atari 2600 and put it on the bed. We tucked ourselves under the covers and pretended we were two wealthy men who were crippled and had a special bed built for us. Instead of a wheelchair, it was a “wheelbed”! This bed would drive us around town anywhere we wanted to go…to the store, on top secret missions, across deserts and forests...absolutely anywhere. We drove the bed with the joystick, of course, and underneath the covers was an underground compartment where we kept all our possessions and food.

Mom would always be cooking in the kitchen and she’d pop her head in the room and say, “What are you two doing?” We enthusiastically responded, “We’re playing The Two Men in Bed, mom.” Then I would see her smile and begin to giggle. Sometimes she would say, “Aw, that’s cute, guys!” I didn’t know why she would laughingly say that. I just supposed it was like any other parent or grandparent who thought their kids were cute. It didn’t matter to us anyway. Our minds just moved on with the fun!

On one occasion, I remember little brother and I being out in the swimming pool with our plastic ray guns and inflatable alligator rafts. Mom decided to join us for a swim, and as we enjoyed that nice Saturday afternoon dip, somehow the topic of the two men in bed came up. She said, “The next time you guys play your Two Men game, the bed will have the new Star Wars sheets on it!” I was puzzled because I kept noticing that she would never verbalize, “the two men in bed” part, only “The Two Men.” I said to mom, “Mom, the game is called ‘The Two Men in Bed!’” Immediately, she put her index finger over her mouth and “shushed” me. She told me to be quiet because the neighbors were out. Why the hell did that matter? Why not call the game by its real name? I didn’t understand. In a million years, I would never have guessed why.

Finally, mom took the time to explain it to me. She said grown men don’t sleep in the same bed because “that’s for husbands and wives who have babies together.” Now all I could think was, “Ewwwwwwwww.” In my little mind, such things just didn’t happen.

The disappointments didn’t stop coming. I found myself at school, writing up a story for class. I thought it was a nice story. It was about a man who went trick-or-treating and found a haunted house with horned monsters in it, but a mean, black-haired witch of a teacher said to me, “Uh, men don’t go trick-or-treating, Joseph!” I can still remember her raspy voice to this very day. I felt stupid, but she was right! Adults don’t do those things. Why didn’t I notice that? Then came the Santa Claus revelation—big disappointment! And I really knew things weren’t looking up for me when Monica’s mom started running me off after school. We used to wrestle in the grass, Monica and I. At school, we played Husband & Wife right next to the monkey bars on the playground, but when I started showing off my new smelly armpits to the neighborhood kids, her mom wasn’t a big fan of me anymore!

What happened to the days of innocence, when it was ok to run around wearing nothing but one of dad’s flannels for a Superman cape, when it was cool to freak out the girls by putting bagworms on your tongue? What happened to the days when you were never a weirdo because you jumped off the balancing beam at recess and pretended you could fly, when your favorite pastime was rubbing boogers on door handles and giving wedgies to the kids you didn’t like? What happened to the days of innocence, when boys thought kissing girls was “yucky,” when girls thought boys were “gross”, when the boys loved house-wrecking pillow fights, and the girls loved “no boys allowed” slumber parties? What happened to the days when carrying big sticks around your front and back yards and climbing trees was considered normal behavior? What happened to the days when playing in the sandbox was the coolest thing around, when you could run shirtless and shoeless in the grocery store at mom or dad’s side and maybe get a candy bar if you were good? What happened to the days when the bills were never yours, and when you did something really stupid that got you into trouble, a stern talk with a scary looking, gaunt principal was all you needed to set you straight? What happened to the days of innocence?

One thing about us damn grown-ups: we’re so ready with responses, usually reflex responses, like “Well, we all have to grow up sometime,” and “We can’t stay young forever.” These are intellectual answers, factual answers. I want deeper answers than these, like why we, as adults, must forget how to truly enjoy ourselves as we grow, how to thrive on a diet of creativity as we age? I want to know why we so easily buy into the putrefied lie that says our latter years must be void of happiness, that maturity means we have to trade in fun so that everybody else can have it at our expense? I want to know why we are constantly obsessing about sacrifice, about pleasing everyone but ourselves, and after we’ve given our life-blood doing so, to be told by some rotten-but-well-meaning fuck-nut that we are not trying hard enough, that we are still being selfish. Someone tell me why the innerspring loses its bounce? Tell me why the magic of logic-defying creativity leaves us as dried out office drones, lessoned of love and drained of drive? At what point did we become so damn tied up worrying about others that we just said to hell with ourselves? At what point did we convince ourselves that we don’t deserve that hyper-happiness that comes from having an imaginary friend to play with, from drinking root beer and thinking you’re cool because you’re almost old enough for the real thing, from telling everyone you’re “seven and a half” years old, from thinking you’re invincible because you’re wearing new Incredible Hulk pajamas, from having a birthday party at Chuck-e-Cheese, watching big, dancing, stuffed animals entertain you as you eat piles of pizza?

We certainly can’t relive our childhood, that’s for sure. And we shouldn’t want to because the experiences wouldn’t be the same a second time around. We should treasure our memories of them and realize that being completely na├»ve and ignorant of so much of life as we were then, we were still probably much better off than we are today. Life teaches us a lot of good things, but it also teaches us bad things and causes us to forget other valuable truths we should retain, like the value of being selfish, and the belief that we are entitled to get what we want. For all the wisdom we come upon through the years, it is dumbfounding to discover how much we must un-learn. Wasted years pass by, tragic mistakes are made, bad philosophies are adopted and then rejected, and so many useless phases are gone through, and in all that time only a few gems of timeless wisdom are found.

I may not be able to get my innocence back, but I can sure as Hell sit on the couch, and just before I begin my daily dronish routine, pick up an old Captain America toy and pretend I’m kicking the crap out of Red Skull! No, I’m not too old!

(JH)

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